Beginner's Information: May 2008 Archives


Many agents seem to answer this question differently depending upon whether their client is the prospective buyer or seller. When their client is making an offer, "No, your deposit could never possibly be at risk," while when their client is evaluating an offer, "And besides, if they renege or can't bring it off, you get to keep the deposit." Both of these are false, misleading, and practicing law without a license.

The cold hard fact is that the deposit is always at risk, but there is absolutely no guarantee that a jilted seller will get it, either. The answer to "Is the deposit at risk?" from a real estate agent can never honestly be anything other than "Yes."

For buyers, the deposit is "at risk." Otherwise, what would be the point of having it? If it couldn't be lost, why would it need to go into escrow? Just to prove the buyer has a couple thousand dollars to their name? I can do that with a Verification of Deposit. The only reason to make a deposit on a purchase offer is that it is at risk, and no listing agent in their right mind is going to accept any purchase offer where there is no deposit - even if the buyer is doing a "one dollar down" VA loan. That seller is risking a minimum of a full month of all carrying costs (usually much more) upon your representation that you want the property, and they are entitled to keep your deposit if certain conditions are met. For sellers, no you don't automatically get the deposit if the buyer flakes out. There are burdens upon you and your agent, and contingencies, or escape clauses for the buyer, built right into the purchase contract. You don't want to allow those clauses, that's your choice, but you'll severely restrict the number of people willing to make offers as well as the price you will actually get. Even if the seller negotiates the payment of the deposit to them as part of the contract, the buyers can still sue to get it back. This is the real world and an offer is being made with real money and real consequences to that money. If you're unable to come to terms with that fact, stay a renter, because that fact is not going to change. For agents, if the only way you can make a sale is to misrepresent the deposit, it doesn't take a great fortune teller to see a courtroom in your future.

For buyer clients, I can do a lot to keep a deposit from being forfeit - any agent and loan officer can. Get out in front of all the contingency issues and any other reason that my client might decide they don't want to purchase the property, and get them dealt with right away, during the contingency period. Loan, appraisal, inspection, I want them all done before their contingency expires, or at the absolute minimum, a loan commitment with contingencies I'm certain we can meet. As of this writing, I have not yet lost any buyer deposit money. Nonetheless, since no agent can honestly guarantee the deposit will not be lost, I cannot and will not pretend that I'm some kind of exception to the law. The only way I could make such a guarantee is by putting up my own money as a surety, and if my client lost a deposit for a reason that was in any way my fault, I hope I would reimburse them (Until it happens and I'm facing an actual choice, there's no way to be certain). But it's not my investment, and if the investment succeeds, I'm not going to share in the proceeds (I'm given to understand that's illegal, at least in California), and one of the essential, unchangeable facts about investment is that there is no such thing as a risk free investment. If you don't understand this, any money or assets you may have can be considered a temporary thing, and you have no business in a profession with responsibility for other people's money. Anyone willing to say that there is no risk is either a fool or a crook. Nor is it likely your agent or anyone will reimburse you, especially for situations beyond their control, or if you misrepresent your situation or miss deadlines.

For listing clients, the same thing applies: Get what I need to done right away, and keep after that buyer's agent to remove contingencies in a timely fashion. If they won't remove contingencies when they are supposed to be removed, it tells me all I need to know. It's my client's call, but I know what my recommendation is going to be. I want the transaction to work, but I also want my client to get that money if it doesn't. Incidentally, Deposit issues are one reason of many that nobody should ever be willing to accept dual agency.

The bottom line is like something out of quantum physics: Schrodinger's Cat. Ideally, you want the sale to go through and record and for everybody to be happy because it all turned out exactly as agreed. Unfortunately, that's not perfectly predictable or knowable in advance. If it was, no real estate transaction would ever blow up, and the deposit would not be an issue. There are laws and procedures, and things agreed to in the purchase contract, that you have to be a real estate lawyer to offer an informed opinion about, and the judge, arbitrator, or whatever making the decision to make a definitive ruling. Escrow has custody of the money, but they're not going to do anything without mutual agreement of the buyer and seller. Either side can potentially decide to be stubborn and force the matter to arbitration, court, or whatever is appropriate, and all the consequent expenses of the legal system (which additional money is also at risk as the usual agreement is that prevailing party is entitled to legal expenses). And the legal system runs in incomprehensible ways for unpredictable reasons - the one thing that seems to be a constant is that if the judge wants the ruling to go a certain way, they can probably find a precedent to justify it if they try.

The point is this: The deposit is at risk. It is not "safe", and it does not necessarily belong to the seller either. Since this is cash, people understand that it is real money, because they had to scrimp, save, and set every single dollar in it aside from other uses, so they get understandably nervous about it. It represents a great vacation, a down payment on a new car, or something else very desirable that they're giving up, and they're putting at risk of forfeiture. Against this, the seller wants it if the transaction fails. There are ways to protect it, and ways to endanger it, and you've got both agents working to their client's advantage. As with any other competitive or potentially competitive situation, that makes the result indefinite until the game is complete. It isn't common in my experience that the deposit is forfeit, but it does happen. And anybody who tells you otherwise is either lying or hopelessly incompetent. Nonetheless, real estate is such a powerful investment that you are well advised to come to terms with the risk, because it's a necessary risk in order to buy real estate.

Caveat Emptor

Drew over at zillow asked me to do a short little Q & A piece for them. It went up a few days ago, and I thought I'd post my original piece here as well.

What are some online resources consumers should be using to find loan rate information?

None that are any good, as in the sense of providing good relevant information that's applicable to specific cases. There are many loan quote forums that will quote you a rate. They quote you a low rate or a low payment to get you to contact them - and that's all that it is, a teaser. I have literally gone right down the line in two different comparative quote forums, contacting every company and asking for quotes that comply with the standards they are supposed to quote to. Not one company was even prepared to quote me what they were advertising. Nor did the forums themselves do anything when I complained - they are not interested in policing the quotes, as to do so risks losing some hefty income when the companies quit subscribing to their service. The few companies that advertise honest rates that are really available have given up on those forums in disgust - they attract clients in other ways.

Unpopular as this truth may be, you need to shop live loan officers and have real conversations and ask a lot of hard-nosed questions. Here is a list of Questions You Should Ask Prospective Loan Providers. If you want to suggest any additions to this list, I'd love to know.

What should a 1st time home buyer look for when comparing and contrasting loans?

1) Make certain you are really comparing the same type of loan. Asking about the industry standard name for the type of loan contemplated helps. Even if you don't know what it means, the other loan officers you talk to will. 2) There is always a trade off between rate and cost for the same type of loan. One lender's trade offs will be different than another lender's, but you always have a range of choices, even with the same lender. Just because one loan has a lower rate or lower payment doesn't make it a better loan. Find out the total cost of getting that rate, and figure out how long it will take you to recover costs via the lower interest rate. Given how often most people refinance, a higher rate with a higher payment but lower costs is often the better bargain. There is no sense in paying four points for a loan you are only likely to keep for two years.


What is the biggest mistake you see 1st time home buyers make?

Three most common disasters: 1) Buying or wanting a more expensive property than they can afford. Any competent loan officer can get you a loan that you can not afford, but you still have to face the consequences later, and these consequences can be well buried. Find out what you can really afford with a sustainable loan, and stick to it. Settling for a lesser property is much smarter than buying something you cannot afford. 2) Not shopping around for services. Even if you trust your brother in law the real estate agent, or your sister in law the loan officer, shopping around gives them concrete reason to stay honest. The worst mess I ever cleaned up was caused by someone's favorite uncle trying to make too much money, and the niece was blissfully unaware until her husband brought me into it - six weeks after it should have closed. 3) Believing that because someone puts some numbers onto a Good Faith Estimate (Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement in California) that they intend to deliver that loan on those terms. This is, unfortunately, not the case in the industry at large. If they do not guarantee their quote in writing, the Good Faith Estimate (or Mortgage Loan Disclosure Statement) is garbage, along with all of the other standard forms that you get with it. The only form that the law requires to be accurate is the HUD-1, which you do not get, even in preliminary form, until the loan is closing. Big national lending institution everyone has heard of? Doesn't mean a thing. Ask the hard questions, and do not permit yourself to be distracted.

