Category: Buying & Selling Homes


Moving? 5 Ways to Minimize Surprise Costs

As if moving weren't stressful enough, it can also carry with it a host of unanticipated costs. Prepare yourself with our rundown of surprise fees and hidden expenses.

Moving Costs

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In the weeks before you close on a new house, it’s tempting to think you’ve overcome the most challenging financial hurdles of real estate. The truth is that in the run-up to moving day—and heck, even after you’ve completely relocated—unexpected fees and expenditures can pile up. Here are a few steps you can take to keep costly surprises to a minimum.

1. Protect Your Credit
Moving involves a litany of expenses that can have you reaching again and again for your Visa or MasterCard. Be careful: Eating up your available credit can throw off the assumptions that shaped the terms of your pending mortgage. If you start maxing out your credit cards, your lender might be forced to deem you a greater risk, which could in turn make your mortgage rate go up. So hold off on charging any big-ticket items (for example, new furniture) until after you close.

2. Research Municipal Fees
Believe it or not, some municipalities require a payment from outgoing homeowners, while others slap a fee on those who are just joining the local population. You might even get dinged by both the place you are leaving and the place you are moving to. There’s no way around municipal fees like this, but because they can amount to thousands of dollars, take the time to determine whether you’ll be facing any.

Related: Moving 101: Easy Ways to Make the Most of Any Move

3. Avoid Building Fines
If you’re moving out of a condominium or apartment building, check with the board or management company well in advance of your move. Outgoing occupants are most likely required to follow an established procedure. It’s possible, for example, that your building enforces quiet hours or that moving trucks are permitted to park only in designated spots. Failing to observe the rules could mean a hefty fine, so be sure to find out what the regulations are.

4. Beware of Outstanding Payments 
Directly question the home seller about any outstanding or impending fees, assessments, special taxes, or improvement costs. If there is money owed, it’s not your obligation to pay it—at least not prior to the closing. Settle all questions of debt before taking formal ownership of the property, or else you could be stuck picking up the previous owner’s tab.

5. Expect Mortgage Add-Ons
Thanks to the ongoing realignment of lending norms, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) has boosted the fees it charges buyers at closing. The FHA guarantees about one-third of mortgages each year, so don’t assume that your new loan is going to resemble your old one. Identify the differences between the two and know what you’re getting into.

Finally, a tip about tips: Don’t forget to have plenty of cash on hand for those folks who will make your life a bit easier as you go about the always-tedious task of moving. Everyone appreciates a little appreciation.


3 Steps to an Easy Mortgage Approval

If you think you'll be in the market for a mortgage in the near future, now is the time to make sure your life and your finances conform to a few commonsense rules.

Getting a Mortgage

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Risky practices consigned to the past, mortgage lenders are now returning to applying the same standards that your parents had to meet when they purchased their homes. In this landscape, hewing to three commonsense rules will help you receive swift approval of your mortgage application.

1. Maintain a high credit score. Will you pay the money back? That’s really all the lender wants to know. If you have a solid track record of repaying past loans, then you are likely to repay this one. Each credit reporting agency—Experian, Equifax, and Transunion—calculates your credit score. That figure summarizes your reliability as borrower. The higher your credit score, the lower your mortgage rate. The lower your mortgage rate, the lower your monthly payments. So at least in the context of mortgages, good guys finish first.

2. Prove that you earn what you earn. Traditional employment makes loan officers smile because their ideal mortgage candidate has always had the same job, working for the same employer, and enjoying a yearly raise. That level of stability may seem boring to you, but in the eyes of a mortgage broker, change equals risk. Self-employment, career transitions, or periods of unemployment, therefore, present challenges. None of these make it impossible to secure a mortgage, but you may need to work a bit harder to make your case.

3. Make a juicy down payment. Typically, 10 percent is the minimum down payment required for a mortgage, but if you can swing it, putting forward more than 20 percent gets you off the hook for some exasperating expenses—for instance, mortgage insurance. The business of borrowing money can become pretty complicated, but this part couldn’t be much simpler: The more money you put down, the less risk there is for the lender. The less risk for the lender, the greater your chances of getting a mortgage.


5 Pro Tips to Help You Find the Perfect Fixer-Upper

On the hunt for that elusive diamond in the rough? Real estate wizard Randy Florke shares his top tips on buying a fixer-upper.

