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5 Surprises I Learned House-Hunting Amid a Pandemic

August 6, 2020

home buying during coronavirus

stockstudioX / Getty Images

Buying a home is never a simple undertaking. Even at the best of times, house hunting comes with lots of built-in stressors, from mortgage approvals to bidding wars and beyond.

But house-hunting during the coronavirus pandemic? That changes the game entirely.

By the power of coincidence and bad timing, my home search started almost exactly as the crisis hit hard in the United States. Oh, and add to that the fact that I was moving cross-country, searching for a home remotely about 2,000 miles away!

My first experience shopping for a home was atypical, to say the least. But that also meant it was uniquely educational.

With the hope that I can help other home buyers prepare better than I did, here are five surprising lessons I learned while house-hunting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Don’t expect bargains

Early on, several people tried to help me see the “bright side” of shopping for a home during a pandemic: I was going to get the deal of the century!

The logic seemed sound enough at first. After all, interest rates had fallen to all-time lows. And, surely, not many people would want to uproot their lives and move during this crisis, right?

Lessons I Learned House Hunting During a Pandemic
This house was the subject of a bidding war that ended in someone coming in with a massive cash offer.

Wrong. In the Midwestern city where I was searching for houses, few people were interested in moving, so inventory was down. First-time home buyers, however, were out in full force.

The result: Nearly every house that hit the market sold fast. Some sold within 24 hours of being listed, and most went well above asking, in intense bidding wars. In fact, inventory is substantially down in most markets across the country.

2. Prepare for virtual house-hunting

Anyone actively shopping for a home right now needs to become an expert in digitally touring spaces. Every market is different, but many are limiting home showings to comply with social distancing.

In many cases, you may have to make do with photos or videos posted by the sellers or their agents. Alternatively, you might be able to have a real estate agent view the home on your behalf, and give you a FaceTime tour.

Lessons I learned house hunting during the pandemic
This house looked charming in photos, but a FaceTime tour was … less awesome.

If your real estate agent can tour homes for you, don’t be shy about asking questions, including asking for a closer look at anything and everything you’re curious about. If you’re home shopping online, make sure to pinch and zoom in on photos to get a good look at the little nooks and crannies of a house.

Also remember that listing pictures may not tell the whole story. Special camera lenses and creative angles often make rooms appear larger than they actually are. Look out for potentially distorted pictures (which often have angles that curve somewhat) and learn to take such shots with a grain of salt.

3. You must work with a real estate agent you trust

A trusted real estate agent is always a key ingredient in a successful home-buying experience. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this asset is absolutely nonnegotiable.

In my house-hunting journey, my agent was invaluable. She was my eyes and ears on the ground at showings. I leaned on her judgment and trusted her to point out things that pictures and videos just can’t capture.

Lessons I learned house hunting during the pandemic
This room looked great in pictures, but when my agent visited the house in person, she let me know that one of the walls was visibly crooked. Bullet. Dodged.

Several times during the process, my agent pointed out flaws or potential red flags that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own, like crooked walls.

Shopping for a house under this unique set of circumstances was like having blinders on. It would have been thoroughly impossible without my agent’s help and guidance.

4. Don’t start house-hunting without mortgage pre-approval

The COVID-19 pandemic has been felt at every level of the economy, not just in the United States, but globally.

In response, many banks and mortgage lenders have tightened their lending requirements. Some have even raised minimum credit-score requirements, now require larger down payments, and are triple-checking borrowers’ employment status, among other measures.

People shopping for homes during the pandemic can struggle to get pre-approved for mortgages that they would have easily qualified for before the crisis hit. In some cases, it may be difficult for buyers to get approval at all. All of which means it’s more important than ever to work with a lender before you shop.

5. Don’t expect to negotiate for extras

When you’re in a buyers’ market, home shoppers have some power. In addition to submitting offers that are below the asking price, buyers can ask for extra perks to sweeten the deal.

Common examples of these perks include asking the seller to leave behind specific appliances or furniture.

Shopping during the pandemic was, in my market at least, the ultimate opposite: a seller’s market. My agent even said it was the tightest market, with the lowest inventory, that she’d ever seen in her 28 years on the job.

This meant that, when it came to writing offers, I had to make sacrifices to be competitive. Not only did I need to come in above asking, I had to forgo every conceivable ask.

Lessons I Learned House Hunting During a Pandemic
The sellers of this home noted in their listing that appliances and the hot tub were included in the sale. Needless to say, the house went for tens of thousands above asking.

My real estate agent advised against requesting things that are considered standard in the market I was leaving: asking the sellers to leave major kitchen appliances, for example.

I was also advised against submitting offers with any contingencies.

In a hypercompetitive buying market, most houses received multiple offers—sometimes more than a dozen in a single day. Asking for anything considered “extra” could land my offer in the rejection pile right away.

That being said, of course, a good real estate agent will never advise you to put in an offer that doesn’t ultimately serve your best interests.

After almost six months of searching, I finally (finally!) had an offer accepted on a house near the end of July. With any luck, I’ll close in August and start the next chapter of my life.

This whole experience has taught me that shopping for a home is always complicated—that’s a given. But, if you’re embarking on your house-hunting journey during this unprecedented and uncertain time, be sure to prepare yourself for something extra.

The post 5 Surprises I Learned House-Hunting Amid a Pandemic appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights |®.

Is a Pandemic a Good—or Horrible—Time To Buy a Vacation Home?

August 5, 2020

buying a vacation home during pandemic

Sportstock/Getty Images

With most of us cooped up in our apartments or houses, it may be tempting to pull the trigger and finally purchase the vacation home you’ve always dreamed about.

