Category Archives: Homebuying Trends

Few Young People at Your Open House? There’s a Reason

Debt_collectors (2)Real estate agents have told me personally that that they’re seeing fewer young people than usual among the herds of interested home buyers, but now it’s official: A study by John Burns Real Estate Consulting found that the burden of student debt will reduce by 8% the number of homes expected to transact in 2014. (See the L.A. Times report, “Student loan debt curbs housing market by $83 billion, study says.”)

The basic problem is that, to put it semi-mathematically, a whole lot of young people owe at least $250 each month in student loans. With every $250 of debt reducing their home borrowing and purchasing power by $44,000, you can see why this swiftly puts many of them out of the running.

If you are in the process of selling your home, this doesn’t mean that no one will be out there to buy it. The real estate market is turning into a “seller’s market” (lots of interested buyers) in many parts of the United States, and some prospective buyers may have already been waiting for years to finally pay off their loans and buy their first home.

But this may necessitate a revision in selling strategy for some sellers, especially those selling “starter” homes. When preparing advertising material and deciding how to “stage” your home, the image of the young couple about to have children may have to be scrapped. Perhaps a retired couple looking to use a spare bedroom as an office is actually your most likely buyer.

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.

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.

 

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.

Undisclosed Real Estate Secrets Have a Way of Getting Out!

arrowheadIt’s a wonder that home sellers and developers continue to try to sweep evidence of issues concerning the property’s condition under the rug — or, in the case of the Rose Lane development in Larkspur, under some new pavement. Word always seems to get out somehow. 

As recently reported by Peter Fimrite in the SFGate article “Indian artifact treasure trove paved over for Marin County homes,” developer Larkspur Land 8 Owner LLC, though following the letter of the law (the California Environmental Quality Act) managed to conveniently arrange to have all the contents of a 4,500-year-old “treasure trove” of Coast Miwok life carted off and buried in an undisclosed location. The artifacts included human remains, tools, musical instruments, harpoon tips, spears, throwing sticks, and more.

Although the actions were done with the input of archaeologists and the oversight of Indian tribal members, the plan conveniently allowed the developer to move ahead with building homes and cottages that will sell at a starting price point of over $1 million.

Fimrite quotes a tribal representative as defending their choice of what to do with the objects, saying, “If we determine that they are sacred objects, we will rebury them because in our tradition many of those artifacts, be they beads, charm stones or whatever, go with the person who died. …” Obviously there are some difficult issues to balance here regarding who has an interest in and decision-making right over ancient artifacts.

But this blog is about real estate, and one of the more interesting points made in the article was by consulting archaeologist Dwight Simons,  who said not only that, “”This was a site of considerable archaeological value,”  but “The developer was reluctant to have any publicity because, well – let’s face it — because of ‘Poltergeist’.”

Whoa. If you don’t remember the movie “Poltergeist,” it was about a family in a housing development whose daughter is terrorized by ghosts.

Well, the developer’s got plenty of publicity now. I searched the article in vain to find any indication of who actually spilled the beans.

Will the shock of what was done to the property reduce its value in buyers’ eyes? Hard to say — plenty of homebuyers are desperate to buy in the Bay Area, and might not think twice about this. So perhaps the developers’ main worry at this point is that new homeowners will start hearing strange noises in the night . . . .  in which case, they might want to see the “Home Defects, Damages, and Insurance” section of Nolo’s website.

Enclave of Sex Offenders a La “Arrested Development” = New Real Estate Reality?

FINGERPRINTRemember that episode of the popular TV series “Arrested Development,” where a member of the once-wealthy family tries to unload empty houses in their development by selling them to sex offenders?

If you laughed then, you now need to solemnly admire the show creators’ prophetic powers. According to Inman News’s reporting on this topic by Teke Wiggins, the increasing accessibility of data on where registered sex offenders live could ultimately “herd offenders into enclaves, depressing home values in some neighborhoods and scaring away families with children.”

Here’s a bit of the back story. All the relevant data – for-sale home listings on one hand, addresses of registered sex offenders on the other — has been available online (and as apps) for a while. (Federal legislation known as Megan’s Law mandates that each state collect information on registered sex offenders and make it publicly available, though many states specify that the public may access the information only for certain reasons, and not for others. California, for example, prohibits using the database for the purpose of denying housing.)

What’s new and different, however, is that various online services have begun merging all this data – although in some cases later “de-merging” it, as RealtyTrac (a major U.S. source of real estate listings) did, possibly in response to outcry from real estate agents and industry insiders as well as some legal issues. (See “RealtyTrac Wipes Hyperlocal Neighborhood Info From Listings.”)

