Your Stress-Free Guide to Shopping for Home Loans

With this super-simple breakdown of loan types, you won’t get overwhelmed — you’ll find the right mortgage.

How to choose a mortgage when buying a house
Image: HouseLogic

When it comes to buying a house, most people know what they prefer: a bungalow or a condo, a hot neighborhood or a sleepy street.

Mortgages, too, come in many styles — and recognizing which type you should choose is just slightly more involved than, say, knowing that you prefer hardwood floors over wall-to-wall carpeting.

First things first: To pick the best loan for your situation, you need to know what your situation is, exactly. Will you be staying in this home for years? Decades? Are you feeling financially comfortable? Are you anxious about changing loan rates? Consider these questions and your answers before you start talking to lenders. (And before you choose a lender, read this.)

Next: You’ll want to have an understanding of the different loans that are out there. There are lots of options, and it can get a little complicated — but you got this. Here we go.

Mortgages Are Fixed-Rate or Adjustable, and One Type Is Better for You

Let’s start with the most common type of mortgage, that workhorse of home loans — the fixed-rate mortgage.

A fixed-rate mortgage:

  • Lets you lock in an interest rate for 15 or 30 years. (You can get 20-year loans, too.) That means your monthly payment will stay the same over the life of the loan. (That said, your property taxes and insurance premiums will likely change over time.)

It’s ideal when: You want long-term stability and plan to stay put.

Here’s what else you need to know about fixed-rate mortgages:

  • 30-year fixed-rate mortgage offers a lower monthly payment for the loan amount (for this reason, it’s more popular than the other option, the 15-year).
  • 15-year fixed-rate mortgage typically offers a lower interest rate but a higher monthly payment because you’re paying off the loan amount faster.

Now let’s get into adjustable-rate, the other type of mortgage you’ll be looking at. 

An adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM): 

  • Offers a lower interest rate than a fixed-rate mortgage for an initial period of time — say, five or seven years — but the rate can fluctuate after the introductory period is over, depending on changes in interest rate conditions. And that can make it difficult to budget.
  • Has caps that protect how high the rate can go.

It’s ideal when: You plan to live in a home for a short time or you expect your income to go up to offset potentially higher future rates.

Here’s what else you need to know about adjustable-rate mortgages:

  • Different lenders may offer the same initial interest rate but different rate caps. It’s important to compare rate caps when shopping around for an ARM. 
  • Adjustable-rate mortgages have a reputation for being complicated. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advises, make sure to read the fine print.

A general rule of thumb: When comparing adjustable-rate loans, ask the prospective lender to calculate the highest payment you may ever have to make. You don’t want any surprises.

Conventional Loan or Government Loan? Your Life Answers the Question

Which fixed-rate or adjustable-rate mortgage you qualify for introduces a whole host of other categories, and they fall under two umbrellas: conventional loans and government loans. 

Conventional loans: 

  • Offer some of the most competitive interest rates, which means you’ll likely pay less in interest over the period of the loan.
  • Typically you can get one more quickly than a government loan because there’s less paperwork.

Who qualifies? Typically, you need at least a credit score of 620 or above and a 5% down payment to qualify for a conventional loan.

Here’s what else you need to know about conventional loans:

  • If you put less than 20% down for a conventional loan, you’ll be required to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI), an extra monthly fee designed to mitigate the risk to the lender that a borrower could default on a loan. (PMI ranges from about 0.3% to 1.15% of your home loan.) The upshot: The lender has to cancel PMI when you reach 22% equity in your home, and you can request to have it canceled once you hit 20% equity.
  • Most conventional loans also have a maximum 43% debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, which compares how much money you owe (on student loans, credit cards, car loans, and other debts) to your income — expressed as a percentage.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac set limits on how much money you can borrow for a conventional loan. A home loan that conforms to these limits is called a conforming loan: 

  • In most cities, the maximum amount for a conforming loan is $453,100. 
  • In high-cost areas, such as New York City and San Francisco, the limit is $679,650.
  • Limits are revisited annually and are subject to change based on each area’s average home price.

A home loan that exceeds these limits is called a jumbo loan:

  • Jumbo loans typically require a higher down payment (up to 30% for some lenders) and a credit score of at least 720. Some borrowers can qualify while putting down 20%, but their credit score has to be higher. 
  • They also tend to have stricter debt-to-income requirements, generally allowing for a maximum DTI ratio of 38%.

There are practical considerations to take into account before getting a jumbo loan too, mainly: Are you comfortable carrying that much debt? The answer depends on your current financial situation and long-term financial goals. 

Government loans:

  • Include loans secured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development.
  • Are meant to stimulate the housing market and enable folks who may be unable to qualify for conventional loans to still become homeowners.

Who qualifies? That depends on which government loan you’re looking at.

If you’ve had trouble qualifying for a mortgage because of income limitations or credit: 

FHA loans are used by a broad swath of people, including those with lower credit scores and income. 

  • You can get an FHA loan with a down payment of 3.5% if you have a minimum credit score of 580. You can still qualify with a credit score below 580 — even with no credit score — but the down payment and other requirements will be much higher.
  • FHA loans conform to loan limits set by county; these limits typically range from $294,515 to $679,650 in high-cost areas. You can view the FHA mortgage caps for your county at hud.gov.
  • If you get an FHA loan, you must pay an upfront mortgage insurance premium (MIP) and an annual premium of 0.85%. Currently, the MIP is 1.75% of the loan amount — so, $1,750 for a $100,000 loan. This premium can be paid upfront at the mortgage closing, or it can be rolled into the monthly mortgage payment. 

Also, a heads-up — the date an FHA loan was issued affects the MIP. 

  • If you received an FHA loan on or before June 3, 2013: You’re eligible for canceling MIP after five years, but you must have 22% equity in your home and have made all payments on time.
  •  If you received an FHA loan after June 3, 2013: To stop paying MIP, you’d have to refinance into a conventional loan and have a current loan-to-value of at least 80%.

If you’re in the military, a veteran, or a veteran’s spouse:

  • VA loans offer active or retired military (or a veteran’s surviving spouse) a mortgage with a 0% down payment. 
  • VA loans also can have more lenient credit requirements — typically around a minimum 620 credit score — and lower DTI requirements.
  • The VA only allows lenders to charge 1% maximum to cover the costs of originating and underwriting the loan, so you save money at closing. There is, however, an additional upfront, one-time funding fee of 2.15%. 

VA loans also don’t charge borrowers mortgage insurance — potentially helping you save a significant chunk of cash on your monthly payment.

Given the benefits, a VA loan is often the best mortgage option for people who qualify.

