Home Ownership

Gird Your Loins! Getting Your Home Ready for Winter

With the first hard freeze in the DC area expected this weekend, I think we can officially say we're in fall and on our way to winter. In addition to all the fun seasonal decor inside and outside (future blog post, I promise), there are lots of things you should do to prepare your home - whether a condo, townhouse or detached home - for the colder months. 

DC Street in Winter

Here are a few tips (although there are many more) which are hopefully helpful to newer homeowners (congrats!) and veterans alike:

  1. Have your HVAC serviced and replace your filter(s). Many service providers offer maintenance plans, as well, that can save you money on regular maintenance and even put you in a priority position should you have an issue and need service quickly to restore heat.
     
  2. On a windy day, close your windows and inspect them for air leaks. Windows - both the type and the quality of the seal - can make a huge difference in how your home retains heat. Seal any gaps and, if you have been thinking about upgrading to more energy efficient windows or installing storm windows (or doors), you may still have time if you hurry.
     
  3. Install weather stripping on the sides or bottoms of any leaky doors. Just like windows, doors can make a huge difference in your energy efficiency. Weather stripping is an easy and inexpensive project for any homeowner...regardless of experience level.
     
  4. Winterize your water lines. Water and the cold can spell bad news, so make sure any garden hoses are drained and stowed away neatly.  And don't forget to turn off exterior water spigots. Once you've turned off the valve, you'll also want to go outside and turn on the exterior spigot until the water stops flowing.
     
  5. Insulate any exposed pipes. If you have any plumbing that is exposed to the elements, take time to insulate them and minimize the chance that they freeze or burst, leading to dreaded and costly water damage. 
     
  6. Inspect your roof and replace any damaged or missing roof shingles. The rain, ice and snow can be brutal on your roof, so take time now to ensure it's ready to handle what mother nature may dish out.
     
  7. Make sure gutters and downspouts are free of leaves and debris. You may have to hold off on this, since we're still losing leaves, but it's a right of fall!
     
  8. Consider adding a fresh coat of paint or sealer on your deck. The winter is tough on us and our houses, so consider adding a new layer of protection to your beloved deck. 
     
  9. Tend to your fireplace and chimney. If you are lucky enough to have a working fireplace (wood-burning or gas), make sure to have it serviced by a professional so it's ready for winter enjoyment (and Santa, too). 
     
  10. Have your list of trusted service providers (and backups) ready. Even with preventative steps and maintenance, you may still run into an issue. Be prepared by gathering the contact information for HVAC, plumbing, roofing and other services professionals in one place (on paper or digitally). Also make sure to have more than one option for each, in case you need faster service and are dealing with a high-demand time.

Finally, if you need a recommendation for a local professional who can help you with any of your home needs, please don't hesitate to reach out! 

Amber Harris is the owner of At Home DC and a licensed real estate agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties working with clients in DC, Maryland and Virginia. 

Avoiding First-Time Home Buyer Flubs

There's nothing more exciting than making the decision to go from tenant to homeowner, but buying your first home can be daunting (the number of legal documents and signatures required before you even go under contract can be maddening enough).

Home with Key on Wood.jpeg

At times we all fancy ourselves chefs, handy(wo)men and more thanks to technology, social media and a generous dose of can-do spirit, buying a home is a big decision and commitment. While a wealth of information and tools — from seemingly up-to-the minute listings arriving in your inbox to mortgage calculator apps — are a great start for the novice, this is one area where a dollar spent (specifically on a real estate agent), will net more than that in one or more ways.

It's true there are about as many tales about challenging first-time home buyers as there are about annoying agents, but I find working with first timers enjoyable and rewarding. For that reason, I thought I'd share a few myths I have had to debunk with clients if you are considering starting your search:

  • Pre-qualification or pre-approval...it doesn't matter which I choose. If you are looking to buy in the Washington, DC area, you will likely face stiff competition. One of my key roles as a Realtor is to help you make the most competitive offer, and financing is a big component of that (we include a copy of your pre-approval letter in your offer). Before you walk in the door, you should know that you have the ability to buy that property if it's "the one." Pre-approval is one step beyond pre-qualification and means your lender has done due diligence and is even more confident that it can handle your mortgage needs (giving the seller confidence that if they accept your offer the deal will close).
     
  • As long as I have the money in time for close, I'm set. With the high price of real estate in the area, often clients are relying on family loans or gifts to help them with closing costs. As a part of the pre-approval process, you will need to document the sources of your funds, and extra scrutiny is usually placed on funds that haven't already been in your bank accounts for at least a few months prior. This means it's wise to have the funds in place as soon as possible and to be prepared to provide a loan agreement, letter or other documentation (sometimes from the person lending or gifting the money) in order to have your loan underwritten.
     
  • Every renovation is created equal. In the local market, many buyers want properties that are new construction or that have been recently updated. While those white kitchens with quartz countertops look amazing in the photos, not all updates are created equal. Look at the quality of the finishes when you visit the property and for signs of cutting corners (which sometimes can also been indicative of shortcuts taken behind the fixtures and walls).
     
  • New is always better. While I caution first-time home buyers against biting off more than they can chew (financially, maintenance-wise, etc.), some buyers are open to renovations — from a fresh coat of paint to kitchen and bath updates. If you can look past outdated fixtures, you may get your hands on a great property that others have passed over. Whether you have the cash in hand or are considering a 203k loan, make sure to add a healthy buffer in terms of budget and time to your plans. 
     
