About: Ilona Bray

Ilona Bray is a former attorney and the author of several Nolo immigration books. Her working background includes both solo immigration practice and working or volunteering as an immigration attorney with nonprofit organizations in Seattle and California.

Recent Posts by Ilona Bray

“House for Spouse” Does Not Belong on Your Holiday Surprise Gift List

valentines houseWhen I sold my first home, one of the offers came from a couple who, according to their Realtor, had been house-hunting for years without agreeing on a place they both liked.

At last, they found our house! Alas, they didn’t bid high enough. I sometimes wonder whether they’re still out there, searching . . . and arguing.

Ask any real estate agent: It can be hard, if not downright breakup-provoking, for couples to agree on their priorities regarding the various features that make up a house — its location, layout, design, number of bedrooms (at which questions like, “Should we have children?” and “Must we make room for your parents?!” tend to move to the forefront of the discussion), the amount of garden area, and so on.

Is that why some people simply go out and buy a house for their fiance, partner, or spouse without asking first? Yes, it really happens, according to Candace Taylor’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “What Happens When Your Husband Buys a House Without Telling You.”

Dumb idea, if you ask me. Well, okay, some of the wives in question were happy at being handed the keys to an actual house — or at least they say they were happy — but others broke down in tears. The bad kind of tears.

Buying a house is one of the most personal decisions one can make. It defines how you’re going to live for the next several years, and becomes as much a part of your identity as the clothes you wear. Besides, shopping for a house can be fun! Why leave one partner out of the process in the name of a surprise?

The WSJ article does have one excellent suggestion (in addition to “stick with jewelry”) for anyone  who still thinks buying a home as a surprise gift is a good idea: Don’t actually close on the deal before announcing the gift.

Legally speaking, how can that be arranged? It depends on the procedures in your state. In New York, for instance, there’s a gap between the time when the seller expresses acceptance of  the buyer’s offer and when the two actually sign the purchase contract binding both to close the deal.

In other states (such as California), the seller’s “acceptance” may actually create a binding contract. But there are ways to get out a a home purchase contract before the closing. In fact, a savvy buyer could write a contingency into the contract conditioning the closing on the spouse’s approval. I’ve never seen it done, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been, or can’t be done.

More traditionally, the contingencies that virtually every home purchase contract contains create escape hatches. (See Nolo’s article, “Contingencies to Include in Your House Purchase Contract.”)

The inspection contingency, in particular, which conditions the closing on the buyer’s satisfaction with the results of a home inspector’s report, offers an especially easy way to back out of a deal (unless the house is physically perfect). Most every house has some defects. You might simply announce in a huff, “Look at all those defects! I’m dissatisfied!” and walk away.

Walk directly to the jewelry store. If you made this big a purchase and your partner or spouse was unhappy with it, a several-carat apology may be in order. Unless, of course, your spouse takes the same approach as the one described in one of the comments to the article, who subsequently went out  and bought not one, but four homes. Surprise!

Finding Solid Reviews of Real Estate Agents Still a Challenge

smart homeGoing online to find a home to buy has become so user-friendly, full of pretty pictures and fun bells and whistles, that some buyers have been known to proceed all the way to a purchase without once actually visiting the house. The Internet has become the “go-to” place for starting a home search. But it’s not yet the “go-to” place for finding a real estate agent.

Most agents have their own website, or at least a page on a website owned by the real estate agency for which they work. But the amount of information the agents offer up may be minimal, and is certainly not standardized. Some provide little more than their name, rank, and credentials — while others wax on about client philosophy, forgetting to so much as tell you that they’re members of, say, the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

Very few agent websites offer clients a place to post reviews and ratings. (Redfin is an exception here.)

Other consumer-rating websites have, of course, stepped in to fill the void, such as:

  • Yelp.com. Any consumer of anything online is no doubt familiar with this site and its opportunity for the world at large to rate services on a five-star system and write a lengthy essay about their experience. Potentially useful? Yes. But look at what it doesn’t provide — any independent, objective information about the agent’s credentials, work history, or success at matching buyers to homes or getting homes sold for a worthwhile amount.
  • Zillow.com. This is the site that every real estate agent is afraid will take over the world. Zillow offers a Yelp-like, five-star rating and review system — but again, minimal hard data about indicators like the agents’ transaction history.
  • Neighborcity.com. This tries to be the opposite of Yelp, by using “a sophisticated algorithm that analyzes Agent’s transaction history and active listings to provide the most objective and relevant rankings of Realtors in any area.” It’s a site worth stopping at for information about an agent’s experience and transaction history. But it feels like it’s still getting off the ground — I had a devil of a time getting it to search for agents in another state (it kept defaulting to my home area); many agents lack photos; and you can tell it’s a computer-run algorithm when you run into descriptions like, “he primarily serves sellers with Single Family properties in Seattle, Kent and Renton and the Interbay, None specified and Green Lakes neighborhoods.”
  • AgentAce. This is more than a review site, but plays matchmaker. It provides hard data about agents’ transaction history, then a live human contacts both the prospective buyer and suggested agent to set up a relationship — and the company takes a cut of the agent’s commission if it all works out. Great for handholding, but less useful if you just want to research agents online. (And it’s not available in all U.S. markets yet.)
  • HomeLight. This site also plays matchmaker, leading you through a long questionnaire before suggesting agents. It collects reviews, but as far as I can tell, doesn’t let the public see them, instead factoring them into its ratings of the agents. It’s operative in 34 U.S. markets so far.

