Real Estate Tips

How Do You Know It's 'The One'?

Picturesque Georgetown

Picturesque Georgetown

Some people fall in love with every home they see, while others can pick each one apart — identifying flaws that may be consequential or not. Having spent countless hours working with buyers with a range of budgets and needs, when they find “the one” it’s usually pretty clear to me (then we move onto the harder part of structuring the best offer so it becomes theirs).

While it’s true that you’ll often see a property for 15-30 minutes and then find yourself signing a contract of sale for hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy it, that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare yourself to make that swift decision more easily and recognize if you’re ready to take the next step in the homebuying process.

As you prepare to buy your first (or next home), here are a few ways I guide my clients and help them discern what’s best for them and that you can use to help you (or your clients):

  • Check(list) Yourself: Buying a home is an emotional process and you often have to go with your gut; however, that doesn’t mean throwing reason out the window. I always make sure to place a concise list of needs and wants at the top of showing sheets I prepare for my clients. This way, you can remind yourself that private outdoor space wasn’t a must but storage space was, for example. It’s easy to get distracted by shiny object (that gorgeous soaking tub!), so check yourself.

  • Compare and Contrast: While you definitely should compare each potential new home to your list of needs, you naturally may find yourself comparing it to other properties you have seen. For this reason, if time allows, it is sometimes helpful to see a few more properties after you think you’ve found the one you want to offer on — most likely confirming how your feel and strengthening your resolve to make it yours.

  • Picturing Your Future: One of the telltale signs someone is falling for a home is when they start placing their furniture (verbally) in a home and talking about how they would spend their time in the space. If you can envision not just special occasions but daily life in that home and neighborhood, it may be the perfect fit.

  • What If…: I often ask clients how they would feel if we just found out that the home in question just went under contract with another buyer. If you’d be kicking yourself for not acting faster, the game of “what if,” is a great final check before making your offer.

In the Washington, DC area, the market moves fast and it’s natural to be nervous about making such a big decision so quickly…but by stepping back briefly, holding yourself to a few simple “tests” and, most importantly, leaning on your real estate agent as a trusted advisor will make sure you can act confidently and give yourself the best chance of nabbing “the one” (or the next one)!

What to Know When You Are Selling & Buying: Q&A with Greg Kingsbury

In the Washington, DC area, it's not uncommon for homeowners to climb the property ladder, gaining equity over time and upgrading to a home that better fits their longer-term needs (instead of buying that forever home from the start).

Kingsbury

Kingsbury

Some owners will hold onto their first property as an investment but many will want or need to sell it to move onto their next house. In a less competitive market, having a contingency around the sale of a home is not uncommon but, in this region, it can make getting your offer accepted more challenging. However, there are options...and we tapped into the expertise of local lender Greg Kingsbury, who leads the Kingsbury Mortgage Team at Caliber Home Loans, to answer some of the most common questions when looking to sell and buy in short order:
 
What is the #1 question or concern homeowners come to you with when they are looking to sell their current home and buy a new home?

Of course all situations are different so many prospective borrowers will have different questions based on their individual scenarios. If I had to narrow it down to a single question, it would be how to qualify for a home prior to selling their current home. Most of the time this is based upon wanting to declutter and make minor improvements to their home so it looks best and will command the most value on the sale.

The advice that seems to get thrown around the most is to just go get a bridge loan. I find that most clients are told to go get one, but don’t really know what a bridge loan actually it is.  Many think it is some kind of magical loan that just gives you your equity to allow you to buy something new. The truth I find is that most people won’t qualify for a bridge loan. When getting a bridge loan, you have to qualify carrying your current mortgage, the new mortgage and a payment on the bridge loan. There usually also are substantial costs to the bridge loan, generally in the form of a few points paid on the amount (in addition to closing and recording costs). The other common misconception is that you can get a bridge loan for all of your equity.  Most providers of bridge loans don’t want to exceed 80% of the value of the residence you are departing inclusive of any outstanding debt.  

So, what options are available to sellers who are looking to qualify for and finance their new home purchase? 

There are several options to consider when trying to qualify to move up and buy a new home. There is the bridge loa, but often times, as noted above, that doesn’t work or isn’t cost effective.

