Friday, July 28, 2006

Ensure Smooth Transaction by Protecting Your Credit Identity

He has struck again. As some of you know, an identity thief hit me about three years ago and opened several cell phone accounts in my name. Like many consumers who have been victimized by this ever-growing crime, I didn't know anything about it until I was denied credit with a cell phone company who asked why I needed another cell phone when I already had five open with them. Oh, by the way, you owe us $1,200.

It took a few days to clear up that episode and about a year later, the ID Thief struck again. I was ready that time with alerts set up on my credit reports, requiring any issuer of credit to call my home phone first before approving. That's what happened and we thwarted the attack.

Then last week hit.

Before I go into Part Three of this credit story, let me just reiterate the importance of protecting your credit, first of all, from your own misuse -- too much debt, missing payments, etc. -- but also from those in our society who would lift your identity and mangle your credit as easily as pick up a piece of candy at the corner drug store.

For a detailed step-by-step approach to understanding how ID theft happens and what you can do to protect yourself, let me refer you to the Federal Trade Commission's webpage on this crime.

Here, you'll find a complete guide on how ID Theft happens, and also what to do if you find yourself the victim of ID Theft, including worksheets, phone numbers of the credit bureaus, etc.
For most home purchasers, without good credit, you can't buy a parking spot, much less the home of your dreams. Don't wait until your mortgage application to see if you are who you think you are. The home purchase process is fast paced -- taking weeks, not months to complete. If you wait until you make application to ensure you have clean credit, you may find yourself with an identity mess that takes too long to remedy.

Is it a large problem? The National Criminal Justice Reference Service reported that in 2004, 3.6 million households, representing 3 percent of the households in the United States, discovered that at least one member of the household had been the victim of identity theft during the previous six months. Two-thirds of those households lost money due to the theft at an average loss of $1,290.

This problem's not going away. And as I found, it will probably follow me the rest of my life. In talking these issues over with a fraud representative from one of my credit card companies, he said, "Once you take care of it, they'll stop for a while, then just wait. About a year later, you'll start seeing credit issues again." And that's about how long it took.

What I have found is frightening. Our Social Security numbers area handed around between corporations like a cheap date's phone number. My particular bandit now has my number (where from I have no idea). He had one of my credit cards in his hands that my credit card company had provided him when he convinced them that he was me. Fortunately, the company has a system set up where they notify me by email whenever a change is requested by me. If it's not me -- please call. I did and they cancelled the card.

Here are some items I've been seeing continuing to happen across the credit arena that should change -- if not by corporate self-policing, then by legal edict. Until they do, we consumers are pretty much on our own to protect ourselves.

Medical insurance providers continue to use our SSNs on their member identification cards.
Twice this week, when the credit departments of both Sprint/Nextel and Cingular called me to verify I was requesting more phones, they asked me to "verify" my SSN with them to make sure I was who I said I was.

(Never give your social security number to anyone who has called you. I reprimanded the callers and talked with their managers. Will this change, who knows? Spring/Nextel, Cingular -- wake up, dudes, the credit coffee is spilling over.)

Payroll departments printing your SSN number on your pay stub.

Merchants who have still not converted over to the receipt system that blanks out your credit card number on the stub except for the last four digits.

Companies/agencies/organizations continuing to use the SSN as an identifier. (I gave blood recently and they wanted my SSN. Why? They didn't know, it was just on the form.)

As you invest in real estate, your credit becomes a pivotal part of the plan. Without it protected, you'll not only have credit headaches, you'll be limited in how you can grow your personal wealth. Take notice and take action.

Published: July 14, 2006

Grandpa's Liens Could Cause Bumps in Transaction, Inheritance

Liens on properties have existed probably since the sale of real estate began. A lien is simply "the lender's right to claim the borrower's property in the event the borrower defaults," according to mtgprofessor.com. "If there is more than one lien, the claim of the lender holding the first lien will be satisfied before the claim of the lender holding the second lien, which in turn will be satisfied before the claim of a lender holding a third lien, etc."

The word itself comes from the Old French, according to Dictionary.com. It means to tie, bond or constrain. Thus a lien on the property places a constraint on the title which needs to be removed before it can be sold free and clear.

Liens are a necessity of owning a piece of the real estate pie for most people. Your mortgage is a lien; however, there are more liens than just for mortgages. Non-real estate companies and entities can order liens on your property. Creditors, the IRS, subcontractors, even your homeowners association, can all order a lien on your property.

www.FindLaw.com provides a more in-depth look at this financial instrument: "[A lien] gives you standing as a creditor to be paid from proceeds if the property is sold or refinanced. Because property to which liens are attached often changes hands or is refinanced, usually a lien will eventually produce enough cash to pay off a judgment, with post-judgment costs and interest."

Liens can take a homeowner by surprise. If you ever have a dispute with a creditor and in the absence of pesky phone calls think they just got tired of chasing you down -- beware. You may have a judgment on your credit and a lien on your property. They're going to get their money, they'll just be patient about it.

Such is the case of a 93-year-old grandfather whose children wrote me regarding his reverse mortgage with a balance of $240,000. When his children researched about selling the house and paying off the mortgage and using the proceeds to pay for assisted living, they found three judgment liens on the property.

The question in an email to me was: "What happens if there is not enough money to pay off all the judgments? How do we get the title cleared for the new buyer of the house? I understand that the judgments are paid in order of date of filing but what do we do with the other judgments -- do they stay with my father or the property?"

Keep in mind, the lien debt has nothing to do with the mortgage amount. The creditors want their money and the lien is just a tool for them to force the landowner to pay up. The liens stay with the property, and liens don't have to be removed before transferring title from one owner to the next, but the purchaser needs to be aware that there may be other debt connected to the house besides the mortgage.

(This is especially true for investors purchasing a house in foreclosure -- title search done early is imperative.)

In the above case, the property can be transferred to the kids easy enough, but then they must still deal with the liens. If they sell the house, the proceeds of the sale will generally pay off the liens in order. Again, FindLaw.com warns: "If the new owner wants to transfer the property to someone who will need financing or who wants clear title, however, the lien will have to be cleared up. In the real world, judgment liens tend to get paid off sooner or later."

Published: July 7, 2006

Sellers Face Contingent Dilemma

Contingencies in contracts will always exist. It is a rare thing to find a written contract which satisfies both parties right up front without a contingency.

In a sellers market, even if the buyer writes it with no contingencies, the seller will tack on a few of his own -- must find home of choice, comes to mind. Even so, when sellers add contingencies, it's usually only a couple that are easily remedied and which don't cost the buyer much money. When buyers add contingencies, on the other hand, it means the seller may face delayed expenses (such has home inspection defects) or have the chance that the house may not sell at all. Here's what I mean.

A Washington, D.C. area seller writes that he has "drastically lowered" his price, has a great agent and is "very realistic about the market," but that he's turned down two contingent contracts with unrealistic buyers. Having lowered the price to 30 percent below appraised value, the two contracts have both been contingent on the buyer selling his or her home first before completing the sale.

In further discussion, both buyers, according to this seller, are very unrealistic about the value of their own homes, and want to put them on the market way overpriced.
"They think my house is a great deal because I have lowered my price," Tired Seller writes. "Then they write a contract based on the equity they 'assume' they have in their home. They want to list it way overpriced ... . My plan is to just keep lowering the price until it sells. Any advice?"

First of all, if you've already drawn two contracts, then you may have hit the low-enough point. Now, work on the marketing and seller subsidies up front. In addition, before rejecting an offer outright, I would write a counter that the buyer can only list the property for a certain amount. Don't say, "market value price," go ahead and have your agent draw up a comparative market analysis on the buyer's house and base the price on that CMA.

In addition, ask the buyer to follow the same modus operandi you have -- be willing to drop the price every other week until it draws a contract. Write all this verbiage in the "Other Terms" section of the contract. Remember, in real estate everything is negotiable.

When a contract comes through, in a buyers market a seller needs to remember to keep his or her cool. You don't need to roll over a play dead, accepting any terms the buyer offers. Remember, you have a contract in your hand. While the buyers may have dozens of other homes to choose from, they have chosen yours because it obviously fits their housing needs. They also obviously like your price, so now concentrate on the terms. In today's market, if your house is priced right, then you only have to focus on terms to get a winning contract on the board.

The challenge of accepting a contingent contract in many MLS's around the country, is that the status changes from Active to Under Contract/Contingencies. The problem with that is with so many homes on the market, 99 percent of buyer agents search only Active listings for their buyers -- they rarely seek out UC/Contingencies status. Why bother? They are obviously in negotiation with a buyer already.

So switching the status may mean your home lingers toward closing while waiting for the buyers' home to sell. On the other hand, the buyer becomes much more motivated to sell and may be willing to drop the price right away to elicit a quick sale.

The No. 1 contingency in contracts today is the home inspection. Instead of fearing this contingency, the astute seller will conduct his or her own home inspection and fix the problems before the buyer finds something later. Be tough on your own house. If it has an old air conditioner -- have it worked on and serviced. Make sure all the plugs work properly.

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, make sure you have the permits or at least professional inspections necessary to show you did the work right. I've seen sellers redo the plumbing and/or electrical work of the previous owner who was a DIY because they just didn't know it was done wrong.

In other words, the seller who anticipates the challenges from a buyer will be ahead of the game. Don't wait till you "find out" that you have termites -- look it up and uncover the defect before it's a surprise. Be willing to accept contingencies, but also be willing to negotiate to make it work for you as well.

