HOW TO BUY
Appraisals & Market Value
Are there standard ways to determine how much a home is worth?
Yes. A comparative market analysis and an appraisal are the two most common and reliable ways to determine a home’s value.
Your real estate agent can provide a comparative market analysis, an informal estimate of value based on the recent selling price of similar neighborhood properties. Reviewing comparable homes that have sold within the past year along with the listing, or asking, price on current homes for sale should prevent you from overpaying.
A certified appraiser can provide an appraisal of a home. After visiting the home to check such things as the number of rooms, improvements, size and square footage, construction quality, and the condition of the neighborhood, the appraiser then reviews recent comparable sales to determine the estimated value of the home.
You also can check recent sales in public records, through private firms, and on the Internet to help you determine a home’s potential worth.
How do you determine how much a home is worth?
The short answer: a home is ultimately worth what is paid for it. Everything else is really an estimate of value. Take, for example, a hot seller’s market when demand for housing is high but the inventory of available homes for sale is low. During this time, homes can sell above and beyond the asking price as buyers bid up the price. The fair market value, or worth, is established when “a meeting of the minds” between the buyer and the seller takes place.
What about appraised value and market value?
A certified appraiser who is trained to provide the estimated value of a home determines its appraised value. The appraised value is based on comparable sales, the condition of the property, and several other factors.
Market value is the price the house will bring at a given point in time, once the buyer and seller establish a “meeting of the minds” on price.
What is the difference between list price and sales price?
The list price is a seller’s advertised price, or asking price, for a home. It is a rough estimate of what the seller wants to complete a home sale. A seller can price high, low, or very close to the amount they want to get. A good way to determine if the list price is a fair one is to look at the sales prices of similar homes that have recently sold in the area.
The sales price is the actual amount a home sells for.
What are closing costs?
Closing, or settlement, costs are expenses over and above the price of the property. Both the buyer and seller incur some of these expenses when transferring ownership of a property. Who actually pays, however, often depends on local custom and what the buyer or seller negotiates. Closing costs normally include title insurance, loan points, escrow or closing day charges, property taxes, and document fees. The lender provides an estimate of closing costs for prospective homebuyers.
How do you decide whether to add on to an existing home or purchase a new one?
There are a few things to consider, including cost, individual needs, and what will add value down the road. Also important: your emotional attachment to the existing home.
As designer and builder Philip S. Wenz, the author of Adding to a House: Planning, Design & Construction, notes, an addition is much cheaper than building a new home and can offer a “new” home without the heartache of moving.
- Can you finance the home improvement with your own cash or will you need a loan?
- How much equity is in the property? A fair amount will make it that much easier to get a loan for home improvements.
- Is it feasible to expand the current space for an addition?
- What is permissible under local zoning and building laws? Despite your deep yearning for a new sunroom or garage, you will need to know if your town or city will allow such improvements.
- Are there affordable properties for sale that would satisfy your changing housing needs?
Explore your options. Make sure your decision is one you can live with – either under the same roof or under a different one.
How much can I afford?
The general rule is that you can buy a home that costs about two-and-one-half times your annual salary. A good real estate agent or lender can determine how much you can afford and estimate the maximum monthly payment based on the loan amount, taxes, insurance and other expenses. Your real estate agent can help you to figure out now how your income, debts, and expenses can affect what you can afford, and how much you may be able to borrow to purchase a home, and even prepare an estimated settlement sheet for homes you like.
What are the advantages of owning a home?
There are many. Among the most appealing: you own it, which gives you, instead of a landlord, control of your living space. Other benefits stem from potential tax savings and the buildup of equity as your property likely appreciates in price over time. Equity can be used to help put children through college, purchase a second home, or make home improvements.
The mortgage interest paid on a home loan is tax deductible, as is the local property tax. If you get a fixed-rate home mortgage loan, you also can invest more wisely knowing your monthly mortgage payment, unlike rent, will not change substantially.
What is the first step to buying a home?
Make sure you are ready – psychologically and financially. Ask yourself the following questions: Do I have steady income? Is my debt lower than my total income? Do I have enough money to pay for the down payment and closing costs? Am I working hard enough to improve bad credit?
A house needs constant care and attention. Also ask yourself if your budget will allow for unexpected repairs and upkeep. Once you can honestly answer “yes” to these questions, you are several steps ahead of the game and that much closer to becoming a homeowner.
Do I need to be at the inspection?
