Archive for June, 2008

You probably won’t sell your home for an above-market price, but even if you do, the home still has to appraise for that price

This is my column for this week from the Arizona Republic (permanent link).

You probably won’t sell your home for an above-market price, but even if you do, the home still has to appraise for that price

So your house is finally under contract. Congratulations. It took longer than you thought it would to sell, and you had to go through three price reductions before you got regular showings. But now you’re under contract and in escrow. You’ve made it through the inspections and you’ve taken care of all of the repairs. Nothing but smooth sailing from here, right?

Not quite.

Here comes some bad news you hadn’t anticipated: Your house didn’t appraise.

A lender will only lend on the appraised value or the purchase price — whichever is lower. If the appraisal comes in lower than the purchase price, something has to give.

If there’s an appraisal contingency in the contract — and there almost always is — the buyers can cancel the contract unilaterally.

More likely, they’re going to want you to lower your price instead.

If you don’t, you’re almost certainly killing that contract. The lender will not underwrite the loan, so the buyers will be forced to cancel using the financing contingency.

You could end up waiting quite a while longer for another buyer. And that buyer could offer you quite a bit less for your home. And even then, your house will still have to appraise for the purchase price. If home values continue to decline, you could live through this same nightmare a second time.

So does that mean you should cave on the appraisal no matter what? Not necessarily — depending on your objectives. If you need to move now, take your punishment and move on. But if you can afford to wait long enough for the market to recover, that might be the better option.

Appraisers and loan underwriters are skittish right now. Lenders are taking back homes and selling them for fifty cents on the dollar. Appraisers are being fastidious to make sure they are not overestimating values.

And all of this is just another reason to price your home to the market. You probably won’t find a buyer willing to pay an above-market price. But even if you do, the home still has to appraise for that price.

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Investors are coming back to the Phoenix rental home market — and with the right business plan they’ll make money

This is from my Arizona Republic column (permanent link):

Rental home investors are coming back into the Phoenix real estate market, and this is a good thing.

The last time we had a substantial run on rental housing, results were not so sweet. Investors came to Phoenix with the idea that price appreciation would make up for any monthly losses they might take on their rental homes. It’s plausible they were right — in the long run. In the short run, negative cash flow and declining values, coupled with adjustable-rate or negative-amortization loans, drove many of these homes into foreclosure.

And this accounts for much of the inventory the new wave of investors is drawing upon. The difference is, the prices for these homes have declined enough that they can be — at least potentially — cash-flow positive.

Why only potentially cash-flow positive?

Because too many investors adopt the worst of the cartoonish characterizations of capitalism when they resolve to become landlords. They pick the cheapest properties in the worst locations and rent to the least-qualified tenants, living through one eviction and repair nightmare after another.

Here’s a strategy for making more money from a rental home — much more peacefully.

There are dozens of costs associated with rental housing, and your business plan should take account of all of them. But your biggest potential losses are always going to be vacancy, tenant acquisition, repairs and resale value.

It makes much more sense to me to buy a property that can command premium rents and will sell at a premium price when you’re ready to move on. Location matters, as do the livability and lifestyle factors of the specific home. You want to pick a home that will stay rented.

I think it’s a good idea to charge something less than the market rent. This will give you a broader array of tenants to choose from, which will enable you to select tenants with good credit who will treat your property like their own.

With the right house and the right tenants, you should have very little vacancy, no evictions and no costly repairs between tenants.

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Price matters — but so does everything else: When buyers come to see your home, they’re looking for reasons to reject it, not to buy it

This is my column for this week from the Arizona Republic (permanent link).

Price matters — but so does everything else: When buyers come to see your home, they’re looking for reasons to reject it, not to buy it

If price matters more than anything else in the sale of a home, why bother to clean, repair, stage and market the property for sale?

In a buyer’s market, if a home is priced above its market value, it probably will not show. If it doesn’t show, it can’t sell, and this by itself is all the argument anyone should need to price a home to the current market.

The corollary proposition is that, if your home is properly priced, it should get frequent showings.

So the battle is won, right? All you had to do was price your home to the current market, and you attracted the attention of buyers. Victory is at hand.

Not quite.

Your home is showing, and that’s good. But if it is dirty, if there are obvious repair issues, if the space is cluttered and confusing, if no one has worked to point out why it’s such a good buy — other houses will sell and yours will languish on the market.

