Beginner's Information: March 2007 Archives
I just went out looking at properties for clients. It's still a very strong buyer's market. From the showing attitudes I got, though, you'd think it was still 2003 and sellers were lords of the earth, not in a buyer's market where competition for buyers is fierce. One wanted two hours notice. Another wanted four. Two others another wanted twenty-four. Another was "make appointment," and one was even "property shown with accepted offer," which added a little humor to my day - but caused me to un-check it from my list of properties to view, and this won't change until that does or the asking price goes so low that my clients can't help but get a deal. Can you say, "Pig in a poke?" I'm pretty certain that's not the message the owners wanted to send, and their listing agent should have explained it to them. You want me to recommend my clients buy something sight unseen, it had better be priced for the worst case scenario. Sixty to seventy percent of comparable properties is about the most I might consider.
Ladies and gentlemen, when I'm scouting properties I want to go now. I have the time now, the properties are on the active list now, which means they are hoping to attract buyers now. If I print a list of fifteen properties to scout, that's because there's something that drew me to them now - not yesterday, not tomorrow. I go scouting where and when I have a need - a buyer's desire - and time. Sometimes this happens on not much notice. Always, there's the possibility the property gets withdrawn, expired, canceled, or goes pending between now and tomorrow. The kinds of properties I'm looking for are susceptible to all of these. I used to try printing out my lists day before - and it wasted so much of my time that I stopped. My time is valuable - I've only got 24 hours per day, same as everyone else. You want my attention in the form of eyeballs and footprints checking out your property, you'll make it easy for me to do so. Do not give me any wasted breath about virtual tours - what I'm looking for usually isn't there. What I'm looking to avoid certainly isn't there. I hope I don't have to explain to anyone reading this about photographic manipulation or a listing agent's descriptions of the property. There is no even vaguely acceptable substitute for physically looking at the property. My buyers are hiring me because they trust my judgment, and they want me to weed out the turkeys before they waste their valuable time. There is nothing so precious to my business as the time my buyers give me to show them good stuff. I have learned the hard way to go out and inspect the property myself before I take my buyers.
So when I can make the time, out I go. I choose them now, and I go now. If I leave the office at noon and have to be back at 3 pm and the optimum route puts me past your place at 1 pm, you're not getting four hour notice. If you want 4 hour notice, I'm not dropping by. I may hit your neighborhood again next week or the week after, but if in the meantime I've found my buyers have found something they like, then they're not in the market any longer and I'm not looking for them - not to mention I've still got the conflicts between the constraints you imposed and my own. One thing I guarantee you is that when a buyer wants to make an offer, it takes a spectacular bargain and a rare agent to say, "But you haven't seen this other one yet," and I'm not going to say it if I haven't seen your property myself, because by saying it, I am risking my credibility to zero beneficial effect should it turn out to not be so spectacular. Furthermore, when you're looking for half a dozen buyers, you have zero time to waste. It takes literally every second I can find, make, beg, borrow, or steal to find good appropriate properties for that many at once.
Whether you realize it or not, showing restrictions are part of the whole attractiveness of the property, and they don't help your case. Every time they cause someone like me to bypass your property, they cost you money in terms of a delayed sale and missing potential buyers. If prospective listing agents do not explain this to you, toss them out. I strongly suggest my listing clients relocate anything so valuable that they're worried about it to someplace where people looking at your property can't get to - Mom's, storage, a safe, any place you consider safe. Anything else that might wander off will cost less than making your house less accessible. With modern lock boxes, a record is made of which agents were in the property, and we're pretty darned careful about our good name - with buyers or without.
If you're so nervous that you're going to have to hover in the background, your property is a lost cause. Been there, done that. I refuse to deal with aggressive sellers or listing agents while I'm discussing a property's virtues and faults with my clients. There is nothing to be gained for either one of us. I don't have a responsibility to either the listing agent or the seller, even though the seller is paying me. I'm not going to be quiet, I'm not going to agree with you, and if I have to wait until later to discuss your property, you can bet I'm going to include overly aggressive sellers among the downsides to this property. It might give me reason to counsel my buyers to do a low ball desperation check. It won't enhance the value of your property in either my eyes or that of my clients.
This is just as much the case for the do it yourself buyer, the "phone the listing agent now" buyer, and any other sort of buyer or person with the attention of prospective buyers. Most folks act now because they want to go now, and if your property is not available to view now, they will go view other properties now. If they find one they like, you missed out. If they don't view your property, they're not going to make a good offer. Every missed opportunity is a potential buyer you're wasting, and right now, good qualified buyers are scarce, at least in my neck of the woods. It doesn't take many missed buyers to make a failed listing, and if it happens, you did it to yourself. By making your property unavailable, you raised the cost of doing business with you higher than the model match down the street with an asking price $10,000 higher. The hoops someone has to jump through to view your property are as much a part of the asking price as the dollar value you put on the listing. Restrictive viewing can cut your traffic and prospects more than adding $20,000 to the list price. Sometimes $40,000, and it can be six figures at the higher end of the market, but I'm aiming this at the average seller. So ask yourself if requiring 4 hour notice is worth that much money to you.