  • It's only a starter home... When you buy a new home, you invest more than just the down payment at closing. For this reason, it usually is beneficial to own property for several years before selling. If you think you are going to stay in the area, you may want to expand your search to find a property that meets your anticipated future needs (or that could). For example, if you are thinking of starting a family, you may want to find a home that allows you to not just comfortably raise a baby but also a young child (and that takes into account their educational needs). If your budget does not allow you to buy as much house as you know you will want (with the features you want), look for properties that may need cosmetic updates you can do over time or that have a lot that would allow you to expand the house to add livable space. 

As I mentioned at the top of this post, technology, social media, a can-do spirit and even a blog post are not substitutes for a professional. If you are (or know someone) thinking about buying your/their first home, please reach out!

Amber Harris is the owner of At Home DC and a licensed real estate agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties working with clients in DC, Maryland and Virginia. 

When Perfect Isn't Available or Affordable

Perfection. While we all realize it's in the eye of the beholder and can be overrated, when you are looking for your new home, it's where we start. 

When I am meeting with a buyer, a good portion of our initial discussion involves their must-haves, needs, wants and nice-to-haves. While there are many reasons to hire a real estate agent to help with your home search and purchase, having a partner and consultant to regularly remind you of your motivations and musts is one of the top reasons.

In the DC metro area right now, we still are experiencing limited inventory (aka available houses), which means it is even harder than normal for most to find their perfect home. Given this, it's easy to get discouraged, especially when you find "the one," make an offer and lose out to another. But...that doesn't mean you should lose hope; rather, you should open your eyes to other possibilities.

In the past few days, I've talked to two buyers who have chosen/are looking at two alternative paths that often are ignored:

1. Buy & Renovate with a 203(k) Loan: While most people want to offer, close and move in as swiftly as possible, you can gain the edge and equity if you consider buying a property that needs some work to make it livable, to your taste or both. In today's "need it now" culture, finding that hidden gem means we might be able to negotiate a better purchase price and you'll get exactly what you want in the end. With lots of 203(k) loan options that allow you to access the cash you need to renovate (everything from a kitchen remodel to full gut job), if you can muster some patience, you can land that perfect home. (Check out Lauren Bowling's experience for more insight.)

2. Explore New Construction: If you have even more patience, you might want to consider designing and building your new home. While the DC area is much more densely populated than other areas of the country, there is available land (or land that can be made available by razing a poorly maintained/unsalvageable structure. Most home builders offer a range of plans that can be customized in countless ways to help you get just what you want - from layout to finishes. And, while a builder may tell you otherwise, you should make sure you have buyer representation with your own agent before heading into a sales office. (Learn more about the process from The Balance.)

In either scenario, a REALTOR® can help you consider all the options and direct you to qualified professionals to help you create your own brand of perfect. So, would you consider a rehab or new construction?

Amber Harris is the owner of At Home DC, an interior decorator and a licensed real estate agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties working with clients in DC, Maryland and Virginia. 

5 Tips to Land Your Dream Home This Spring

Spring. The time of year when tulips, daffodils and cherry blossoms bloom (even if they are delayed)...and when homebuyers are ready to move! While market activity picks up across the country with the warming weather, it also means more competition - which can be a problem when there are inventory shortages.

U Street

U Street

According to Bright MLS, the Washington market has seen declines in year-over-year inventory for nine months (as of January 2017). This is great news for sellers, but it can lead to greater frustrations for buyers - especially first-time homebuyers who have not yet experienced the process. Of course, this doesn't mean you should throw your hands up in the air and stay put in a less-than-ideal home. Here are five tips to help put you in a better position to land your dream home in the DC area:

1. Enlist the help of a Realtor® now. Finding the perfect home is a stressful process for any buyer, so add a licensed real estate agent to your team. They'll shepherd you through the process, put your interests first and allow you to focus more on all the joys of homebuying and, eventually, homeownership. Even if you're not sure if now is the right time to buy, having an agent on your side can help you make that determination and be ready when your dream home hits the market.

2. Spring clean...your credit! If you haven't already, take a close look at your credit and take steps to bolster your credit score and increase your ability to get approved for a mortgage at the most favorable rates. This may mean reducing existing credit card debt and paying extra close attention to avoid late payments on any bills (more tips from MyFICO.com). 

3. Have your list of must-haves and nice-to-haves, but be open. Most of us have pictured our ideal home for years but they almost always are out of reach. The homebuying process is rooted in trade-offs but talk to your real estate agent about options you may not have considered, such as a fixer upper (and a 203k loan), alternate neighborhoods and properties with income potential (such as a basement unit you can rent out).

4. Be the early bird and catch the worm. In a market with low inventory, preparation and timing is key. In addition to being pre-qualified or pre-approved for a mortgage, take advantage of your Realtor®'s access to information not yet available through the many online real estate search portals. Agents - through relationships and their tools - often know about inventory three weeks or more before it hits the market (allowing you to see properties first and, if it's a fit, make an offer).

5. Choose an agent who knows your target neighborhood(s). DC and its neighborhoods are unique and diverse (part of what makes our region so great), so find an agent who knows (or, better yet, lives in) the neighborhoods you are honing in on. Google and public records can only tell you so much, so tap into the knowledge and expertise of your agent.

Here's wishing you luck on your homebuying journey this spring. If you are looking in DC area - and especially if you are interested in Petworth, Columbia Heights and Brightwood - I'd love to meet you and discuss your needs

Amber Harris is the owner of At Home DC, an interior decorator and a licensed real estate agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties working with clients in DC, Maryland and Virginia.