Your Home’s Value: Who Wants to Know?

Paper house attached to yellow blank price tag on blue backgroundI normally don’t push syndicated content produced by nameless writers at marketing companies, but this article, “What’s your home’s price tag now?” makes some good points. (Despite an inappropriate title.) ((Could I be any more grudging in my praise?))

The idea is that, accustomed though we might be to thinking of a home’s worth as its likely sale price, there are actually three ways of looking at a home’s value. It depends on who’s doing the looking. These include:

  1. Market value (the likely sale price).
  2. Replacement value (costs of reconstruction, for insurance purposes, after a total loss).
  3. Property tax value (how much the government says it’s worth before sending you a property tax bill for several thousand dollars).

Understanding what each of these figures means, and how each is arrived at, will help you to both avoid confusion and know whether you’re paying an appropriate amount in taxes, covered adequately by insurance, and can sell your house for your hoped-for amount. The article itself explains these details well.

About that inappropriate title, however. Did you notice that none of these three figures would necessarily be the “price tag” that you’d place on your house if you were to put it up for sale?

Savvy home sellers do enough research (and get a Comparable Market Analysis or CMA from their real estate agent) to help them understand their property’s likely market value, but they then set a list price based on what will most likely reel buyers in.

Many sellers adjust the list price downward from the apparent market value, hoping to incite a bidding war that will ultimately take the price higher than they could have dreamed of listing it for. Then again, a seller may not want to set the list price too low, for fear that people won’t view the house as high-quality, or will wonder what’s wrong with it. See “Listing Your House: What List Price Should You Set?” for more on this topic.

There’s also one more measure of value that could have been added to this list: What amount the home appraises for. Before closing on a sale, the lender will doubtless require that a professional appraiser visit and attach a value to the property, as a way of reassuring the lender that it can foreclose for the amount it’s lending out. That appraised amount is supposed to be the “true” market value — but it’s sometimes less than buyers are actually willing to pay for the house, which can be a problem in some transactions. See “Low Home Appraisal: What to Do” for more on this.

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.”

“Dear Prudence” Is Giving Real Estate Advice?!

spookyYou just never know what people will decide to write to an advice columnist about. Only yesterday, a couple asked “Prudence” (Emily Yoffe, of Slate) whether they should buy a house that was the site of a horrific and widely publicized murder, in which the husband dismembered his wife. The couple work as a mortician and a pastor, respectively, so they aren’t personally freaked out by death, but they’re worried about what the kids and others will say.

Prudie’s advice is fine as far as it goes. She says if you’re comfortable with living there and want to buy the place, just be sure to tell the kids soon, and perhaps hold a prayer ceremony to . . . well, she didn’t say it, but I’m assuming to rid the house of ghosts and negative energy.

But there’s a lot more this couple should consider, namely:

  1. Their statement that, “Thanks to the Internet, we know all the horrific details of the case” is disturbing. It suggests they might not have learned about the murder from the sellers. A seller is, under most states’ laws, supposed to tell buyers, in writing, about anything that might materially affect the value of the house. If the seller did not, in fact, tell them about this, what else are they not telling? See my earlier blog post about a lawsuit by a buyer against a seller who neglected to disclose a murder/suicide that had taken place in the house for sale.
  2. Is the couple getting a bargain for the house? They’d better be. The place is, in real estate jargon, a “stigmatized” property. The fact that they may be willing to live there doesn’t change the widespread public perception that it’s tainted. Some properties of this nature remain on the market for years, or ultimately have to be bulldozed out of existence.
  3. Have they considered resale value? Once stigmatized, always stigmatized, if the event was horrific enough. And it sounds like this one may have been.

In the end, this couple may actually be the perfect one to buy the house and make it into a cozy, ghost-free place to live. (In fact, buying a stigmatized property is one of Nolo’s “Top Tips” for getting an affordable house.) But to the extent that a home is also an investment, let’s hope they proceed with their eyes wide open, and press the matter hard in negotiations.

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.”

Millennials Are Hip to All the Bidding-War Tactics

firewkIf you’re shopping for a home in a hot market — of which there are many, such as Riverside,  Sacramento, Las Vegas, and Oakland — chances are you won’t be the only one making an offer on any given home. And that spells a bidding war.

It’s a war with an invisible enemy, given that you aren’t likely to know who you’re bidding against. And there’s little back and forth — you have to make your best offer and wait to see whether it’s the chosen one.

Typically, the savvy listing agent will schedule a day for presentation of offers, during which a line of buyers’ agents will troop in to deliver the written documents and make a case for why your offer should be the one the seller favors above the rest.

