Beginner's Information: July 2007 Archives

Changing the Contract

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What is the reasonable amount of notice to give when changing contract terms in California

That was a search I got. Unfortunately for this person, a real estate contract is not something like Lando Calrissian's bargain with the Empire, where Darth Vader was free to alter it at will.

The real estate contract is negotiated until both sides are in complete agreement as to the terms the exchange will be made upon. There cannot be any differences in the terms of the proposed agreement and accepted agreement, or you aren't done negotiating yet.

Once accepted by both parties, the contract terms are not unilaterally alterable by either party. They can, in most cases, walk away from the deal completely if something isn't right, but they can't say, "The deal is still on, but you're paying me $5000 more than you thought," any more than they can tell you, "And I get your car, too!"

Now, if something pops up such that you don't think it's a good exchange to be making any more, in most cases you can walk away from it, albeit with possible consequences for the deposit. In such cases, if the other party wants to keep the deal going, they can offer concessions, but you cannot force them to change the terms of the contract. The same thing holds true in reverse. They can't force you to alter the terms of the contract, but if they're ready to walk away and you want to keep them in the contract, you can offer concessions or ask what it would take to keep the transaction going. If you don't like what they say, you don't have to accept those terms, any more than they had to accept the contract in the first place.

In short, contracts to purchase real estate are two-sided contracts, and are not alterable by any party to it without the agreement of all parties.

Caveat Emptor.

A search I just noticed asked the question "Who gets the deposit if escrow falls through?"



The theory of the deposit is that here is an amount of cash that the buyer is putting up as evidence of their ability to consummate the transaction.



This is a good question. I've only dealt with real estate sales in California, so I'm going to deal with it from a California perspective. California is a widespread model for real estate practices (as New York is for insurance), but I can't speak to the specifics which states are and aren't following this model and to what degree.



Most of what happens in real estate sales contracts has a default, but is subject to specific negotiation. In other words, there's a standard way of doing it, but you can change that by negotiation with the other party. CAR has a specific set of forms that are encouraged, in order to make these questions somewhat more clear cut.



The standard here in California is that the purchase is contingent for seventeen calendar days, after which the buyer's deposit will belong to the seller whether escrow closes or not. From the time the contract is accepted by both sides, the buyer has seventeen days to finish all inspections, and to obtain a commitment for acceptable financing. If they call it off within those seventeen days, they get the deposit back. If the purchase falls through later than the seventeen days, the seller is usually entitled to the deposit, within limits. The seller can't just arbitrarily cancel the transaction on the eighteenth day and keep the deposit. The time specified in the purchase contract has to have expired, there must be evidence of bad faith dealing on the buyer's behalf - something.



Let me make very clear that the seller is indeed giving the buyer something when the purchase contract is signed. To be precise, the exclusive right to purchase that property for a certain amount of time. There are expenses of selling that they must pay and that they don't get back if you can't carry through, not to mention expenses related to preparing to move, at least potentially having the house sit vacant, etcetera. They cannot conclude a purchase contract with anyone else while the current buyer's contract is going on. If I'm selling, I insist upon retaining the deposit if the buyer can't carry though. If I were to be unable to consummate a purchase, I certainly understand that the seller will retain the deposit in most circumstances.



Now the escrow company won't just give the deposit to the seller. They are paid to be a neutral third party, to stand in the middle and make sure that everybody gets what everybody agreed upon, but it is not their place to settle a dispute. For that, you're going to have to go through whatever dispute resolution process is appropriate. This can be mediation, arbitration, the courts, or possibly something else. You can spend a lot of money fighting what the contract says, but in the end you can also expect to have to live up to it, and likely to pay the other party's costs as well as your own, so better not to fight something the contract says you should have done. The escrow company will often also charge a cancellation fee from out of the deposit, by the way. They do an awful lot of work, and if the transaction gets canceled for whatever reason, they do not otherwise get paid.



Probably the number one reason for failed escrow is loan providers leading borrowers down the primrose path. "I can do that," and no, they can't. Unfortunately, I've never seen anyone able to recover damages from a failed loan provider. So keep in mind the The Best Idea About Applying for a Mortgage, and apply for a back-up loan.



Now you can change the standard contract by specific negotiation. If you're a seller who wants to get the deposit no matter what on day 30, you can ask for that as a condition of the initial sales contract. In a hot market, this is easy to ask for and get, but in a buyer's market, you are likely to lose the buyer. If you're a buyer who doesn't want to lose the deposit no matter what, you can ask to put that into the contract you propose, but most sellers, even in a buyer's market, are going to tell you to take a hike somewhere else. No big deal if it was "Hey, let's make a bid on this and see how desperate they are!" A real problem if you fell in love with the property and just have to have it. Over-playing your hand in negotiations is as disastrous as under-playing, and I've seen people so intent on being Mr. (usually) Tough Negotiator that they diddled themselves out of an excellent transaction. In any case, being too sticky on the deposit is a good way not to get as good of a price as you otherwise might have. For a seller, you have this property and you want cash. You need somebody to agree to pay it - the cash is not going to materialize out of thin air. For a buyer, the whole idea is that this property is attractive to you for some reason, or you would not be making an offer. You are asking the seller to trust thousands of dollars to your ability to swing the deal as much as you are trusting their ability to deliver a clear title to a property without hidden defects.



