Online help for great real estate deals

I hope you’re taking advantage of the services provided by your real estate agent to help you find the perfect home.  While they’re the only ones who have access to the Multiple Listing Service, it’s important to contact them to get the most up-to-date information on what homes are available, under contract, have a reduced price, etc.  However, if you’re house hunting in the wee hours of the night or driving around looking at homes, CNN Money offers five great online tools with up-to-date real estate information.  As they say, the times they are a-changin’!

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1. The iPhone has just released a new application for all potential homeowners.  Provided by Zillow.com, this tool allows you to get information on homes you drive by in terms of price, bedroom count, bathroom count, square footage, and more.  Because it has a GPS attached, the program will follow you as you drive giving you updated homes on the market, and even the ones that aren’t for sale.  The application is free, but currently only available to iPhone users.

2. Investors looking for bargains on properties should look into the site InvestorLoft’s Prop Scout, which gives a lot more information than just location and price.  The search tool will allow you to find homes that have large gaps between their estimated value and their asking price.  You can also search for homes and rank them by cash flow from highest to lowest.  This tool currently has home information in 20 states and should have all 50 by early next year.

3. Trulia.com just released a new feature allowing you to search for homes by price reduction.  It will also tell you how many times a home has lowered its price, by how much, the percentage of the reduction and when it happened.  This could be great incentive to watch a specific home you’re interested in and contact your real estate agent when you’re ready to take a look, if you think the seller is willing to negotiate with you.

4. My brokerage, Coldwell Banker, recently teamed up with YouTube to display videos of homes along with agents giving information on the amenities and schools that a certain neighborhood has to offer.  You’ll also be able to see (and more are on the way on a daily basis) listing videos that take you through an entire house online.

5. If you’re debating about selling your property in the near future, you may want to take a look at Cyberhomes. For a price of $9.95, viewers will be able to see changes in the market for a particular home with price change forecasts extending out to 24 months.  It also lists the number of foreclosures per zip code.  While this can be important information, your Realtor should be able to pull stats from their local MLS for no charge to you.  This is great information when determining what price to offer on a house and where you should list yours at.

If you have other questions about price changes, market changes, or anything else real estate related, please feel free to visit me online.

Tips for saving money with quick fixes

You may not be planning to sell your home in the near future.  In fact, it could be 20 or 30 years down the road that you want to sell.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know some ways to keep value in your home and prevent expensive repairs when the time does come to sell?  By doing some of these quick fixes (all for under $25!) you can save a lot of money in repairs, and it helps put your home in prime condition for a buyer.  I got these tips from this great Chicago Sun-Times article. tool%20beltView the article to find some more.

1. Regularly change the filter on your furnace and air conditioner.  I wrote in my last blog about how changing the filter lets the air flow through and saves you money on your utility bills.  The other bonus is that it prevents the units from working so hard by trying to get the heat and air out.  This way the appliances will last a lot longer.  Check them every month to every 3 months for a replacement.

2. Another appliance that you don’t want working extra hard is the clothes dryer.  By cleaning the dryer vent (not just the filter in the machine, but all the way through to the wall), you’re keeping it running smoothly to dry your clothes.  Extra lint in the vent also poses a fire hazard, so make sure to clean the entire vent. 

2. If you have a wood deck, make sure to use a preservative on the wood.  It prevents rot and deterioration down the road.  If you have a beautiful deck, the last thing you’ll want to have to do is replace the entire deck with a new one.  Do you have other wooden parts to your house, also?  Like a set of stairs outside one level down to the next?  Make sure you use preservative there, too.

3. If you have a wood-burning fireplace and you keep extra wood for it outdoors, make sure to keep it away from the foundation.  This prevents any wood-destroying insects from getting into your house and walls.  I hate to be a cliche, but this easy (and free) tip keeps the termites away!  Another tip to keep termites out is to cut tree branches that are hanging over the roof or near the house.  Plus, a trimmed tree looks so much more appealing than one that is out of control.

4. One item that often comes up in home inspections is in regards to the toilets.  They need to be secured to the floor.  Make sure the toilets in all the bathrooms are properly secured.  While you’re at it, make sure there aren’t any cracks in the bowl. 

5. Test the auto retract feature of your garage door.  You want to make sure that it will automatically come back up if something is blocking its path, whether it be a car, bicycle, or even a person. 

