Thursday, May 19, 2011
Home prices are low, interest rates are low - real estate is basically having a summer clearance sale! But unlike buying a clearance-priced car or computer, making the wrong move in this real estate 'sale' can have disastrous effects, from losing your dream home due to a bad bid to ending up with a money pit of a property.
Here are a few money-saving, pitfall-avoiding tips and tricks for buyers who want to do some smart home shopping this summer.
1. Have a vision in place, before you start your house hunt. Actually, have several visions in place. Have a financial vision, complete with a clear picture of what your total income and expenses look like, in the “after homebuying” view, including what you pay out for your home and related expenses, like HOA dues and homeowners’ insurance. Have a vision of your life in your new home, including what you want to do, with whom and where you want and need to go - in the work, family and recreation areas of your life.
If you kick off your conversations with your mortgage broker and real estate agent with a clear understanding of the lifestyle you are looking to create, you’ll be much less likely to get derailed. With a clear vision in place and, ideally, on paper, you can clearly communicate your wants, needs, goals and financial boundaries to your professionals, telling them what you can afford, rather than trying to shoehorn your financial plans into one-size-fits-all mortgage guidelines. With a vision, the temptation of an uber-low-priced, but completely inappropriate, home will not lure you into buying the wrong place for your needs. (Nor will an amazing home that is simply out of your personal price range - no matter how great a value it is for the money!)
2. Don’t let affordability get between you and reality. High affordability doesn’t necessarily mean you can get every single thing you want - and name your price. The fact is, even people who are spending millions for their homes don’t get everything they want! I’ve seen buyers insist that they need X number of bedrooms and Y number of bathrooms in move-in condition for a price that is just not going to happen, even in this clearance sale climate, and end up looking and looking, ad infinitum.
If your agent has shown you home after home that is what you want, but has sold for more than you want to spend, and you’re confident that you can find or cut a better deal because the market is down and you just os happen to be a brilliant negotiator (!), you might be at risk of falling into this trap. There are deals to be had, but if you don’t stay grounded in reality, you’ll end up chasing your tail and missing out on the tax and lifestyle advantages of homeownership.
If you’ve been house hunting for months and months on end, your agent keeps trying to tell you that you should search in a lower price bracket, you have repeatedly gotten overbid or you just can’t seem to find the precise home you seek in the location and price range you seek, at least consider the possibility that you might have an outsized wish list for your budget. Take a step back, revisit your vision, and remind yourself what’s really important. It’s okay to save some “must-haves” and “deal-breakers” for your next home purchase!
3. Get a local expert to brief you on the local market, then screen out the noise. Now more than ever, it’s essential to have laser beam focus on the information and strategies that will get you what you want - whether it’s an amazing deal on the home you’ve always wanted or simply success at becoming the owner of your first home at a price you never thought would ever be possible. Otherwise, you’ll end up all over the place, spending your time, money and sanity attending auctions, getting worked up over distressed properties that aren’t yet for sale, trying to negotiate deals with sellers who are in no position to cut them and having your lowball offers on bank-owned properties rejected time after time.
Don’t let a news story about a guy in Minnesota who got a home for $3.27 be the basis for your entire home buying strategy. Instead, ask around and get referrals to a local broker or agent who has a track record of helping the people you know. Read their answers on Trulia Voices and ask them your own questions to get a sense for whether they might be a good fit for you - if they are, and you trust them, then consult with them on the dynamics of your local market. The market is down everywhere, relative to 2006. But some markets - and some neighborhoods within markets - are still seeing multiple offers and home prices which are relatively recession-proof, compared to what you’d expect from the national news.
Once you have a strategy in place, work it - don’t let your acupuncturist or shoe repair guy convince you that your strategy is wrong, that you could get the place for cheaper or that the bank should absolutely do every single repair, or you should walk away from the deal. Many would-be buyers lose out on great homes because they take negotiating advice from their holistic veterinarian over that being offered by their broker or agent.
4. Read everything. Good faith estimates. Contracts. Disclosures. Inspection reports. There is a long, long list of multi-page documents that are very easy to “just sign” when you’re in the heat of the hunt and think you’re on the scent of an amazing deal. I’m not suggesting you ask for a week-long pause button to read every document, either - rather, read them when you get them, ask questions, and keep asking until you understand the documents.