Whether you are a buyer or a seller, once that contract is signed, you want to get cracking on whatever your obligations under it are. Get it Done. The alternative is that you're likely to forfeit whatever rights to the deposit you may have had if you had been prompt. Just because Things Take Time in Real Estate Transactions is no excuse for you to waste time. Wasting time is expensive for everyone, and one of the strongest signs of a sour transaction I know. Buyers and borrowers pay increased loan and other costs, sellers lose money from delay. This is equally true in refinancing, by the way. The loan you are quoted today does not exist tomorrow unless you act on it today. In summer 2003, when rates hit fifty year lows, many people were in no hurry. They insisted upon thinking, in the face of evidence and testimony to the contrary, that the rates would always be there, and they lost out. If rates go down after locking, a good broker can usually get you better rates. If they go up, you've got the lock. If rates go up and you didn't lock, you get the higher rates. Period.



But the deposit is definitely something that the buyer can owe the seller if the transaction falls through, and that's as it should be.



Caveat Emptor.

Not too long ago I got an email from an ex-prospect who decided to buy a developer's property without a buyer's agent. They persuaded her that she would get a better deal without them having to pay a buyer's agent commission. They then proceeded to hose her. She wanted to know if there was anything I could do. The only answer I could honestly give was basically, "Sorry! The transaction is already done!" This is the way that developers like it. Once the transaction is complete, the damage is done. You own the property, and you owe the money. The only recourse is through the courts, which takes years as well as lots more money - and that's if you win.



Many folks want a brand new house for one or both of two reasons. First off, there's that new house feeling. Secondly, they don't have to deal with a real estate agent, or so they think.



This is mistaken. The agents who work for developers are very pleasant, very professional sharks. They're not allowed to actually lie, but other than that, they have no significant responsibility to the buyers. Their responsibility is to get the most money on the quickest sale, period. If you let slip the wrong thing that leads them to believe you'll be a difficult transaction, you can be torpedoed before you even start. They're not there to tell you the bad things about a property, or that there's a better deal two blocks over. They have a responsibility to get the property sold. Period. The developers hire them from among the very sharpest, most ruthless agents there are.



Indeed, developers usually have higher hurdles for buyer's agents to jump over than any other seller can get away with. Buyer's Agents must accompany the client upon their first visit, and register them in writing. Seems minor, but anyone else who tried this would be dead in the water as far as getting agents to show their property, but developers will do both of these and more. With anyone else, when an offer comes in through an agent, that's enough. During the seller's market, many developers were refusing to pay commissions to any buyer's agents at all. This left potential buyers to pay their buyer's agents themselves or do without. The feeling on the part of developers was that buyer's agents spoil their party, so since they didn't have to deal with them, they weren't going to. The demand was there to sell the developments out whether they were willing to deal with buyer's agents or not - and if they didn't deal with buyer's agents, they would have things more their own way.



This has changed now. Every last buyer is precious, so developers are grudgingly working with buyer's agents. I went to a development with a client a few days ago, and the developer's agent had no difficulty conveying the same sentiments as that classic San Diego bumper sticker, "Tourists go home - but leave your dollars and daughters." They wanted my clients - but they didn't want me. Some of it traces to the fact that they want the whole sales commission, some of it to the fact that clients with a buyer's agent working on their behalf have a stronger proponent and negotiate better bargains, meaning lower bonuses and less in commission.



Indeed, a buyer's agent is a fairly unique position in sales. A buyer's agent's responsibility is to get you the best bargain possible - lowest price for the best property. Since commission is based upon sales price, this is the only job I'm aware of that gets less money the better they do their job. The idea, of course, is the better they do their job, the more people will want you to do it for them. You may not make as much per transaction, but if you do more transactions than you would, you come out ahead.



Some agents try to leverage this by rebating a percentage of the commission they would get. After all, it doesn't take a lot of time to fill out an offer. However, it does take a lot of time to shop effectively for a given client. I'm making offers now for a client I've been working with for two months. I've probably spent in excess of a hundred hours looking at properties just for them, never mind researching the properties before I left, or all of the things that contribute to general market expertise. They looked at a few on their own - and stopped, because they were seeing better values with fewer issues through me. A good agent knows what else is available on the market - but the agent who sits there with a license and a fax machine has no clue. There's nothing ethically wrong with agents getting paid for sitting by a fax machine. I'm perfectly willing to rebate part of the buyer's agent commission if someone doesn't want me to scout and evaluate properties. If, however, you want someone who's able to recognize what is and is not value, and who is going to be a strong negotiator on your behalf, thereby getting you a better property at a better price, you need someone who gets out of the office and looks at property. Agents can't get that kind of expertise sitting in the office. And if your only qualifications are a real estate license and a fax machine, why are you making more than ten dollars per hour? What benefit does that have for the public? I visited a new development on behalf of some clients last week. They had one left, in which I spotted a foundation crack literally from side to side of the structure. I checked the area again today, because we're still looking, and that property has gone Pending. I'm not a licensed inspector or contractor, but if someone can spot this before the sellers have your deposit, it can really save your bacon. If I were a discounter, that would have been my clients, because they loved the property.