As founder and president of The Rural Connection, a real estate company based in Upstate New York, Randy Florke has purchased and restored more than 40 old farmhouses, creating gracious and comfortable homes from these diamonds in the rough. When scouting a property, which qualities catch his eye, and what are the red flags that make him walk away? Read on for pro tips on buying a fixer-upper.

 

1. Location, Location, Location

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Location

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“If a house has an amazing location, there’s almost nothing in the way of renovation hurdles that get in my way,” Florke says. “My dream location is all about privacy. I love a house that’s set back from the road. If it’s also got a great view or a water feature, such as a pond or creek—those are both bonus features.”

 

2. Budget for Renovation Costs

Buying a Fixer Upper - Budget

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“When I first tour a house, I’m thinking about what I’d like to change and what needs to be done,” says Florke. “By the time I walk back out the door, I already have a preliminary idea of what the renovation costs might be.” These costs, Florke continues, have to be factored into your overall budget. If you’re unsure about the costs yourself, ask someone you trust to come along and offer you an honest estimate. “It’s essential that you know what you’re getting into.”

 

3. Focus on Roofing and Foundations

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Roofing

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Issues with roofs and foundations often scare off potential buyers, according to Florke, but if you adore the house, ask a contractor to take a closer look. “I’ve bought many houses with both of these issues,” he says. “Provided the cost to fix them properly is within your budget, it could be a great opportunity.”

 

4. Know Where to Draw the Line

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Wood Rot

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Repairable roof and foundation problems aside, Florke would pass on an old home with termites or significant rotting. “If a roof has been left in disrepair for too long, a house will rot from the inside out. That’s not worth an investment.” But don’t rush to dismiss the land on which the tear-down is sitting. “It you’re in love with the location and your budget allows, you can raze the old house and rebuild a new one in a similar style.”

 

5. Stay Positive

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Stay Positive

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If you’ve found an old home you feel is perfect for you but have reason to believe the renovation costs will not realistically fit into your budget, “walk away,” Florke advises. “There will always be another house to fall in love with.”


A Good School District Is Worth How Much?

All homeowners, even those who aren't parents, benefit from living in a good school district.

House Prices and School Districts

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You don’t need children to understand that good public schools support the value of homes in their district. And while higher quality schools usually are accompanied by higher property taxes, homeowners in such districts are eventually “paid back” through a higher home sale price.

Getting paid back sounds great, but how much are we talking about? New research from Realtor.com shows that for entry to a desirable school district, 9% of buyers say they would pay 11% to 20% above budget. Separately, 17% report they’d pay extra to be close enough that their kids could walk to and from school.

Related: 7 Renovation Tips to Boost Resale Value

In the showdown between amenities for adults and education for kids, you guessed it: the kids win. Realtor.com found that 62% of buyers would pass up a home spa if it meant getting into the right school district. 50% would concede easy access to shopping, while 44% would give up space in the form of a bonus room.

If the house you plan to sell is located in a highly coveted school district, do everything in your power to highlight that fact in all of your real estate marketing materials. Many potential buyers are the parents of children currently in the school system, so be sure to get the word out among neighbors and local friends.

If you are buying a home, make use of a search tool that enables you to filter by school district, as district boundaries don’t always align with town, village, and city lines. After all, you cannot assume that your children will be assigned to attend the same school as the kids down the block or even next door.


How To: Attract First-Time Home Buyers

Marketing your listing to millennials? As 20-somethings slowly enter the market for the first time, they bring different priorities than did previous generations of home buyers.

How to Attract First-Time Home Buyers

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Millennials can’t seem to catch a break. Saddled with student loan debt and facing some tough employment challenges, 20-somethings today are finding it more difficult than previous generations to get a foot into homeownership. In 2013, first-time buyers have accounted for only 28 percent of home purchases, down from 34 percent in 2012. If you’re selling a house with appeal for younger house hunters, here’s how to make it even more enticing:

Show how it lives smart. Millennials are OK with less space, so long as that space is multifunctional and intelligently organized. If possible, show how rooms can be used in different ways. For instance, move a fold-out sofa into the home office to demonstrate its potential as an occasional guest room.

Wire up. Millennials are said to be a mobile group. At home, that mobility takes the form of a wireless internet connection. Include in your marketing materials an explanation of local internet service quality and costs (and of cell phone reception on your property).