Published: June 30, 2006

Wake Up Buyers -- Deals Abound

It's not a buyers market officially in a lot of areas, but it's now starting to favor buyers after years of transactions where buyers had to escalate prices by the tens of thousands and nix home inspections, appraisals and the like. Thus, my advice to buyers -- get out there and catch a deal while you can.

All the indicators keep pointing to a healthy, vibrant real estate market in most cities around the country. Slowing down, doesn't mean dead, it just means, well, slowing down.
In the last five years, several markets have created an astounding amount of job growth, which is the first indicator and supporter of a robust real estate market. Washington and its Virginia/Maryland suburbs lead the way in the six markets that created more than 100,000 jobs in five years:

Washington DC: 369,000
Miami: 253,000
Phoenix: 221,000
New York: 157,000
Los Angeles: 155,000
Houston: 118,000

Economic forecasters predict that in the next four years, the Washington, D.C. area will create 40 percent more jobs over that period than were created in the last four years. With that kind of growth, why the slow down in the market? It's for a multiple reasons:
Rentals are cheaper than owning. In the markets above, appreciation upwards to 50 percent priced or shocked some buyers out of the market. Thus they turned to renting instead, hoping to wait for the market to slow down or slip back.

"The rental market is very good right now," says Leonard Wood, an apartment and condo builder from Atlanta and chairman of the National Association of Home Builder's Multifamily Leadership Board. In an e-newsletter from NAHB, Mr. Wood said, "Over the past three years, there have been thousands of rental units converted and sold as condos and, at the same time, few new rental apartments were being built. This leaves us with a supply-constrained market while demand is growing."

Rising mortgage interest rates. Part of the economic cool is orchestrated by the Federal Reserve's moves upward on interest rates. A growing economy can turn into an inflationary economy -- which damages buying power for homeowners and consumers of all products alike. Thus interest rates are raised to slow down the economy. As interest rates move up, buyers are edged out of the market.

Consumer confidence. A recent Associated Press report pointed out that consumers are up and down on the economy. "Consumer confidence, which reached a four-year high in April, lost ground in May," AP quoted Lynn Franco, director of the New York-based Conference Board Consumer Research Center. "Apprehension about the short-term outlook for the economy, the labor market and consumers' earning potential has driven the Expectations Index down to levels not seen since the aftermath of the hurricanes last summer."

The challenge for home sellers and buyers is that economic forecasts many times are driven by the "feelings" of people and investors, rather than reality.

Here are the facts: Jobs "grew" last month. The Expectations Index was the second highest ever. Interest rates are still historically the lowest they've ever been. We are nearly at full employment. Fear, many times, drives a market, rather than reality. As a homebuyer looking for a house to live in or as an investment -- look to the facts.

When a market levels or cools -- this is when the smart consumer can really get his or her money's worth. How would you like to buy a house at a 5 or 10 percent discount? It's happening now in markets around the country. Sellers are still mopping up from years of equity growth, but they have to move now and are willing to negotiate downward on their asking prices.

(Sorry sellers, you're not going to like this next paragraph.) Buyers -- name your price. If the asking price is $500,000 -- start at $20,000 or $30,000 below. Start somewhere and get the ball rolling. Then start your list of add ons: home inspection, home warranty, closing costs (some loan programs allow up to 6 percent), and more. Don't be bashful.

My word to the sellers -- don't be offended. If your house has been sitting on the market for 60, 90 or 120 days -- consider that any offer is a good offer. Let the negotiations begin.

Published: June 23, 2006

"Losing" on Real Estate Price a Matter of Perspective

When it comes to pricing your house when you’re ready to sell it, keep in mind you must sell in the market you’re in today. It doesn’t matter what your former neighbor got six months ago, or what properties are listed for now. All that matters is this -- whatever the last sale price in your neighborhood of your model -- that’s probably your sale price now.

When you’re looking at what you’ll gain on the sale of your house, let’s keep it in perspective. If house prices increased year after year at 4 percent per year and then suddenly people were selling their houses for 1 percent less than last year’s asking price, would that be reasonable? If so, then when property is moving up at 20 percent per year for several years and then suddenly you have to sell it for 5 percent less than the prices last year, would that be reasonable? The challenge is when we move from percentages to dollar amounts. If 5 percent represented $5,000, most people wouldn’t blink. It’s when 5 percent represents $25,000 that sellers start to freak.

In the DC area, we were experiencing astounding rates of appreciation as a region, 20 percent from 2004 to 2005 prices. Many homeowners have experienced a doubling in property values over the last five years. The average home price is now about $540,000, according to the local multiple listing system. Now, price appreciation has subsided and is sitting at a mere 5 to 8 percent region wide (depending on where you’re standing). Sounds pretty healthy, still, right? You would think.

However, there are stories from the field on how sellers are defending their prices as if their lives depended on it. While sellers are sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars of equity, they can’t stand the idea of dropping their price by $25,000 or $50,000 to sell it today. The house that was $260,000 in 1999, is now selling for $569,000 today. But some sellers now want that same type appreciation and can’t imagine selling it for less than $589,000. Bringing it down the $20,000 or $40,000 to sell the property seems, well, just not fair.

What’s even scarier are the agents who are defending their prices in a correcting market. I have to keep in mind that nearly half the agents in the country (as well as here in the Capital region) were not in business five years ago. They’ve just now entered a market where prices have to be corrected, dropped -- improved, as it were.

However, as I talk with agents around the region about their listings, they’ll be the first to let you know, "It won’t sell for what the seller’s asking," but they’re too afraid to tell the seller the sobering news.

The market is like playing Russian roulette. Sometimes you don’t know what you have until you pull the trigger. Somebody needs to blink. Sellers seem to be saying to buyers, "I’ll drop my price, just make an offer." While buyers are blankly replying, "I’ll make an offer, just lower your price."

It’s this stalemate that has played a part in creating an abundant supply of houses on the market in the DC area. We’re talking upwards to 200 percent more homes on the market in any given year-to-year comparison. And, folks, after a dearth of homes in this area, it’s a good thing. Is it affecting prices? Sure thing. Will prices come down? Absolutely. Are sellers going to lose money? Well – in some cases.

For sellers staying in the same area, keep in mind, if you have to drop your price by 5 percent, then the seller of the house you’re buying (usually a lot more expensive) is probably doing to drop the sales price by about the same percentage point. It means that while you may "lose" money on the sale of your home, you’ll more than likely "gain" it on the purchase up.
Keep in mind, the market is the market. When it’s time to buy, buy. When it’s time to move, then sell. Work with the market you’re in, not in the market you wish it would be.

Published: June 16, 2006

Pricing Right Sellers' Job No. 1

It seems during a slowing market, the last person to get the message that the house needs a lower price is the seller. After all, the seller has the most to lose by "improving" the price and it's a tough decision to let go of a dream of cashing out.

A sellers market builds over time. If new jobs enter a particular area and housing doesn't keep pace, home shortages create a sellers market where prices increase and bidding wars begin. Then, one of two events happen to make a market cool down: the economy stops growing or prices become too expensive (combined with an ample supply of rentals). A normalized/buyers market is born and sellers need to get on board or hit the showers.

In the Washington, D.C. area, jobs are continuing to enter the market at a projected rate of 65,000 in 2006 (which is on top of more than 70,000 new jobs in 2005). According to the Center of Regional Analysis at George Mason University, the area has a deficit of housing by about 160,000 units. With plenty of rentals available this past year and skittish buyers, the area has just come off one of its hottest markets ever. It's cooled, slowed, normalized.

When people ask if it's crashing, I just point out that if you were driving at 120 mph and slowed to 75 mph, how would it feel? The lower speed limit may seem a lot slower, but it's still faster than the speed limit. We're running at that fast, but slower pace, now.

Nevertheless, as inventories grow and days on market increase, those in the business know what will sell a house more than anything else -- a price correction. Call it "reduced," "price cut," "realignment," "price improvement," "repositioning," or whatever you want -- the price needs to come down to where the buyers are biting.

I've collected quite a few excuses that sellers and some agents hold onto, instead of biting the bullet and bringing down the price.

"My house is worth it." Well, according to who? Usually, this statement is followed by a shopping list of items that have been added to the house: hardwood floors, 9-foot ceilings, new appliances, upgraded bath/kitchen, you name it. Yeah, your house is unique, just like everybody else's. The reality is while your house may have all those neat amenities, so do the other dozens, scores or hundreds of homes in your market area that are also on the market.

"It's a great looking house." It better look great if it's going to beat out the competition. Location, price and condition will always be a factor in any market. It may look great, but looks have nothing to do with real value. When you start thinking that your house pales all the competition it means one thing you probably haven't seen other houses like yours on the market.

"I have to get this much or I can't sell." Oh, I really like this one. What a seller needs doesn't matter to the buyer. The buyer is looking for as much value in a community of high-priced houses. In the DC area, the average price lingers around $550,000. For that price, many buyers want the house to look good, have plenty of amenities and be connected with a realistic seller who is motivated.

"If I can't get my price, then I'll take it off the market." My question to that statement is: "Then why are you on the market to begin with?" Look at what it's going to take to sell your home and realize your true goal -- getting that next property. Looking at only what your house will draw is too short sighted. The real question is, "What kind of deal can I get on the next house?"