People in the financial press like to complain about real estate commissions being too large. But they are not as large as they are by some accident of nature. People didn't just decide to pay five, six, or seven percent of the sales price because someone told them to. Sellers do it because experience has taught them that they end up with more money in their pockets because of their listing agent's expertise. It's not a large jump from there to understanding that if the seller has someone whose expertise for one transaction is worth that kind of money, it's a real good idea to have someone on your side who knows just as much, not only about real estate in general, but your market in particular. Various businesses have been trying to offer real estate brokerage services at discounted rates since at least the mid 1970s from my personal knowledge. Traditional sales models have lost a little bit of market share, but they're still going strong. There are reasons for this. Reasons like how long it really does take to get a property sold, like how much work it really does take to know the market. Reasons like there is no way to evaluate the relative value of the property except by looking at lots and lots of properties. Reasons like the paperwork that has to get done, and the legal liabilities involved if something goes wrong, or the buyer isn't happy, or any of hundreds of other reasons. Not to mention all of the transactions that stop before consummation. Real Estate is the only occupation I'm aware of that anything like the work we routinely do, and doesn't get paid at all if the sale doesn't happen. When discounters work for less pay, the only thing that can give in this whole process is the services they provide.



Developers know all of this very well. They are not charities. They are out to make the largest profit possible. They don't hire discount agents. They hire the best agents they can get, and support them with large advertising budgets, because that gets the properties sold, and for enough more money to more than pay the costs of what they spend. These agents act very friendly, very charming and disarming, and completely ruthless. Developers' strategy of discouraging buyer's agents from being involved is part and parcel of ending up with more money in their own pockets. The only place for the money in their pockets to come from is the pockets of the people who buy from them. If you want to deal with a developer, you want someone on your side who knows enough about real estate and your market to stand up to the experts on the other side.



Caveat Emptor


Hi Dan,
I am a first time home buyer and a big fan of the advice on your blog. I was wondering if you could offer some advice on my current situation. I apologize for sending you this question but I've had many sleepless nights over this and I really respect your opinion.

I've narrowed my search down to two properties, one is a condo in DELETED (where I work) and the other is a new home in DELETED (closer commute for fiance). As a first time buyer I'm looking to stay in this place 5-7 years and then if possible rent it out as an investment.

The new home builder has a 2-1 buy down plan so the rates on a $519,000 5/1 arm would be Year 1: 3.75%, Year 2: 4.75%, Year 3-5: 5.75% on the first mortgage and 9.375 on the 2nd (which I would try to refinance right away).

The condo is $335,000 (a similar model sold on 5/07 for 400,000) and the rates are 7% on the 1st and 8% on the 2nd. Both loans are with 100% financing.

I really like the house but don't wanted to be lured into a larger loan if it might come back to bite me. I would go for the condo if it would be a better investment in the long run but would be sad without a yard. I my income is 94,000 a year and I have good credit, my fiance will also be contributing to the monthly payments.

Thank you for reading my lengthy email, I'd really appreciate your help!

If you really respect my opinion, why haven't you contacted me to act as your buyer's agent and/or loan officer? You are local enough.

I am not going to pass judgment on either property and its worthiness as an investment, its comparative value, etcetera. Those are buyer's agent questions. The real question I can deal with here is numbers: What can you afford? If you can afford both, is the more expensive property worth more money to you?

You make $94,000 per year, which equates to $7833 per month. At a fifty percent debt to income ratio, that is total monthly housing and debt service, you can afford $3916. That's got to cover first, second, taxes, insurance, Mello-Roos and HOA, etcetera, as well as your existing debt. A paper fixed rate firsts allow basically 45 percent, while A paper hybrid ARMs are usually lower, and compute based upon the fully indexed payment, not that low initial payment. Matter of fact, what they're trying to sell you on looks like a Temporary Rate Buydown, so they can sell you the property based upon a low initial payment.

Let's look at these two situations.

On a $335,000 condo, that's a first of $268,000 at 7% and a payment of $1783. On the second, that's a $67,000 second at 8%, which is a payment of $492. At 1.25% (standard California rate) your property taxes would be $349 per month. Insurance is not required for condominiums even though it's both cheap and a really good idea, so it doesn't impact debt to income ratio. On the other hand, there will be HOA dues, and may be other monthly expenses such as Mello-Roos. As long as these, plus your other debts do not exceed your remaining $1292, you're likely to be able to afford it. Add in 75% of whatever your fiance will sign a lease for, as standard allowance for rent, in addition to the $1292. Bottom line, based upon the information provided, it looks likely that you can afford that condo.

