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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Your guide to hiring the listing agent who can set you up for success.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Getting smart — about what to do, ask, and avoid — can move you ahead of the crowd.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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)
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.
It’s a confusing time, but lenders are putting remedies, like forbearance, in place to help homeowners.
Mortgage lenders, and the federal agencies that regulate lenders, are putting coronavirus mortgage relief measures in place to ensure homeowners have options if they’re unable to make payments.
Your first stop in the face of financial hardship is your lender or bank.
Just keep in mind lenders are working to figure out and implement the new mortgage relief polices outlined by the regulatory agencies. So you might read one thing from the FHFA, a federal regulator, but your bank might be doing something else.
In addition, due to the number of homeowners affected by the pandemic, lenders are dealing with a crush of calls and online queries. Be patient, persistent, and prepared to spend time on hold.
Mortgages Not Federally Backed If your mortgage is one of the 5 million in the United States not backed by a federal entity, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which includes a coronavirus mortgage relief mandate, doesn’t apply. But regulators have encouraged those lenders to work with borrowers who can’t pay their mortgages, and most banks and other lenders are suspending mortgage payments or offering forbearance.
The level of relief you get will depend on who owns your loan. Contact your lender to find out what’s available.
Regardless of the type of loan you have, you must apply for coronavirus mortgage relief through their mortgage servicer. That’s the entity that collects your monthly payments and decides how long the assistance will last. When you reach your mortgage servicer, you’ll need to explain your situation and provide information about your income, expenses, and assets.
Federal officials have imposed a nationwide halt to foreclosures and evictions for more than 36 million Americans with home mortgages backed by the FHA, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.
The moratorium only affects borrowers with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHA, VA, and RHS (Rural Housing Service loans through the USDA). This doesn’t apply to the roughly 35% of mortgages held in bank portfolios and private label securities. But some individual lenders are offering relief.
Some cities, counties, and states, including Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Texas, have placed a moratorium on foreclosures. Check with your city, county, and state governments. Find state-by-state tallies online.
Another tool in your relief toolbox are housing counselors. Counselors can provide independent advice on buying a home, renting, defaults, foreclosures, and credit issues. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s look-up tool lets you can find counselors in your state.
The CARES Act forbids lenders from dinging your credit score for missed payments on federally backed mortgages and student loans during your forbearance period. The federal government is also encouraging private lenders to suspend reporting late payments on eligible mortgages. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has more advice about protecting your credit.
To keep close tabs on your credit, you can now obtain a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion, every week for the next year through April 20, 2020. The companies ratcheted up their once-a-year allowance to help consumers “protect their financial health during the sudden and unprecedented hardship caused by COVID-19.”
The CARES Act includes immediate relief for those who can’t make their monthly payments on federally held loans due to coronavirus. All loan payments (both principal and interest) are suspended through Sept. 30, 2020, with no penalty. You don’t need to apply for this program or contact your lender. It’s automatic.
If you keep making payments, they’ll be applied entirely toward the principal. These suspended payments will count towards any student loan forgiveness already in effect.
Some loans under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program and some Perkins Loans not owned by the Department of Education aren’t eligible for suspended payments. Nor are private student loans owned by banks, credit unions, schools, or other private entities. If you can’t make payments, contact your loan servicer to find out what options are available. Many are offering ways, like forbearance, to postpone payments.
Not sure who your servicer is? Look on your most recent statement and contact the servicer immediately.
If your student loan is already in default, the relief act immediately suspends wage garnishments or tax refund deductions. They’ll resume after the suspension ends.
In addition, more than half of states, many under emergency state directive, allow for remote online notarization of documents. This makes it safe and easy to complete real estate transactions under social distancing orders. The number of states allowing remote notarization could grow as pandemic legislation expands.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have provided detailed appraisal alternative guidelines, so homeowners and appraisers can practice social distancing on Freddie and Fannie loans through May 17, 2020.
FHA, VA, and RHS are also allowing variations on the usual appraisal protocol. Check with your servicer for details.
Look Out For Scams
Fear breeds scams. And scammers are out in full force during the pandemic. Beware of third parties offering mortgage assistance and other help. Seek help from your lender directly.
Fall’s cooler temps are perfect for deck and yard improvements.
Ah, September. The weather is changing, and we’re getting back to our normal, post-summer routines.