The reality of most sellers, when they are dropping the asking price, is that they are still walking away with a boatload of money, just not as much as they wanted. They really haven't "lost" anything. They've doubled their gain. When pricing your house, look at these hard-core realities: what were the last few "solds" in my type of home; what is my true goal -- to get a certain amount of gain, or to get to the next house; and, finally, am I really in the game or am I playing around? Get serious. Price right. Get the next home of your dreams.

Published: June 9, 2006

7-Ways to Make Money On Investment Properties

The market has cooled in various cities across the country and fair weather investors are starting to worry about how they'll be able to make money now that their houses aren't escalating at astronomical rates.

I just have to say to these folks -- breathe. If all you want to do in real estate is make money on the basis of appreciation (asset growth), then you need a primer on how to make really good money in real estate.

The authors of Investing In Real Estate, Andrew McLean and Gary Eldred (2006, John Wiley & Sons Inc.), have provided that primer, listing eight ways to grow your wealth in investment real estate.

The key to building true wealth in real estate is through buying and holding. A good tenant can create wealth for you by paying for the mortgage, insurance, taxes and monthly fees through their rental payment to you. In addition, consider this: you have just taken over an asset leveraged by a fraction of the value. In other words, let's say you purchased a condo at $150,000 for $15,000 down payment. If it grows at 5 percent per year ($7,500 first year, etc.) you're making more than 50 percent on your money that you actually invested -- can't get that kind of power behind mutual funds.

Real estate investing allows investors several ways to make and/or save money that other investment tools will never allow or have the ability to provide. As Mr. McLean and Mr. Eldred point out, no one can predict short-term price increases -- but that's why the savvy investor doesn't look to just appreciation to make money. Here's how you can build wealth through your real estate investing:

Positive cash flow. This is simply what it sounds like -- the rent covers the mortgage, taxes, insurance, fees, etc., and once all that's paid, you have money left over at the end of the month. A wise investor will also have enough money in reserves to cover all these expenses for a few months in case the property goes vacant.

Equity growth via amortization. As the mortgage shrinks from the mortgage payments, your equity grows (and so does your net worth). This is one of the most powerful means of wealth growth -- using OPM (other people's money) to build your net worth. The tenant is providing the investor with hundreds or thousands of dollars per month to pay off debt, which turns into equity for the landlord.

Capital improvement. This is the fixer-upper that most people think about when investing in real estate. Purchase a property for $50,000, put in another $25,000, and voila, the house is now worth $125,000 ($50,000 more than the initial investment).
Wholesale purchases. The most effective way to build net worth and equity is to buy a house for a bargain price. These properties would be the pre-foreclosure, foreclosure, tax sales, etc., where the investor buys the property well below market price. In essence, you make your money when you buy the house at such a low rate.

Lowering tax bills. One of the greatest benefits about real estate investing is all the tax breaks allowed for these type investments. Uncle Sam allows many tax deductions, tax credits and other government-sponsored programs connected with real estate investing that cut the investor's tax bill, thus, increasing the bottom line and equity growth.

Smart asset management. Many novice or ignorant real estate investors lose money simply by not managing the asset wisely. For instance, painting properties before the wood is actually peeking through will keep the asset in good shape, seal the wood, and protect it from more expensive damage. Managing the asset is just as important as buying smart and cash flow. The real estate investment is a commodity, not a money machine, and must be managed and protected to maintain future wealth growing potential.

Asset value growth. As your property increases in value, so does your wealth. This is the old fashioned principle of buy and wait. Buy at today's prices and with time, your asset will grow in value because of local appreciation. In addition, your equity will grow along with the amortization principle mentioned above.

Rent appreciation. As the cost of living increases, so, too, should your rent cash flow. Increasing your rental income per month by 5 percent could result in hundreds of dollars of cash flow per year -- year after year.

Published: June 2, 2006

Practical Things to Remember When Home Shopping

Most folks are always looking for the ever-elusive "dream home." Not too long after settling into a new dwelling, many residents begin to pick apart the house they just rented or bought.
Someone who really likes the idea of a laundry chute (great, no more walking the dirty clothes to the laundry room), rethinks that idea when they now have to climb up two flights of steps to put away the clothes.

Here are some practical things to think about when you're looking through your pool of homes that you're hoping to buy.

Measure your furniture I mentioned this recently about a couch that wouldn't fit into my basement once I finished the space. You might say the excitement about the two sleeper sofas dimmed to the degree that I was realizing I couldn't use them the way I had planned. Fortunate for me, I had hired the perfect decorator who pointed me back to the furniture manufacturer who directed me to a couple of fellas that dismantle, move and reassemble furniture. Thus -- when shopping for a home, don't forget the measurements of your large furniture: couches, big screen TVs, mattresses, pianos, etc. More than likely, they will convey with the house.

Why is that conveying? Okay, so it sounds great that the pool table (or 2 sleeper sofas) conveys. Be sure to ask yourself -- Why? Why would the owner part with this piece of furniture, extra refrigerator, etc.? Play a quick game of pool, see if the refrigerator really freezes and cools, and why would they let go of these two perfectly good sleepers? Sometimes, it may be they just won't have room in the next house for them or no longer need them. Meanwhile, they may be handing over a white elephant to the next owners.

Sounds great. What if it breaks? So the hot tub stays? Great. What if it breaks down? Again, is this really a benefit to the house or is it something that has cost the owners hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to maintain? Find out if a large piece of equipment, appliance, etc., has had any repair problems.

What about conveniences? Sure, the house is located deep into the community on a cul-de-sac, but what does that mean when you need a bag of sugar or flower? Is the shopping just a few minutes down the road or does it mean a 15-minute jaunt down Hwy. 1? If it's a newer development, how long before they will be constructing the business section of the development?

What kind of wiring? This analysis has become more important as homeowners look more toward broadband, high-speed Internet access for work and pleasure. When walking through an older home, be sure to really understand what all the coaxial connections really attach to: antenna, cable, digital cable, satellite. In addition, if you're accustom to other type connections, such as DSL or Fiber Optics, at least find out if these services are available if the house doesn't have them connected already.

Planes, trains and automobiles. If you're looking for a quiet neighborhood, don't forget to come by and check out the community during rush hour. It may be convenient to the main thoroughfares, but are those roadways so close that you can hear the traffic (or see it) before tuning to Traffic on the Nines? How about the sounds from above? I've talked with many owners who, aware that the community was near the airport, had no idea they would have to straighten up their pictures on the walls after each airplane flew over.

HOA Documents. Don't just thumb through the homeowners association documents. Be sure to really understand your limits under these binding documents. In a community near Washington, D.C., for instance, no residents can park a pickup truck on their property. Imagine the surprise to a new homeowner who just didn't happen to read about that limitation in the docs. When I've bought properties, this is one of the sections of the HOA docs I turn to immediately.

More detail is better than the big picture when it comes to selecting your next property. Research, drive by and really get to know your target property before making a final decision. Happy home shopping.

Published: May 26, 2006

Renewable Energy Homes Still A Dream of the Future

As I was growing up, everything was supposed to happen by the year 2000. All cars would be running on electricity or alternative fuels. All clean air was supposed to be depleted, and we would all have portable phones (well, we got that one right). Another item I thought would be in use a lot more by the 21st Century was the integration of renewable energy into our daily living at home.

At one time I wanted to build myself an earth home (meaning 1 or two sides of the house would be underground); heated by solar power; and operated by photovoltaic panels, which would convert solar energy into electricity stored in a bank of batteries. Ah, yes, the dream of green living.

Unfortunately, builders have not seen the public support swelling for such alternative, renewable energy sources, thus houses are continuing to built with energy technologies that haven't changed at there core over the last several decades: central air conditioners, forced air furnaces, heat pumps, fossil fuels and natural gas. At least the politicians are getting it. A recent Pew Research study showed that support for more funding of renewable energy from both political parties is growing in the face of the latest oil crisis. In addition, research continues to bring these technologies into an affordable price range so that they can be used on a more massive level.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, operated by the Department of Energy, is the nation's primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

The group operates on a $220 million budget, dedicated to the development of renewable energy. An example of the group's mission was depicted in a Habitat for Humanity house build last year in Wheat Ridge, Col. The home, on Carr Street in that town, is a net zero energy house, meaning it creates as much energy as it consumes -- now that's what I'm talking about.

Built under the Department of Energy's Building America Program, "The house features superinsulated walls, floors, and ceilings; efficient appliances; a solar water heating system; heat-recovery ventilation system to assure indoor air quality; compact fluorescent lighting; and windows coated with thin layers of metallic oxide to help keep heat in during the winter and out during the summer. The home's 4-kilowatt photovoltaic system is sized to produce excess energy in the summer to balance out winter consumption," according to the NREL website.

Just in case you were wondering if this type home is only for the eccentric energy consumer, Pulte Homes, one of the largest home builders in the country, is working with Building America Program to develop home construction that consumes 50 percent less energy than the average home consumes today.

An online flier at www.NREL.gov about the Pulte homes (built in several Las Vegas, Nev., suburbs) describes the materials packages used to build the houses:

Windows: Spectrally selective glass, which lets visible light through, but keeps the solar heat gain out. This lowers the cooling load during the summer and reduces the fading of furniture caused by sunlight.

Roofing System: Unvented roofing system, which changes the home's thermal barrier from the ceiling to the roof deck. Ductwork for air conditioning and heating is located "inside," surrounded by attic air at close to 80-degrees Fahrenheit rather than as much as 140-degrees Fahrenheit, as in a typical attic.

