Intermediate Information: April 2008 Archives

I don't know how many people have told me the story of the Purchase Offer That Was Accepted But Couldn't Be Done. They come to me because they lost their deposit or are about to and they want some way to make it not happen.

But it's never happened to offers I write for my buyer clients. I doubt it ever will. There are many reasons why real estate agents need to know and understand loans. First off, to save their backside. Somebody defaults on a purchase money loan, the agent is an obvious target to drag in. E&O insurance plus fiduciary responsibility equals rewarding target for lawsuit. The second reason is even more important than that: Saving the client relationship. What could possibly be more damaging for a buyer's agent than losing a client's deposit? There really isn't much. When I write a purchase offer, the built in structure is always of a loan I know that I can do.

This is particularly important where there's less than 20% down payment being contemplated. For the last ten years, there's pretty much always been a loan that could be done, no matter how poorly qualified someone was. That has now gone by the wayside. Stated Income and NINA loans are now much more difficult to find, and with declining market designators, I'm not certain I can do 90% Loan to Value loans stated income at all right now, even for a primary residence.

All government programs - VA loans, FHA Loans, FHA Secure (not a purchase money program), Mortgage Credit Certificate, and locally based first time buyer assistance - all require qualifying based upon full documentation of income.

Given this, you have to know if you can afford it before you make an offer. You're going to spend roughly $1000 to pay for an inspection and an appraisal as soon as you have an accepted offer, not to mention you're tying up a deposit of several thousand dollars in escrow - a deposit that's potentially "at risk" if you are unable to qualify for the loan that will allow you to purchase the property.

I know that I'm not very respectful of pre-approval, let alone pre-qualification. This is because there are no real standards for either one, and I've seen enough pieces of paper swearing a loan could be done when it in fact could not to make a fair sized bonfire. There are several reasons for this. There just isn't anything to gain personally, and everything to lose, for a loan officer to tell someone "Sorry, but you do not appear to qualify." So they issue the pre-qualification or pre-approval on hope and a prayer, because they might be able to get a loan done.

So you want to make the loan officer go over the numbers with you" Debt to Income ratio, Loan to Value ratio. Add up all of your other debt, add up the full payments for principal and interest, property taxes, and homeowner's insurance. What percentage of your verifiable monthly income (monthly average over the past two years) is that? How much do you have available to use in your bank and investment accounts? Does that cover the projected down payment and sufficient money for the closing costs you'll need to pay? If you need to buy the loan down with three points in order to qualify on debt to income ratio, is there still enough available to make the required down payment?

In some cases, writing the purchase offer correctly - structuring the transaction with the loan in mind - can make a difference between a loan and a purchase that can be done, and one that cannot. This is definitely the case if you are looking for anything over ninety percent financing, and especially if you want 100% financing. The only 100% financing available right now that doesn't require being extremely careful about how you write the purchase contract is VA. It can be done, even in declining markets, but you have to be extremely careful to write that purchase offer in consideration of loan requirements.

Now if your real estate agent is a highly qualified loan officer, it's no sweat. I write every purchase offer with prospective loans in mind. If I don't know I can do the loan, I find another way to write the purchase contract so that it can be done.

The time of writing a purchase contract and worrying about the loan after acceptance is gone, and it may not return. Even for well qualified borrowers with plenty of income and down payment, it can't hurt to get a loan officer involved when making an offer. For those with marginal income and not much down payment, getting a loan officer involved before you write an offer (or accept a counter) can make the difference between a viable transaction, and one where everyone's wasting their time and money. Yes, you can potentially renegotiate a purchase contract later. Is there anyone who wants to tell me that's as good as getting it right in the first place? Do you think you might be opening the door to issues of trust between buyer and seller getting in the way on those renegotiations? Do you think that the seller might demand fresh concessions, where if it had been negotiated correctly in the first place, you would have something that's essentially the same terms as the initial contract? Not to mention time lost, delays in closing, opportunities for the entire transaction to go south? Write your offers with loans that can and cannot be done firmly in mind, and you won't need to renegotiate for the sake of the loan.

Caveat Emptor

I am buying a house. I signed the contract but the seller said contingent to sell until she buys new house?

Is that normal?

People do it. It's smarter to avoid the stress and complications of dealing with both at once, but there's nothing wrong with a contingency sale, so long as you agreed to it in the contract. Note that once you have a fully negotiated contract, you can't just add a contingency to it. It has to be agreed to before there's a valid purchase contract, and if it isn't agreed to before then, the question becomes, "What concessions is the other side going to demand for this?" There will always be concessions, but by waiting to negotiate them after the contract is complete, you lay yourself open to a suit for specific performance. You agreed to that contract. Just because you forgot something important (or if you intentionally omitted it), does not mean you can just tack it on as an extra consideration, any more than the other side can unilaterally change the purchase price by $10,000.

Contingency does add a lot of complexity and not an inconsiderable amount of cost and uncertainty to the process, however. The buyer shouldn't lock their loan until they know when you can fund it, and if they don't know yet, this means the loan sits and sits, perhaps increasing in rate and cost. If you lock it, it definitely increases in rate and cost. This is one of the few possible exceptions to locking a loan rate right away. There's also the issue of whether your seller will qualify for the loan on the new residence, or the purchasers of your buyer's soon to be former residence can qualify for their loan. Not to mention the anxiety of whether you will qualify for your loan in time for the transaction to close so they can get their home, and I can go on.

There are better alternatives for this situation, and if your agent didn't give you a couple of ideas during the negotiating process, well, let's just say there are better ways to handle it, especially right now when you cannot afford to irritate or lose any buyers.