Many buyers this summer will make offers on more than one home before they get into contract on “the one,” and many of those properties will be short sales or foreclosures. With distressed properties, every contract is different, so it behooves you not to go on autopilot, just skimming the papers as you might otherwise. Also, inspection reports might reveal red flags and condition issues that you’d normally expect to see in the seller’s disclosures. It’s especially critical, in these situations, to fully understand as much as you can about the property, your loan, and your obligations and due dates under the contracts.
5. Stop your mental accounting and do the actual math - on paper. In the field of behavioral economics, mental accounting refers to the tendency we humans have of doing math in our heads, separating things like easy money (e.g., the so-called “instant equity” from buying a home for less than it’s supposedly worth) from hard-earned wages and salary, and making spending decisions differently from these different mental accounts.
On the scent of a good deal, and in the heat of the hunt, even the most meticulous homebuyer can go up a few thousand in offer price to beat out other buyers. No problem, right? Well, but then when the inspector uncovers a few needed repairs, they make a mental guess as to what they’ll cost, and add that in - again, mentally. Then, when the lender requires a few extra thousand bucks than expected to close, that goes on top, but again, only mentally. And mental money tends to stretch a bit longer than real money does!
So, you can see how it’s possible to break the bank when you thought you were in great shape because you scored such a great purchase price for the property itself.
Even if you hate budgets with every iota of your being, buck up on this one project, pull out the calculator or open up a spreadsheet and keep track of every line item. Get actual repair bids during your inspection period, to the extent possible, and get your math mojo on. It’s fine to buy and incur these overages here and there, but keeping track of them is key. You know what I like to say - surprises are for birthday parties, not for real estate transactions, and not for your bank account, either!
Keeping a strict tab on the expenses you incur during the transaction - or will need to incur afterwards -- will save you so much drama later.
Monday, May 9, 2011
From Tara's blog on Trulia:
The 5 Most Common Complaints of Short Sale and REO Buyers (and How to Avoid Them)
Roughly forty percent of the homes for sale on today's market are short sales and foreclosures! Distressed properties are well known for their value (a reputation which is sometimes accurate, and sometimes not), but they also have a reputation for causing buyers to become distressed, too!
Transactional snafus, last-minute surprises and long, drawn-out escrows that never close seem to be par for the course.
Instead of avoiding these properties altogether, get educated about the most common dramas that go down in these deals, and how you can avoid falling victim.
1. Run-on (and on, and on) escrows.
When you’re buying a home (or selling one, for that matter), time is absolutely of the essence. And buyers reasonably expect that the big time suck in real estate is in the house hunting process itself; seems like once you find a home you want to buy and the seller agrees to your price and terms, things should move pretty quickly, right?
Not so much, when it comes to some distressed property sales. I’ve heard tell of the occasional, swiftly-moving escrow on an REO (real estate owned - by the bank). But for the most part, these transactions take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks longer than “regular” sales, because of the extra signatures, supervisor-level approvals and even investor involvement required to seal the deal. Banks don’t have the same sense of urgency individual home sellers do, and it’s not uncommon for the people who need to sign on the dotted line to be on vacation or scattered across the country, adding days’ or weeks’ worth of time to the escrow.
And short sales are also an entirely different animal when it comes to escrow timelines. While a standard sale from an individual seller to an individual buyer might take 45 days from contract to closing, a short sale can take anywhere from 45 days to 6 or 8 months (!) to get the deal closed, after the seller has accepted the contract.
Avoid the drama by: expecting your escrow to run long, and being pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t. Expectation management is everything. Make sure you take these extended timelines into account when you’re working with your mortgage broker on the issue of when to lock your interest rate, and how long your rate locks will last. You might even need to plan on and/or set aside an allowance for the cost of extending your low interest rate, if rates are rising rapidly during the time you’re waiting for the deal to be done.
2. Bank won't take lowball offer.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve received a question from an outraged reader to the effect that a buyer has had their short sale or REO offer rejected on grounds that it was too low, even though the bank has no other offers, I could buy a foreclosure myself (admittedly, it’d be one of those $150 foreclosures in some blighted town with tax liens and no plumbing, but still).