On a $519,000 property, that's a first of $415,200 and a second of $103,800. The second gives a straightforward payment of $863. The first has an initial payment of $1923, but that's not the real payment. The real payment is $2423 - $500 more. Nor is this the qualifying payment that an A paper lender will use, which is computed based upon what would happen if that loan hit the end of the five year initial fixed period today. That rate would be 7.125, or a payment of $2797. Yes, I like 5/1 ARMs, but they are perversely harder to qualify for than fixed rate loans. I get that basic California property taxes would be $541, I'm guessing insurance would be about $100. Total is $4301, and we haven't considered Mello-Roos, HOA (if any), or your existing debt. On the plus side, we haven't considered your fiance's contribution, either, but it's not looking good as you're nearly $400 over your monthly total payment limit already, and that's without considering possibly lowered debt to income ratio guidelines.

Now, let me point out a couple of tricks going on here: That temporary buydown isn't free, or even cheap. Nor is 5.75 available on a 5/1 without points right now, from any lender I'm aware of. This developer is not going to do your loan for free just to unload the property, and they used the temporary buydown to make it look like the payment is lower. They came close to hooking themselves a sucker fish, too, from your email. The money to do all of this is coming from somewhere, and the only candidate I'm seeing is the pockets of the buyers. It's almost certainly a waste of money as well as defeating the purpose of a hybrid ARM to pay points and temporary buydowns - and paying them you would be. If not explicitly, through being able to negotiate a lower price on the property without the developer paying for all of that. Which would you rather have: slightly lower payments for a while, or a lowered amount of debt in the first place? They pad the price, so they get more money right away, while paying out a part of it to make the payments look lower for a while. If you offer someone a dollar for thirty cents, most of them will take you up on as many dollars as you have, then turn right around and hand you back a portion of the money you just handed them. When you reduce it to the basic mechanics, that's what is apparently happening here. Of course, the average consumer is clueless about this - all they understand is that they're getting a beautiful property that they didn't think they could afford for an initial payment they're happy with. Well, they really can't afford it, but someone who knows a critical bit more of how the game is played persuaded them they could.

All of this is one more argument why everybody should get a good buyer's agent. If you don't have one, especially in dealing with developers and their lenders, nobody has a fiduciary responsibility to you. That and shopping your loan extensively are the best ways to avoid rude awakenings expensive enough to jeopardize your entire future that there are. In fifteen minutes with a calculator, I may have just saved your financial future. The other side has people whose job it is to get that property sold for the most possible money and make money with that loan, too. They're paid to act like your friend while picking your pocket. If you really want to play that game without someone on your side who knows the same tricks they do, you're a foolhardier braver man than I am, Gunga Din.

Caveat Emptor

On a very regular basis, pretty much every buyer's agent who's worth anything gets clients who have difficulty making a decision. Not too long ago, I found a solid property with great potential that nonetheless needed about $20,000 of cosmetic work. In short, right now it was ugly and unappealing, but it had a WOW! view and it was priced $100,000 below a model match a few doors down. They looked at the property five times over the course of a month, and just as I finally had them willing to make an offer, somebody else put in an offer that was accepted.



Immediately, the property went from something they were reluctantly willing to consider living in to something they had to have, but at that point it was too late. The owners were already under contract. Unless the transaction fell apart - and it didn't - there was nothing anyone could do. Real estate needs one willing seller and one willing buyer. If someone else gets there first, you don't get the property. The seller's side has its own version - whomever competes the best for a given buyer wins. There are no prizes for second place.



There is no such thing as a perfect property. Unless you have an unlimited budget - and no one has an unlimited budget - there are always trade-offs. Trade-offs in the form of location, or amenities, or most obviously, price. You've probably heard trite little sayings like "paralysis through analysis" and the pithy "you snooze, you lose." They're trite because they're true. You must be willing to act when things aren't perfect in order to get any benefit. If you aren't willing to act in a timely fashion, you get nothing. The better the situation, the more risk there is of someone jumping in before you. Yes, sometimes this means you're at risk of being conned. There is no way to completely eliminate that risk. If you're only willing to jump into the perfect situation when all risk has been eliminated, you are wasting your time. Somebody else is going to jump first. The only way you're even going to buy - or sell - anything in those circumstances is if you're the victim of a scam. Reward is necessarily coupled with willingness to work and to accept risk.



This isn't just my clients. Seems like every time I've taken something "Pending", the listing agent gets calls from people who are suddenly interested. I finished a transaction back in April where one suddenly interested buyer called the listing agent literally every day while it was in escrow. He was wasting his time. Once it's in escrow, you're too late. Unless it falls out, something that's not under your control, that property is committed to someone else. But it seems like the mere fact that someone wants it brings prospective buyers out of the woodwork, now that they can't have it. Kind of like sibling rivalry, only even more pointless.



