(Almost) Every House is Unique

Cat video. You’re welcome.

Recently, I have found myself consulting with a number of different people about future moves that are not necessarily imminent. I think this time spent together with potential clients is rewarding! Every situation is different and every house is unique in that it is situated in a particular place in the city, in a neighborhood, of a certain age, amount of updating, and is experiencing street changes, or street stability, according to what’s happening in the market.

After asking lots of questions about goals, future desired location, amount of support- family, and otherwise- financial strengths and weaknesses, and determining which emotions are most at play, I put together a suggested plan for tackling all the issues, including prepping the house, for that future move.

Before our meeting, I drive the neighborhood carefully, even if I already know the area well, looking for signs of change, looking for clues to what’s happening. If I see on the MLS that an older home that is mostly in original condition has recently sold, I’ll check from the curb to see what it looks like now. If it is in an area where older houses are being torn down to make way for new ones, I want to know if this particular older home has met that fate, or if it is still being used as a home. Toys and playthings in the front yard six months after the sale are a pretty good indication that this home isn’t being replaced this year.

In advance of my neighborhood drive, I study the MLS and all the properties that have sold in the past six months, or year, depending on the area, searching for sold prices, condition of homes, location in neighborhood, etc. I study the photos that the listing agents put up on the MLS to see the condition of the interiors. I look for homes that might be comparable to the home I am scheduled to visit. I make graphs and charts of market activity in that neighborhood or that feeder district to a particular high school, depending on which parameters I think are most relevant to that house in that location.

When I show up at the door, I already know a lot about the situation, and I bring my graphs, information on comparable homes, a Seller’s Disclosure that the owner will have to fill out sooner or later, and other useful papers. After we sit down and talk about the personal situation, I walk through the house, taking snapshots and noting things that need to be repaired and/or updated.

Depending on the house and the micro-market it inhabits, I use one or more sets of these eyes to examine the property: the flipper-investor eyes, the buy-and-hold investor eyes, the move-up buyer eyes, the downsize buyer eyes, the coming-from-a-different-state eyes, the moving-out-of-the-city eyes, the second-home eyes. The recommendations I make to prepare the house for sale are usually based on the least amount of stuff the homeowner can do to make the house desirable. Of course, price of the home and price of updating and repair is a big factor, too.

Some homes merit new faucets, new flooring, new paint, etc., because through these improvements the homeowner is likely to make a quicker sale, or sell at the higher end of a reasonable price range. Some homes will be purchased by a flipper and price is the only thing that will matter to those folks. Even within my written recommendations, I make two tiers- one is “must do” and the other is “would be nice to do, if possible”.

Here are three short samples from some write-ups I’ve done recently:

The two most important points at which we must capture a buyer’s imagination are from the street and then again just outside and just inside the front door. Those are our ‘hooks’. People have no clue when looking at your neighborhood from the street that there is an amazing view behind the privacy fences, so we have to pull them up and in until they arrive where we want them to be.

The goal of any effort put into your home between now and putting it on the market is to transform it from your ‘home’ into a ‘house’. In other words, it will become a commodity when it hits the market. Your best chance for getting the highest price the market will offer is to get as many buyers aware of its existence as possible (that’s my job) and to pull them from the curb and into the front door (your job and my job). What I am describing now is changes you can make to the real estate to help pull those people in. Staging, our last effort before taking pictures and putting it on the market, will come later.

Because you are looking at a limited time for owning and enjoying the house (5 years is your general estimate, but it could be much less), you will only make changes which, if not made, will result in more days on market to sell your house, or will make the price lower than it needs to be. The changes you elect to make to upgrade the house in the eyes of future buyers must be changes you would enjoy, too, for the length of time you own the house.

Now… why the cat video?  Today I met with a friend and fellow agent who has recently marketed and sold a house that was home to an elderly couple with dozens of rescued cats! What a feat! (It took a village.)  Our rescues in the video? There are only 11 and they are well-loved and cared for. But, I hope we don’t have to move anytime soon!

West of Weird

Guess ‘weird’ is a matter of opinion, but I went on my first “West of Weird Property Tour” with lender Trey Powers today. ‘Weird’ is a self-proclaimed descriptor of Austin, and Dripping Springs is west of Austin, so…. you get the idea.

The big draw for me was a twelve-and-a-half acre property with large home right in the middle of the new Arrowhead Ranch subdivision. This is close in, and I mean Close In to ‘downtown’ Dripping Springs. The ranchette and subdivision are beautiful, with live oaks, wet-weather streams, and rocky outcroppings.