No, but it is a very good idea to be there. Following the check-over, the home inspector can answer your questions and discuss problem areas with you. This is also an opportune time to get an objective opinion about the home from someone who does not have emotional or financial ties to the property.
How do I select a home inspector?
Begin by only hiring one who is qualified and experienced, someone who belongs to an industry trade group, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). This organization has developed formal inspection guidelines and a professional code of ethics for its members. Also, membership in ASHI is not automatic; members must have demonstrated field experience and technical knowledge about structures and their various systems.
Should I hire a home inspector?
By all means. Buying a home without getting expert advice is risky. Once a home inspector uncovers major plumbing and electrical problems, for example, you may decide you do not want to spend several thousand dollars on repairs.
Always include an inspection clause in your written offer. This clause gives you an “out” from buying if serious problems are detected. It also gives you another chance to negotiate the purchase price if repairs are needed. The clause can even specify that the sellers fix any problem that is uncovered before you settle, or close, on the home.
You also may want to consider hiring experts to inspect the home for a number of health-related risks like radon gas, asbestos, or possible problems with the water or waste disposal system.
What does a home inspector do?
A home inspector is a paid professional – often a contractor or an engineer – who checks the safety of a home. Home inspectors search for defects or other problems that could become your worst nightmare later on. They focus particularly on the home’s structure, construction, and mechanical systems.
It is not the inspector’s job to determine whether you are getting good value for your money. He does not establish value, only whether the home might collapse in a storm or if the roof might cave in.
A home inspection typically takes place after a purchase contract between the buyer and seller has been signed.
Is private mortgage insurance necessary?
Lenders require private mortgage insurance (PMI) on most conventional loans with less than a 20 percent down payment. They believe there is a correlation between borrower equity and default. They have found that the less money borrowers put down, the more likely they are to default on a loan. PMI guarantees the lender will not lose money if this happens and a foreclosure is necessary.
The buyer pays this insurance, usually a small fee at the outset and a percentage of the face amount of the loan that is added to the monthly payment.
What most homeowners do not realize is that the insurance is usually no longer necessary after enough equity has built up in the property. Contact your lender if you meet this requirement.
A precaution: do not confuse PMI with mortgage life insurance. The latter pays all, or a portion, of your mortgage in the event of your death.
What about title insurance?
Title insurance protects the lender against unclear title to the property you are buying. It is almost always a requirement for closing on a home. If you desire coverage as well, buy an owner’s policy, which will protect you against any title-search errors and losses that arise from disputes over property ownership. The cost of title insurance is usually a set value per thousand of dollars of the total loan amount.
What does homeowners’ insurance cover?
It protects against disasters – whether natural, manmade or mechanical. A standard policy insures the home, as well as your possessions. Because this insurance is packaged, it covers liability for any harm, loss, and property damage that you or your family members cause others. And it includes additional living expenses in case you are temporarily displaced because of damage from a fire or other insured disaster.
While you are not legally required to purchase homeowners’ insurance, mortgage lenders require you to do so.” or “mortgage lenders stipulate that you must.
If your mortgage is paid up – or you never had one – it is still a good idea to have homeowners’ insurance to protect your home and your belongings.
What is condo and co-op insurance?
This insurance protects your investment and personal belongings from most disasters. As an owner, you will need two insurance policies – your own to cover liability, living expenses, your belongings and structural improvements, and a master policy provided by the condo or co-op board. The master policy covers the common areas that you share with others in the building. It is paid for using the monthly condo fee that you and other owners pay.
What kind of home insurance should I get?
A standard policy will do in most instances. It protects against several natural disasters and catastrophic events. However, it will not guard against earthquakes, floods, war, and nuclear accidents. The policy can be expanded to include these disasters as well as coverage for such things as workers’ compensation. In fact, the lender may require that you purchase flood or earthquake insurance if the house is in a flood zone or a region susceptible to earthquakes.
You also can increase coverage beyond the depreciated value of personal property such as televisions and furniture by purchasing a replacement-cost endorsement. Home-based business-coverage, once overlooked, is an ever-increasing popular rider. It does not cover liability associated with the business but rather contents such as home office equipment and general liability to cover injuries to clients and employees.
Other considerations: an inflation rider, which increases coverage as the home’s value rises, and getting insurance that is equal to the full replacement value of the home.
Insurance companies usually require an amount equal to at least 80 percent of the full replacement value. Otherwise, only a portion of the loss would be covered.
Negotiating & Closing the Best Deal
Are low-ball offers a good idea?
