With interest rates for homes looking so tempting right now, we are seeing a lot of interest (and hearing a lot of questions) around the topic of the home buying process. We’ve put together some considerations for you and hope they will help you be better prepared for what you’ll face when going down the path to home ownership.
In our previous post, we looked at the financial aspect of buying or refinancing a home—how much should you spend, what you should consider in deciding your mortgage payment, the purchase price, and the ideal down payment.
In this post we’ll be looking at the people you’ll (usually) need to work with to make your home buying dream a reality: real estate agents, mortgage service providers, and home inspectors.
WORKING WITH YOUR REAL ESTATE AGENT
You can save yourself much time and trouble by knowing what to look for in a real estate agent.
If you find that your real estate agent is not doing his or her best to find you the home you want or is otherwise not meeting your expectations, don’t hesitate to make a change. Avoid the mistake of staying in the relationship because you have invested time in it. Rather, get out as soon as you can. The real estate agent will cost you money, so make sure you are getting your money’s worth.
You can shop for and buy a home without an agent, but you will need to put in much extra time to do an agent’s work: search for properties, schedule appointments to see them, coordinate inspections, and negotiate. Homebuyers who already have a property in mind that they want to buy are the best candidates to do the deal without an agent.
AGENTS’ TITLES AND WHAT THEY MEAN
When looking for a real estate agent, you may come across the following commonly used titles. Here is a basic definition of each:
Principal broker: This is a person who is licensed to operate a real estate office. He or she may either work alone or employ other agents. Several years of experience are required to obtain this licensure. Anyone selling real estate must work under the supervision of a principal broker.
Realtor: A realtor is a member of the National Association of Realtors, along with a state realtors’ association and a local board of realtors. Realtors are bound by a code of ethics. They are able to access a local computerized database of homes for sale known as the multiple listing service.
Agent: This is the general term for any licensed professional in the real estate sales business.
Listing agent: A type of agent who signs up the home seller and lists the home with the multiple listing service.
Selling agent: An agent who finds a home for sale (through the multiple listing service) and finds a buyer for it.Note: On a home sale, the listing agent and the selling agent split the commission with each other and with their principal brokers.
POSITIVE TRAITS TO LOOK FOR IN A REAL ESTATE AGENT
To find such a competent and experienced real agent, interview several candidates at different agencies and ask the following:
IS THE AGENT FULL-TIME?
Make sure the agent works in the field full-time. Otherwise, he or she may not be up-to-date on the fast-changing information and skills required for the job.
IS THE AGENT EXPERIENCED?
Be sure the agent has been doing the type of work you will need him or her to do for at least a few years. For example, if you are looking for a modest single-family home in the suburbs, make sure the agent has not spent the last five years handling mostly rentals or mansions.
DOES THE AGENT LISTEN AND COMMUNICATE CLEARLY?
The agent must be able to understand your priorities in purchasing a home and to tell you what you need to know about a home. For instance, if you tell the agent repeatedly that you must have wood floors and a tree-lined neighborhood, and he or she persists in showing you linoleum floors on crowded streets, then get a new agent.
IS THE AGENT WILLING TO NEGOTIATE FOR YOU?
To get the best home for your dollar you will have to negotiate with the seller on the price. The agent plays a crucial role in the negotiation process between the buyer and seller. If he or she is not willing to show you houses that are 20 percent over your price range or to vigorously negotiate with the seller, find a new agent.
IS THE AGENT CAREFUL IN HIS OR HER WORK?
You need an agent who will cover all the details that go into buying a home. Someone who takes shortcuts in order to generate as many home sales as possible will not do you any good.
Tip: Ask the candidates for references from recent clients in neighborhoods where you are house-hunting. That will help you determine whether the agent has the traits you want.
WHAT TRAITS TO WATCH OUT FOR
Here are some traits a good buyer’s real estate agent should not have. Most of them have to do with the conflicts of interest that arise with any commissioned salespeople. Basically, a commission salesperson’s goal is to see that as many deals close as possible while putting in the minimum of hours. However, many agents still provide good service.
- The agent who tries to push you into making a decision before you are comfortable doing so is to be avoided.
- Avoid agents who urge you to go over your price range.
- Avoid agents who push you to buy their agency’s listings over other properties, or who push you to use the attorneys or inspectors they recommend.
- Dishonest agents have been known to help the seller hide a defect, or to look the other way. The only way to protect yourself from such deceit is to use an objective inspector.
FINDING THE RIGHT HOME
When searching for a home, you must remember to remain focused on what you want (and don’t want) in a home. You may want to keep a list of items that are important to you, such as the location of the neighborhood, building materials used in a home, and proximity to schools.