6. Buy a bottle of Drano and clear those clogged drains!  Over time, clogged drains can cause damage to pipes and allow for leakage.  You can also cheaply purchase a drain cover to collect excess hair, lint, and soap particles for your showers and sinks.  This is an added barrier to anything going down the drain.  They do sell ones that even prevent mold from growing on the cover.

I hope these tips will help you, and could even add a To-Do to that Honey Do List of yours.  Do you have other easy and cheap tips?  Please leave me a comment or visit me online.

Tips on staying cool and saving money

I couldn’t have picked a better day in Chicago to write about tips for staying cool this summer.  We seem to have completely skipped over spring, and headed right into a summer heat wave.  With highs in the upper 90s today, I think most of you would love to get some tips on staying cool in your homes this summer and saving money to boot. 

fan1. Make sure your vents are open and have clear access.  Make sure your air conditioner’s filter is also clear.  The air will be working extra hard to get out if you have items blocking the air flow or a clogged filter preventing it from getting out.  You’ll be paying a lot of money to try to cool your house while the air will be stuck.  If there’s a room you aren’t in, feel free to close that vent so the air is directed elsewhere. 

2. Upgrade your thermostat to a programmable one.  If you’re gone all day, you don’t need the air conditioning running on high.  Set it so it starts to cool down the house a half hour before you arrive home.  watch-thermostat-tip-2-lg

3. Get planting!  Planting some large, shady trees around your home is a great natural resource toward blocking out the sun.  You’re doing a good thing for the environment and saving money all at the same time.  Make sure you keep shades closed to also block out the sun.

4. Try to not use your oven.  If you have a toaster oven that is large enough for what you’re cooking, that will help keep the house from getting too warm.  You also could use a microwave, barbecue grill, George Forman grill, or a stove cooker.

5. Use those ceiling fans!  You won’t have to turn the thermostat down so much if you have the ceiling fan circulating cooler air around the room. 

6. Take shorter showers.  Even a short shower (around 5 minutes or less) will save you money than running a bath.  A bath would require a lot more hot water to fill the tub than what you’d use in the shower.

7. To keep humidity down, do your “wet” chores first thing in the morning or last thing at night when it’s a lot cooler.  These include chores like washing clothes, dishes, cleaning floors, watering plants, washing windows, etc.

More great tips can be found here and here. You can also download a free PDF with over 100 ways to save here. Visit me online for more information!

Make sure your home is attractive to allergy sufferers

Since allergies and asthma is becoming more and more common, it’s possible that potential buyers of your home may suffer from one or the other.  Obviously, the way the house looks to a buyer is an extremely important part of the sale.  But it’s equally important for the buyer to feel good in a house.  I’ve had buyers unable to stay in homes while showing because of pet allergies and lingering odors.  That can greatly decrease your ability to sell your home.

sneeze-cartoon-280x300Air quality is extremely important in prepping your home for sale.  The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA)recommends some simple steps you can take the improve the air quality in your home, not just for you, but for potential buyers, as well. 

1. Check for mold.  The Director of External Affairs for the AAFA, Mike Tringale, says to look at cracks in the foundation and to see if moisture is seeping in the home through an open window or collecting in an attic space over the bathroom.  Mold can be easy to see (a cluster of black spots).  Many household items are now mold-resistant, so if you’re going to be replacing something, you might want to check into those first.

2. Don’t clean with bleach.  You’d be surprised at how many people can be allergic to the smell of bleach.  Look for cleaners that don’t contain bleach, because even diluted ones can have an effect on allergy sufferers.  Instead, clean with hydrogen peroxide.

3. Use PVC-free shower curtains.  Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are often found in shower curtains with PVC and can greatly bring on the symptoms of an allergy or asthma attack.  To prevent someone from leaving the showing in the middle of seeing the bathroom, replace any curtains that contain PVC.

4. If at all possible, remove wall-to-wall carpeting and consider hardwood or laminate flooring.  So many allergens can lurk in the carpet fibers as well as the padding underneath, which nobody is cleaning without pulling the carpeting up.  To bring color to a room covered in hardwood, consider using a clean area rug.  If you can’t replace carpeting, have it professionally cleaned prior to putting your home on the market, especially if you have pets.

5. Use products that contain low VOCs.  Even paint can contain these compounds.  If you do paint prior to listing your house, try to choose a paint with a low VOC count. 

More tips can be found in this article. If you are planning to sell your home and need suggestions prior to listing it, please visit me online.

