Q?

Selling Your Home

A.

Sometimes, life just hands us the inevitable: just when everything seems right with your home, something happens and you have to sell your dwelling.  No matter what your reasons are for selling, remember that now is no time to dawdle, the process of preparing a home for sale can take a month or more. So, here's how to start:

 

1. Take a Fresh Look at Your Home

Your home looks great to you, but a buyer wants to see it since he and his family will be living in it -- so take a fresh look at your dwelling. Hop in your car, drive around the block, and then scrutinize your home as a prospective buyer will see it for the first time. First, consider what's called "street appeal;" does it need washing or painting? Does the driveway need repair work? Is the landscaping in good shape? Remember, be very critical; your buyer will be.

Next, pull into the driveway and take a good, hard look. Is the yard neat and trimmed? What about the view from the front yard? Then, walk inside and size up the interior as though seeing it for the first time. Take a tour and imagine what your real estate agent might say about each room, look into cabinets, open doors, check out the bathroom.

Then, make a mental note of the things that might put off potential buyers, along with another list of the things that first attracted you to the dwelling. Remember, the home's become a great place for you, but a new buyer will see things that you don't.

 

2. Clean Out the Clutter Before You Start to Sell

Before putting your home on the market, get rid of clutter in every area -- closets, attic storage, kitchen cabinets, drawers, bath vanities, and shelves -- everywhere. Remember, this is no time to be sentimental: if you don't use it, lose it. Potential buyers are seriously put off by clutter, and most of us drag a lot more things through life than we really need.

Also, don't forget the furniture and fixtures when getting rid of clutter -- most of us put too much in too little space, which makes a buying prospect, think your home is too small.

Then, have a great moving sale with all the stuff you've collected and use the proceeds for paint or whatever other materials you need for repair projects. If you just can't bear to part with some possessions, store them in the attic or some other place that's out of sight to a potential buyer.

 

3. To Sell, Sell, Sell -- Clean, Clean, Clean

After you've cleared out the clutter, it's time to really clean. Have the carpets professionally cleaned, strip and polish the floors, scour the bathrooms, go over the laundry room, polish the furniture, scour out the cabinets, wash the windows and window coverings, and spiff up the ceiling fans and kitchen appliances. In short, clean everything.

Don't forget the exterior; paint or power-wash everything that needs the work. Remember, this is a ceiling-to-floor, roof-to-foundation clean-up project.

 

4. Get More for Your Home: Repairs Pay Off

After you've cleaned the place to within an inch of its life, the next project is making all the repairs necessary to attract a buyer.

So, patch up the roof, touch up all the paint, repair the screens, spruce up the porch framing, and make your entry area really shine. Don't forget to water the lawn and landscape beds, and take the time to trim, mow, edge and get rid of sick or dying plants. Inside, fix the grout in the bathrooms and on tile floors, adjust any doors that need it, fix any scratches on the walls, cover any stains, and be sure to fix any plumbing problems. Remember, do what your home needs before the first buyer appears at your door.

Also, it's a good idea to get all this done before getting the real estate broker to make the first listing -- a good agent will advise you on what needs to be done. Also, if you have friends willing to be brutally honest about what your home needs to sell, invite them to assess the fix-up needs.

There is, however, an alternative to the sweat equity you get from a total fix-up --but it carries a price. An "as-is" sale keeps you from doing all this work, but a buyer will assess about twice the price you would have paid for the repairs. Then, the buyer will deduct that amount from your asking price before making an offer.

 

5. Putting Your Home on the Market: Show It to Sell It

After you have cleaned, shined, mowed, and generally whipped your property into shape, it's time to attract a buyer.

Regardless of who markets your home, you or a broker, there are other, small things you must do to attract buyers. For example, even if it's bright daylight, open the blinds and turn on the lights. Also, open all the interior doors to make the home appear roomier. Be sure to remove all your kids and pets -- they're cute, but a prospect wants to see your home, not your pride and joy. In addition, make sure your pet's litter pan is clean so the home smells clean and fresh, not like air freshener. Remember, you need to make sure your home is available to be seen by a prospective buyer with as little notice as possible. That means less than an hour, or even five minutes, if possible.

 

6. Get a Sense of the Market

Before you put your home on the market, take a weekend day to check out the competition: homes with similar prices and in similar neighborhoods. Remember, you don't have to go out and buy new furniture just to look like that beautiful new model in the new development -- what you want is the feel of that new model -- clean, uncluttered, and fresh.

Remember, after location, the most important item to a buyer is a well maintained home. Many flaws can be overlooked if the buyer knows he can move in without a lot of trouble and expense.

Q?

Mortgages

A.

The modern mortgage market offers a variety of mortgage loans catering to the needs of homebuyers. The titles and details of these plans can become confusing, especially as new types are introduced continuously. You can make sense of these loan types, however, if you understand the basic principles that govern all mortgage loans.  Again, you can look to your real estate professional for assistance.

Basic Principles of all Mortgage Loans

  • The home is used as security to back up the loan. A lender can force sale of the home if the borrower defaults by failing to make scheduled payments.
  • The larger the loan compared to the value of the home, the more risky for the lender and, often, the more expensive the loan will be.
  • Interest earned by the lender always is equal to the periodic interest rate times the outstanding principle balance of the loan. The periodic interest rate is the annual interest rate divided by the number of payments in the year (usually one per month).
  • The required payment usually is a bit larger than the interest due so that some of the loan principal is repaid with each payment. This process is called Amortization and is why most mortgage loans can be retired when all the monthly payments have been made.