Map out commuting routes and alternatives. Bikes, public transit, and car-sharing services like Zipcar are catnip for millennials, enabling them to minimize day-to-day costs and save for monthly housing fees. Create a map that situates the proximity of your house to available transportation amenities.

Introduce them to the community. In today’s erratic and hypercompetitive market, buyers often parachute into unfamiliar neighborhoods, chasing affordability. Provide background on the features and culture of your neighborhood, since harried buyers may not have time to investigate on their own.

Be ready to respond on a moment’s notice. Millennials are likely to pull up in front of your house and review your listing from the screen of a smartphone. If they want to see your place, they want to see it right away. Be ready to show it at a moment’s notice.


Selling Your House? Help Your Neighbors Help You

Perhaps more than you realized, other homeowners in your neighborhood can influence whether or not you achieve the highest possible sale price for your home.

We’ve all heard the real estate maxim, “location, location, location,” but not everyone fully appreciates how neighbors can affect the perception—and indirectly, the value—of a given property. If you’re in the process of selling your home, here’s how to help your neighbors help you:

Neighbors and Home Value

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Be Considerate. Let your neighbors know if and when you are planning to host an open house, as their on-street parking or driveway access could be affected. Give them plenty of lead time, so they can plan accordingly. One peace-making idea is to invite your neighbors for a private pre-showing. Who knows? By request or their own election, they might choose to get the word out on your behalf, whether through social media channels or via old-fashioned gossip.

Consult your neighbors before you begin any pre-sale prep work, especially if that work is to be done on your home’s exterior. Try to minimize any negative effect your home improvement might have on those living nearby. Your porch needs some repair? Schedule the carpenter to come midday during the workweek, when your neighbors are least likely to be enjoying their own outdoor living space. As you set out to sell, the last thing you need is fresh resentment emerging.

Slideshow: 7 Renovation Tips to Boost Resale

Be on the Same Page. Potential buyers may poll your neighbors about touchy topics like the local flood history. It’s smart to inform your neighbors about how you are handling such questions. If you have fixed notorious problems known to your neighborhood, take care to bring everyone up to speed on your home’s current condition. Neighbors may need to be reminded of the investment you’ve put into the place, especially if it has a troubled history (e.g., foreclosure).

Share your pricing rationale with neighbors, and if appropriate, reveal the details of your appraisal. After all, even your most entrenched neighbors will sell their respective homes one day, and that means they are likely to be curious. Since your asking price and sale price will be a matter of public record eventually, there’s no advantage to playing coy.

Last but not least—assuming you can find a sensitive way to broach the subject—consider offering to pay for services, such as dog walking or landscaping, that would offset the effect of your neighbors on the appearance of your own property.


How To: Figure Out What Your House Is Worth

Curiosity is not least among the many reasons you might wish to estimate the value of your home. Fortunately, a number of online tools can help you pinpoint what your property is worth today.

Estimate Home Value

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If you’re refinancing or selling your home and wish to find its estimated value, a handful of online tools can help you. While it’s true that a lender will only accept the valuation of a formal appraisal, any of the following sources can give you a pretty good idea of what your house is worth today:

• Chase Bank Home Value Estimator allows you to print out a summary, detailing the different factors that decided the estimated value of your home.

• Property Shark valuations include recent asking prices and a very useful FEMA flood zone map.

• A Zillow “Zestimate” relies on a proprietary formula, which combines public and user-submitted data to estimate the current market value of your home.

• RealQuest is the consumer snapshot version of the industrial-strength data crunched by CoreLogic. (A report costs $49.)

As part of estimating your home’s value, Be sure that any market “comparables” you consider are reflective of the very latest information, and that includes pending sales (transactions that are underway but have not yet been finalized).

Until a sale has been closed and registered in the public property records database—a process that can take eight weeks or more—the are only two ways to obtain specifics on pending sales.

One way is through real estate agents, who have access to pending sales data by virtue of membership to multiple listing services. The second way is to seek out your neighbors who in the process of selling and ask them directly. The latter may seem a tad direct, but it’ll all be a matter of public record soon, anyway!


Don’t Let Emotions Cloud Your Real Estate Judgment

Even recognizing that emotions are an unavoidable factor in real estate can help you get what you want out of any house negotiation.