Heating System: Smaller heating system, since the house can be so energy efficient in the heating mode that the gas water heater located in the garage provides hot water and also space heating in many houses. In other houses, the furnace is downsized and uses an efficient sealed-combustion design.

Cooling System: Smaller air-conditioning unit, since improved air-tightness and energy efficiency measures allow the air conditioner to be downsized by 30 percent.
As the auto industry has begun to respond to our energy crisis with the introduction of hybrid and alternative fuel cars, we can only hope the building industry will begin to do the same on a mass-production basis. The above products and others like them is a good start.

Published: May 19, 2006

Lessons Learned From Remodeling Project

It wasn't too long ago … okay, it was actually several months ago, that I let you into the world of my remodeling project and provided you with some tidbits of what to be aware of during this August type project. Now that I've entered my seventh month of the project I've learned even more, all for your benefit.

First, I'll share some items that I did right. Then other items that I would do differently.

What We Did Right

Get professional help. I don't know about you, but we have a lot of life going on in the Carr household. Even for a handyman who feels confident in demolition, reconstruction and finish work, (and that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm talking about me) the biggest problem is finding the time. Remodeling a kitchen, finishing a basement or constructing an addition is not for the faint at heart or the time challenged.

The professionals would include landscapers, construction artists and interior decorators -- anyone that has to actually bring your concepts to fruition.
Pick the right contractors. We hired three such professionals: Tom for landscaping and painting; Jim for the finishing of the basement and all the residual projects connected with that project; and finally, Susan was our "creative" consultant on the colors, materials, furniture and art choices.

From day one, we decided on the right contractor for the right job. Tom and his team really knew how to set up beds, design the layout and pick out the healthiest plants. All but one plant has survived the winter and they're all now in full bloom. I have a holly plant that is starting to shed leaves and dry out, but the guarantee on the plants is 12 months, so I'll be able to get it replaced.

Tom also headed up the painting of our interior and some outside repair work. His bid on this job wasn't the cheapest, but his method of painting – one coat of primer on all walls, two coats of paint to follow – guaranteed a professional, seamless look throughout. It was worth the added expense.

My second contractor is a professional's professional, providing only the best quality in work and craftsmanship. Jim, a former educator, now manages teams of contractors on jobs throughout my market area. He has headed up plumbers, electricians, carpenters and painters, to name a few.

Finally, Sue's color selections and advice on furnishings brought confidence for both my wife and I in finding direction and focus on what the final product would look like.
Get bids in writing. Both my contractors provided detailed bids with designs for all the work they would be completing. It gave both of us a stake in the ground as far as work requested and work completed -- and deviations from both.

Doing Things Differently

Looking back, of course, there are things we would have done differently. But there were also parts of the project that we learned had to be done differently. As we moved forward with the demolition, construction, and finally material selections, we found out just how realistic our plans and dreams really were. And with those realizations came delays and budget changes.

Concentrate on the plans earlier. If we had spent more time looking over other people's remodeling jobs, pricing materials and touching base on what we really liked and what we really didn't, things would have gone quicker and the budget more inline. Most of our budget increases were based on our selection in materials, such as upgraded doors, lighting, flooring, etc. The question in remodeling, we learned was not so much on how much can we get with our budget (bulk purchasing), to more of what would we be happy with over the next several years (quality purchasing)?

Take more measurements early and often. Okay, this is where the "I think that will fit," vs. "I know it will fit," can get expensive and frustrating. The 80-inch sofa that you believe should fit in the 83-inch tall doorway may not fit if you can't compromise the 30-inch width of the door with the 32-inch breadth of the sofa. Measurements are most important when it comes to ordering furniture and placing them in the rooms.

Use storage better. While I now have about a quarter of my earthly belongings in storage, what I have in storage has been the biggest challenge. All my files should have stayed at the house, while all extraneous furniture should have gone away. Another way to have made this work better would have been to have a yard sale early on. As it is now, we just want to get the job done and get our stuff back to the house.

Published: May 12, 2006

Low Monthly Payment Key to Investing

Many people have emailed me lately with their woes of buying pre-construction dwellings a few months ago in hopes of grabbing a quick buck by flipping the dwelling once they go to settlement. In the heated market last year and previously, many a novice investor made a lot of money in this way. However, the warning given at that time that a buyers market could cause them much pain and financial suffering went unheeded by many and now they're paying for it.

In today's less fevered market (but still healthy in parts), many new homes are being placed on the market and the would-be investors/sellers are now homeowners without two things: the cash to go to settlement or a renter to make their monthly payment for them. They gambled that they would never have to go to settlement, instead, walking away with a lot of cash in return for being in line with deposit money a few months ago.

This is why when people ask me about a good place to invest, I do not point to the markets that have been moving upward for long periods of time and where they cannot cover their monthly payment with the fare market rent. If you want to build cash flow and seeking more money coming in each month than going out, then look for the long-haul principle of buy and wait.

Investors look for two ways to grow wealth: asset growth and cash flow. Hopefully, you can get both in the same property, but sometimes you have to settle for one or the other.

Eventually, a market will appreciate so much that the going rents won't pay for the monthly payment for the come lately investor. Thus, the investment creates a cash shortage each month -- which isn't necessarily bad. For instance, if your rent is $1,000 per month, but the mortgage is $1,200 -- the $200 monthly shortfall may be affordable and provide a good return on investment in the long haul, just like a good stock, if the asset is growing at a healthy rate.

For instance, if the property is appreciating at 10 percent and surpassing the $2,400 per year in payments you're having to make beyond the rental income through the year, then the asset growth builds your wealth and the renter makes the majority of the investment per month for you.

If you're looking to invest in short-term real estate, i.e., fixer upper to flip, then mortgage programs designed to create a low monthly payment may be the tool to use. These would be various adjustable rate mortgages (i.e., cost of funds index or Option ARMS) and interest-only mortgages.

Some of these type programs enable the investor/buyer to qualify for more property, control cash flow, and wait for property values to rise before selling/exchanging for a larger, more profitable investment over the next few years.

For instance, the 2/1 buy-down is making its way back into the market place. This is a mortgage that begins its interest rate 2 points lower than the fixed rate (4.5 percent in today's market), then moves up another percentage point the next year and then finally a fixed rate on the third to 30th years. This type loan was what I used on my very first mortgage. I was so excited to get a starting rate of 10 percent. By the time it increased to the 12 percent mark, fixed rate mortgages were headed downward and I refinanced to 7.5 percent (again, very excited at the time to have such a low rate).

Another adjustable rate mortgage popular with investors is the Option ARM. Mortgage-X.com, defines an Option ARM as a loan program with an adjustable rate mortgage "with added flexibility of making one of several possible payments on your mortgage every month, in order to better manage your monthly cash flow."

Again, this type loan provides very low monthly payments -- lower than those mortgages with fixed rate mortgages. The primary concern for any ARM and especially the Option, is the changing payment year over year. In particular for the Option ARM, you could find that while you're in the false security of having a positive cash-flow each month, your mortgage is increasing in value because you're paying the lowest allowed payment, which doesn't even pay enough interest to keep up with the mortgage. Thus, you would be in a negative amortization situation -- owing more than what you originally borrowed.

Before trying these mortgages -- get advice -- plenty of advice -- from a qualified, experienced mortgage professional who can explain all the benefits and liabilities (that means, dangers) of these programs.

Published: May 5, 2006

The Bath: Enjoy It Before You Sell It

Friends of mine decided to sell their townhouse a while back and immediately knew what they had to do to demand top dollar, if not, multiple contracts: get the house in shape. A couple of weeks, two contractors and $10,000-plus later, they had new carpet; new kitchen appliances with white flooring; new paint throughout (including the demolition of a mirrored wall); power-washed/stained deck; and a few plumbing issues taken care of.

Once all the work was done, they sat back in their newly revamped dwelling and sighed: "Why didn't we do this sooner?" The investment was quite small when you consider the benefit, but many homeowners wait till it's time to sell the house before they replace all the items of their home that have been bugging them for years.

Giving your home a facelift could be more affordable than you think. This was especially brought to mind during a visit to one of my favorite restaurants. Visiting the restroom, I was appalled at the condition: old plywood; an old mirror losing its reflective backing; mildewed caulking; and a stench very unbecoming this particular establishment.

A bathroom is probably one of the easiest and most affordable rooms to give a face lift and provide a "wow" factor for buyers coming into your home. I'm not even talking about a complete remodeling, just a face lift that can change the room's look and shift your personal feelings about the room.

Think about it -- when you walk into a 20- to 30-year-old home, would you be more excited about one with the original vanity, sink, faucet, shower door, mirrors and lighting? Or would you have a wow factor when seeing fresh paint, upgraded hardware, a modern vanity, and a dual showerhead found in most fine hotels? In addition, how would you like to create that wow factor for less than $1,000? It can be done.

Looking over a few large home improvement web sites will give you a grasp of how attainable this face lift can be. What you want to spend on the bath is up to you. You can upgrade your showerhead for as little as $6 for a low-grade plastic energy saver model or as high as $3,750 for a multiple head shower tower. We'll keep our budget a little in the middle for a run of the mill bathroom, that WarmlyYours.com says is about 100 square feet.

