Category Archives: Homebuying

Should You Worry About Fraud When Buying a Home?

Various forms of real estate fraud are on the rise, the news tells us. The biggest one making headlines is “collusion,” which we’re told affected fewer than 5% of real estate transactions before 2009, but doubled by 2010, and then fell only a little, to 6.8%, in 2011. (See “Housing prices: Agents make houses sell for a lot less. On purpose,” by Schuyler Velasco of the Christian Science Monitor.)

Also called “flopping,” this  form of fraud is not likely to affect you as a homebuyer — it simply means that home sellers convince the bank to let them sell the house “short” (for less than what’s owed on the mortgage), sometimes by tearing up the lawn, painting false cracks, and otherwise making it look bad; then they sell it to a friend or family member; then happily roll in profits when that person makes big bucks reselling the place a day or two later. The bank/lender is the primary victim of this crime.

Then there are the various schemes and scams that prey on homeowners having difficulty paying their mortgages; see, for example, the video “ConsumerWatch: Real Estate Fraud On The Rise In Bay Area.”

But when it comes to simply buying a home, the type of fraud you should probably worry about the most concerns the seller’s representations about the house’s condition. In most U.S. states, sellers are required to fill out a disclosure statement, itemizing the house’s features and pointing out any known defects. (Even in those states that don’t legally require it, savvy buyers can negotiate to receive such a summary.) Unfortunately, the disclosure forms don’t require the seller to actually investigate the property, and they often contain opportunities to fudge an answer (such as the option to check a box saying “unknown”), leading some sellers to turn a blind eye to problems.

That’s why any home buyer with an ounce of sense will also make the sale contingent upon the right to hire one or more home inspectors, and to be satisfied with the results of the inspectors’ reports. A trained home inspector will examine the house from roof to basement, test the various working systems, and point out defects concerning everything from wiring to leakage to foundation issues.

Those two protective mechanisms, the disclosure report and home inspection, are usually enough to uncover the biggest problems with a house.

And yet . . . some home sellers manage to perpetrate more serious forms of fraud, even under the nose of the home inspector. Attorney Ken Goldstein of Massachusetts, for example, says: ““One of the most blatant cases I’ve seen was where, a few weeks after the sale, the new owners heard a crash from the basement. The ceiling—one of those drop structures with a metal framework and tiles fitting in the grid—had just collapsed. The tiles were all soaking wet. Suspiciously, an old kitchen pot was sitting within the wreckage. It turns out there was a leaking pipe up there, and the sneaky seller had apparently removed a tile and put in the pot. That worked to hide the problem through the closing date—but then the pot overfilled.”

Oops. When something like that happens, it’s time to read Nolo’s article on “Home Defects: Sue the Seller?“.

The House That Got Away; Or, When Are You Safely in Contract?

A real estate market that’s heating up in various regions of the U.S. doesn’t only mean higher prices: It also means some buyers need to pick up the pace and deal with competition for the houses they want. That competition can lead to “ouch” scenarios like the one faced by clients of Spokane real estate broker Michael Crowley.

While still negotiating the final contract, says Crowley, the buyers “decided to counter on a minor detail, moving the seller’s requested closing date by three days to accommodate a birthday party. That counter kept the offer open just enough for another buyer to show up with a better offer. The buyers were not happy, but I had clearly warned them of the risks.”

Such eleventh-hour switches in seller loyalty can be confusing to buyers. By now, they’ve already been told that the seller likes their offer and wants to work out a deal. Some buyers even believe (mistakenly) that because they got there first, they’ve established some right to the house, such that other wannabe buyers will just have to wait and see what happens.

The reality comes down to a basic matter of real estate contract law. As New York attorney Richard Leshnower explains: “Until you, as the buyer, have your hands on a contract of sale with both the seller’s and your signatures, don’t get overly excited—you’re not yet in contract.”

The concept of being “in contract” is vitally important. It means not only that the escrow process leading to the closing has been launched, but that the buyer and seller are mutually bound to go forward with the deal. (Exceptions are made when the contract terms and contingencies allow an out, as many do, for example if the home inspection turns up defects that the buyer can’t accept.) Once in contract, backing out without an agreed-upon reason comes with consequences, such as a potential lawsuit, or the buyer forfeiting the earnest money deposit.

The steps toward this safety zone of being “in contract” depend on state or local real estate practices. These vary to a surprising degree. In some states, such as New York, the buyer’s starting offer is a short document, and it’s up to the seller to draft a full sales contract for the buyer to review and suggest changes to, until both buyer and seller are ready to sign.