If your income is limited and you live in a small or rural town:

USDA loans are mortgages for limited-income home buyers in towns with populations of 10,000 or less, or that are “rural in character,” meaning that some areas that now have bigger populations are grandfathered in. You can see whether your town is eligible on the USDA’s website

  • USDA loans typically have lower interest rates than non-USDA loans.
  • Down payments can be as low as 0%. 
  • USDA mortgages also have more lenient credit score requirements than conventional loans. 
  • Income limits to qualify depend on location and household size. 
  • USDA loans charge an upfront mortgage insurance fee of 1% of the loan amount and annual mortgage insurance premium of 0.35%. 
  • And USDA loan borrowers must buy a “modest home” — a property with a market value deemed reasonable for the area, though the USDA does not set specific price limitations.

Only a select number of lenders offer USDA loans; here’s a list of USDA-approved lenders nationwide

If your job is to help people:

Niche programs, like the Neighbor Next Door from HUD, allows teachers, law enforcement officers, first responders, and government workers — as much as 50% on eligible homes in revitalization districts. 

Note: Down payment assistance programs offer qualified buyers such things as grants and interest-free loans. Start with your state’s housing finance agency to find options.

Now You Know the Basics. It’s Time to Call for Backup

Speaking of your lender: Ultimately, you’ll be working with your loan officer or broker to narrow down these choices, and to find a loan that works for you and your finances. (Just another reason why it’s important to choose a lender you’re comfortable with.)

Your real estate agent should be able to offer some insight, too. And because they don’t earn a paycheck from your loan selection, their advice about mortgages should be impartial.

You know your stuff. And you know whom to ask for help. Who’s overwhelmed? Not you. 

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HOUSELOGIC

HouseLogic helps consumers make smart, confident decisions about all aspects of home ownership. Made possible by REALTORS®, the site helps owners get the most value and enjoyment from their existing home and helps buyers and sellers make the best deal possible. 

 

What You Should Really Know About Browsing for Homes Online

It’s fun! It’s exciting! It’s important to take everything with a grain of salt!

Shopping for houses online illustration
Image: HouseLogic

Oh, let’s just admit it, shall we? Browsing for homes online is a window shopper’s Shangri-La. The elegantly decorated rooms, the sculpted gardens, the colorful front doors that just pop with those “come hither” hues.

Browser beware, though: Those listings may be seductive, but they might not be giving you the complete picture.

That perfect split-level ranch? Might be too close to a loud, traffic-choked street. That handsome colonial with the light-filled photos? Might be hiding some super icky plumbing problems. That attractively priced condo? Miiiight not actually be for sale. Imagine your despair when, after driving across town to see your dream home, you realize it was sold. 

So let’s practice some self-care, shall we, and set our expectations appropriately. 

  • Step one, fill out our home buyer’s worksheet. The worksheet helps you understand what you’re looking for. 
  • Step two, with that worksheet and knowledge in hand, start browsing for homes. As you do, keep in mind exactly what that tool can, and can’t, do. Here’s how.

You Keep Current. Your Property Site Should, Too

First things first: You wouldn’t read last month’s Vanity Fair for the latest cafe society gossip, right? So you shouldn’t browse property sites that show old listings.

Get the latest listings from realtor.com®, which pulls its information every 15 minutes from the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), regional databases where real estate agents post listings for sale. That means that realtor.com®’s listings are more accurate than some others, like Zillow and Trulia, which may update less often. You wouldn’t want to get your heart a flutter for a house that’s already off the market.

BTW, there are other property listing sites as well, including Redfin, which is a brokerage and therefore also relies on relationships with brokers and MLSs for listings.

The Best Properties Aren’t Always the Best Looking

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But what they don’t say is a picture can also hide a thousand cracked floorboards, busted boilers, and leaky pipes. So while it’s natural to focus on photos while browsing, make sure to also consider the property description and other key features.

Each realtor.com® listing, for example, has a “property details” section that may specify important information such as the year the home was built, price per square foot, and how many days the property has been on the market.

Ultimately though, ask your real estate agent to help you interpret what you find. The best agents have hyper-local knowledge of the market and may even know details and histories of some properties. If a listing seems too good to be true, your agent will likely know why.

Treat Your Agent Like Your Bestie

At the end of the day, property sites are like CliffsNotes for a neighborhood: They show you active listings, sold properties, home prices, and sales histories. All that data will give you a working knowledge, but it won’t be exhaustive.

To assess all of this information — and gather facts about any home you’re eyeing, like how far the local elementary school is from the house or where the closest Soul Cycle is — talk to your real estate agent. An agent who can paint a picture of the neighborhood is an asset.

An agent who can go beyond that and deliver the dish on specific properties is a true friend indeed, more likely to guide you away from homes with hidden problems, and more likely to save you the time of visiting a random listing (when you could otherwise be in the park playing with your canine bestie).

Want to go deeper? Consider these sites and sources:

Just remember: You’re probably not going to find that “perfect home” while browsing listings on your smartphone. Instead, consider the online shopping experience to be an amuse bouche to the home-buying entree — a good way for you to get a taste of the different types of homes that are available and a general idea of what else is out there. 

Once you’ve spent that time online, you’ll be ready to share what you’ve learned with an agent.

HouseLogic logo

HOUSELOGIC

HouseLogic helps consumers make smart, confident decisions about all aspects of home ownership. Made possible by REALTORS®, the site helps owners get the most value and enjoyment from their existing home and helps buyers and sellers make the best deal possible. 

5 Tricks to Keep Your Pipes from Exploding This Winter

Even if you think they’ve already started to freeze.

Frozen outdoor faucet
Image: Skowronek/Shutterstock

New homeowners may have heard that winterization is important, but in the hubbub of your first year living in a home you own (finally!), it can be easy to overlook the need to prepare for the cold weather ahead. After all, it’s just not something renters deal with; prepping pipes for winter is often the landlord’s job.

Ideally, you should winterize your pipes in the fall, before winter seriously sets in. But if you’ve forgotten and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of a deep freeze, there’s still time to prevent disaster.

Here are some easy techniques to save your pipes from bursting:

#1 Turn On Your Faucets

If the temperatures have dropped into freezing and intend to stay there, turning on your faucets — both indoors and out — can keep water moving through your system and slow down the freezing process. There’s no need to waste gallons of water: Aim for about five drips per minute.

#2 Open Cabinet Doors

During cold weather, open any cabinet doors covering plumbing in the kitchen and bathroom. This allows the home’s warm air to better circulate, which can help prevent the exposed piping from freezing. While this won’t help much with pipes hidden in walls, ceilings, or under the home, it can keep water moving and limit the dangerous effects of freezing weather.

#3 Wrap Your Pipes

If your pipes are already on their merry way towards freezing, wrapping them with warm towels might do the trick. You can cover them with the towels first and then pour boiling water on top, or use already-wet towels — if your hands can stand the heat (use gloves for this). This should help loosen the ice inside and get your system running again.

#4 Pull Out Your Hairdryer

A hairdryer (or heat gun) can be a godsend when your pipes are freezing. If hot rags aren’t doing the trick, try blowing hot air directly on the pipes. Important note: You don’t want to use a blow torch or anything that produces direct flames, which can damage your pipes and turn a frozen pipe into an even worse disaster. You’re trying to melt the ice — not your pipes.

