Friday’s Real Estate Fantasy: Buy a Scottish Castle!

With Scotland all over the news lately, my thoughts naturally turn to what fun it would be to own a Scottish castle. (As yours do, too, I’m sure.) A really auld one, preferably.

castleSure, we’ve got properties that pass  for castles here in the U.S. — like this $45 million one just advertised by Coldwell Banker in Woodstock Valley, Connecticut, called Chrismark Castle. But it was built in 2003. It just doesn’t have that shivery, “People walked here hundreds of years ago, and there might be ghosts” feeling to it. (Unless they’re the ghosts of whoever had to put the tiles on those turrets.)

A little hint if you are tempted to buy this Connecticut place: I’ll bet it doesn’t come with the furniture, so be prepared to bargain separately for that Egyptian sarcophagus, or anything else you might have your heart set on. The only things that sellers normally leave behind in a home are “fixtures,” described in Nolo’s FAQ, “If I buy a house, will the seller leave behind things like the curtains and the refrigerator?

Meanwhile, miraculously, people actually sell real castles in Scotland. Or at least very, very, very large houses. Savills always has some nice offerings, as does Knight Frank.

There’s just one problem. Well, okay, there’s the money issue, but there’s one more problem: Last I heard, us Yankees can’t get any residency rights in the U.K. by buying property. (And as of the recent vote, Scotland is indeed still part of the U.K.) See for yourself, on the “Visas and Immigration” page of the U.K. government website.

But wait: It says you can get a visa if you’re married to a U.K. citizen. A Scottish laird, perhaps? With his own castle?

The Strongest Purchase Offer Leaves No Questions Hanging

goldBricksI’ve talked a lot in this blog about ways to make your offer to buy a home stand out from the pack in a multiple offer situation. (See, for example, “Don’t Let an Investor Buy the Home You Wanted,” and “In a Multiple-Offer Situation, Will Your Buyer’s Agent Shine?“) Bidding wars are becoming increasingly common in parts of the U.S., so this topic is gaining in relevance day by day.

But Janna Scharf’s excellent article on “Top 10 ways to strengthen your purchase offer and beat out competing buyers” not only covers the basics, but offers an important real-world reminder: Some otherwise strong offers lose out simply because the buyer held off or procrastinated on providing bits of information that would round out the offer and reassure the seller that the deal will go through as envisioned.

For instance, Sharf describes a situation where her selling client was choosing between three very strong offers, two of them all-cash. One of the all-cash offers “was accompanied by a very impressive proof of funds to close.”  When Scharf requested proof of funds for the other cash offer, however, the response she got was that “the buyer would submit proof of funds necessary to close only after her offer had been accepted.”

One can perhaps see this from the buyer’s perspective. Anyone with enough cash to buy a house probably feels pretty comfortable about his or her ability to close the deal, and may view a proof-of-funds request as an annoying technicality at best, or an invasion of privacy at worst.

But now let’s look at it from the seller’s vantage point. Two strikingly similar offers are on the table, one from a known quantity, one from an unknown quantity — maybe even someone who’s still scrambling to raise the promised cash from family and friends. The choice is simple.

Even more disturbing was that the same buyer had failed to provide various addendums that Scharf had requested (and made available in advance by uploading them onto the MLS). Oops. 

Even if that had been the only difference between the offers, it’s possible that this oversight could have led the seller to choose another offer. Which is precisely the reason that Nolo included “How do you organize your work?” on our list of questions to ask when choosing an agent to help you buy a home. You want a perfectionist, not someone whose moments of inattention may cost you.

Now Everyone Wants to Be a Real Estate Agent Again!

Back when the real estate market could barely be scooped out of the gutter, real estate agents were leaving the profession in droves — particularly the inexperienced ones and part-timers who could no longer make a living at it. (Some of that may have amounted to a necessary housecleaning.)

5_JFK-Harvard-JV-Football-TeamNow, with the market picking up and insanely high home prices reported in some parts of the U.S., becoming a real estate agent is starting to look awfully tempting again. In fact, the National Association of Realtors reports that 42,000 agents joined up in 2013, its first membership increase in seven years. (That’s 840 new agents per state, if they spread out evenly! If all of them had beoame football players instead, there’d be enough to field 15 new teams per state, assuming a 53-person roster.)

This influx of newbies makes it critical that anyone choosing an agent to help buy or sell a home do some serious homework and make sure to get someone experienced and reputable, not someone who got tired of trying to scrape out a living as an aromatherapy consultant.

An agent isn’t just someone who drives you to houses, or stands around during your open house. The most important role an agent can play today is making sure that, in this high-priced transaction, you don’t pay more than you have to (if buying) or accept less than you have to (if selling).

The basic steps to finding a good agent are to:

  1. Get referrals from friends and colleagues.
  2. Interview at least three agents.
  3. Check references. (You wouldn’t believe how many people fail to do this.)

For details, check out Nolo’s article on, “Choosing Your Real Estate Agent” and our “Real Estate Agent Interview Questionnaire” and “Real Estate Agent Reference Questionnaire.”