In other states, such as California, the buyer presents an offer that’s in the form of a full contract. All the seller would have to do is sign and return it to the buyer, and they’d be in contract. More often, however, the seller will make some adjustments and return a very similar document as a “counteroffer,” which the buyer can either sign (thus creating a contract) or respond to with another counteroffer, and so on.

No matter where you’re buying a house, however, the procedures and the possibility of counteroffers tend to leave plenty of wiggle room for a seller who sees a better offer come along at the last minute. Leshnower says, “I know of situations where sellers have accepted a better offer that came along while their contract with the first would-be buyer was being mailed to them for signature.”

The bottom line: If you love a house, and are worried that other buyers are circling, do everything in your power to get into contract. Postpone the birthday party, hand-deliver your signed contract to the seller instead of waiting for the mail to get it there, or do whatever it takes. Having an experienced real estate agent at your side, who has established good working relationships with other local agents, can also help here. Michael Crowley says, “There are a few homes in our market that will sell overnight, and I can often call the selling Realtor to see whether other offers are expected and to get some assurances that I’ll be notified if one comes in.” But in the end, notes Leshnower, “A lot depends on the seller’s good faith.”

There’s a Reason You Can’t Find a House to Buy

Deciding that you’re really ready to buy a house and finding an actual house to buy are two different things — especially in the current market. If you’ve been scanning the home listings or visiting open houses and thinking, “Why don’t I see anything that looks good?” it’s probably not your imagination. It’s not even your innate fussiness.

A shortage of housing inventory is affecting many parts of the United States. This issue, and the multiple reasons for it, were major topics at the recent conference of the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE) in Denver.

Curt Beardsley with Realtor.com observed, “Total for-sale inventory is 20% down. That means we’re down to about 1.8 million single family homes for sale, from 3.1 million in 2007.”

The most massive decreases in inventory, says Beardsley, are along the West Coast, in Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose. On the other side of the country, Tampa and Atlanta have the most limited offerings of homes for sale.

Here are some of the reasons the experts offered for the shortage:

  • Potential sellers feel trapped. According to Scott Ryles, CEO of Home Value Protection, Inc., “One quarter of homeowners are underwater today” (owe more on their mortgage than the home is worth, in cases where they have a mortgage) or they simply “can’t afford to move.” Even if these owners want to sell, the numbers just don’t add up for them — and won’t, until home prices rise.
  • Builders aren’t building. Before the crash, builders of new homes were adding to the nation’s inventory at three times the rate they are today, according to David Crowe, Chief Economist at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Across the U.S., there are only about 50,000 newly built homes where the carpets are in and you can move in tomorrow, says Crowe. What’s more, it’s not easy for builders to reverse course and start building again. Crowe explains, “We’ve lost a lot of capacity; contractors, materials supply . . . No one has come back strong. Plants have been mothballed.”
  • Investors are turning single-family homes into rentals. As a potential buyer, you’ve got competition from investors savvy enough to realize that the rental market is stronger than ever. Margaret Kelly, CEO of RE/MAX notes, “Twenty five percent of home buyers now are investors. These are good investors, not flippers. They’re going to drive the recovery. Families who’ve been foreclosed on can’t qualify for a home. If you have kids, dogs, and so forth, you want a yard; you’re not going to move into an apartment.” Of course, if you want to buy a home, get ready to watch some of the bargains being snapped up.

This doesn’t mean that you should give up. Stan Humphries, chief economist with Zillow.com, believes that every time prices spike upward, it will “free some owners from negative equity, and you’ll see some surplus in supply for a while.” But hoping for low prices as well as lots of choices may be too much to hope for.

Staging Includes New Furniture AND New People?!

Whilst indulging in my favorite real estate fantasy reading — back issues of Country Life magazine, from England — I came across an article on home staging. (It was specially adapted for those selling multi-building country estates, of course.) The article credits the U.S. with having begun and “matured” the idea of dressing up one’s home for sale, which I thought was awfully sporting for a country that thinks we all live in McDonald’s parking lots.

The article goes on to say that U.S. stagers “now offer to move people as well as furniture into empty homes to give them the life they need to find a buyer.” Really? I have never, ever been through a staged home that actually had people in it. Would they be fashionably attired and draped across the sofa holding a cocktail, perhaps?

Determined to show the writer up for her anti-American snickering, I turned to Google — and whaddya know, us Americans live up to our stereotype. The Great Zillow has spoken, with an article entitled “New Staging Concept: Live-In Stagers.”

From what this article describes, however, the purpose of the live-in stagers isn’t so much to make their presence felt during showings, but to act as security and maintenance detail during the off hours. An excellent idea, in cases where the sellers have already moved and the home would otherwise be vacant. Back when I was selling my first home, I’d stop by every morning to turn on the fountain, and would almost always find something needing attention — an orange in the stager’s fruit bowl that had gone fuzzy-green with mold, a branch blown into the middle of the yard by the wind, flyers on the front doorstep, and so on.