It’s also a great time to give the house a little extra love and maintenance.
Stain the Deck
Help your deck field what winter throws at it by re-staining it this month. September’s cooler temps and lower humidity make it the ideal time for this project.
Check Fire Extinguishers
According to the Red Cross, fires increase in the fall and winter. Keep your home fire safe by getting your fire extinguishers checked by a certified professional. Fire extinguishers do break down and malfunction. In fact, after six years they need to be emptied and reloaded. If you haven’t already, buy one for each floor — and the garage.
Spruce Up the Yard
Aerate your lawn, reseed or fertilize it if needed, and plant perennials and shrubs (often on sale now). Your lawn will green up faster after winter, and the shrubs and perennials will have a chance to establish roots before the first freeze.
Inspect Your Home’s Exterior
Spending money on roof repairs is no party, but neither is handing out buckets to the family to catch leaks in a winter storm. Inspect your roof — and other big-ticket items, like siding, grading, and gutters — before you’ve got problems. You’ll cut costs by fixing them now and stay dry and warm all winter long.
How to find exactly what you want, and how to work with the experts who’ll help you get it.
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.
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.
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.)
Visit Open Houses, 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: Open houses and private showings, which give you the unique opportunity to evaluate properties in a way you can’t online.
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.
Resources to help you navigate the new real estate normal.
Technology and good-old-fashioned creativity are helping agents, buyers, and sellers abide by COVID-19 health and safety practices while getting deals done.
Some buyers are touring houses virtually. Others visit in person while remaining at least six feet from their agent. Sellers are hosting open houses on Facebook Live. Appraisers are doing drive-by valuations. Buyers are watching inspections via video call. Masked and gloved notaries are getting signatures on doorsteps.
“We have had to make some adjustments, for sure,” says Brian K. Henson, a REALTOR® with Atlanta Fine Homes / Sotheby’s International Realty in Alpharetta, Ga. “Everyone is trying to minimize face-to-face interactions. There have been some delays, but mostly, deals are getting done, just with tweaks.”
Here’s what home buying and selling during the pandemic looks like.
Showings Go Virtual
The rules around in-person showings vary by city, county, and state. Some allow them and some ban them. Check with your state, county, and local government to get the latest on business closures and shut-down rules.
Agents have conducted home tours via FaceTime and other similar tools for years. But these platforms have proven invaluable for home buying and selling during the pandemic. Real estate sites report a surge in the creation of 3D home tours. Redfin, a real estate brokerage, saw a 494% increase in requests for video home tours in March.
“I’ve done several FaceTime showings,” says Henson. He conducted virtual showings before COVID-19, too. He recently closed a deal on a home the buyers only saw on video, he says, but hasn’t yet done so during the pandemic.
In places where in-person showings are allowed, agents wipe down door handles, spray the lockbox with disinfectant, and open up the house, closets, everything for a client. “We leave all the lights on so no one touches switches, and we don’t touch cabinets or doors during showings,” Henson says.
The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, which produces HouseLogic, recommends only one buyer enter a home at a time, with 6 feet between each guest. NAR also recommends agents have potential buyers wash their hands, or use hand sanitizer when they come in the door. They should also remove their shoes. No children should be present at showings, either.
“We’re living in extraordinary times and unusual circumstances. If you have the ability to work, you have to be creative,” Mabél Guzmán, a Chicago real estate agent, told NBC News. Guzmán, who is also vice president of association affairs for NAR, has put together a video offering tips and strategies for virtual showings during the pandemic.
Down Payment Help
Many organizations offering down payment assistance to first-time home buyers have temporarily suspended the programs or changed the rules. You can check the status of programs in your area at the Down Payment Assistance Resource site.
Desktop, Drive-By Appraisals
Appraisers are essential workers in many areas, so home valuations are continuing. But often remotely. New, temporary rules from the Federal Housing Finance Authority allow drive-by and desktop appraisals for loans backed by the federal government.
In a desktop appraisal, the appraiser comes up with a home estimate based on tax records and multiple listing service information, without an in-person visit. For a drive-by, the appraiser only looks at the home’s exterior, in combination with a desktop appraisal. The Appraisal Foundation has put out guidelines for handling appraisals during the pandemic. Here’s the FAQ.