Sellers “should be asking us if we plan to hire a professional photographer”

chairThose wise words came from Teresa Boardman, a real estate broker and contributor to Inman News, in a column titled, “Sellers often have some old-fashioned ideas about marketing their home that don’t include photography and that thing called the Internet.”

With a title like that, need I say more? But I have seen firsthand how sellers assume that their real estate agents have a tried-and-true marketing plan and are up to date on technology and so forth. The sellers tend go straight to questions about how much the agent thinks the house will fetch, ignoring behind-the-scenes issues like what the agent will actually do to market the place.

By way of example, a friend of mine hired an agent after carefully researching several others in the area and checking out their reputations and references. She looked at the agent’s existing property listings, and didn’t notice anything amiss. So she didn’t think twice as she watched the agent go through her house with a camera, taking pictures.

Then, when she saw her house’s online listing, she was shocked. Dim, obviously amateurish photos made a charming house look utterly unexciting. By now, the house was listed, the open house was scheduled, and it was late in the game for a redo.

Anyone can take a bad photo. Here, I just took one for this blog, above. Notice how the light from the window creates painfully high contrast, and makes the space behind the chair look like a dark cave? A pro would never allow that.

Bad photos put a house at a serious disadvantage. First off, as Teresa Boardman and every other source of statistics will tell you, the overwhelming majority of homebuyers start their home search online. They no longer rely on agents to do the prescreening and show them possibilities in the real world — they can easily screen and eliminate homes themselves, based on what they see within the virtual world.

What’s more, online home searchers will be looking at a number of listings posted by agents who did shell out the several hundred dollars that it costs to hire a professional photographer. Some of those photos will make even the small, dark homes look like expansive palaces. (Ah, the miracles of wide-angle lenses. Next time you’re looking at listing photos, notice how all the refrigerators look like they’re about nine feet wide!)

So, yes, by all means ask prospective listing agents whether they plan to hire a pro. It’s not as though the agent will suffer by investing in this aspect of marketing — a successful home sale to an eager buyer will yield the highest possible commission to the agent, too.

Miami Real Estate Industry Willfully Blind to Sea Level Rise

fla hurricaneIt takes a writer from a British newspaper to point up the absurdity of human behavior in Miami, where despite obviously rising sea levels, “The local population is steadily increasing; land prices continue to surge; and building is progressing at a generous pace.” (See “Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away,” by Robin McKie, Friday 11 July 2014.)

Many Miami residents are apparently  living in a state of denial. And not just climate change denial, by the look of it. To deny climate change is, after all, primarily to deny that humans are the cause of changes in the environment.

No, in the case, we seem to be witnessing literal denial of what’s in front of people’s eyes: walls of seawater, increasingly regular flooding, shopkeepers who “keep plastic bags and rubber bands handy to wrap around their feet when they have to get to their cars through rising waters,” and homeowners who “have found that ground-floor spaces in garages are no longer safe to keep their cars.”

Yes, they’re building sea walls and other measures to hold back the waters, but scientists believe these measures will offer only short-term relief. And it’s not just a problem of occasional high waves. As McKie describes, Miami is “is built on a dome of porous limestone which is soaking up the rising seawater, slowly filling up the city’s foundations and then bubbling up through drains and pipes. Sewage is being forced upwards and fresh water polluted.”  Meanwhile, the cost of the stopgap measures is in the billions.

Just for fun, I took a look at some ads for Miami real estate, wondering whether the homes on higher ground would at least mention that fact — as would seem doubly important, given that the local architectural style seems to be one story, even if it’s a one-story sprawling mansion.

Nope, the real estate agents who write these ads have chosen to not breathe a word about threats from the elements. You might think the beach in Miami didn’t even exist. Most ads talk about local shopping, schools, and golf courses. Oh, but there was one that advertised, “All windows and doors hurricane proof. ”  So, at least one home seller in Miami is getting real! And getting out of town, I’ll bet.

Rent vs. Buy Analysis Now a 50-50 Proposition, Nationwide

IMG_3259Rent or buy, rent or buy? Good reasons always exist to do either. Renting offers flexibility, protection from getting in over your head financially and being foreclosed on, yet limited freedom within one’s space; buying offers a chance to build equity, get a dog, and paint the walls burgundy red.

As for the straight financials, however, there’s a ratio that can help you figure out what’s most advantageous. It’s called the “price-to-rent ratio,” calculated by taking the median sale price to buy a home in your area and dividing that by the average amount you’d pay per year to rent a similar abode. 

A ratio under 15 means that for what you’re paying in rent, you might just as well buy a home; a ratio over 20 means homes may be overpriced, and staying put as a renter might not be a bad idea.

Across the U.S., the current ratio is, at 14.8; perilously close to an even 15, as reported on in the article “Better to Buy or Rent,” by Patricia Mertz Esswein in the June, 2014 edition of Kiplingers (figures from real estate research firm Marcus & Millichap). 

The U.S. is, to state the obvious, a pretty big country. So what you really want to look into is the price-to-rent ratio in your own area. Trulia offers a nationwide map of the figures for major cities. And here’s Nolo’s Rent vs. Buy calculator, and additional discussion on whether to “Rent or Buy a House?“.

