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

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?“.

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