It's not easy to have your home always ready, I know. It's a real pain to always be on guard, never leave something it doesn't belong, never leave dishes in the drain or a full trash can in sight. If you've got a pet, particularly a dog, it's difficult to keep them cleaned up after and confined to the appropriate area every time you leave the house. May The Force Be With You if you've got children, because you're going to have to be a superhero to make it work. But even if your home isn't perfect, better that potential buyers see it in an imperfect state than that they don't see it. Agents like me learn to look past transient stuff like toys on the floor. If the buyers see it imperfect, it's possible they'll make an offer anyway. If it's likely to be a less attractive offer, it's still an offer, and you can choose to accept it, negotiate, or blow it off. Advantage: yours. If they don't see it at all, you're not getting an offer, or at least not any kind of offer worth considering unless you're desperate.
Sales is a game of inches, if not millimeters or microns. Particularly big ticket items like real estate. Sometimes sales are won or lost over incredibly trivial differences - and viewing restrictions are not a trivial difference. It's like the difference between a fourteen foot wall and an open door. Many people can't get over fourteen foot walls at all, others think it's too much effort, and still others see no reason why any effort they do make will be rewarded. So you want to present an open door to all potential buyers. Every little increase in the barriers you put in their way will cause a certain percentage of prospective buyers to not want to bother - and you'll never know if that's the one that would have made the best and highest offer for your property.
Continued from Part 1: Preparation and Part 2: Process
This is about the long term consequences of the decision to buy or not to buy a home, and economic benefits analysis into whether you should want to buy. In order to answer the question of whether it's better to buy or rent and invest the difference, you need to compare the costs and benefits of owning to the costs and benefits of renting over a comparable time frame. If you know you're moving in three years or less, it can be hard to come out ahead, just due to transaction costs. On the other hand, if you've got the wherewithal to turn it into a rental property after any future move you already know you're going to make, that can make the owning calculation move decisively in favor of owning. Be advised, all the headaches of being a landlord are greatly magnified if you're not within easy commuting distance to keep an eye on the property yourself. Also, if you cannot achieve positive cash flow on a rental property, odds are good that you should sell it. This isn't a blanket recommendation, just a rule of thumb.
Now it happens that I've programmed a spreadsheet to answer the "buy or rent" question in a time dependent manner, which is the only way it really can be answered. I'll assume we're talking about a $450,000 home and 90% loan, split into two pieces to avoid PMI. I'm going to pull a few more assumptions out of my hat, but I'm going to do my best to make them reasonable assumptions. 6.5 first trust deed, 10% second for any loan amount over 80 percent of value. Five percent annual property appreciation (perhaps a tad low in the long term), 1.2% yearly property tax (darned close for most California properties), yearly tax increases of two percent (Prop 13's legal maximum in California), non-deductible homeowner's expenses of $120 per month, 4 percent inflation, $1500 in non-housing deductions on Schedule A of your IRS forms, marginal tax rate of twenty-eight percent, and a return net of taxes on any alternative investment with the same money of ten percent. I also assume you're married (That makes a difference on how much your default deduction is).
I'm going to neglect state income taxes, but they make buying more attractive. They would functionally move the equation in favor of home ownership, but the effects are relatively minor in most cases. Furthermore, because investments are only worth your net proceeds after you actually sell them, I'm going to deduct seven percent of the theoretical market price of your home investment in any given year before I compare the net benefit of buying a home to renting and investing the full difference between renting and putative mortgage. This is questionable to be sure, as most people will just spend at least a certain percentage, but I'm in the mood to be generous. You'll see why in a moment.
I'm also going to assume here, very unrealistically, that you never refinance, but that's actually a middle of the road assumption, as far as net benefit goes. The actual spreadsheet also works a couple of other assumptions, and refinancing every five years and making a minimum payment usually comes out better, while refinancing every five years and keeping a thirty year payoff goal usually comes out worse.
Here are the net results:
Yes, after 30 years you are 1.3 million dollars better off from having bought a $450,000 home, as opposed to continuing to rent for that whole period. Not to mention that you own it free and clear for the cost of maintenance plus property taxes, as opposed to paying over $6800 per month rent.
This is a fascinating study in leverage. Now let's look at a slightly different scenario. Suppose you don't have a down payment, as many folks here locally don't, and suppose the property loses $50,000 in value the day after you buy it, as many here locally are fearing right now.
Or you're still almost as much better off by buying as you are in the first set of circumstances - a powerful reason not to wait if buying is appropriate for you. We don't know that prices are going down further. I believe they are likely to, but what if they don't?
I've been playing with this spreadsheet for weeks now. Under the basic assumptions I've listed above, it's kind of hard to be ahead of the game by buying a house instead of investing in the stock market after less than two years under any kind of reasonably average assumptions. On the other hand, it's very difficult not to be ahead after five to seven years, and way ahead after ten.
