Thursday, December 16, 2010

Selling/Buying in 2011? Key Pointers and Immediate action items.


Savvy, regret-free homebuying can take weeks or months of financial and lifestyle research and planning.  If you want 2011 to be the year you become a homeowner, here are 5 things you should be doing, as we speak.

1.  Minimize your holiday spending and save your cash. Instead of using the holiday sales to acquire a new winter wardrobe of cashmere sweaters, hold the discretionary spending down so you can give yourself the gift of homeownership!  If you are serious about buying a home next year, don't run up additional credit card debt on gifts this year. Instead, make homemade cards or write holiday letters this year for everyone except the kiddos.  And even for the kids, consider scaling back on the stuff, spending more of your time with them than your money, and getting started now saving toward your home purchase. (I don't think too many folks would argue that a less materialistic holiday season would hurt anyone, at any age.) 

Kickstart your 2011 homebuying resolution by starting a "Home" savings account at an high-interest, online bank (the discipline-boosting goal is a bank that isn't super easy to transfer funds out of when you run low on cash), and set up an automatic deposit into it every payday. To get specific about your savings goal, if you're cash-flush, obviously a 20% down payment will get you top notch interest rates and provide you with the maximum ability to manage your monthly payments. If you're going to be more of a bootstrapping buyer, an FHA loan might be right up your alley - they offer a down payment of 3.5% of the purchase price. 

All buyers should plan to have at least 3 percent of the purchase price saved up for closing costs, even if you want the seller to chip in.  The lower-priced the home you want to buy, the more percentage points you should be willing to chip in for closing costs.  It's easy for closing costs on an $150,000 FHA loan to run as high as $4,000 or more, considering transfer taxes, inspections, appraisals and mortgage insurance fees. So, even the scrappiest buyer should have a savings target somewhere around 6.5% of their target home's price.  To buy a $200,000 home, for example, that would mean a savings target of $13,000.

Local real estate and mortgage pros can help you clarify realistic "cash to close" expectations and savings targets for your area - They should be the thought leaders for you in the industry,

2.  Research financing, areas homes, prices, agents and online. Smart homebuying takes a lot of research and knowledge-gathering.  Since most buyers find it much harder to qualify for a mortgage than it is to find a home you'd love to live in, start with studying up on home financing and what it will take for you to get a home loan (note: FHA loans are preferred by the average homebuyer on today's market who has less than a 10% down payment, so start your research there). 

If you're considering relocating next year, now's the time to start narrowing down states, cities and even neighborhoods that may or may not work for you. Take into account the job market, housing and other costs of living, and income and property tax rates, as well as the critical lifestyle inputs that vary from state-to-state, like weather and whether the place is a personality fit for you and the life you want to live, be it urban sophisticate or outdoors adventurer. 

Also, start to develop a feel for home prices in a what-you-get-for-your-money type way, and start narrowing down the home styles and even neighborhoods that might fit your aesthetic preferences and lifestyle.  If you're one of those rare buyers-to-be who is not already obsessively house hunting, hop on Trulia and start regularly checking out homes and neighborhoods, making sure to take advantage of the neighborhood ratings and reviews feature, which empowers you to surface what other folks think and say about an area. 

3.  Rehab your credit, if you need to.  Go to AnnualCreditReport.com and check out your credit reports - from all 3 bureaus - for free. (Note - these will not give you your credit score for free - that costs extra, but it will give you the actual detailed credit reports.)  Audit them for errors and do the work of disputing inaccuracies to have them corrected. Pay particular attention to: accounts that are not yours/you never opened, derogatory information that should have "aged off" your report by now (i.e., 7 years for late payments, 10 for bankruptcies) and balances or credit limits that are inaccurate (i.e., your credit card balance is listed at $2500, but you actually only owe $250.)  These are the errors most likely to foul up your financing, so follow the instructions each bureau provides to correct them, stat. While you're at it, don't close any accounts, even if you are able to pay some down or off - actually, check out these tips for getting the bank to give you the best possible home loan, without unintentionally making your score worse!

4.  Run your numbers. In the past, some overextended homeowners complained that they felt pushed into a mortgage they couldn't afford. Pundits blamed that on the real estate and mortgage industry, but I have witnessed firsthand many a homebuyer push themselves or their spouses into buying too expensive of a home. Eliminate this issue entirely by doing this - run your own numbers, before you ever even talk to a salesperson or start looking at homes beyond your means. (I assure you, once you see the million dollar home you think you can afford, the $250,000 home you can actually afford will be underwhelming.)