There is a lot of misinformation out there, so do yourself a favor and talk to someone that is local and, even better, someone that has been referred.
— Greg Kingbsury of Caliber Home Loans

The second option is doing a lower down payment with the intention of paying down that loan after closing with the proceeds of the sale after the departed residence sells. This is usually accomplished by a principal reduction followed by a loan recast. (A loan recast is when your loan servicer re-amortizes your loan after a large principal payment.) Usually the minimum required for a recast is $5,000. This allows you to get a lower payment without having to refinance your loan and allows you to keep your current interest rate. The recast just takes your new principal balance and adjusts the payments to still keep the original loan maturity date.

A third option is a combo loan. This is where you have a first and second mortgage with the intention of paying off the second mortgage after the sale of the departed residence leaving you with just the single first mortgage. 

Aside from working with a top-notch agent, what recommendations do you have for your clients who are looking to "move up"?

Do your homework upfront and budget accordingly. Make sure you get all the numbers and consider things on a worst-case scenario. You never know if the market is going to turn, and you have to hold onto a property longer than anticipated. Consider backup plans in the event you can’t sell. Find out what the rental market would command for your property. Would you be able to carry both payments if you had to hold onto it and rent? 

Are there any potential pitfalls when selling and buying as it relates to mortgages? If so, how can clients avoid or minimize the chance of these?

The only pitfall I can think of is not having everything reviewed up front to make sure you really qualify for what you are hoping to get into. You may have your credit pulled and someone take a quick look and think everything is ok but, if they aren’t asking questions about the total picture, you could all of a sudden not qualify. If the debt ratios are close and a bank is only looking at a credit report and not asking if there are additional items such as condo fees, taxes not included in the mortgage, child support/alimony, etc., it could look on paper like you’d fully qualify and once all the pieces are put together you end up not qualifying.

This can all be avoided by being upfront about everything and making sure that the lender you speak to has the full picture when they are reviewing your file. 

The DC area real estate market is competitive and buyers often need few or no contingencies to win with sellers. How do you work with a buyer’s agent to strengthen their offer?

We try to get as much information at the beginning to make sure that there are no concerns with their ability to get financing. If there is an option to waive contingencies, this definitely helps win offers. However, waiving contingencies can put borrowers in a difficult spot and prove to be very costly if something were to go wrong. But, with the right questions asked and the appropriate documents supplied and reviewed, these risks can be mitigated to protect the borrower while also allowing them to present the strongest offer possible. We’ve been able to help buyers with financing beat out all cash offers with these strategies. 

What is the best piece of advice you have have for prospective homebuyers today? 

Take some time to set up a call with a trusted loan officer before you go out looking at anything. You should be able to have a conversation about your individual situation and get a real understanding of your options. From there, ask for scenario sheets to show you perspective loan options.

There is a lot of misinformation out there, so do yourself a favor and talk to someone that is local and, even better, someone that has been referred. A random contact from the Internet has no vested interest if they steer you wrong or something goes wrong. They can just move on to the next online lead. A local person lives on the referral. They have a more vested interest to see you succeed as their livelihood depends on satisfying each customer to keep the referrals coming.

Thank you to Greg for sharing his experience and knowledge, and make sure to connect with the Kingsbury Team on Facebook and Twitter for more mortgage insights.

Three P's of Selling Your Home

My Sign with Under Contract - No Number.jpg

In a hot real estate market, like the Washington, DC area, there sometimes is the misconception that all you need to do to sell a house is put a sign in the yard and list it on the MLS. However, there is much more that goes into selling a home...and doing it for the maximum price possible in the current market. 

While there is a list of more than 100 things I do before listing a home for a client, I like to focus on the "Three Ps" when advising homeowners on what to expect in our initial consultation:

1. Preparation: Depending on the condition of your home, the market and your ability to invest in repairs and updates, there may be a short or long list of recommended items to tend to. Some will be absolutely necessary, like ensuring major systems are operational or that there is fresh, neutral paint throughout; while others may be advisable to increase your potential of top dollar, like updating features and fixtures in kitchens and bathrooms or staging your home.

Every property is different, and we'll talk through the reasoning behind each recommendation and why it may be a smart investment. Some projects may take a quick trip to Home Depot and a day of labor and others may require more planning and a professional. For this reason, you should consult with a real estate agent as soon as you know (or are fairly confident that) you will be selling. This allows Realtors like me to prepare a recommended plan and timeline, so you don't add undue stress to the homeselling process.