As long as you’re priced right — and price can be a moving target in this market — you’ll get showings. But if your home is not a better value than the other houses your buyers are seeing, they’ll buy those homes instead.

That’s exactly what you would do in their place, isn’t it? When you’re picking through the melons at the grocery, you aren’t looking for the ones that are bruised and shopped over, unsightly and unappetizing. Why would you expect buyers to buy a property that you would pass on in a heartbeat, if you were in their shoes?

When buyers come to see your home, they aren’t looking for reasons to buy it. They’re looking for reasons to reject it, so they can move on to the next home. The one they buy will be the one that raises the fewest objections, for the money. If you want that money, you have to do everything you can to take away your buyers’ objections — before they think to raise them.

Not willing to do that? It’s not a problem. Just cut your price.

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Home staging advice: How you can get your house ready to sell on a shoestring budget

We know a seller who doesn’t have the budget to spruce up her house to get it ready for market. Though it would be better for her to put a fresh coat of paint on the walls, there are still things she can do for free to help her house sell.

The first thing that every seller should do to help their lister sell the house is box things up. You’re going to have to box up everything once the house sells anyway, so start right now… before you put your house on the market. Go through your closets. What’s in there that you don’t plan to wear for the next three to six months? Pack it up and put it in storage. Take a critical look at the traffic flow in your house. Have you just become accustomed to swerving to avoid that overstuffed chair that sticks out a little too far? Time to downsize. If you can’t afford to rent an inexpensive storage unit until the house sells, store that chair and those boxes of clothes that you plan to fit back into by the holidays in the garage. If you’ve run out of room there, ask your friends and family to help. Maybe one of them would love to lay back in that chair to watch the tube until you need it back again — in your new house. Do you keep the leaf in your dining room table, so you don’t have to bother with it when you have company for dinner? Plan to not have company for dinner until you invite them over to see your new house. Take the leaf out of the table and pare down the number of chairs that are set up around the table to only three or four. If the kids bring home a friend for dinner, give them the TV trays.

Next — and probably most important — clean, clean, clean. Clean as though you were having Martha Stewart over for dinner. Is your bathroom floor so clean that you would sit down and play a game of jacks on it? It should be. Touch the walls of your shower. Are they smooth as glass? If not, here’s an investment you must make: Kaboom! Thirteen dollars for two bottles and add your elbow grease — this is a small enough investment to sell your home in this market. Everything that’s made of glass should shine: windows, mirrors, light fixtures, oven door windows (oh yes, clean that oven, too!), everything that’s glass. All your appliances need to shine. All of your countertops need to shine. You want a light, bright, shiny house. Dust the slats in your window blinds; dust the tops of your ceiling fans; dust every surface that you haven’t already just scrubbed. Make sure your air filter is fresh … and put a new one in every month till the house sells. You haven’t noticed it for years, but the prospective buyers will see the dark build-up that’s accumulated along the edges of the air vents and returns, so clean those, too. Scrub everything that hands have touched and over the years left their mark — light switches, door knobs, drawer pulls. Don’t neglect your floors. Clean them like Christmas is coming. And after you’re done with all this you’ll be able to notice the other areas that need your attention before the photographer comes.

Remember high school? Remember when the photographer scheduled a day to come take pictures of all the underclassmen? The seniors had each already payed a handsome sum for private studio sessions to make sure that would great senior pictures for posterity. But the underclassmen had one chance and a prayer of getting a decent photograph in that year’s yearbook. If you were like me, you paid extra attention to your skin during the weeks leading up to the shots, to make sure your complexion was clear. The night before the photography, you picked out your nicest looking outfit. And the morning of the pictures, if you were a girl anyway, you got up early to make sure your makeup and hair were perfect. Well now — with your house — we’re talking about a six-figure asset. So the morning that the photographer is scheduled to arrive do whatever you can to make your house picture perfect.

Put away the Sunday paper.

Wipe the dishes and put them away — don’t leave them out draining. Clear the reminders from your refrigerator. And — for goodness sakes — don’t leave your prescription bottle sitting out on the counter.

Take your dirty clothes off the bed and make it! This includes putting a cover on the bed that’s at least long enough that the bed skirt’s slip isn’t showing. (Do I need to mention picking the garbage and more dirty clothes up off the floor?)

And please put the toilet seat down!