Real Estate Emotions

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Real estate agents like to say that house hunters make offers based not on price, but emotions. Recently, Duke University published scientific research that supports the reality of such a phenomenon.

Whether you’re buying or selling a home, even a rudimentary understanding of how the brain synthesizes emotions can help you develop (and stick to) a logic-based valuation of the property in question.

Related: What’s My House Worth?

Let’s say that after 25 happy years, you’re putting the family home on the market. When you look at the place from the curb, you see holiday memories and the hard-won result of your maintenance and remodeling efforts.

Indeed, fond associations may lead you to view the property in more favorable economic terms than it warrants. But you can’t put a price on memories. For a fair assessment of the home’s market value, seek out a third-party appraisal.

Remember also that emotions figure largely in the real estate negotiation process, no matter which side of the table you are sitting on. And in the heat of the transaction, small incentives can deliver outsize impact.

If you are selling, hold back on a small concession, such as a $500 allowance for new carpeting. Once you are close to reaching an agreement, toss that incentive into the mix, as it might help your buyer feel more comfortable accepting the terms.

Conversely, if you are negotiating to buy, carefully monitor your own emotional response to the tactic described above. Don’t let your emotions attach an outsize value to the incentive. Ask yourself whether it’s truly enough to make you agree to the sale price.

Duke researchers found that for human beings, emotions inevitably factor into valuations. The best you can do is to be aware of your own tendency toward irrationality, working around it by focusing on facts.


Clean Credit Wins Home Loans

A first-rate credit history improves the likelihood that your application for a home equity loan will be successful.

Home Loan Credit Score

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Mortgage interest rates continue at record lows, but if you’re hoping to snag a home equity loan for a planned renovation, you’ll soon discover that banks consider a different number to be more important: your credit score.

Related: HELOC? HEL, Yes!

Recently, a Federal Reserve official said that most housing-related loans are going to borrowers with a credit score of at least 620. If you’ve ever applied for a Federal Housing Authority (FHA) loan, this probably comes as no surprise, since the FHA requires a sterling credit history even of loan applicants who can offer a substantial down payment.

Home equity line hopefuls are wise to avoid a pointless hassle (not to mention the shock of disappointment) by reviewing their credit in advance of applying.

By law, you are entitled to one free credit report per year. While a credit report includes your aggregate score, it also includes your recent payment history. Here, you may detect black marks that are worth going out of your way to dispute.

Paid credit monitoring services abound. Bypass the shady outfits and instead, opt to deal directly with the major credit reporting agencies: ExperianTransUnion, and Equifax. The higher the score the better.

What if you’ve had credit problems in the recent past? Before using up your one free annual credit score request, gain insight into what you might find with Bankrate’s score estimator. Flag any likely glitches, then assemble the paperwork necessary to either correct or provide context for the issue.

Solving credit headaches can take months. Start now to win the lowest home equity rate for a late summer or fall project.


5 Smart Home Improvements? Think Again!

Before you find yourself saying, "What was I thinking?" see what five home upgrades topped last year's list of loss leaders.

Home Improvements to Avoid - Aquarium

Photo: Landmark Custom Homes

Built-in aquariums: the amenity that quickly becomes an eyesore.

Of all the misfired home improvements that Daniel Fries has observed in his 30 years as a home appraiser, aquariums top his list of 2012 loss leaders—home improvements that offered little to no return on investment.

“It’s not a prudent investment,” deadpans Fries, who is based in Atlanta, GA. The tank’s glass fogs, while grimy filters emit an odor of rotting seaweed. Even worse—yes, it gets worse—some owners repurpose fish aquariums as reptile dwellings. And few things send a potential home buyer fleeing faster than the sight of a bull snake in the dining room.

Aquariums top our list of “improvements” with poor return on investment, but every project on that list has at least one thing in common: a profound mismatch between a homeowner’s intent and a neighborhood’s standards.

Local culture, preferences, and market conditions dictate return on improvements. Sink your money into amenities that don’t reflect the norm for your immediate area and you won’t even gain a 5% premium over neighboring homes, regardless of what you spent, says Kevin Cross, owner of the Anchorage, AK-based real estate agency Cross & Associates.