After all, mortgage rates are hitting record lows, and a change of scenery sounds awfully sweet right about now. If you can swing it, why not?

Reality check: We’re also living through a time of economic uncertainty. You could lose your job or find yourself up against a major financial challenge in the weeks or months to come.

Then, who knows when the economy will recover from the effects of the pandemic? Is this really a good time to take the plunge on a second home?

The answer depends on your individual financial situation and your plans for the future. We talked to experts to help weigh the pros and cons of investing in a vacation property right now.

Con: This could be a risky time to buy…

“Even though real estate is one of the more sound investments you can make, do you have the tolerance for risk that comes with it?” asks Jen Horner, a real estate agent based in Salt Lake City.

If you see yourself being ready to sell off your second home in just a few years, you should probably hold off on buying, and stick to renting in your dream destination.

If you only plan to keep the property for the short term, you’re more likely to expose yourself to risk and market volatility when it comes time to sell; who knows if your home will retain value over the next few years?

Pro: …but with low interest rates, now could be a great time to invest

“For those with the income stability … purchasing a second home may make a lot of sense,” says James Duncan, director of education and engagement at Thrive Mortgage in Georgetown, TX.

“Lower interest rates have boosted purchasing power, and for those who have ‘buy-and-hold’ mentalities, there likely has not been a better time to buy.”

That means if you plan to purchase a property that you’ll keep for years to come, you’ll be in a good position to weather the twists and turns of a volatile economy in the months (and years) ahead.

“Real estate is always a good investment, provided you have the right financial strategy in place,” Duncan says.

Ultimately, if you’re unsure about it, talk over your situation with your agent and your financial planner to decide if now is the right time to buy.

“Very good Realtors® will not only walk you through the financial steps to ensure a good investment, but will also do their due diligence to ensure you’re investing in the right area with growth,” Horner says.

Con: Getting a mortgage has gotten trickier

“In the age of COVID-19, the primary concern for all lenders has been the continuity of income,” Duncan says.

As a result, buyers are jumping through more hoops than ever to prove that they’ll be able to pay a mortgage.

Before the pandemic, lenders would run a few employment verifications before approving a new loan for a home buyer.

These days, some lenders are running checks seven—or even 10—times before approving a loan. If you lose any source of income during the buying process, that could jeopardize your ability to purchase a second home.

Pro: You can offset the cost of your vacation home by renting it out

If you buy a second home in a popular vacation spot, you could tap into a new source of income by listing your place on sites like Airbnb and VRBO.

Just keep in mind that renting your home to vacationers will add extra responsibilities to your plate, including maintaining the property, keeping photos and descriptions up to date, and cleaning between guests.

The possibility of rental income also comes with a major COVID caveat: During the pandemic, travel restrictions and cleaning logistics have made renting more complicated for hosts.

Be sure you understand what you’re getting into before you bank on rental income.

Con: The market where you’re buying might take a while to recover from the pandemic

Do your homework on the area where you want to buy. What kind of travel restrictions are in place? Will you be able to enjoy the natural beauty of the location, even if the restaurants and attractions are closed? Or will social distancing dampen the appeal?

You also need to consider what this means for your property value.

“If the local economy is largely driven by tourism, is it resilient enough to withstand downturns which could then impact property values?” Duncan asks.

Work with your agent and financial planner to evaluate an area’s risk before you decide to buy.

Pro: You don’t have to be a multimillionaire to own a vacation property

If the idea of a vacation home seems out of reach, here’s some good news: It’s more feasible than you think.

“Second-home purchases are not just for high-net worth individuals,” Duncan says. “There are loads of opportunities for prospective borrowers at lower price points as well.”

If you’re willing to expand your search beyond the main drag or to take on a few renovation projects, you’ll have more options, at a lower price point.

That means you might need to look for homes near the water instead of on it, or to search for homes that need a little bit of updating. If you’re flexible and willing to put in a bit of elbow grease, it’s possible to make your vacation home dreams a reality.

The post Is a Pandemic a Good—or Horrible—Time To Buy a Vacation Home? appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights |®.

5 Coronavirus Real Estate Myths Everyone Thinks Are True—Debunked

July 30, 2020

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Every day, our conversations online and off are filled with “did you hear this yet?” news about the coronavirus pandemic. And, alas, not all of what you hear is true—particularly when it comes to real estate.

For instance: Do you assume, as many do, that it’s a terrible time to sell a home since real estate prices are plummeting? On the contrary, the latest data shows that home prices and buyer demand are through the roof. Or have you heard that the coronavirus has forced all city dwellers to flee to the burbs? Some have, but the mass exodus you might envision is by no means the reality.

There’s a potential cost to these misguided beliefs: missing out on some profitable opportunities. For instance, home sellers sitting on the sidelines might be passing up the chance to make tons of money on their sale. Meanwhile, home buyers who wrongly assume they can’t schedule home tours right now might be forfeiting their chance to snag their dream home this summer—at record-low interest rates no less.

To help you separate the truths from the half-truths from the utter falsehoods that might be filling your social media feeds, here are five prevalent myths about real estate during the COVID-19 pandemic—and some much-needed reality checks.

1. It’s a terrible time to sell your home

Many home sellers who may have hoped to put their house on the market this summer have put those plans on hold. In early July, new home listings dropped 14% compared with a year ago, and total home inventory was 32% lower, according to®’s Weekly Housing Trends report for July 11.

Fear of coronavirus exposure is probably the main reason people are keeping their homes off the market, but many might also assume that selling a home right now is just a futile endeavor, plagued by few home buyers and low prices.

But on the contrary, the latest statistics suggest that now is one of the best times in years to sell a home for several reasons.