All mortgage loans have one of the following features:

  • Fixed payment and fixed interest rate - fixed rate mortgages
  • Fixed rate but variable payment - graduated payment mortgages
  • Variable rate and variable payment - adjustable rate mortgages

As you learn more about the types of financing available, you will notice that some loans appear to have more favorable terms. That may indicate that those loans are, indeed, bargains (and it does pay to shop around), but usually it means that those loans could have some feature that is less appealing to borrowers. For example, shorter-term loans often have slightly lower interest rates compared to longer-term loans. However, the monthly payment for the same amount of principal may be higher because of the shorter term. Variable rate loans usually have much lower interest rates to compensate for the risk the borrower accepts that interest rates will rise in the future.

Q?

Refinancing

A.

When is the best time to refinance?

It depends on how long you plan to hold on to your house and if you have to pay anything to refinance. In addition, it also depends on how far along you are in paying off your current mortgage.

If you are going to be selling your house shortly, you probably will not recoup any costs you incur to refinance your mortgage. If you are more than halfway through paying your current mortgage, you probably will gain little by refinancing. However, if you are going to own your home for at least five years, that's probably long enough to recoup any refinancing costs you incur and to realize real savings on lowering your monthly payment. If it is going to cost you nothing to refinance, you can gain even more.

Many lenders will allow you to roll the costs of the refinancing into the new note and still reduce the amount of the monthly payment. Also, there are no-cost refinancing deals available. In any case, it pays to consult your lender or financial advisor, or run the numbers yourself, before you refinance.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of no-cost loans?

In many states, real estate regulatory agencies are cracking down on such advertising. The very term, "no-cost" loan, is misleading because borrowers are actually paying a higher interest rate in exchange for not having to pay fees or closing costs up front when the loan is secured.

A "no-points" loan is one for which the lender does not charge points (one point is equal to 1 percent of the loan amount). But there are other fees involved in no-point loans, as with most loans.

How does bankruptcy affect my refinancing?

Refinancing may be prudent but could be difficult after a bankruptcy. If you're considering bankruptcy, you may want to go to your current lender first and explain the situation. If you have been current on your payments, the lender may be accommodating and refinance your loan, easing your financial situation.

Which home buying costs are deductible?

Any points you or the seller pay to purchase your home loan are deductible for that year. Property taxes and interest are deductible every year.

But while other home-buying costs (closing costs in particular) are not immediately tax-deductible, they can be figured into the adjusted cost basis of your home when you go to sell (any significant home improvements also can be calculated into your basis). These fees would include title insurance, loan-application fee, credit report, appraisal fee, service fee, settlement or closing fees, bank attorney's fee, attorney's fee, document preparation fee and recording fees. Points paid when you refinance an existing mortgage must be deducted ratably over the life of the new loan.

Q?

Taxes

A.

Can property taxes be deducted?

Property taxes on all real estate, including those levied by state and local governments and school districts, are fully deductible against current income taxes.

Mortgage interest and property taxes are deductible on a second home if you itemize. Check with your accountant or tax adviser for specifics.

How are property taxes configured?

Property taxes are what most homeowners in the United States pay for the privilege of owning a piece of real estate, on average 1.5 percent of the property's current market value. These annual local assessments by county or local authorities help pay for public services and are calculated using a variety of formulas.

How does home mortgage tax deductions work?

The mortgage interest deduction entitles you to completely deduct the interest on your home loan for the year in which you paid it. Mortgage interest is not a dollar-for-dollar tax cut; it reduces taxable income. You must itemize deductions in order to do this, which means your total deductions must exceed the IRS's standard deduction.

Another point to remember is that the amount of interest on your loan goes down each year you pay on your mortgage (all standard home-loan formulas pay off interest first before significantly paying into principal). That's why paying extra on your principal every year can help you pay off your loan early.

What is an impound account?

An impound account is a trust account established by the lender to hold money to pay for real estate taxes, and mortgage and homeowners insurance premiums as they are received each month.

Are points deductible?

If you are a buyer, and you or the seller pays points, they are deductible for the year in which they are paid only. You also can deduct any points you pay when you refinance your home, but you must do so ratably over the life of the loan. Consult your tax or financial advisor.

Are there tax breaks for first-time buyers?

Many city and county governments offer Mortgage Credit Certificate programs, which allow first-time homebuyers to take advantage of a special federal income tax write-off, which makes qualifying for a mortgage loan easier.

Requirements vary from program to program. People wanting to apply should contact their local housing or community development office.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Some credit may be claimed only on your owner-occupied principal residence.
  • There are maximum income limits, which vary by locality and family size.

You must be a first-time homebuyer, which means you must not have had any kind of ownership interest in a principal residence during the past three years. This restriction may be waived, however, if you are buying property within certain target areas.

Allocations must be available. A local MCC program may have to decline new applications when it runs out of funds.

Are home improvements deductible?