Case in point: Granite countertops actually undermine market value in Alaska. Extreme temperature changes force constant settling and resettling of home foundations, which results in warping and cracking of solid stone surfaces. Laminate gives just enough to make it the counter material of choice.

“Understand that anyone looking for a house is going to stand in front of yours with their cell phone looking at all the estimated values of the houses all around yours,” he continues. “When a buyer looks at a house, they’re not looking for reasons to buy a house. They’re looking for reasons to not buy yours. Your job is to remove as many of those reasons ‘not to buy’. If it’s priced right, clean, staged and looks inviting, an older house will sell faster than a new house even with superior amenities.”

Buyers pick up on price discrepancies immediately and aren’t willing to pay for misguided improvements… like the rest of the items on our list of top don’ts.

Home Improvements to Avoid - Theater

Loss leader #2: Built-in electronics
Bragging rights last only a few months when it comes to the latest televisions and sound systems. Once the next gizmo lands on the market, today’s shiny toy quickly tarnishes. The value added by splurging for top-of-the-line freestanding electronics may be debatable, but at least you can easily take the gear with you. Built-ins often dominate the entire room and their reverberations can erode the usability of adjoining rooms, too.

The owner of a $3 million house bragged to Fries that his built-in sound system cost $650,000. That was overkill even for a mansion. “He could have spent $50,000 on the media room and gotten just as much value from it,” says Fries. “You have to consider electronics as personal property, even if they are built in.”

Loss leader #3: Eliminating a third or fourth bedroom.
Sure, a walk-in closet and expanded master bath would be a selling point—but only if that space isn’t hijacked from a third or fourth bedroom. If the neighborhood norm is three bedrooms, a two-bedroom house is at a severe disadvantage. The number of bedrooms should be in balance with the common living space. A house with too many or too few bedrooms has a lopsided layout that won’t be useful to many buyers. Still want that master closet? You might be able to justify it if you apply the second cardinal rule of return (keep reading).

Loss leader #4: Overimproving the basement.
Below-grade improvements never pay back as much as space renovated or added above grade. Carefully compare the cost of renovating the attic, adding a dormer or even raising the roof, to a high-end basement remodel. This is especially true for mid-priced houses. High-end houses may well be able to retain the value of a finished basement, but only if all the above-grade space is livable.

Home Improvements to Avoid - Outdoor Kitchen

Loss leader #5: Expansive outdoor living space out of synch with the climate.
Outdoor kitchens with manly grills and wood counters can be used ten months a year in the South, so those projects retain value, says Fries. Not so much in the North, where a fireplace is a cozier investment. Cross reports that water features don’t sell Alaskan houses, considering that they are under four feet of snow for half the year. Especially if you are relocating, settle in to the local lifestyle before creating a sunroom, screened porch, elaborate deck or outdoor kitchen.

Each of these horrors is grounded in the grand misconception of home improvement: if you build it, they will pay. Fries explains that appraisers’ guidelines will force a challenge from the lender if improvements boost the market value of the house more than 10% from its value without the improvement. As you scope out the budget for your project, keep the total tab to no more than 10% of the current value of your house. Spend more only if you count the payback in terms of personal enjoyment.

Use as a reference Remodeling magazine’s annual Cost vs. Value Report. The regional breakouts chart the cost of remodeling, the return, and the difference. The averages are useful for benchmarking estimates and can help you set expectations from the start.

It can be a balancing act to polish to the point of perfect return, especially if you expect to sell the house soon. Consider putting in one moderately priced focal point improvement that can make the room memorable. For example, one—just one—built-in specialty appliance in the kitchen can be a selling point. That appliance might be a warming drawer, or a wine cooler, or a five-burner stove with a griddle instead of the standard four-burner stove. Even then, calculate your payback in terms of a shorter selling time, not in terms of dollar return.

There is an antidote to misfired improvements. Appraisers call it the ‘cost to cure,’ and it’s the second cardinal rule of return. How much will it cost to rip out the offending amenity and make that part of the house look, well, normal?

The cost to cure a derelict aquarium is only about $1,000. The cost to revert a walk-in closet to a bedroom could be as little as $500. But the cost to rip out an algae-clogged, crumbling swimming pool could run ten times that. When in doubt, get two estimates: one to put in the improvement, the other to take it out.

If you must have it, budget time and money for the ‘cure’, and make sure you squeeze every moment of happiness from that feature in the meanwhile.