A contingency sale is most often for the convenience of the seller. Whereas this is just fine in a seller's market where as soon as you put the sign in the yard you get three offers, a buyer's market is something else again. By being unwilling to accommodate a particular buyer, you may not get another offer. I understand very well not wanting to move twice, but the person who is willing to work a little harder or go through some extra inconvenience usually gets it returned in the form of cash when the transaction is over. How much is dependent upon the competition of the moment. It can make your property a lot more attractive, and mean a significant difference on the sale price, if you're willing to cooperate with the prospective buyer on not making them wait while you find a new property to buy. In a market like today's, where buyers have all the power, it can make the difference between selling for a good price and not selling at all. Any time you find yourself unwilling to do something a buyer wants, you run the risk that you won't get another, or won't get another as good.

Some buyers want contingent sales as well. Just as being willing to work with a buyer without a contingency can make you money, a willingness to grant a buyer their contingency can also make money. You can ask for a larger deposit, a higher sales price, or for the right to continue to market the property - so you've got this offer, or a better one if that comes along, as they are not likely to be able to perform when you drop that Notice to Perform on them because you now have a better offer. If they could have performed, they would have already performed. If they really need that contingency, they've got to deal with the same market you're dealing with!

When there is a strong buyer's market, if you are willing to do what it takes, you are competing more strongly for the available buyers. Similarly, if you as a buyer have fewer needs that you ask the seller to cooperate with, chances are excellent that you will get a better price. Remember that there is a reason why he who has the gold makes the rules - because he's going to be shelling a good amount of it out in order to get his way on other things.

Caveat Emptor

I've been saying this for a long time: Short sales are poison for buyers. I don't know why people encourage buyers to look at short sales, because there is no advantage for buyers that I am aware of. In fact, there are several decided disadvantages. I'd much rather make offers on lender owned property, or anything else for that matter.

For those sellers who desperately need to sell, which is pretty much every short sale, I really am sorry. But I have a fiduciary responsibility to my buyer clients, who come to me wanting a better property for less money, and less hassle. The facts of life in short sales work against getting a bargain, while sabotaging our (mine and my clients) ability to control the transaction. Therefore, I advise against. Much better for buyers to look for lender-owned or other property.

The issues lie with the lenders, who are in denial of the situation. I've never come across anyone in any lender's short sale department who didn't have their head stuck in cloud-cuckoo land. Instead of making a prompt approval or disapproval of an offer, they sit and delay and hope for a better one. Most often, I've got the purchase financing ready to go in about two and a half weeks from the date of the purchase contract. For any other property, it's pretty trivial for the listing agent to be ready to close by then. We're done, and my client is happy.

For short sales, we usually won't get word as to what the lender is going to do for at least a month after that. I've literally never had an approval from a short sale lender within a normal escrow period of thirty days. This has implications for the buyer's loan. Mortgage Loan Rate Locks are more expensive for longer periods. Pulling a rate sheet at random, a 45 day rate lock adds a sixth of a point to the costs for a thirty day lock, while a sixty day lock adds four tenths of a point. On a $400,000 loan, this works out to roughly $667 and $1600, respectively. If you need an extension, a tenth of a point (roughly $400) buys five calendar days. Some lenders aren't extending locks at all for loans above the conforming limits. Or buyers can float the rate, leaving themselves at the mercy of the financial markets as to the loan they might eventually get. None of these is an optimal situation from a buyer's point of view.

When they do respond, the short sale lender will always try to squeeze more money out of the transaction. They're in denial about their loss, with the practical effect of making that loss worse. The property is only worth what it's worth. The first few days on the market are the best time to get the highest offer. If you didn't get an offer then, you're not likely to get more money later, as I said in How to Sell Your Home Quickly and For The Best Possible Price. But loss mitigation departments are congenitally clueless about this - and they will forget whatever you manage to teach them within 4.3 nanoseconds. They are structured towards shaking the most possible money out of the transaction, and seem completely unable to learn that all this does is result in a failed transaction, no matter how many times it happens. What's that definition of insanity again?

So what usually happens (after 45 to 60 days - weeks after my buyer clients could be living in any other property) is that the lender wants two things: A higher price out of my buyers, and a commission reduction on my part. I'm not going to say that I'm in love with commission reductions, but I'll agree in order to make clients happy. But the deal-killer is that they want the buyer to make a higher offer. Ladies and gentlemen, I went out and negotiated a good deal that my client is willing to accept with the seller, despite all of the delays and problems in short sales, and here's this third party essentially vetoing the purchase contract. If I did get a heck of a deal, it's now gone. In any case, my clients are going to be unhappy, being presented with what amounts to an ultimatum: Pay more money or lose the property. Show of hands, please: Is there anybody reading this that would be happy to get such an ultimatum? Unilaterally attempting to alter the purchase contract is forbidden with any other transaction. Why in the world would a rational buyer want to subject themselves to that? Why would any but the most clueless of agents not discourage them from doing so? I'm not going to say it's impossible to get a great bargain on a short sale, but it is highly unlikely.

I do consider my clients being willing to deal with a short sale to be worth some serious concessions in the purchase contract, as does every other agent with any experience in dealing with them. So it's not difficult to negotiate a pretty good bargain initially - but it's extremely difficult to keep that contract intact when the short sale lender gets involved, because their priority, the only thing that's on their radar screen, is shaking as much money as possible out of all the participants.

Nor is there anything I can do as a buyer's agent that's going to make the transaction fly faster, or prevent the short sale lender from sabotaging it. I can argue until I'm blue in the face. They're not going to listen to me. They might listen to the listing agent, but not the buyer's agent. I can help them with what to say, but I'm still relying upon someone else to convince that short sale lender. Whatever they do, they're going to take their own sweet time responding, hoping for a better offer.