What you spend on permanent home improvements, such as new windows, can be added into your home's cost basis, or amount of money invested in a home, which reduces capital gains when it comes time to sell. Capital gains are determined by the difference in price from the time a home is purchased and the time it is sold, minus the cost of any permanent improvements.

However, the 1997 tax changes virtually eliminate the capital gains tax for most homeowners (the exemption is $250,000 for single homeowners and $500,000 for married homeowners.

Still, it is worthwhile to save all receipts for permanent home improvements just in case. They also can be useful documentation when it comes to marketing your home when you sell.

Q?

Insurance

A.

What kind of insurance do I need?

A standard homeowners policy protects against fire, lightning, wind, storms, hail, explosions, riots, aircraft wrecks, vehicle crashes, smoke, vandalism, theft, breaking glass, falling objects, weight of snow or sleet, collapsing buildings, freezing of plumbing fixtures, electrical damage and water damage from plumbing, heating or air conditioning systems, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group for the insurance industry.

Such policies are "all-risk" policies, which cover everything except earthquakes, floods, war and nuclear accidents.

A basic policy can be expanded to include additional coverage, such as for floods and earthquakes and even workers' compensation for servants or contractors. Home-based business-coverage, an increasingly popular rider, does not cover liability associated with the business.

Insurance experts recommend that homeowners obtain insurance equal to the full replacement value of the home. On a 2,000-square-foot home, for example, if the replacement cost is $80 per square foot, the house should be insured for at least $160,000.

For personal items, homeowners can increase their coverage beyond the depreciated value of items such as televisions or furniture by purchasing a "replacement-cost endorsement" on personal property.

Some experts recommend an inflation rider, which increases coverage as the home increases in value.

What is guaranteed replacement cost insurance?

Guaranteed replacement insurance is a more comprehensive policy. It tends to cost more, but it promises to cover the complete costs less deductible of replacing a destroyed house. With these sorts of policies, limits on the policies are not as common, because complete coverage is more explicit.

Q?

Improving Real Estate

A.

Are there government programs for rehabilitation?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 203 (K) rehabilitation loan program is designed to facilitate major structural rehabilitation of houses with one to four units that are more than one year old. Condominiums are not eligible.

The 203(K) loan is usually done as a combination loan to purchase a fixer-upper property "as is" and rehabilitate it, or to refinance a temporary loan to buy the property and do the rehabilitation. It can also be done as a rehabilitation-only loan.

Plans and specifications for the proposed work must be submitted for architectural review and cost estimation. Mortgage proceeds are advanced periodically during the rehabilitation period to finance the construction costs.

For a list of participating lenders, call HUD at (202) 708-2720.

If you are a veteran, loans from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also can be used to buy a home, build a home, improve a home or to refinance an existing loan. VA loans frequently offer lower interest rates than ordinarily available with other kinds of loans. To qualify for a loan, the first step is to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility.

Another program is the Federal Housing Administration's Title 1 FHA loan program.

How much can I expect to spend on maintenance?

Experts generally agree that you can plan on annually spending 1 percent of the purchase price of your house on repairing gutters, caulking windows, sealing your driveway and the myriad other maintenance chores that come with the privilege of homeownership. Newer homes will cost less to maintain than older homes. It also depends on how well the house has been maintained over the years.

What repairs should I make before putting a home on the market?

If you want to get top dollar for your property, you probably need to make all minor repairs and selected major repairs before going on the market. Nearly all purchase contracts include an inspection clause, a buyer contingency that allows a buyer to back out if numerous defects are found or negotiate their repair.

The trick is not to overspend on pre-sale repairs, especially if there are few houses on the market but many buyers willing to buy at almost any price. On the other hand, making such repairs may be the only way to sell your house in a down market.

Can neighbor problems de-value the property?

While it may not reduce the actual value, a cluttered landscape next door can detract from the positive aspects of your home. Review your local laws, which should be on file at the public library, county law library or City Hall.

A typical "junk vehicle" ordinance, for example, requires any disabled car to either be enclosed or placed behind a fence. And most cities prohibit parking any vehicle on a city street too long.

It also may be worthwhile to check into local zoning ordinances. An operator of a home-based business usually is required to obtain a variance or permanent zoning change in residential areas.

In addition, if a neighbor's repair work produces loud noises, he may be breaking local noise-control ordinances, which are enforced by the police department.

Before bringing in the authorities, you may want to make a copy of the pertinent ordinance and give it to your neighbor to give them a chance to correct the problem.

Q?

Condos and Home Associations

A.

Are condos a good investment?

Condominiums have held their value as an investment despite economic downturns and problems with some associations. In fact, condos have appreciated more in the past few years than when they first came on the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, experts say.

While there are lots of reports about homeowners association disputes and construction-defect problems, the industry has worked hard to turn its image around. Elected volunteers who serve on association boards are better trained at handling complex budget and legal issues, for example, while many boards go to great lengths to avoid the kind of protracted and expensive litigation that has hurt resale value in the past.

Meanwhile, changing demographics are making condominiums more attractive investments for single homebuyers, empty nesters and first-time buyers in expensive markets.

What kinds of rules and regulations do Associations regulate?

Typical covenants, codes and restrictions (CC&Rs), which govern condo associations, give the board authority to make and enforce reasonable rules for the use of common property. But that would not apply to interior spaces owned by smokers themselves.

