Archive for July, 2009

Why should you enlist a buyer’s agent to help you buy a home? Because you’ll get a much better deal — even if you pay full price

This from my Arizona Republic real estate column (permanent link):

Are home-buyers best served by the vigilant efforts of an experienced buyer’s agent? Consider a transaction we have in play right now.

The buyers are a young couple, about to be married. They have about $10,000 in cash.

With a conventional loan, they could put 20% down on a dismal starter home. Or, with Private Mortgage Insurance, they could put 10% down on a nicer home.

But with an FHA loan, $10,000 is 3.5% down on a $285,000 home. We can argue the wisdom of making so small a down payment, but the FHA loan program is the path to homeownership for millions of Americans.

And $285,000 is too much house for our buyers. They found a nice lender-owned two-story home in the suburbs selling for $169,000. The down payment on that home would be $5,915. But the closing costs would probably run to another $5,000 — which comes to more money than they have.

They qualify for the $8,000 first-time home-buyer tax credit, but they won’t get that until they file their tax return. They also qualify for a state-funded grant program that will contribute up to 22% of the purchase price — but which can’t be used for the down payment or the closing costs.

Here’s the deal we put together. We offered $175,000, $6,000 over list price. In exchange, we asked the seller to contribute 4% of the full purchase price to defray the buyer’s closing costs.

The down payment will be $6,125, leaving the buyers $3,875 in cash to pay for the endless expenses of moving into a new home.

And there will be about $2,000 left over after the closing costs are paid. This will be used to buy down the interest rate. The buyers will end up with just over 25% equity in the property for a cash outlay of $6,125 — all at a very low monthly payment. And they’ll still have their $8,000 tax credit to look forward to.

This is the kind of outcome a skilled buyer’s agent can achieve.

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With MLS listings available everywhere on the internet, why do you need a buyer’s agent?

This from my Arizona Republic real estate column (permanent link):

Here’s an intriguing question: Given that it’s so easy to search for homes on the internet, why do you need a buyer’s agent?

Face it, if you use the MLS search tool on my web site, you’re seeing exactly the same listings I see. And you know better than I ever could what you like and what you don’t like.

By now, the home search process is at best a partnership between the agent and the buyer. In some cases the buyer and I will work together to perfect our search criteria. But many buyers simply search the available inventory on their own, emailing me the MLS numbers of the homes they want to see.

So why do those buyers need a buyer’s agent?

Realtors hoarded the MLS data for so long that even they came to believe it was the source of their value to buyers. But this is very far from the truth.

You don’t need me to search for listings, although I’m happy to do that. And you don’t need me to open lock-boxes. You need a buyer’s agent to guide you through what is in fact an arcane and perilous process — potentially a financial disaster. You might not need me to find your next home, but you need me to make sure that you get it — or that you pass on it, if that is what is truly in your best interests.

A skilled buyer’s agent will write the kind of purchase contract that will prove surprising to you at every turn, with every term and condition tailored to achieve your best advantage. Your agent will supervise the inspection process and negotiate the optimal solution to the repair issues. Your agent will be prepared for every pitfall in the escrow process.

If you bought and sold houses every day, you could do all these things yourself. It’s because you don’t — and because the seller and the listing agent are looking to take advantage of your naivete at every turn — that you need a skilled buyer’s agent as your steadfast champion in the home-buying process.

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“Home Ownership Was Never a Road to Riches”

Form The Wall Street Journal:

My wife and I have sold all of our four previous homes for more than we paid for them—sometimes a lot more.

We’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve never overpaid much for a house, we’ve always bought in good school districts and decent neighborhoods, we’ve lived in neighborhoods where prices soared during the real-estate bubble, and we’ve been hurt but not decimated by the bursting of that bubble.

When I constructed a very basic cash-flow model for our home-buying history—selling price minus purchase price, renovations and repairs—it showed a roughly 3.5% annualized return on investment, from 1991 through the summer of last year. That’s when we sold our last home and bought our current one.

Then things got ugly. If we were forced to sell our current home, which I estimate has lost 5% or so of its value in our 10 months of ownership—despite the more than $20,000 we’ve made in improvements—our cumulative return over the years sinks to approximately 2% annually. And if prices keep falling in our northern New Jersey neighborhood, as is likely for a while, that return will shrink even further.