I've dealt with several families over the last few months who want to buy, but are convinced the market is heading down further. Fear and Greed is keeping them on the sidelines while the ratio of sellers to buyers has dropped from 42 at this same point last year to 34 last week. This ratio is the best measure of supply to demand ratio there is, and the most important indicator of the direction of the market. I did think we might see a stronger turn this year, but it looks like we're about where we're going to be until the Christmas season. Even during the most gonzo seller's market we've ever had, this ratio was about 4:1, and anything under about 12 or 15 to 1 indicates a seller's market. Furthermore, people who want to buy is building linearly with time, while the ranks of people who need to sell has already seen the strongest influx it's going to have. The main change that's coming up is properties switching from short sales pre-foreclosure to lender-owned post foreclosure. On the buyers' side, everybody is crowding around, trying to get someone else to be the test penguin (1). On the seller's side, there is only so much desperation out there. Eventually, the buyers who are trying to get someone else to be the test penguin are going to realize that the people buying now are not getting eaten - in fact, just about the furthest thing from it - and they will jump in, en masse. My best estimate at this point for when the big jump is going to happen is next spring. If you're still sitting on the shore when that happens, all the best food - by which I mean best bargains - will be gone, and the market will have turned.



All real estate is only "good while supplies last." For sellers, this includes supplies of willing buyers. Since there is rarely more than one of property in a group, bargains only last until one person pulls the trigger. The easier the bargain to spot, the shorter the period to act. Even the hardest one to spot does not have an indefinite shelf life. Real estate is not like war, where if you don't attack the enemy, the enemy will attack you. So a bad plan now doesn't trump a perfect plan two weeks from now. But a good plan, acted upon in a timely fashion beats a perfect plan that waits just a little too long.



Caveat Emptor







(1) Penguins don't jump into the water immediately. Instead, they crowd around the entrance to the water, and avoid being the first in, due to the possible presence of predators. However, eventually one penguin gets pushed in by the others. If he doesn't get eaten, the other penguins quickly follow. It is to be noted that those positioned to respond quickly, and hence most likely to be shoved in as "test penguins" also have the best shot at whatever food may be present.


My husband and I are currently in escrow with the sale of our home in California. Our buyers have been " difficult" to say the least. The buyers appraisal of our property came in $6,000 below the selling price which won't make a difference to their lender because the buyers are putting
50% down. Of course, they started threatening us saying, "you need to issue us a $6,000 credit since the appraisal came back $6,000 below our agreed upon price." We paid for a second appraisal through a company that was lender approved. The second appraisal came back $3,000 above the purchase price. We have 2 questions:

Is their lender required to accept or at least consider this second appraisal or can they simply disregard it?

If the buyers try to use the appraisal clause against us to get out of the deal, can we keep their earnest money since we have a documented appraisal showing a value of $3,000 above the agreed upon price on the contract?

Thank you for your insight and expertise.

There are three things to consider here: The contract, potential scams, and what's really important.

The standard purchase contract has two clauses directly relating to this question. The first is the loan contingency, the second is the appraisal contingency. The first isn't really a factor in your case, but it often is, as a failure to appraise can torpedo the loan if the down payment isn't very much. If these buyers needed 100% financing, that would be a dead contract as it's written because the lender isn't going to finance over 100% of the appraised value. The second, more relevant clause in your case is the appraisal contingency. It states that the transaction, as negotiated, is contingent upon the property appraising for the official purchase price. There's an argument to be made that your appraisal is enough to cancel that contingency, but in practice, appraisals can be had for inflated amounts quite easily. If the seller being able to obtain an appraisal for the sale price was the relevant condition, I'm not sure there would ever be a property that would fail to appraise again. Spend $400 for your own appraisal and keep a $5000 deposit. Nice work if you can get it. Acting as a buyer's agent, I would never accept a seller's appraisal under any circumstances. This may be news to all of those who put "Appraised for $X!" in the listing, but there are too many ways to get an inflated appraisal. Point of fact, it's usually someone trying to justify a higher asking price than the market will support. It's never a reason for me to consider a property, and can be a reason why I shouldn't.

To be fair, buyers can get low appraisals too, which leads us into the second subject: potential scams. You're in California. There just aren't many properties I'm aware of in California where $9000 difference is a major percentage of the selling price. If you were somewhere where the average house sells for $40,000, this would be cause for concern. Flipping for an extra 22 percent profit! But when the average property sells for $400,000, it's just too small an amount to be worth scamming someone over. Not that it's an amount to be sneezed at, or impossible, but I just can't see someone running a scam for only 2.25% of the sales price. If this was a scam, I'd expect $30,000 or more in difference. This is too small a difference to be a likely scam in the real world.

Speaking of the real world, what's really important is your market. How many sellers per buyer, how long properties like yours are sitting in your area, what they're selling for when they do sell. Note that I didn't say what the asking price is. Any twit can put an asking price that's 20% too high on a property, and quite a few do - it's a great way to get listings from owners who don't know any better. It's called "buying a listing." The important data have to do with actual sales. Not pending sales, not the pipe dreams of "For Sale By Owner" properties, not what the model match next door is asking, but what they are actually selling for. Coin of the realm passing out of the buyer's hands. A willing buyer is a necessary component of every sale, just as a willing seller is. If you just want to list your property, you don't care about a willing buyer. If you actually want to sell, you need one.

The good news is that you appear to have one. The bad news is that they don't want to pay the amount on the contract any longer. Well, buyer's remorse strikes a lot of folks, but the stronger their buyer's agent, the more they're going to get that out of their system before they make an offer. On the flip side of that is that the stronger the buyer's agent, the more focused they are on value.