Do not take anyone’s word for it. Investigate for yourself. Visit schools, walk around the neighborhood, look under carpets to see what the floors are made of and stay in the basement for a while to see how damp it is. You may also want to drive through the neighborhood after dark to see if it is a safe place to live.
Tip: In order to have a benchmark for comparing home prices, find out what the price per square foot is for homes you are looking at. To find the price per square foot, divide the asking price by its square footage. Sources of a home’s square footage include the local tax assessment agency, the real estate agent, and the home builder. You should verify any statement that might be self-serving.
NEGOTIATING THE SELLING PRICE
Buying a home requires negotiating skills because successful negotiation can often save you tens of thousands of dollars. Here are some tips to keep in mind when negotiating for your hoped-for home:
- Be willing to walk away from a deal. If you decide you must have a certain house, you have already lost negotiating power. There are other good properties out there.
- Learn everything you can about the property before making your offer. For instance, how long has it been on the market? Has the buyer dropped the asking price? Why is the owner selling? The answers to these questions will help you to negotiate.
- Know what comparable homes are selling for.
- If the seller refuses to budge on price, try to negotiate for something else. For instance, try to get the seller to pay for repairs or improvements you would have done yourself.
- Don’t forget the real estate agent’s commission. It may also be negotiable.
ARRANGING FOR THE MORTGAGE
When you and the seller finally agree upon a price and sign a contract, the next step (unless you’re paying cash or have arranged another type of loan) is to get a mortgage. In fact, most home sales are contingent upon the buyer obtaining a mortgage.
Getting the right mortgage is also important in that it too can result in savings of tens of thousands of dollars over the term of the mortgage. Because the discussion of mortgages is quite extensive, it is beyond the scope of this post—but give us a call and we would love to walk you through the mortgage process.
WHAT IS A MORTGAGE SERVICE PROVIDER?
A mortgage servicer collects your monthly payments and handles your escrow account. It also is required to give you an annual statement that details the activity of your escrow account. This statement shows your account balance and reflects payments for property taxes and homeowners insurance.
When you apply for a home mortgage, you may think that the lender, or loan originator, will service the loan until it is paid off or your house is sold. This assumption is not always true. In today’s market, mortgage servicing rights often are bought and sold.
If you are notified that your home mortgage servicing has been sold to another company, you may wonder how it will affect your loan terms and monthly payments. Some consumers have complained that they were not given enough notice of loan servicing transfers and were unfairly charged late fees and penalties. The National Affordable Housing Act was passed to address some of these concerns.
To protect borrowers, the National Affordable Housing Act requires lenders or mortgage servicers (the company that borrowers pay their mortgage loan payments to) to do the following.
- They must provide a disclosure statement that says whether the lender intends to sell the mortgage servicing immediately; whether the mortgage servicing can be sold at any time during the life of the loan; and the percentage of loans the lender has sold previously.
- The lender also must provide information about servicing procedures, transfer practices, and complaint resolution.
They must notify you at least 15 days before they sell your loan unless you received a written transfer notice at settlement. If your loan servicing is going to be sold, you should receive two notices, one from the current mortgage servicer and one from the new mortgage servicer. The new servicer must notify you not more than 15 days after the transfer has occurred.
The notices must include the following information:
- The name and address of the new servicer
- The date the current servicer will stop accepting mortgage payments, and the date the new servicer will begin accepting them
- Toll-free or collect call telephone numbers for both the current servicer and the new servicer that you can call for information about the transfer of service
- Information about whether you can continue any optional insurance, such as credit life or disability insurance; what action you must take to maintain coverage; and whether the insurance terms will change
- A statement that the transfer will not affect any terms or conditions of the contract you signed with the original mortgage company, other than terms directly related to the servicing of such loan
For example, if your old lender did not require an escrow account but allowed you to pay property taxes and insurance premiums on your own, the new servicer cannot demand that you establish such an account. They must grant a 60-day grace period, in which you cannot be charged a late fee if you mistakenly send your mortgage payment to the old mortgage servicer instead of the new one.
If you believe you have been improperly charged a penalty or late fee, or there are other problems with the servicing of your loan, contact your servicer in writing. Include your account number and explain why you believe your account is incorrect.
Within 20 business days of receiving your inquiry, the servicer must send you a written response acknowledging your inquiry. Within 60 business days, the servicer must either correct your account or determine that it is accurate. The servicer must send you a written notice of what action it took and why.
If you believe the servicer has not responded appropriately to your written inquiry, contact your local or state consumer protection office. You can also send your complaint to the FTC. Or, you may want to contact an attorney to advise you of your legal rights. Under the National Affordable Housing Act, consumers can initiate class action suits and obtain actual damages, plus additional damages, for a pattern or practice of noncompliance.