The cold hard statistics is over eighty percent of all short sales fall apart, and most often it doesn't even get as far as whether the buyer is qualified. The short sale lender wants more out of the buyer, wants the seller to come up with more money than they've got, the buyer gets tired of waiting and moves on - something. No matter what is is, my buyer isn't going to be happy. Quite often, I get the blame, at least in my client's mind, for the transaction failing - even if I warned them as to why this was a bad idea in the first place.

If you do get an approval from a short sale lender, quite often they're written on a ridiculously short deadline. Given all of the facts above, I'm not going to advise my buyer clients to spend their money on appraisal, inspector, etcetera until we do have an approval. That's just money thrown away if the short sale lender doesn't approve it. But waiting on them means it's likely to take more than a week to get the loan done once we do have an approval - and dealing with a one week deadline was an actual experience I had once. Not to mention the effects of waiting for such an approval on the buyer's due diligence period, and possible exposure to loss of my client's deposit (at the very least, it's sitting there tied up in escrow while everything gets sorted out).

Seller paid closing costs, integral to most transactions currently, and Down Payment Assistance are also extremely difficult to get approved. These are money out of the lender's pocket, and they're going to require a higher than what they consider "market" price in order to compensate them. This is intelligent and reasonable, but if you're looking for a bargain due to them not understanding their bottom line, it's not going to happen, and in fact, when one or both of these things are part of most transactions, the "market" is priced to include them. Result: The buyer who needs one or both of these is likely to have to pay more for a short sale than any other property they might fix their eye upon. And those buyers are wanting me to find them a better property, cheaper. Are you still in doubt as to why I advise buyers against short sales?

It is far more fruitful for most buyers to focus on properties in other categories. For this particular property, better to wait until is is lender owned, at which point the bank is on the hook, paying money out of their pocket, and usually the money tied up in this non-performing asset costs that lender heavily in leverage on their working capital. Lender owned properties get turned over to different employees, with different performance incentives, with the instruction of getting that property off the lender's books! The money this costs the lender is their own management's fault.

For any lenders reading this and not liking it: The responsible party is you. If you don't want them to become lender owned and cost you much more money, get real about your short sales! Publicize your criteria so buyers and their agents will know they're not getting into a "black hole" situation, and respond in a timely and reasonable fashion without trying to leave people who weren't involved (the prospective buyer and both agents) holding the bag for your mistake. It will save you money by dealing with the situation before it goes to Trustee's Sale.

As far as writing this article goes, the only one I have any sympathy for is the current owner, who really does need to sell. No matter what past sins they may or may not have committed, that owner is currently trying to face reality and deal with it. As the buyer, however, unless you believe that seller's plight is worth wasting several tens of thousands of your dollars, there's nothing you can do. Buyers should avoid short sales. They're not likely to end up happy.

Caveat Emptor

Most of the articles and things I read about the price of gas seems to be based upon an implicit assumption that the price of gas is only as high as it is temporarily. This is not the case. Gas isn't going to get significantly cheaper than today. As a matter of fact, the way to bet is that the price ten years from no will be much higher. It's a matter of supply and demand. Two billion people in China and India are joining the consumer society, and they want our standard of living. Today, there was an article in AP headlined Gas guzzlers a hit in China, where car sales are booming.

But while sport utility vehicle sales in the U.S. are tumbling, automakers are finding that for China's newly prosperous car buyers, bigger is still better.

So General Motors Corp. has made the Escalade a star of its auto-show display and is eager to get it on the market here.

"If you look at the fastest-growing market segments in China, there are two - SUVs and luxury cars," said Joseph Y.H. Liu, GM China's vice president for sales and marketing.

It isn't a matter of price gouging by the oil companies, or even by OPEC. The real bottleneck is in refining capacity. Oh, there's only a finite supply of oil and eventually it will all be gone. But right now, the things limiting supply are how fast we can get it out of the ground, and how fast it can be refined to a usable form. Doesn't matter how much water is in the lake if you need more supply faster than the pipes can carry it.

Suburban and exurban real estate grew on cheap gas. Five years ago, gas was $1.40 per gallon. A car that gets 20 mph can go 70 miles on $5 worth of $1.40 gas. With gas around here up over $3.80 per gallon, things aren't nearly so rosy. Instead of 70 miles, that $5 will only barely take you marathon distance (26.3 miles), and it's going to get worse. At $5 per gallon, the consumer with a job in downtown San Diego who lives in Temecula (60 miles) has gone from spending roughly $2100 per year on gas for their commute to $7500 per year. That difference of $5400 is $450 per month right out of the family budget. In most cases, two spouses are driving separately, which means that difference goes to $900 per month, or almost $11,000 per year right out of their after tax income.

Temecula isn't the furthest of San Diego's bedroom communities by any means. I know people who commute from Lake Elsinore, Hemet, and El Centro. Many commutes are over 100 miles, plus all the people from even further afield (for instance, Yuma, Arizona) who may not commute every day, but have doctors or other activities here. Despite greatly augmented gas mileage, hybrids aren't going to offset this increase and even if they were, people would be adding the cost of at least one new car in order to do so. I don't know if you've looked recently, but hybrids aren't economy car priced.

With this effectively raising the cost of property further from the job, one of two things will need to happen: Either the places where the jobs are will have to relocate to the exurbs where their workers can afford to live, or people will have to start finding places to live closer to their jobs. The person in the next cubicle over who lives in Clairemont will have the same gas bill that someone from Temecula had five years ago. The older communities closer in have long been less attractive than new developments further out, but raise the price of making that trip enough, and the macroeconomic reality will force people to start thinking more in terms of shortening the commute, even if it means they have to settle for a 1200 square foot house built in 1950 instead of a new 2600 square foot one way out in the exurbs. People are willing to make sacrifices when it's mostly time out of their day, but when it's a continuing drain on the wallet that means little Billy can have an 8x8 bedroom and food, clothes, and a college fund, or a 15x12 bedroom and none of the others, you can expect more people to start choosing the former.