Chances are pretty good, however, that the other bidders will include some “Millennials” — that is, young-ish people born between 1977 and 1992.  And according to a Trulia study cited in Forbes magazine, the Millennials are the group most likely to pull out all the stops and use “aggressive” bidding tactics.

I got a little worried upon first reading the word “aggressive” in the headline, picturing fresh-faced young ‘uns stalking other prospective buyers and slashing their tires, or resorting to underhanded negotiating tactics. No, it turns out they’re just ready and willing to unleash the full volley of tried-and-true ways to make their bids stand out, such as writing a personal (and mildly pleading) letter to the seller, bidding an amount over the asking price (duh), asking friends and family for a loan to help fund the purchase, and removing contingencies from the offer (such as inspection or financing).

Still, the fact that the other age groups surveyed were LESS likely to adopt any and all of these tactics suggest a bit of heel-digging-in. Wannabe buyers who make conservative, “not a penny over asking” offers rarely win bidding wars, and may end up spending more than they would have as home prices eventually outpace them. See “How do I make sure my home purchase offer is the strongest?” for more information.

Friday Real Estate Fun: Ideal House Features

kittyOne of the fun parts of shopping for a home is dreaming about all the great features you’d like to find there — and then maybe being surprised by a few that you didn’t expect or know existed. With that in mind, check out “27 Things That Definitely Belong in Your Dream Home.”

Me, I like the hidden room — it evokes childhood reading about castles full of secret passageways and oubliettes.

Of course, homebuyers will have to listen to the voice of practicality all too soon, and I’m not just talking about affordability. Look at how many commenters pointed out what the neighborhood cats are likely to do with the sandbox! For more on practical matters, see the “Choosing a House” section of Nolo’s website.

 

When Is a Room a Bedroom?

bedSquare footage? Who cares about square footage? It’s the number of bedrooms in a home that’s usually the key indicator when sellers advertise and buyers search for homes online.

Which raises the all-important question: What’s a bedroom?

In real-estate tradition, a bedroom is a room that has a closet as well as a door you can close. Makes sense: If you’re going to sleep in a room, you’ll want to be able to close the door. And when you wake up, you’ll want to grab some clothes from the closet.

From the standpoint of the seller, this standard means that you’ll have trouble fudging the number of bedrooms. Clever staging won’t do it: Just putting a bed into a room doth not a bedroom make.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop some sellers from trying to expand the definition of a bedroom. I recently attended an open house for a place advertised as three-bedroom. The upstairs level clearly had only two.  The basement was unfinished. The main floor seemed to have all the normal rooms you’d expect on a main floor, with nothing resembling a bedroom.

I asked the agent, “Where’s the third bedroom?” Ruefully, she inclined her head toward a space off the living room that was obviously a den, with a couch and TV. No closet. The agent explained that the seller had once used this as a bedroom, and knew that people would prefer more bedrooms, so the seller insisted on advertising it as a bedroom.

Now, it’s true that buyers prefer more bedrooms. But for the buyers who really need a third bedroom for their large household, a room with no closet just isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to feel nothing but disappointment as they view the home.

And for the ones who are looking for a third bedroom because — as is common — they need a home office, there’s a perfectly good way to advertise it. Call it a bonus room! You see it in listings all the time, and the home-office seekers pick up on this quickly.  Such buyers might even prefer a home that doesn’t come with the price markup that’s expected for an additional bedroom.

Last I looked, the three-bedroom — no, make that two-bedroom — house I visited was still on the market.

In Housing Limbo, Sellers Scramble to Find New Homes

IMG_4418“I really hope I don’t have to move in with my mother-in-law.”

“I’ve had to move into a rental in a scary part of town — there goes my down payment for the next house.”

“Well, at least my parents haven’t done anything with my old room.”

These are all from stories I’ve heard on the local, Bay Area grapevine.  Anecdotal accounts, it’s true. But I’d hazard a guess, from the current state of the real estate market, that plenty of other recent home sellers are having the same trouble.

They couldn’t afford to buy a second house before selling the first one — banks aren’t exactly sympathetic to carrying two loans these days. But after the sale is done, they have nowhere to go. Inventory is low, and in this part of the country, multiple offers are becoming normal again — at tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the list price. (Remember when the market felt so slumped that it could never unslump? Weird.)

The only silver lining to the low inventory is that buyers are often so grateful to be in contract to buy a home that they’ll bend over backwards to accommodate sellers’ needs to stay a little longer, an arrangement outlined in Nolo’s Q&A, “What happens if we’ve sold our old house without buying a new one?” But even the most sympathetic seller isn’t going to want to wait around forever.