Are Closing Costs Tax Deductible?

Here’s the scoop on what’s tax deductible when buying a house.

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Note: In light of COVID-19 crisis, the IRS has extended the income tax payment and filing deadline for individual and business returns from April 15, 2021, until May 17, 2021. This relief does not apply to estimated tax payments for tax year 2021 that are due on April 15, 2021. You don’t need to file additional forms to qualify for this extension.

The answer to whether closing costs are tax deductible — or mortgage interest and property taxes for that matter — is often maddeningly, “It depends.”

Basically, you’ll want to itemize if you have deductions totaling more than the standard deduction, which for 2021 is $12,550 for single people and $25,100 for married couples filing jointly. Every taxpayer gets this deduction, homeowner or not. And most people take it because their actual itemized deductions are less than the standard amount.

But will you have enough deductions to itemize?

To see, you need to know what’s tax deductible when buying or owning a house. Here’s the list of possible deductions:

Closing Costs

The one-time home purchase costs that are tax deductible as closing costs are real estate taxes charged to you when you closed, mortgage interest paid when you settled, and some loan origination fees (a.k.a. points) applicable to a mortgage of $750,000 or less.

But you’ll only be able to benefit from them if all your deductions total more than the standard deduction.

Costs of closing on a home that aren’t tax deductible include:

  • Real estate commissions
  • Appraisals
  • Home inspections
  • Attorney fees
  • Title fees
  • Transfer taxes
  • Mortgage refi fees

Mortgage interest and property taxes are annual expenses of owning a home that may or may not be deductible. Continue reading to learn more about those.

Mortgage Interest

Yearly, you can write off the interest you pay on up to $750,000 of mortgage debt. Most homeowners don’t have mortgages large enough to hit the cap, says Evan Liddiard, CPA, director of federal tax policy for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. But people who live in pricey places like San Francisco and Manhattan, or homeowners anywhere with hefty mortgages, will likely reach the maximum mortgage interest deduction.

Note: The $750,000 cap affects loans taken out after Dec. 16, 2017. If you have a loan older than that and you itemize, you can keep deducting your mortgage interest on debt up to $1 million. But if you refi that loan, you can only deduct the interest on the amount up to the balance on the day you refinanced – you can’t take extra cash and deduct the interest on the excess.

Home Equity Loan Interest

You can deduct the interest on a home equity loan or a second mortgage. But — and this is a big but — only if you use the proceeds to substantially improve your house, and only if the loan, combined with your first mortgage, doesn’t add up to more than the magic number of $750,000 (or $1 million if the loans were existing as of Dec. 15, 2017).

If you use a home equity loan to pay medical bills, go to Paris, or for anything but home improvement, you can’t deduct the interest.

State and Local Taxes

You can deduct state and local taxes you paid, including property and income taxes (or sales taxes in states where there is no income tax), up to $10,000. That’s a low cap for people who live in places where state and local taxes are high, says Liddiard. To give you an idea of how low: The average amount New Yorkers have taken in state and local tax deductions in past years is about $22,000.

Loss From a Disaster

You can write off the cost of damage to your home if it’s caused by an event in a federally declared disaster zone, like areas in Florida after Hurricane Michael or Shasta County, Calif., after a rash of wildfires.

This means standard-variety disasters like a busted water pipe while you’re on vacation or a fire caused because you left the toaster on aren’t deductible.

Moving Expenses

This deduction is also only for some. You can deduct moving expenses if you’re an active member of the armed forces moving to a new station.

And by the way, no matter who you are, if your employer pays your moving expenses, you’ll have to pay taxes on the reimbursement. “This will be a real hardship to many because it’s non-cash income,” says Liddiard.  Some employers may gross up the reimbursement amount to provide cash to pay the tax, but many likely will not.

Home Office

This is a deduction you don’t have to itemize. You can take it on top of the standard deduction, but only if you’re self-employed. If you are an employee and are working from home during the pandemic, you can no longer write off home office expenses. You claim the deduction on Schedule C.

Student Loans

Anyone paying a mortgage and a student loan payment will be happy to hear that the interest on your education loan is tax deductible on top of the standard deduction (no need to itemize). And you can deduct as much as $2,500 in interest per year, depending on your modified adjusted gross income.

Ways to Increase Your Eligible Deductions

There are some other costs that can be itemized not related to being a homeowner that could bump you up over the standard deduction. This might allow you to write off your mortgage interest. Charitable contributions and some medical expenses can be itemized, although medical expenses must exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

So if you’ve had a hospital stay or are generous, you could be in itemized-deduction land.

Also, if you’re a single homeowner, it could be easier for you to exceed the standard deduction, Liddiard says. The itemized deductions on your house will probably more quickly break the $12,550 standard deduction threshold than a couple’s similar house will break their $25,100 threshold.

Tax-Savvy Home-Buying Ideas

If you’re a prospective homeowner with an eye to making the most efficient use of your tax benefits, here are a few ways to buy smart:

  • Especially in expensive areas, buy a less expensive home so you don’t hit the cap on mortgage debt and local and property taxes, says Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA and tax expert for TurboTax.
  • If you’re buying a higher price home, make a bigger down payment so your original mortgage doesn’t exceed the $750,000 cap.