And here are specific new appraisal guidelines by agency:
On the other hand, some private lenders still require in-person appraisals, which are allowed even in areas with shutdown orders. Private lenders hold about 35% of first-lien mortgages, according to the Urban Institute
When appraisers come to your home, they should adhere to Centers for Disease Control guidelines, including wearing gloves and a face mask, keeping at least 6 feet apart from anyone in the home, and asking if the homeowners have been sick or traveled recently to a COVID-19 hotspot.
Inspections Via Live Video
Inspectors are now often working alone, no buyers in tow, and using hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. The National Association of Certified Home Inspectors advises inspectors to videotape their inspection so clients can watch it at home later, or to use FaceTime or other live video chat apps to take their clients along on the inspection, virtually. They can also call clients with their findings after they’re done.
The American Society of Home Inspectors has also issued guidelines for inspectors so they keep themselves and the homeowners safe while providing an accurate assessment of a home’s condition.
Mortgage Rates and Locks
With mortgage rates fluctuating quickly and closing times taking longer than usual, some lenders are extending mortgage rate lock periods. You can grab a good rate and hang on to it even if your lender takes longer than usual to process your loan.
But the protocol depends on the lender and the loan. Some lenders are offering this for all loans; others for refis. Check with your lender about its policy.
An important step in getting a mortgage is proving the borrower has a job. In pre-coronavirus days, lenders called the borrower’s employer for a verbal verification.
Lenders for federally backed loans now accept an email from an employer, a recent year-to-date paystub, or a bank statement showing a recent payroll deposit as proof of employment.
Home buying and selling during the pandemic means real estate agents can conduct the final walk-through via video with their clients. Or they can just open the home and have buyers walk through on their own. Henson says he still accompanies his clients, but stays six feet away and has them wash their hands when entering and exiting the house. Everyone’s wearing masks, too.
And, of course, when the buyers take possession, they should disinfect.
Remote Notarization Depends On Where You Live
About one-half of states have permanent remote online notarization (RON) policies. These allow a notary and signer in different locations to sign electronic document, usually by use of video apps like Zoom or FaceTime. Notaries will watch you sign either a paper document or do an electronic signature on an e-doc, via camera.
Some states have rolled out temporary rules allowing RON. Here’s a state-by-state list of notary law updates, and the type of remote notarizations allowed. The number of states allowing remote notarization could grow as federal and state pandemic legislation expands.
Closings Get Creative
Traditional closings, where everybody gathered around a big table to sign the final papers, are no longer possible. Title companies and banks are getting super creative in dealing with the limitations.
A Minnesota company, Legacy Title, rolled out a drive-thru closing service at one of its offices in an old bank branch building. The title company rep sits in a bank teller window and handles the closing papers while the customer sits in their car. Legacy completed 14 closings in the first week it offered drive-thru service.
Then there are drive-by closings, where the entire transaction takes place in cars. Masked and gloved notaries meet buyers in parking lots and pass documents through car windows.
“I had a closing where the buyer sat in her car the whole time. The attorney came out to her car, gave her paperwork, had her sign in her car, and my buyer never got out of her car,” Birmingham, Ala., agent Isaac McDow told WBRC television.
Says Georgia-based agent Henson, “I’ve had closings the last three weeks [that] I’ve been asked not to attend. There was one where the seller signed two days before buyer. Then the seller came back two days later and signed.”
Henson, who is also licensed in New York, has had to extend closing dates on two sales there since. Co-op boards won’t let non-residents into buildings – not even an electrician who needs to make repairs as part of an issue that came up in the inspection. He left the closing with an open-ended date.
“It’s all about being really flexible right now,” he says.
Finally, if you’re also trying to swing your student loan payments, know that federal student loan borrowers get an automatic six-month break in loan payments from April 10, 2020, through Sept. 3, 2020. Thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, they also won’t be charged a dime of interest in that time.
Keep in mind that payment suspension only applies to federal loans owned by the Department of Education. Some help may be available to borrowers with private student loans and other loans (like Perkins Loans and Federal Family Education Loans) that aren’t covered. But it’s not automatic. Reach out to your student loan servicer for information.
So, Should You Buy or Sell?
The real estate industry is creatively and safely responding to the situation, and mortgage rates remain low. Your agent is a great source of information about home buying and selling during the pandemic to help you feel comfortable. But, ultimately, it’s a question only you can answer
When you think about real estate investing, the first thing that probably comes to mind is your home. Of course, real estate investors have lots of other options when it comes to choosing investments, and they’re not all physical properties.