What this means is that exurban bedroom communities become less valuable, while older communities closer in to the job centers become more valuable. For those who may not realize what I'm saying, the closer it is to places where people work, the more valuable it will become. This factor has always been present, and the cost to commute has always been part of the cost of the property, no matter how many people pretended it wasn't. It will become a more important component as time goes by and gas prices rise further. And the further people have to drive to work every day, the less a given area will be worth. The people who work there won't have these costs, of course, but most of the skilled trades that get substantial paychecks have to work in the main job centers, and there aren't as many of those in Hemet or Westmoreland as there are in the central areas of San Diego. Corporate facilities are where they are, and if you can't afford to commute, you're either not going to work there or not going to live there. This has implications not only for where corporations decide to do business, but for zoning regulations as well.

Caveat Emptor

I got this email the other day, responding to one of my Hot Bargain Properties posts:

I am currently working with a coworker with no agreement. However, she has offered to rebate 50% of her commission. Are you negotiable with your commission?

I am very ready to buy a place at a bargain or discounted price. I have been pre approved by DELETED for $550 but I do not want to spend more than $525, preferably around the $450 range.

I have sufficient liquid funds for 10% down and have an excellent credit score...score 3 months ago was 752.

Let me know.

Now, I do have lower cost and commission rebate packages for when buyers bring me transactions that have the property at least settled upon. The reason is that not only is there much less work to be done done, but I'm providing a lot less value in those circumstances. I'm not going out and going over dozens of properties, eliminating eighty percent of them before taking them around to see the good stuff. I'm not doing background checks on all those properties, looking for issues. At the point that the property is settled on, at least half of the value a good buyer's agent brings in is already moot. We've already dealt with the issue of which property (or properties) are worthy of making an offer on. Now we're down to negotiations, where I still provide a lot of value, facilitation of the transaction, which any real estate agent worthy of their license can do, and looking out for problems, which starts earlier when I'm locating the property, but when you have title companies and building inspectors and appraisers getting into the act and getting paid, it becomes easy. It's no longer a matter of spotting the issue before an offer is made, it's a matter of dealing with the issue if and when it pops up. Much easier, much less time consuming, and much less liability on my part. When you've decided to make an offer before I even come into the picture, there is no issue with did my representations cause you to make an offer on the property when you would not otherwise have done so. I haven't been sued yet, but that's the number one cause of real estate lawsuits. Sometimes it's an unscrupulous agent telling the folks that the airport is going to close, but sometimes it's also people who think the agent said something they did not in fact say, and sometimes it's people who make something up stuff due to buyer's remorse. If you've already decided to make an offer, that whole issue is gone. Liability? Much less. Amount of work done and time invested? Way less. Amount of value provided to buyers? Also much lower. So yes, I'll work for less in those situations.

When I find the property, I retain the entire commission.

Yes, getting half the buyer's agent commission seems like a good idea on the face of it. One to 1.5 percent of a purchase price in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But how much value do those agents really provide? Consider: Did that agent find you something as interesting as the property they emailed me on? If the agent they were working with was finding them properties like that, there would be no need and no interest in working with me. If she spent enough time shopping the market that she even knows what is and is not a bargain, this person would never have contacted me. Does she look for problems and issues or does she just say "Here is the living room," and try to talk you into making an offer on every property? What value is that other agent providing you? If the answer is, "not much," then no wonder she's willing to rebate half the commission! As far as she's concerned, the half she does keep is free money for going around and looking with you. My goal is that my clients end up with at least 10% they would not have had without me - either a better property for the same money, or the same value property for a lower price, or some combination of the two. Now, if getting half of a two point five percent commission via rebate sounds better than saving 10% of the value of the property, or getting a property 10% more valuable for the same price, by all means keep shopping agents who rebate commission. If getting a property that is worth more, or paying less for the same property, is what you are after, you need someone who is likely to deliver that, and those discounters business model does not allow them to invest the time and energy to do so. Quite frankly, if they don't make a habit of it, they aren't likely to have the necessary expertise, even if they wanted to.

You may ask about how this squares with my attitude about loans. Yes, I'm one of the deepest loan discounters there is. That's because a loan is a loan is a loan, as long as it's on the same terms, and most folks qualify for better loans than they get. A thirty year fixed from National Megabank is the same loan as a thirty year fixed from the Bank of Nowhere in Particular, provided the rate, costs, and terms are the same. Only difference is who you make the check out to.

No two properties are alike. Especially in the current market, the difference between shopping smart and not doing so is multiple tens of thousands of dollars, far more than a commission rebate. I don't rebate buyer's commissions because I provide more than that in value. In my estimation, and that of the people who are working with me, it's money well spent. You get what you pay for.

Good buyers agents make a habit of looking for real bargains, whether or not they have a client it's appropriate for. It's called market knowledge. With market knowledge, a good agent can not only identify the ones that are bargains, you are able to negotiate better terms on those bargains. Good buyer's agents usually have bargains they know about that they just haven't found the appropriate client for yet. If you'd like to work with them and get shown these bargains, or have them go looking for bargains specifically for you, there is a price to be paid, and that price is that they make a little more money than the do-nothing discounter. You don't pay it, at least not directly, the listing agent does, and through them, the seller. If you believe that the final price might be somewhat higher to reflect that, you would have some justice on your side, provided you don't consider the value in locating the bargain property, the value in negotiating for a better price, and the value in avoiding problems before they happen, or dealing with them in initial negotiations rather than at the end of escrow. If you don't see the value, then not only are you saying that you don't see the solution, but that you don't understand that there is an issue. This indicates someone on the first level of competence: The unconscious incompetent. Not only do you not know how to do it, you don't realize that there is acquired knowledge and acquired skill involved.