“Given the pandemic and uncertainty it’s caused, the general sentiment [among some owners] is that now is not a good time to sell your home,” says Danielle Hale, chief economist at “Yet so far, the data suggests the opposite—that buyers outnumber sellers in the housing market, which means it’s better to be a seller than a buyer.”

The aforementioned low housing inventory is one reason why those who do list their homes will enjoy a strong seller’s market, characterized by bidding wars that could fetch them a high price.

“Multiple offers could be fairly common over the next few months,” predicts Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors®.

“As long as buyer demand remains strong, I expect the market to remain tipped in favor of sellers,” says Hale.

2. Home prices are plummeting

Data shows just the opposite: Home prices are actually rising.

According to the NAR, the national median price for single-family homes grew 7.7% during the first quarter of 2020, to $274,600.

“We’re seeing home prices grow faster than pre-COVID-19,” Hale says. “In fact, they are on pace with the home price growth we saw this time last year.”

The reason is record-low mortgage rates.

“Record-low mortgage rates boost buying power,” Yun says, “and, when combined with a lack of supply, will result in higher and higher home prices.”

3. Buyers are holding off on home purchases

According to NAR’s Pending Home Sales Index (a forward-looking glimpse at home sales based on contract signings), pending home sales jumped 44.3% in May, the largest month-over-month increase since the index’s inception in 2001.

Record-low interest rates are driving much of the buyer demand, Hale says.

Mortgage interest rates dipped below 3% for the first time in 50 years, to 2.98% as of July 16, according to Freddie Mac.

“Certainly low interest rates help,” says Karl Jacob, CEO of LoanSnap. “You can lock in a rate that you just wouldn’t even have been able to imagine six, seven months ago.”

One caveat: Not all borrowers will qualify for the lowest interest rate, Jacob says. A borrower’s debt-to-income ratio and credit score typically affect the type of loan and interest rates, so someone with large amounts of debt or a low credit score may be offered a higher rate.

And although the market is booming now, it may not remain that way for long depending on what unfolds.

“If [COVID-19] cases worsen and that leads to a broad reversal of reopenings, this could cause longer-term job loss that would put a dent in buyer demand,” says Hale.

4. Homes can’t be viewed in person

As states issued stay-at-home and social distancing mandates to stop the spread of COVID-19, many in-person home showings and open houses were put on hold temporarily in favor of virtual home tours. But by now, most of these restrictions are being lifted across the country so homes can be viewed in person—and real estate agents are taking extra precautions to protect buyers and sellers.

Peggy Zabakolas, a licensed real estate broker with Nest Seekers International, who specializes in Manhattan and Hamptons markets, says she’s been showing homes virtually. If a buyer is interested, she schedules an in-person showing that follows social distancing guidelines, and requires everyone involved to fill out a COVID-19 disclosure form and limitation of liability form. And, she’s sure to have gloves, masks, shoe coverings, and hand sanitizer on hand.

Hale says she’s also heard some real estate agents are requiring potential buyers to have pre-approval letters or review a home inspection report before they can see a home in person.

“These extra steps also weed out the nonserious buyers,” Zabakolas says. “If someone is willing to go through all those steps and then schedule a physical tour, you know they are serious.”

Important to note: With infection rates in some parts of the country rising, some restrictions on home showings may take hold again. Check with your local real estate professionals for current guidelines.

5. Everyone’s fleeing cities for the suburbs

This is probably the most rampant myth of all, and it certainly makes sense from a pure impulse level. Since urban centers like New York City make social distancing far more challenging than in less densely populated areas, why wouldn’t city dwellers flee en masse and try to buy a house in the burbs?

Well, this is only partly true. Yes, listings in the suburbs are drawing more attention these days. In May, the number of views on properties with suburban ZIP codes increased 13%, almost double those in urban areas, according to data.

“We have seen home-buying demand recover faster in the suburbs and rural areas than urban areas,” Hale says. “There’s also evidence of home shoppers in cities that were hit early and hard by COVID-19, such as New York and Philadelphia, seeking homes in nearby smaller communities at a higher pace, like the Poconos.”

That doesn’t mean everyone is fleeing to the suburbs, though.

For one, unless you’re extremely wealthy, it’s not that easy to pick up and move. This is particularly true since, while a few companies have announced that their employees can work from home indefinitely, most firms haven’t decided yet whether their employees will one day have to return to the office.

As a result, many of those people surfing suburban real estate listings might not be all that serious about following through. They might fantasize about moving, but when it comes to making an offer on a house and packing up their belongings, many may prefer to stay put and see how the coronavirus pandemic shakes out first.

“This pandemic, although bad, will eventually pass,” points out Jacob. “And when it does, are people really going to stop wanting to be in a city? I just don’t think that’s the case. Even though you can get delivery from Grubhub every night, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to want to go out to a restaurant, and if you have to drive 30 minutes to a restaurant versus being able to walk around the corner, that’s a different lifestyle.”

The post 5 Coronavirus Real Estate Myths Everyone Thinks Are True—Debunked appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights |®.

Eco-Friendly Houses Are Expensive, and 4 Other Green Home Myths You Should Stop Believing

July 30, 2020

green home myths

PRImageFactory/Getty Images

Have you ever dreamed of buying a bit of land and building your very own green home on it? Maybe you’re already invested in a property, and are just looking for a way to make it a little more Earth-friendly.

Going green, and doing it well, might be a whole lot easier than you think—which is why we’re here to debunk the biggest, baddest myths about green homes. Here are the top five misconceptions about green homes that you should stop believing immediately.