After thirty years, most sets of even vaguely reasonable assumptions have you so far ahead by buying the home that if you didn't watch over my shoulder as I built the spreadsheet, a reasonable person would be sceptical. Heck, I knew which calculation the numbers favored, but I really never stopped to think how strongly they worked in favor of home ownership. It is difficult to come up with a reasonable set of assumptions and starting numbers where you aren't ahead by significantly more than the original purchase price of the home. Yes, we're all aware of the issues with inflation, and the ratio illustrated here, with a 4 percent rate of inflation, is a little more than three to one (which remembering the rule of 115, seems reasonable, so the first approximation check validates this). So what this means is that by purchasing a $450,000 house that you're going to live in for the rest of your life now, you're adding more than $400,000 in today's dollars to your net worth in thirty years. Actually, it's usually more. That safe, conservative, middle of the road net result after thirty years from the first example converts to about the same number of right now dollars! No flipping, no games, no wild schemes, no re-zoning jackpots and no wealthy benefactors to come along and pay you twice what it's worth. In fact, in this scenario you never talk to another real estate or loan person as long as you live, and you've still effectively "gifted" yourself with almost ninety percent of the property's purchase price immediately upon taking possession.
This should persuade most folks that they should want to buy a home, and that you don't want anyone else to. After all, the more poor schmoes there are, the better this will work for the rest of us. Actually, that last crack about poor schmoes isn't true, because the law of supply and demand is always in effect. But is shows how good for the overall economic health of the nation encouraging home ownership is.
This is easy. Much easier than effectively shopping for a loan or a listing agent. So easy that a congresscritter can do it. So easy that congressional leadership can do it.
The only thing possibly moderately difficult to understand is that finding a good Buyer's Agent takes place in two steps, not one.
The first thing to do is figure out your situation. What do you want in a property, and what is your budget? I've written several articles to help you determine your budget, but the one piece of data they are missing, because they have to be, is what the rates that are available to you are. Unless you're sure that you fall into the topmost category - great credit score, no late payments or anything, and you're looking to buy something well beneath what you can prove that you can afford, you can only find this out by having good conversations with several loan officers. Rate advertisements are teasers, aimed at getting you to call, useless in reality. I have never seen one for a loan that 1) actually existed, and 2) that I would consider signing up for, even if I could get paid for it.
Then, make a list of agents you might like to work with. This can certainly include Uncle Bob, your neighbor, or your poker buddy, but you want more than one agent on the list. My experience is that agents at the big chains are (in the aggregate) not up to the standards of the ones working at independent brokerages, but your mileage may vary. Also, I am a Realtor, but that's for reasons completely unrelated to competence or ethics. I'll believe that Realtors are superior to non-Realtors when the boards of Realtors start handing out penalties for non-compliance with the code of ethics that mean something. Ditto all of those little "designations" that have been cooked up to parallel the ones financial planners get. Unlike many financial planning designations, some of which are graduate degrees of one value or another, these are marketing efforts cooked up to fool a gullible public. The qualifications for the real estate designations are laughable in the context of ChFC (Chartered Financial Consultant) and other designations that require five to ten graduate level college courses to attain.
Then, have a good conversation with those agents. The first thing you should ask, on the phone, is whether they require an Exclusive Buyer's Agent Agreement, or whether they will accept a Non-exclusive Buyer's Agent Agreement. If they require an exclusive agreement, that should be the end of the conversation, and cross their name off of your list. If you sign an exclusive agreement, you are locking your business up with that agent. You are putting yourself in their hands completely. The only reason that you should even consider an exclusive agreement is if you are asking for something special that costs money - for instance, expedited foreclosure lists (The free lists are a waste of time, because they're already flooded before you get them. The subjects of the free lists have said, "no" to literally hundreds of others before you even got the list, so unless you've got something very special in the way of an offer, you are wasting your time.)
There is absolutely no good reason not to sign a standard Non-Exclusive Buyer's Agreement. You risk nothing by signing. You lose nothing by signing. You can have any number of them in effect, and as long as you don't sign any exclusive agreements, you're fine. All you do is assure the person whose services you use that if they find and help you purchase the property you like, then they will get paid. The only reason not to sign such an agreement is if you're looking to stiff a good agent who finds you the property you like so that you can use a discounter on the transaction, and that's shooting yourself in the foot. The money you get back is unlikely to be as much as the difference the good agent will make in negotiations, or the trouble the good agent will save you.
One more thing any buyer's agreement you sign should have: An explicit release if they are the listing agent for the property you decide to put an offer on. It is a very bad idea for buyers to accept a dual agent, because the agent has a responsibility to the sellers, but nearly so deep of one to you. They're on the other side. I wouldn't pick a quarterback that played for the opposition, and neither should you. Tell them to pick a side and stay on it, and as they already have a listing agreement, they've already chosen the other side. It's great for them and for the sellers that they've sold the property, but their desire to get paid double does not outweigh your right to representation with responsibility to you and no conflicts with other duties.
Tell them what you want in a property, where you would like to live, and what your budget is. Then ask them if it's a realistic, and see what they say. If they say yes, that's great, but wait until you hear it more than once before you celebrate. Many agents will tell you yes, figuring that it's easier to raise your budget than lower your expectations, especially once you have seen this beautiful property that they "just happen" to know someone who can get the loan for. Nor is this a straight yes/no question. They might tell you an unqualified yes, as desirable properties possessing those characteristics you want are available in that area below your budget. They might tell you that such properties are available, but that they are scarce and you must act expeditiously. They might tell you that you're going to need a fixer to get those characteristics, or that you're likely to need to compromise some of them. Or they might tell you that what you want is sufficiently beyond your budget that an alternative approach is probably called for.