A homeowners association's board of directors can restrict smoking if it applies to indoor common spaces such as hallways or recreation rooms. Outdoor spaces are a different story, say legal experts. Any restriction would probably hinge on local laws (i.e. if a city banned smoking outdoors, a homeowners association probably could restrict smoking in its outdoor spaces).

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act does not require strictly residential apartments and single-family homes to be made accessible. But all new construction of public accommodations or commercial projects (such as a government building or a shopping mall) must be accessible. New multi-family construction also falls into this category.

In all states, the Federal Fair Housing Act provides protection against discrimination for people with physical or mental disabilities. Discrimination includes the refusal to make reasonable modifications to buildings that aren't accessible to the disabled.

What fees can I expect to pay a home association?

Condominium owners pay a fee, usually monthly, to the homeowner's association to cover the costs of managing and maintaining all common areas. In addition, you may pay extra assessments for major maintenance projects. In general these must be voted on by the association board or in some cases by all of the owners. The particular cost of monthly fees and the rules regarding special assessments vary from association to association. When considering a condominium, it's a good idea to thoroughly research the fees and bylaws of the condo association.

Are homeowner association fees tax deductible?

Homeowners association fees are considered personal living expenses and are not tax-deductible. If, however, an association has a special assessment to make one or more capital improvements, condo owners may be able to add the expense to their cost basis. Cost basis is a term for the money an owner spends for permanent improvements throughout their time in the home and is used to reduce eventual capital gains taxes when the property is sold. For example, if the association puts a new roof on a building, the expense could be considered part of a condo owner's cost basis only if they lived directly underneath it. Overall improvements to common areas, such as the installation of a swimming pool, need to be considered on a case-by-case basis but most can be included in the cost basis of any owner who can show their home directly benefits from the work.

To find out more about how the IRS views condo association fees, look to IRS Publication 17, "Your Federal Income Tax," which includes a section on condos. Order a free copy by calling (800) TAX-FORM.

Q?

Home Price Appreciation

A.

How can I improve the value of my property?

Outside of a homeowner's control, the biggest factor is market conditions. Other important issues are:

  • condition of the property
  • specific home improvements
  • neighborhood stability and safety

The greatest rise in home prices occurs when the economy is strong and the number of home sales is increasing. Specific home improvements can increase the value above the cost of the improvements.

  • remodeled bathroom returns, 81 percent to the owner
  • bathroom addition, 89 percent
  • master bedroom suite, 82 percent

Remember, quality pays. Well-planned and well-executed remodeling jobs are a good investment while bad work seldom enhances value or livability.

The safety and security of a neighborhood can affect property values, too. If you live in a high-crime area, an organized community watch program not only will lower the crime rate but give home values a boost, too.

How can I increase the value of my property?

Specific home improvements can increase your property value above the cost of the improvements themselves, such as remodeling a kitchen, adding a bathroom, finishing a basement or upgrading landscaping. Just be sure that quality pays with remodeling. A bad remodeling job will do little to boost your property value.

If you live in a high-crime area, an organized community watch program not only will lower the crime rate but can enhance property values, too. It also helps to live in an area where other homeowners are upgrading their homes, which can help pull up your property value, too.

The bottom line is to measure the cost of any improvements you want to make against the overall values in your neighborhood. If you over improve for the neighborhood, you may not necessarily recover your costs or boost your property value significantly.

Will buying a bigger home increase my profit?

Consider these questions before making a choice between adding on to an existing home or moving up in the market to a bigger house:

  • How much money is available, either from cash reserves or through a home improvement loan, to remodel the current house?
  • How much additional space is required? Would the foundation support a second floor or does the lot have room to expand on the ground level?
  • What do local zoning and building ordinances permit?
  • How much equity already exists in the property?
  • Are there affordable properties for sale that would satisfy housing needs?

Ultimately, the decision should be based on individual needs, the extent of work involved and what will add the most value.

How do I find out how much my home is worth?

A comparative market analysis and an appraisal are the standard methods for determining a home's value.

Your real estate agent will be able to provide a comparative market analysis, an informal estimate of value based on comparable sales in the neighborhood. Be sure you get listing prices of current homes on the market as well as those that have sold. You also can research this yourself by checking on recent sales in public records. Be sure that you are researching properties that are similar in size, construction and location. This information is not only available at your local recorder's or assessor's office but also through private companies and on the Internet.

An appraisal, which generally costs $200 to $300 to perform, is a certified appraiser's opinion of the value of a home at any given time. Appraisers review numerous factors including recent comparable sales, location, square footage and construction quality.

What are the differences between market value and appraised value?

The appraised value of a house is a certified appraiser's opinion of the worth of a home at a given point in time. Lenders require appraisals as part of the loan application process; fees range from $200 to $300.

Market value is what price the house will bring at a given point in time. A comparative market analysis is an informal estimate of market value, based on sales of comparable properties, performed by a real estate agent or broker. Either an appraisal or a comparative market analysis is the most accurate way to determine what your home is worth.

Q?

Are vacation homes a good investment?

A.

You can buy a vacation home today for investment purposes as well as enjoyment. And yes, there are tax benefits.

Some people buy a vacation home to use as a permanent retirement home later, which allows them to get ahead on their payments. Another benefit is that the interest and property taxes on a vacation home are tax-deductible.