How to Decide If You Can Itemize

To see whether you have enough deduction to itemize, plug your numbers into this clever tool from TurboTax, and you’ll get their recommendation in just a few seconds.

Though every homeowner’s tax benefits will be a little different, in the end, you’re building equity, you’ll likely make money when you sell, and you have the freedom to paint your walls any color you want and get a dog.

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LEANNE POTTS

Leanne Pottsis an Atlanta-based journalist and serial home remodeler. She’s tackled five fixer-uppers and is working on a sixth. She’s written about everything from forest fires to dog-friendly decor and spent a decade leading the digital staff of HGTV.

Make an Offer Like a Boss

These 10 money- and time-saving steps can help you craft a winning bid.

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Ah, the offer!

Know Your Limits | Learn to Speak “Contract” | Set Your Price | Figure Out Your Down Payment | Make an Earnest Money Deposit | Review Contingency Plans | Read the Fine Print | Make a Date to Settle |  Write a Fan Letter to the Seller |  Brace Yourself for a Counteroffer

Cinematically speaking, this is the iconic moment — we’d forgive you if you imagined, say, putting a hand on your agent’s shoulder and whispering (in your best Vito Corleone) that you’re going to make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Think Before Making Unreasonable Demands

People like to do business with people they trust. Don’t nitpick over small items like a torn window screen or a $50 valve on a hot water heater. That will just anger the seller.

In reality, it’s not that simple (or dramatic). Your offer marks the beginning of a back-and-forth between you and the seller, typically with real estate agents advising you both.

#1 Know Your Limits

Your agent will help you craft a winning offer. You can trust your agent’s advice on price, contingencies, and other terms of the deal: It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The more collaborative you are with your agent, the more quickly you’ll be able to move.

But ultimately, it’s you who decides what the offer will be — and you who knows what your financial and lifestyle limits are. Buying a home means mixing strong emotions with business savvy, so now is also a good time to reflect on your “musts.”

HOAs Mean Business

Don’t fudge Fido’s weight if there’s a weight restriction where you’re buying. If you move in based on a fib, the condo or homeowners association can make you get rid of your dog or move. Really.

  • Have a top limit to your offer price because you’re also saving for retirement and love beach vacations? Stick to it. 
  • Want a vegetable garden or to paint your home’s exterior purple? Make sure your homeowners association rules permit it. 
  • Besides reading HOA rules, find out how much the HOA has in reserves to cover common area repairs. You don’t want to be slapped unexpectedly with a special assessment. 
  • Want a dog-friendly community? Make sure there are no pet weight limits preventing you from cohabitating with your (extra-large) canine bestie.

#2 Learn to Speak “Contract”

Essentially, an offer is a contract. The documents and wording vary across the country.

In the spirit of due diligence, take time to review sample offer forms before you’ve found a house (LawDepot.com has purchase agreements for each state). If you’re high-maintenance, a real estate attorney can explain the documents to you so you’re familiar with their vocabulary when you’re ready to pull the trigger on an offer with your agent. Your agent will have offer forms for your state. 

#3 Set Your Price

Homes always have a listing price. Think of it as the seller’s opening bid in your negotiation to buy a home.

As the buyer, your offer will include an offer price. This is the first thing home sellers look at when they receive a bid.

Your agent will help you determine whether the seller’s listing price is fair by running comps (or comparables), a process that involves comparing the house you’re bidding on to similar properties that recently sold in the neighborhood.

Several factors can also affect your bargaining position and offer price. For example, if the home has been sitting on the market for a while, or you’re in a buyer’s market where supply exceeds demand, the seller may be willing to accept an offer that’s below the list price. Or if the seller has already received another offer on the home, that may impact the price you’re willing to offer. Your agent will help you understand the context here.

#4 Figure Out Your Down Payment

To get a mortgage, you have to make a down payment on your loan. For conventional loans (as opposed to government loans), making a 20% down payment enables borrowers to avoid having to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI), a monthly premium that protects the lender in case the borrower defaults on the loan.

But 20% isn’t always feasible — or even necessary. In fact, the median down payment in 2019 for buyers overall was 16 percent, and 6 percent for first-time buyers, according to the National Association of REALTORS®. Your lender will help you determine what the best down payment amount is for your finances. Depending on the type of loan you get, you may even be able to put down as little as 0% on your mortgage.

You might qualify for one of the more than 2,400 down payment assistance programs nationwide. Many of them make funds available to households earning as much as 175% of area median income. In other words, middle-income households. And the savings can be substantial: Home buyers who use down payment assistance programs save an average of $17,766 over the life of their loan, according to real estate resource RealtyTrac. Find out more about down payment assistance programs in your state.

You can use an online mortgage calculator to see how different down payments would affect your mortgage premiums and how much you’ll pay in interest.

#5 Show the Seller You’re Serious: Make a Deposit

An EMD — short for earnest money deposit — is the sum of money you put down as evidence to the seller that you’re serious (read: earnest) about buying the house. If the seller accepts your offer, the earnest money will go toward your down payment at closing. However, if you try to back out of the deal, you might have to forfeit the cash to the seller.