Any offer can be presented, but a low-ball one that is substantially less than the asking price can dampen a prospective sale and prevent the seller from negotiating at all. Unless the home is overpriced to begin with the offer will probably be rejected.
Do your homework before making an offer. Compare prices of recently sold homes and new listings in the neighborhood. It also helps to know something about the seller’s motivation. A lower price with a speedy closing, for example, might motivate a seller who must move, has another house under contract, or must sell quickly for other reasons.
Also recognize that while your low offer in a normal market might be rejected at once, it might motivate the seller in a buyer’s market to either accept it or make a counter-offer.
Do I need an attorney to buy a home?
A lot depends on the state where the property is located. Some require an attorney; others do not.
Most homebuyers can generally handle routine real estate purchase contracts as long as they read the fine print and understand all the terms. But pay close attention to any clauses, contingencies, and other special considerations that will allow you or the seller to back out of the contract.
When in doubt, consult an attorney. Ask relatives and friends, or your real estate agent, for recommendations. Call to inquire about their fees and to check their level of experience. Expect that more seasoned attorneys will cost more.
Does the seller take the furnishings once the home is sold?
Normally. This is because the fixtures – personal property that is permanently attached to a home, such as built-in bookcases or a furnace – automatically stay with the house unless noted otherwise in the sales contract. Anything that is not nailed down is negotiable, including appliances that are not built in, such as washers and dryers.
Is it possible to buy a home below market price?
Certainly, but do not hold your breath. It takes a lot of determination and time to find a real bargain. But if you are adamant, here are some likely targets to pursue:
- foreclosed property
- a fixer-upper
- hard-to-sell new homes in a housing development
- tenant-in-common partnerships.
With the latter, you may be able to buy a partial interest in this form of title to property owned by two or more individuals because the partners often sell at a discount.
However, bargains are easier to come by in a soft real estate market, when the economy is in a recession, and when homeowners, and builders and sponsors of condominium conversions, are desperate to move unsold units.
What are some negotiating tips?
Know the seller’s motivation to sell. This will enhance your negotiating position. Sellers who must move quickly due to a job transfer, divorce, or contract on another home, are more inclined to accept a lower price to speed the process along.
Remember, too, that the listing, or asking, price is what the seller would like to receive for the home. It is not necessarily what the seller will settle for. So know value. Before you make an offer, check recent sales and listing prices of comparable neighborhood homes and compare them to the seller’s asking price.
- Be flexible. Never say, “take it or leave it.” That can sour negotiations and ruin the deal.
- Never show your hand or reveal your next step.
- Each time you increase your offering price ask for something in return, such as repairs, appliances, even lawn furniture.
- If you plan to pay cash or have a tentative commitment for a loan, use your strong financial position as a negotiating tool.
- Don’t let emotions such as pride, fear, love, and anger get in the way of negotiating the best deal. Leave irrational feelings at home.
What contingencies should appear in the offer?
When you look to purchase a home, anticipate potential problems. But protect against them so that if something does go wrong, you can cancel the contract without penalty. This is what contingencies allow you to do. They should be included in any offer you present to buy a home.
Most offers include two standard contingencies: a financing contingency, which makes the sale dependent on your ability to obtain a loan commitment from a lender, and an inspection contingency, which allows you to have a professional inspect the property.
Without contingencies, a buyer could forfeit his deposit under certain circumstances if he backs out of a deal.
The purchase contract also should include the seller’s responsibilities, such as passing clear title, maintaining the property in its present condition until closing, and making any agreed-upon repairs.
Are property taxes deductible?
Yes. Like the mortgage interest paid on a home loan, property taxes are fully deductible from your income. You may deduct them every year on your primary residence, second home and other investment properties.
However, escrow money held for property taxes cannot be deducted until the money is actually used to pay the property taxes.
Can I contest my property taxes?
Many people do, mainly because determining value can often be tricky. This is especially true in a changing market when local prices either take off dramatically or plunge precipitously, like during the Texas oil bust of the 1980s.
While it is up to a professional assessor to evaluate property value for tax purposes, property owners are usually allowed to contest their assessment until a certain date after they are made public.
Once you contest, you will have to prove why you think your property is worth less – few homeowners contest hoping to pay more taxes! The two most popular ways for determining value are an appraisal and a comparative market analysis. With an appraisal, a professional estimates the property’s market value based on recent sales of comparable properties. A comparative market analysis is an informal estimate of market value performed by a real estate agent based on similar sales and property attributes. Most agents will offer free analyses to win your business.