When do 50 year mortgages make sense?

Perversely, rates on 40 year amortizations are usually comparable to interest only, and fifty year amortization rates are usually higher. Nor are any of the these usually a good choice for a purchase money loan. All three are strong indicators that you are trying to buy too expensive a property for your budget. See Common Mistake Number One above.

What do you think about Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs)?

I am a big fan of certain ARMs in most markets. Most of the time, a fully amortized 5/1 ARM will be at least one full percent lower on the rate than a comparably expensive thirty year fixed, and the vast majority of people refinance within five years anyway. Why pay for thirty years worth of insurance that your rate won't change when you're likely to let the lender off the hook within a few years anyway? With that said, however, right now (late November 2006) the spread in rate is only about a quarter of a percent or less between a 5/1 ARM and a thirty year fixed - and at the low cost end of the spectrum, the thirty year fixed may actually be less expensive for the same rate, so I'm recommending thirty year fixed rate loans quite a bit right now.

Is there a certain number people should be looking at when determining if they should refinance?

Forget payment. With no other information to go on, I would bet that someone trying to get you to refinance based upon a low payment was pushing a bad loan, and probably low-balling the payment as well.

Once again, you've got to have a good conversation with the loan officer. Look at the the money you will save from the lower interest rate - the interest charges to a loan. If you're saving half a percent on a $400,000 loan, that's $2000 per year. Compare this to the cost, and how long the rate is good for - or how long you're likely to keep it, whichever is less. If the cost is zero - and true zero cost loans do exist - you're ahead from day one. However, if it costs you $12,000, it's going to take you six years to break even, and most folks will never keep the same loan six years in their lives. Since there is no way to know for sure unless your prospective lender will guarantee the quote as to rate, total cost, and type of loan, you need to go in to final signing with the idea firmly in your mind that unless they can show both the cost and the benefit, you're going to walk out without signing. Indeed, many companies are very adept at pretending costs don't exist, and hiding costs at closing. Industry statistics: over half of all potential borrowers won't even notice discrepancies at closing, and of the ones who do, eight to nine out of ten will just sign anyway. This rewards people who lie to get you to sign up. Haul out the HUD-1 form at closing and make certain it conforms to what you were told when you applied. Most don't, and the loan officer knew it wouldn't when you signed up. Read the Note carefully also, before you sign.

More questions? I'd love to answer them! Contact me and ask!

Cold Hard Fact for today: The average Real Estate Agent or Loan Officer is not motivated to tell you that you can't afford your property.

For the agent you are trying to talk people out of a property after they have already fallen in love with it. Let's face it, if it's higher in price, it should have features that lower priced properties do not, and it should have fewer things that consumers do not want. Indeed, one of the easiest and most common ways unethical real estate agents sell properties is by showing you several lower priced properties, fixers which lack those attractive extras, then show you the blinged out immaculate property while whispering sweet nothings like, "I can show you how you can afford the payments!" (which is not the same as being able to afford the property!)

All agents learn that by telling the client "no," or anything that sounds like "no," they are likely to lose that business. Good ones know that putting a client into something beyond their budget is a good way to have the transaction come back to haunt them. But for most, the temptation of the easy sale that made itself if too strong. They want that commission check. Nothing wrong with commission checks. If they provide real value to the client, they are a way of showing the world that you have done something valuable, same as a doctor, carpenter, or computer programmer. It's when you use your position of trust to sabotage them that problems start - and you should experience problems. Many agents have not been around long enough to understand flat or declining markets. In truth, I wasn't in the business the last time we had one, either. But I am old enough to remember, and careful enough by nature that I refuse to assume that a rapidly rising market will save my bacon, as many agents have become used to.

And for the foreseeable future, rapidly rising markets are unlikely to save anybody's bacon, because the market isn't going to be rising rapidly. Inventory is high, long term rates are set to rise, and we're just seeing the leading edge of a wave of problems caused by over-the-top practices of the last few years. I think we're past most of the price decline locally, but conditions aren't there for a return to the market we had most of the last decade.

Lest you be wondering, the loan officer is even more unlikely to counsel you on whether you can really afford the property. Between Stated Income, Negative Amortization Loans, and loans that are both of these, you can get anybody with an income and a not too putrid credit score into the property. In fact, I heard some real howls of outrage from certain brokers when lenders tightened their recourse on brokers this last year. Even so, the paycheck is now and certain, the risk of default vague and indefinite, and for most loan officers, there's another concern as well.

You see, most loan officers cultivate some friends who are real estate agents, and that's how they get their business. That agent brings them business because they have a history of getting the loan through, so that agent gets paid. Sometimes they may have their hand out for a referral fee as well, but the important thing for you to know as a consumer is that referral you get from an agent to a loan officer has nothing to do with how great their rates are, and everything to do with how creative they are in getting some sort of loan approved so that agent gets paid for the house they sold. Tell just one prospect who has made an offer on their dream house that there is an issue with being able to really afford that loan, and the word will get around the real estate community in no time. Result: For causing one agent to not get paid, Joe Loan Officer not only will not get any referrals from them in the future, if the client does find Joe Loan Officer on their own, the agents are going to do their best to talk them away from Joe, who, from their point of view, "stole their paycheck" by telling the client that they really could not afford the loan that was necessary to make the transaction work! Even if they took that transaction to some other loan officer who got it closed, Jane Realtor doesn't want her clients to have anything to do with Joe, lest she lose another potential commission check!

So what can you, the consumer, do about this? Well, I can't tell you all about the special cases, and I lack the programming capability to embed a spreadsheet and loan calculator. But I can give you some good general rules of comparison, and guidelines laid down by lenders as to whether or not you can actually afford that loan.

Start with your total monthly gross income. Assuming you printed this out, write that number here:






Loan Type

A Paper ARM

A Paper fixed

sub-prime general

sub-prime severe

sub-prime extreme



Multiply Income by (DTI*)

0.38

0.45

0.50

0.55

0.60


Result

_______

_______

_______

_______

_______



Notes

A,B

B










*DTI: Debt to Income Ratio

Notes:
A: use fully indexed rate for qualification purposes. This means the underlying index plus the margin after it adjusts, assuming current values.
B: If interest only, use fully amortized rate for qualification purposes.

Any four function calculator will do this much. Now this is the largest number you will qualify with. As you should be able to see, it's more difficult to qualify for A paper, even though that is where you want to be. But we're not done. This is total housing and debt service, the so-called "back end ratio." So from that number, you need to subtract your monthly debt service: Car payments and other installments, and minimum credit card payments. You pay this much already. You obviously cannot afford to pay it out for housing also!