Against this situation, you've got to ask how likely it is you're going to find a better buyer soon enough such that you net more money off the sale. If the property is vacant and your carrying costs are $3500 per month, this buyer now will still net you more money than a different buyer who pays the amount on your appraisal three months from now. I only know the San Diego market, and if you're here, why am I not involved in the transaction? But no matter which way you decide, you're taking a risk. Some people will just take the money and run because they're unlikely to have their face rubbed in the fact that they were wrong - the property is sold and future offers are a waste of everyone's time - but that's a putrid way to make a multi-thousand dollar decision. Actually, it's not just a multi-thousand dollar decision. It's potentially the full value of the property and your credit rating as well for years if you default. If you've had a Notice of Default recorded on the property or something worse, they're being a lot nicer than some folks to only mess with you for $9000.

My point is this: There are potential upsides and downsides to every possible decision you can make in this situation. Can I tell you which way to jump? Not without more information. Will I tell you which way to jump? I don't risk my license and my livelihood for free. It's your agent's job to do that. If you're representing yourself, you've just run smack into one of the lesser reasons not to.

Matter of fact, whomever your agent is, the information you've provided draws a pathetic picture of their competence. There could be exculpatory information out there, but this is all basic, "hit the ball with the bat" level stuff that anyone who's been in the business three weeks should be able to deal with, and if they're that new, their supervising broker should have explained it to them, if their supervising broker had a clue themselves. If this transaction falls apart, go find an agent who knows what they're doing. Nor am I impressed with the buyer's agent from the information provided. When something goes wrong, telling the other side "you have to" is a good way to kill a transaction that can usually be saved. You don't have to do anything. You could tell them to take a long walk off a short pier. How smart it is depends upon factors I can't see from here. But this is why negotiation is the biggest factor in the game of real estate. Some folks won't, some folks can't, some folks just don't know how. They're going to suffer unless their agent does. Because all the preparation and work I do is wasted if I don't negotiate effectively. Any twit can say, "No," and quite a few do. They're hosing themselves if it's the wrong answer. The opposing fact is that the transaction doesn't start until you have an agreement, and if the other side believes they've been hosed, they can usually get out of it if they really want to.

Caveat Emptor

Getting Rich Quick in Real Estate

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On a very regular basis these days, I'm running into people who took paid money for a get rich quick seminar and are looking to buy property for zero down and immediately sell it for a $50,000 profit. Somebody With A Testimonial Told Them How It Could Be Done.



Sorry folks but the people with the real secrets to getting rich don't sell them for $199 at the Holiday Inn. They didn't do it five years ago during the stock market bubble, and they're not doing it now in real estate. As I told people a few years ago in the stock market, don't confuse a rising frothy market with investment genius. And that rising frothy market has now changed. Deals like that do happen, even now with the market slipping. But they're always less common than the People With Testimonials will admit, and they are snapped up quickly. Usually they never make it as far as the Multiple Listing Service. Before they're even entered into the database of available properties, they are sold, and they rarely fall out of escrow because the people who buy them know what they are doing.



Consider, for a moment, yourself on the opposite side of the transaction. You're not going to intentionally sell your valuable property for less than it is worth, are you? And if you're buying, you're certainly not going to pay more than market value, are you? Remember that Wile E. Coyote ended up at the bottom of the canyon under a rock for more reasons than that the Author was on The Other Side. "Super Genius!" Says so right there on the label. But betting large amounts of money on the Stupidity Of The Other Side is a mark's game.



About the only reliable source of "quick flips" for profit are distress sales. In no particular order, most of these are people in foreclosure, estate sales where neither the estate nor the heirs can keep the payments up long enough to sell normally, and where somebody's been transferred and has to sell now.



These people get mobbed by prospective buyers, and by agents looking to represent them in the sale. Everybody wants something for nothing, and one of each group is going to get it. One agent is going to get a transaction where if it gets as far as the MLS, all he's got to do is type it in and bingo, the buyers will line up. One buyer is going to get to buy below market. Usually, they're the same person. The multimillionaire brokers all usually each have at least one going on.



The issue for these buyers in distress sales that is rarely addressed until it gets to actually making the deal is that they're going to need a certain amount of cash that they are prepared to lose. Putting myself in the position of the person who has to sell, I'm not going to give this person the sole shot at buying if I'm not pretty certain he can deliver. The only way to measure this is cash - how much they can put down on the property. How much of a deposit they can make that I can keep if they can't qualify. Remember that in this case the one thing a distress seller cannot afford is a buyer who can't consummate the deal quickly - unless the seller is going to get to keep something substantial for the experience. If you don't want to buy on those terms, than at that price someone else will. The multimillionaire real estate brokers, for instance. There are a lot of people who make a very good living at foreclosures because they go around from foreclosure to foreclosure offering cash for a below market price. Matter of fact, they pretty much saturate the foreclosure market. The chances of a seller in this position accepting an offer without a substantial cash forfeiture for nonperformance are basically identical to the chances of them having a listing agent that doesn't understand the situation. And quite often, that listing agent makes an offer himself or herself.