The ranchette is the remnant of the ranch which contains the main house, built in 2000, with horse barn and amenities. Somebody has GOT to buy this for a bed-and-breakfast or related retirement project right in the middle of the town which calls itself the “Wedding Capital” of central Texas. Please call me if you know someone who wants to buy this jewel.

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Entry

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View outward from the front of the house

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Nice pool off the outdoor kitchen, no?

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Yes, that’s a library with fireplace through the door in the center of the photo.

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Example of good planning: the antler chandelier can be lowered by pulley for cleaning.

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These were the ones that weren’t standing in the middle of the road when we were leaving.

While we’re on the subject of views, the first home we looked at this morning is lovely- spacious and only one story with this view from the back verandah:

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The title company could find no restrictions on what could be built on this property, so you could have your own business and a lovely home. But, please keep in mind that if you have no restrictions on your property use, your neighbors have none on theirs. Anyone up for a little acreage on a hill with a beautiful Texas hill country view from the house?

You can find me at 512-970-9121.

EXTRA: Here’s something to do this weekend. I am the president of The Austin Mosaic Guild and I am always promoting this art and this organization of wonderful people. We were invited to exhibit with the Texas Society of Sculptors at its annual Sculptfest, so, if you feel like dining at The Oasis this weekend, you can see and purchase indoor or outdoor sculptures to complement your new hill country views.  Here is the link with photos and hours and address:

Sculptfest 2017

If You Really Want to Move Now, “Price It Right”

I’m looking at the March 2017 Austin Board of Realtors Market Report from the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University this morning. Focusing on the zip code 78620, which is the Dripping Springs area. Because A&M is using the Austin Board of Realtors Multiple Listing Service data, I can look at any zip code I want to in the central Texas counties. If you want different area stats from the ones here, just ask me.

In the existing homes category, there are 2.8 months of inventory. Because a market considered ‘balanced’ in which there are about as many people wanting to sell homes as people wanting to buy homes is about 6 months of inventory, we are clearly still in a seller’s market overall. There are more people who want to buy homes than people who want to sell homes.

OK, class, what does this do to price? Yes, that’s right… the market forces keep the prices up. Existing homes are in demand.

Here’s something interesting: the new builds have an inventory of 9.3 months in this zip code. Also, the average selling price of existing homes is $482,145 vs. $430,550 for new homes.

In no category of home; single-family, townhouse, condominium, both new and existing, does the selling price average equal 100% of the listing price average. The ratio is hovering around 94%-95%. On average, sellers are not getting their full asking price for their houses.

However, if you are clever, you will find a REALTOR® who looks at the statistics for your particular neighborhood or area and finds out what the hyper-local market is doing. Amenities, features, well-considered upgrades, location, and landscaping are all factors! With this knowledge you’ll have a better idea of how to price your house.

Remember, the aggregate of buyers who are looking for your type of home, in your price range, in your market is what determines the likely selling price of your home. And, in turn, the aggregate of buyers is influenced by all kinds of forces, from financial, to emotions about the economy and government, to work opportunities, to weather patterns to local government policies and private sector opportunities. And so on.

To put it a different way, if you want to sell your home in this ‘buyer’s market’, it is best not to get too cocky and think that you can pick your own price. I have watched homes sit on the market for weeks and months without very many showings and zero offers. Why? Price per square foot that looks reasonable for the neighborhood and amenities that look good on paper, BUT the fixtures and finishes are dated, or the layout that was suitable for the wants and needs of a family in 1985 is no longer relevant or desirable, or the amenities are not as glam as a typical buyer in 2017 expects to see. In short, a home that was pretty wonderful 30+ years ago has lost its edge and must be priced to attract a smaller set of real buyers. (Real buyers are the set of people who would REALly buy your home.) This is not personal. This is business!

When you price your home too high for what price the market puts on it, you are selling the home down the street, or around the corner, that IS priced right for its market. Buyers see both homes and immediately realize which is the better bargain. And it’s not yours.

By the way, when you and I interview each other about selling your home, I will ask you what you know about any homes that have sold off market around you. That would be homes that have sold by the owner without ever being on the MLS, and homes that were going to go on the MLS, but the owner accepted an offer from a buyer before the MSL thing happened. Having this information helps me to help you price your home right for your hyper-local market.

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Stuff to Know About Buying a House

IMG_0097I love to insert into this blog photos I’ve made over the years!

You can get lots of information on the internet about buying a house, selling a house, maintaining a house, etc. Much of the information is even correct. In some state. Under some circumstances. At some point in time.