Some real estate experts predict that vacation homes will appreciate in value due to rising demand from the aging Baby Boom generation. You also can depreciate the property if you live in the house less than 14 days a year.

You also need to consider whether you can afford to carry two mortgages, pay for the extra utilities and maintenance costs, and how this investment fits into your total personal finance picture.

Q?

Condos, Apartments & Single Family

A.

What are the differences between condos and single-family homes?

Using appreciation as a measure, condominiums in some areas have been as profitable an investment as single-family homes in the past five years. And in some markets, condos appreciated even more, according to some experts.

While single-family homes have been the preferred investment by homebuyers, changing demographics are helping make condos more popular, especially among single homebuyers, empty nesters and first-time buyers in high-priced markets.

Also, the condominium community has worked hard in the last few years to overcome image problems brought on by homeowners association and developer disputes as well as all too frequent construction-defect litigation.

Should I be looking into condos?

While condos never had the kind of appreciation experienced by single-family homes in the go-go 1980s, most ultimately have not lost value, say some experts. And with high prices in many urban markets and more single homebuyers in the market than ever before, the market for condos is strong.

As with any home purchase, you should do your homework about the neighborhood or development before you buy. In the case of condominiums, it is important to read the past six months of homeowners association minutes to see how effective the board is and to learn about any possibly detracting issues (such as protracted litigation with the developer).

The condominium community has worked hard in the last few years to overcome image problems brought on by disputes and lawsuits. Associations are becoming more sophisticated about property management and taking steps to prevent legal problems and disputes.

Condominiums have held their value as an investment despite economic downturns and problems with some associations. In fact, condos have appreciated more in the past few years than when they first came on the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, experts say.

While there are lots of reports about homeowner's association disputes and construction-defect problems, the industry has worked hard to turn its image around. Elected volunteers who serve on association boards are better trained at handling complex budget and legal issues, for example, while many boards go to great lengths to avoid the kind of protracted and expensive litigation that has hurt resale value in the past.

Meanwhile, changing demographics are making condominiums more attractive investments for single homebuyers, empty nesters and first-time buyers in expensive markets.

How do homeowners associations work?

Learn everything you can about the homeowners association before you buy into a development governed by one. The association's financial, political and legal conditions are very important to your investment and quality of life.

When run properly, homeowners associations maintain the common grounds and keep civility in the complex. If you follow the rules, the association should not intrude on your privacy or cost you too much in association dues.

Poorly managed associations can drag down property values and make living there difficult for residents. Start by studying the association's covenants, codes and restrictions, or CC&Rs, and find out if you can live by them. For example, if the rules prohibit loud music after a certain hour and you like to play your CDs late at night, this may not be the place for you. Don't move in thinking you can get away with violating the rules or change them later because you may find yourself in turmoil with determined neighbors firmly in control of the association board.

Find out all you can about the association's finances. Beyond reviewing the budget, talk to the association treasurer and find out if dues are expected to increase and if any special assessments are planned. Ask if special inspections have revealed problems with roofs or plumbing that may cause a dues hike or special assessment later on.

Call and meet with the association president. If you are the type of person who despises intrusions into your private life and the president seems more interested in gossip about the residents than maintaining the property, this may not be the right condo complex for you.

Speak with residents to get their views on the association's finances, its property manager, how it operates and any politics. Associations are volunteer organizations with elected boards, like a mini-government, so politics can enter the picture and spoil a good thing.

Lastly, take some time to understand how homeowners associations are organized and how they conduct business. Like all real estate investments, the more you know the better off you are.

Is it difficult to project rents on rentals?

If you are buying a rental income property and applying for a loan to do so, the lender will require an area rent survey by a certified appraiser. The amount a landlord can expect to receive in monthly rent largely depends on what the property has rented for in the past, the condition of the building, its location and the current housing market.

Lenders also look at other cash-flow considerations. They want to know if you have enough reserves on hand to cover predictable and unforeseen expenses, such as property insurance, taxes, regular maintenance and repairs.

Q?

What can Real Estate Agents do to help you buy the right home for you?

A.

  • They will help you determine how much home you can actually afford. Often, they can suggest additional ways to accrue the down payment and explain alternative financing methods. They can also introduce you to a mortgage counselor and arrange to have you "pre-approved" which can improve your negotiating position and enable you to achieve your home-buying objectives faster and with less stress.
  • Providing client level services, they can work for you as a buyer's agent and help negotiate the best price and terms for you. Or, they can serve as a seller's sub-agent (or disclosed dual agent), acting as a liaison between you and the seller to present offers and counteroffers until an agreement is reached.
  • They will help you work out a realistic idea of the home best suited to your needs - size, style, features, location, accessibility to schools, transportation, shopping, and other personal preferences.
  • They have access to a listing of all available homes in the multi-list system, can evaluate them in terms of your needs and affordability, and will not waste your time showing you unsuitable homes.
  • They can often suggest simple, imaginative changes that could make a home more suitable for you and improve its utility and value.
  • They can supply information on real estate values, taxes, utility costs, municipal services and facilities, and may be aware of proposed zoning changes that could affect your decision to buy.
  • Although the law does not normally require an attorney to review documents or oversee real estate closings, they can provide you with a list of law practitioners to choose from if you would like to use the services of an attorney.
  • They can help familiarize you with the closing process and they will obtain closing figures in advance of closing for your review.
  • They can provide you with a list of qualified home inspectors, pest inspectors, surveyors, and help to coordinate inspection appointments.