Sinks: ($150 - $400) This can be as bland or fancy as you want.
Vanity: ($150 - $900) For every bland sink, there's a vanity to match.
Faucet Hardware: ($30 - $100+) There are hundreds of models from which to choose -- from chrome to polished brass.
Lights: ($50 - $100+) Again lots of choices.
Towel racks, etc.: ($50 - $100+)
Paint/Caulking: ($50 - $100+)
Flooring: ($45 - $100+)

Obviously, you can push the budget up a lot higher than what's quoted above, however, I'm talking about a budget-conscious face lift, complete with a wow-factor, not gutting the bathroom for a complete remodel.

Your facelift can be as low as a few hundred dollars or a couple thousand bucks. But here are a few fix-its that are really (really) cheap, require a very minimal investment and just some good old-fashioned elbow grease:

Deep cleaning: maybe all this room needs is just a good cleaning. Think sanitizing. Really get down to the nitty-gritty and cut the grease in all the crevices.

Kill the mildew with a commercial spray. White caulk gleaming from underneath mildew can make all the difference.

Remove old caulk and recaulk the complete bath.

Regrout floor and shower tiles.

Before you invest a lot of money to make the next owner happy with your home -- work on a redo so that you enjoy it yourself.

Published: April 28, 2006

Don't Forget: Security Deposit is the Renter's Money

Every state has its own laws regulating the care of security deposits from renters. The first rule from every state is to the landlord, reminding him or her that the security deposit is NOT their money. The security deposit comes from the tenant and belongs to the tenant until the term of the lease expires.

State laws govern the handling and care of the security deposit from how much it can be, where it has to be deposited, how much annualized interest it must earn, what can be taken out of it at the end of the lease, and the time when it's supposed to be returned to the tenant.

FindLaw.com has a state-by-state listing of how much landlords are allowed to charge for deposits. The highest is "no statutory limit," which means the landlord can charge as much as possible -- nearly half the states have no limit on deposits. The state of California has the highest regulated security deposit allowance – up to three-and-a-half months rent. Those with limits stand between 1 and 2 month's rent. Thus if your rent is $1,500, the most a landlord could charge in Virginia and Maryland, for instance would be $3,000, where landlords are allowed to charge up to 2 month's rent for deposit.

The market also plays a role for landlord's fees. While the law applies no limits in 24 of the states, most people are going to walk away from a rental where the landlord wants too much money up front. The market limit may be one or two month's rent -- charge more and your unit may never get rented out.

There may be some comfort to tenants to know that the security deposit is not just a free loan to landlords. Real estate law and state regulations limit what the landlord can do with the money. First of all -- they must not co-mingle the funds in personal accounts. Your landlord should have a separate account established for deposit moneys. The check goes into that account and is held until the end of the lease.

Unfortunately, if you check violations with the state real estate commission, the co-mingling of funds requirement is also the one most violated, most times out of ignorance of this statute by private real estate investors. If you're concerned about your deposit money, require your landlord to provide a copy of the deposit slip, showing that it's been deposited.

Depending on your state of residence, it may be required to be placed in an interest-bearing account -- or not. Tenants in the Washington, D.C. area, enjoy this little bit of "investment" and are supposed to receive interest at the end of the rent period, as well as their deposit amount. And that brings up the final point about security deposits -- how much are you going to get back at the end of the lease.

The whole reason of the security deposit is to protect the landlord from damage to his or her investment outside of usual wear and tear. If your cat has marked his territory throughout the house and ruined the carpet -- you may have just lost your deposit. If the carpet has just aged over time, then you should not lose your deposit so the landlord can recarpet in between tenants.

Legal advice web site Nolo.com has a good list of deductions. Here are just a few of them:
Ordinary wear and tear (Landlord's responsibility):
Curtains faded by the sun
Water-stained linoleum by shower
Minor marks on or nicks in wall
Dents in the wall from door handle bumping it
Moderate dirt or spotting on carpet
Damage by tenant: (Tenant's responsibility):
Cigarette burns in curtains or carpets
Broken tiles in bathroom
Large marks on or holes in wall
Doors off its hinges
Rips in carpet or urine stains from pets

To protect your security deposit, here are some tips on how to make sure you get as much or all of it back at the end of the lease.

Be aware of your lease requirements. I get emails all the time from tenants who just simply signed a lease and never read over it, thereby never knowing that some of the things they did to the apartment or house was going to be repaired from funds out of the security deposit.
Conduct a move-in inspection. Most jurisdictions have a move-in inspection form whereby the landlord and tenant can walk through and note defects in the property at the time of move-in. Any holes in the wall, stains on the carpet, discoloration of fabrics, and working order of appliances can be noted and discussed as to responsibility of the tenant or the landlord to have it fixed.

Take care of the property. While you may be renting the house and the landlord is responsible for providing a functioning dwelling for you, this doesn't mean that the landlord is an ATM machine to take care of the tenant's blatant mistakes. If the garbage deposal breaks because you've allowed your silverware to continually dump down into it, the landlord may have a word with you about who's going to pay for it.

Return the property to move-in condition when you move out. Keep your move-in inspection form in a secure place so you can substantiate that you have left the property in as good or better condition than when you moved in. The primary argument between landlords and tenants over deposit money is because of the property condition at the end of the lease and who should be responsible for fixing, cleaning, or repairing it. With the advent of digital photography (with date stamps) this task has gotten even easier.

When it comes to the security deposit, all parties need to understand the rules and requirements for both sides.

Published: April 21, 2006

Vacation Properties Come With Extra Expenses

There's nothing like a short jaunt to the beach (or mountains) to release your stress, get your first seasonal sunburn and start thinking about buying a piece of vacation rental property.
Come on, we've all done it. Just when the sand is about completely shaken out of all the towels and swimsuits, you start drooling over the prospects of owning your own home on or near the water.

How difficult could it be? If it's a rather affordable area, then it's going to take care of itself as far as monthly payments are concerned, right? Twelve prime rental weeks from Memorial Day to Labor Day is just the right amount of time and income to cover the 12 months of the year, right? Keep in mind that a vacation rental property has some unique expenses that you'll not face in your primary residence.

Furnishings
Your cost of housing isn't just the purchase of the land and lot, but also everything that's in it. If you want repeat renters, then it's got to be nice -- every time. At least check out auctions/sales from used hotel furniture before heading to the new furnishings store. Some investment sales include all the furnishings so you don't have to go shopping. But remember that you're renting out a property as a place for people to relax and think about nothing -- especially about the frayed couch coverings, bad springs in the master bedroom and leaky faucet in the bath or kitchen. Your house has to compete with the likes of at least a nicely furnished and operated local hotel.

Cleaning services
In between each rental, you're going to have to have the dwelling cleaned out. Through the summer, unless you've had 12 groups of very conscientious vacationers, you're going to have to have the place shoveled out at least a dozen times. The cleaning is more than just what you would do to prepare for dinner guests. These guests are paying you $150 to $300 per day for a week of vacationing – it better be as clean as a brand new home. This means a gleaming kitchen and bath, fuzz-free carpeting, crystal clear windows and a fresh smell throughout.
Wear and tear repair After these folks have paid you to live on a weekly basis in your home, then you've got to come in and repair what they have broken. What you're used to seeing at your home now, may not cut it in your vacation property. They expect to see near-new carpeting or flooring, meaning that if it's getting worn, it's time to replace it. Peeling paint? Repaint it. Mildew in the bath? Re-caulk it. Sun-burned or algae-covered decking? Blast and stain it. These are not necessarily inexpensive repairs, but this property is now a commodity. A commodity that you want your customers to be banging on the door each year to rent.

Utilities and Management fees
Just like your house at home, you are going to have to keep up the property. Hopefully, you've charged enough weekly rent to carry, not only your mortgage payment, but also the costs of carrying association dues, water, trash, electric and other utility costs (through the whole year, not just for the prime rental season). You'll need to keep up the exterior as well, so you may need funds for a landscaping crew.

Many of these services may be included with the contract you'll have with your property management company. And if you're thinking of managing the property yourself -- then think again. Managing vacation rental property is a totally different ball game than residential rentals. In a residential rental, the tenant joins you, the landlord, in keeping up the property.

Remember, the vacationing renter is there to be treated as royalty -- or at least close to it.
Giving up prime rental periods Another aspect of owning vacation property is to actually to be able to enjoy the property yourself a couple weeks a year. The challenge is letting go of the prime renting season to assure that you have enough weeks rented out during prime time to alleviate or completely pay for the challenges of paying mortgage payments through the rest of the year. So, kiss bye-bye to the Independence Day Getaway -- that's one of the highest-rent, most-desirable rent weeks of the year.

Personal time to open and close the property
Finally, remember that week you wanted to take to enjoy your vacation rental property? Well, this is probably going to be the same week that you're either getting the property ready to rent out the first week (de-winterizing the property) or getting it ready for the cooler months (winterizing).

Vacation properties can be a great way to buy a house now for the future (retirement or actual vacationing) at today's prices. But the smart investor will remember that with income and wealth building, come expenses and upkeep.

Published: April 14, 2006

'Great' Investment Ideas Sometimes Illegal

Every so often I'll receive an email from an assertive investor who has purchased a house and started running their own real estate investment business. Recently one such emailer received a letter from a county or city agency telling them to cease and desist their activity. The letter was directed to me for a sympathetic ear.

Below are some ideas that novice investors may think they can carry out, but need to be careful that they are not violating a local law or even fair housing.

Idea No. 1

Creating a multiple family housing unit out of a single-family house. When you see a house advertised with a nanny or in-law suite, be careful that the current homeowner hasn't just violated local building codes by installing a kitchen in the basement to allow the nanny complete independence from the family during off hours.