Now, whatever the first agent tells you, don't swallow it whole. Get some evidence. If they show you literature for brand new beautiful properties just being sold out that are less than your budget right where you want to live, that's evidence. If they execute an MLS search and the only things that pop up in your budget are out of area properties being cross-marketed, that's evidence. The worse the news they tell you, the more likely it is to be true. Sales persons do not like to be bearers of bad tidings, especially before their commission is paid. But if they're willing to give you evidence that your expectations need to be adjusted downward, that is evidence that this is probably someone who takes their fiduciary duty seriously, and that is an agent you probably want to work with.
Notice that I said an agent, not the agent. There's a reason for this. Remember that non-exclusive agreement you signed? Remember that I told you it's fine to sign more than one? Here's the good thing about signing more than one: Now you have multiple agents looking for that special property that will make you happy. You won't pay any more for this than for one agent, because they are all competing for your business and the same commission check. This is the stage at which the agents are actually competing for your business, by looking for the property you want. You don't have to decide who gets paid up front. You wait until one of them brings you what you want. Furthermore, the agents will self-select or disqualify themselves to a large extent.
Let's say you signed seven non-exclusive agreements. One is Teresa Top Producer, who slams clients into the first property that's even a rough fit. She'll take you shopping one day, try hard to sell you every property, and get upset if you don't make an offer on the first day. By "try hard to sell" I don't mean anything so crass as the hard sell. What happens is she talks up everything she mentions, very little if any compare and contrast, and whatever she does, no calling your attention to defects or undesirable items. In fact, she'll do her best to distract you or get you to ignore them. For savvy, patient, intelligent buyers, Teresa is not a good fit as an agent, and you're going to realize it after one or two properties. And here's another great thing about the non-exclusive agreement: You just stop working with her, and she's out of the picture!
The second person you sign an agreement with is Martin MLS. Martin does an MLS search, and wants you to go around with him to every property on that list. He sets up an automatic notification to you of every property that fits some basic criteria that gets listed, and he wants to go check out every one with you. Lest you not have figured it out while reading the last two sentences, Martin's approach is basically throw a lot of mud at the wall and hope that if he throws enough, a little bit will stick. Martin may or may not have any real idea of the spread and breadth of your market, and he may or may not be able to recognize a real bargain when it bites him, but he probably has a good idea of the general state of the market. You'll get the same idea pretty quickly by working with Martin, after you see fifteen or twenty properties that seem pretty much to run into one another - except for the ones that are drastically over-priced. You get the idea that working with Martin is not an effective use of your time, and soon, you stop, at which point Martin's out of the picture.
The third person you sign up with is Benny Bump. Benny's got his own unique way of making transactions happen. Actually, it's not at all unique. It's common enough to have a general slang term among Realtors. What Benny does is take you to three or four properties that look like war zones, comparatively speaking. These are not desirable properties on the scale you're using. They fall well short of desirable on one scale or another, and usually on several scales. Then, just as you are despairing of ever finding something you like, Benny Bumps you by showing you this absolutely gorgeous property in perfect condition. "Yes!" you happily cry, having quite predictably come to the conclusion that You Want This One, and you'll Do Whatever It Takes to get it. You may or may not notice right away that the price is way above the budget you stated to Benny, and he's counting on you not caring when he whispers that he knows how to get the loan, or knows someone who can. The vast majority of people who meet Benny will fall for "The Bump", and most of the ones who don't fall for it will not realize what a vicious, unethical trick it is. You, being that one in a hundred or so who is smart enough to realize what he has done, inform Benny that his services are no longer desired.
I have said it before, and I will say it again. You should demand to know the asking price of every single property before you agree to view it, and if the agent can not explain why that property might be obtained within the budget they agreed to work with, that is an offense not only worthy of firing them, but one for which financial prudence demands firing them. You can't fire someone who you've signed an exclusive agreement with except by waiting out the agreed upon period. You can fire someone whom you have signed a non-exclusive agreement at any time by Just. Not. Working. With. Them.
The fourth person you signed with is Rhonda Rebater. Rhonda is a discount agent sits in her office, and waits for you to bring her the property you like to her for negotiations. She'll usually also expect you to meet the appraiser, meet the inspector, etcetera, nor will she shop services for effective value. Quite often, Rhonda has her hand out to these people behind your back. Not necessarily for a lot of money in any one place, but her whole approach to the business is based upon volume. And she does quite a lot of volume, because people who think in terms of cash in their pocket (that rebate of some portion of the buyer's broker's commission that Rhonda gives them back) are her legitimate prey, and they flock to her in droves, like politicians to campaign contributions. If you're savvy enough in the business that the value provided by a good agent is negligible, why don't you get licensed and earn yourself the entire buyer's broker commission? Because Rhonda has little real market knowledge, she's a very weak negotiator on your behalf, and because her business model is predicated upon high volume, she's an awful guardian of your interests as the transaction goes along. So Rhonda may not be precisely out, but she's not likely to go out and find you a real value.