So add up your credit card, car payment, and other monthly debt obligations. Subtract it from your numbers for back end ratios, computed above. This will give you a set of five numbers that tells what you can afford for housing costs, depending upon how far you want to go. But we're not done! This is total cost of housing; the so-called "PITI payment." It includes not only principal and interest on the loan, but also property taxes, homeowner's insurance, Condominium Association dues, and Mello-Roos assessment districts (or their equivalent outside of California, if applicable). So from this, you need to subtract all of the known stuff or stuff you can make a close approximation on, like Association dues and insurance and taxes, to arrive at how much of a loan you can afford. Please note that for Negative Amortization Loans, loan officers may use the minimum payment for qualification, but you are still being charged the real interest rate! Still, it should become obvious as to why Negative Amortization loans are so popular in high priced areas right now. Not only will the lenders pay between 3.5 to 4 percent commission for them, not only do they allow lower payments to be quoted, but they make it look like you qualify for a bigger loan than you can afford, which means the real estate agent gets a bigger commission from selling you a more expensive property, and the loan officer gets paid more, also, because now you have applied for a larger loan! I have heard every rationalization under the sun from loan officers and real estate agents on this score, but they are still inappropriate for the vast majority of people who have them. I can get a better interest rate on a better loan for less cost, every time, but then I have to tell the client about the full amount they are really being charged every month, and they might have to content themselves with a less expensive property, meaning that real estate agent is going to have to do some real work. Go out onto the web and look for some loan calculators (Auto loans use slightly different assumptions, so don't use those calculators), or if you have a financial calculator, use it! Use the real interest rates that are available, and if the number you get comes out much higher than your quoted payment, they are trying to snooker you with a negative amortization loan. There is no magic about loans, and a healthy skepticism will help you prevent problems from happening in the first place.

Now add the down payment you intend to make to the loan you can afford, and that tells you whether or not you can afford the property.

Caveat Emptor

Short answer: It almost certainly won't sell!

The first thing that happens is that when it goes onto the Multiple Listing Service, all the agents who see it know that it's overpriced. Even on the public part of MLS, the members of the public who see it wonder, "Are the walls gold-plated or something?"

The first thing you want when you put a property on the market is for everybody who is looking for a property of that nature to come and see it. Overpricing it is the best way I know of to cut down drastically on the level of interest. If they don't come see it, most people are not going to make offers. Most particularly, they will not make good offers if they don't come see it. If they do come see it, they are going to be expecting something better, and disappointed people don't make good offers, if they make one at all. That high asking price communicates that this property has something above and beyond the competition. If it doesn't, they're going to wonder what in the heck you and your agent were thinking. They're going to go away shaking their heads at the waste of their time. If they make an offer, it will be a desperation check.

The agents in the area are going to avoid the property, also. They know what similar properties are going for. Why should they try to sell yours for $10,000, $25,000, $50,000 above market comparables? Yes, they'll make a little more if they do sell it, but it's much easier to sell a property that is a real bargain. I'd rather sell a real bargain at $400,000 than an over-priced turkey for $450,000. The difference in compensation isn't that much, and I'll work much harder to try to make the sale, and I'll lose most prospects by trying. I try to sell them an over-priced turkey looking for the sucker of the year, and a large proportion of clients won't want to work with me any more. I can make the commission off of a $400,000 sale, or I can lose the client by trying for $450,000. If they can afford $450,000, I can find them a better property at the same price. Happy clients bring me more clients for free, and as any real estate agent or loan officer can tell you, getting potential clients in the door is the hardest and most expensive part of the business. I assure you that every real estate agent who has been in the business more than about three hours knows this. If you were priced right, I might have shown that client your property, but you weren't, and so I didn't. Either you have placed yourself beyond their budget, or I can find something better for the same price.

Furthermore, overpriced real estate tells me that not only does the listing agent not know what they are doing and does not know what appropriate pricing is, but also that the seller likely does not have their head in the right place as to what the property is worth. Six months or a year down the line, it's time to make a low-ball offer and see if you're desperate yet. And if you needed to sell in ninety days, you will be. Right now, if I bring in a client who offers what the property is really worth, that's so much wasted time on my part and that of my buyer prospect, because I'm fighting two people with their heads stuck in the Land of Wishful Thinking, and I cannot force either one of you to listen to reason.

If people do come see your property, most of them won't make an offer. Most people don't look at just one property, even if they like yours. They may not look at enough properties, but they will look at more than one before they write an offer for anything. And since they have seen at least one other property, unless it's as overpriced as yours is, they're not going to make a good offer on yours. Many times, it may falsely communicate to them that the other property is a heck of a good bargain, and you just sold that other property, for which that other property's owner and listing agent surely thank you.

By over-pricing the property, not only do you set yourself up for all of this, but you miss the period of highest interest in your property, which is right after it hits the market, tapering off after about a month. One of the hardest, most pernicious ideas for a good agent to fight is the idea of putting it on the market over-priced "just to see" if they can get thousands of dollars more than comparable properties are selling for. The other is the concept of "bargaining room." Not only are you unlikely to get more than the market comps, but by over-pricing the property during the period of initial interest, the owners have almost certainly frightened away potential buyers who might well have offered market value if the property was priced correctly. Nor do these people come back later. They're looking at the stuff that hit the market this week, not four, six, or ten months ago. The agents in the area remember that it sat on the market for six months even if you somehow manage to get the days on market counter reset. Foot. Bullet. No assembly required, because you did it to yourself. If you had a need to sell by a certain time, or for the best price, it's not going to happen.

Indeed, several months out, you'll start getting those low-ballers I talked about earlier. They really do want to buy your property, but they won't offer anything like what you might have gotten earlier, because your property isn't worth that much to them. It's no secret that just waiting a little while on over-priced property is one of the best ways to get a bargain that there is. Most people put the property up for sale because they have a reason they want it sold. Most of those reasons are time-sensitive, and many are time critical. Wait until the deadline looms, or has passed, and the seller has no bargaining strength. I don't care how much "bargaining room" you gave yourself. Bargaining room is nothing. Bargaining strength is everything. When your best alternative is losing the property to foreclosure, you have no strength. If you won't deal, these folks will wait until the lender owns it. It's all the same to them, but it isn't to you.

Now right now, with prices having fallen, the appraisal isn't quite the problem it usually is for over-priced real estate. But usually, if you actually do win the lottery - and the odds you are facing really are in that league - and your listing agent sells it to the Sucker of the Year for more than the comparables, the appraisal isn't going to support the sales price. This means they can't finance the full sales price, and the Suckers of the Year are even less likely than other people to have the money for a down payment. I've said this more than once, but I don't remember the last time a first time buyer had a significant down payment. Even people who aren't first time buyers usually want to buy with as little down as possible, and you've just boosted the amount they have to come up with out of their pocket if they want your property - not to mention that most purchase contracts these days have appraisal contingencies built in. Even with prices falling, many appraisals are falling short. A couple of nitwits just put the house I grew up in on the market for 630,000! I took a look for grins and giggles. The owners have gussied up the back yard a little, but other than that it's the same as I remember. No way is that appraisal coming in even if they do find the Sucker of the Year to make an offer, so the Suckers of the Year have to front all those thousands of dollars to make the transaction work, and Suckers of the Year are just that - suckers. The chances of them having that kind of money sitting around where nobody else has conned them out of it are miniscule, to say the least. The only alternative I'm aware of is a seller carryback, and there are some real issues and problems with those. Meanwhile, of course, you are stuck in escrow with them and the clock is ticking and they may have grounds for a lawsuit if you are not careful. Even if they don't, they may sue you anyway, and tie up the title until the court gets around to ruling, or until the arbitration hearing and all of the appeals are over.

In short, over-pricing your property is the best way I know of to get yourself very frustrated, waste time, and end up forced to accept an offer that's less than you could have gotten if you had simply priced the property correctly in the first place.

Caveat Emptor


No, I'm not a David Letterman watcher, for reasons having to do with turning into a pumpkin before his show starts. I'm going to treat it a little more seriously than he does, as this is a serious subject, but I'll do my best to inject a little humor into it.