1. Only new houses can be green

While you can go all out building the most eco-friendly Earthship your neighborhood has ever seen, you could also just make a few subtle changes to your existing property.

“Helping the environment doesn’t have to mean building an entirely new, expensive green home,” says Craig Ricks Jr., president of Acadian Windows and Siding.

“It’s possible to renovate an existing home to become greener, such as by altering the wiring and plumbing.”

You can also go green in your existing home by installing low-emissivity (“low E”) windows, reinsulating the house, or even just purchasing more energy-efficient appliances (like those made by Energy Star), Ricks says.

2. Green homes are too expensive

We’d bet our next stimulus check you’ve heard this one before.

“One of the biggest myths and misconceptions about green building and eco-friendly construction is that it’s too expensive to be truly scalable,” says RJ D’Angelo, owner of JWE Remodeling & Roofing. “This is untrue.”

In fact, if you want to save on your home energy costs, you can start right away, with small steps that reduce your carbon footprint, D’Angelo says, rather than building a brand-new home with the latest cutting-edge advancements in green building technology.

Among those incremental steps: Upgrade your roofing system to something with recycled metal that reflects the sun’s heat, D’Angelo suggests.

“This, coupled with a properly insulated attic and thoroughly ventilated roof structure, can reduce a home’s heating and cooling expenditure by as much as 34%,” he says.

3. Sustainable homes are ugly

There’s no rule that says sustainable homes have to look a certain way—and they definitely don’t have to be ugly.

“There are so many delightful, well-planned, and well-considered sustainable homes—from adorable and modern tiny houses to net-zero luxury homes,” says Matt Daigle, CEO and founder of Rise, a leading online authority in sustainable home improvement.

4. Going green means going off the grid

When people think about going green, they have a tendency to imagine the extremes—as in, wearing handmade clothing and living in a recycled shack with a bunch of goats. In reality? It’s a lot less intense than that.

“A sustainable home can be accomplished without going off grid,” explains Daigle.

He cites solar panels and recycled-water systems as two ways that modern homeowners can get in on the sustainable-living lifestyle—minus the farm animals.

“Sustainable homes aren’t off-grid houses that rely solely on their own power and resources,” he says. “These homeowners just enjoy lower energy and water bills as a result of their sustainable practices.”

5. It’s hard to make your home eco-friendly

As you’re probably starting to realize, going green doesn’t have to be complicated. And while more and more companies are coming out with sustainable building products and designs, there’s an even easier way to make your place green—and it starts in the garden.

“There are so many simple actions any homeowner can take to make their home more environmentally friendly,” says Cassy Aoyagi, board member of the leading L.A. chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Try replacing annual foliage with native perennials, watering less, eliminating pesticides and fertilizers, or even just reducing the size of your lawn, which tends to require extra chemicals and water consumption.

Looking for more tips on going green? We’ve got the ultimate guide to owning a more eco-friendly home.

The post Eco-Friendly Houses Are Expensive, and 4 Other Green Home Myths You Should Stop Believing appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights |®.

5 Weird Reality Checks You’ll Get If You Buy a Country Home

July 15, 2020

country house

Akabei / Getty Images

City living may have its perks, but combine the congestion and crowds with the threat of the novel coronavirus, and it’s no wonder that many city dwellers these days are fleeing to greener pastures (or thinking about it).

But what is it really like to transition from the hustle and bustle of a city to the more relaxed pace of rural life? As a New Yorker who bought a summer cottage with my husband in upstate New York six years ago, I’ve come to realize that country life isn’t always so serene. In fact, certain things have happened out yonder that make me very glad that we’ve kept New York City as our main residence.

Curious about what curveballs might await if you buy a country home? Here are a few of my more surprising discoveries.

Country life: Is it right for you?

William Geddes

1. The country’s serene silence is often punctuated by gunfire

People in the country love their guns. I’m fully behind the Second Amendment, but we didn’t realize how much shooting takes place in small towns, especially at local gun and hunt clubs, of which there are many in our upstate county.

In fact, there’s one right across the road from our house, and the members shoot skeet early every Sunday morning—without fail. It’s loud and probably should’ve been a deal breaker for us when we considered the house, but we bought it anyway.  Now we take a long walk with the dog when the popping begins.

2. Cute woodland critters will eat everything you plant

I listened to the nursery specialists and planted the flowers that deer weren’t supposed to eat, but they still come by regularly to nibble. Apparently, in a bad winter, if these animals are hungry enough they’ll forgo their usual diet and consume just about anything.

So I nixed the flowers and went with wild grasses and herbs—and the bunnies thanked me by enjoying a nice salad every chance they could. As a last resort, I’m now letting the garden slowly grow over to grass and adding mulch to tamp down any errant weeds. My dream of colorful flower beds has turned into a patchy lawn with brown bits for accent.

Dozens of flats later,and still the garden is spotty

William Geddes

3. Cute woodland critters probably live inside your house

Rodents are expected in a 200-plus-year-old house, so we set traps every weekend during the colder months. (My husband is charged with mouse eradication.) But I never expected the mice would nest—and birth babies—between our bed sheets. After finding a furry family tucked inside my comfy queen bed, going to sleep has become a bit of a nail-biter, since I’m always wondering what I might find there next.

4. Dogs can’t run free

Our rescue pup pretends to guard the front lawn.

William Geddes

One great joy in owning a country house (we thought) would be the ability to open the door and let Django, our sweet dog, race around. But when she did venture forth, everything went south.

While chasing a possum, Django apparently charged (and frightened) the neighbor across the way and her two lap dogs. Said neighbor let me know that this was not OK on her property. Clearly getting to know our neighbors was getting off to a great start!