The fifth agreement you signed is with the team of Gary and Gladys Gladhand. Gary and Gladys get their business from social groupings. Gary has a bowling team and a softball team and he's a soccer coach and Gladys is PTA president and girl scout troop leader and organizer of the party circuit. And, of course, their ads are all over the place. "Mr. and Mrs. East Side" on the East Side and "Mr. and Ms. West Side" on the West. Together, their objective is to know enough people, and make certain all of these people know that they are Realtors, that they are always getting referrals from these folk because "of course" they'll use Gladys and Gary, and walk-ins from those stupid enough to believe their advertising. You may have come to them as Uncle Gary and Aunt Gladys, because normally Gary and Gladys don't allow non-exclusive agreements, and they will almost certainly balk at the no dual agency release, even from a relative. Their whole business approach is predicated upon not competing for your business, and locking out the competition so that they don't have to compete by making it a social obligation to do business with them. In point of fact, Gary and Gladys may be decent or good listing agents, but are extremely unlikely to be strong buyer's agents, because all of this schmoozing takes a lot of time that could more productively - from potential buyers' point of view - be spent obtaining market knowledge and finding bargains. Their approach is reasonable on the surface: You want a house and their listing wants to sell a house for too much money and they want to get paid both halves of that commission, so there just isn't any reason not to make everybody happy, is there? But a good buyer's agent is going to be the one that looks at every single property, whether they listed it themselves or not, with a cold, rational, logical mind and clear eyes for comparative value. I don't list many, but I rarely show one of my listings to one of my buyer's clients, because my listings are priced to the market and the situation. This means that while they're not over-priced, they're not the greatest bargains in the market, either. I only need to price low enough to attract people foolish enough to sign an exclusive agreement with one of these problem agents, not to attract a cold, steely-eyed buyer's specialist. Gary and Gladys are going to show you all of their own listings (except the ones that are obviously unsuitable) first, then, all of the listings with other agents in their office that might interest you, and then they are going to start acting an awful lot like Martin MLS: Throw enough mud at the wall, eventually some of it might stick. Are any of these tactics likely to generate a superior value from a buyer's point of view? Not on Planet Earth.
Now, you got really lucky, and beat the odds. Out of the seven you signed up with, you've actually got two agents that are going to do their job by going out and looking for the best values in your current market by actually looking at them and comparing them to each other, from the standpoint of your needs and your desires and your budget. The ratio of these agents in the real world is much lower than that. If you don't have at least a couple agents left on your list when you're done vetting, go out and find more. You can sign any number of non-exclusive agreements, at any time.
When these folks show you a property, they show it to you with context in mind. They're willing to say bad things about every property, not just the ones they don't want to sell you, even though they should only be showing you superior values. They're going to compare and contrast virtues and defects. Lest I be unclear, it is precisely for these virtues that you have been vetting your candidate agents. You can only see real evidence as to whether they are present or absent in action, not during the interview process. Knowing enough to sign a non-exclusive agreement gets you the ability to find the defects in the five agents who didn't do what you wanted, and you didn't need to commit yourself to any of them before you observe them under fire. Instead, you know enough to understand that there is no real need to commit to anyone until you make an offer.
Now, which one of these two agents gets paid? That depends upon which one of them does a better job of finding you the property you want. Best trade-off of those things you want in a property versus price. Of course, you won't be sure exactly what price you can get it for until you go through the negotiations. And it is possible that one of the others really does have something good, if not nearly so likely. In my experience, Martin MLS will eventually get the job done, if you have enough patience or he gets lucky. Rhonda Rebater will be there if you get frustrated enough to take matters into your own hands. And it is possible that Gary and Gladys Gladhand have something you like, but it is unlikely to be a superior value. Teresa Top-Producer and Benny Bump are deadly poison, as far as buyers are concerned, and once you discover this hidden attribute, you should give thanks that nothing you saw with them was attractive to you. But none of these others has gone out and physically looked at all those properties, which gives those two good buyer's agents you did find an unbeatable amount of market knowledge, which they can then turn around and use to your benefit in negotiations. When they can tell you what the bad points in a property are as compared to the other stuff, you have evidence that they can explain it to the agent on the other side of the transaction. Except for those owners who just won't listen to reason because they want their property to be worth more than it is and they are not going to entertain evidence to the contrary, this evidence is powerful stuff, and can make a huge difference on the price you end up paying, even on a property that is legitimately an above average value to start with.
I am considering buying a home, although I have not made up my mind on the subject. This is not due to indecision, but rather due to a lack of necessary information. There are many factors to be considered in my case, and in order for me to make an informed decision about buying, I need to solve for several variables involving cost.
My questions to you involve what steps I can take to solve those variables. Should I begin with a pre-qualification or loan approval? Will a lender invest time and resources in me when I have no specific property in mind, and I may ultimately decide to continue renting? Should I start by speaking with realtors in order to guage what is available in my price range? Will realtors invest time and resources in me when I have no loan arranged and I may ultimately decide to continue renting?
Also, what is the proper sequence of action for someone who is seeking to collect all the relevant information in order to make reasoned decisions about buying a home?
Well, a major question is whether you can trust real estate agents to answer the question honestly. Some will, most won't. If they tell you to buy, they make money. If they tell you to keep renting, they don't. One trusts that you see the potential for abuse.
The question here of "Should I Buy A Home" really separates into two basic questions: "How much home do I qualify for?" and "Is there a better alternative, financially?" You can then decide if buying or renting is the better alternative for you.