Why the Internet is important in real estate

internetIf you’re in the process of selling your home, I truly hope that your home is listed on the Internet, especially the number one real estate site, Realtor.com.  Realtor.com gets the most unique visitors per month.  Most MLSs automatically feed their listings onto the site and agents can post open houses, headlines, video and additional photos. 

The National Association of Realtors recently conducted a study that found that 80% of home buyers use the Internet to help them find a home!  That’s huge.  Do you know how many buyers may be missing your house if it isn’t Internet-ready? 

According to an article in RISMedia, a real estate trade publication, homes with 20 or more photos received almost 10 times the number of leads and more than 15 times the number of showings as homes with only one online photo.  Zillow.com found that homes that were listed with at least one photo were viewed 41% more than homes without photos, over a seven-day period.  So make sure that before you officially list your house that it’s ready for photos.  I wouldn’t even make it available for showings until photos are taken and they’re available online.  You also have to make sure they’re quality photos.  Don’t leave cars in the driveway and have dark rooms where you can’t see anything.  You want it to show its best, even online. 

Why is this so important?  Let’s say you have a buyer relocating to your area from out of state.  His company is only sending him to look at homes over a 48-hour period.  He has time to view 7 possible homes.  What’s he going to do while he’s at home?  Probably search on the Internet to send his agent the homes he wants to see.  If 15 homes have photos and 15 don’t, don’t you think he’ll pull from the 15 with the photos?

Some people drive by homes with a For Sale sign in the driveway.  They remember the address and then decide to look it up online to get more information and photos of the interior.  Think of the Internet as a preview for a movie coming out for two reasons.  One, if someone doesn’t see the preview, they’ll never go see the movie.  They won’t even know it’s out there.  Two, if the preview isn’t interesting to them, they’ll also never go to the movie. 

The Internet is the chance to shine.  Multiple photos.  Quality photos.  A virtual tour if possible.  Anything you can do to get buyers interested in your house so they want to physically walk through it will help you in the long run.

If you’re ready to list your house and need an agent with a strong Internet presence, be sure to visit me online.

They’ll go to extremes to sell

ramdcfl!f894599I’m sure you’ve come across sellers offering all types of incentives to get their homes under contract, especially if you’re a buyer in the market.  Sellers are including TVs with their contracts. Some are offering vacations.  Lots are willing to negotiate prices to save you even more money.  Here are some of the extremes that some people will to go in order to sell.

1. This photo is football legend Dan Marino’s Weston, FL home.  It’s currently listed for $13.5 million.  Marino is offering the home as furnished and is including $1.5 million worth of designer furniture.  He’s also throwing in a signed football for his buyer.  The property has this pool, two guest houses, and 10 bedrooms. 

2. If you’re ready to buy by July 31st, consider this Fort Meyer, FL home.  Currently offered at $6.994 million, the sellers are willing to give you a coupon for $1 million off the purchase price.  It was originally valued at $10 million.  You could save almost half! 

3. For those with a little less cash, there’s a home in Leesburg, VA that’s on sale for just $1.  Yep, you got that right.  $1.  So what’s the catch?  You have to pay to move the house off of the property.  They’re converting the lot into an assisted-living center.  Experts are guessing that it would cost you a minimum of $25,000 to move it down the road.

4. For you car lovers out there, this is your dream come true.  Purchase this New York home for $9.95 million, and the sellers will throw in not only a Ferrari F430 Spider, but a Maserati Gran Turismo, too!  The value of the cars combined is around $500,000.  The home sits on 1.66 acres and has 6 bedrooms.

5. Here’s a deal a little closer to home.  A Wisconsin seller has a 4 bedroom home on 30 acres in Whitehall, WI.  The home is currently listed for $498,900.  However, if the seller dies within 10 years of it being sold, he’s willing to pay the buyers his $500,000 life insurance benefit. 

6. How about a buy one get one free deal?  It’s for more than just groceries and tickets.  In San Diego, Micheal Crews Development is offering a free home if you purchase one for $1.6 million.  The free home is a row home valued at $400,000.  Think if it as an investment property.  Find a renter and pay down your current mortgage!

More extreme deals can be found at this AOL Home Gallery. What creative incentives have you seen offered in your market?  Leave me a comment or visit me online.

What men and women like best in a home

It’s probably no surprise that when it comes to buying a home in most couples, it’s the women who ultimately make the decision.  They’re the ones that determine what house best suits their lifestyle.  They want the best floor plan for them. 