Contact your local tax assessor’s office for procedures on appealing your property tax assessment.
How are individual tax bills figured?
Unlike the income tax and the sales tax you pay, the property tax is not based on how much money you earn or how much you spend. It is based solely on how much the property you own is worth.
The real property tax is an ad valorem tax, or a tax based on the value of property.
Ideally, the owners of property of equal value pay the same amount of property taxes, and the owners of more valuable property pay more in taxes than the owners of less valuable property. The tax is calculated using a variety of formulas and is based on a property’s assessed value – its full market value or a percentage thereof – and the tax rate of the taxing jurisdiction, minus any property tax exemptions, such as those offered for the elderly or veterans
What is an escrow account?
It is a special bank account held by the lender to collect monthly payments from the borrower to pay property taxes, mortgage insurance, and hazard insurance. These accounts also are called escrow or reserve accounts.
Lenders like to set up escrow accounts to ensure the property taxes and insurance will be paid on time. They typically also collect a two-month cushion for taxes and insurance at the closing. A few states require the lender to pay interest on funds held in these accounts.
Why do homeowners have to pay property taxes?
Property taxes are assessed by city and county governments to generate the bulk of their operating revenues. The taxes help pay for such public services as schools, libraries, roads, and police protection.
Re-valuations of the tax are often done periodically, although the time interval varies from state to state or, in some states, from town to town, and can range from annual reassessments to periods of ten years or more.
Working with a Real Estate Agent
Are buyers protected against housing discrimination?
By law, real estate agents may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin. They also cannot follow spoken or implied directives from the home seller to discriminate. If you suspect you have been discriminated against, a complaint may be filed with the local Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office nearest you. You may call HUD’s toll-free number, 1-800-669-9777, or visit its web site at www.hud.gov/complaints/housediscrim.cfm.
Can I use an agent to purchase a newly built home?
Yes. In fact, some builders pay agents to find prospective buyers. But you also can use a buyer’s agent to help negotiate the price and upgrades on a new home. An agent can be particularly valuable directing you to newly built developments that match your needs, as well as helping you select reputable builders who are financially sound and respond promptly to buyers’ concerns.
Builders normally require an agent to be present on your first visit to the site. This is a sensible procedure that allows the agent to be paid a commission should you decide to buy. Otherwise, if you find a development on your own, make a first visit without the agent, and later make a purchase, the builder may refuse to pay the commission – even if, at some point, the agent became involved in the process.
What can I expect from a good real estate agent?
Competence, efficiency and ethics. According to the All America’s Real Estate Book by Carolyn Janik and Ruth Rejnis, good agents have a thorough knowledge of the latest housing trends. Good agents also adhere to a strict code of ethics. They avoid high-pressure sales tactics, refrain from showing properties that do not fit your needs or goals, and alert you to problems about the condition of the property. And they show respect for other agents and real estate firms by not “bad mouthing” them.
What is the best way to find a real estate agent?
Begin by asking someone that you know. Friends, relatives, co-workers, or neighbors who have recently purchased a home can give you a firsthand account and attest to the agent’s professional abilities. Sometimes an agent you contact will refer you to another one who works more closely with buyers and sellers in your neighborhood. Once you have a list of names, interview at least three agents and ask questions about their community knowledge, professional experience, and commitment – some agents work full time; others only work at nights and on the weekends.
Why do I need an agent if I can find a home by myself on the Internet?
While more buyers now use the Internet to gain access to listings, or available properties for sale, it is still a good idea to use an agent. The agent brings value to the entire process: he or she is available to analyze data, answer questions, share their professional expertise, and handle all the paperwork and legwork that is involved in the real estate transaction.
WHERE & WHAT TO BUY
Where to Buy
Why is location so important?
Location remains the single most important factor when choosing a home. It can make or break the value and desirability of a home.
Because everyone’s preferences vary, your lifestyle will determine the best place for you to live. Some people prefer the suburbs while others thrive on downtown living. If you favor city living, find out what part of the city suits you best – a fast-paced neighborhood or one slightly more subdued. Talk with the neighbors and keenly observe such things as traffic patterns, lifestyles, and even sounds and smells.
When choosing a town, take property taxes, schools, accessibility to work, services, recreation, and the character of the community into consideration.
Does the federal government offer home improvement programs?