Qualifying yourself to buy a home, or to use better phrasing, figuring out how much home you should buy, is easier than most folks think. You can look in the classifieds section or on any number of internet sites to find out what the asking prices for properties like ones you might want to buy are in that neighborhood.
The personal information needed is easily available. First, you need to know how much you make per month, as you make mortgage payments monthly. Next, how much your mandatory payments are. Third, about what your credit score is.
Most people know how much they make per month. Now, "A paper" guidelines go between thirty-eight and forty-five percent of gross income for your total of all required monthly debt payments. Subprime lenders will go up to anywhere between fifty and sixty, with most limiting your debt to income ratio to fifty or fifty-five percent. I'd recommend staying within A paper guideline, but calculators are easy to use. So multiply your monthly income by thirty-eight percent, forty-five percent, fifty percent, and fifty five percent. This gives you a set of four numbers, which you may call anything, but I'm going to name A0, B0, C0, and D0. They correspond to what should by standard current loan guidelines be easy total debt service payments for most folks, moderate payments, difficult payments, and extreme payments.
Now most people have recurring debt of some sort. Credit card payments, car payments, furniture payments, etcetera. This does not include monthly bills that you are paying as you go. You know what your monthly obligations are. Whatever this number is, call it $X. Subtract $X from each of those four numbers above, so that you have the numbers that you really have available to spend on housing in each of these four scenarios. I'm going to call these numbers created by subtraction A1, B1, C1, and D1.
Now these numbers you have must cover all the recurring costs of owning a home. These include not only the principal and interest payments on the loan, but property taxes, homeowner's insurance, homeowner's association dues if applicable, Mello-Roos districts here in California, and anything else that may be applicable where you want to buy. Within the industry, the acronym most often used for this is the PITI payment, for Principal Interest Taxes Insurance, with the understanding that it includes anything else necessary as well. Association dues and Mello-Roos districts are a function of where you buy. Every condominium or coop is going to have Association dues or some equivalent. Mello-Roos districts are limited time property tax districts assessed to pay for things like municipal water and sewer service for new developments. Most newer developments here in California have them, and the equivalent districts are becoming more and more prevalent in newer developments elsewhere. Homeowner's Insurance is mandatory if you're going to have a loan - no lender is going to lend money on an uninsured property, but note that even the best homeowner's policy does not include flood or earthquake coverage, so if you're buying in an area where that is a consideration, the extra cost of a flood policy or earthquake policy is probably worth it. Condominium owners should have a master policy of homeowner's insurance paid for by their association dues, but it's still a good idea to have an individual policy for your unit, which is a standard policy form called an HO-6 policy here in California.
Property taxes are paid to city, county, state and possibly utility districts, but your county tax collector should be able to quote overall rates. There is no way to cover all the possibilities from here, but you can make an estimate, if nothing else by calling the county and asking. Note that they usually quote taxes in terms of a percentage tax value per year. Multiply assessed value by tax rate to get a per year tax bill, then divide by twelve to get a per month value. In California, there's a rule of thumb that property taxes per month are approximately one dollar per thousand dollars purchase price per month in most places (it will be more if there's been a bond issue approved or any number of other circumstances), so take the last three digits off the purchase price and that is usually close to your monthly tax liability. $250,000 purchase price? $250 per month. $500,000 purchase price? $500 per month.
By subtracting off all those figures, you get a range of monthly payments for the loan that you can actually afford. Call these A2, B2, C2, and D2. Armed with these and your credit score, you can figure out what kind of rate you might qualify for. Right now thirty year fixed rate A paper purchase money loans of no more than eighty percent of the value of the home can be had without points at something between 6.5 and 6.75 percent. Make allowances for a significantly higher rate for the last twenty percent if you don't have a down payment, and for the whole amount if your credit is below average, or if you cannot document income via w-2s or income reported to the IRS for the last couple of years. I will soon have an article here that might be helpful in gauging how much of a loan you'll qualify for. You can usually get significantly lower rates by being willing to accept a hybrid ARM as ooposed to a thirty year fixed rate loan (I've been doing it for fifteen years), but right now with the yield curve the way it is, the difference is marginal.
Knowing the payment you can afford, the interest rate, and the term of the loan, you can calculate how much of a loan you can afford. Knowing any three of principal, interest rate, payment, and term, a loan calculator can tell you the fourth. Do this with your four values, A2, B2, C2, D2, and you get four potential loan principal amounts, A3, B3, C3, and D3. These correspond to loan amounts where the payment should be easy, moderate, hard but doable, and a real stretch. To this, add any money you have available for a down payment, and subtract projected purchase costs (maybe $1000 plus 1 percent of home value). This gives you four values A4, B4, C4, and D4. These correspond to the purchase price of the homes you can afford under those four prospective loan amounts. You can then compare these amounts with what is available, and at what price, in those areas you might wish to buy.
Continued in Part 2: Process.
Finished in Part 3: Consequences
There are actually several different kinds of listing agreements. They get their names from the rights conferred when you sign the contract. The vast majority of agreements concluded are either Exclusive Right to Sell or Exclusive Agency.