But there’s more you can do. Set the table as though you were expecting guests. Make up the bed so it looks like a display in the Neiman Marcus Bed & Bath Department. Put out a vase or two of cut flowers. Fill a glass bowl with fresh fruit.

I recently staged a home for sale, which had previously been listed but not staged. Pictures from the earlier listings were well taken… but just look at what a big difference little touches can make.

One final tip. Look at the photos your agent uses when the listing goes into the MLS. Be very particular.

This photo was used on MLS with the caption, “Master Bedroom.” Is this the image you want prospective buyers to have of your master bedroom? If this is the image that’s being presented, then expect yours to be one of the tens of thousands of houses on the market today that are not selling.

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Has the Phoenix real estate market turned the corner? It’s too early to tell, but May’s results suggest we may be nearing the bottom

This is my column for this week from the Arizona Republic (permanent link).

Has the Phoenix real estate market turned the corner? It’s too early to tell, but May’s results suggest we may be nearing the bottom

Are you in the mood for some good real estate news for a change? How about some news that’s not all bad? Here’s what news there is, in any case:

May was a very strong month for clearing bread-and-butter inventory in the Phoenix real estate market. tracks sales of newer suburban tract homes — three bedroom, two bath, single-story homes with tile roofs and two-car garages — the middle of the housing-supply bell curve.

We have records going back to January of 2004, so we have tracked both the boom and the bust in our recent real estate history. May 2008 was the strongest month for the homes we track since May of 2007, with the best month before then being November of 2006. A total of 170 of these homes sold in May, up from 114 in April.

Prices were down, month over month, and not by just a little bit, so May’s results no doubt reflect the sale of a lot of lender-owned properties. But inventories of the homes we track are down by 7% from April and by over 14% from March.

The implied absorption rate from May’s results is 5.2 months, down from 8.4 months for April. Absorption rate is the amount of time it would take to absorb all currently-available inventory at the current rate of sales.

The absorption rate calculation is less than reliable, since it uses backward-looking numbers to make a forward-looking projection. But substantially greater sales taken together with substantially lower inventories is a very good sign.

As a matter of anecdotal evidence, earlier this week I phoned the listing agent of a very market-weary short sale. After months of no activity, three offers came in over the weekend. The seller issued multiple counter-offers, with the high-bid being $17,000 over the list price.

So has the Phoenix real estate market finally turned the corner? We won’t know for sure for two or three months after the fact, but May or June could be the bottom of the market in Phoenix.

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Looking for value in lender-owned homes in Metropolitan Phoenix? Take a look at 14912 West Watson Circle in Ashton Ranch in Surprise

The prices on lender-owned homes in the Phoenix area are getting to be incredibly low. It’s true that many of these homes will require some serious work to bring them back to turn-key condition. But others require little more than a cosmetic effort to return them to rent-ready condition.

Here’s the best news: Because the prices are so low, because interest rates are still very aggressive, and because rents are holding their own through the rough real estate market, it’s relatively easy to make a newer suburban home throw off positive cash flow. It could be that we’ve already found the bottom in the Phoenix real estate market. But, even if we have not, a well-chosen rental home will self-amortize. You can buy now, while the selection is great, as you wait for the market to fully recover.

A great example of a near-turn-key lender-owned home is 14912 West Watson Circle in Ashton Ranch in Surprise, Arizona. The home will need some cosmetic work, especially paint and landscaping, but it is in very good condition for a foreclosure. The cost to make it rent-ready might only be around $5,000, and, as this cash-flow analysis shows, the $115,000 list price should yield a positive cash flow even using relatively pessimistic assumptions.

Here’s the bad news: As I write this, I may have already sold this home.

Here’s the good news: There are dozens more like this, well-priced lender-owned homes in decent shape that can make very nice, cash-flow-positive rental homes.

These homes are not flip candidates. There’s not enough upside in the short run to justify the risk. But as buy-and-hold rentals, they could end up paying for a lot of feathers for your retirement nest.

Further notice: I ended up writing a contract on this house, but here are 26 more newer suburban homes priced at $115,000 or less. Some are in better condition than others, but all of these homes are in areas that can command premium rents and should appreciate well over time. Each one requires on-the-ground inspection, but I’m very choosy about what makes a good rental. If we pick the right home, it should stay rented consistently for the entire time you own it.

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