Why Non-Parent Homebuyers Should Care About School Quality

Who’s thinking about school in the middle of summer, right? Well, I went to a neighborhood party yesterday, which was heavily attended by parents of toddlers, and the primary topic of conversation was where they were going to send the little ones when they grew up.

Our local schools, for the most part, are lousy. In fact, I probably wouldn’t live here if they weren’t. Low school quality is the very factor that allowed us, along with various other childless buyers, to afford a place here. So part of me was inclined to yawn and turn away at this topic of conversation.

Yet I was also watching the laws of supply and demand in action. If school quality doesn’t improve around here, or the parents don’t feel able to shell out for private school, many of these friendly neighbors whom I’m just getting to know will be moving in a few years.

If and when they do move, local “for-sale” inventory will rise – and other buyers will have to go through the “will we have kids, can we deal with the local schools, and if not, is it worth buying now only to have to move in a few years?” analysis.

For many, the answer will be no. For me, that will mean less neighborhood stability, and less home appreciation for my own abode.

If you’re a homebuyer currently scouting out the market, it really is worth having a look at how your local schools are rated, whether or not you have, or plan to have children. Fortunately, there are lots of great research sources for that, such as City-Data and GreatSchools.org.

Are You Ready for the World to Know Your House Is “Coming Soon?”

beesThe real estate world is buzzing with the news that the website Zillow is introducing a “coming soon” feature for houses advertised for sale. The traditional MLS doesn’t have such a feature (not yet, anyway). It will be open only to real estate agents who pay to advertise with Zillow. (Sorry, FSBOs, that leaves you out.)

So, up to 30 days before a house is actually available for sale, some sellers will be able to tell the world to start salivating over it.

My first thought is that this is like telling your party guests to wait on the front porch for an hour or two before you open the door. No longer do you have privacy when making those last cleanups (or even repairs), ripping out your weeds and feeble attempts at landscaping and replacing them with blooming flowers, or even putting up a fresh coat of paint.

No, the world will be watching. And if you’re in a hot market, believe me, they’ll be watching. Expect to see a procession of cars going by your house, cameras held out the window. (And those are the visitors who are sufficiently polite to stay off the property itself.)

Of course, my grumbling isn’t going to make this feature go away. If anything, it’s likely to become the norm. So, home sellers, get ready to be ready before you’re actually, you know, ready.

 

Luxury Homes Will Soon Be Less of a Bargain

House cornerOne of the fun things for buyers during the depressed real estate market was seeing almost unbelievably low prices on luxury homes.  (Who wanted to buy a castle with everyone in fear of a job loss or investment tumble next week?) Even if we couldn’t actually afford a mansion in the hills, we could peruse the listings without feeling like such a fantasy was completely and utterly crazy.

Unfortunately, buying a luxury home is swiftly returning to the realm of never-never land for the average buyer. According to the April, 2014 edition of Money magazine (“The sunny outlook for housing in upscale neighborhoods“), sales volume for expensive houses is on the upswing, the time it takes to sell is on the downswing in many parts of the U.S., and these factors will soon add up to price increases for high-end homes.

Sigh. You might console yourself by remembering that, even if you could afford the purchase price on a luxury home, other costs such as insurance, repairs, and of course home security might completely break your bank. See Nolo’s article, “How Much Does Owning a Home Really Cost?” for more on that.

San Fran Home Sells for $1.405 Million Over Asking?!

Paper house attached to yellow blank price tag on blue backgroundSeriously. You read that right. That bid brought the total price of the recently sold two-bedroom, 2.5 bathroom home on Gough Street to $3.4 million

I wonder whether there’s some other bidder out there who offered a mere $1.309 million over asking, and is now kicking himself for not having gone just a little higher? (Though what’s “little” in this context is relative, with every .1 million signifying a cool $100 thousand.)

While the article discussing this house on Curbed didn’t mention it, a price hike like this is a sure sign that a bidding war took place. (Either that, or some seriously misguided buyer thought a bidding war was inevitable or had money to burn.)

How, you might ask, did the buyer decide to go quite that high? Real estate bids are traditionally confidential. This isn’t like an auction, where everyone gets to hear the other offers and then raise their own bid by a bit.

But the buyers’ agents are allowed to, and traditionally do, ask the seller’s agent how many people have indicated that they plan to submit a bid. If it’s only one or two, the savvy buyer will probably bid something over asking, but not go crazy.

In the Bay Area, however, with a tech boom and a housing shortage, it’s not uncommon to hear of ten or more prospective buyers bidding on the same house. When up against that sort of competition, with only one chance to make your offer stand out, your best bet is to put an eye-popping dollar figure on it.

If you’re new to the real estate world, let this serve as an introduction to the fact that home list prices mean almost nothing until you understand what’s happening in the market where the house is located. Wouldn’t you think that a two-bedroom home listed for over $2 million wouldn’t require anyone to bid a penny more? But that’s the Bay Area market. Yours may differ! See Nolo’s article, “Home List Price: What Is a House Worth?” for a deeper discussion of this issue.