Tip: Do not subtract any disputed amount from your mortgage payment. Many mortgage services will refuse to accept partial payments. They may return the check and charge a late fee, or declare the mortgage is in default and start foreclosure proceedings.
INSPECTING THE HOME
The home inspection is an objective visual examination of the physical structure and systems of the house from the roof to the foundation. The standard home inspector’s report will include an evaluation of the condition of the home’s heating system; central air conditioning system (temperature permitting); interior plumbing and electrical systems; the roof, attic, and visible insulation; walls, ceilings, floors, windows and doors; the foundation and basement; and the visible structure.
If problems or symptoms are found, the inspector will refer you to the appropriate specialist or tradesperson for further evaluation.
Why is the home inspection necessary? The purchase of a home is probably the largest single investment you will ever make. Therefore, you should learn as much as you can about the condition of the property and the need for any major repairs before you buy, so that you can minimize unpleasant surprises and difficulties afterward.
Of course, a home inspection will also point out the positive aspects of a home as well as the maintenance that will be necessary to keep it in good shape. After the inspection, you will have a much clearer understanding of the property you are about to purchase and will be able to make a confident buying decision.
The inspection fee for a typical one-family house varies geographically, as does the cost of housing. Similarly, within a given area, the inspection fee may vary depending upon the size of the house, particular features of the house, its age, and possible additional services, such as septic, well, or radon testing.
Tip: Check local prices on your own. Do not let cost be a factor in deciding whether or not to have a home inspection or in the selection of your home inspector. The knowledge gained from an inspection is well worth the cost, and the lowest-priced inspector is not necessarily a bargain. The inspector’s qualifications, including experience, training, and professional affiliations, should be the most important consideration.
WHY YOU CAN’T JUST “DO IT YOURSELF”
Even the most experienced homeowner lacks the knowledge and expertise of a professional home inspector who has inspected hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homes. An inspector is familiar with all of the elements of home construction, proper installation, and maintenance. The inspector understands how the home’s systems and components are intended to function together, as well as how and why they fail.
Further, most buyers find it very difficult to remain completely objective and unemotional about the house they really want, and this may affect their judgment. For the most accurate picture, it is best to obtain an impartial third-party opinion by an expert in the field of home inspection.
HOW TO FIND A HOME INSPECTOR
The best source of recommendations is a friend or business acquaintance who has been satisfied with a home inspector they have used. Real estate agents are also generally familiar with home inspectors and should be able to provide you with a list of names from which to choose.
Whatever your referral source, be sure to ascertain the home inspector’s professional qualifications, experience, and business ethics before you make your selection. You can do this by checking with your local Better Business Bureau as well as by verifying the inspector’s membership in a reputable professional association such as the American Society of Home Inspectors.
WHEN DO YOU CALL IN THE HOME INSPECTOR?
A home inspector is typically called right after the contract or purchase agreement has been signed. It is not necessary for you to be present for the inspection, but it is recommended. By following the home inspector around the house, by observing and asking questions, you will learn a great deal about the condition of the home, how its systems work, and how to maintain it. You will also find the written report easier to understand if you’ve seen the property first-hand through the inspector’s eyes.
Tip: Before you sign, be sure that there is an inspection clause in the contract, making your purchase obligation contingent upon the findings of a professional home inspection. This clause should specify the terms to which both the buyer and seller are obligated.
WHAT IF THE REPORT REVEALS PROBLEMS?
No house is perfect. If the inspector finds problems, it does not necessarily mean you should not buy the house, only that you will know in advance what to expect. A seller may be flexible with the purchase price or contract terms if major problems are found. If your budget is very tight, or if you do not wish to become involved in future repair work, this information will be extremely important to you.
What if you find problems after you move in? A home inspection is not a guarantee that problems will not develop after you move in. However, if you believe that a problem was already visible at the time of the inspection and should have been mentioned in the report, your first step should be to call and meet with the inspector to clarify the situation. Misunderstandings are often resolved in this manner. If necessary, you might wish to consult with a local mediation service to help you settle your disagreement.
Tip: Though many home inspectors today carry Errors & Omissions liability insurance, litigation should be considered a last resort. It is difficult, expensive, and by no means a sure method of recovery.
Buying a home is an emotional endeavor. It is easy to jump in with both feet only to realize you weren’t prepared. With all of the talk of low interest rates flooding the airwaves and web, we want you to know that you don’t need to rush into the home buying or refinancing process. You may not have all of the answers, but you do know someone who can help—us! You don’t have to go it alone. We can help you know best practices and pitfalls to avoid, as we’ve been helping our clients make solid financial decisions for decades! Give us a call and we can help you as you seek your new home!