10. Surrounding Environment - These are environmental factors arising from areas beyond your property, and therefore, beyond your immediate control. Freeway noise 24/7, being downwind of a hog or chicken farm, being next door to a strip club with a huge neon sign constantly flashing, "LIVE NUDE GIRLS" - all of these and many more neighborhood factors can prevent people from even looking at your property. They see what's around it, and decide they're not interested in living there, or that the investment potential for the property is limited (to be charitable). The only real way to fix problems of this nature is not to buy the property in the first place. Look at all of the issues. Just because it doesn't bother you now doesn't mean it won't bother prospective purchasers later. Blame your buyer's agent. If you didn't have a buyer's agent, that leaves only one candidate for blame. You'll find them hanging around any mirror you might check.

9 HOA: This is closely related to surrounding environment, and condos and PUDs are the poster children of what a lot of people don't want. People want the property to be theirs to do with as they please. It's a sad fact of life that in an increasing number of places, they are going to be disappointed because they can't afford anything without a homeowner's association. Homeowner's Asssociations really are a good guardian of property values, but they have a tendency to give way to much power to the busybody and the would-be dictator. Unfortunately for a lot of people, the newer developments they crave all have homeowner's associations because while everyone knows that they personally can be trusted to maintain the property, those horrible neighbors who can't be trusted won't trust them. Unfortunately, the only way to appeal to people who don't want an HOA is not to have an HOA. Once again, blame the buyer's agent that "helped" with your purchase.

8. Zoning: Zoning restrictions, lot constraints, etcetera are all parts of this category. If you've got a two bedroom property and setback requirements keep you from building a third bedroom, your property is not likely to appeal to people who need a three bedroom place to live in. Once again, the only way to fix this issue is not to buy where it is an issue. Over-restrictive zoning is a real economic problem for a lot of reasons, but while people like to be able to cause everyone else in the neighborhood problems by not having enough parking for their apartment house or mini-dorm, they don't want everybody else turning the tables and causing them problems. Yeah, maybe you can get the zoning changed sometimes - but that's not the way to bet.

7. Schools: If you buy in an area that includes the right to attend a great public school, that's a gift you give yourself that keeps on giving, at least until the neighborhood starts voting against additional property tax bonds. Or if you can cause a school that heretofore taught only "hanging out with a GPS tracker on your ankle," to start teaching the kids some economically desirable skills, you can expect a windfall in the form of property value. I think that shackling kids to a particular neighborhood public school is slow motion suicide for society, but evidently at least fifty percent plus one of teacher's unions feel it's beneficial to getting union leaders more money and power. Once again, this is just a fact of life, and once you have bought a particular property, you're locked into whatever the local educational insanity might be.

6. Clutter: If you're tripping over knick-knacks, carnivorous house plants, and cannot eat meals as a family because the table is six feet deep in stuff, it would be a real good idea to do something about it. There are a lot of easy options here: Trash, charity, storage rental, loan or give it to some family member who's not trying to sell their house. If you're trying to sell, engrave the saying, "A place for everything and everything in its place" upon your soul for the duration. If there's any doubt as to whether you need it in your day to day life, the place for it is "elsewhere." If the place is so full of your stuff, people worry about whether there's going to be room for their stuff. Believe me when I tell you I understand how difficult this is: I've got two young kids and two dogs, all four of which are highly efficient entropy generators, but getting clutter under control and keeping it there is critical to selling for a good price.

5. Staging: Absolutely empty is better than "chock full of clutter," but then people wonder how their stuff would fit. I still have trouble believing this one, but facts are facts. Most people have a hard time picturing their couch and their TV in the living room. A small amount of furniture gives them a reference point, scale, and a starting point for their mental decoration. It helps them figure out how their stuff is going to fit. A bare minimum of vanilla furniture shows better than even a vacant, empty property. Even most stagers seem to want to put too much stuff in the place, for some reason. Seriously, keep it to a bare minimum. A bed in the bedroom, a couch in the living room, a dining set in the dining room. Maybe one nightstand in the master bedroom, a coffee table and placeholder for the TV in the living room. That's it. If the place is not vacant, and you are still living there, that's still the target you should aim at. If you don't absolutely have to have it every day, get it out of there. This especially applies to family heirlooms, anything expensive, and anything irreplaceable. Get. It. Out. People want to be able to see their stuff in the place, and they can't do that if there's too much of yours. By the way, this applies to you, too, at least while prospective buyers are looking at it. Don't follow them around your property like you're worried they're going to steal the silverware. Get out. If there's anything you're worried about them stealing, get it out also, and keep it out until the property is sold. For everything else, your listing agent should have a record of who has been in the property, and you should be insured even if you're not trying to sell the property.

4. Condition Is it clean? Is it neat? Is it attractive? Here's an example for you: Carpet is maybe $40 per square yard, installed, with a good pad. If you've got a hundred square yards of carpet that needs to be replaced, call it $4000. Not replacing it will probably cost you at least $10,000 on the sales price. More likely double that, and it'll take longer to sell and you'll end up giving a carpet allowance to your buyers out of what you do get. Dirty floors, chipped tiles, all that stuff is unbelievably costly not to fix. Believe me, I understand what a pain it is. My newest family member loves to chew drywall. It costs far less to fix it yourself than you're going to have to give up to sell the property. Get a cleaning service in if you don't want to scrub everything yourself. It's stupid, but opening the blinds or drapes so that prospective buyers see all that light as they're walking in is worth serious cash, not to mention much broader interest. The point is this: Many prospective buyers have the imagination of a rock, and their agent isn't any better, because they don't want to say anything that would give the people they're supposed to be helping (but aren't) grounds to sue. You can choose to market only to the people who are visualization's answer to Albert Einstein, but it really does narrow your potential market, and hence, cost you money and time (and therefore more money) when you're trying to sell.

3. Showing Restrictions: If people can't see your property when they have the time, they're not going to make an offer on it. Cold hard fact. Since the time of highest interest is the first few days its on the market, if you haven't gotten an offer withing thirty days, not only is something wrong but it's cost you some serious cash in the form of lowered selling price. Showing instructions are easy to fix. "Just go!" is absolutely the best, but (unless you're an international supermodel), prospective buyers don't want to catch you in the shower or in bed any more than you want to be caught there. One bad experience in this area is all any agent needs, and I've had mine (believe me, you don't want details). Asking for a few minutes notice so you can evacuate is reasonable. Telling prospective buyers to avoid a time slot is also reasonable. But the more restrictions you put on showing, the more likely it will be that you've raised the cost for viewing your property too high. Asking for four hour notice - let alone 24 - is almost guaranteed to prevent prospective buyers from viewing your property. And if someone does ask that far in advance, for crying out loud get back with them and be as accommodating as you possibly can. I actually laid out a trip "day before" last week, and of the seven people who wanted advance notice, precisely one got back to me. That gives me quite a bit of information as to how interested they really were in selling the property, which is to say, not very.

2. Price: I really hope you weren't expecting this to be number one. Buyers choose properties to look at based upon asking price. They choose which property to make an offer on based upon how well your property compares to others of similar asking price. If your property is clearly outclassed by properties of equivalent asking price, you're doomed. It is to be noted that just about every sin in the list is forgivable if the price is low enough, but the more sins there are, and the worse the violation, the lower the sales price is going to be, and most of the rational world wants the highest possible net from the sale. Trying to make believe that any problems that exist aren't there will only prevent the property from selling at all.

1. The Agent Plain and simple, you've chosen a bad one. Either they don't market the property effectively, they don't explain how things work to you, they make it difficult for other agents to show the property, they discourage offers represented by other agents, they don't return phone calls, they evidence a bad attitude, they're using your property to troll for buyer clients and don't want it to actually sell - the list goes ever on and on. They're effectively raising the price to make an offer on your property. Just because you've signed a listing agreement doesn't mean you're on cruise control. You need to monitor agent performance. At least, if you want to know whether they are performing or not. Are they forwarding all offers? Are they discouraging people from making offers because that offer might mean they don't get a kickback? All of these sins and many others really do happen.