2. Pricing: At every initial consultation with a client, I will be prepared with a range of market insights, including relevant comparables (aka comps), so that I can make a recommendation on list price after seeing a client's home. That recommendation begins as a narrow range and where we land ultimately depends on the repairs and updates made, recent sales and available inventory at the time we list and other circumstances and requirements (e.g., you need a buyer who will allow you to rent back your home for 30-60 days). 

Pricing, ultimately, is a means to an end...maximizing your net after paying off your mortgage (if applicable) and other closing costs. The right price will get the greatest number of potential buyers in the door and, in some cases, you may get multiple offers that could escalate above list price; in other instances, you may find the market telling you that it thinks your home is priced too high -- either by a lack of offers or only offers that are effectively below list. The goal is to price right from the beginning leveraging data but to be prepared to make a swift changed if needed.

3. Promotion: Preparing your home with repairs & updates, as well as staging and pricing it correctly are the foundation, but promotion is key to ensuring that you reach the right audiences. Promotion spans dozens of activities, including:

  • Professional Photography
  • Signage & Flyers
  • Custom Websites, Tours & URLs
  • Email Marketing to Agents & Potential Buyers
  • Open Houses for Neighbors, Agents & Buyers
  • Social Media Content, Especially Graphics & Video
  • Buyer Incentives, Like Home Warranties

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to promotion, so having an agent versed in PR, marketing and social media strategy is a huge asset. Strategic promotion will try to maximize the reach, but be targeted toward those who have the greatest potential of bringing or being a buyer.

As you can see in this brief exploration, there are seemingly limitless considerations that can have clear consequences on how much your home sells for (and how quickly). Ultimately, you're behind the wheel...but let a trusted agent be your navigator and partner on the road to the closing table. 

 

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. 

Setting the 'Stage' for a Successful Sale

Staging. If you turn on HGTV or talk to anyone who actively stalks neighborhood listings online (you know you do!), it's a hot topic that generates various opinions — from being expensive and overrated to a must in this market.

As an interior decorator and real estate agent, I have clearly seen the value of staging for sellers but also know that the process can be challenging for homeowners. With that in mind, I thought I'd share a few tips for those selling their home on how to approach the topic when the time comes to list:

Property Staged with Owner's Furniture & Accessories

Property Staged with Owner's Furniture & Accessories

  1. Staging vs. Interior Design: While it is not uncommon for interior designers and/or decorators to run staging businesses, interior design is not the same thing as staging. Staging focuses primarily on the visual aspects of spaces, while interior design (well, good interior design) focuses on the function just as much, if not more. 
     
  2. Staging Is Expensive: While staging an empty house is not inexpensive, market research has proven time and time again that staging has a positive correlation with the contract price and length of time before contract. It is important to look at staging as an investment and not simply an expense because, if done well, you will recoup and make money because of it.
     
  3. It's All or Nothing: While you certainly will have more work to do if you are starting with an empty house, staging doesn't always mean fully furnishing every living space. For properties with more than two bedrooms, I sometimes recommend selective staging. You want to focus your efforts on the most important spaces to most buyers (living room, kitchen, master bedroom, etc.) and then add on other spaces as need and budget allows. For example, you may want to stage a smaller or potentially awkward space to illustrate how it can function, say as an office or nursery. 
     
  4. No Need to Stage If I'm Living Here: If you are living in a house while it's on the market, that's an even bigger reason to stage your spaces. One of the services I offer my clients (and other Realtors) is working with their existing furniture and accessories to highlight their home and appeal to the most potential buyers. Decluttering and depersonalizing spaces is the first step in any staging plan. 
     
  5. It's Personal: Selling a home is an emotional process, and it's important to realize the moment you decide you are selling that the home is no longer yours. As an agent, my goal is to help you meet yours — whether that's a high offer, quick close or any other number of terms. When you separate yourself from the property and realize the recommendations made and actions taken are necessary to reach your goals, you can appreciate (or at least tolerate) creating and living in a show home temporarily. 
Leave Room for Buyers to See What a Space Could Be

Leave Room for Buyers to See What a Space Could Be

If you are thinking about selling your home, you have many choices when it comes to hiring a Realtor. Beyond setting the appropriate list price, marketing (which includes staging) is the most important factor in optimizing your outcome. Make sure your agent is an expert in real estate as well as all aspects of marketing (design, social media, digital advertising, etc.) and you'll be on your way to the closing table. And, of course, if you need that breadth and depth of experience in the DC metro area, you know where to find me!

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.