Next, Django proceeded to chase a mouse into the downspout of another neighbor’s house and then punctured the metal with her jaws to get the creature out. Needless to say, I was on the hook for a new downspout that had to be custom-fit and painted to match my (now irate) neighbor’s house.

5. Country dogs are huge and scary

Meanwhile, my neighbor on the other side of me has an enormous black shepherd that, I kid you not, looks a whole lot like a black bear. Even worse, this dog doesn’t have tags that jingle when it approaches, so every time it appears on our lawn, I’m convinced it’s a bear and start to panic.

Every. Time.

I’m thinking of giving this neighbor a set of cute tags for the dog’s collar with the hope that it’ll be worn and my blood pressure will finally recover. Until then, I keep practicing deep breaths as I sink back into the deck chair on the porch of my country house and try—and fail—to relax.

All I’m saying is if you think owning a country house ushers you into a life of peace and quiet, don’t be so sure.

It wasn’t me—I didn’t do it!

William Geddes

The post 5 Weird Reality Checks You’ll Get If You Buy a Country Home appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights |®.

‘I Worked Five Jobs To Afford My First Home’: Was It Worth It?

July 7, 2020

afford a home

Poike / Getty Images

I never thought I would buy a house at 25. Like most 20-somethings, I was pushing through school, working odd jobs, and just trying to get by.

Then, after a death in the family, I came into a little money. It wasn’t a fortune or a happy occasion, but it was an opportunity to do something good with this cash. I realized it might cover a down payment on a small condo. The idea of becoming a homeowner was exciting, so I started shopping for real estate in the suburbs of L.A. where I was renting an apartment.

In spring 2016, I found a small, one-bedroom condo that I loved. My inheritance would easily cover the down payment, and the mortgage payments would be only a little more than the rent I was paying. I made an offer, and it was accepted.

afford a home
I bought my first condo at 25.

Jillian Pretzel

At the time, I had a full-time sales job at a natural food company, plus a side hustle working as a host at Disneyland. With steady income and the down payment taken care of, I knew I could easily swing the monthly costs of owning a home.

But being a homeowner proved to be much harder than I imagined. After a few miscalculated costs, I found myself running out of money. I had to take on another side job. And another, and then another.

Ultimately, I had to work five jobs simultaneously to afford my home. Here are the hard lessons I learned that I hope will help you avoid the same fate.

afford a home
My side hustle was being a host at Disneyland.

Jillian Pretzel

It’s not just about the mortgage

I’d heard plenty of horror stories of friends who, after buying a house and moving in, realized they didn’t have enough money to buy anything else, from furniture to cable service.

So when calculating whether I could handle homeownership, I was careful to look beyond my mortgage. I also factored in HOA fees, property taxes, maintenance, moving costs, utilities, and even new furniture.

But I’d underestimated one massive money drain: home maintenance and repairs.

afford a home
Me working my sales job at a natural food convention after a long day of walking around

Jillian Pretzel

While it’s simple to factor in a set HOA fee or estimate a monthly electric bill, maintenance costs are hard to plan for. You could find yourself spending money on nothing but paint and Drano one year, then the next find yourself needing to replace a dead refrigerator and reshingle the roof.

A year after moving in, I learned my water heater had started leaking while I was away for the weekend. By the time I’d returned home and saw the mess, I learned that I’d need to test for mold, install a new floor, repair the walls, and replace my water heater.

The total cost: over $10,000.

My home insurance would not cover this, arguing that the water heater leak had been ongoing and that I’d been negligent. I’d have to pay for this out of pocket.

This immediately threw a giant wrench in my budget. Clearly, I was in over my head.

One or two jobs may not be enough

I already had a full-time job and a side hustle. But I knew I couldn’t yet negotiate a pay raise at my sales job and I wasn’t going to get more hours at the theme park. So, I started looking for a third job.

I applied at local shops and restaurants. I felt a bit silly, as a homeowner in my mid-20s applying for the same jobs I had in high school. But I had bills to pay, and I took the first job I was offered: working nights at a movie theater.

afford a home
Job No. 3 was at this movie theater.

Jillian Pretzel

About the same time, I got a fourth job, tutoring a college student once a week. Job No. 5 came when I was asked to write for a small dating and relationship website.

I was tired from working all the time, but I was able to starting paying off the bills that were rolling in.

Don’t be afraid to borrow money

I knew I couldn’t handle working 80-hour weeks forever. After a few months, I was exhausted.

afford a home
My bedroom—a room I didn’t see much while working five jobs

Jillian Pretzel

I was managing to stay afloat, but I worried about getting sick and falling behind. To keep my sanity, I needed to borrow money and give myself a buffer.

It took me a while to reach this decision—after all, it seemed irresponsible for someone who already had a hefty mortgage to borrow some more. But borrowing was better than skipping mortgage payments—and potentially losing my condo.

In the end, I was fortunate to be able to borrow money from my mom, but bank loans can be just as helpful for those without the option of borrowing from family.

After a long spring and summer of working in the movie theater, I was able to quit and focus more on my sales job. Soon after, my tutoring client was back on track with school and didn’t need my help anymore.

By fall, I was still doing my writing gig and working at the theme park, in addition to my sales job. They were still a lot to juggle, but I felt that I could handle the workload. I was paying my bills, and saving a good amount.

By the time I got back on track, I’d learned a valuable lesson: The costs of being a homeowner can’t always be calculated, and surprises are bound to pop up.