#5 Shut Off The Water if Pipes Are Frozen

Have your pipes already frozen? Turn off the water immediately. (Hopefully you know where the master shut-off is, but if not, now’s the time to find it!)

Make sure to close off any external water sources, like garden hose hookups. This will prevent more water from filling the system, adding more ice to the pile, and eventually bursting your pipes — the worst-case scenario. This also will help when the water thaws; the last thing you want after finally fixing your frozen pipes is for water to flood the system — and thus, your home.

Author photo of writer Jamie Wiebe

JAMIE WIEBE

Jamie Wiebeis a writer and editor with a focus on home improvement and design. Previously, she worked as a web editor for “House Beautiful,” “ELLE Decor,” and “Veranda.”

What You Need to Know Before Accepting — or Rejecting — an Offer

It’s not always about the money (except when it is).

Offers: Which One Is Best for You and Why illustration
Image: HouseLogic

The day will come — and it will be a wonderful, joyous, do-a-happy-dance day — when you receive an offer, or multiple offers, for your home.

And on that day, you’re going to face a question you may not have previously considered: How do you know if an offer is the best one for you?

Your listing agent will be a big help here. They will understand and help you suss out the merits and faults of an offer because — believe it or not — it’s not always about price.

One buyer’s beautifully high offer might not look so good anymore, for example, if you discover that it’s contingent upon you moving out a month earlier than planned. Or, conversely, you may prefer speed over price, particularly if you’re moving to a new city. 

Your listing agent will have a sense  of what you want financially and personally — and can help you determine whether the offer at hand satisfies those goals. 

Before the first offer rolls in, here’s what you need to know about the offer evaluation process, including the main factors that should go into making a decision — accept or reject? — with your agent.

5 Important Things — Other Than Price — to Consider When Evaluating an Offer

Want to fetch top dollar for your home and walk away with as much money in your pocket as possible? Of course you do. You’ve gone through the time-consuming process of setting your asking pricestaging your home, promoting your listing, and preparing for open houses — and should be rewarded for your efforts.

Your first instinct may be to just pick the highest bid on the table. But the offer price isn’t the only thing worth considering.

When vetting offers, evaluate these five areas in addition to price:

1. The earnest money deposit. One important consideration when weighing an offer is the size of the earnest money deposit. The EMD is the sum of cash the buyer is offering to fork over when the sales agreement is signed to show the person is serious (i.e., “earnest”) about buying your home. This money, which is typically held by a title company, will go toward the buyer’s down payment at closing.

A standard EMD is 1% to 3% of the cost of the home (so, that would be $2,000 to $6,000 on a $200,000 house). If a buyer tries to back out of an offer for no good reason, the seller typically keeps the EMD. Therefore, the higher the earnest money, the stronger the offer.

2. The contingencies. Most offers have contingencies — provisions that must be met for the transaction to go through, or the buyer is entitled to walk away from the deal with their earnest money. Contracts with fewer contingencies are more likely to reach closing, and in a timely fashion.  

Here are five of the most common contingencies:

  • Home inspection contingency. This gives the buyer the right to have the home professionally inspected and request repairs by a certain date — typically within five to seven days of the purchase agreement being signed. Depending on where you live, you may be required to make home repairs for structural defects, building code violations, or safety issues. Most repair requests are negotiable, though, so you have the option to haggle over which fixes you’re willing to make.
  • Appraisal contingency. For a mortgage lender to approve a home buyer’s loan, the home must pass appraisal — a process during which the property’s value is assessed by a neutral third party. The appraisal verifies that the home is worth at least enough money to cover the price of the mortgage. (In the event the buyer can’t make their mortgage payments, the lender can foreclose on the home and sell the property to recoup all — or at least some — of its costs.) Generally, the home buyer is responsible for paying for the appraisal, which typically takes place within 14 days of the sales contract being signed.
  • Financing contingency. Also called a loan contingency or mortgage contingency, a financing contingency protects the buyer in the event their lender doesn’t approve their mortgage. Although the timeframe for financing contingencies can vary, mortgage lenders report that buyers generally have about 21 days to obtain mortgage approval. 
  • Sale of current home contingency. Depending on the buyer’s financial situation, their offer may be contingent on the sale of their home. Usually, buyers have a window of 30 to 90 days to sell their house before the sales agreement is voided. This contingency puts you, the seller, at a disadvantage because you can’t control whether the buyer sells their house in time. 
  • Title contingency. Before approving a mortgage, a lender will require the borrower to “clear title” — a process in which the buyer’s title company reviews any potential easements or agreements that are on public record. This ensures the buyer is becoming the rightful owner of the property and the lender is protected from ownership claims over liens, fraudulent claims from previous owners, clerical problems in courthouse documents, or forged signatures.

These contingencies are standard for most real estate sales contracts. There’s one exception: the sale of current home contingency, which tends to be used more often in strong buyer’s markets, when buyers have greater leverage over sellers. 

That being said, contingencies are always negotiable. (The caveat: Mortgage lenders require borrowers to have appraisal financing contingencies, or they won’t approve the loan.) It’s up to you to decide what you’re comfortable agreeing to, and your agent can help you make that decision.

3. The down payment. Depending on the type of mortgage, the buyer must make a down payment on the house — and the size of that down payment can affect the strength of the offer. In most cases, a buyer’s down payment amount is related to the home loan they’re taking out. Your chief concern as a seller, of course, is for the transaction to close — and for that to happen, the buyer’s mortgage has be approved.

Generally, a larger down payment signals the buyer’s financial wherewithal to complete the sale. The average down payment, according to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, is 10%. Some mortgage products, such as FHA and VA loans, allow for even lower down payments. 

If, by chance, the appraisal comes in higher than your contract’s sale price, the buyer with a higher down payment would more likely be able to cover the difference with the large amount of cash they have available.

4. The all-cash offer. The more cash the buyer plunks down, the more likely the lender is to approve their loan. That’s why an all-cash offer is ideal for both parties. The buyer doesn’t have to fulfill an appraisal contingency — whereby their lender has the home appraised to make sure the property value is large enough to cover the mortgage — or a financing contingency, which requires buyers to obtain mortgage approval within a certain number of days. As always, having a sales contract with fewer contingencies means there are fewer ways for the deal to fall through.

5. The closing date. Settlement, or “closing,” is the day when both parties sign the final paperwork and make the sale official. Typically, the whole process — from accepting an offer to closing — takes between 30 and 60 days. 

Some transactions, such as those involving government-backed loans from FHA, VA, and USDA, make take closer to 60 days because of the additional buyer paperwork.

Three days before closing, the buyer receives a closing disclosure from the lender, which he compares with the loan estimate he received when he applied for the loan. If there are material differences between the buyer’s loan estimate and closing disclosure, the closing can’t happen until those amounts are reviewed and approved. But this is rare.

Whether you want a slow or quick settlement will depend on your circumstances. If you’ve already purchased your next home, for instance, you probably want to close as soon as possible. On the other hand, you may want a longer closing period — say, 60 days — if you need the proceeds from the sale to purchase your new home.