Now a good agent who knows they provide value should have no difficulties asking only for a non-exclusive buyer's agent contract. if you don't like what that agent does, if you do not agree that there is value in that agent's approach, this leaves you free to stop working with them at any time and go work with someone else. If the agent doesn't perform, as in find and deliver a property that you agree is more "bang for the buck" than you would otherwise have gotten, by all means go work with the bump on a log who splits the buyer's commission with you.

If you want a Yugo agent that breaks down in the middle of the transaction and leaves you stranded, that's no skin off my nose, but you are not the client I'm looking for and the bargains I find are for my clients. I am neither obligated nor inclined to share them with people who want to use some other agent. Go find them yourself if you don't think I'm providing value. Just the knowledge that something like that is available should be a large amount of help. But if you can't, perhaps you might consider that perhaps I might be providing a certain amount of real value for my pay?

Very few people reading this are likely to be receiving minimum wage for their employment. If you are not prepared to concede that it is possible for more skilled, more knowledgeable people to deliver a more valuable product, whether that product is service or commodity, what possible justification do you have in making more than minimum wage? For that matter, unless you are one of those people whose work has to be done on site, why isn't your job being done by some subsistence level worker in a Fifth World hellhole? Even if we limit ourselves in the application of this principle to qualified and licensed people here in the United States, my guess is that your boss could probably hire other people to do your job more cheaply, but his additional investment in you probably makes him more money than that cheap replacement worker would save, and that's the reason you are worthy of your pay. This very same reason is why I am also worthy of my pay.

By the characteristics they are claiming, the person with the email at the top of the article is a very qualified buyer. Don't you think that should be working with someone who knows how to use that as leverage to get them a better bargain? Suppose they weren't. Don't you think it might be in their best interest to have an agent who knows how to structure a transaction so that it can work, and can help avoid wasting time and money on properties and transactions where it can't and sellers who do not have the option of working with them in the requisite way?

Or you can pay full price for a mediocre property, and console yourself with a much smaller amount of cash, that when you consider the entire situation, is a fraction of the money that came out of your pocket but didn't have to. Pay too much, and get a check back for maybe a fifth of it in cash. Sound like a good deal to you? Maybe you didn't pay cash for the property, but then you've got a loan, and you paid additional fees based upon the size of that loan, and interest because you borrowed that money, and more in property taxes because you paid more than you should have. All of this eats away at money you would otherwise have in your pocket and equity that you would otherwise have in the property. Just because there's no explicit dollar figure on it doesn't make it any less real. How would you feel about writing a check drawn directly on your net worth for some unknown amount? Not so hot? That's what you are doing by using some bump on a log discounter who basically allows you to keep a percentage of what they provided no real value to earn. This is one of the largest transactions of your life. Scrimping on the compensation of the person who has the knowledge and skills to save you many times what they cost is almost as intelligent as OJ Simpson hiring a cheap lawyer. Even though I hope that you haven't been accused of murder, using a less skillful agent means you wasted money. Even though that's not a crime and you did it to yourself, it's still nothing beneficial to your overall financial picture.

Caveat Emptor

I've seen many new home developments with vaulted ceilings, mini-vineyards, huge houses on little tiny lots...Why can't some developer built some homes for us regular people? A normal sized home with plenty of closet space and a decent (not designer) kitchen that is set more than 3 feet from the neighbors house.

I realize that they need to make money, but more people could afford homes in this state if the builders weren't catering to people who already own 2 and 3 houses.

The developer has a certain amount of LAND for a development. That's all they have, and they are not getting any more. For this, they paid a set amount of money. Furthermore, once they have it, it's likely to be years going through the permit process before they can even start to build. That money they invested in the project, both upfront and as the project goes along? If they wanted to invest it in say the stock market, it's be earning income - for years - before the first spade of earth gets dug. If it's three years from purchase to completion, that's a 33.1 percent necessary return just to break even from the opportunity cost (at ten percent per year - very doable). If it's five, as is more likely, they need 61 percent. If it's seven, 94.9 percent. To this, add property taxes as they go, the costs of environmental studies and obtaining the permits and paying for inspections and certifying everything. If there's a loan going on, they have the cost of interest going on as well. Now there are ameliorating factors as well, but given the sheer amount of work that has to be done before they nail the first two boards together, a rational person could maybe be forgiven for thinking that society wants housing to be prohibitively expensive.

Furthermore, it's silly, but people buy a property based upon the structure and the amenities. Well, it's not silly to make that one of the factors, but people go overboard. They will buy a 5 bedroom 2800 square foot house on a 3000 square foot lot before they'll buy a 3 bedroom 1800 square foot house on a 20,000 square foot lot. The same structure is really worth a lot more when it's on a bigger lot, and even a lesser structure may really be worth more if it's on a bigger lot, as is likely to be the case here, but for most folks, we're talking emotional appeal, not rational thought process. In other words, like many people looking for a mate, they see the gorgeous sculpted toned and tanned member of the opposite sex, and ignore the abusive personality behind the beautiful exterior. I'm not certain I've ever met someone who wanted to live in such a development, but they sure sell like hotcakes! Add travertine and granite countertops and the fact that it's new to the 2800 square footer, and you've got people willing to pay $800k for the first property as opposed to maybe $550k for the second. In their mind, the first property might be a "flipper's investment" while the second is "the keeper" that they are going to make improvements on for the rest of their lives, but economically, we vote with our dollars. If you opened your wallet for the house where you don't have any land, guess what? You're voting for developers to keep building them. You know something else? That brand new cheek-by-jowl development isn't going to be new forever. Considering market returns, that older $550,000 3 bedroom on half an acre is a better investment, even if it needs updating. Curb appeal and house bling and "ooh, it's new!" are the best ways I know of to sucker buyers into paying too much money.