But was it worth it? Absolutely.

afford a home
Me in my home office, working as a freelance writer

Jillian Pretzel

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Take Me Outside! 11 Exterior Things You Shouldn’t Miss During a Home Video Tour

June 11, 2020

Outdoor video tour

SDI Productions/Getty Images

In the age of coronavirus, video tours are quickly becoming the go-to alternative to in-person tours. But for prospective buyers, there’s more to the process than asking your smartphone-wielding agent to show you the chef’s kitchen and that walk-in closet one more time. In fact, there’s also a whole other world outside waiting for you to explore—virtually.

Sure, you probably are already fond of the home’s curb appeal. (It’s what attracted you in the first place, right?) But since you can’t be there in person, your agent should show you the exterior—and the yard—from all angles.

According to the experts, these are outdoor places your agent shouldn’t overlook when giving you a virtual home tour.

1. All four corners of the lot

Google Street View can provide photos of the neighborhood. But here’s the thing: Those images might not be current and won’t show changes to the property or features like a new fence.

“It’s a good idea to stand in the corners of the property and pan around, showing all angles—not only to see the lot lines but to provide a better sense of how far the house is from each perspective,” says Jared Wilk, broker with the Shulkin Wilk Group at Compass, in Boston.

2. The neighbors’ houses

Having friendly and helpful neighbors is a wonderful thing—but not if they’re too close for comfort.

“Imagine if you’re entertaining—how close would the neighbors be if they were eating outside at the same time?” asks Dustin Fox, real estate agent at Pearson Smith Realty in Ashburn, VA.

Have your agent show you—and maybe even measure—how close the neighbors are from the house you’re considering.

3. Outdoor components

This can mean a wide variety of outdoor amenities, tools, and other aspects that you see outside—all of which are important to making a smart offer on a home, says Traci Shulkin, a Realtor® with the Shulkin Wilk Group at Compass.

“I show them the sprinklers working, gates, fences, and mechanicals up close,” she says. “And any exterior features that might impact a buyer’s decision to buy—like a nearby cell tower or recycling center or even areas of the property that are showing wear and tear.”

4. Outbuildings

Backyard shed
Garden shed

chuckcollier/Getty Images

Don’t forget to have your agent show you features like the shed, garage, or pool house.

“It is important to walk around the entire structures, because a seller will often clean up just the front or have accumulations of [stuff] simply thrown behind their shed,” says Wilk. “If we don’t take note of this, then the seller may ‘forget about it’ and leave this to be your problem as the new homeowner.”

And don’t forget to scour the hidden areas of the building for any animals that are living or nesting. (Or ask your agent to do so.)

5. The landscaping

Gorgeous landscaping is beautiful, but you might need more than a green thumb to keep it that way.

“If there are a lot of existing trees and flower beds, this will require mulching, weeding, and regular maintenance,” Fox says. “Most buyers don’t factor in the added costs of paying a landscaper to mow and mulch.”

Take note of how close the trees are to the house and if they’re healthy. Large tree roots can permeate pipes, and dying trees can topple over in a storm.

6. Walkways and driveways

Long driveway
Think carefully about a long driveway.

KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images

Just how long is that lovely tree-lined driveway? What’s the condition? And how steep is it? If you live in an area that gets snow, you may think twice about driving up and down in the winter and paying for snow removal.

7. The land

It’ll be a letdown if you’re looking forward to playing croquet in the backyard only to find it drops off to a steep rock bed. That’s why experts suggest buyers make sure to see how the house is set on the lot, especially if it’s below grade.

Does the backyard slope? Is there standing water that could point to drainage issues?

8. The deck

Zoom in on the deck.

chuckcollier/Getty Images

Subtle details of wear and tear are difficult to see on a video, so be sure to have your agent zoom in to inspect for damage and structural integrity.

“Have them shake and grab the railing to see if they’re loose,” Fox suggests. “Is there wood rot? Are the deck boards in need of replacing, or power washing and staining?”

9. All sides of the house

A fresh coat of paint and a new door are just a few curb appeal tricks to attract buyers, but what lies beyond the charming facade?

“The main things we are looking for are exterior deficiencies, such as large cracks in the foundation, rotted trim around the house, an older AC condenser, or an aging roof,” Wilk says. “A buyer wants to know what type of expenses they are going to incur as potential homeowners.”

10. Playground equipment

Backyard swingset
Backyard swingset

stu99/Getty Images

If you have kids, playground equipment in the backyard is a bonus if it comes with the house. If, that is, the stuff is in good shape.

“The broker should really take detailed videos and pictures,” Shulkin says. “Homeowners tend to not take great care of these outdoor structures, and they show a lot of wear and tear from rain, snow, and sun.”

11. The sounds

If possible, you can still request some quiet time during the video tour to listen for noises that might be a deal breaker. Listen for planes overhead, barking dogs, and especially traffic noise.

“This may not be a big deal for you moving into the home,” Fox says. “But it could take thousands off the value when you go to resell it.”

Download our new app to get the noise data at the house you’re interested in buying.

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If COVID-19 Closed Your Pool or Gym, Can You Skip Paying HOA Fees?

June 1, 2020

hoa fees

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Buying a home in a community with a homeowners association comes with many perks—such as a maintenance crew to take care of the lawn, gym, swimming pool, or other shared areas enjoyed by HOA members.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many HOA-run facilities to close. In a recent survey by the Community Associations Institute, or CAI, 79% of HOA communities said they had closed common areas and amenities.

Which begs the question: Do you still need to pay HOA fees?

HOA fees to maintain these facilities, after all, typically run between $200 and $300 a month, but can be as much as $1,000. So if they’re closed, it stands to reason you don’t have to pay for them, right?

As much sense as that might make, the answer is typically no.

“There are very few associations, if any, that are waiving fees” because of the pandemic, says Dawn Bauman, senior vice president of government and public affairs at CAI.