When Should You Make a Counteroffer?

Depending on the circumstances, you may be in the position to make a counteroffer. But every transaction is different, based on the particular market conditions and your home. In some circumstances, you can be gutsy with your counteroffer. In others, it might serve your goals better to give in to the buyer’s demands. Your agent can provide helpful insight about when and why a counteroffer will be the right thing for you.

For instance: If you’re in a seller’s market — meaning that homes are selling quickly and for more than the asking prices — and you received multiple offers, your agent may recommend you counteroffer with an amount higher than you would have in a buyer’s market. 

If you choose to write a counteroffer, your agent will negotiate on your behalf to make sure you get the best deal for you.

A caveat: In many states sellers can’t legally make a counteroffer to more than one buyer at the same time, since they’re obligated to sign a purchase agreement if a buyer accepts the new offer.

When Does an Offer Become a Contract?

In a nutshell, a deal is under contract when the buyer’s offer (or seller’s counteroffer) is agreed upon and signed by both parties. At that point, the clock starts ticking for the home buyer’s contingencies — and for the sweet moment when the cash — and home — is yours.

The Everything Guide to Buying Your First Home

How to find exactly what you want, and how to work with the experts who’ll help you get it.

Home buying steps illustration
Image: HouseLogic

So you’re thinking about buying your first home. Your very own house (and mortgage). A place to call — and make — your own.

It’s a big move, literally and figuratively. Buying a house requires a serious amount of money and time. The journey isn’t always easy. It isn’t always intuitive. But when you get the keys to your new home — that, friend, can be one of the most rewarding feelings pretty much ever. 

The key to getting there? Knowing the home-buying journey. Knowing what tools are at your disposal. And most importantly? Creating relationships with experts who can help you get the job done.

That’s where this guide comes in. We’ll show you not only the major steps you’ll take during the home-buying process, but also explain the relationships and experts you’ll need along the way. We’ve even made a handy infographic that outlines the home-buying process from start to finish. 

You ready to live the dream? Here we go. 

Do Your Homework

Oh sure, everybody wants to jump right into open houses. But before you even set foot into a foyer, you should identify your list of “musts” and “wants.” This list is an inventory of priorities for your search. And there’s so much to decide: Price, housing type, neighborhood, and school district — just to name a few.

If you’re planning to buy a home with a partner (in life or in real estate), fill the worksheet out with them. You want to be on the same page while buying a house. If you’re not, you’ll be less able to give agents or lenders the information they need to help you. And you risk wasting time viewing homes you can’t afford — or don’t even want in the first place.

Start Shopping

Once you know what you’re looking for, the next step is to start looking at listings and housing information online. (This part? You’re going to crush it.)

Find a Great Agent

Your relationship with your real estate agent is the foundation of the home-buying process. (And your agent = your rock.) He or she is the first expert you’ll meet on your journey, and the one you’ll rely on most. That’s why it’s important to interview agents and find the agent who’s right for your specific needs.

Choose a Lender

Once you’ve found your agent (AKA, your new best friend), ask him or her to recommend at least three mortgage lenders that meet your financial needs. This is another big step, as you’ll be working with your lender closely throughout the home-buying process.

Pick a Loan (It’s Not So Bad)

Once you’ve decided on a lender (or mortgage broker), you’ll work with your loan agent to determine which mortgage is right for you. You’ll consider the percentage of your income you want to spend on your new house, and you’ll provide the lender with paperwork showing proof of income, employment status, and other important financials. If all goes well (fingers crossed) you’ll be pre-approved for a loan at a certain amount. (Sweet.)

Go to Showings and Look Around

Now that you have both an agent who knows your housing preferences and a budget — and a lender to finance a house within that budget — it’s time to get serious about viewing homes. Your agent will provide listings you may like based on your parameters (price range, ZIP codes, features), and will also help you determine the quality of listings you find online.

Then comes the fun part: showings, which give you the unique opportunity to evaluate properties. Your agent will help you navigate showings, whether virtual or in-person.

Make an Offer

Once you find the home you want to buy, you’ll work with your agent to craft an offer that not only specifies the price you’re willing to pay but also the proposed settlement date and contingencies — other conditions that must be agreed upon by both parties, such as giving you the ability to do a home inspection and request repairs.

Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate

Making an offer can feel like an emotional precipice, almost like asking someone out on a date. Do they like me? Am I good enough? Will they say yes? It’s stressful! Some home sellers simply accept the best offer they receive, but many sellers make a counteroffer. If that happens, it’s up to you to decide whether you want your agent to negotiate with the seller or walk away. This is an area where your agent can provide real value by using their expert negotiating skills to haggle on your behalf and nab you the best deal.

Get the Place Inspected

If your offer is accepted, then you’ll sign a contract. Most sales contracts include a home inspection contingency, which means you’ll hire a licensed or certified home inspector to inspect the home for needed repairs, and then ask the seller to have those repairs made. This mitigates your risk of buying a house that has major issues lurking beneath the surface, like mold or cracks in the foundation. (No one wants that.) Here’s what to expect.

Ace the Appraisal

When you offer to buy a home, your lender will need to have the home appraised to make sure the property value is enough to cover the mortgage. If the home appraises close to the agreed-upon purchase price, you’re one step closer to settlement — but a low appraisal can add a wrinkle. Not one you can’t deal with. Here’s how to prepare.

Close the Deal

The last stage of the home-buying process is settlement, or closing. This is when you sign the final ownership and insurance paperwork and make this whole thing official. There’s some prep work you have to take care of first.

When it’s all said and done — break out the rosé. You’ll have the keys to your new home!

6 Tasks Every Homeowner Should Do in November

It’s the spring cleaning of fall, so to speak.

Illustration of an arm with a watch
Image: Simone Golob/Offset

With THE HOLIDAYS coming at you fast and furious, you want to be sure your home is cozy, but with that fresh-as-spring feel — as opposed to that musty-damp-winter feel.

Here’s how to make that happen (along with a few other timely tips):

#1 Wash Bed Pillows

A bed with white lines and fluffy blue-green pillows
Image: Laura W.

You love your trusty, old, perfectly-snugged-to-your-head pillow. But guess what’s also snug against your head? Fungus — 4 to 16 species to be precise. Gross!

With fall being the height of guest season, you’ll want your pillows fresh, too. Pop them in the washing machine and dryer for an all-over clean feeling. (But check manufacturer advice, too. Some pillows shouldn’t be washed, but replaced instead.)

#2 Clean the Mattress, Too

A pink note attached to a mattress
Image: Anne Arntson for HouseLogic

Sleeping soundly gets even better when you know you’re lying on a clean and fresh mattress. The yuck factor: Skin cells and sweat get into the mattress, then dust mites show up for a dinner party featuring those tasty skin cell morsels.

You’ll want your mattress to be at it’s freshest. It’s easy to do: Vacuum it and then wipe it down with a cloth dampened with an upholstery shampoo. But be sure to let it dry; otherwise, you’re inviting mold. Also, be sure to rotate it 180 degrees to help keep it lump-free.