Bonus Super Deluxe Reason. Homeowner Attitude About sixty percent of all listings I read leave me with one very strongly negative conclusion: That the owner of this property does not really want to sell. Maybe it's the agent's fault in some cases, but if you won't find - or pay attention to - an agent who won't tell you unpleasant truths, you're hurting only yourself. I tell my buyer clients that there is no such thing as a perfect property, but the same warning is equally important to sellers. There is no such thing as a perfect property, and acting like you own one is a great way to drive buyers and their agents off. You are not doing buyers a favor by putting your property on the market. You have real estate, the most illiquid investment there is, you want the cash those buyers have, and you're not going to get it by giving them reasons why you're too difficult to do business with. If you didn't want what buyers have (cash), you wouldn't have the property on the market. Buyers, their agents, anybody who comes to look at that property is helping you get what you want. I believe that people who look at the property you're trying to sell are doing you a favor. Even if they just want to look at it, in the middle of the best seller's market there has ever been. If the property doesn't show, you won't get offers - guaranteed. If you don't get offers, you are highly unlikely to consummate a successful sale. The property is only worth what someone is willing to offer for it - end of discussion. If the most you can get someone to offer is thirty-nine cents, that's what it's worth. You can choose to sell, or not to sell, for that price, but trying to tell yourself or anyone else that the property is "worth $400,000" when nobody is making offers that high is a waste of energy, and quite likely, of a buyer and an offer that really are offering the best you're likely to get.

Caveat Emptor


As with anything you find on the internet, the critical thing to keep in mind with internet real estate is that it is subject to input control. In plain English, you only see what they want you to see. If they don't want you to see it, it's not going to be put into the internet so that you can see it there. The vast majority of the time, there is no check upon this simple fact of life. If the owner or listing agent don't want you to see something, it's not going to be available to you on the internet. You're going to have to get out and look at the actual property.

What is put onto the internet is a representation. It could be a good accurate representation or it could be an intentionally distorted representation. The online information is never all there is to see. Kind of like a facade - front facade, back facade, and now, internet facade. Online pictures, home for sale websites, virtual tours - they're all subject to any number of tricks that alter how the property is perceived.

You should never put an offer in without having looked at the property in person. I'm very good at what I do as a buyer's agent. Nonetheless, it is most disconcerting on those rare occasions when someone sounds like they might be intending to put an offer in without looking at it themselves in the flesh. To date nobody has done so through me, but I have had to talk a couple people out of it. There is no such thing as a perfect property, and it's very difficult to point out all of the things I believe buyers need to be aware of when they're not there to see me point.

A lot of the most important things are never online. Even if there is a floor plan (rare), it's very difficult for people who are only looking on-line to get a good grasp of internal sightlines. It's also very hard to convey the full sense of the external environment. What can you see? What do you hear? Are there other environmental distractions? Do airplanes fly right over the house on departure when the wind changes? What's the neighborhood like, are there any obviously disturbed neighbors, what are traffic patterns like, how close and how good is freeway access, where is (are) your grocery store(s), and anything else that might be important to you? How accessible is the neighborhood via public transport? Note that some of these questions are double edged swords by definition. Public transport means your friends who don't have a car can get there, as well as making any public transport excursions you may have need far more bearable - but it can also be a conduit for undesirable visitors.

Nor can you really only visit one or two properties. The key to relative value is how the various properties on the market compare to each other, and that includes that whole list in the previous paragraph. No matter how much you make, if you figure you're going to visit an absolute minimum of ten properties before you put in any offers, the probability is pretty much 100 percent you'll end up glad you did.

The internet can profitably be used to narrow your search, by throwing out all of the obviously unsuitable properties. Doesn't have what you need? Asking price way too high? From the pictures, there's no way your family could live there? There's no reason to waste time and gas going to see those properties. You still need to go out and look at not only the properties that are left, but enough properties to give them context. I don't know how often I've heard from people who only wanted to view one property, but in such cases it always seems to be a property I wouldn't buy if the owners paid me to take it off their hands.

The internet can also make it easy to find properties to look at. It certainly beats driving around all the neighborhoods you might like to live in trying to find "For Sale" signs. But it cannot replace physically going to look at properties that might fit the bill. If you're short on time, might I suggest a buyer's agent, or several? That time is their job, the mileage is a business expense, and nothing is so precious as the time people give us to look at property. It's quite likely that a good buyer's agent will narrow your search a lot more, because going out and looking at property gives a lot more information than the internet, and we do it constantly. Getting a good buyer's agent first will make more difference than anything else to how happy you end up (Here's how to find a good buyer's agent)

Property always needs to be evaluated in the context of the area it's in. A lot of what might sell for $500,000 in my area might be less than $100,000 in other locales. This doesn't mean San Diego is overpriced. It means that there's a lot of people who want to live here very badly, these people make comparatively large amounts of money, it's hard to get permission to build, and the prices for the area reflect those factors. If you've decided you want to live in a particular neighborhood you're going to have to pay about the prevailing prices if you want housing. A good buyer's agent can make a big difference, but nobody can find you something that doesn't exist, and in order to really understand what a good bargain is, you've got to go and actually look at some properties that aren't bargains before you understand what a bargain looks like.

Caveat Emptor

The general public may not understand this, but the most critical parts of a listing agent's job all take place before the property hits the market.

The most important responsibility of an agent who wants to successfully list property is one of those. No, it isn't the pricing discussion, although it's closely related and usually done at the same time. It's educating the owner as to what a good offer for their property would be.

The weaker the overall market, the more important this is. In a strong seller's market, if you blow off a good offer, you're likely to get another almost as good. In a buyer's market like most of the country today, telling a good offer to get lost is a great way to lose money. I'm paid on commission. Believe me folks, I'd like to be able to get two million dollars for a not particularly attractive five hundred square foot condo in "the 'Hood" . The fact is that buyers look for the best property at the lowest price. You can try to sell a property for more than it's worth, but it's not going to happen, and trying is the best way I know of to fail to sell at all, or to be forced to sell for a lot less than you could have gotten, and have to pay the carrying costs for the property for a much longer time than if you know a good offer when you see it.

You can't really have the pricing discussion until the owner understands what a good offer would be. The correct asking price is central to a successful transaction. People look at properties based upon asking price, and you are competing with other properties of roughly the same asking price. If you ask too much, your property will be competing out of its league. The people who are looking for something in that price range will have superior alternatives. If the choice is your property or, for the same asking price, a freshly remodeled house with an extra bedroom and bathroom and a lot that's twice as big in a better location, which do you think the average buyer is going to make an offer on? Ladies and Gentlemen, even if your own mother is looking for a property and knows you need to sell, that's going to be a hard sale for your property. On the other side, if you're not asking enough, people will line up to buy, but then you (and your agent) end up with less money in your pocket, and that's not going to make anyone happy except the buyer.

Furthermore, you've got to understand the market you're trying to sell in. In a strong seller's market, you can probably afford blow off offers below a certain threshold. In a strong buyer's market, you need to try and work with anything even vaguely in the right ballpark, to see if you can talk them into something more in line with reality.