Get your monthly finances in order, and get a clear read on how much your monthly bills are - outside of housing. Decide how much you can afford to spend every month for housing, when you buy your home.  Get clear on exactly how much cash you plan to have at hand to put into your transaction up front.  When, in the next step, you begin working with a mortgage broker, you'll want to share these numbers with them, early on in your conversation, to empower them to tell you what home price you can afford - not based on their rubrics, but based on what you say you want to spend every month and what you want to put down.

5.  Talk to a real estate and mortgage broker
www.chicagoluxuryrealty.com

Drop me an email, letting me know if  you'd like to work on putting an action plan together for buying a home next year, and would like to talk with me about what action steps need to go on the list. I can brief you on the timeline of a transaction in your local market, and to point out for you things like when along the process you'll need to bring money in, when you'll need to miss work and come into their office or the closing office, whether they offer conveniences like digital document signing, and generally the local standard practices about which buyers you'll need to know. 
In addition to chatting about timing your purchase vis-à-vis your other life events and plans for the year, make sure to ask for referrals to a local, trustworthy mortgage broker or two - preferably one that has worked with them and closed a number of transactions with their clients.  (In fact, many busy real estate pros will want you to talk with their trusty mortgage partner before they get too involved in your planning process.  You may think you only need a month to get ready to buy, but once the mortgage folks weigh in, it might turn out that you actually need a few.)  When you do get in touch with the mortgage maven, if you're serious about buying, you will want them to actually pull your credit report, check the actual FICO scores that come up on their system and give you their professional recommendations for what final tweaks you can do to your debts to get your credit score where it needs to be.

SELLING IN 2011

It's resolution time, folks.  Last week, we offered some immediate action items for those who want 2011 to be the year they become homeowners.  By popular demand, this week it's sellers' turn!  Whether you are simply trying to decide whether to sell your home next year, or it's been on the market before and you are trying to revamp your approach to get it sold next year, here are 5 things you can do during what's left of 2010 to position yourself for home selling success in 2011.

1.  Reality check yourself . . . before you wreck yourself (and the sale of your home, that is). The age-old real estate advice to wanna-be sellers is to get real about pricing - and like my sweet Grandma's advice about always rinsing the cake batter out with cold water, never hot, the caution against overpricing is advice that will stand you in good stead. (And that cold water trick works, btw - rinsing with hot starts to cook the batter to the bowl!  But I digress)  Before you even get to pricing, though, first you should get real about what your goals really are. Why do you want or need to sell?  And how badly - how important is it to you?  What would it take to make selling make sense?  If you even think you may want to sell your home next year, get clear on these items in your own head before you even talk to anyone outside of your household. Your very next step is to look at your mortgage account statement online and find out what you owe, and find out what your payoff amount would be.

Step 3? Get a reality-based idea of what your home is worth - by talking with several local real estate agents who have a strong, recent track record of successfully selling homes in your area; these are the folks who'll have a strong idea of what recent sales are the most comparable to yours, and what a local buyer would agree to pay for your home, as well as what it might appraise at. If 3 agents give you one range, and one gives you a bizarrely higher number, be skeptical about the outlier; there are rare bad apples out there in the agent world who will tell you whatever it takes to get the listing.  Get real and stay there - don't fall prey to the fallacy that your home is worth more than others, for no substantive reason beyond the fact that, well, it's yours.

Then, move toward making a decision about whether selling actually makes sense for you. Whatever you do, don't let your mental GPS steer you anywhere near that fantasyland where all your plans for selling, moving, etc. rest on the hypothetical that you can get 25% more than your home's actual fair market value. That sort of magical thinking costs you and your agent the time, inconvenience and money it takes to try to conjure up a sale that just ain't gonna happen, and that doesn't even count the opportunity costs of other things you could be doing with those resources. If your home's current value is bizarrely less than you want or need to move on, consider a short sale and price it appropriately or consider staying put and sprucing up your home so it better suits your needs - but don't price it at your "wishful thinking" price and set yourself and your agent up for failure.