Q?

Top 10 Tips to Successful Home Buying

A.

Tip #1: Research Is The Key To Discovery

Home sellers won't call you with an offer to buy a maintenance-free home with a wonderful mortgage. You have to find the gems yourself! Only by reading available materials, talking to friends and experts, and spending time looking at different homes, schools, and neighborhoods will you end up with your American dream. Avoid the nightmares by learning how best to buy and maintain a home.

Tip #2: Make A Plan And Get Pre-Qualified

Every important decision needs to be clearly thought out. Developing a home buying plan can help you focus on the important factors and organize the entire process. You may even want to use a binder with sections on house hunting, home financing, service providers, etc. Loan pre-qualifying helps you determine the home price you can afford and presents you as a genuine prospect to the seller. A lender typically uses the 28% formula (your monthly mortgage can't exceed 28% of your monthly income) in approving your loan. Planning your actions and getting pre-qualified will keep you out of the panic mode and allow you to take advantage of opportunities. A thorough plan will save both time and money!

Tip #3: Value, Value, Value

The days of 10-30% annual appreciation have passed. Homebuyers in the 1970's benefited tremendously from what seemed like ever appreciating home prices. Nowadays, you're looking at slow growth while guarding against the possibilities of falling prices, skyrocketing ARM rates and corporate layoffs that can dramatically affect your home values. The classic rule of buying the worst house in the best neighborhood still applies. If you buy with an eye towards improvement, you can customize the home to fit your needs. The saying, "make money buying a home, not selling one," should keep you focused on the long-term importance of the purchasing price.

Tip #4: Create A Top 10 List Of Amenities

When shopping for a home, list the features (fireplace, fenced-in yard, new appliances, etc.) that are most important to you in deciding on which home to buy. Establishing "your criteria" early on will save time shopping for inappropriate homes and may keep you from buying a home on a whim. As detailed in Tip #3, your top reason for buying a home should be the value you are getting. Some of your top 10 amenities should logically be sacrificed if an incredible value is available.

Tip #5: Fixed vs. Adjustable Rate Mortgages

Adjustable rate mortgages have an initial fixed rate, which is followed by a period of adjustment intervals during which the rate adjusts based on the performance of several key indexes. Typically the initial fixed rate on an ARM is slightly lower than the comparable rate of a fixed rate mortgage.

Fixed rate mortgages allow buyers to take out a long term loan without having to worry about changing interest rates or monthly payments. Most fixed rate loans are offered in either 15 or 30 year terms.

Most buyers will be well served by a fixed rate loan, but each situation is unique. While ARM loans have become less popular in recent years, they can still be a viable option for some buyers - especially those who plan on selling again in the short term.

Whichever loan you choose; make sure that you scrutinize all the closing costs. If you are required to have a mortgage escrow account and private mortgage insurance, make sure you understand the terms and cancellation procedures (your Real Estate Agent has publications to assist you). Also, make sure there are no prepayment penalties so that you can utilize an accelerated mortgage plan. A good mortgage reduction plan can save you tens of thousands in interest costs, and shorten your loan term, with only small extra principal payments. If you experience negative changes in your job, health, or marital status, you can revert to the standard payments in your mortgage contract.

Tip #6: Sign A Contract That Protects You

Make sure that the contract you put on a house allows you to arrange financing, inspect the home and negotiate any problems that you uncover. Ensuring that the contract you sign will minimize potential legal battles will let you swim in your new pool with your family and neighbors instead of with the sharks.

Tip #7: Put Yourself In The Seller's Shoes

You are about to make one of the most important decisions that will affect both your life and the life of the seller. If you take time to understand the reasons the seller bought the home, their reasons for selling, and the home improvements they have or have not made, you'll be in a better position to evaluate the home and negotiate a better deal. In the end, the home buying process excludes the professionals and comes down to the individuals buying and selling the home. A closer look at the seller may help you in deciding whether and for how much to buy a particular home.

Tip #8: Develop A Mortgage Shopping Chart

One of the biggest decisions to make before putting a contract on a home is how to finance the purchase. There are 10,000 lenders competing for your mortgage business. The days of simply walking into the community bank and negotiating with the loan department manager are over. Today, you can apply for a loan over the Internet or even use a mortgage broker to shop for your loan with hundreds of lenders. When choosing a lender, you want to avoid apples to oranges contrasts by comparing fixed rates to fixed rates, not fixed to ARM's. Create a chart that lists different types of loans, fees, and at least five mortgage providers (including a mortgage broker).

Tip #9: Get A Quality Home Inspection

Although it is hard to believe, more people pay for inspections before buying used cars than when making the biggest investment of their lives - their homes. Paying for a qualified home inspection before you buy a home isn't just spending "a little extra" for peace of mind; it's absolutely essential for anyone who doesn't want to spend thousands of dollars for repairs.