Installing a kitchen in many jurisdictions constitutes a separate living quarters and it may violate local occupancy restrictions. If your investment property is in a single-family dwelling zoned area, then it must be only for one family. Having space for another separate "family" or entity to live in may be illegal.

If the local housing inspectors find out (and they have their ways) you could end up having to yank out the kitchen just to ensure the house will remain a single family dwelling -- thus losing your ability to have two rental incomes from one property. Which brings us to …

Idea No. 2

Multiple renters in one house. Some investors have been able to increase the usual total dollar rental income by having several sets of renters in the same house. In college towns, for instance, the house may be rented out one room at a time instead of as one rental unit. If the local laws allow it and you're willing to have the threat of frat parties in your home, this is a pretty good way to increase your total rental income in a property.

While the going rent for the house in a college town may be only $1,200 per month for the whole house, if you could get $500 per month for each room instead, you might double or triple the going rental income for your investment.

The problem with this method is that you may be facing issues with local ordinances limiting your total rental income from the house. A type of rent control, this limitation has several purposes, depending which side of the legislation you stand. It could be used to discourage carving up a house for student rental, thus preserving the nature of a single family dwelling community. It also encourages investors to rent out to more stable renters than students, thus reducing problems with parking issues, neighborhood turnover, etc.

Idea No. 3

Renting to people just like me. Many people want to jump into the investment game but can't swallow the hard cold fact that they must rent their house out to anyone who can qualify to rent the property. The fear of renting to say, a nonwhite renter or a non-Christian or a non-heterosexual, just scares many investors. The investors says he doesn't believe they're bad people, he just doesn't want to handle the difference in lifestyle or culture that may invade their investment.

So they'll try to rent exclusively to people who attend their house of worship or to a certain age bracket or advertise only in limited media to ensure only the "right" people call them to rent. These are veiled attempts of housing discrimination no matter how you carve it up. If you want to invest, then buy in to the fact that housing is available to anyone who can afford it.

As you move forward in the investment game, be sure you understand and are willing to comply with local, state and federal laws regarding rental properties. It could make the difference of having a gain or loss in your investment.

Published: April 7, 2006

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Who Makes More, You or Your House?

Last year my house increased in value by $95,000, according to my local tax assessment. The joke in the Washington, D.C. area is that your house could make more than you do in a year. When it comes to the annual tax bill increase, however, it's not very funny.

Fairfax County, VA (yes, home to the Final Four surprise George Mason University Patriots basketball team), is a tough location in which to purchase and maintain property, especially when it comes to the real estate tax rosters. The county has enjoyed several years of huge jumps in tax assessments, meaning tax income, and have only just recently reduced the tax rate by 13-cents last year. Thus, my tax bill only goes up $950 this year (that would be $79.16 per month on my mortgage payment.)

Now, while the Board of Supervisors would contend -- "well, it's ONLY $79 per month," I contend it's been increasing that way for several years. I am now paying $2,785.95 more per year on my tax bill than I was five years ago. But I digress.

This column is about how you can access your tax records (and your neighbor's) to keep up with information about your property (at least from the county/city's perspective) about such issues as your tax bill, home size, etc.

A few years ago, the best website to search tax assessments from around the country was maintained by a grad student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Apparently, soon after I printed that a few years ago, the grad student graduated and the site went stale and is now off the Internet radar.

However, a plethora of sites have arisen in its place. First check with your county/city to see if they have placed the records online. Then look elsewhere. Many commercial records sites require membership and a fee, but most are free for limited information and then a fee for more details. Searching through the main search engines returns upwards to 50 million sites for "property tax records." Your best bet in narrowing the search is to simply enter your county and city name in the search as well.

For small towns and counties, you may still have to research your tax records the old fashioned way -- go to the courthouse and look them up. But for a growing number of jurisdictions, the process of digitizing the records is becoming so affordable, that it appears soon most jurisdictions will have the records online.

If your records are available online, pull them up as soon as possible. Next to your credit report, this is another piece of information every homeowner should look over at least once a year, primarily, to make sure the tax assessor got it right. I have seen some tax records with such erroneous information, that the homeowner could protest the record and get thousands of dollars back from the jurisdiction. (The process of appealing your record is determined by every jurisdiction's rules and regs, of course, but don't let the records come in and sit there -- look them up and find out if your house actually matches the county's description.)

Another good thing about the tax records is to check up on a home seller marketing the property. Sometimes, the agent/owner may get a little "positive" about the property. A "bedroom" may actually be an office/den/bonus room if it doesn't have a regulation egress. The lot they're touting as a third acre(.33), may actually be just a little larger than a quarter acre (.25). While it may not sound like much, the .08 difference, makes up about a third more land, which could affect the price.

When you're looking at a house that has an addition or finished basement, if the tax record doesn't reflect those changes, you may have an addition and finished basement that was installed without permits -- and that means without building and safety inspections.
Get to know your tax record and you'll get to know your house even better.

Published: March 31, 2006

Ways You Can Lose Your Property

There are times and ways that people lose their homes through foreclosure or possession. The way many rags-to-riches seekers pursue the quick buck is through the foreclosure sales. Nevertheless, there are several other ways homeowners or investors can lose property. Below are at least six ways a homeowner can lose their property to the auction block.

Don't pay your mortgage. Generally, quit paying your mortgage and you'll end up getting past due notices, followed by foreclosure proceedings notices and then a visit from the sheriff's office to "assist" you in removing all your property from the household.

While there may appear to be a lot of foreclosures out there, the Mortgage Bankers Association reports that less than 1 percent of mortgages in 2005 went into foreclosure (down 12 basis points from the year before.) However, the number of mortgagees in default rose the last reporting quarter to 4.70 percent.

The increase comes as no surprise to the group's chief economist, Doug Duncan. "We have been expecting an up-tick in delinquencies due to a number of factors: the seasoning of the loan portfolio, the increased shares of the portfolio that are ARMs and subprime mortgages, as well as the elevated level of energy prices and rising interest rates," he said on the group's website.

Don't pay your taxes. For homeowners who pay their own taxes, (not paid through a mortgage service provider), a tax sale could be in their future if they fail to pay taxes on the property. Though most tax sales are through local governments, both state and federal revenue agencies can confiscate real estate for not paying taxes.

If this happens, it's not as simple as just paying the back taxes and getting your property back. For some, it includes also paying penalties and interest, which many times can bypass the actual amount of the back taxes balance.

If your local taxing jurisdiction is anything like mine here in good old Fairfax County, Virginia, then the confiscation of your home is a last resort -- first they will have tried various other methods of tax collection, such as garnishing wages, confiscated money from your bank, booting and towing your car, then of course, selling your house on the auction block.

File bankruptcy. In the past, filing bankruptcy usually gave the homeowner some protection from losing his home to creditors. With the revamped bankruptcy laws passed last year, creditors may now have the upper hand in bankruptcy situations, according to Herbert Addison, co-author of "How to Save Your Home" and a certified housing counselor. He contends on ezinearticles.com that while the new law allows for 180 days for the consumer to work out payment plans with the creditor, it does not stop the foreclosure process, which could be a shorter period of time than the payment workout plan.

Surety for other debts besides mortgage. Creditors are in business for one thing -- to make money off consumers through interest and fees collected during payback of loans. If the consumer fails to pay off those loans, the creditors can go after assets to satisfy the debts. Your house could be one of those assets.

Failure to pay homeowners dues. If you get into an argument with your homeowners association, withholding the homeowners dues paid each month should not be one of your strategies. HOAs can also auction your house to satisfy past due homeowners HOA fees.
Illegal activity. The American Civil Liberties Union contends that 80 percent of homeowners who have had property forfeited by the federal, state or local government have never been convicted of a crime, rather law enforcement officials only need to prove probable cause that the homeowner either used the property in committing a crime or purchased the house through funds created through illicit behavior.

Published: March 24, 2006

Pricing as Much Art as Science

When shopping for a new home, I've heard many a buyer say, shaking their heads, "What were these people thinking?" Unless the agent has previewed the house and eliminated the "dogs," a buyer can spend a whole day looking at such a wide range of homes that it becomes impossible to see all the inventory in their price range.

Pricing property can be more art than science in today's market. New home builders probably have the easiest time of it -- at least without shocking the buyers -- because everything is new. There are no bare areas in the carpet, fingerprints on the appliances, nicotine stained ceiling tiles in the rec room -- and definitely no cat and dog odors that are promised to be dealt with by installing new carpet after the buyer moves in.

With resale homes, the first weapon to use in the battle to sell the home is to price it correctly. The challenge for sellers is that they want as much as the last sale, however, in today's market that's not as guaranteed as it was a year ago. The seller can still walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars in gain, but maybe not the absolute highest amount of gain ever in the community.

Thus, pricing is the key. There are only a few ways to price a home for sale and sellers who don't want to putts around on the sale of their home need to adapt to the accepted modes of pricing and get over the fact that their house may not be worth as much as it was 12 months ago.
The first model is probably the most popular -- the comparable. By pulling up only the sales of your particular model, the Realtor can determine a trend price for your home. The challenge in a slowing market is that your particular model may only have three sales in the last year. Such a low number of houses selling does not really create a trend line, especially if the last sale was 6 months previous. Thus, you turn to the second pricing model.