Some agents won't do this. They'll either accept whatever the owner wants to ask or even actually inflate the asking price. This is called "buying a listing," because owners who don't know any better get dollar signs in their eyes and sign up with that agent. It isn't really "buying" anything - it's more like a candidate's insincere campaign promises to repeal laws of economics. Anybody old enough to vote should know better than to believe this, but it works, for the same reason Nigerian 419 scamsters are driving around in Ferraris: People want to believe in easy money. In point of fact, as I have written before, this actually sabotages any chance of actually getting the best possible price. Your time of highest interest is right when it hits the market, and the longer the property is on the market, the lower the sales price is likely to be, and when you over-price real estate, you're not only going to end up getting less money in the end, but you'll have to pay carrying costs for the property for a longer period of time. In short, this approach reliably costs sellers money. Large amounts of money. There is no reason but greed and ignorance to do this, but many rotten agents make a very good living conning people who don't know any better. One of the reasons why bargains are hard to find is that the definite majority of the listings out there have been the victim of such an agent. The property isn't going to sell for that price, or anything like that price, but by over-promising on the listing price, they get a signed listing contract, and when all these properties eventually sell for tens of thousands less than they really could have gotten, that agent even looks like a "top producer."

Waiting until the property is on the market is too late. Everybody has already seen that initial asking price. Not to mention the owner still believes the nonsense they've been sold in the above paragraph. Waiting until you have an offer is definitely too late. The agent has been telling them up until this very moment to expect tens of thousands of dollars more, and now the agent is going to try to talk them into accepting what really is a good offer? Not likely to work, and not good for the relationship even if it does. Furthermore, one of the things you learn in this business is that the first offer you get is more likely than not to be the best. Oh, it's not rare or even that uncommon for a better offer to come later, but the most typical pattern is for each subsequent offer to be successively lower. And now you've lost what is likely to be the best offer you're going to get because your agent couldn't explain to you what a good offer was? Run that one by me again: Why are agents supposedly getting paid? I get paid for listings because I really do know how to sell them more quickly and for a higher price than any "for sale by owner". But why in the world would you want to pay someone who doesn't do that, and makes the sale take longer and causes you to have to settle for a lower price? I understand why it happens. I just can't understand why people would want to, other than a combination of ignorance, laziness and greed. Somebody once said, "Too bad ignorance isn't painful." Ignorance is painful, but it's financial pain, and the kind most of those burned by it never realize they felt, because they couldn't recognize the symptoms, and they have no idea how much better they could have done.

For a successful listing that's going to fetch an optimum sale, understanding what a good offer looks like, so the owners know how to react when they get it, and setting the correct asking price so that you do get such an offer, is critical. Failing to do so will put you in that group of people who don't get what they could have for the property, and since you don't understand how and why the problem happened, you're likely to repeat it every time you decide to sell a property. When the market rises rapidly for many years, as the San Diego area among many others did, you can even delude yourself into believing that you were "successful." But when the market returns to something more closely approximating normality, believe me when I tell you you that you'll find out in a hurry that you weren't as successful as you thought.

Caveat Emptor


There's an old literary tradition that cautions the reader to "Be careful what you ask for. You may get it."

Many real estate purchase offers are good illustrations of that principle.

The rule followed by good agents is, "Never make an offer that you wouldn't be pleased to have accepted, exactly like it is." An Offer is a legal term. You're making an offer to fulfill these terms if the seller will. By simply signing the offer in acceptance, the other side can create a binding document with legal force, and at least potentially sue for specific performance. Specific performance is more often used by buyers than sellers, but it is available to both. An offered and accepted purchase contract is roughly equivalent to creating both a "call" for the buyer and a "put" for the seller in options trading. The seller has a right to insist the buyer buy, and the buyer has a right to insist that the seller sell, on these specific terms.

Usually, there are things discovered about the property while in escrow. It just isn't cost effective for prospective buyers to perform an inspection prior to obtaining a contract, and sellers should be mindful of the fact that subsequent discovery can void the purchase contract with an inspection contingency. On the other hand, I can't imagine a buyer insane enough not to build an inspection contingency into the contract. No matter how great a deal they may think they're getting at first, the whole contract is subject to a revaluation if the inspection uncovers major defects. I'd prefer to negotiate repairs or compensation rather than flush the transaction, whether I'm a buyer's agent or listing agent, but if the other side isn't going to be reasonable, sometimes it's necessary to walk. On the other hand, if the sellers have developed remorse and aren't reasonable but the buyer wants to proceed, the buyers can force the sellers to perform by being willing to accept the original contract, as written.

The buyer usually has protection from the various contingencies in the contract - loan, appraisal, inspection, disclosures. But these have a specific limited duration, the sellers (via their agent) can insist the contingencies be removed in a timely fashion, and once they are gone, that buyer is as naked as the seller. Indeed, one of the marks of a good listing agent is being on the ball about contingency removals. Usually, it's the deposit rather than specific performance that the seller goes after because the reason the buyer wants out is it turns out they can't qualify for the necessary loan. Suing for specific performance in such instances is like demanding that men gestate and birth fifty percent of all babies. It's a physical impossibility that isn't going to happen. Sorry ladies, and sellers also. But the deposit money, and any other money in escrow, can be at risk.

Nor is that the limit of the seller's recourse. I'm not a lawyer, so talk to one, but damages certainly seem possible. Many lender owned addenda demand them if certain conditions are met.

The ultimate risk of a poorly written purchase offer, however, is that it leaves the buyer with a property that isn't worth what they paid for it.

It happens, particularly with large deposits. Buyers get into situations where they have a choice of buying or losing that cash deposit they worked so hard for. Even when the latter is clearly the least bad situation, many people, understanding the value of the cash they worked to save rather more clearly than the value of the payments they haven't made yet, will choose to consummate the transaction. They end up with an unmarketable property where they are obligated to make the payments on the loan, property taxes, and insurance. Since most folks are extremely happy to get a 2 percent deposit, this obligates you to 50 times that much by paying attention to immediate cash rather than the overall situation. Plus interest on the loan and property taxes. Ouch. Not a situation you want to be in.

There is a reason for each of the standard contingencies in a sale contract, and you can ask for others in the initial negotiations if you have a specific reason to be concerned. I just closed one where we negotiated an engineering report contingency because I had real concerns about the stability of the property (It was fine. But better my client spends $600 up front than spends half a million dollars for a property that's in danger of falling over). Standard contingencies can also be waived, creating a stronger, more definite offer. I'd be very careful about waiving them, and I always make certain the client understands the implications in writing. There are valid reasons to waive each and every one of the standard contingencies, but it is always a risk, and it can bite. The way I explain it is that it will bite, if you do enough of them - only nobody knows how many "enough" is.

If a buyer is giving up something that the standard contract gives them, there should always be something they're getting in return. If the seller isn't willing to do that, we're obviously making an offer on the wrong property. The same applies the other way around to sellers. One more way agents with good market knowledge serve their clients interests. "Yes, that model match sold for $X last month. But that seller gave the buyer 6% for loan costs, paid all the closing costs, and a twenty percent carryback as well. My client has a twenty percent down payment, doesn't need anything for loan costs, and is offering to pay half of all closing costs. When was the last time you saw all of that?" Every single one of those differences means money in that seller's pocket - money that should mean corresponding money my buyer doesn't have to pay in the form of purchase price.

Purchase price translates into property taxes for the buyer, and can mean exceeding statutory exclusions for the seller (i.e. they end up owing income tax, or at least having to pay an accountant to prove that they don't). The bottom line is that because the seller is getting things of value that the other seller didn't, they should be willing to give up something in the way of purchase price. If they're not, we're talking to the wrong seller and they're talking to the wrong prospective buyer. We want someone who's willing to see reason, he wants that prospective buyer who needs all that extra money from them to make the transaction happen (maybe). I think such a seller is barking mad, but that's their prerogative. It's a free country. They're entitled to lose their potential transaction.