The developer knows this at least as well as your average real estate agent. The developer has all of this researched down the the last centimeter of the lot lines. They are not in business to build wonderful homes that people are going to be happy in forever; they are in business to make money, and the blinged-out houses on the smallest possible lots bring in the most money for that developer. The fact that you're the very first person to live in the house is a further attraction to the kind of person who buys new cars, which is to say, most of the population, and it's worth serious money to that developer's bottom line, although it will cost you money in the long term.

Nor is the developer alone in this endeavor. They wouldn't make the most money from homes like that if people didn't pay the most money for homes like that. You want the real culprits in this scenario, look around you in any large crowd. It's all to easy to blame the developer, but the desires of the average home buyer and the regulatory environment both played huge factors in getting the state of new housing to where it is now.

There are ways to potentially fix the problem. They start at real consumer education, easing environmental restrictions and the permit process, particularly for high density housing, which may not be desirable, but when your front yard is the size of a postage stamp and most people wouldn't use it anyway, doesn't it make more sense to put all the community lawns together in one park that someone can actually get some use out of? Say, a place for kids and dogs to play? People say they hate condos, but condos townhomes and row homes are all that's available if the price of land stays where it is. Environmental regulation and slow growth policies are fundamentally at odds with affordable housing in high demand areas. I'm not saying throw them out entirely in the name of putting up cardboard shacks, but I am saying that we can certainly choose a point friendlier to low cost housing than we have chosen. I can only conclude that society must value the environmental status quo more than it values lowering the cost of housing, in which case the status quo is the correct choice.

None of this has any measurable political support. Everybody is for lowering the cost of housing, at least for the poor, but put it on the ballot against loosening environmental protections and it loses. There are a certain number of addition reasons why this happens, of course. Multimillionaire developers are not politically popular, but Least Tern environment is. Rarely do people stop to consider that by constricting the supply of housing, you unavoidably increase the price. Nor can you do anything by governmental fiat to fix the problem that doesn't price even more people out of the market. Demand is a given - it not directly controllable. There are 300 million Americans and they all want housing they can afford. Even kicking out the estimated 11 million or so who are in the country illegally wouldn't do a whole lot to really solve this problem. The only way to treat the issue is by increasing the supply, which does seem to include being nicer to those multimillionaire developers, but in this case the issue is more affordable housing for everyone, and being nicer to the developers means that you get more housing units, which drops the price of housing from whatever it would have been without being nice to the developers. Because any time someone else enters the United States, whether legally, illegally, or simply by being born, you create a housing need. Every time there is a new American without another place for that American to live, we create somebody without a home. We price somebody out of the market. We now have an American who cannot afford to buy a home.

Now how to handle this issue until such time, as any, as society changes its mind and decides to make housing more affordable? Your best bet is to find a good buyer's agent to defeat the problem on a retail level, that is, for yourself, because wholesale solutions are not likely until people get rational about solving society's problems. You can't make people build the kind of housing you say you want. But you can make informed choices between what's out there now, and a good buyer's agent will look as far out as you tell them to.

Caveat Emptor

Here's the real issue about commissions: They need to be structured to incentivize good results - rewarding those agents who do good work, penalizing those who don't. The current structure, where the brokerage gets a flat percentage of official sales price - doesn't really motivate agents to perform. It really doesn't make a huge difference to the brokerage whether a property sells for $500,000 or $400,000. Assuming a 3% commission, they get $15,000 in the first case, while getting $12,000 in the second, despite that any monkey should be able to sell a $500k property for $400k. Basically, they get 80% of the reward for doing nothing, but that failure makes a huge difference for the property owners. If they owe $400,000, that's the difference between going on to their next property with about $60,000 in their pocket or coming up short about $30,000 and having to do a Short Payoff, with all of the resultant consequences to that family's future. Nonetheless, at 3% commission, all this means is the difference between $12,000 to the brokerage and $15,000. There is a dissonance between the interests of the owner, who this makes a $90,000 plus difference to, versus the agent who will still get 80% of the same paycheck if they do nothing but persuade the owner to accept the first lowball offer that comes along.

This dichotomy of interests encourages all sorts of games, from "buying a listing" (leading a homeowner to believe the property will sell for more than it will in order to secure the listing) to failing to negotiate hard to accepting too many listings to be properly serviced. If I can really service six listings, and I take ten, the individual selling prices will suffer while I make more money - ten times $12,000 is more than six times $15,000. Most agents - just like most people - will do what aligns with their interests.

The major alternatives - "net listing", where the consumer "nets" a certain amount and money over that goes to the brokerage, and "Flat fee listing" don't really float my boat either. The first has the advantage of pay for performance and severely discourages agents from over-promising on price; nonetheless the homeowner isn't motivated to maintain the property, and the agent is a little too motivated to wait for a better offer that isn't likely to come. As for the "flat fee listing", all that motivates the listing agent to do is get it sold - never mind the price. Whether the owner makes $60,000 by selling for a great price, or loses $30,000 by not getting so great of a price, that's all the same to the agent. But the owner wants it to make a difference to the agent, because they want that agent to get the best possible price, not just the first offer. As for the "flat fee in advance" listing, why should that brokerage want the property to sell at all? They've made their money already! If the property sells, now they have to do all that work and assume all that additional liability!