Your home is then dissected to create comparables across a few neighborhoods or even a whole zip code that match your local community. Several aspects of your home will be plugged into the comparable model: style of home (split level, colonial, etc.); number of levels; number of bedrooms and baths; extra rooms; year built; square footage; and more. Then the averages on these parameters are tabulated and you'll have a target price. Keep in mind to remove the highs and lows.

Finally, another way to price your home is to come up with a tax assessment model. This one takes a little bit more homework and data mining. It's tedious, but it can present one of the most accurate pictures of home values in your community. The first step is to pull up all the sales in the community in the last 6 to 12 months. Tabulate the sales price total (let's say it comes up to $10 million) and then tabulate the tax assessment total (our model will use $8 million). Divide the tax assessment into the sales price and you come up with a tax assessment-sales price ratio.

In this case, the community ratio is 1.25. Multiply your tax assessment by the ratio figure, and it will determine your target asking price. For example, if your tax assessment is $250,000, multiply it by 1.25 and you'll arrive at $312,500 as a target asking price. Again, be careful to pull out the anomalies that represent overbuilt properties. The largest, biggest house in the community could affect your price, as well as the pre-foreclosure sale.

You're looking for average prices with average situations for average results.
If you're having to use all three models to arrive at a price, then your real estate professional should weigh in with all three models to determine the price.

The biggest challenge in pricing the home is a seller's greed level. Sorry to be so blunt, but sellers always want more than the last sale, regardless of the market condition. My blunt advice is to "get over it." Waiting around for the "right" buyer is just plain foolishness in the world of real estate. If you're putting your home on the market, don't putts around and waste your time, the buyers' time and the agents' time with an unrealistic asking price.

If your Realtor provides feedback from colleagues that your house is overpriced, move on it. Move from denial into acceptance and price the house right. Remember, the goal here is not to price the property as high as possible, but to sell the house. Good luck.

Published: March 17, 2006

HOAs Create Dreams and Nightmares

A new homeowner wrote that he has not only purchased a new lot in North Carolina to build a future house, but it appears he's also bought into a lawsuit between the new board of directors of the ruling HOA and its developer.

"My first concern is that this was something they started before I became involved and had no control over. Second it seems that this is really a personal battle with a few individuals on the board and the developer. Third, after researching what I could understand, it looks that even if they are successful, the developer could just fix the problem at any time and send us the bill for his troubles," he writes.

"I don't know why they wanted to jump right into litigation with this since it looks like there are a few other avenues to explore," he says, adding, "It's not that I can't pay the additional $400 they are demanding from me, it's that I'm worried this will just blow up in our faces and cost way more than anyone imagined if it's even successful."

Unfortunately, many homeowners find that once they buy a new home, they have also purchased into yet another level of government. While the local jurisdiction enforces state and local ordinances, homeowner associations govern and enforce items as small as the length of grass in the neighborhood, colors of the house and care of the common areas.

Whether we like it or not, homeowner associations (HOA) govern more than 240,000 communities in which 54 million residents live inside 22 million homes, according to the Community Associations Institute, one of the country's largest trade associations for HOAs. The group estimates that these groups collect more than $35 billion in homeowners dues.
For most homeowners, those dues can be as little as $10 per month or as high as several thousands of dollars each year. As you purchase your next home, be sure you don't just sign the bottom line of the HOA document disclosure without looking over items in the documents that will affect your life while living in your new home.

Most homeowner associations operate very similarly like a local jurisdiction. Board members from the community run for office on the board of directors. The biggest problem comes up when a nosey neighbor wins a seat on the board and uses this new-found power to run everyone else's lives.

As I was moving out of a condominium several years ago, many items had not been fully packed and some of the items were being placed into storage. Some were still on the balcony. One of the board members stopped me on the sidewalk to "instruct" me on the rules of what should be allowed on the balcony. Obviously, I was miffed at her air of authoritarianism, and, in fact, it was one of the reasons I was leaving the "compound." I had heard enough stories of this person and several other of her followers even getting access to keys to residents' dwellings to check to see if they were abiding by rules that governed the interior of units.

Friends would advise, "You should get an attorney." It's easier said than done and for most residents, there's just no resolve or money enough to create a legislative civil war to get someone out of your business.

Fortunately, not all other communities I've lived in were operated in such a manner. The board members were truly there to operate the association for the better of the community and to protect home values and conditions.

Nevertheless, if you find that you want to take matters into your own hands, the frustrated homeowner and HOA resident does have a few options when dealing with an HOA gone awry.

First of all, look through your HOA or condo documents for your recourse. It could be as simple as submitting a petition from a majority of the residents to impeaching the whole board.

Second, create a plan of action to bring your grievances to the board. Be ready to volunteer for an existing committee or for creating and serving on a committee or task force to address the problem.

Third, have patience. Your community wasn't build in a weekend and your complaint won't be addressed in one either.

If your grievance involves complaints about dues or special assessments, keep paying these fees while you're a resident or owner. If you quit paying these fees, you could put your case at risk. In addition, if dues payments become too far in arrears, the board could even foreclosure on your house to collect them.

Published: March 10, 2006

Determining Market? It's More than Price Statistics

I spent nearly an hour on the phone with a gentleman the other night talking statistics and the real estate market in the Washington, D.C. area (one of the hottest markets in the nation). He's trying to decide on buying a home in this area and whether he would be wise to wait and buy or buy and wait.

Looking over the statistics provided by the D.C. area's local multiple listing system (Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, Inc.), it was apparent that you can make the stats say anything you want them to. And in this renter's look over, his view of inventory and sales prices is pushing him more toward renting.

Remember a few months ago when nearly every media outlet was concerned about dropping average sales prices during the fall? Well, this guy got me looking deeper than just the average monthly price and guess what I found? In the final quarter of every year in the last five years for the D.C. area, the price appreciation slows. Another piece of information was that without fail, from 2001 to 2006, every January, the average sales price was less than the average sales price in December.

And for those stat-o-philes out there -- for the last five years, every February average price has dropped from January's average sales price, except for 2005. Even this year's month-to-date average sales price is down for February 2006, right on schedule.
You have to be careful with statistics. Especially when those who are quoting them are just now looking them over for the first time -- they might hurt themselves if they're not careful and take a few homebuyers with them.

What's really amazing are those who point to huge price drops in Los Angeles a few years ago after many years of unprecedented growth as a lesson for markets such as Washington, Phoenix and Miami -- all of which are experiencing hot real estate markets. In L.A., some homes lost half their value in the late 1990s. Naysayers warn homebuyers and owners that this could happen right in the Washington, D.C. market, right?

According to the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, when Los Angeles' "bubble" burst -- the local economy was also losing more than 400,000 jobs during that time period. That is not happening in the D.C. market.

This is why I always tell investors to look at the local economy before investing in a particular market. Home sales prices, rent to mortgage ratios, all of that is secondary when it comes to your analysis of the local economy. It's pretty simple: houses are where the jobs go at night. If a market can't keep up with its job growth, then home price appreciation will follow.

That's what's been happening in markets like the Washington, D.C. area. In 2005, the economy picked up more than 80,000 jobs -- right after a year of 72,000 new jobs being added to the economy in 2004. In 2006, local economists are projecting another 75,000 new jobs for the area, making it, once again, the hottest job market in the country. Since we keep building only about 30,000 new houses each year, according to CRA, the only thing that can keep the housing market from moving ahead is the vacancy rate in apartments and less expensive residential rentals. Which, statistically, are disappearing at a good clip in the region as well.

Fairfax County, for instance, one of the largest suburban counties for Washington, D.C., is experiencing a landlord's market of sorts. In the 4th quarter of 2005, rentals through the MLS are disappearing faster than they are listed. About 80 percent of hi-rise apartments rented out for an average of $1,599 (a 19 percent increase in rent); mid-rise apartment rents rose 24.5 percent to $1,609 with an 85 percent absorption rate.

Meanwhile, single-family homes rented on average $2,164 with an 85 percent absorption rate. Investors with townhouses and garden-style apartments rented out 94 and 95 percent, respectively, of their listings in the 4th quarter. The average town house rented for $1,785, while the gardens went for $1,331. As rents move upward, tenants will again begin moving toward purchases when they hit the level of being able to buy for the price they rent.

When it comes to statistics, the astute investor and home seeker will look at more than just one number reported each month. Average sale prices are driven by supply, demand and job growth. Rentals are driven by expensive residential home prices and vacancies which soften rents in the area. As you look toward purchasing your own home, be sure to take all numbers into account.

Published: February 24, 2006

10 Ways To Get Your Price

When buyers gain more leverage in a housing market, sellers must think out of the box to entice buyers to their homes, then to lock in their asking price. Below are 10 ways to get your home sold and, if not at your price, at least a little closer than what you might have gotten otherwise.

Finished rec room. This gives the buyer a lot more than just money in his pocket. You may be able to finish an unfinished space for less than what the buyer wants to lower the price. When you're talking monthly payments, $50,000 in the mortgage amount would be $299.78 per month. By negotiating $50,000 in remodeling costs, the buyer could come up with a third more living space for less than the cost of a car payment.

Decorating allowance. Is your d├ęcor tired looking and left over from the 80's or 90's? Then offer cash for upgrades, new carpet and a paint job. With good bidding on the job, you may be able to keep your price, give the buyer what s/he wants and make some money on the backside as well by not dropping your price. Many buyers would love $20,000 to spend the way they want on decorating.

Mortgage payments for 3 to 6 months. How would you like to move into a house and make no payments for 3 to 6 months? On a $300,000 mortgage at 6 percent interest, the principal and interest payment is $1,798.65 per month -- over three months, the buyer would save $5,395.95; 6 months, more than $10,791.90.

