Category Archives: Homebuying Trends

Huge Disparity in Home Affordability Across the U.S.

SFHow can an annual salary of just over $19,000 be enough to buy you a home in Cleveland, Ohio, while you’ll need a princely income of $115,510 per year to buy a home in San Francisco, California? Let’s just say that home prices, mortgage rates, and other economic factors vary tremendously across the U.S., as evidenced by a recent study by HSH.

The HSH study put together data on mortgage rates and median home prices in 25 of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., and calculated how much salary you would therefore need in order to cover the mortgage payments on an average home there. (And that’s before you start worrying about other costs of living, like local private schools.)

The results should make any Californian who doesn’t already own a home want to flee to another state. Not only is San Francisco absurdly difficult to buy into, but prospective Los Angeles homebuyers will need, on average, an income of $72,127, and San Diego homebuyers will need $81,570.

Even New York City starts to look cheap by comparison: An income of $66,167 gives you a shot at buying a home there, woo-whoo! And we can blame the dot-com industry for driving up rates in San Francisco, but why is Seattle, the home of Microsoft and Amazon, still affordable for folks with an income of $59,130?

No wonder the other big story in the San Francisco Bay Area is that rental rates are the highest in the nation. But if you need to buy a house in an expensive area, you’ll find useful information in the “Affording a House” section of Nolo’s website.

 

 

 

Joining the Crowd of Newly Built Home Buyers? Do Your Homework

valentines houseA couple of years ago, finding a newly built home to buy was as hard as finding an open seat in a nice restaurant on Valentine’s Day. The builders weren’t building, knowing that the buyers weren’t looking.

But last month saw a sharp spike in sales of new homes, according to estimates by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).

A whole new crop of homebuyers may, for the first time, be considering the possibility of investing in a home that, at the moment, exists only in the form of a drawing on a map. It’s an exciting process — new-home buyers can often customize the place to their own wishes, from the layout to the counter tops to various amenities.

It’s also a time for caution. First, there’s the matter of construction quality. The model house in the development, if there is one, probably looks shiny, new, and perfect. But not every builder is attentive to quality, and some are more attentive to speed and appearance than anything else — leading to horrible customer surprises down the line, as described in Nolo’s article, “Newly Built Houses: Pros and Cons of Buying.”

Then there’s the fact that many homes in development — particularly, but not always, if they’re condos or townhouses — require all owners to join a homeowners’ association (HOA). That offers many advantages, such as someone to maintain common areas and watch over community quality and uniformity.

But it also means ongoing monthly dues, the possibility of expensive special assessments, and a level of control over your life that not even a landlord could exert. (“Sorry, your dog’s too big, you can’t fly that flag, and you can’t hang your laundry outside.”) For more on that, see “Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) and CC&Rs: Know What You’re Getting Into.”

And when you’re done with all that reading, don’t forget to make those Valentine’s Day reservations!

You’re Not on TV: Look at More Than Three Homes!

Family TVAccording to real estate agent Jason Crouch (of Austin Texas Homes, LLC), real-estate-related cable shows like “House Hunters” “My First House,” and so on have had a noticeable effect on his home-buying clients’ expectations.

Not that he’s entirely complaining — he wittily titles his blog post on the topic, “I Should Probably Send Thank-You Notes to HGTV and TLC.”

The reason? These shows have managed to convince some buyers that they should make a decision after visiting three, or at least a small handful, of homes. Says Crouch, “Needless to say, I appreciate the idea that we don’t have to visit a virtually endless number of homes to make a solid decision.”

Indeed, some home buyers — pre-HGTV at least — are known for driving their real estate agents crazy with their “This one’s too big,” “This one’s too small” syndrome. They never manage to find (or, if it’s a couple, agree on) a home that’s “Just right.”

But visiting only three homes? That’s got to be a sign that TV is rotting people’s brains.

After so small a number, you’re only just starting to get to know your local market; to get a sense of what’s available at what price. You’re only looking at a small slice of what might be available within your time window. Ask your real estate agent — he or she probably already knows of homes that will be coming onto the market within the next six or so weeks. You’re putting on blinders with regard to the biggest financial decision you might ever make.

So rest assured, the cameras aren’t rolling, and your real estate agent will happily visit more than three homes with you. (And by the way, how often have you watched “House Hunters” and thought, “Gee, I wouldn’t have wanted any of those homes!”)

 

Not Buying a House Is Okay, Too

mens roomsEvery once in a while, a journalist asks me to make the “case” for homebuying. That shouldn’t surprise me: I write books about homebuying, I own a home, and I love walking neighborhoods and looking at homes. I even have a little collection of tin houses sitting on my office shelf.

But let’s get one thing straight: Loving houses doesn’t mean I’m an “advocate” for buying one. It’s a lifestyle choice, and the financial outcome is anything but guaranteed. Some people can (with the right landlord) be perfectly happy renting their whole lives. They’re mobile, they can enjoy weekends free of home repair obligations, and if the place gets seriously damaged, they won’t be the one calling the insurance company.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because panic levels seem to be rising right along with interest rates, additionally fueled by headlines like, “Families Blocked by Investors From Buying U.S. Homes.” (This article makes the point that, with rising demand for rentals, investors are moving in with all-cash offers that individual buyers can’t match.)