Tip#10: Peace Of Mind: Home Protection Plans

To protect both you as a buyer, as well as the seller, it is a good idea to purchase a home protection plan.  What exactly is it? A home warranty, or home protection plan, is a service contract, normally for one year, which protects homeowners against the cost of unexpected repairs or replacement of their major systems and appliances that break down due to normal wear and tear. A negotiable contract between the buyers and sellers which does not overlap or replace homeowner's insurance policy, this type of warranty can save the new homeowner lots of headaches, as well as put seller's fears to rest. The warranty covers mechanical breakdowns, while insurance typically repairs the related damage. For example: if a hot water heater burst and destroyed a wall in your home, the warranty would repair the water heater and your insurance would pay to fix the wall!

Q?

Foreclosures

A.

Are foreclosures a good investment?

A foreclosure property is a home that has been repossessed by the lender because the owners failed to pay the mortgage. Thousands of homes end up in foreclosure every year. Economic conditions affect the number of foreclosures, too. Many people lose their homes due to job loss, credit problems or unexpected expenses.

It is wise to be cautious when considering a foreclosure. Many experts, in fact, advise inexperienced buyers to hire an expert to take them through the process. It is important to have the house thoroughly inspected and to be sure that any liens, undisclosed mortgages or court judgments are cleared or at least disclosed.

Are there different types of foreclosures?

Judicial foreclosure action is a proceeding in which a mortgage, a trustee or another lien holder on property requests a court-supervised sale of the property to cover the unpaid balance of a delinquent debt.

Non-judicial foreclosure is the process of selling real property under a power of sale in a mortgage or deed of trust that is in default. In such a foreclosure, however, the lender is unable to obtain a deficiency judgment, which makes some title insurance companies reluctant to issue a policy.

How do I find a foreclosed property?

In most states, a foreclosure notice must be published in the legal notices section of a local newspaper where the property is located or in the nearest city. Also, foreclosure notices are usually posted on the property itself and somewhere in the city where the sale is to take place.

When a homeowner is late on three payments, the bank will record a notice of default against the property. When the owner fails to pay up, a trustee sale is held, and the property is sold to the highest bidder. The financial institution that has initiated foreclosure proceedings usually will set the bid price at the loan amount.

Despite these seemingly straightforward rules, buying foreclosures is not as easy as it may sound. Sophisticated investors use the technique so novices may find themselves among stiff competition.

How does HUD affect my buying a foreclosure?

If you are strapped for cash and looking for a bargain, you may be able to buy a foreclosure property acquired by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for as little as $100 down.

With HUD foreclosures, down payments vary depending on whether the property is eligible for FHA insurance. If not, payments range from 5 to 20 percent. But when the property is FHA-insured, the down payment can go much lower.

Each offer must be accompanied by an "earnest money" deposit equal to 5 percent of the bid price, not to exceed $2,000 but not less than $500.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also offers foreclosure properties which can be purchased directly from the VA often well below market value and with a down payment amount as low as 2 percent for owner-occupants. Investors may be required to pay up to 10 percent of the purchase price as a down payment. This is because the VA guarantees home loans and often ends up owning the property if the veteran defaults.

If you are interested in purchasing a VA foreclosure, call 1-800-827-1000 to request a current listing. About 100 new properties are listed every two weeks.

You should be aware that foreclosure properties are sold "as is," meaning limited repairs have been made but no structural or mechanical warranties are implied.

You can only purchase a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development property through a licensed real estate broker. HUD will pay the broker's commission up to 6 percent of the sales price.

Where do you find government foreclosed homes?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development acquires properties from lenders who foreclose on mortgages insured by HUD. These properties are available for sale to both homeowner-occupants and investors.

You can only purchase HUD-owned properties through a licensed real estate broker. HUD will pay the broker's commission up to 6 percent of the sales price.

Down payments vary depending on whether the property is eligible for FHA insurance. If not, payments range from the conventional market's 5 to 20 percent.

Buying a foreclosure property can be risky, especially for the novice. Usually, you buy a foreclosure property "as is," which means there is no warranty implied for the condition of the property (in other words, you can't go back to the seller for repairs). The condition of foreclosure properties is usually not known because an inspection of the interior of the house is not possible before the sale.

In addition, there may be problems with the title, though that is something you can check out before the purchase.

Buying directly at a legal foreclosure sale is risky and dangerous. It is strictly caveat emptor ("Let the buyer beware").

The process has many disadvantages. There is no financing; you need cash and lots of it. The title needs to be checked before the purchase or the buyer could buy a seriously deficient title. The property's condition is not well known and an interior inspection of the property may not be possible before the sale.

In addition, only estate (probate) and foreclosure sales are exempt from some states' disclosure laws. In both cases, the law protects the seller (usually an heir or financial institution) who has recently acquired the property through adverse circumstances and may have little or no direct information about it.

Can I get financing on a foreclosure?

One reason there are few bidders at foreclosure sales is that it is next to impossible to get financing for such a property. You generally need to show up with cash and lots of it, or a line of credit with your bank upon which you can draw cashier's checks.

What are trustee sales?

Trustee sales are advertised in advance and require an all-cash bid. A sheriff, a constable or lawyer acting as trustee usually conducts the sale. This kind of sale, which usually attracts savvy investors, is not for the novice.

In a trustee sale, the lender who holds the first loan on the property starts the bidding at the amount of the loan being foreclosed. Successful bidders receive a trustee's deed.

