Category Archives: Homebuying

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.

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.

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.”

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?“.

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.

Should Your First Home Be an Old One, or Newly Built?

Brick entryIf you’re thinking of buying your first  home. chances are you’re a member of Generation Y (born between 1977 and 1994), had a median income of around $73,600 in 2012, and are looking to buy an 1,800-square-foot home that will cost you about $180,000.

How’s the crystal ball doing so far? (Actually, those figures are based on a recent “Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends” study by the National Association of Realtors.)

If those demographic descriptors describe you, you’ve probably already noticed that they are not, for the most part, within your control. The amount you’ll spend on a home, for example, probably depends largely on what you can afford and what’s available in your area.

But now we come to an important matter that IS within your control: Will you buy an older, previously lived-in home, or a brand-spanking new one, most likely in a development?

The differences may be larger than you realize: Older homes tend to be more solidly built, more affordable (though not always), and in established neighborhoods with grown trees and neighborhood character. Newer ones, however, offer the advantages of customizable finishes and features, adaptations to modern building codes and energy efficiency standards, and, because they’re often in communities run by a homeowners’ association, reduced maintenance responsibilities for the homeowner.

So, would you like to know what the other Gen Y homebuyers are choosing? (The drum roll, please.) The answer is: OLDER HOMES! Apparently for all the reasons just described. So if you have confidence that your fellow Gen-Yers know what they’re about, the decision has just been made for you.

But should it give you pause that the Boomers, just two generations up the line from you — who have already owned a home or two — are now mostly choosing to buy newly built homes? Apparently they got tired of all the maintenance as an older home starts to fall apart.

The real test would be, however, to ask these Boomer-buyers how they feel about their new home in a year or so. By then, they may be kvetching about how newer homes have thinner walls (“I can hear the neighbors’ TV!”), they can’t get a dog of the size they’d wish (because of homeowners’ association restrictions) and the hot tub leaks (hasty building with unqualified labor is epidemic in the new home world).

There’s just no perfect, obvious selection. To help you make that choice intelligently, see the articles on the “Choosing a House” page of Nolo’s website.

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.