(Another option: if you’ve got a flippable mattress, go ahead and flip it. That, too, can help kill the yucky mites.)

#3 Insulate Windows

A living room with couch and blue roman shades on window
Image: Nick Smith, photographer | Clare Gaskin Interiors, designer

Bone-chilling drafts seriously detract from the cozy vibe you want. Keep it cozy by hanging drapes as close to your windows as possible to help you keep the heat inside.

You can even add clear Velcro strips or dots to the back of the drape and attach to fasteners on the wall to help insulate. Be sure to cross one drape over the other when you close up for the night. Insulating shades can do the trick, too.

#4 Stock Up on Snow Supplies

A man in a blue coat using a snow blower in a neighborhood
Image: Chiyacat/Getty

If snow is a given where you live and you’re lacking supplies, take advantage of seasonal sales now to make sure you’re not the one rushing to the hardware store at the last minute — only to find out they just sold out of ice melt.

If you have a snow blower, be sure to have it serviced and fueled up before the first winter storm arrives — and with it, price hikes on all the snow stuff.

#5 Trim Tree Branches

A woman with a green short-sleeved T-shirt trimming branches
Image: Michele Constantini/PhotoAlto/Getty

The last thing you need is a winter storm loosing the wrath of that mighty tree whose branches are angling over your roof. Long limbs invite pests to explore your roof and allow excess water to seep into cracks in the roof or siding.

Keep limbs and branches at least 3 feet from the house. Plus it’s easier to trim branches after leaves have fallen. (If it’s an evergreen, well, sorry about that. It’ll be a prickly job, but the bonus is you’ll have greenery for the holidays!)

#6 Get a Chimney Sweep to Inspect the Fireplace

A woman sitting on a couch with two dogs by a fireplace
Image: Wellness Through Movement Pilates Studio

It’s time to dust off and sweep the chimney! Best to hire someone who knows wood-burning fireplaces. A professional chimney sweep will ensure your wood-burning fireplace burns more efficiently and will help prevent chimney fires and carbon monoxide poisoning during the winter. So, yeah, it’s pretty important. 

Tip: If you don’t already have a chimney cap, this is also the time to add one to stop wild outdoor critters from crawling down it — and (yikes!) into your house.

STACEY FREED

Stacey Freedwrites about homes, design, remodeling, and construction for online and print national trade and consumer publications, including “Better Homes & Gardens.” Previously, she was a senior editor at “Remodeling” magazine. Follow Stacey on Twitter.

work area built into wall unit

‘Homework’: The Rise of the Home Office

Families cramped together around a kitchen table, working, and learning online isn’t sustainable for productivity. Now, more home builders and interior designers are carving out workspaces.

October 13, 2020 by Barbara Ballinger


Even before the pandemic, the work-from-home trend was growing in popularity. Improved technology and connectivity are allowing people to be more productive at home as employers have offered greater flexibility. But now that COVID-19 has made working from home even more prevalent—coupled with students learning online—many families are finding themselves crowded around the kitchen table or staking out various nooks to accomplish tasks on their laptops or tablets.

Mary Cook, founder of a Chicago-based commercial interior design firm, Mary Cook Associates, has experienced this challenge firsthand. She took the dining room table for her office in her suburban house; one of her three children claimed the sitting area in the parents’ suite, another picked the furnished basement, and the third chose a table in the family room. Fortunately, Cook’s husband is retired and so doesn’t need to compete for working space.

desk area on landing at top of stairs

The finagling has made real estate professionals note the need for more functional, designated work-from-home solutions. This has led to the creation of home offices using two techniques: reconfiguring existing spaces or adding new square footage. These new home office designs vary in size and location—some near the main living space or bedrooms, others in basements or attics. There’s also the trend of outdoor accessory dwelling units if the plot size and local building codes permit them.

In addition, some new homes might soon offer multiple workspace options on different levels, says Jeff Benach, a principal of Lexington Homes, a Chicago-area homebuilder. For years, his firm’s plans have included a flexible space on the main level of their three-story townhome design that some homeowners use as an office.

“With the pandemic, more buyers—maybe 50% more—are interested in that plan because of the potential for having an office or e-learning space,” Benach says. “It’s become a bigger priority, and we’ll include it in more designs and communities.”

flexible room used as a home office

The company also offers options in other designs, including a lower-level finished space, a loft near bedrooms on an upper level, and a built-in desk with shelves at the top of a stairway.

Pyatt Builders, based in Carmel, Ind., regularly includes a flexible room in its 2,000-square-foot new homes, which the company is now emphasizing on social media and in its email blasts. “It can work as a home office or remote-learning classroom,” says Todd Pyatt, owner and president. Because of concerns around COVID-19 and more homeowners’ desire for private workspace, the company is considering including both a home office and a space designed with more flexibility in its 2021 construction projects, Pyatt says.

dedicated home office space in room with built shelving and cabinets

One of the country’s largest homebuilders, Los Angeles–based KB Home, recently redesigned some plans that include a fully outfitted home office.

“It’s the first time we’ve specifically offered a dedicated workspace with a range of options that provide an affordable work-from-home experience,” says Jeffrey Mezger, chairman, president, and CEO. The design features a built-in workstation with cabinet space, open shelving, and an upgraded electrical package. Home buyers can customize the space more with soundproofing, lighting, ceiling fans, window treatments—even with a beverage center, half-bath, and outdoor entry.

“The company will add options to meet clients’ evolving needs,” Mezger says. Two of the company’s California communities will introduce the concept, after which the option will be available nationally.

Recognizing the demand for private conversations, another homebuilder, Toll Brothers, based in Horsham, Penn., is developing matching home offices for couples.

Cook, who designs model homes for the company in several markets, says people tend to speak louder when they are on a call or in an online meeting than they do in person. She also points out that home offices work best with enough counter or desk space to spread out papers and set up equipment. Well-designed offices, she says, should be flexible enough to meet the needs of different family members at different times because most homes aren’t large enough to include a separate office for each person.

office space with sliding barn door

However, more important than size is creating a quiet space. Before the pandemic hit, KTGY Architecture + Planning used to design “home management center” desks in high traffic areas. Now the company is brainstorming how to close off those centers. Making a space that could be as small as a phone booth with a door would let residents take a call or have a Zoom meeting in private, says Jonathan Boriack, associate principal in the firm’s Oakland office. “It’s not a place where you’d work all day,” he says. His firm’s other solutions are to steal space from a laundry room, pantry, or hallway. “The challenge is to control noise,” he says.

The good news for homeowners who incorporate almost any variation of a home office is that they may be adding value to their home now and beyond. “Remote work is here to stay,” Boriack says.

How to Find the Right Person to Sell Your House

Your guide to hiring the listing agent who can set you up for success.

Finding a Listing Agent Who's Right for You
Image: HouseLogic

Your home is where you’ve lived and loved, where you’ve laughed and cried, where you’ve huddled and snuggled. You’re the pea, your home is the pod. And you’ve been through a lot together.