I start reading about ‘How to sell a house’, or ‘How to buy a house’ and I think, “Yes, but not in my state…. That’s not the way it’s done here.” We have personally bought and sold homes in three states, multiple times, over decades. Each state is very different, and things change within one state over time. Every two years, after the Texas Legislature meets, we have new laws to follow.

The first thing to know about buying a home in the Austin area in April 2017 is that, if you are going to need to borrow money to buy the house, you must tend to that first thing. REALTORS® keep lists of lenders they’ve worked with and whose clients have had a good experience. Interview some REALTORS®, pick one, and ask about lenders.

Lenders will pre-qualify you for a loan, which means that they ask in person, or online, for your numbers and information, crank it through an algorithm, and spit out a pre-qualification, if your numbers pass the test. Because it is based on self-reporting, and doesn’t go in-depth with your complete financial picture, a pre-qualification doesn’t carry much weight with the seller of a home, especially a nice home in a ‘hot’ neighborhood.  Your REALTOR® is not likely to show you very many homes until you have a more substantial loan work-up done than pre-qualification.

Special note: if you cannot get pre-qualified for a loan, there are companies that can guide you through your journey to financial stability; a good lender might very well partner with a company that can help you in this way; and some lenders offer this service. All is not lost if you don’t qualify right away.

The next level is a pre-approval by the lender. This means that the lender has checked your background information, such as your credit scores from the three major reporters; Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax, has seen copies of your pay stubs, etc. A pre-approval is as far as most lenders will take you before you have a signed contract to buy a house. For the purposes of most home sellers, a buyer with a pre-approval is good enough to sign a contract with.

A few lenders will actually take you through the underwriting process before you even sign a contract to buy a house. Underwriting means a specialist has rooted through your work life, your banking and financial life, your credit history, and your related personal life enough to agree to loan you up to a certain amount of money to buy a house, providing the house you choose passes muster. Going into contract negotiations with a home seller after you have been underwritten for a loan is a strong position, provided your offer is one that makes the seller happy.

Okay, next subject is paperwork. There is a lot. I have been told, and have seen evidence,  that appropriate paperwork provides some legal protection for the following parties: 1) YOU, the buyer, 2) the seller, 3) your real estate brokerage, 4) the agent or REALTOR® looking after your interests on behalf of that brokerage, 5) the agent and brokerage on the seller’s side, 6) the title company insuring clear title on your purchase, 7) the lender, 8) the property owner’s association, if there is one, 9) the builder, if it is a new home purchase, 10) any lien holders on the property in question, 11) the government entities under whose jurisdiction the property falls, 12) any inspectors you employ to assess the property for you, and 13) anyone else who is breathing and walking, rolling, or slithering  nearby your real estate transaction. There is gonna be a lot of paperwork, and it’s my job to make sure it all gets negotiated where possible, filled out properly, and signed.

Because there is a lot of paperwork that gets looked at and signed at various points along the way from agreeing to hire a particular brokerage to work for you to completing the buyer transaction and taking possession of your new home, you must plan to be available during the time-intensive periods

Also, in this still-hot market, you must plan to be available to look at homes and make decisions in short-order. In most cases, you won’t have time to mull over a situation during the buying process; the home you want will be under contract with someone else that day. The time for big, mulling-over decisions is before you go looking at homes. Your REALTOR® can help you think through your situation and decide on your must-haves, your bottom line, and your contingencies before going into battle.

While we’re talking about going into battle, let me touch on the subject of negotiations. I have found that negotiating on behalf of a client works so much better when we all treat each other with utmost respect. I aim to be unfailingly polite and respectful, no matter how the seller approaches things- not only does it make work more satisfying, but I am able to be more successful in getting you what you need as a buyer.

Some of you have heard the opening salvo in a negotiation- the selling price on an item- and then offered a low bid, followed by going back-and-forth with the seller until you eventually meet in the middle.  In home-buying, there is an element of that strategy. However, it pays to understand the psychology of what happens with a house offer. Sellers are usually quite invested in their price and their home, and they don’t respect a low-ball offer on their prized possession. Not to mention, in this market, a lot of times the offers start at the list price and go upward from there. No, it would not be unusual for a low-ball offer to have the effect of cutting off any possible negotiation. You could end your chances before you even get started.

There are other considerations besides price. The standard one-to-four family residential resale contract has 9 pages, not counting additional disclosures, addendums, and ammendments, so you can imagine how many other points there are for a buyer and seller to agree on besides just the selling price. Your REALTOR® can help you put together an offer package that is appealing to the seller. Maybe even appealing enough for the seller to sign a contract with you!