What we really want is a fee structure where the agent is motivated to get the highest possible price as soon as possible, the latter being more important than is generally recognized, as carrying costs eat profits very quickly, especially if the family vacates so as to show the property to best advantage and get the best price, or if they've already moved to their new home for whatever reason.

There should be several terms in this equation. It should take the form a+b+c+... For every factor the owner and the agent can agree upon having an effect upon consumer benefit, there should be a term in the compensation equation. Note that if the agent doesn't measure up in some way, any of these terms (except the one for doing the base paperwork) should be able to go negative. It's likely that good agents should be making more for listings than they are, while ineffective bozos quickly go bankrupt.

I'm not concerned with getting paid for a listing that fails to sell. In fact, I consider the concept anathema to a good agent - or any other business. If I do not get the job done, I do not deserve to be paid. Nor does any other agent or any other business. The world doesn't pay off on a good try, and my experience is that listings that don't sell aren't likely to have been a good try. I just visited a listing yesterday, a preview for a prospective client. Showing instructions said "vacant -go" Got there, it's a combo lockbox, but no combo anywhere. Spend half an hour in the front yard on the cellphone trying to get a combo from agent, listing office, number listing office referred me to, the number I was referred to from that, and so on. Finally gave up. How many others like me have there done that? Sounds like an agent who wants both halves of the commission to me, discouraging prospective buyers represented by other agents. Sound like someone you want to work with? Sound like someone you want to reward if you do inadvertently sign up with them?

This doesn't change the fact that if it does sell, there's a given amount of work no matter what the price is, and a given amount of liability. That's just part of being in this business. No matter how careful you are, no matter how good you are, eventually something is going to bite you. It's just a fact of life, and is the reason for E&O insurance. The commission structure needs to recognize this fact of life, or it will fail. But this is not how agents should earn most of their money, and most agents don't do this paperwork themselves, but have assistants paid as little as they can get away with to do it. A flat fee of $1000 is probably about right in California. Enough to pay the rent, the utilities, and the receptionist who actually generates the paperwork off WinForms.

Performance pay is a separate issue, and should be a separate term in the equation. I'll happily pay $20 to make $100 ("here's another $20 if you bring me another $100!"). The most central idea of engaging an agent is to get a better price for the property. My client shouldn't be expected to pay me if I'm not performing services of value - enabling them to get higher price for a quicker sale and less. Any twit should be able to get $300,000 for a property that's worth $400,000. That's not a valuable service, and that's not something an agent should get paid for. If the agent can't get a good enough sale price to meet even a minimum test of benefit for the client, they should lose money. If the sale price is low enough, it should eat up even the base transaction fee, or even send the commission negative - the agent pays the consumer for so badly bungling the transaction. This is nothing unusual in other businesses. Even doing mortgages, I'm perfectly prepared to pay money out of my own pocket if I can't deliver a loan on the terms I quote (for reasons other than client not telling me the whole truth, that is!). The goal is complete consumer satisfaction, and taking money when my client doesn't benefit doesn't help my business in the long term either.

This performance pay should be steeper than current standards. Between ten and twenty percent is about what I think will do the most good. Give the agent a good solid incentive to want a higher price if they think its coming, while still reserving the lion's share of the benefit to the client. If I get Joe a price $20,000 higher than he would have gotten without me, Joe should be quite happy paying me a portion of that money by prior negotiated agreement. I would be ecstatically happy to do so in the reverse situation. And if you wouldn't happily pay it, I suggest you need to be confined because you're not sane. You want the agent to have a personal incentive to make that money for you. But it should be 10-20% of the excess or shortage relative to a base amount - whatever the seller and their listing agent think it could be sold without the agent benefit. It should also be based upon the sale price net of all negotiated "seller givebacks" not related to specific later discoveries (i.e. inspections and requests for repairs based upon them). It an inspection shows unsuspected repairs costing $20,000 are needed, the seller would have to pay that anyway, and it's not the agent's fault that need exists. But the idea is that client benefit should translate into agent commission, and client detriment should translate into money out of that agent's pocket.

There should also be a healthy term built into the equation to reward or penalize the agent for a quicker sale or a slower one. This can be based upon a flat duration, or upon average days on market for properties in the same class. More expensive properties take longer to move - that's just a fact. But this component term should be based upon date of sale, and should be based upon a very high percentage of carrying costs for the property - about thirty to fifty percent, maybe even sixty. I'll happily pay fifty bucks if it means I don't have to pay a hundred! Say average days on market in a given market are roughly 120 from listing to close of escrow, and it costs $4000 per month to carry the property. So for every month above or below four months, at fifty percent carrying costs, the agent gets $2000 more or pays $2000. If it's a six month listing with no offers, the agent pays $4000 at the conclusion. This would force agents to learn what are and are not qualified offers, and force agents to live with the same kinds of tradeoffs that our clients do. No more, "Sorry that escrow didn't close. It happens," when it should be part of our business to know that that offer was pie in the sky in the first place. When it's their own pay being docked, agents will do real investigation.

So far, the structure the ideal listing commission formula looks like this. $X basic commission, plus or minus $Y price performance (based upon 10-20% commission for over- or under-performing a certain price mark, plus or minus $Z time performance. Note that all of these are based upon demonstrable good for the client, and the client ends up with more money in their pocket as a result of every penny that agent is paid in incentive.

There should be one more flat component built in, contingent upon events. You don't want agents discouraging other offers, but you don't want them turning away foolish buyers who don't want a buyer's agent either. If someone is foolish enough to come in unrepresented by an agent, you don't want to shoo them away. So a fee for handling the buyer's end of the transaction is in order if there's no buyer's agent is a good idea - roughly half a percent of the sales price seems about right. Not enough that your agent is turning away offers made through other agents or pretending they don't exist, but enough so that they won't shoo any unrepresented buyers away, either.