Now that it’s time to put it on the market, you’re likely experiencing some sadness, plus plenty of anxiety. Because really: How often does your future depend on selling your past? If you’re a little overwhelmed, we don’t blame you.

But there’s also good news: You don’t have to go it alone. 

A listing agent has your back when it comes to the financials, like setting a listing price and marketing, staging, and making repairs to your house. He or she can also help you navigate more personal issues, such as your timeline, and what you’re hoping to achieve with the sale.  

For all of those reasons, it’s important to find an expert who is right for you and your specific situation, and who can help you get what you want. Here’s how.

Know What a Listing Agent Can Do for You

Before you start interviewing prospective agents, have a clear sense of what you want to get out of the selling process. When so much money is on the table, it’s crucial to know what your goals are, so that you can find an agent who really speaks to them.

Then, it helps to understand what a listing agent does (other than sell your most valuable asset — no big deal).

The listing agent will: 

  • Work with you to price your home
  • Market your home (we’re talking pretty pictures, social media promo, cute staging — the works)
  • Negotiate with home buyers
  • Usher the home sale through inspection and closing

Now, let’s break all of that down . . .

Pricing your home. This is the BIG question, right? How do I set the price? The short answer is you’ll need to trust your agent to recommend a smart listing price. 

So how can you tell whether an agent — a relative stranger to you — is choosing the best price for your home? You need to do two things:

  1. Know, generally speaking, what your property is worth. Do your own research on the prices of local comps, (but understand the limits of online property sites). Run your info by your agent for an informed perspective. 
  2. Ask the agent for pricing information on homes he or she has recently sold. Specifically, what the differences were between their listing prices and how much the homes ultimately sold for. 

When it comes to the agent’s pricing history, you’re looking for accuracy. Anyone could suggest a high price for your home, knowing it’s what you’d like to hear. But nobody (especially you) wants to have a house languish on the market, or to reduce a price repeatedly.

Marketing your home. The listing agent will also get the word out that your house is on the market, using a combination of old-school (but powerful) marketing techniques — such as direct mail, signage, and open houses — and the modern methods we know and love, like social media. Savvy agents will post pics of your house on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and any other platform that can get likes plus the attention of other real estate agents who can bring buyers to the table.

Negotiating with buyers. When offers start pouring in, your agent will negotiate with prospective buyers on not only the sale price but also on what contingencies (aka special circumstances) are attached to the contract. As with any negotiation, there could be some stressful, fraught moments with the buyers. You’ll want an agent who can step up for you, and who has a negotiation style that you’re comfortable with.

Closing the sale. Once you’ve signed a purchase agreement with a buyer (woo-hoo!), your agent will help you navigate the sale’s remaining steps. This includes negotiating home repair requests post inspection and dealing with any last-minute surprises before closing.

The average listing agent does all of the above. A great listing agent does all of the above, while also inspiring your confidence — that they’re getting the best price for you, and that they’re representing you and your home in the best possible light. 

So, let’s talk about how to find and hire that kind of agent.

Ask These Questions to Find a Great Listing Agent

Here, time is on your side. Aim to hire a listing agent six to eight weeks — or more — before the day your house is listed on the market (also known as the “go-live date”). You’ll be grateful for the cushion, especially if the agent you ultimately hire recommends that you make repairs or upgrades to your home before it’s listed. (That wouldn’t be unusual.)

To find prospective agents, start with your network. Ask friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues for recommendations. Word-of-mouth endorsements, as always, can be priceless.

You can also turn to another trusted friend: the internet. Property websites such as realtor.com® have directories that let you search for agents in your area. These databases can clue you into important details, such as an agent’s years of experience, number of homes sold, and past client reviews.

Three out of four home sellers only contact one candidate before picking their listing agent, according to a NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® report. While that may be the norm, it’s smarter to shop around. Interview at least three agents before deciding on the one you want to work with. 

During the interviews, ask these questions to help assess whether an agent is the right fit you:

  • Do you work as an agent full-time? As in most professions, work experience doesn’t guarantee skill. That said, much of real estate is learned on the job.
  • How long have you been in the business? Generally, the more experience an agent has, the more they’re tapped into the local market. 
  • How many homes have you sold in my neighborhood in the past year? You don’t need to find an agent who specializes only in your community, though that would be ideal. You do want someone who has recently sold at least a few homes in your neighborhood and knows the local and hyper-local inventory.
  • What’s the typical price range of homes you sell? Most agents work across multiple price points, but you don’t want an agent who has never sold a home in your range.
  • What’s your fee? An agent should be able to articulate their value and explain their commission rate.  
  • How will you market my home? You don’t want to hire someone who’s just going to stick a For Sale sign in your yard and call it a day. The agent should present a comprehensive marketing plan for your listing. This should include strategies for staging your home, taking professional photographs of your home, promoting the listing on social media, marketing to other brokers, and scheduling open houses.
  • Will I be working with you directly, or with a team? Some agents lead or work as part of a sales team. The lead listing agent shares client responsibilities with other agents. Where one agent may handle private showings for a listing, another may host open houses. A benefit is that for the same fee, you get many people working for you. But if you want the sole attention of the listing agent, you may want to stick to a one-on-one arrangement. 
  • Will you provide one-on-one service? Whether you’re working with one agent or a team, ask how responsive they can be to you, your timeline, and your goals.
  • How long on average are your listings on market? Your average sold-to-list price? This can help you suss out whether the agent is a solid marketer and negotiator. These are real estate stats that the agent can pull from your local multiple listing service, or MLS. 

The bottom-line: It’s in your best interest to pick an agent who understands your goals, fits your personality, and can get your home sold for top dollar. When you meet someone who can offer all of the above, congratulations — you’ve found your listing agent.

First Thing: Know What You’re Signing up For

Now that you know what you’re getting when you find the right listing agent, let’s make sure you know what you’re committing to when you sign that agent’s “representation agreement.”

The most common type of representation agreement is the exclusive right-to-sell agreement — a legally binding contract that states you’re going to use that agent to sell your house. Under this agreement, you’re giving the agent (and the agent’s brokerage) the right to sell the home for a mutually agreed-upon time period and compensation. IOW: You get peace of mind that you have a dedicated agent; the agent gets peace of mind that you’re only using their services. Other common terms include the agent’s duties to you, like marketing, and a dispute resolution plan.

There are other types of representation agreements, where agents don’t have exclusive rights to sell the property — meaning multiple agents can try to sell the home and compete for the commission. However, when agents know a listing is exclusively theirs, they’re fully invested in selling the property (which, again, should also give you peace of mind).

Every contract has an expiration date, but the length of the contract can vary. Some are three-months; others six months. It all depends on what you and the agent agree upon. If the contract expires before your house is sold, you can re-list your home with another agent. 