Exclusive Right To Sell means that no matter who buys the property, that agent will get the listing commission. There is an intelligent reason why most listings are Exclusive Right to Sell: If I can spend all that money and time doing the work to sell your property, and then you can not pay me for it, well, let's just say I'm not going to be so enthusiastic about spending that money and that time if the prospective buyer can then go straight to the seller and I get nothing for my efforts. Some agents won't accept other kinds of listings. Other agents will only do so on a flat, up front fee basis, as opposed to deferring their fee unless and until the property actually sells. If you want a good agent to devote their full energy to selling your property, this is the kind of listing contract for you. If there is one particular person you think might buy direct from you, the owner, that can be handled via an Exclusive Right with Exception, which designates one of more persons who are exceptions to having to pay the agent, but even that is a marginal idea. Yes, it might save you a commission. But it will definitely create some doubt in the agent's mind, and less willingness to spend what they might really need to in order to get a sale made. Better to get a solid yes - or no - from that person who is an exception ahead of time. If they really want the property, they won't have any problem committing saying they want it when you ask them. And you can't sell to more than one person, right? So you shouldn't be wondering about somebody you found when you contact an agent. And before you condemn agents for acting like this, ask yourself how hard you would work at your job in order to maybe get paid, or maybe not.
Exclusive Agency means that you won't pay agent commission if you sell it yourself, but you will pay if they, or some other agent, brings you the buyer. Any agent with a buyer is presumed to have been procured through the listing agent's marketing efforts. Nonetheless, this does allow for random people to knock on your door and buy the property direct from you - despite the fact that the listing agent's efforts were what alerted them to the existence of the property. Since most agents have been burned on this one or know someone who has, few agents want to accept this style of agency without requiring you to at least pay for their efforts, and they are mostly not the top-notch ones. But if you really want to exercise the escape clause in having to pay the agent, count on being on your own through the negotiations and escrow process. A very large proportion of prospective buyers who will go around your agent to negotiate with you directly are sharks, unqualified buyers unable to buy, or possess some other characteristic that's going to cost you a large amount of money, time and frustration.
Limited Service listings are popular with discounters, but they typically do not work on the basis of commission delayed and contingent upon a successful sale. They want their money up front. Cash, check, or, sometimes, charge. Furthermore, the reason they are called limited service listings is because they are not fulfilling all of the services that real estate agents are normally expected to fulfill, and their responsibility to you is also much lower. Might be a good thing to do if you're a former real estate agent who knows how to do it, but the average client doesn't know how much they don't know. The pitch is "save money!" but that's not how it usually works out. When the agent on the other side is a discounter, a good buyer's agent knows that their client is going to end up very happy. The same thing applies when a good listing agent gets someone represented by a commission rebate buyer's agent. One more thing I should mention: A lot of both types make their living by shifting their work onto the full service agent that they presume is going to be on the other side of the transaction. What happens if there is no such full service agent - in other words, if the other side is using a limited service discounter also? The work needs to get done, and neither agent is going to do it. You're going to do it yourself or pay a lawyer - and paying a lawyer to avoid paying a real estate agent full commission is like spending a dollar to save a part of a dime.
Open Listings are listings where there is no single agent that has a right to get paid. Of course, no one has the responsibility to act on the owner's behalf, either. Not to market the property, not to make certain you get the best deal possible, and not to represent your best interests in other ways. Therefore, most agents and discount listing services usually want a flat fee in advance for open listings. It may be small or relatively small, but it's cash upfront. There may or may not be a listed payment to buyer's agents in open listings, and therein lies the horns of a dilemma. You don't list a buyer's agent commission and buyer's agents avoid you because there is nothing in it for all of their hard work. You list a low one, and they're still going to take their buyers elsewhere. You list a good one, and they'll bring their buyers all right - while working on their buyer's behalf to get them a better deal. Kind of like an arms race, except it's not life or freedom at stake, only money. Still, you just invited a bigger, better equipped army than yours into the fight, on the other side.
Probate is a special purpose listing when the property is being controlled by the estate of someone who died. Probate listings almost always go to full service agents because the probate judges are looking to get the best deal possible. There are often debts and there are almost always tax bills, and there are always heirs looking to get the most money possible. Probate is a real pain to deal with, and it takes forever, because the courts are involved. Nor are they necessarily great deals. For most local probates as of this writing, the court or the heirs have set a minimum bid that's more than the property is worth, because they evaluated the property on the basis of the prices when the owner shuffled off the mortal coil. However, with declining values, they're only hurting themselves. There's one not too far from my office where I had a client it would have been perfect for - except that the minimum bid is at least $40,000 more than the property was worth on the market back then. It had been on the market for a good long while before I found it, and it's still on the market today, more than six months later. If they'd priced it $20,000 lower, it probably would have sold within a month of going on the market. By the time I found it, prices were diverging by $40,000. Now, it's more than that.
There you have them, the major types of listing agreements, their major advantages and drawbacks.
I had made a request to repair that included $3700 credit for closing costs. I wanted to get things done like safety issues and more critical maintenance issues done. Our estimate said that it would be about $4900 to do all the maintenance we were looking for. The seller was doing a bit, but not all.