Now you have signed a contract to buy a pre-owned home. Congratulations! Except in unusual circumstances, you will want to pay the seller an amount of money for the privilege of keeping the home off the open market long enough for you to hire professionals to inspect the various systems of your home and give you a report. You need to be reasonably certain that you know what you are getting into. The money you pay the seller for this purpose is called the “option money” and it will be a direct payment. If during your option period that is specified in the contract you decide not to buy the home, the seller has no obligation to return the option money. After all, you paid her the money to let you sign a contract, yet still spend time re-examining your future purchase, and possibly deciding against it. That keeps her home off the market for days, and could be a real liability for her.

You will also pay an amount of money called “earnest money” to show that you are indeed serious about following through with the home purchase, provided there are no nasty surprises that weren’t evident in the home after first inspection by you. This earnest money does not go to the seller; it goes to the escrow officer, usually at the title company you and the seller have agreed to use. Or, it may go to a lawyer’s office and be held in escrow there. This money is recoverable, as long as you follow all the agreements in the executed contract. If you buy the property, the escrow money may be used toward your transaction at closing. Earnest money is typically about 1% of the agreed-upon selling price of the house, but this is one of the many negotiable points between you and the seller.

In most cases, one of your expenses as a buyer will be the appraiser’s work. In a loan situation, the lender will order an appraisal by a licensed individual to give that appraiser’s best assessment of what the value of the house is. In this market, sometimes the agreed-upon sales price is higher than what the appraiser says it is worth. One of the decisions you, as a buyer, will be making ahead of the home-search process, is whether or not you can afford to make up the difference between what you contract to pay for a house (higher amount) and what an appraiser says the home’s value is (lower amount). There are also acceptable ways to provide the appraiser with information about the neighborhood and local sales that she might not have access to through standard channels when she is doing her work.

There are many expenses that a buyer will have in closing a purchase transaction. Some of them the seller might agree to pay, but many more will be your responsibility. Someone will pay for title insurance. Someone will pay title company and county recording fees. Someone will pay loan origination fees. Someone might even pay for a new survey to be made of the property. These costs are something your REALTOR® will help you grasp before you start your transaction and, if you will be getting a loan, your lender will take them all into consideration when they are looking at whether or not you are a good credit risk for them. They will help you understand the costs of closing a transaction.

Part of the transaction cost that is ultimately shared within the selling price by both parties will be paying your real estate broker and the seller’s real estate broker their commissions to cover the work done on behalf of both you and the seller. This is another reason for you to hire carefully when you hire a REALTOR® to work for you- the commission cost is not insignificant, and you want to make sure that the brokerage you hire will serve your needs to the fullest, and then some.

I know I have given you just a bare outline of what goes on from the buying side. In other posts, especially those tagged ‘buyers’, you can see more specifics that might answer some more of your questions. I keep writing these posts as a service to the community, because I know the feeling from my own pre-licensing days of being completely confused and in the dark about what was happening during my own real estate transactions. I want to shed as much light as possible on a complex and important topic.  I always welcome suggestions left in the comment section of this post, or other posts on this blog.

If you are reading this on a device other than a computer, scroll down to see links, more pages, and to subscribe to this blog by email.

H2O

Went on a property tour this morning in the Dripping Springs area. Lenders and title companies often arrange these affairs on a regular basis for real estate agents and brokers who want to see a sample of what’s available ‘this week’.

It was rainy today. Really rainy. Not too many of us on the property tour. But, you know what? I love to tour properties in the rain, whether with clients, or just for my own education. That’s how you know what the drainage issues are. It’s fun to see how drainage problems have been solved, or forestalled, by French drains, dry streams, foundation grading, walls, etc. It’s also illuminating to see what hasn’t been solved: creeks over sidewalks, water running close to the top of a foundation.

Rainy weather when house-hunting also makes you super-aware of which roads are likely to be impassable in a storm. A phone app I like to use is ATXfloods.com. Shows me a map of all the low-water crossings in the area and which have been closed. Especially important in the hills!

It’s helpful to go house-shopping in the rain so that you can see if there are drainage issues.

By the way, I saw some properties on the market in Dripping Springs this morning that ranged from perfectly charming to gorgeous.

A Few Things I Wish Sellers Knew

Thematic Thursday is the day when I post about buying and selling and leasing transactions, which are mysterious if you don’t do them at least every couple of years.