You could look at RealtyTrac’s latest action cynically and say that the real estate industry doesn’t want to promote any feature, however snazzy, that puts “sex offender” warning flags right next to images of homes where prospective buyers might have hoped to raise children.

In the blandest economic terms, sex offenders in the neighborhood tend to depress home values. In fact, according to Wiggins’ article (“Sex offender data threatening home values, tarnishing neighborhoods and frustrating real estate agents”), knowing where a registered sex offender lived pushed down home values by 4% for those properties within a tenth of a mile of the offender’s house, in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County. That data is from a study done by Jonah Rockoff, associate professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School.

The direst of warnings came from real estate agent Steve Clarke who, reacting to RealtyTrac’s initial data merge, stated, “This could literally bring down property values all over the United States.”

Yikes. But doesn’t Clarke’s statement cut both ways? If the U.S. is littered with sex offenders, then shouldn’t home buyers simply realize that it’s nearly impossible to find an area where everyone is sane and harmless? You could move to a “sex-offender-free zone” and still find local folks convicted of various other crimes as well as crazy neighbors who have 25 cats.

I don’t mean to minimize the fear that a homebuyer, particularly a parent, might have when considering the prospect of living near someone with a history of sexual assault, rape, or other such offenses. But as Wiggins rightly points out, there’s a “potential for sex offender data to mislead and spook consumers.” He details a story in which neighbors were spreading the news that a local 17-year old was a sex offender – but it turned out that his offense was to have had sex – apparently consensual sex — with his 15-year-old girlfriend, after which the girl’s father pressed charges. (In some states, a conviction for consensual sex, that is, statutory rape, can result in a registration requirement.) The young man’s actions hardly seems like the sort that should inspire panic and bring down local home values.

Wiggins also notes that the accuracy of sex offender databases is questionable. Changes of address may not be entered into the database for some time, if at all. And offenders often fail to register.

After talking to some criminal law attorneys, I can add a few more reasons why prospective homebuyers shouldn’t stir themselves into a frenzy looking at sex offender maps:

  • A minority of sex offenders commit subsequent offenses. According to the Huffington Post, “Contrary to popular belief, as a group, sex offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism of all the crime categories.” (See “Sex Offenders: Recidivism, Re-Entry Policy and Facts.”)
  • Not everyone who is charged with a registerable sex offense will end up on the sex offender registery. A good defense attorney will do everything possible to avoid an outcome that requires registration, a life-long duty that will limit the client’s ability to get jobs and housing long after any jail time has been served. Particularly when the prosecution’s case is weak, clients will enter into plea bargains to lesser, non-registerable offenses, like assault.
  • The most common sex offenders are the people you might least suspect. According to the organization Parents for Megan’s Law, “Most child sexual abuse, up to 90%, occurs with someone a child has an established and trusting relationship with.” Friends, babysitters, family members, coaches, and others are commonly identified in studies and statistics of child sexual abuse.

Not all of the above news is exactly comforting. But it points to a larger truth: We can’t completely isolate ourselves or our children from danger – not in the homebuying process, nor anywhere else. The best bet for parents worrying about their children’s personal safety is to teach those children what to watch out for and encourage them to talk to parents or other adults about any inappropriate behavior.

Will a “Premiere Party” Help Sell Your Home?

mimosa iStock_000012039452XSmallThe trend-spotters at Oakland Magazine have been at work, with a recent article titled, “To Sell a Property, They Throw a Party.”

And not just any party: It’s a “premiere party” (usually for a luxury home in an affluent neighborhood), to which the real estate agent invites hundred of neighbors and other prospects.

They might serve champagne and hors d’oeuvres (will I ever be able to spell that without looking it up?) or perhaps chocolate chip cookies. They might create an art show with work from a local artist. One agent even commissioned a bagpipe player.

The odd thing is, most of the article discussed not what benefits parties like these offer the home seller, but what they can do for the selling agents, who — in the hot, hot, and already hotter Oakland market — find they’ve got to work hard to set themselves apart and attract clients. As one agent told writer Mike Rosen-Molina, “Listing agents are looking for tools that every agent might not have and ways to convince sellers to list their home with them.”

Okay, so do such parties really help sell your home? Especially given one agent’s acknowledgment that, “Buyers will see the home anyway; anyone looking won’t miss the property.”

The answer seems to be that such parties create a “buzz.” They get people talking, and create a sense that the property itself is an object of desire. And, while no agent quoted in the article came out and said this, buzz like this can lead to every seller’s dream: Offers over asking price, and possibly a bidding war.