Another thing that a poorly written offer can do is "poison the well." The other side gets so angry about the offer (usually the price part of the offer) that when the prospective buyer comes back with something better, they aren't interested. Happens. Sometimes it's justified, sometimes it isn't. If you're not emotionally attached to the property, no big deal. If it's the one you've got your heart set upon, prepare to make major amends in the form of concessions in order to bring them to the table. Hair shirts and heartfelt apologies are not likely to work. You've set a warning flag in the owner's mind or the listing agent's, and they're going to want something extra to deal with you because they're expecting a repeat of the behavior.

A poorly written offer can also leave you stuck doing something you don't want to, or can't. Suppose you need a contingency for sale of your own property, but neglected to include one in your offer. Bad news. Now you're looking at the transaction falling out, with consequences for the deposit, or renegotiation, and that seller is going to want a goodie of their own for giving you what you need. Renegotiation is also subject to issues from deterioration of mutual trust, as the other side starts wondering precisely how much of the contract you intend to live up to. It should be expected that the inspections are going to raise some negotiation issues, even in "as is" sales. That's life with asymmetrical information - which is basically every real estate transaction. But try to avoid anything else as a reason to renegotiate.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the dangers. With real estate, the answer to the question "What can go wrong?" is usually, "The mind boggles."* Purchase offers are probably the most noteworthy example of that principle. A poorly written, or poorly considered purchase offer can mean you're stuck with a situation you can't carry through on, and it can cost you anything up to the full purchase price of the property, and perhaps more than that.

Caveat Emptor


*Thanks to Robert Lynn Aspirin and Aahz

There is no such thing, of course. The perfect time to buy would mean that you have all kinds of leverage, and can make sellers give you pretty much the deal you want, but prices are nonetheless rising rapidly so that you will have a large amount of equity the first time you need or want to refinance, or if you need to relocate.

These two conditions never go together. If buyers have all the leverage, as they do right now, they are certainly not going to opt for increasing prices. Sellers can gripe and moan about it all they want, but while prices may be stabilizing right now, they aren't going to go up until all of the extra inventory clears. Supply and Demand. Three years ago there might have been 4000 residential properties on the market locally at any one time. The last time I checked, there were about 22,000. That means 18,000 additional sellers are competing for no more than the same number of buyers (fewer by my count). If they don't really want to sell, if they just want to sabotage other sellers by adding to apparent inventory, that's no skin off the buyers' noses. If sellers want to actually sell the property, they've got to compete in order to attract those potential buyers. It's not like buyers just go out there and buy the property whose owner's turn it is to sell. They buy the best property for them at the cheapest price. So sellers can either compete by having a cheaper price, or they can compete by having a better property. Most house bling does not recover the money you spend on it, even in a seller's market, but it might give you the wedge you need to attract a buyer in a buyer's market - provided that your property is no more expensive than the comparables. Most sellers are still in denial about this. They've got something a little bit better than the comparables, they want to ask $50,000 more, and then they wonder why their property isn't selling.

If you're looking for a time when property prices are increasing by twenty percent per year, by all means wait. Those conditions are called "seller's markets," because people who are willing to sell can get buyers to do pretty much everything they want, including pay more than the last seller got. Most sellers want to hold when prices are going like that, and buyers are desperate to acquire. High demand, low supply.

Personally, I think conditions are as good as they get for buyers, especially if you're going to hang around three years or more. Yes, prices might deflate a little more and you're likely to lose some money on paper. But trying to time the market so that you buy at exactly the moment when it hits bottom is an exercise in futility. Trying to "Time the market," whether stocks, bonds, or real estate, is a recipe for disaster. It's great if it happens, but it's sheer luck, and anyone who tells you different is lying. By the time people realize that prices are really going up again, buyers will come out of the woodwork and we'll be in a seller's market again.

Buyer's markets, where sellers outnumber buyers like they do now, do not last long, in large part due to the fact that once everyone figures out that prices are no longer declining, now everybody suddenly wants to buy. Inventory has usually been shrinking for quite some time before that happens. As a matter of fact, I just checked, and in the week or ten days since the last time I looked, local inventory has dropped. If it wasn't for people who had sense enough to withdraw suddenly rushing back, things would be looking at least a little rosier for those who do have to sell.

Buy while the ratio of sellers to buyers is in the thirties, while you can pick and choose your properties, and if one seller won't play ball, the one down the street who's a little more desperate will. If you need some special consideration, like a seller carryback of part of the purchase price, you kind find sellers who will be willing to cooperate because that's the only way they will get the property sold. If you wait until the market heats up and there are only five sellers per buyer, they're a lot more likely to tell you to take a hike with special requests like that. If I want cash, why should I loan it to someone with poor credit money at a below market rate if it's likely that I'll find another buyer in a week?

On top of this right now is the time of year. I originally wrote the article I'm updating near Christmas. Other things being equal, Christmas season is always the best time of year to shop for a property, because nobody wants to move the Christmas tree. Seriously, most people have enough extra stuff going on at Christmas that they don't want to add another major item: buying or selling their home. Those sellers who have their property on the market need to sell. But it's May now, and from Easter to school letting out is traditionally the best time for sellers, and we are seeing bidding wars for correctly priced property.

Nonetheless, with inventory finally dropping, and as fast as it is dropping, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the market started turning better for sellers and worse for buyers very soon. Once that starts to happen, expect prices to stabilize and then start to rise again, and the period of best deals for buyers to be over.

Caveat Emptor

I went out previewing properties a couple days ago. That particular client's situation being what it is, I was concentrating on vacant properties. But over half the vacant properties in that area had restricted showing instructions. "Call agent first," or "call for appointment to see."

When the property is vacant, there just aren't any common reasons to restrict showing. It's not like the buyer's agent is going to surprise grandma in the shower or even could make off with the big screen TV. If you're really trying to sell it, if it's vacant, it's empty, at least of your stuff, and the stager's (if there is one) had better be insured. If there really is some reason to restrict showings, it should be somewhere on that listing report. But I'm seeing this schlock on lender-owned properties, where there is exactly zero reason for it, at least as far as the owner is concerned.

What the listing agent is trying to do is control access, so that people like my clients have a gatekeeper. Why? So that they are more likely to be the selling agent also, and keep both halves of the commission. If the offer they bring in isn't as good, or isn't as quick (thereby costing the owner money), they still made twice as much or more in commission if they represent the buyer as well.

I strongly suspect that many agents - and yes, I'm keeping track of who, even though I'll never share it - play gatekeeper with offers as well. I send over an offer, and I never hear back. I call the agent, and am informed my offer was rejected, but I never see anything with the client's signature or even initials. I don't list many, but when I do, every single offer gets a written response, even if it's just "Offer rejected!" signed by the owner. It's illegal for me - as a Buyer's Agent - to contact the owner directly to confirm that they know about an offer, or I would. I could really get behind a law that said I could send a postcard to the owner that says: "Dear Mr./Mrs. X. My client made an offer on your property recently at 1234 Name Street. If you are already aware of this, please disregard this notice. If you are not, please contact your listing agent about the details. If they cannot satisfy you as to whether you previously saw it, please direct all complaints to the California Department of Real Estate at XXX-XXX-XXXX." Boy would that be a good use for postage. Agents who did their job would have nothing to fear; agents who failed would be out of the business fast.

The motivations of the seller are to show that property as often as possible, to as many people as possible. No showing means no offer. No offer means no sale. Therefore, anything which is a nonessential impediment to showing that property should be dealt with, and agent restrictions are one of these. Believe me, I understand about not wanting client phone numbers in MLS databases, because the last time I had a listing decide they wanted to postpone the listing (therefore withdrawing it from MLS), they told me they got over a hundred solicitations from agents who ignored both the "do not call" list and the fact that I still had a valid listing contract at the time, which they didn't bother to ask about. It's illegal to solicit another agent's listing in California. If it wasn't, people who list their properties would be getting phone solicitations from 8 AM until 9 PM every day, and the junk mail would kill entire forests.