If you invest in rental properties, you become a landlord—so you need to consider if you’ll be comfortable in that role. As the landlord, you’ll be responsible for things like paying the mortgage, property taxes, and insurance, maintaining the property, finding tenants, and dealing with any problems.
Unless you hire a property manager to handle the details, being a landlord is a hands-on investment. Depending on your situation, taking care of the property and the tenants can be a 24/7 job—and one that’s not always pleasant. If you choose your properties and tenants carefully, however, you can lower the risk of having major problems.
One way landlords make money is by collecting rent. How much rent you can charge depends on where the rental is located. Still, it can be difficult to determine the best rent because if you charge too much you’ll chase tenants away, and if you charge too little you’ll leave money on the table. A common strategy is to charge enough rent to cover expenses until the mortgage has been paid, at which time the majority of the rent becomes profit.
The other primary way that landlords make money is through appreciation. If your property appreciates in value, you may be able to sell it at a profit (when the time comes) or borrow against the equity to make your next investment. While real estate does tend to appreciate, there are no guarantees.
Real estate has long been considered a sound investment, and for good reason. Before 2007, historical housing data made it seem like prices could continue to climb indefinitely. With few exceptions, the average sale price of homes in the U.S. increased each year between 1963 and 2007—the start of the Great Recession.
This chart from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows average sales prices between 1963 and 2019 (the most recent data available).1 The areas that are shaded in light grey indicate U.S. recessions.
Of course, the most significant downturn in the real estate market before the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with the Great Recession. The results of the coronavirus crisis have yet to be seen. Amid closures, social distancing, and staggering unemployment numbers, it’s likely that home sales will decline significantly. While that doesn’t necessarily mean home prices will follow suit, it will at a minimum change the way people buy and sell real estate—at least in the short-term.
Like the day traders who are leagues away from buy-and-hold investors, real estate flippers are an entirely different breed from buy-and-rent landlords. Flippers buy properties with the intention of holding them for a short period—often no more than three to four months—and quickly selling them for a profit.
The are two primary approaches to flipping a property:
Repair and update. With this approach, you buy a property that you think will increase in value with certain repairs and updates. Ideally, you complete the work as quickly as possible and then sell at a price that exceeds your total investment (including the renovations).
Hold and resell. This type of flipping works differently. Instead of buying a property and fixing it up, you buy in a rapidly rising market, hold for a few months, and then sell at a profit.
With either type of flipping, you run the risk that you won’t be able to unload the property at a price that will turn a profit. This can present a challenge because flippers don’t generally keep enough ready cash to pay mortgages on properties for the long term. Still, flipping can be a lucrative way to invest in real estate if it’s done the right way.
To qualify as a REIT, the entity must pay out 90% of its taxable profits in the form of dividends to shareholders. By doing this, REITs avoid paying corporate income tax, whereas a regular company would be taxed on its profits, thus eating into the returns it could distribute to its shareholders.
Much like regular dividend-paying stocks, REITs are appropriate for investors who want regular income, though they offer the opportunity for appreciation, too. REITs invest in a variety of properties such as malls (about a quarter of all REITs specialize in these), healthcare facilities, mortgages, and office buildings. In comparison to other types of real estate investments, REITs have the benefit of being highly liquid.
A company will buy or build a set of buildings, often apartments, then allow investors to buy them through the company, thus joining the group. A single investor can own one or multiple units of self-contained living space. But the company that operates the investment group manages all the units and takes care of maintenance, advertising, and finding tenants. In exchange for this management, the company takes a percentage of the monthly rent.
There are several versions of investment groups. In the standard version, the lease is in the investor’s name, and all of the units pool a portion of the rent to guard against occasional vacancies. This means you will receive enough to pay the mortgage even if your unit is empty.
The quality of an investment group depends entirely on the company that offers it. In theory, it is a safe way to get into real estate investment, but groups may charge the kind of high fees that haunt the mutual fund industry. As with all investments, research is key.
Real Estate Limited Partnerships
A real estate limited partnership (RELP) is similar to a real estate investment group. It is an entity formed to buy and hold a portfolio of properties, or sometimes just one property. However, RELPs exist for a finite number of years.