Get religion about this next point: There is ALWAYS a reason for a low asking price. Usually, a noticeably low asking price should be even lower than it is. Unless they're a philanthropist looking for some random person to donate money to, this seller wants to get as much for the property as they can. What they're hoping for is a buyer who doesn't know what a really bad situation they're getting into. "A cracked slab? How bad could it be?" is probably the classic example of this. These sellers have been dealing with the situation. They've had a reason to become intimately familiar with the problems. They're hoping for an unsuspecting buyer whose agent wants an easy transaction and will not explain to them, or simply does not know, what those buyers are getting themselves into. I could certainly keep my mouth shut and do more transactions, easier, if I didn't take the time to tell my buyers everything I know about what they're getting into. The universe knows that most of these good deeds don't go unpunished. But that's what I'm theoretically getting paid for, and as often as I do my job and it causes them to get angry and I don't get paid, it's preferable to the eventual consequences of not doing the whole job and getting paid for it.



There's a newsletter I get from the State of California every three months. It's always got a long list of people who are losing their licenses. So if your agent tries to really explain something like this, listen to them. They're not trying to talk you out of the Deal Of The Century so that Someone Else can get it (the Deal of the Century in real estate comes around surprisingly often if you can afford it). They're trying to make certain you go in with your eyes open. It's likely to be a better agent than the guy who thinks "Okay, I've told you that the hill is known to be unstable, so I'm covered. It's not my fault that you didn't instantly understand all of the implications."



The typical property where there is real potential for quick profit is going to require work. Work as in physical labor that you're going to have to do, or pay someone else to do. Not to be sexist, but "The husband died (or became disabled) and the wife couldn't keep it up," is a cliché because it is so common. Sometimes the work is easy - carpet, new paint, clean up the yard and bingo! The property jumps five or even ten percent in value! Sometimes the work is harder, and the profit is larger. And sometimes the buyer is basically going to have to tear the house down and start over. There is always a reason why the seller didn't do the work so they could make the profit themselves. Sometimes it's because they're lazy, sometimes it's because they can't. Sometimes it's because the work was risky, sometimes because it was expensive, and sometimes it's because the seller can get some poor fool to buy it who doesn't realize that they're going to have to make an investment that isn't worth the payoff.



Caveat Emptor


The vast majority of the population out there wants single family detached housing. The virtues and benefits of the single family residence have been extolled ad nauseum, and the drawbacks of the alternatives are the stuff of urban legend.



Unfortunately, in San Diego and many of the other densely populated urban areas of the country, the price of single family detached housing has gone beyond what the average person can afford. Even if they fall somewhat from this point, in many areas, San Diego among them, the price of a single family residence isn't going to fall to what the average worker can afford. The supply is too low, and the demand is too high. When you consider economic reality, the evidence is overwhelming that San Diego is at least close to the end of the price decline, and even in other areas where things haven't fallen much yet, there's a limit to how far they're going to go.



So for people earning average wages, the choice becomes purchasing one of those alternative forms of housing, saving until they can afford it, or being a renter for the rest of their life. I went over how little saving for a down payment helps most folks, and how a strategy of buying what you can afford now helps more and faster than saving for a down payment. One further option exists, of course: Move to a less expensive market, but that requires finding a job there. There's a reason that all of the highly demanded urban markets are in high demand: That's where the jobs are!



Still, people will tell me they don't want to buy until and unless they can afford a single family detached house, with no association. That's fine if they're going about the process of saving. Most of them would be better off buying the lesser property and using the appreciation to leverage their savings, but it's okay to decide to take an alternative route to getting what you want. It's a free country.



However, in my experience, it's really rather rare to find people who are actually putting the money aside. It's great if you want a house and are putting the money aside to make it happen. I just helped a young couple that could afford a beautiful house in a great area because they both worked hard and saved something like five years of their combined earnings for a down payment, but they're the rare exception. I know a lot more people that have been planning to buy a house for twenty years and have nothing saved at all, than I do people like that couple.



The cold hard fact of the matter is that if you're making fifteen or twenty dollars per hour, you can't afford the payments on such a single family detached house unless you've got a huge down payment. That's not likely to change unless we start being a whole lot friendlier to development, and in places like San Diego, there isn't room to do so even if we wanted to. There's too many people who want that sort of housing, and not enough land and not enough houses to go around. High demand, limited supply. Remember your first economics class. What does that do to price?



People will tell me in one breath that they don't want to deal with home owner's associations, then turn around and tell me they'd rather continue dealing with landlords. Landlords have more power than HOAs, and are less subject to moderating influence. If you're an owner, you have a vote and a voice in the HOA, and you can even run for the board yourself. If you're renting and don't want to follow the rules, the landlord will evict you and find someone who will. They have all the power they need in a 3% vacancy rate!



There is always going to be a wider market further down the socio-economic pyramid. There are more folks making fifteen or twenty dollars per hour than forty. Even those making more have the option of buying cheaper housing, and there are those who do so, while those who attempt tricks to afford more house than they can afford regret it pretty universally. If you buy the property, you owe the money and are paying the interest. Tricks like negative amortization, that make it look like you can afford more property than you really can, will come back around to bite you, with so few exceptions as to be statistically a non-event.