None of this has any bearing upon the buyer's agency commission. That's a completely separate issue, and a separate article. But there are two issues you don't want happening to you. You don't want the listing agent discouraging buyer's agents so they can get both halves of the commission, and you don't want them shooing away an unrepresented sucker because it's extra work and liability that they won't get paid for.

Here's the really fun part: all of these terms need to get negotiated with every listing. Furthermore, it would tell a consumer quite a bit about whether they can really expect to get that listing price. I certainly wouldn't take a listing on terms which I wouldn't expect to get paid for, and neither would most agents (unless it's a "Hail Mary" to save their business).

As I've said, good agents would probably make more on this scheme, while poor ones will make considerably less, if they don't end up actually paying the client. You'd have agents advertising their average commission - paying a higher commission would do clients demonstrable good, rather than the standard "statistical studies show" argument NAR wants us to make. "Yes, I happily paid Joe $16,000 because because we agreed anyone could sell it for $250,000 in six months, and he closed a sale for $300,000 in thirty-two days." That's an five percent plus listing commission if the agent can pull it off - far more than any percentage I've ever heard of - that the seller was happy to pay because they demonstrably made more money and spent about $10,000 less in carrying costs! If an agent is that good, they can make that kind of money on every listing, and the clients won't be asking "What do you do to earn that money?" They'll be lining up to pay it! But to earn it, the has to deliver something good for the client, and if he can't help the client, he's going to end up owing the client money. Performance becomes the reason why agents are paid, individual performance for individual clients. It completely kills "buying listings", it completely kills "do nothing" agents as well as clueless ones, it discourages accepting more listings than you can service, it discourages working with more clients than you can handle, and it rewards agents who can actually get the job done better by the only universal measures - more money actually in the client's pockets sooner, with fewer carrying costs. The client benefit always leads to the agent reward - and client detriment always leads to agent penalty.

I have no idea whether this is even legal at this point - but I do intend to investigate. If it is legal, I'm going to start offering it for my listings. It wouldn't require any systemic changes - it all can be written into the listing contract, and it has no effect upon anyone other than seller and listing agent, meaning that if it's legal, there are no other interested parties, and a rational consumer would be as happy as a good agent to sign that listing contract, and happy to pay that commission, because it means they made even more money!

Isn't that what clients want? Isn't that what we should get paid for?

Caveat Emptor.

I sold my house in (state) in august 2001 I hired a title attorney whose (local company X) acted as a agent for (national company Y). The facts are that there were errors and omissions which led to negligence in the performance at the closing of the property. The property taxes for the year 2000 were not paid. The title company did not do their duty and gave clear title to the buyer. Now, more than 5 years later Company Y is claiming I owe them these back taxes plus accrued costs. I would kindly appreciate some feedback

Yes, you owe the money.

The title insurance policy you bought insures the person who bought the property. Property taxes are part and parcel of all land ownership. A reasonable person should have paid those taxes. But they didn't get paid.

This doesn't mean that someone didn't screw up. Every title search needs to include a search for unpaid liens that includes property taxes. That's just the facts of the matter.

However, this does not relieve you of your duty to pay those taxes in full and on time. If it was an obscure mechanics lien recorded against your property erroneously for work that was never done, you'd have a great case. If it was for stuff that you paid, and had reason to think you paid in full even though you were short, you might have a case. But not stuff that every reasonable property owner knows has to be paid, and didn't get paid at all.

Let us consider what would have happened if you still owned the property. The county would be sending a law enforcement official around with delinquency notices, which would include interest and penalties for late payment. If those weren't paid, they'd send law enforcement around another time with a tax foreclosure sale notice. You would have to pay those taxes.

It's no different because you sold. Because it's a valid existing lien on the property, albeit one they missed during title search, they paid it to clear the buyer's title, as the policy requires them to do. On the other hand, when an insurance company pays a bill like this, and title insurance is insurance, they acquire the right to collect payment via subrogation. This fancy word just means they paid the damage on behalf of someone, and now they have the right to collect payment, just like auto insurers who pay for the damage to your vehicle and go sue the party at fault, for which that person's liability insurer usually pays. The person with the liability to pay that property tax bill is you. Now, I'm not an attorney, so I don't know, but there might be a case you can build against the person who did the title search for the interest and penalties that have accrued since the search. Before that, the bill was all yours, and given that it was for 2000, should have been paid before August 2001. On the other hand, that title company might not have had a duty of care to you, despite the fact that you were the one who paid the bill, as the insured was your buyer, not you. Furthermore, the cost of paying the attorney can often go to several times the cost of paying the taxes and penalties. You'd need to, you know, talk to an attorney for more information. You might want to call company Y and ask if they'll settle for the bill as of the sale date, because they don't want to pay for an attorney any more than you do, and they did screw up, and if they hadn't, you would have paid the bill back then, right? Company Y can then recover the balance from their agent, company X.

Any lien that exists before the sale, discovered or not, is your responsibility. The only time that I think you are going to get off the hook is if you are dead and your estate probated and distributed before the lien is discovered. Basically, you've got to die to get away with it. Perhaps intervening bankruptcy might do it as well. I don't think so, but I'm not a lawyer. If you had died, the title company would still have paid, as the policy requires to protect the buyer, but would have had no choice but to eat whatever amount they paid, because there would be nobody alive who they would have a valid claim against.

Caveat Emptor

Copyright 2005-2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved


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This page is a archive of entries in the Intermediate Information category from April 2008.

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