Granted, some HOAs have waived late fees or are working with homeowners unable to pay during this pandemic, she explains. But no, they’re not granting full-fee reprieves—and could even raise fees during this time. Here’s why, and what to do if you can’t pay your HOA fees. (And since much of the same is true for many condo associations, condo owners should take note, too.)

Why you still have to pay HOA fees during COVID-19

More than 25% of the U.S. population lives within an HOA, according to CAI. Living in these communities comes with rules, referred to as covenants, conditions, and restrictions, or CC&Rs.

“When an owner purchases a home in an association, the deed of that home is restricted,” Bauman says. “It’s restricted because they are part of the homeowners association, so there are restrictions that come with ownership of that home. So, they sign saying, ‘I will pay my assessment and I’m obligated to conform with the rules in the community.’”

In short, homeowners likely have no legal recourse for not paying their fees—even when amenities are closed. However, this doesn’t mean that HOAs are just raking in your money and getting rich off the profits.

How HOA budgets work

Community associations aren’t set up to rake in cash; the fees collected pay the association’s bills, says Jim Slaughter, real estate broker and partner in the law firm Black, Slaughter & Black in North Carolina.

“Monies collected by an HOA or condo typically aren’t retained, but are forwarded to others, such as the power company, plumber, and insurance carrier,” he says.

Bauman says HOAs operate on a “zero-based budget.” HOA fees may also be put in reserves for current or future maintenance or capital improvements for the community. Lowering these fees, however, is typically not possible. This is because most HOA expenses are fixed, and will continue through the pandemic.

“For instance, association pools must be treated even if closed, and some associations have increased costs due to increased cleaning of common areas such as lobbies and elevators,” Slaughter says.

Plus, associations are usually under contract with vendors for repairs and maintenance. As such, expenses can’t be temporarily canceled or reduced unless the vendor allows it, which is unlikely.

Another possible expense HOAs may need to compensate for are any homeowners within the community who may not be able to pay dues right now, due to layoffs or otherwise.

“With the extended health and economic crisis, many HOA and condo association boards are concerned about association finances and how to possibly assist owners financially,” Slaughter says.

In fact, the CAI’s survey found that 50% of HOAs are expecting fee delinquencies to grow in 2020.

Why HOA fees might rise due to COVID-19

In some cases, if certain homeowners can’t pay their HOA fees for an extended period of time, the HOA could raise the rates for those who can pay, Bauman says, “because there’s nowhere else for this money to come from.”

Furthermore, the pandemic is prompting many HOA communities to buy more supplies, such as masks and hand sanitizer, and conduct extra cleanings of common areas. As such, they might even raise fees to cover these expenses as well.

Another potential fee hike down the road may involve their reopening amenities that were closed, only with added safety measures that cost more money to maintain.

“Most associations are trying their best to determine how to open these amenities in a way that is manageable for the residents in their communities,” says Bauman. “And that will then lead to potentially additional expenses on the community.”

What to do if you can’t pay your HOA fees

If you can’t pay your HOA dues, don’t panic—Bauman says many communities will work with you through payment plans or delayed payments.

More than 90% of homeowners were still paying their HOA fees at the beginning of May, according to CAI’s survey. However, about 20% of communities have said they’ve seen more homeowners ask for payment plans or other kinds of reprieve, and many communities are waiving late fees.

Homeowners struggling to pay their HOA fees should reach out to the community’s board of directors or management to discuss their situation and find out what their options are, Bauman suggests.

Many associations have dealt with this situation before, during the Great Recession of 2008, she says, and likely have policies for payment plans and other ways to help residents.

High rates of delinquency could have long-term effects on the community as a whole, however. Lenders, including Freddie Mac, Fannie May, and Federal Housing Administration, will not back mortgages in communities with a delinquency rate of 10% or higher, Bauman explains. This could influence home buyers’ decisions to purchase in the area.

“Most HOAs are not pursuing aggressive collection tactics,” Bauman says. Instead, “they are trying their best to make it more manageable for the residents who are unable to pay while balancing the interests and the financial need of those residents that are paying.”

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The Nose Knows: 4 Things You Can’t Smell in a Virtual Tour That Could Cost You Later

May 21, 2020

Bad home odors

Enes Evren/Getty Images

Odors—pleasant or unpleasant—are strongly tied to our emotions and can leave a lasting impression when it comes to buying a house. Especially bad ones. Because some odious smells can be indicative of larger (and costlier!) problems.

“When we come across even moderately strong odors, the showing is basically over,” says John Gluch, a Realtor® and founder of the Gluch Group in Scottsdale, AZ. “Reasoning with someone that the odors can be remediated is rarely fruitful. People just move on in search of a better-smelling home.”

But what’s a potential buyer to do when you can’t actually be there to smell all the smells? As the COVID-19 pandemic increasingly turns open houses and home tours into virtual events, it’s more important than ever to ask your real estate agent to be your (very sensitive) nose.

These are the odors your agent should sniff out for you to save you money—and big-time disappointment when you move in.

1. Pet odors

“While doing in-person tours, the most common odor complaint we get is pet odors—by a wide margin,” Gluch says. Lingering odors from pet “accidents”—especially dry cat pee (because ammonium salts form in residue)—are particularly pungent. And nasty!

Unfortunately, a typical bottle of carpet cleaner isn’t likely to remove the odor. You’ll have to call in the pros.

Jack White, vice president of technical services at Rainbow International Restoration, says urine removal costs depend on several factors, including the type of flooring, the degree of saturation, and the materials used in installing the floor. Even so, new carpet and flooring might be the only route for a fresh start and peace of mind.