An experienced property manager or real estate development firm serves as the general partner. Outside investors are then sought to provide financing for the real estate project, in exchange for a share of ownership as limited partners. The partners may receive periodic distributions from income generated by the RELP’s properties, but the real payoff comes when the properties are sold—with luck, at a sizable profit—and the RELP dissolves down the road.
Real Estate Mutual Funds
Real estate mutual funds invest primarily in REITs and real estate operating companies. They provide the ability to gain diversified exposure to real estate with a relatively small amount of capital. Depending on their strategy and diversification goals, they provide investors with much broader asset selection than can be achieved through buying individual REITs.
Like REITs, these funds are pretty liquid. Another significant advantage to retail investors is the analytical and research information provided by the fund. This can include details on acquired assets and management’s perspective on the viability and performance of specific real estate investments and as an asset class. More speculative investors can invest in a family of real estate mutual funds, tactically overweighting certain property types or regions to maximize return.
Why Invest in Real Estate?
Real estate can enhance the risk-and-return profile of an investor’s portfolio, offering competitive risk-adjusted returns. In general, the real estate market is one of low volatility, especially compared to equities and bonds.
Real estate is also attractive when compared with more-traditional sources of income return. This asset class typically trades at a yield premium to U.S. Treasuries and is especially attractive in an environment where Treasury rates are low.
Diversification and Protection
Another benefit of investing in real estate is its diversification potential. Real estate has a low and, in some cases, negative, correlation with other major asset classes—meaning, when stocks are down, real estate is often up. This means the addition of real estate to a portfolio can lower its volatility and provide a higher return per unit of risk. The more direct the real estate investment, the better the hedge: Less direct, publicly traded vehicles, such as REITs, are going to reflect the overall stock market’s performance.
Some analysts think that REITs and the stock market will become more correlated, now that REIT stocks are represented on the S&P 500.
Because it is backed by brick and mortar, direct real estate also carries less principal-agent conflict, or the extent to which the interest of the investor is dependent on the integrity and competence of managers and debtors. Even the more indirect forms of investment carry some protection. REITs, for example, mandate that a minimum percentage of profits (90%) be paid out as dividends.
The inflation-hedging capability of real estate stems from the positive relationship between gross domestic product (GDP) growth and demand for real estate. As economies expand, the demand for real estate drives rents higher, and this, in turn, translates into higher capital values. Therefore, real estate tends to maintain the purchasing power of capital, bypassing some of the inflationary pressure onto tenants and by incorporating some of the inflationary pressure, in the form of capital appreciation.
The Power of Leverage
With the exception of REITs, investing in real estate gives an investor one tool that is not available to stock market investors: leverage. If you want to buy a stock, you have to pay the full value of the stock at the time you place the buy order—unless you are buying on margin. And even then, the percentage you can borrow is still much less than with real estate, thanks to that magical financing method, the mortgage.
Most conventional mortgages require a 20% down payment. However, depending on where you live, you might find a mortgage that requires as little as 5%. This means that you can control the whole property and the equity it holds by only paying a fraction of the total value. Of course, the size of your mortgage affects the amount of ownership you actually have in the property, but you control it the minute the papers are signed.
This is what emboldens real estate flippers and landlords alike. They can take out a second mortgage on their homes and put down payments on two or three other properties. Whether they rent these out so that tenants pay the mortgage, or they wait for an opportunity to sell for a profit, they control these assets, despite having only paid for a small part of the total value.
The Bottom Line
Real estate can be sound investment, and one that has the potential to provide a steady income and build wealth. Still, one drawback of investing in real estate is illiquidity: the relative difficulty in converting an asset into cash and cash into an asset.
Unlike a stock or bond transaction, which can be completed in seconds, a real estate transaction can take months to close. Even with the help of a broker, simply finding the right counterparty can be a few weeks of work. Of course, REITs and real estate mutual funds offer better liquidity and market pricing. But they come at the price of higher volatility and lower diversification benefits, as they have a much higher correlation to the overall stock market than direct real estate investments.
As with any investment, keep your expectations realistic, and be sure to do your homework and research before making any decisions.
It’s fun! It’s exciting! It’s important to take everything with a grain of salt!
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 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.
Be First Through the Door
Ask your agent to send you automated emails from their MLS with new properties that meet your specs.
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.