Banks owe their shareholders and investors a duty to get as much as they can for these properties. Just because you see it’s on the market and listed as a short sale or a foreclosure doesn’t mean they’re going to give it to you for a fraction of its worth. The bank’s goal is to get a purchase price as close as possible to the home’s fair market value, as determined by the recent sales prices of similar, nearby homes, with some adjustments made for the property’s condition. Fact is, many banks would rather see the listing agent reduce the price by a moderate amount, and wait to see what offers come in, than to accept an offer 30 percent below the asking price just because there are no other offers on the table.
Avoid the drama by: working with your agent to make a realistic offer, based on recent comparable sales in the neighborhood, not just on what you think you can get away with. You can waste a lot of time, spin a lot of wheels and lose out on a lot of properties making lowball offer after lowball offer on distressed homes. Sit down with your broker or agent, review the ‘comps’ and make a smart offer that reflects a good value for you, is within your budget and is not bizarrely out of the realm of the fair market value of the property.
3. Last minute postponements/cancellations.
These transactions have an uncanny way of being delayed at the last minute - or never going through at all, through no fault of the wanna-be buyer. You signed docs yesterday, put your dog in the crate this morning and just hopped in the moving truck, only to get a text from your broker that the deal didn’t close because the escrow company which was selected by the bank flubbed the checkboxes on a single sheet of paper (it happens). Or, you’ve been in contract (with the seller) on a short sale for four months, and the bank refuses the sale entirely because the seller refuses to kick even $1 of their own cash into the deal, despite having a flush savings account.
Avoid the drama by: staying as flexible as possible with your moving plans as long as possible. Best practice is to plan on some overlap between the time you can be in your last place and your scheduled move-in date. Also, if you’re in contract on a short sale, you should take the point of view that you don't have a firm deal until you get the bank’s approval of the transaction. So don’t even think about starting to make moving plans or paying for home inspections and appraisals until you know the bank has greenlit the deal and that the purchase price and terms they’ve approved work for both you and the seller.
4. The bank’s black box.
Make an offer on a normal home and you’re likely to know what the outcome will be within a few hours or a few days, at the outside. If things take longer because the seller is out of town or some such, the listing agent tells you that, and you at least know what’s going on.
Make an offer on a bank-owned property or a short sale? It’s a crap shoot - could be days, but could also, easily, be weeks or months before you know what’s going on. And no amount of calling, pleading, prodding or nudging is likely to get you much information on how your offer or the seller’s short sale application is being handled or what (if any) progress is being made. And that “black box” into which your offer disappears at the benk level is very frustrating.
Avoid the drama by: continuing your house hunt until you have an answer back. Maniacally pestering the listing agent for answers or harrassing your buyer’s broker into spending hours on hold with the bank is highly unlikely to get you any insight. (With that said, it does make sense for your agent to check in regularly - sometimes even daily - with a short sale or REO listing agent to stay updated on any developments with the property and to make sure your offer/transaction stays in the front of their mind.)
Most of the angst in these situations arises when a buyer feels they passed on properties that would have really worked for them when they pinned their hopes on a distressed home. You can only control your efforts and activities, not the bank’s. So, consult with your own broker or agent about staying proactive in viewing and even pursuing other properties until you have a firm “yes” from the bank on your short sale or REO offer. Until that time, and usually for a short time after you get the bank's approval, you have the right to back out of the transaction if you need to (make sure your broker briefs you on precisely when your right to rescind your offer or exercise contingencies - i.e., bail - will expire).
5. Double standards.
In a “regular” equity sale with no bank involvement, both buyer and seller are obligated to meet various timelines. Seller has to provide disclosures by X date, open the property to inspections - with utilities on - by Y, and close and move out by Z. REO and short sale buyers, on the other hand, are often dismayed to find that even though the bank might take weeks or months to sign or handle its deliverables, the bank will insist that the buyer show up, sign or send a check quick-like.
Avoid the drama by: chalking it up to the (admittedly irritating) way things are - the price you pay to buy from the bank. Realize that working with the bank on the bank’s terms is unavoidable when you buy a distressed property. Then, go into the deal with realistic expectations - including the expectation that the bank will drag its feet, despite expecting you to keep every deadline - and you’ll be less frustrated, and less likely to make poor decisions out of frustration.
Also, make sure you do respond in a timely manner to the bank’s requests and your obligations under the contract. I’ve seen banks capitalize on buyer delays in returning signatures and removing contingencies to accept higher offers they received in the interim. Don’t lose your home on a technicality because you assume that the bank’s lackadaisacal timelines apply to you as well.