So let’s refocus on other voices in the media, such as that of Kelly Phillips Erb, in Forbes, with “11 Reasons Why I Never Want To Own A House Again” and Carl Richards for The New York Times, in, “It’s Not Everyone’s Time to Buy a Home.” They discuss varied reasons not to buy, from the amount of interest you’ll plunk down to the fact that you are the only true expert when it comes to your own life.

If you decide to keep renting (and I’m not advocating for that, either!), the most important thing to do is understand your rights as a tenant.

Floodwaters May Not Be Rising Yet, But Flood Insurance Rates Are!

floodNo one can say FEMA didn’t warn us. Its website offers pages of information about how flood insurance rates might go up in 2013 due to the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012. Every homeowner’s case is different, but in extreme cases, FEMA projected that individual premiums could go up to $20,000.

(By the way, could you get a more perfectly ironic name for a flood-related law? It’s named after its Congressional co-sponsors, Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican from Illinois who is no longer in Congress, and Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California.)

Until recently, this law attracted little public attention. But October 1, 2013 marked its first actual effective date.

The results aren’t pretty. Nor are they surprising, given that the purpose of the law was to put the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) on a firmer financial footing by, among other things, raising insurance rates to reflect true flood risk levels. For example, homes whose lowest floor elevation is below the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) will no longer receive subsidized rates, and homeowners who were grandfathered in under old flood maps will no longer be able to take advantage of this.

Now we’re hearing that even Congresspeople who voted for the law are worried about how it will impact some homeowners. Homeowners themselves are complaining; The New York Times reports “rallies, petitions and concern among state governors.” And real estate agents report home deals falling through when the new owners get a look at the new price tag for insurance.

Some members of Congress are, in fact, looking into ameliorative or delay measures. (If there’s anything Congress is capable of doing effectively, it’s delay!)

In the meantime, if you’re buying a home, you might want to add an insurance contingency to your contract, specifying that closing be made conditional on obtaining acceptable insurance coverage. See Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home for details on contract clauses,  insurance and other aspects of home buying.

Yes, It’s THAT Shiller Who Just Won a Nobel in Economics

Macro of sparkling champagne against black backgroundAnyone who follows the real estate market has probably heard of the “Case-Shiller Index,” known for “tracking changes in the value of residential real estate both nationally as well as in 20 metropolitan regions.” Its findings are widely reported on, as are the thoughts and conclusions of Robert Shiller himself, who warned the U.S. of the pre-2008 housing bubble many times over. (Well, at least he was wrong about that. Oh.)

So yes, this is the very same Robert Shiller who was recently named as one of three co-winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economics. When you hear blurbs about his study of when “assets are overvalued,” real estate is one of the assets being referred to.

Now that his credibility just got gold-plating, what does Dr. Shiller have to say about where the housing market is going next? Actually, he’s worried that prices in some markets have risen unrealistically high — creating a “bubbly” situation, according to a Reuters report. Let’s hope that’s just the celebratory champagne talking.

Condo Association Takes on Doggie Doo-Doo Dilemma

pup snowTradeoffs are inevitable when buying a home within a development that’s overseen by a homeowner’s association (HOA) or condo association. Your life is made easier by knowing that the association will take care of maintenance of the common areas and landscaping, and potentially even of parts of your own property, such as your roof.

But you give up some control — such as, according to recent reports, Fido’s genetic privacy, and your right to sneak off and hope that no one notices that your dog just left a deposit on their lawn.

Fox News tells us that The Grand at Riverdale, in New Jersey, has announced to its residents that they must have their dogs’ mouths swabbed for DNA analysis. Thenceforth, any stray droppings will be tested for a match. Owners will be fined $250 for the first offense, with subsequent fines ranging up to $1,000.

It’s a colorful (or smelly) news item, but probably not surprising to anyone who’s lived within a condo association. Their community rules can cover all sorts of issues: in the dog realm alone, whether you can own dogs, how many, how big they can be (by weight), and so on. (Oh, and by the way, Fido doesn’t really have any right to genetic privacy, in legal terms. Though while you’re at it, maybe you can check his ancestry!)

See Nolo’s articles, “Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) and CC&Rs: Know What You’re Getting Into.”

Should Seller Allow Buyer to Do Pre-Offer Inspection?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s a lot of buzz lately (at least in areas where multiple offers are making a comeback) about buyers getting the sellers of homes in which they’re interested to open their doors for a professional home inspection before, not after the buyer submits a purchase offer.

Buyers are being told that it will ultimately make their offer more attractive, given that they can, armed with extensive knowledge about the house’s condition, submit an offer with no inspection contingency. (The post-offer inspection, based on a contingency or condition written into the contract, is a time when negotiations often get contentious. Enough defects are usually found for the buyer to ask for repairs or a reduction in purchase price, and haggling over the details can consume — or derail — the entire process.)