Q?

Fixer-Uppers

A.

Is it smart to even consider a fixer-upper?

It depends. Distressed properties or fixer-uppers can be found anywhere, even in wealthier neighborhoods. Such properties are poorly maintained and have a lower market value than other houses in the neighborhood.

Many experts recommend that before you make such an investment, first find the least desirable house in the best neighborhood. Then do the math to see if what it would cost to bring up the value of that property to its full potential market value is within your budget. If you are a novice buyer, it may be wiser to look for properties that only need cosmetic fixes rather than run-down houses that need major structural repairs.

Is there a tax break for a fixer-upper house if it is considered historical?

Qualified rehabilitated buildings and certified historic structures currently enjoy a 20 percent investment tax credit for qualified rehabilitation expenses. A historic structure is one listed in the National Register of Historic Places or so designated by an appropriate state or local historic district also certified by the government.

The tax code does not allow deductions for the demolition or significant alteration of a historic structure.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 203 (K) rehabilitation loan program is designed to facilitate major structural rehabilitation of houses with one to four units that are more than one year old. Condominiums are not eligible.

The 203(K) loan is usually done as a combination loan to purchase a fixer-upper property "as is" and rehabilitate it, or to refinance a temporary loan to buy the property and do the rehabilitation. It can also be done as a rehabilitation-only loan.

Plans and specifications for the proposed work must be submitted for architectural review and cost estimation. Mortgage proceeds are advanced periodically during the rehabilitation period to finance the construction costs.

For a list of participating lenders, call HUD at (202) 708-2720.

If you are a veteran, loans from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also can be used to buy a home, build a home, improve a home, or refinance an existing loan. VA loans frequently offer lower interest rates than ordinarily available with other kinds of loans. To qualify for a loan, the first step is to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility.

Are there special loans for fixer-uppers?

If you need a home loan to buy a "fixer-upper" and remodel it, look at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 203(K) loan program. The program is designed to facilitate major structural rehabilitation of houses with one to four units that are more than one year old. Condominiums are not eligible.

A 203(K) loan is usually done as a combination loan to purchase a "fixer-upper" property "as is" and rehabilitate it, or to refinance a temporary loan to buy the property and do the rehabilitation. It can also be done as a rehabilitation-only loan.

Investors must put 15 percent down while owner-occupants are required to come up with only 3 to 5 percent. HUD requires that a minimum of $5,000 be spent on improvements.

Two appraisals are required. Plans and specifications for the proposed work must be submitted for architectural review and cost estimation. Mortgage proceeds are advanced periodically during the rehabilitation period to finance the construction costs.

What are building codes?

Building codes are established by local authorities to set minimum public-safety standards for building design, construction, quality, use and occupancy, location and maintenance. There are specialized codes for plumbing, electrical and fire, which usually involve separate inspections and inspectors.

All buildings must be issued a building permit and a Certificate of Occupancy before it can be used. During construction, housing inspectors must make checks at key points. Codes are usually enforced by denying permits, occupancy certificates and by imposing fines.

Building codes also cover most remodeling projects. If you are buying a house that has been significantly remodeled, ask for proof of the permits involved before you purchase to avoid future liability for fines.

How do I find a good contractor?

While hiring contractors recommended by friends is usually a safe route, never hire a construction professional without first checking him or her out. If your state has a licensing board for contractors, call to find out if there are any outstanding complaints against that license holder. Also, call your local Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints on file.

If you are satisfied with the answers you find there, interview the contractor candidates. Ask what kind of worker's compensation insurance they carry and get policy and insurance company phone numbers so you can verify the information. If they are not covered, you could be liable for any work-related injury incurred during the project. Also be sure that the contractor has an umbrella general liability policy.

If they pass the insurance hurdle, next check some of their references. A good contractor will be happy to provide as many as you want.

Finally, don't let yourself be rushed into making a decision no matter how competitive the market may seem. Also, never pay a deposit to a contractor at the first meeting. You may end up losing your money.

Is remodeling worth the price and time?

Remodeling magazine produces an annual "Cost vs. Value Report" that answers just that question. The most important point to remember is that remodeling a home not only improves its livability for you but its "curb appeal" with a potential buyer down the road.

Most recently, the highest remodeling paybacks have come from updating kitchens and baths, home-office additions and extra amenities in older homes. While home offices are a relatively new remodeling trend, for example, you could expect to recoup 58 percent of the cost of adding a home office, according to the survey.

How do I look for fixer-uppers?

You can find distressed properties or fixer-uppers in most communities, even wealthier neighborhoods. A distressed property is one that has been poorly maintained and has a lower market value than other houses in the immediate area.

Ascertaining whether the property you're interested in is a wise investment takes some work. You need to figure what the average house in a given area sells for, as well as what the most desirable houses in that area are like and what they cost.

Some experts suggest that buyers who take this route try to find a "cosmetic fixer" that can be completely refurbished with paint, wallpaper, new floor and window coverings, landscaping and new appliances. You should avoid run-down houses that need major structural repairs. A house price that looks too good to be true probably is. A smart buyer will find out why before buying it.

The basic strategy for a fixer is to find the least desirable house in the most desirable neighborhood, and then decide if the expenses needed to bring the value of that property up to its full potential market value are within one's rehab budget.