A standard EMD is 1% to 3% of the sales price of the home (so, that would be $2,000 to $6,000 on a $200,000 loan). But depending on how hot the market is where you live, you may want to put down more earnest money to compete with other offers. 

In most cases, the title company is responsible for holding the earnest money in an escrow account. In the event the deal falls through, the title company will disperse the funds appropriately based on the terms of the sales contract. Title companies also check for defects or liens on a seller’s title to make sure it can be transferred cleanly to you.

#6 Review the Contingency Plans

Most real estate offers include contingencies — provisions that must be met before the transaction can go through, or the buyer is entitled to walk away from the deal with their EMD.

For example, if an offer says, “This contract is contingent upon a home inspection,” the buyer has a set number of days after the offer is accepted to do an inspection of the property with a licensed or certified home inspector.

If something is wrong with the house, the buyer can request the seller to make repairs. But most repairs are negotiable; the seller may agree to some, but say no to others. Or the seller can offer a price reduction, or a credit at closing, based on the cost of the repairs. This is where your real estate agent can offer real value and counsel on what you should ask the seller to fix.

Just remember to keep your eye on the big picture. If you and the seller are bickering over a $500 repair to the hardwood floors, keep in mind that’s a drop in the bucket in relation to the size of the bid.

In addition to the aforementioned home inspection contingency, other common contingencies include:

  • financing contingency, which gives home buyers a specified amount of time to get a loan that will cover the mortgage.
  • An appraisal contingency, where a third-party appraiser hired by the lender evaluates the fair-market value of the home to ensure the home is worth enough money to serve as collateral for the value of the mortgage.
  • clear title contingency, where the buyer’s title company verifies that the seller is the sole owner of the property and can legally convey ownership to the buyer.
  • home sale contingency, where the transaction is dependent on the sale of the buyer’s current home.

Although contingencies can offer protection to buyers, they can also make offers less appealing to the seller because they give buyers legal ways to back out of the sale without any financial repercussions. So, if you’re going up against multiple offers, making an offer with fewer contingencies can potentially give you an edge over the competition.

In other words: A chill offer is an attractive offer. But keep in mind you have to be comfortable with the risks that come with this strategy. If you don’t have a financing contingency, for example, and you can’t get a mortgage, you’d likely lose your earnest money deposit since you’re on the hook. (An outcome that’s decidedly un-chill for you.)

#7 Read the Fine Print About the Property

The sales contract states key information about the property, such as the address, tax ID, and the types of utilities: public water or private well, gas or electric heating, and so on. It also includes a section that specifies what personal property and fixtures the seller agrees to leave behind, like appliances, lighting fixtures, and window shades. The seller provides prospective buyers with a list of these items before they submit an offer. This can be another area of negotiation.

Carefully reviewing the property description also helps you know, for example, if the seller plans to take that unattached kitchen island with them when they move. (Stranger things have happened.)

#8 Make a Date to Settle

The sales contract you submit to the seller must include a proposed settlement date, which confirms when the transaction will be finalized. The clock starts as soon as the purchase agreement is signed. If you don’t close on time, the party that’s responsible for the delay may have to pay the other party compensation in the form of “penalty interest” at a predetermined rate.

A 30- to 60-day settlement period is common because it gives the typical home buyer time to complete a title search and obtain mortgage approval, but settlement periods can vary. Some sellers, for example, prefer a longer period so they have more time to move or look for their next house. Being flexible, with respect to the closing date, could give you more negotiating power in another area of the deal.

One thing that’s the same no matter where you live is that you’ll have a three-day period prior to settlement to review the Closing Disclosure, or CD — a five-page form that states your final loan terms and closing costs.

Once the sales contract is signed, the parties can change the settlement date if they both sign an addendum specifying the new day.

#9 Write a Fan Letter to the Seller

Want to make a truly compelling offer? Pull on the seller’s heartstrings by attaching a personal letter to the bid documents. Tell a compelling story about your family and your connection to the area. Get deep about your roots.

Also, sincere flattery can go a long way. Compliment the seller on how their kitchen renovation looks Apartment Therapy–worthy, for instance, or how the succulents in their landscaping remind you of a resort in Palm Springs.

Your agent can help you gather background on the sellers (e.g., are they crazy about their labradoodle, like you are about yours? Did they run a small business from the home, like you dream of doing?). And you should — of course — refer to information you gleaned during the open house or private showing. Use this intel to write a message that really speaks to the seller, and it may very well seal the deal.

#10 Brace Yourself for a Counteroffer

If you’re making a lowball bid or going up against multiple offers, the seller may decide to make you a counteroffer — a purchase agreement with new terms, such as a higher sales price or fewer contingencies.

At that point, it’s up to you to accept the new contract, make your own counteroffer to the sellers, or walk away.

Don’t panic: The next part of our guide walks you through the counteroffer process, and it offers strategies to give you more negotiating power.

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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. 

 

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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
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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!

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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.

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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.