The seller apparently balked at giving us any credit. He felt they conceded all they could. Anyway, my agent convinced them to at least counter. I was a bit angry at the initial balk. (the emotion part of the deal). After the initial anger, I went looking for problems and found one that frightened me. My agent had given me the inspection report from the seller's purchase of the home six years ago. There were things on there that were still a problem two years later. Primarily, high water pressure in the house (with the dire warnings of damage to pipes and fixtures as the potential side affect). Secondly, ants. The report six years ago had mentioned ants. Every time I looked at the house, (we visited it 5 times), I always saw ants not many usually only 1 sometimes 2. So, my residual anger ballooned these concerns way up. My ignorance was on the pipes. I have since talked to one plumber and an extended family member who is a retired contractor, home builder and home inspector. It was his comments that alleviated my fears about the pipes and allowed me to calm down a bit. He basically said, "Wow, six years of a pressure test - and it passed. Great! We usually only do two hours." He also said, get a regulator on it, but you shouldn't have a problem.
So, emotions, ignorance and too much time to think - nearly killed the deal.
Sometimes, people get all worked up over the little stuff.
On the other hand, sometimes people don't get worked up when they should. This person wasn't clear, but I'd get upset if my agent tried to placate me with a six year old inspection. If it's just compare and contrast with a brand new inspection, fine. But if someone else paid that inspector, they may not have any responsibility to you, and you want them to be responsible to you. I wouldn't accept the inspection that the previous prospective buyer had done. Sometimes, agents trying to make sure a transaction goes through will try to give you an existing inspection, because they know what problems that will show. This is always the hallmark of a commission grabber, and you should fire them. Then start looking for something else.
An inspection around here will almost always reveal some defect which wasn't dealt with in the first round of negotiations that resulted in the purchase contract. Usually, they're dinky little stuff. Replace one light bulb, brace the water heater, maybe replace the garbage disposal. Sometimes, however, it is major work: rotting substructure to the roof, foundation damage, etcetera.
It does not matter if it is major or minor. It needs to be fixed. The way I usually explain minor stuff to sellers is, "You don't want to lose a $500,000 sale over $30 in repair work, do you?" It does sound rather silly, doesn't it?
If it's major, it still needs to be fixed. Here's a new defect in your property that causes it to be worth less than the agreed upon price. You can often get the buyer to accept the property for a lesser price - estimated cost of repairs plus an allowance for them being the person who has to deal with it. You're not getting out of major repairs on the cheap unless the buyer's agent hoses their clients. I want a reliable contractor out there to give my buyers an estimate for major repairs, and you'll find that's about par for the course. As the seller, you can have your choice between fixing it, giving them an allowance that makes your buyer happy, or losing the transaction.
Lest you think, "I'll just forget about that prospective buyer," even in seller's markets the next one that comes along is likely to find exactly the same set of defects and want exactly the same set of repairs, which is going to cost - you guessed it - pretty much the same amount of money. The only differences are one, in the meantime, you've spent some money on your mortgage, taxes, etcetera, and two, the earlier offer is usually the better one. In other words, same situation, but you're out more money.
Somebody's going to ask about "as is" sales. They really don't make much difference to this fact. I'm not going to let a buyer put in an offer on an "as is" property without an inspection contingency. The inspection shows something major that we didn't already know about, the choice is going to be give us an allowance, fix the problem, or lose the transaction. It's only an actual "as is" sale if the inspection doesn't reveal anything new and major. Matter of fact, selling "as is" is a red flag that tells me the seller probably knows about something major, unless it's a lender-owned property. If it is lender owned, "as is" and "without warranty" are the ways that business is done. Otherwise, it really doesn't mean a lot beyond that you are indicating that you would rather give an allowance than pay for repairs.
For buyers, you don't need to freak out about every last little thing. If you're getting a screaming deal, the fact that you need to put a handrail up in the stairway at a cost of a couple hundred bucks shouldn't cause you to pull out of the deal. If the owner doesn't want to make repairs, be willing to accept the cost plus something reasonable to represent your time and the decreased utility in the meantime. Don't demand triple the cost of major repairs unless you really are going to have to spend that much sitting in hotels and eating out until the work is done.
A reliable contractor is your best friend in subsequent negotiations. First off, it should tell you what it really is going to cost. If they've said that it's going to cost $7500 to fix, that's better information than any agent or inspector can give you. This does wonders for peace of mind, knowing that it's going to be $7500 to fix the problem after you're in title, not $75,000.
An allowance for construction work from the seller can be a great opportunity if you've got some cash left in your pocket after the sale. For example, if you're going to have to replace the green board in the bathroom anyway, it doesn't cost that much more to add some nice updates and upgrades. An extra $500 for better materials can really go a long way. When you go to sell, more money in your pocket. In the meantime, a much nicer bathroom. Even more to the point, one much more aligned with your personal tastes.
Every negotiation after the initial purchase contract is at least as dependent upon the good will of both parties as the initial purchase contract. If one party or the other thinks they got the worst of the initial negotiations, you can expect that to be reflected in how far they are willing to go for you when the inspection reveals defects. You want the person on the other side of the transaction to be thinking they get a decent bargain, one that they would make again. That way, they won't want to blow it off before it happens, by being unreasonable about the repair negotiations. Yes, this is one more reason that you want a buyer's agent to help with negotiations.
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