2. Cigarette odors

Coming in a close second is cigarette odor, Gluch says. Tobacco odors seep into porous surfaces like carpeting, drapes, rugs, walls, and especially ceilings.

“Ceilings can be the biggest culprit in a persisting smoke smell in a home, as cigarette smoke tends to travel upward and latch onto the first surface it comes in contact with,” White explains.

Professional cleaning is prudent, White says, since carpets have different fibers that can be damaged with a DIY approach. And tobacco-stained walls (including wallpaper and paneling) not properly cleaned and treated with a nicotine stain–blocking primer will come back to haunt you and bleed rusty stains through any newly painted walls.

A smoker’s house doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, but there will be added costs and elbow grease to remove the odors.

3. Mold, mildew, and musty odors

These three odors not only smell bad, they also leave a seriously negative impression, regardless of how attractive the house is. The odors suggest uncleanliness and a damp, cold feeling—plus the scary possibility of mold growing beneath the surface.

“When we have mold, there is always a moisture concern somewhere. This needs to be addressed first, so the challenge does not reappear in the future,” White says.

An indoor environmental professional should be called in to capture air and surface samples to see what types of molds are present and determine the type of mold remediation necessary. At the very least, call a pro to check for leaks and professional cleaning of porous services, and then run a dehumidifier.

4. Rotten eggs or a sulfur smell

First things first. If your agent is overwhelmed by a rotten egg smell, he/she should hightail it out of the house for safety, since the odor might be a sign of a gas leak.

However, if your agent smells a milder version of rotten eggs or sulfur, it could point to plumbing issues. If the house has been vacant for a while, the drainpipe water trap might be dried up, leaving the pipe without a water barrier to stop offensive odors from farther down the pipe wafting up.

The real budget buster? If your agent notices the stench coming from multiple drains.

“This could be a problem with the plumbing equipment or with the local sewer authority,” says Mark Dawson, COO at Benjamin Franklin Plumbing.

If the problem lies with the sewer, a sewer inspection—possibly digging in the yard or basement—might be needed to resolve the issue.

Ask about visual evidence of possible odors

You put a lot of trust in your agent during your home-buying journey, but even more so when it comes to video tours. Expect full transparency, but also keep your eyes open for visual indicators of lingering odors.

While your agent is showing you video of the house, don’t hesitate to ask about odors—say, if you see a litter box in the laundry room, a dog bed in the living room, or an ashtray on the coffee table. When your agent shows you the basement, ask if there is an overwhelming musty odor.

You can handle the truth!

“I encourage clients to ask their agents to give them the pure, unvarnished truth when doing a video tour,” Gluch advises. “That way, everyone can avoid wasting lots of time and energy on a house that the client will end up hating when they finally visit in person.”

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Should Days on Market Matter as Much During the COVID-19 Pandemic? It’s Complicated

May 14, 2020

days on market

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Even in the age of the novel coronavirus, the process of browsing online listings hasn’t completely changed. Sure, there’s much more of an emphasis on new features like virtual tours, but a listing page is still likely to show all the specs you’re used to seeing—things like price per square foot, year built, and, of course, days on market.

For buyers, a property’s days on market, or DOM, is an important figure. Before the pandemic, a house on the market for more than 30 days was considered stale. But in these historic, uncharted waters we’re currently navigating, does DOM carry the same significance it once did?

“Historically, days on market has been one of several indicators of the value of a property,” says Dave Wetzel, MLSListings president and chief executive officer. “But COVID-19 is a particularly unusual circumstance, and such a drastic and sudden change in the housing market makes it much harder to determine the level of importance of DOM.”

Technically, we’re in prime buying and selling season, but currently, social distancing and masks are the new norm, open houses are rare, and buyers are hesitant to buy. Therefore, the rules on how much weight DOM carries have changed a bit. Here’s what real estate experts have to say about the current conditions.

Days on market 101

First, let’s go over the basics. DOM is the number of days a property is listed for sale on the multiple listing service until the date when the seller has sold the property.

The DOM can vary dramatically with market conditions and by price point. (For example, some luxury properties can sit on the market for longer because the pool of viable buyers is smaller.) But, in general, a high DOM has been thought to indicate that buyers are reacting poorly to the house.

Comps have always played a big role in gauging how much weight to give a home’s DOM.

“Usually, an important indicator is how a property’s days on market ranks against the average in that neighborhood,” says Wetzel.

Should days on market matter during COVID-19?

Under normal circumstances, buyers will use DOM as a tool to determine if a house has been given an appropriate asking price.

“If a listing is priced well, offers will come in, and hopefully a deal can be struck,” says Steve Gottlieb, real estate agent for Warburg Realty in New York City. If it’s overpriced, the property will sit, and the DOM count will tick up.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to seriously reconsider buying, selling, and moving. Because of that, DOM may no longer signify as much as it did a few short months ago.

“It becomes tricky during COVID-19 to try to identify a number [of days on market] as good or bad, because the global health crisis requires everything to have an extra layer of examination,” says Wetzel.

Because the pandemic has radically changed the speed and ability of many properties to sell, Gottlieb says a climbing number of DOM can be “misleading and, therefore, not useful.”

Wetzel says in these unprecedented times the usual rules don’t apply, and there isn’t a DOM playbook for what it should be during a pandemic where houses can’t be shown.

Of course, DOM has never been the sole indicator of a property’s value. In a strong market, 45 DOM might be high, but in a slow market, 45 days might be low. Therefore, in these extraordinary times, it’s wise to rely on other key indicators like the property’s location, curb appeal, neighborhood comps, home improvement potential, and local market conditions.

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