Of course, there’s a chance you sign an exclusive listing agreement but just aren’t satisfied with the job your agent is doing. To protect yourself, make sure the representation agreement has a cancellation or termination clause that lets you void the contract before the expiration date without any financial penalty.

Understand How a Listing Agent Gets Paid

So  . . . at the end of the day, how do listing agents get compensated for their work? 

Real estate commissions — including the listing agent’s commission — are typically charged as a percentage of the home’s sales price. For example, on a $300,000 house, a 6% commission would cost $18,000. Commissions are negotiable. The commission is usually split between the listing agent and the buyer’s agent as well as their respective brokers. 

A caveat: If an agent represents the seller and the buyer, the agent becomes a dual agent and earns both sides of the commission. In dual agency, you may have more room to negotiate the rate — just keep in mind that you’re not being represented exclusively as you are in single agency. You may want to hire an attorney to review documents and help you negotiate.

The listing agent’s commission fee often covers the cost of professional photos, marketing and marketing materials, and any administrative fees charged by the agent’s brokerage. 

Also, consider this: Great agents — with their pretty photography, HGTV-worthy staging tricks, and marketing smarts — earn their keep. 

So, if you’ve read all of the above, you’ve done your homework to find a great agent. Now you’re ready to sell that house.

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HOUSELOGIC

HouseLogichelps consumers make smart, confident decisions about all aspects of home ownership. Made possible by REALTORS®, the site helps owners get the most value and enjoyment from their existing home and helps buyers and sellers make the best deal possible. 

How to Be a Savvy Open House Guest

Getting smart — about what to do, ask, and avoid — can move you ahead of the crowd.

Asking the right questions at open houses
Image: HouseLogic

Editor’s Note: As restrictions related to Covid-19 begin easing up, the National Association of REALTORS® is encouraging virtual home showings, regardless of whether in-person showings are allowed by states or local communities.

If you’re considering holding an open house, your agent will have an honest conversation with you about any concerns, including whether doing so would contradict current government recommendations or mandates, especially in geographic areas with shelter-in-place mandates. If after discussing these issues, you and your agent mutually agree to an open house, your agent will discuss necessary precautions to minimize exposure to and the spread of COVID-19.

Ah, the open house — a chance to wander through other people’s homes and imagine yourself knocking out walls and gut rehabbing their kitchens. This is what dreams are made of (or at least episodes of HGTV).

In all seriousness, going to open houses (and scheduled private showings) is one of the most exciting parts of the home-buying experience. Beyond the voyeuristic thrill, visiting houses allows you to assess things that you just can’t see online.

Most Popular in Buy a Home: Step-by-Step

Anyone who has taken a super-posed selfie knows that a picture doesn’t always tell the whole truth. Professional listing photos can make small rooms look spacious, make dim rooms bright, and mask other flaws of a home — but you don’t know any of that until you actually see the house yourself.

You can tour houses at any point, but it can be helpful to first discuss your needs and wants with your partner (if you have one), do some online research, and talk with your agent and your lender. That way, you — and your agent — can take a targeted approach, which saves you time and can give you an edge over your buying competition.

So, before you start viewing, follow these tips to get prepared. 

Make It Your Job to Know Which Houses Are “Open”

There are four ways to know when a house is available for viewing:

  • Ask your agent. He or she will have details on specific properties and can keep you informed of open houses that fit your criteria.
  • Use listing websites. A number of property sites let you search active listings for upcoming open houses. On realtor.com®, for instance, when searching for properties, scroll over the “Buy” tab and click the “Open Houses” link to see upcoming ones in your area.
  • Scroll social media. On Instagram, for example, you can search the hashtag #openhouse, or similar tags for your city (#openhousedallas, for example), to discover open houses. Many real estate agents and brokerages also post open house announcements on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; find ones from your area and start following.
  • Drive around. Cruise through the neighborhoods you’re interested in — it’s a good way to get a sense of the area amenities — and look for open house signs. 

And while you’re searching, be sure to jot down the location, time, and date for any open house that strikes your fancy. It will make it that much easier to plan times and routes for hitting as many homes as possible.

Get There Early (and Say Hi to the Neighbors)

If you’re seriously interested in a home, show up to the open house early. That way you’ll beat the rush, and the agent showing the house (AKA the host) will have time to focus on you and your questions.

And don’t be shy! Many home buyers hop from one open house to the next without talking to the listing agent. But chatting up the host can help you learn information that you wouldn’t get by only touring the premises.

If a house seems like a match, take a walk around the neighborhood. Strike up conversations with the neighbors to get an insider’s perspective on what life in that community is really like — families, singles, what the vibe on the block is like, and whether the homeowner’s or condo association (if there is one) is easy to work with.

Ask Lots of Questions, But Avoid TMI

To make the most of your open house visits, have a list of questions in mind for the host — and take notes while you’re there, so you can keep track of what you learned. 

At the same time, remember this: Your interaction with the host could be the beginning of negotiations with them. If you end up making an offer, you’ll use the information you’ve gathered to inform your bid. (They’ll also remember that you were an engaged yet courteous person, which can’t hurt your cause.) 

Equally important: Oversharing could hurt your negotiating power. 

Be careful about what information you share with the agent hosting the event. This person works for the seller — not you. The host can and will use stats they’ve gleaned about you to counter, reject, or accept an offer. 

Keeping that in mind, here are eight questions you can ask a host to help determine whether a house is a good fit for you:

  1. Have you received any offers? If there are already bids on the table, you’ll have to move quickly if you want to make an offer. Keep in mind: Listing agents can’t disclose the amount of any other offers, though — only whether they exist.
  2. When does the seller want to move? Find out the seller’s timeline. If the seller is in a hurry (say, for a new job), they may be willing to accept an offer that’s below list price.
  3. When is the seller looking to close? Price isn’t the only factor for many home sellers. One way to strengthen your offer is to propose a settlement date that’s ideal for them. For example, a 30- to 45-day closing is standard in many markets, but the seller may want more time if they haven’t purchased their next home yet.
  4. Is the seller flexible on price? Most listing agents won’t tip their hand when you ask this question, but there’s always a chance the agent says “yes.” And, in some instances, the seller has authorized their agent to tell interested buyers that the price is negotiable. In any case, you might as well ask. (It’s kind of like googling for a coupon code when you buy something online.)
  5. How many days has the home been on the market? You can find this information on the internet, but the seller’s agent can give you context, especially if the house has been sitting on the market for a while. Maybe the home was under contract but the buyer’s financing fell through, or the seller overshot the listing price and had to make a price reduction? Knowing the backstory can only help you.
  6. Has the price changed? You can see if there’s been a price reduction online, but talking to the listing agent is the only way to find out why the seller dropped the price.
  7. Are there any issues? Have there been any renovations or recent repairs made to the home? Some upgrades, like new kitchen appliances, are easy to spot, but some are harder to identify. Specifically ask about the roof, appliances, and HVAC system because they can be expensive to repair or replace. BTW, repairs like a leaky faucet, aren’t  things that need to be disclosed.
  8. What are the average utility costs? Many buyers don’t factor utility bills into their monthly housing expenses, and these costs can add up — particularly in drafty older homes. Ask the listing agent what a typical monthly utility bill is during the summer and during the winter, since heating and cooling costs can fluctuate seasonally. Be prepared for higher utility bills if you’re moving from an apartment to a single-family home.