But the seller, whether they realize it or not, wants their property shown as often as possible, to as many people as possible. That's how you get get good offers, or even better, multiple offers that you can play off one another. Anytime you make it more difficult for anyone to view your property, you make it less likely they will view it, less likely they will make an offer, and less likely that it will be a good offer. The sharks out there don't care about viewing restrictions. They're willing to make their low-ball offers sight unseen, albeit with inspection contingencies. And even a shark's offer is better than no offer if you need to sell.

So how does a Buyer's Agent deal with problem personality listing agents? About the only thing I can do is not waste my time and most especially that of my clients on their nonsense. The only one with the power to deal with such antics is owner of the property. Just insisting that you want to see all offers isn't enough. How are you going to know? You can ask that instructions go into MLS for making certain that you get duplicates of all offers. E-mail, fax number, address, or even a PO Box if you have one. Buyer's Agents can't bypass the Listing Agent, but they can send duplicates if the MLS instructs them to.

Even better is to insist that the Listing Agent forswear the possibility of Dual Agency, or they don't get the listing. In other words, no matter what, they will not get the Buyer's Agent's part of the commission. As I have said many times, make them pick a side of the transaction - yours - and stick to it. The listing agent can refer buyers to another agent, or the buyers can go without representation - it's not your problem. Actually, as a seller, you would prefer that the buyer go unrepresented. Not only will you get a better price from the poor fool, you get to keep the Buyer's Agent Commission. But this way, the listing agent has no motivation not to present offers from other agents. You are perfectly within your rights, by the way, to make whether you are going to pay a buyer's agent commission part of your decision making process on offers, but it isn't a good idea to make too big a deal out of it. Most of the reasonable offers you get will be represented by a Buyer's Agent of some stripe.

Nor does it demotivate them from open houses and all that. It is more likely that the people I meet at open houses will want to buy something else anyway. Oh, I do sell listings through open houses - but the one who actually buys that house is usually a contact of the neighbor who comes in with no possibility of buying themselves. Curious neighbors at open houses may be the most likely source of the kind of sale price that makes clients happy - if you treat them correctly. Internet marketing is cheap and easy and effective enough that it's worth doing just to get the listing commission. And when the property goes into escrow and people call about the ad in the monthly magazine I put an ad in, well I just find something similar if not better to sell them. Remember that I'm always looking for bargains, and I've usually got several properties in mind where the sellers are more desperate than I ever allow my listings to get.

This isn't all of the games that listing agents play to try and get themselves a larger commission. Many try to require a pre-qualification letter from a particular lender, which is right on the borderline of illegality, or even that you use their loan brokerage, which is illegal - no borderline about it. I ignore either of these requests, and I'm not above bringing the latter to the attention of the Department of Real Estate. The vast majority of all pre-qualifications are worthless. Nonetheless, the tactics I've suggested cover you against them pretty thoroughly. One more worthwhile tactic if you don't follow my advice about disallowing Dual Agency is to walk into their office at random intervals, and insist that they pull an agent report - as opposed to client report that is all the general public is usually allowed to see - for your property in your presence and give it to you. You are allowed to see agent reports on your own property (and only on your own property), as the privacy reasons that restrict agents from showing agent reports to the general public do not apply. Look at the showing instructions. Does it say what you want it to? Are the requests for making offers restrictive? If not, you may have legal grounds to terminate the listing, and you should want to, because the reason MLS evolved the way it has is to encourage the widest possible interest in your property. A listing agent who wants to restrict that so that they can receive both parts of the commission is moving you back into the days of the single listing half a century ago, and that is not in your best interest, not for price, not for timeliness of sale, and not for the ability of prospective buyers to actually qualify.

Caveat Emptor

I'm clueless about how home loans work. Is there any way to figure out how much I can afford to spend per month on a home. If I were to get a home for $(figure) how much would that be per month? How do I know how much the interest will be? Any sites that explain it all in layman's terms? Thanks


It's actually pretty easy. You are allowed a certain percentage of your gross monthly salary for debt service and housing. According to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who control A paper, it's essentially 45%. Some sub-prime lenders will go to 60 percent, but let's stay A paper until we know you don't qualify.

Lest it not be obvious to you, the less debt you have currently, the more you can afford to take on for a housing payment. One of the real problems, and reasons for abuse of a stated income loan, is couples who make $4000 per month each, but have $1200 or $1500 or $2100 in monthly payments for the two cars, credit cards, student loans, etcetera. Their coworkers all have $3000 mortgage payments, and $3000 buys a lot more house than the $1800 which is all they can afford. Actually, it's a pretty critical difference right now, since $1800 is the payment on about $275,000, which when I first wrote this, bought a decent two bedroom townhouse in an okay area, or a rotten three in an awful area, while $3000 is the payment for about $450,000 or a little more, which could have bought a 3 or maybe 4 bedroom home in a decent area.

Take 45 percent of your gross monthly income, call it X. From X, subtract your current debt service. This is car payments, credit card payments, furniture payments, any actual debt you have.

The number that is left over, call it Y, is what you can afford for housing by traditional measures. It needs to cover principal and interest of the loan, property taxes, home owner's insurance, and association dues (if any), PUD fees (if any), and Mello-Roos (if any).

Assuming that there are none of the last three, you're left with PITI, the acronym you're going to hear about what this covers: Principal and Interest (on the loan), Taxes (property) and Insurance (home owner's insurance).

When I first wrote this, there were A paper thirty year fixed rate loans in the low sixes with 1 total point or less (rates are a bit lower at this update). Any loan calculator (except auto loans) can handle that calculation. Except that if you're not putting a down payment, you're going to want to split your loan into a first and a second to avoid PMI (Unfortunately, as of this update, second mortgage holders have run for the hills. It's one loan with PMI or nothing at all). To do this, you're only going to put 80% of your loan on the first mortgage. Adding the remaining 20% back in at 9.00% (doing this saves you about two and a quarter percent on the whole amount), for which you're going to need to do a separate calculation. Put the two numbers together and that's the principal and interest (PI) part of the PITI acronym. This assumes you've got decent credit, by the way.

I have no way of knowing your property taxes. Every state in the union has their own way of doing it. California's is actually one of the lower tax rates, considered on an assessment per unit of value basis. There are also zones where bond issues have passed, Mello Roos assessment districts to pay for the costs of bringing utilities to the development, and so on and so forth. Your county assessor will have the details. One of the things a good agent can often do here in California is deduce the presence of assessment districts based upon the taxes paid by a particular property, but it's subject to error, and your county assessor's office will have the information, and it won't b subject to guesswork.

I have no real way of knowing what home owner's insurance might be. I usually guess $100 to $110 per month for a good policy covering detached housing, but that's a guess, and it could be much more, or slightly less. The only way of moving from guess to certainty is to ask insurance agent how much to insure a given property.

Now, if the sum of these numbers (PITI) is less than $Y, that portion of your monthly income available for payments and left over after monthly debt service, you've got an excellent chance of qualifying for that loan. If not, you're going to either not buy the property or have to go sub-prime, where the allowed debt to income ratio is higher, but the rates will also be higher and the terms less generous, for instance in the presence of a pre-payment penalty. It is likely that instead of playing games to stretch your ability to qualify, you would be better off shopping for a less expensive property in the first place. But that's a hard thing to get most buyers to accept. They've fallen in love with the brand new house and they don't want to hear that they can't really afford it. The universe knows that these good deeds do not go unpunished. But informing the client is still the right thing to do.

Caveat Emptor

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