  1. The market does not care what price you need or want to get for your house. The market price is not set by you or by me. It is set by what buyers will pay for it at this time and in this place.
  2. Your house will sell faster, and likely for a higher price, if you make it look its best. This might mean replacing worn floor covering and putting on a tidy coat of paint, in addition to making repairs and making every corner sparkle for the nose, eyes, and ears of potential buyers.
  3. If your house is not going to sparkle, is not going to be repaired, is going to be worn and dated, don’t worry. You can still get lots of eyeballs and potential buyers by presenting a discounted price. Some buyers are looking specifically for a bargain!
  4. As soon as you decide to, or are forced to, sell your home, it becomes a house; a commodity. It is no longer your home. Get therapy, if needed, to get through the grieving process, then do yourself a favor and help me do my job of getting your house sold for the best possible price in the least amount of time. Please take my advice to heart, because I work in this business all the time and I see what is effective for selling and what isn’t.
  5. You will be leaving your house for scheduled showings, and you will be taking the pets with you. Especially the snake. It might be kinder for you and the pets if you can find a  loving and gentle home-away-from-home for the animals during the selling process, so they are uprooted once, instead of daily.
  6. If your house or property has unusual or challenging features, they will reduce the number of buyers from the buying pool for whom the house will be a good match. This often translates into a longer  time on the market before a sale. You might have to go through several rounds of fresh buyers before a match is found. In case you were wondering, this is a LOT like dating- the quirkier or more difficult we are, the more potential mates we have to meet before finding one that sticks. The alternative is to quit being quirky and/or difficult, but this isn’t always an option.
  7. When you pay my brokerage to sell your house and for me to get you through the process as gracefully as possible, you are paying for my experience, my work ethic, and my character, as well as the depth of knowledge and integrity in my brokerage. I draw on all these qualities when working on your project. By way of analogy, in buying art, you are paying the artist for focus, observational skill, imagination, practice, and creativity, all of which are worth far more than these particular molecules of ink on this particular piece of paper.

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    Horse from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook

New Numbers

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Another happy buyer client. “I love my new back yard with all the sunshine and grass! Thank you, Lynn, for helping my human and me find our beautiful new home.”

The clients of Austin Metrostudy are builders and related industries. “Our survey team drives over 8,500 miles and over 1,000 subdivisions every 90 days to provide you with the valuable information you need on future lots, vacant developed lots, homes under construction, and homes that have been completed.”

A representative of the company made a presentation to a group of REALTORS® on Friday and I will give you a brief report from the 5-county Austin area, and the Dripping Springs/Driftwood area, in particular.

Overall job growth in the Austin area has fallen from 45,000 new jobs/year created in 2015 to 30,000 new jobs/year created currently. However, with growth of 30K annually, it is still a hot job market and demand for homes is up with available inventory down. What does this mean? Rising home prices and a real affordability issue for the City of Austin. For the home-buying population in general, the good news is that annual salaries in the Austin area are $20,000 higher than other parts of the country.

New home builders have caught on to the affordability issue and, not wanting to leave any part of the home-buying field fallow, they are building less-expensive homes in the following ways: the homes are being built on smaller lots to reduce the price of land being used per house; some homes have fewer bells and whistles to make construction less expensive; and subdivisions are being developed farther from the city center where the land is cheaper for the developer to buy.

Builders are now experiencing a decided downturn in available workers, so a new house is taking longer to build, including most custom homes. There are fewer workers available to do the same amount of work.

There are certain pockets that have unique building situations, and my home area, Dripping Springs, is one. The land is hilly, so it is naturally more expensive to build on than flat farming lots are. Also, if you recall from my post about septic systems, neighborhoods in this area need to have their own sewage treatment plant, or each home must have extra acreage to accommodate an individual septic system. More land per home= higher price per home. The other unique aspect of the Dripping Springs area is that it is scenic; many lots have expansive views, which, of course, drives up the home prices.

The observed numbers for 2016, fourth quarter are: 473 new home started, and 378 homes sold/transactions closed. There are 2.9 months of inventory in the area (6 months or so is considered a balanced market, with about the same number of homes on the market as buyers looking for a home.). The number of vacant developed lots (the ‘hood has streets and utilities in place) is equal to a 32.8 month supply. There were 741 new lots in 2016, with 8000 future new lots on the books. 1000 of those have streets in, or excavation has started. The average base price for a new home in the Dripping Springs area is $458,000, and this number has not risen recently.

love to keep track of new homes in this area, whether they are truly luxurious, or less expensive, but thoughtfully planned. One new subdivision with prices well below average is easily in walking distance from the business area of Dripping Springs, as well as from an established historic park. Also, see my post on the truly custom homes in Driftwood.