Now that you’ve got your answers, there’s one last thing to do: Thank the host before you go. You never know — you could be seeing them again at the negotiating table soon.

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HOUSELOGIC

HouseLogic helps consumers make smart, confident decisions about all aspects of home ownership. Made possible by REALTORS®, the site helps owners get the most value and enjoyment from their existing home and helps buyers and sellers make the best deal possible. 

The Most Important Factors for Real Estate Investing

Read these to know what to look for

By SHOBHIT SETH Reviewed By JULIUS MANSA  Updated Sep 5, 2020 (Copied from Investopedia.com)

What’s the most important thing to look for in real estate? While location is always a key consideration, there are numerous other factors that help determine if an investment is right for you. Here’s a look at some of the most important things to consider if you plan to invest in the real estate market

1. Property Location

Why It’s Important

The adage “location, location, location” is still king and continues to be the most important factor for profitability in real estate investing. Proximity to amenities, green space, scenic views, and the neighborhood’s status factor prominently into residential property valuations. Closeness to markets, warehouses, transport hubs, freeways, and tax-exempt areas play an important role in commercial property valuations.

What to Look For

A key when considering property location is the mid-to-long-term view regarding how the area is expected to evolve over the investment period. For example, today’s peaceful open land at the back of a residential building could someday become a noisy manufacturing facility, diminishing its value. Thoroughly review the ownership and intended usage of the immediate areas where you plan to invest.

2. Valuation of the Property

Why It’s Important

Property valuation is important for financing during the purchase, listing price, investment analysis, insurance, and taxation—they all depend on real estate valuation.

What to Look For

Commonly used real estate valuation methods include:

  • Sales comparison approach: recent comparable sales of properties with similar characteristics—most common and suitable for both new and old properties
  • Cost approach: the cost of the land and construction, minus depreciation— suitable for new construction
  • Income approach: based on expected cash inflows—suitable for rentals

3. Investment Purpose and Investment Horizon

Why It’s Important

Given the low liquidity and high-value investment in real estate, a lack of clarity on purpose may lead to unexpected results, including financial distress—especially if the investment is mortgaged.

What to Look For

Identify which of the following broad categories suits your purpose, and then plan accordingly:

  • Buy and self-use. Here you will save on rent and have the benefit of self-utilization, while also getting value appreciation.
  • Buy and lease. This offers regular income and long-term value appreciation. However, the temperament to be a landlord is needed to handle possible disputes and legal issues, manage tenants, repair work, etc.
  • Buy and sell (short-term). This is generally for quick, small to medium profit—the typical property is under construction and sold at a profit on completion.
  • Buy and sell (long-term). This is generally focused on large intrinsic value appreciation over a long period. This offers alternatives to compliment long-term goals, such as retirement.

4. Expected Cash Flows and Profit Opportunities

Why It’s Important

Cash flow refers to how much money is left after expenses. Positive cash flow is key to a good rate of return on an investment property.

What to Look For

Develop projections for the following modes of profit and expenses:

  • Expected cash flow from rental income (inflation favors landlords for rental income)
  • Expected increase in intrinsic value due to long-term price appreciation.
  • Benefits of depreciation (and available tax benefits)
  • Cost-benefit analysis of renovation before sale to get a better price
  • Cost-benefit analysis of mortgaged loans vs. value appreciation

5. Be Careful with Leverage

Why It’s Important

Loans are convenient, but they may come at a big cost. You commit your future income to get utility today at the cost of interest spread across many years. Be sure you understand how to handle loans of this nature and avoid major pitfalls.

What to Look For

Depending upon your current and expected future earnings, consider the following:

  • Decide on the type of mortgage that best fits your situation—fixed-rate, adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM), interest-only, zero down payment, etc.
  • Be aware of the terms, conditions, and other charges levied by the mortgage lender.
  • Shop around to find lower interest rates and better terms.

6. New Construction vs. Existing Property

Why It’s Important

New construction usually offers attractive pricing, the option to customize, and modern amenities. Risks include delays, increased costs, and the unknowns of a newly developed neighborhood.

Existing properties offer convenience, faster access, established improvements (utilities, landscaping, etc.), and in many cases, lower costs.

What to Look For

Here are some key things to look for when deciding between new a construction or an exiting property:

  • Review past projects and research the construction company’s reputation for new investments.
  • Review property deeds, recent surveys, and appraisal reports for existing properties.
  • Consider monthly maintenance costs, outstanding dues, and taxes. Costs such as these can severely impact your cash flow.
  • When investing in leased property, find out if the property is rent-controlled, rent-stabilized, or free market. Is the lease about to expire? Are renewal options favorable to the tenant? Who owns the furnishings?
  • Quality-check items (furniture, fixtures, and equipment) if these are to be included in the sale.

7. Indirect Investments in Real Estate

Why It’s Important

Managing physical properties over a long-term horizon is not for everyone. Alternatives exist that allow you to invest in the real estate sector indirectly.

What to Look For

Consider other ways to invest in real estate:

8. Your Credit Score

Why It’s Important

Your credit score affects your ability to qualify for a mortgage, and it impacts the terms your lender offers. If you have a higher credit score, you may get better terms—which can add up to substantial savings over time.

Mortgage lending discrimination is illegal. If you think you’ve been discriminated against based on race, religion, sex, marital status, use of public assistance, national origin, disability, or age, there are steps you can take. One such step is to file a report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

What to Look For

Scores greater than 800 are considered excellent and will help you qualify for the best mortgage. If necessary, work on improving your credit score:

  • Pay bills on time—set up automatic payments or reminders
  • Pay down debt
  • Aim for no more than 30% credit utilization
  • Don’t close unused credit cards—as long as you’re not paying annual fees
  • Limit requests for new credit and “hard” inquiries
  • Review your credit report and dispute inaccuracies

9. Overall Real Estate Market

Why It’s Important

As with other types of investments, it’s good to buy low and sell high. Real estate markets fluctuate, and it pays to be aware of trends. It’s also important to pay attention to mortgage rates so you can lower your financing costs, if possible.

What to Look For

Stay up-to-date with trends and statistics for:

  • Home prices and home sales (overall and in your desired market)
  • New construction
  • Property inventory
  • Mortgage rates
  • Flipping activity
  • Foreclosures

The Bottom Line

Real estate can help diversify your portfolio. In general, real estate has a low correlation with other major asset classes—so when stocks are down, real estate is often up. A real estate investment can also provide steady cash flow, substantial appreciation, tax advantages, and competitive risk-adjusted returns, making it a sound investment.

Of course, just like any investment, it’s important to consider certain factors, like the ones listed here, before you invest in real estate—whether you opt for physical property, REITs, or something else.

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