Buy-down points to lower the interest rate. For some buyers, it's all about the monthly payment. Try coaxing them into your price with an offer to buy-down their interest rates with points paid by the seller. If they can get the interest rate low enough, they will be able to carry a higher mortgage for a lower monthly payment because of your point money left at the table. This is a technique of "selling the deal" more than selling the house.

Vacations. Buy a house, get a Caribbean Cruise. Take some tips from new home builders -- they're professionals at this incentive thing. Sometimes, a buyer might get cash back at the settlement table, but wouldn't dare spend it in a luxurious way. Offer a cruise, an expensive spa weekend, airline tickets to Asia -- or some other out of the ordinary travel package to entice them. When you consider the inventory has more than doubled in some markets, the only thing different from one house to another may be the cruise line.

Free Media room. Did you know that movie ticket sales are down for the third year in a row? One of the reasons is the advent of the at-home, non-sticky, low-ticket price media room. During the recent Christmas holidays, some media room packages, complete with big screen monitor and surround systems were selling for under $5,000. This one investment alone could be the sweetener your buyer needs to sign the bottom line.

Year-long HOA Fees. Looking for a more practical buyer benefit? How about relieving them of those expensive home owner association dues. Depending on the community, these fees could top out to more than $500 per month -- that's $6,000 for the first year. Offering this bennie could definitely help the cash-poor buyer get into his first condo.

Offer seller financing. This option is overlooked by a lot of sellers because they or their Realtor just don't think about it. Seller financing can be in several forms -- as a first trust, second trust or even 100 percent financing for the whole house. For the seller who can swing a 1st trust mortgage, this can actually become quite the cash cow. For instance, a $100,000 mortgage offered at 7 percent over 5 years with interest-only payments followed by a balloon payment of $100,000 -- would actually result in the seller netting $135,000 over the life of the loan -- not a bad return..

Pay off bills. Some loan programs will allow sellers to pay off credit cards, auto loans, et. al., for the buyer. It could make the difference in qualifying for the mortgage and having to buy a smaller, less expensive house. Again, maintain your asking price and offer to pay off debt for the buyer.

Pay closing costs (up to mortgage program limit). Here's the old standby. It's not as fancy as those above -- but it's very reliable and works very well.

Published: February 17, 2006

'Good Deal' Matter of Interpretation

Everybody's looking for a good deal. Sellers want the highest price possible and buyers want to buy a house below asking price. They both want the same thing -- a good deal. Following years of a sellers market, many consumers are facing a more normalized market across the country. Particularly, in large metropolitan markets, the normalizing of the market has created a wait and see attitude on purchasing or selling real estate.

For the wise investor/home buyer, the cautionary phrase of "wait to buy real estate" should give way to "buy real estate then wait." One of the keys to savvy real estate investing -- whether for personal use or wealth building -- is timing. In a seller's market, every buyer who was serious about getting into a home, knew it was time for bidding up. Getting the best price with the best terms was not a winnable strategy for so many buyer. The name of the game was winning the house.

Interestingly, buyers had no problem bidding up a house $25,000, $50,000, even $100,000 to "win" the house in the Washington, D.C. market just a few months ago. And as prices moved upwards at a clip of 20 percent per year, more buyers jumped in, buying high in hopes of gaining a lot of money in a matter of weeks and months.

Now that price escalations have simmered to a normal pace -- the buyers have stopped the bidding frenzy -- which is exactly when the smart buyer should enter the field.
In a buyer's market, buyers must understand that those who negotiate win, and win big. If you have a house on the market for $420,000 and you want to get it for $399,000 the only thing stopping you is your personal will. If you think you want it for that amount -- then write up an offer for that amount and let the negotiation begin. In addition, while you're offering less money, toss in a home/radon/roof inspection, $5,000 in closing costs and the hot tub in the backyard.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, sellers must learn a lesson early in a normalizing market -- it's time to price ahead of the market (that means get ahead of the price reduction curve).

Pricing ahead of the market, makes many sellers cringe, thinking they are "losing" money on their house. This attitude makes me shake my head in wonderment when I think about it. Looking over average sales prices as if it were a stock quote, homeowners will talk about how they have "lost" money on their home. The discussion goes something like this:

"I lost $30,000 on my house. It's only worth $410,000 now."

"Really? So, you bought it for $440,000?"

"No – but my neighbor's house sold for $440,000 last fall and now the same model is on the market for $410,000. I have the same model, so I must have lost $30,000."

"I thought you bought your house five years ago for $220,000?"

"Yep."

"So where did you lose the $30,000? Sounds to me like you've gained $190,000."

It's all a matter of perspective. If you've gained $190,000 and you want to move up (or down) the level market is the time to get off the fence and make the good financial decision. Though your house price may have dropped -- so has the house price of the move up property.

Sellers should also heed a bit of advice that all agents know and understand -- the first offer is usually the best offer. As a seller, if the price really looks low -- flow with it. Counteroffer. Make the terms and price work. Obviously, beware of bottom feeders - those who are looking for desperate sellers; however, a price fluctuation of 5 percent is not that bad.

The problem for home sellers is the psychological challenge they face, realizing that 5 percent may represent $20,000 dollars. If you're moving up, though, keep in mind the $20,000 "loss" on your sale, may be leveled out by the $20,000 "gain" on the move up property.
The hot market of 2006 has begun. The economy is booming, inventory is up, prices have leveled, interest rates are still historically low -- what are you waiting for?

Published: February 10, 2006

Plenty of Online Help for 2006 Real Estate Tax Info

It's that time of year again and I can tell people are starting to do their taxes by the level of emails I receive with tax questions regarding real estate. There are so many ways to skin this tax cat, that I felt it best to let the professionals handle your calls. Thus, I've sifted through several search engine pages to point out some pages and sites worth your click to get you headed in the right direction for answering those questions on investment, vacation or personal properties.

Below are resources divided by topic and real estate type. You'll find links that I have found beneficial, rather than just the links that wound up at the top of the search engine page. Let's begin.

The best site for all your real estate tax questions is IRS.gov – the official web site of the Internal Revenue Service. In particular this year, I found a page that was very beneficial: Frequently Asked Questions regarding deductions for your house.

There are questions on topics like, flooding, deductions for second mortgages, home equity loans, etc. If you need deeper reading for your particular issue, you may want to check out the online publications listed below:

First-time homeowners (IRS Publication 530)

Selling your house (IRS Publication 523)

Business use of your home (Publication 587)

Moving expenses (Publication 521)

Home mortgage interest deductions (Publication 936)

Giving away real estate (Form 8283)

Nolo.com is a great legal website that I visit quite frequently. Its Top 10 Tax Deductions article should fill you in on the best ways to garner tax benefits from your home, including:
Mortgage Interest
Points
Equity loan interest
Home improvement loan interest
Property taxes
Home office deduction
Selling costs and capital improvements
Capital gains exclusion
Moving costs
Mortgage tax credit

If you own a vacation home, then click on over to SmartMoney's guide on how to report taxes on the beach house. The web page talks about the various ways you use the house, i.e., Use a lot, rent a lot; use a lot, rent a little; use a little, rent a lot, etc., etc.

For investors with rental properties, visit Jackson Hewitt Tax Service's piece on tax concerns for rental properties.

The site includes answers to various questions, including:
What is and is not considered rental income?
What expenses can be deducted?
What to look out for as an investor?

Some folks want to donate real estate rather than sell it. There are varying tax benefits and responsibilities when real estate is given to non-profits and/or individuals. Begin with the IRS information here.

For donations of real estate, one of the best explanations of real estate gifts I've seen published is at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts' guide to estate gifts, found here.
The site answers questions, such as:
What typical donors of real estate have in common?
Ways to make a gift of real estate
Tax Rules for Gifts of Real Estate
Using a qualified appraisal to valuate the property, and more.

If you're facing losses and financial struggles do to the hurricanes of 2005 – the IRS has some help for you. "The Internal Revenue Service is working to provide appropriate relief and assistance to victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. If you are a hurricane victim and need help with tax matters, please call 1-866-562-5227," according to the IRS's announcement of its new publication specially for hurricane victims.

Publication 4492 explains the tax law changes and relief provisions available to individual and business victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. It's located at the following web page: http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p4492.pdf

KFindLaw.com's guide to Estate and Gift Taxes, answers questions such as:
Will my estate have to pay taxes after I die?
What are the rates for federal estate taxes?
Are there ways to avoid federal estate taxes?
Can't I just give all my property away before I die and avoid estate taxes?
Do some states impose death taxes?
Can I avoid paying state death taxes
It's a valuable resource for those facing estate and gift issues for 2005.

International Real Estate Directory's Guide to Property Taxes provides a state-by-state, linked map providing the clicker access to as many real estate property tax sites that have been documented by this august web site. For instance, click the state of Texas and you'll have links to scores of county appraisal district web sites and their databases. Some states have plenty of information, while others have none. In addition, the directory includes links to sites around the globe.

Another source of online Public Records is at netronline.com, the site for Nationwide Environmental Title Research, LLC, which creates databases for sale to consumers. In addition, it has a very complete (and free) directory set up of public records located on the web.
The internet is loaded with "knowledge" about real estate investments and taxes -- hopefully you'll use the above sites to sift through the hype and come up with the nuggets of wisdom.

Published: February 3, 2006