Yes. Among the most popular:
- Section 203(k) Program. HUD helps finance the major rehabilitation and repair of one- to four-family residential properties, excluding condos. Owner-occupants may use a combination loan to purchase a fixer-upper “as is” and rehabilitate it, or refinance a property plus include in the loan the cost of making the improvements. They also may use the loan solely to finance the rehabilitation.
- VA loans. Veterans can get loans from the Department of Veterans Affairs to buy, build, or improve a home, as well as refinance an existing loan at interest rates that are usually lower than that on conventional loans.
New Homes & Vacation Homes
Can you negotiate the price of a new home?
In real estate, almost everything is negotiable, so it is certainly worth a try. Now, this does not mean the builder will fall down and roll over. It is very common for builders to claim that their prices are based on fixed construction costs. Perhaps, but timing is everything.
A builder is more likely to be flexible on price at the very beginning and end of a project. Early on, most developers want to move people in quickly so the project builds momentum. In the end, they may be more inclined to accept lower offers when only a few units are left.
If you are unable to negotiate on price, negotiate for a better lot location or amenities, such as a carpet upgrade or light fixtures. A developer will rarely pass up a deal over a few hundred dollars’ worth of carpeting.
Do builders provide financing?
Many builders offer financing incentives to help move more buyers into a project. In fact, major building companies often have their own mortgage brokerage subsidiaries, while many other builders routinely refer buyers to “preferred” local lenders. If it is a buyer’s market in your area, you can be sure developers will offer incentives such as low-down-payment financing or interest rate subsidies.
Should I hire a home inspector for a new home?
You would think not since it is new and the developer has to adhere to local construction guidelines. However, err on the side of caution – always hire an inspector, whether the home is old or new.
You can ask the builder to provide copies of any inspection reports on the property, architectural plans, surveys and pertinent construction documents for your inspector to review.
The inspector should either be a professional home inspector, an engineer, an architect or a contractor. When hiring a professional inspector, look for one who belongs to a home inspection trade organization, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI).
This group has developed formal inspection guidelines and a professional code of ethics for its members. Membership in ASHI is not automatic. Proven field experience and technical knowledge about structures and their various systems and appliances are required.
As for rates, they vary greatly. Many inspectors charge about $400, but costs increase based on the scope of the inspection.
What else should I take into account when buying a new home?
You can find out more about an existing property and neighborhood before you buy than you can a new home in a newly developed community.
When the home is on the outskirts of town, ask the developer about future access to public transit, entertainment venues, shopping centers, churches, and schools. Also review local zoning ordinances. A remote area can quickly turn into a fast food haven.
You want to ensure the neighborhood will not spiral out of control and lose its residential appeal.
Other things to consider:
- Ask homeowners already living in a development about the builder. If none currently live there, find out where the builder has previously built and speak to those owners to find out if the builder followed through on promises and needed repairs.
- Ability to make changes. Most homes in a development resemble each other. But the developer may impose restrictions on house color, landscaping, renovations, and other items that a homeowner may want to alter.
- Do not buy into the glamorous images created by marketing experts. Form your own opinions about a property and only buy where you feel comfortable. After all, you are the one who will be living there.
What about a vacation home as an investment?
Like any investment, it can be risky. Location and current market conditions are extremely important when deciding whether to buy.
Other things to consider:
- Will you be able to afford repairs, maintenance, insurance, and utilities?
- What about fees to pay agents who rent the property for you?
- If you live several miles away from your vacation home, who will clean up between tenants and take an inventory of household items once the tenants leave?
- What if you are unable to rent your second home? Can your pocketbook withstand the strain of paying the mortgage?
Should I buy a vacation home?
The second home market has more ebbs and flows than the primary home market. Sales are iffy in a bad economy except, perhaps, on the high-end. That said, there is a growing trend toward the purchase of vacation homes. They are being bought for investment purposes, enjoyment, and/or retirement. In the latter instance, some people are buying with the idea of turning a vacation home into a permanent retirement haven down the road, a move that puts them ahead of the game now.
Some of the tax benefits mirror those for a primary residence. Mortgage interest and property taxes are deductible, which helps to offset the cost of the home payment. And if you treat your second home as a rental property, you can fully depreciate it as well. But you are only allowed to occupy it for two weeks a year, or 10 percent of the total rented time, whichever is less.
Before taking the leap, ask yourself if you can afford to carry two mortgages, maintain two households, and pay the extra utilities and maintenance costs. Also, learn about financing requirements and options, which can differ slightly from those on a primary residence.
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