The Secrets to Good Transactions

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Be prepared for trouble before it happens, know how strong your position is or isn't, and don't ever overplay your hand.

Real estate transactions are the largest transactions most folks get involved in. Even small percentages of $500,000 or more are lots of money. A 1% difference in the purchase price, or cost of repairs, means more money than a lot of folks take home in a month. People will lie, cheat, and steal for much smaller amounts that that. It's a bad bet in general, and a worse one in real estate, but people do it. The new siding that hides the clues that say cracked foundation. The new paint that hides the water stained ceiling. New, well padded carpet over old wood where rot has set in. These are just the tip of the iceberg.

The most common game, though, I call the chiseler. Someone who comes into the transaction and may actually negotiate the initial contract reasonably, then proceeds to demand more than is reasonable every time there's the least little item for possible concern. There's another agent in my office has one for a client right now. I've told that agent that I'd drop that client at least half a dozen times. Even if the transaction gets finalized, this chiseler is going to come after this agent as soon as there's anything he can manufacture a complaint about. The other side is a desperate seller, or they'd have told this guy to get lost long since. The chiseler is getting a screaming deal just from the basic contract, and he's wanting hundreds of dollars in concessions to fix stuff that costs a dollar nineteen. My opinion is that before the transaction closes, he's going to ask for one thing too many and they're going to tell him no, and the transaction will be off, no matter how desperate they are.

"If you want peace, be prepared for war." Ancient wisdom. I'm not advocating it for real estate. Wars are expensive and usually a net loss, whether they're waged with bullets and bombs or lawyers and contracts. There's always another property for sale, always another buyer. You never have any more power over the other side in the transaction than they choose to grant you. It may be intelligent for them to grant it, but you can't make them. Similarly, they never have any more power over you.

A quick lesson from the annals of real warfare. In 279 BC, Pyrrhus of Epirus fought the Roman legions at Ausculum. He won the battle, but when congratulated upon doing so, replied "One more such victory, and we shall be undone." The Romans could afford the losses much more easily than his army. It set the scene for the Battle of Beneventum, after which he gave up fighting the Romans. From the experience of Pyrrhus comes the term, Pyrrhic victory. He was supposedly a brilliant general, but if he was so brilliant why couldn't he win a battle without catastrophic casualties?

Any time lawyers get involved in a transaction, it's a reasonable bet it has become a Pyrrhic victory at best. Chances of recovering actual money in your pocket greater than your legal fees are slim, no matter how rotten their case or how much worse off than you they end up. You still don't have a transaction, and meantime, you've likely scared off other buyers or missed opportunities at other properties.

Knowing when a transaction is broken and being willing to counsel a client to get out of it are two of the hallmarks of a good agent. Recognizing it before it has become undeniable is crucial. Precisely when the transaction is broken is itself a function of the market. The current market certainly allows buyers to drive much harder bargains than has been the case any time in the previous decade, but there is a point at which even the most desperate seller should tell them, "No," to further demands. Of course, a really good listing agent won't let it get that far, any more than a good buyer's agent will. I'm perfectly willing to tell my clients in private that they're on the verge of messing up a contract that gets them the best deal they can reasonably expect, all because they tell themselves they want a little bit more. But if that messes up a good transaction, nobody ends up with what they wanted. See the chiseler, above. In order to know what's broken and what's not, you have to really understand the market.

None of this is to say that capitulation is the first order of business, any more than scorched earth. Both are the province of the agent that needs to get fired. What is necessary is judgment and market knowledge and an understanding of what a good compromise really is. A good agent has contingency plans for everything in negotiating, and throughout the transaction. If they do X, we'll do Y. If they want A, we want B. If they don't want to go for that, we'll offer D for C instead. The other side does not necessarily have to lose for your client to win. Indeed, it's the good agent that knows how to substitute other things for money, and the good agent who knows how much of the clients agenda to reveal. Information is always power, but sometimes knowledge of the other side's agenda enables us to craft a compromise that makes both sides happy.