Meanwhile, the great institutional behemoth known as the NAR has decided, at its national convention, that it “should develop a methodology to rate REALTORS ®.” That doesn’t sound like something that will happen tomorrow — especially given that one of its committee members hastened to explain that, “I know that the impression those words give are not in line with the intent of the objective. NAR, as an organization, will not rank, rate, or review Realtors.” Uh, guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Check Out Redfin’s Creepy Virtual Halloween Tour!

pumpkinHere’s as good a way as any to practice using Redfin’s 3-D “Walkthrough” technology (which it plans to start featuring on all its home listings): Tour a home filled with creepy characters and decor, as shown on the Inman site.

As someone who doesn’t virtually tour homes every day, I’m as good a guinea pig as any for the walkthrough. I found it mostly cool, if sometimes confusing.

I got it that clicking on a circle takes you right to the spot, and the arrows help navigate in all directions.

But there were a couple of doors that remained closed no matter how hard I bumped the arrows into them. Is that just because they didn’t have enough ghouls to go around, or would that be normal on a regular home tour? I hope the former.

The dollhouse and floorplan features are worth a look, and help reduce dizziness and disorientation if one goes a little too wild with all the 360-degree navigation.

Oh, and don’t miss what’s written on the bulletin board next to the refrigerator.

Competing With “Investors” Has a Whole New Meaning Now

IMG_4403For people wanting to buy homes in which to live, “investors” have long been the bogeymen — the professionals with lots of cash in their pockets who sweep in, buy up properties, and either turn them into rentals or flip them for a profit.

They’re still in the picture, making buying a home difficult for ordinary buyers, especially in hot markets.

But percentage-wise, it’s looking like fewer and fewer of these investors may be professionals. This is alluded to by Bernice Ross in her article for Inman called “Ultra high net worth individuals want to work with real estate agents of their own caliber.” She describes a recent event called Luxury Connect, in which agents representing UHNWIs came together to discuss their specialized corner of the market. (Okay, I confess, I had no idea what UHNWIs means — it’s “ultra high net worth individuals.”)

At the event, Zillow’s Greg Schwartz said that, based upon a Zillow survey, 72% of high net worth individuals said they prefer real estate to the stock market as a “safe haven” for their investment. This is a reported 30% increase from five years ago. They may not be buying up scads of homes, but rather a second home for vacation or retirement — but they’re still adding to your competition as a home buyer.

Oh, and if you were picturing U.S.-based investors, that image needs revising, too. Many foreign-born investors are parking their cash in U.S. real estate, particularly in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco.

What else can I say, except that this seems like a good time to refer back to our earlier blog, “Don’t Let an Investor Buy the Home You Wanted!“?

Court Decision Reminds Home Buyers to Read Seller Disclosures Carefully

wet floorIn most U.S. states, including California, home sellers must provide buyers with a written set of disclosures indicating what the seller knows about the property’s features, defects, history, and environment. A seller who hides a material defect can be sued later, when the buyer finds out about the problem (probably the hard way, for example when a piece of the ceiling falls on their head due to a leaky pipe).

Seller disclosures provide valuable information to buyers, and should be read carefully and followed up on with questions. Yet many buyers are so eager to close the sale and start planning for furniture and curtains rather than ongoing repair needs that they skim it, or leave it to their agent to look at. That may be what Joanna Peake did in buying a California home from the Underwoods in 2008.

The Underwoods’ agent, John Ferrell, provided Ms. Peake with, according to the court, “photographs and reports disclosing problems with the residence’s subflooring,” She went ahead and bought the house regardless.

Later, Peake says that she “became aware of the extent of the [water-intrusion] damage when her son’s foot . . . went through a bathroom floor.” Peake proceeded to sue the seller as well as the seller’s agent. In fact, she pressed forward with the lawsuit even after the agent’s attorney repeatedly sent her said reports and other evidence that Ferrell hadn’t breached any duties under California law, and asked her to withdraw the case.

The California appeals court not only dismissed Peake’s claim against the real estate agent, Ferrell, but ordered Peake to pay sanctions for having brought a frivolous lawsuit. Oops. (See Peake v. Underwood,Fourth Appellate District, June 25, 2014).

This case is, of course, drawing lots of attention from the real estate community, as agents heave a sigh of relief that they don’t have to become automatic deep pockets for disgruntled buyers.

It should also serve as a reminder to buyers that the disclosure information that they’re provided pre-sale isn’t just another form to review: It has important legal consequences. Once a home buyer is on notice regarding problems with the property, and doesn’t follow up with further questions or negotiations, it becomes a lot harder to sue over them later.

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