Then again, live-human staging must have its disadvantages. They’ve got to put their toothbrushes somewhere, and keep the towels looking perfectly plush and fresh every day. Plus, I can imagine some odd interactions as visiting buyers, assuming they’re the owners, ask questions about the house, only to be told, “Don’t mind me, I’m part of the furniture.”

Repair Negotiations Show Why Buyers, Sellers Shouldn’t Share Agent

In Barry Stone’s column on Inman News this week, “Resolving disputes over home repair estimates,” a worried home buyer writes in with an almost classic scenario: The buyers are in escrow, their home inspection reveals that the furnace needs repair, and now they’re negotiating with the seller over how much the repairs will truly cost (with different prices named by different contractors) and how much the seller will pay for it all.

Unlike some homebuyers who don’t know which contractors to trust, this pair feels pretty confident in their own heating repair folks — and less than eager to rely on the lower bids (surprise, surprise) from the seller’s favored contractors. As with all mid-escrow negotiations, this may come down to how badly the buyers want the place, and how hard the sellers want to push back, risking the collapse of the deal.

But there’s a wrinkle to this case that caught my eye: The buyers say, “When we insisted that the work be done by one of our contractors, the sellers’ agent said this was an “outlandish” request.” 

Where’s their own agent in this deal? Stone noticed the same thing, and said, “Hopefully you have an agent of your own who will negotiate on your behalf, rather than giving in to the sellers’ refusal.”

I’m guessing they don’t have their own agent. Dual agency — when the same agent attempts to handle the deal on the buyers and sellers’ behalf — is still “common” in the U.S., according to a survey of agents by Inman. This arrangement often arises when buyers visit an open house before getting an agent, fall in love with the place, and agree to the listing agent’s urging that, “I can just draw up all the paperwork for you and we can get this deal done!”

Hopefully the seller’s agent in the above case disclosed to the buyer  (as is legally required in most states) that they’re now in a dual-agency relationship, and got the buyer’s written consent. (But did the agent really explain what it meant?) Hopefully also, the buyers will soon catch on to the fact that the sellers’ agent is not fulfilling his or her duty, as a dual agent, to act in an unbiased manner, avoiding promoting the interests of one party to the detriment of the other. They should raise this issue with the agent and his/her broker/supervisor.

Because there’s no doubt that calling this buyer’s request “outlandish” is promoting the sellers’ interests. It’s rather, well, outlandish.

Home Buyers: Don’t Expect Access to Every Home That’s for Sale

Unless you’re a millionaire, that is. Readers of Nolo’s homebuying books probably know that we recommend going to open houses for a wide range of properties in your area of interest, above and below your price range, as a way of getting to know that market and what justifies a higher or lower price tag.

However, there are some homes, at the uber-high end of the scale, that you can forget about visiting. Luxury home sellers are (understandably) wary about throwing their doors open to the curious public, and may not even hold an open house at all. Viewing the house will be arranged “By appointment only.”

Even then, if you were gutsy enough to make an appointment to see a house you couldn’t possibly buy, you might find another hurdle: a check on y0ur financial credentials. That’s apparently the case, for instance, with a $13.9 million home being marketed in Las Vegas right now. (With a 17-car garage?!) Los Angeles Times reporter John Glanna explains,”such top-end sellers [] take precautions, such as conducting financial background checks on any buyer before rolling out the red carpet for a personal home tour.”

Oh well. If it’s any comfort regarding your market research, these high-end homes operate in a different pricing universe anyway. Oddly enough, in a down market, they sometimes drop in price more precipitously than other houses, owing to the fact that even wealthy buyers are feeling uncertain and looking for bargains, and their investments may have recently dropped in value to the tune of what they’d pay to buy, say, a house.

 

 

Buy Small, Save Big

Remember the days of stretching to buy as much house as you could possibly afford? Once upon a time, it made sense, given that you’d be sitting an a rapidly appreciating asset. But now that real estate appreciation is looking like a thing of the bubbly past, it may be time to shift focus to the advantages of buying less house than you can afford.

That’s exactly what Money magazine did in its April, 2012 issue, under the article, “Buy Less House Than You Can Afford.” (Note: The online version is much shorter than the print one.)  Money compared the long-term financial implications of two different home purchase possibilities:

  • a 2,000 square-foot house, with a purchase price of $239,000, and
  • a 3,000 square-foot house, with a purchase prices of $389,000.

They assumed a 20% down payment, a 30-year fixed-rate loan at 4% interest, and other costs, such as insurance, taxes, maintenance, increasing at 3% per year.