So do I regret owning a home? Heck, no. It’s not a get-rich scheme, and Americans never should have viewed it as one. Owning a home has given my family a series of anchors to cling to as we’ve moved around the country for my job. It’s allowed us to live in pleasant neighborhoods where it would have been tough to find a rental house. And paying down a mortgage is a form of forced savings, which should help us in retirement.

Columbia Business School’s Christopher Mayer, who has studied housing markets, says our experience with home-price gains is pretty typical. Home appreciation nationally has run about 1% above inflation over time.

The big price run-ups from the late 1990s through 2006 or 2007 were an aberration. The biggest value you derive from home ownership isn’t appreciation. “It’s being able to live in it,” Prof. Mayer says, and avoiding the rent you would otherwise have to pay.

Once you add in imputed rent and subtract property taxes, Prof. Mayer estimates, my 2% annual home-ownership return looks more like 6%.

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Is this the right time to buy a house in Phoenix? It depends…

This from my Arizona Republic real estate column (permanent link):

Is now the time to buy a home in Metropolitan Phoenix?

It depends.

If you plan to take advantage of the $8,000 first-time home-buyer tax credit, you need to get moving. If your loan hasn’t closed by November 30th, you won’t get the concession.

If you’re afraid of rising interest rates, you’re probably better off acting now. Mortgage rates cannot stay this low forever. When they go up, they’re likely to go up decisively and for a long time.

On the other hand, if your plan is to pay cash, and if you don’t have to move right away — you might be better off sitting tight. The same goes for all-cash rental home investors.

The mini-boom we’ve seen over the past few months was based in an erroneous belief that the supply of homes in the Phoenix area was limited.

This is untrue. The length and depth of our real estate correction is a consequence of our being overbuilt. There is no shortage of homes for sale, nor any shortage of bargain-priced lender-owned homes. And I think it is silly to bid up the prices of properties that are not in short supply.

The market is already flooded with available housing, and there is a three-year tsunami of short sales and lender-owned homes still to come. If there are enough buyers to absorb that supply of homes, prices may not go down further, or at least not by much. But for bread and butter houses, there is no reason to expect values to go up any time soon.

But there’s more. We are headed into a hyper-inflationary economy — which among other things transfers income from creditors to debtors. The money that you’ve managed to save will lose value over time, while the money you owe will be repaid from a progressively higher income.

The bottom line: Whether you take out a mortgage or pay cash, real estate can be a very strong hedge against inflation. Just by itself, that might be a good reason to buy a home sometime soon.

 
Further notice: I recorded an extended podcast about the state of the Phoenix real estate market, which you can find by clicking on that link.

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Private ownership of the land is the source not just of our freedom but of our civility and of our humanity itself

This from my Arizona Republic real estate column (permanent link):

The “cap and trade” bill that passed in the House of Representatives last week contains within it the seeds of a national building code. It rarely rains in Phoenix and it rarely fails to rain in Portland, but both cities will build new structures according to the dictates of some Washington bureaucrat.

Drive along 19th Avenue in Phoenix and you’ll pass block after block of condemned houses. They were taken by the city for the planned light rail expansion, now delayed. The neighbors are left to fight off the kind of vermin vacant homes attract while they worry what that blight is doing to their home values.

In Glendale, the city government is doing everything it can to prevent the Tohono O’Odham tribe from developing its own sovereign land as a casino.

The essence of the freedom we celebrate on Independence Day is the free ownership of the land. The Hoplite Greeks fought and died to protect their own lands. The Roman Legionnaires fought and died because their farms were their own property. A Cincinnatus — or a George Washington — lays down his arms because being a dictator is nothing when you can instead be a freeholder in the land.

The essence of our freedom is the free ownership of the land, and yet everywhere we turn, private property is subjected to one law after another, and everything that is not forbidden is compulsory instead.

This is a grievous error. The men who become Brownshirts or Klansmen or Khmer Rouge — the men who make up murderous mobs — are men without land. It is the husbandry of the land — each man to his own parcel — that most makes husbands of us, that sweeps away our willingness to live as brigands or rapists or thugs.

By robbing the private ownership of the land of its meaning, the state is, by increments, robbing its citizens of their humanity. No one burns down his own home, nor his neighbor’s home. But when the time comes that we all seem to own our homes only by sufferance, none of us will have anything left to defend.

 
Further notice: I posted an audio tweet on this topic, as well.

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