2.  Figure out the lay of your local land.  National blogs and media outlets offer all sorts of useful advice about whether, how and when to sell your home, but there's one thing that sort of advice cannot convey: what's going on in your local market. Get active in Trulia Voices, ask questions and read blogs in your local market and start talking with the real estate brokers and agents from your area who are actively blogging, listing properties and answering questions. They can give you the hyperlocal essentials you need to knows.  Sure, it's a buyer's market nationwide, on average.  But if you live in Omaha, that may mean that homes sell at or near asking in 45 days or less; in Mesa, Arizona, your home could stay on the market 6 months and sell for 30% below asking.  In my neck of the woods, it's not bizarre for homes to sell at 5 percent above asking, in two weeks - and that's still a buyer's market compared to the 20% above asking sales that were common in 2006.  

Every market is different, and you can neither know what to expect when you list your home for sale, nor implement smart strategies for getting your home sold without knowing what's going on in yours. 

3.  Tour nearby Open Houses. Your job, as the seller of your home, is to present a compelling package to buyers - compelling enough to make them sign away 30 years of their lives and the vast majority of their worldly possessions in exchange for your home (kinda ups the ante, doesn't it?). To do that, it helps to get inside the minds of your home's target buyers.  And to do that, you need to think how they think and see what they see.

Visiting the other homes your target buyers will also see online and/or in real life will give you a sense for how your home's price and condition will measure up to the competition.  Go view other homes that are for sale in your area, making sure you see at least a few that fall into each of these categories: (a) properties in your neighborhood or similar neighborhoods, (b) homes in your home's general price range, all around town, and (c) homes that have similar numbers of bedrooms, bathrooms and square feet - no matter what the price. You'll likely end up seeing homes in a wide range when it comes to price and condition; know that your home, to sell, will need to beat these on one or both measures. Also, if you try to go to at least a few open houses, rather than just asking your agent to show them to you at your convenience, you'll also get a sense for what sort of buyer traffic you can expect from open houses, and you can even chat with those home's listing agents about local market dynamics and what factors they believe may help or hurt that particular listing.

4.  Formulate a plan: in A-B-C order.  Collaborate with your broker or agent to put an action plan in place.  Make sure you address: list price, list date, showing arrangements and the property prep work (see #5, below) that your agent recommends you do prior to listing the place. To minimize the stress of a somewhat inevitably stressful experience (i.e., selling your home!), work with your agent on Plans B and C now, too!  What is the average number of days a home stays on the market in your area before it sells (DOM)?  (Hint:  don't look at the ones that never sold, because you don't want to be part of that group!)  Decide up front if your home sits on the market for X number of days with no offer, you'll lower the price to Y.  Also cover alternative marketing plans/vehicles for your home, and even calendar when you might start to offer transactional incentives, like closing cost credits, interest rate buy-downs, throwing in personal property and even making reverse offers to buyers who have expressed an interest but can't seem to get off the fence. At some point along the timeline, include a pause where your agent can interview buyer's brokers who have shown your home to collect buyer feedback, so you can course correct your pricing, marketing or staging strategies accordingly.

5.  Do your prep work - fix and pre-pack.  If you are sure you're selling in 2011, and want to put your holiday vacation time to good use, make a list of all those little repairs you've been wanting to do forever, call up your neighborhood handy person and get 'em done. Loose knobs and handles, double-hung windows that are painted shut, the frayed carpet on the steps, that broken bathroom tile - fixing those things can give your place just the patina and polish it'll take to compete with the ample, low-priced competition you'll have next year.

It may be tough for non-distressed home sellers to compete with foreclosures and short sales on price.  But one area where individual home sellers usually can best the competition is CONDITION! Your home can present to buyers in tip-top  condition in a way that most foreclosures and short sales cannot.  And this includes staging - most foreclosures will be shown vacant, and/or with the debris of the former owner's lives tragically littering the premises.  Short sales are usually (but not always) a bit better, but are most often shown fully occupied, furnished and cluttered - just as the owners live in them, because of the distressed nature of the sale.  As a non-distressed home's seller, it behooves you to ensure that your home's curb appeal is at it's best and that throughout the interior, the buyer is able to visualize the lovely life they can, scratch that, WILL live once they buy and move into your home.  Depersonalizing and decluttering are essential to this staging effort; in fact, one wise Trulia Voices contributor tells her sellers to go ahead and start "pre-packing" - put most of the personal items that make your home yours in a box, like you're getting ready to move (which you are!) and leave your place in as close to model-home move-in condition as possible. Get your property pre-appraised to support the value.

Lastly, hope is not a plan!
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