Meanwhile, they calculated how much you would earn if you took the money saved on the sale and upkeep of the house and invested it at 6% per year. (That rate of return may be a little optimistic, but hey, we’re talking about a 30-year window.)

The drum roll please: By buying the smaller house, Money found that you would, after 30 years, have socked away an extra $1,016,800. Of course, that assumes that you actually save the money. Spending it bit by bit will destroy the advantages of earning interest or dividends, not to mention ofcompounding those earnings.

State of the Real Estate Market: Willing Buyers, Reluctant Sellers

A recent article in the Marin Independent Journal (of California) tells a story we’re hearing a lot of these days: A young couple is actively house-hunting, knowing that the market is unlikely to go any lower, yet unable to find what they want among the limited choices out there. (See “Marin Home Prices Are Down, But for Buyers, Choices Are Scarce,” by Will Jason.) The husband says they’re being patient, but the wife amends that to “Semi-patient.”

They’re a perfect representation of the statistics recently cited by Amy Hoak in The Wall Street Journal‘s MarketWatch: Seventy-one percent of 1,000 people surveyed by Fannie Mae last December said they think now is a good time to buy a house, while only 11% think it’s a good time to sell one. (See “It may be a good time to buy, but not to sell.”) The Marin couple is, unfortunately, also a good example of how buyers who wait too long to see the house they want at a bargain price may ultimately lose out.

The advice for sellers in Hoak’s article is that waiting is a good idea — just one more year, and sales are likely to become faster and more profitable. As soon as prices start to tick up, more sellers will willingly put their houses on the market. Good news for buyers’ choice, but maybe not such good news for buyers when it comes to prices . . . .

 

Did Your City Make the Top Ten List for 2011 Home Price Increases?

Thanks to Inman News for creating a list, complete with pretty pictures and exact percentages, of all the metro areas that saw, according to data from the National Association of Realtors, the greatest hikes in home prices over the last year.

This top-ten list contains good news for sellers and owners in those areas. On its face, it contains bad news for buyers wanting to get into the market . . .  except that, with sellers feeling more assured of receiving a decent price, some of them might decide it’s time to sell after all. That will increase the range of choice for buyers, who have been complaining that they’d happily buy now if they could only find a house they liked.

Just to be a spoiler, I’ll reveal the whole list to you up front. But with no pretty pictures. Here they are, starting with number one:

  • Fort Myers-Cape Coral, Florida
  • Shreveport-Bossier City, Louisiana
  • Metro: Washington, DC (Virginia)
  • Fort Wayne, Indiana
  • San Antonio, Texas
  • Washington, DC
  • Peoria-Pekin, Illinois
  • Fort Lauderdale, Florida
  • Omaha, Nebraska
  • El Paso, Texas

Gee, not even one city in Nolo’s home state of California made the list!

Unexpected Homebuyer Expense: New Cookware for Induction Stove

I thought I knew a thing or two about cooking, but when a friend told me that she’d recently bought a house with an “induction” stove, I had to ask, “What’s that?”

Turns out it’s touted as the hot new thing (or old thing, among cooking professionals); a method of cooking that’s not gas, not electric (or not exactly), but . . . electromagnetic. Instead of the traditional heat transfer from burner to pot of food, the burner/stovetop elements generate a field that causes the cooking pot to become hot on its own. Or something like that.

It’s fast, it’s precise, and no heat is wasted. Your kitchen doesn’t get as hot, and your cat can walk across the stove without suffering burnt paws.

But here’s the part of it that seems a bit iffy from a home-sales perspective. The seller didn’t tell the buyers about it in the disclosure forms, nor advertise it in the sales literature. My friend didn’t find out until the final walk-through, just before closing.

Which might not be a problem, except that guess what: You can’t necessarily use your normal pots and pans on an induction stove. You have to buy iron or steel ones that will do the right magnetic thing. Bye-bye aluminum, copper, or glass cookware.

“It was frustrating, because we’d just gotten married and had all this beautiful new non-stick cookware,” she says. “Our favorite pots and pans all gave us error messages when we tried them on our new stove. So did the new stuff that my husband laid out money for online, even though it had been advertised as induction-stove friendly. We’ve been eating a lot of microwaved dinners lately.”

How’s that for an unplanned budget item? (Or items, if you count all the prepared-food costs for nights of microwaving.) Sellers, I think buyers might want to know about this one — both because of the pros and the cons. While technically speaking, it might not fall within your disclosure obligations — which mainly include defects (and a high-tech stove can be seen as a property enhancement) — the old maxim about “When in doubt, disclose” seems apt here, if only for the sake of good buyer relations. For more information on what sellers must disclose, see Nolo’s article, “Required Disclosures When Selling Real Estate.”