Some sellers remain leery, however, of allowing pre-offer inspections. Let’s look at why, and whether these are reasonable concerns.

1) Sellers fear that the buyers will turn up defects in the property that even the seller hadn’t known about. True, this could happen. A seller who has lived in the home for years may have little idea of what’s been going on “under the hood,” so to speak. And once the seller knows of the issues, he or she will, in most states, be obligated to disclose them (or any of them that are “material”) to all other potential buyers. (See Nolo’s articles on “Preparing, Showing, and Making Disclosures About Your Home” for more on this.) As daunting as this might sound, however, it’s worth remembering that the truth about the house will likely come out eventually. Unless the market is super-hot and you’ve got buyers willing to waive the inspection contingency blindly, some other buyer will eventually conduct an inspection that turns up the defect, and you’ll be no better off than you would have otherwise been — or possibly worse off, if the buyers’ shock causes them to ask for a major price reduction.

2) Sellers feel they shouldn’t have to put up with an inspector in their home for a buyer who may not even ultimately bid on the place. True, if the inspection report comes back with a long list of defects, the buyer may get scared off completely. But there’s no reason to fear that buyers are running around casually hiring inspectors to write up reports on every home in which they’re remotely interested. These inspection reports cost a few hundred dollars a pop! Only a buyer with a serious interest in your home is likely to request a pre-offer inspection.

3) Waiting for the buyer to conduct an inspection might delay the process. Actually, this is more a concern for the buyer than the seller — as the seller, you don’t have to wait around for any one offer, but can put a deadline on considering them, and review other offers while you wait for the folks doing the preinspection to get everything scheduled and sorted. More and more home inspectors are, in light of this recent trend, making themselves available for inspections within a few days of being contacted by the prospective buyer.

Ultimately, the choice is yours, as the seller, as to whether to let a buyer conduct an inspection of your home before making an offer. But more and more successful home sales are now taking place this way.

Buyers Demand Tech-Friendly Homes

smart homeOne of the most striking results from a recent Better Homes and Gardens real estate survey was that a whopping 87% of luxury homebuyers would not even consider living in a home that isn’t tech-friendly, or “smart.” This wasn’t the only must-have on the mind of these affluent homebuyers — they would also find it hard to live without a garden oasis (53%), an outdoor fireplace or fire pit (50%), and a separate guest house, not attached to the main house (47%).

But look at the numbers differential! Eighty-seven percent is so close to an across-the-board vote that it’s hard not to imagine that the few remaining affluent homebuyers are either from a generation that never had to learn to use personal tech devices, or will simply be spending too much time on round-the-world travel to care how what their house is wired for.

Even if you’re selling a home that doesn’t qualify as “luxury,” these results are worth noting. Buyers of luxury homes tend to set the trends for other buyers. And although clever staging can hide, say, a lack of electrical outlets, more and more buyers may start looking closely at whether your house can actually support their tech needs. And on the other side of the coin, you’ll get an advertising boost if you can describe your home’s technological features and capacities. Automated appliances! Climate control! Intelligent lighting!

What exactly does creating a tech-friendly or smart home involve? Asking tech-savvy friends how they’ve adapted and upgraded their homes is probably a good start for finding practical guidance. Also check out online sources like Globitor’s “Tech-Friendly Tips for Upgrading Your Home,” Lifehacker’s “How Can I Bring My Tech-Unfriendly Home into the 21st Century?,” and CNET’s “Automate this: Smart devices for every corner of your home.”

Strategic House Pricing: A Little Low, a Little High, or Is There a “Just Right?”

savannah houseHere’s a “must-read” for buyers and sellers of real estate this week: Bob Hunt’s article on RealtyTimes, “What Is the Correct Way To Price a Listing?” Hunt analyzes a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (August 8, 2013), which described a study purportedly finding that “higher starting prices are indeed associated with higher selling prices.”

The underlying reason posited by the study’s authors is a phenomenon called “anchoring,” which basically means that home buyers develop a respectful first impression of a home with a higher price tag, and are thus willing to pay more for it in the end.

Kudos to Hunt, however, for pointing out a basic flaw in the study: The price variations they’re talking about ranged from about $117 to $187. Hunt notes that this has all the significance of “a rounding error.” I can’t add much to his reasoned analysis, but let me call those dollar amounts by another name: Puny! As a percentage of a home selling price, so insignificant that they might represent mere quibbles over repairs!

In the meantime, having observed bidding wars on a number of occasions (they’re common here in California), I can say that there are times when underpricing a house has the exact effect that real estate agents anticipate: They bring in scads of interested buyers, some of whom will fall in love with the place and bid amounts that are far higher than anyone would have realistically set as an original list price.

But that’s in one market, and may not work for every house. Once again, I can’t do better than to refer to Hunt’s observation that, “[A]s far as answering the general question, ‘What is the best pricing strategy?’ we still have a long way to go.”