In California, townhomes and PUD developments are most often legally condominiums as far as title goes. It's just the physical set up that differs. Condominiums are multiply layered, stacked one on top of another all in the same building. Townhomes are typically only one unit high. They may be multiple floors and have shared walls, but no upstairs or downstairs neighbors. This improves the privacy situation, but it also increases the price, because land is what costs the most money, and there's only one unit on any given piece of land. PUDs are one further step up the line: They may be individual completely detached structures, but they share a common lot, so maintenance and such is usually shared, and you usually have to match the neighbor's decor. There may not be much space between units in a PUD, as I've said before, but there is usually some. All three usually have some sort of shared recreational facilities, as well, but not necessarily.



There are ways to do each sort right and wrong. The sin most developers commit with PUDs and townhomes is trying so hard to cram as many as possible onto a given piece of land, that each unit has effectively no privacy. With pure straight condominiums, the main sin committed is failing to insulate each unit sufficiently from noise in the neighboring units. Doing it right isn't cheap, and cuts into the profit margin. This also happens with townhomes and some PUDs, but to a far lesser extent. A complex where the developer did it right will be a little more expensive per square foot, but will be a much better investment. Granite counters and travertine floors get old, get dirty, and eventually do need to be replaced. The fact that you and your significant other aren't entertaining the neighbors every time you get intimate, that you can have friends over without disturbing the neighbors, or even that you have a private little back yard to barbecue in, won't.



If you're careful in your initial purchase, you can be happy and private in a condo, townhome, or PUD for many years. If you fall for a bad unit with nice surfaces now, you're going to suffer. If you pick a good unit, the way that leverage works will quite likely leave you very happy with your investment. If you pick a bad one, not so much. If you pick a good one and decide to stay, you'll likely find that your cost of housing becomes a low fraction of what rent would cost before too many years have passed.



If you can't afford the payments on a more expensive property, it's not a good idea to buy it. But if you don't buy anything at all, the economic prognosis for lifelong renters isn't good. This means that if you can't afford the property you really want, it's still a good idea to buy something your family can live in. Condos, townhomes, and PUDs may not be as great as single family detached housing, but they're a long way better than renting, and you can use the leverage inherent in the way property values has worked for the last century or so to help you get where you really want to be more quickly and more easily. Even if you never move up, you have placed your costs of housing permanently under your own control, given yourself a voice and a vote in how things are run, and the odds are overwhelming that you'll end up in a much stronger economic position.



Caveat Emptor

One of the best ways I have of telling how good a listing agent is is whether they get the counter to me before the offer has expired. Not that someone who gets the counter back to me quickly is necessarily wonder-agent, but that someone who doesn't sure isn't.



The whole idea of the purchase contract is that it becomes a legally enforceable contract when accepted. But if you're missing the "little detail" of timeliness, the contract hasn't been accepted, indeed it becomes impossible for it to be accepted unless someone is capable of time travel.



Missing offer deadlines has become common of late, with sellers hoping for better offers, so they sit on this one until too much time has passed, thus hurting their case further.



The other side missing the detail of timeliness gives my clients power. Now my clients can choose to accept what has become a counter-offer rather than an acceptance, because even if the other side intended to give a full acceptance, they haven't. There's this not so little niggling detail of the fact that the original offer has expired. It's dead. It's an ex-offer.



The other side missing deadline gives me information. After the deadline, I'm pretty certain there aren't any other offers going on, no matter what the other agent says. If there are other offers, they're not good offers. If there were other good offers, better than mine, why are they countering me so late? When I have multiple offers on one of my listings, I get each counter out there as quick as I can, and the proviso that another offer is not previously accepted is on every single one of them.



This means that my client is in a stronger position than they were in initially. Not infinitely stronger, but noticeably stronger. Particularly in the buyer's market we have locally and in most of the rest of the country. Even in a seller's market, it tells me that no one else wants this property at that price. It may be grounds to counter even lower.



This means that an agent who sits on an offer (or counter-offer) is weakening their clients bargaining position, i.e. violation of fiduciary duty. Unless it's the client who just can't respond, that agent has now incurred the possibility of action. Even if the client has been told of the offer, I always feel that I need to tell them that most offers have expirations, and the sooner they counter, the stronger their perceived bargaining position.



It's no better for a prospective buyer to miss a counter than it is for a prospective seller. There must have been something about that property that was attractive to you. Properties for sale never last longer than the first person who does what is necessary to get the seller to agree to terms. Once it's in escrow with someone else, it's too late to decide you want it. Unless it falls out of escrow - something not under your control - you are out of luck. Being a back up offer is most often a sucker's proposition.



This doesn't mean I make a habit of demanding responses within 24 hours. That's overplaying your hand in most situations. But a deadline of three to four business days is quite reasonable, and situations where it may be to your advantage to delay are rare. If you can't respond to an offer or counter-offer in that amount of time, something is wrong.



Caveat Emptor

Copyright 2005-2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

 



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This page is a archive of entries in the Beginner's Information category from July 2007.

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