Right now, if a given seller won't recognize that desperation is the only valid reason for marketing a property when there are 40 plus sellers per buyer, a good buyer's agent doesn't need much reason to abandon a property. Just the fact that this seller is trying to act like it's still the seller's market of a few years ago is enough, and the sooner the idiots doing anything to get listings including misrepresentation of the market realize this, the sooner this will change. My most important questions at every listing presentation have been and will continue to be concerning their need to sell and what possible alternative plans there might be. When things are this bad for sellers (and this wonderful for buyers), the only reason for a property to be on the market is if there is no other reasonable alternative. I've told several people, everyone who had a reasonable alternative, "I'd love to sell your property, but given the state of the market right now, the kind of sale you want is not going to happen. I can list your property for sale, but it's not going to sell in this market unless you outcompete all the similar properties that are already for sale. All it would do is frustrate both of us, and get you angry at me, and for good reason. Here's my card, and if you decide you need to do what it's going to take, please call me. Otherwise, I'll check back in a few months and we'll discuss the state of the market again. I'm confident that waiting will get you more than enough extra money to be worth it."

There are currently over 20,900 properties for sale in San Diego County, and only 269 went Pending in the last week. Never mind an allowance for fall-out, that's a 77:1 ratio. Other things being equal, it would be a year and a half before you could expect to get an accepted offer. Other things aren't equal, of course. The longer a property is on the market the less appealing it becomes, and the more you have to do to make it sell. Only 163 sales actually went through, a ratio of 128 to one, and we're still dealing with contracts reached during the tail end of the busy season. If you need to sell, you can do what it takes now, or you can do what it takes later. You will have to give up more later, even if the market recovers next summer, because by then your property will have been on the market nine more months.

This is great for buyers, by the way, but for sellers it's horrible. Unfortunately, a lot of sellers and a lot of listing agents still think it's 2003 from the way they're acting. Nobody can force them to come to grips with reality, so if they're not going to listen to reason, it may be the listing agent's fault but the owner is the one who's going to suffer the consequences.

You can't learn this stuff on the fly, by the way, nor can you prepare retroactively - you have to be ready when the offer comes in. If the owner doesn't understand the state of the market before the offer arrives, nobody ends up happy. It's like the exact opposite of 2003, where if the buyer didn't understand what it was going to take to be successful before they started looking at properties, they were going to end up homeless and frustrated, or rooked. If you don't hire a sharp enough agent, you can't go get them when it drops in the pot. First off, you won't be able to recognize that it has dropped in the pot, and you're now roast. Second, because the reason it doesn't drop in the pot with a sharp agent is because they're prepared, and they never let it get that far.

Don't ever confuse "sharp" with "experienced," or "high producer." Yes, a certain amount of experience is helpful and I learned a lot on my first few transactions. But the only times I've ever heard anybody say, "I've been in the business for three geologic eras" is when they were trying to defend something indefensible. The last time it was a woman who I found out didn't have a valid listing agreement (and it wasn't a small technicality, either!) bragging about her forty years in the business. And often the reason that someone is a high producer is the willingness to throw their client under the bus in pursuit of a commission check. Ask what problems they've dealt with lately and how they handled them. There are always problems to be dealt with; it's the nature of the business. Sometimes it's the property, more often it's the people. Not every transaction, but if they don't have a certain proportion, it's more indicative of inability to recognize a problem than it is of not having any. On the loan side, I've done more loans than 99 percent of the loan officers out there, and I deal with problems by recognizing them and fixing them before the underwriter sees the file. It's not my experience - there are plenty of loan officers who've been in the business thirty years who still insist upon doing it the hard way. It's not the fact that I've done X number of loans in a month. I've learned more since the month I did 100 loans than I knew then, by an order of magnitude. As a matter of fact, high volume is incompatible with significant problem solving, either in loans or in sales. There's only so much time in the day. It's that I've learned how to recognize this stuff and deal with it before it bites my client, even if I have to work much harder or do more work or wait a little longer than I originally thought I would. That's what makes a good agent or a good loan officer.

Caveat Emptor

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on October 11, 2007 7:00 AM.

Regulators Toughen Negative Amortization Loans? was the previous entry in this blog.

Real Loans for Real People October 11, 2007 is the next entry in this blog.

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