A recent Chicago Tribune article discusses what’s most important to both men and women when it comes to making the choice for the perfect home.  Linda Reimer is president of Design Basics, a company in Omaha that specializes in selling “woman-centric” house plans.  She highlights some of the important features for women:

1. An open floor plan for entertaining.  So they want to make access from the kitchen to the dining room easy.  They don’t want huge walls with separate rooms as part of the home.  They want it as open as possible.

2. Designs that reduce stress.  An example of this is a mudroom that is in the back of the house or off the garage so that everyone can put their coats, shoes, and other miscellaneous clutter in the room without bringing it all the way into the house.  This might also be a room to store pet food and cages.

3. Plenty of storage.  You’re going to need more than just the garage, attic, or basement to store everything.  Women want this in places around the house.  That’s why they prefer big walk-in closets in the master bedroom, as well as large or walk-in pantries in the kitchen. 

menandwomenMen, on the other hand, prefer rooms that are big enough for their large-screen TV or for a theater room.  They also like high-end gadgets and products that enhance energy efficiency to save money on utility bills.  Some men prefer the basement as their space.  That’s when they can make a room for the big TV or even add a mini golfing range.  Orren Pickell Builders, based out of Lincolnshire, says they’ve built homes with basements that have swimming pools, basketball courts, and even shooting ranges.

North Shore architect and custom builder and architect Charles Page says that men oftentimes want an office in their home.  He also noted that women he worked with prefer gourmet kitchens with upscale countertops and cabinets.  Since most families spend most of their time in the kitchen, this makes perfect sense.  It acts as a gathering space for a large family.  Page also notes that women prefer a laundry room on the first or second floor, rather than in the basement.  It makes their lives easier when they have to go up and down stairs. 

So home builders now are focusing on what men and women want in a home, rather than just building for shelter.  A lot of them are making sure there’s plenty of closet space.  If they don’t finish basements, then the laundry room goes on the main or upper level of the house. 

What’s important to you in a home?  I’d love to hear about it and help you find the perfect one.  Please visit me online.

Keep your closing smooth and save money

If you’ve never experienced a real estate closing before, there’s some important tips you’ll want to remember when applying for your mortgage.  In Illinois especially, if you’ve never seen what’s referred to as the HUD-1 closing statement, it can be very confusing, especially if you don’t know what you’re paying for in your closing costs. 

You want to make sure you know what you’re paying for up front, and not rely completely on the word of your lender.  According to this USA Today article, well-versed buyers fare better at the settlement table. A 2008 Urban Institute study showed lenders appeared to make lower-price offers to borrowers who seem more familiar with market terms.  So before you go in to apply for your loan, make sure you have the proper documentation with you:
-paycheck stubs
-recent bank statements
-your last two tax returns
-cash value of savings and checking accounts
-your Social Security number so your lender can pull credit
 
real%20estate%20closing1Bart Shapiro, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s RESPA office, which regulates settlement procedures, advises consumers to:
 
1. Shop around for the right lender.  Make sure it’s someone you’re comfortable with and always gets back to you.  Don’t sign anything until you feel confident and comfortable with the process and the person who’s guiding you through it.
 
2. Get advice from someone who has gone through the closing process before.  It could be a friend, relative, co-worker.  Talk to your Realtor about how everything works in advance.  They’re there to make the process go as smoothly as possible.
 
3. Search for savings in your estimate of closing costs.  There’s certain items that can be negotiated, such as insurance coverages, credit checks, or even the cost of the appraisal.  Try to find out up front what you’re going to be paying for and how much that costs.  If you’re working with an attorney, know that most lenders include their fees in the closing costs so find out how much they charge.  Most should charge you (in Illinois especially) a flat fee for the process, rather than by the hour.  Since some contracts and negotiations can go back and forth quite a bit, try to find an attorney that charges a flat fee for his or her services.
 
4. Be thorough.  Ask for a copy of your HUD-1 prior to closing.  Federal law requires lenders to give mortgage applicants a copy of their settlement form at least one day before closing, if applicants request it. Many lenders won’t provide it until settlement day unless prompted.  Make sure you understand how the numbers work and add up.  Do your own calculations if necessary. 
 
If you have more questions on how the closing process works, please visit me online.

New appraisal rules can hurt borrowers

houseNew rules have been developed by the Federal Housing Finance Authority, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the New York State Attorney General to ensure there’s a solid boundary between the mortgage industry and the home appraisal process.  It’s called the HVCC, or Home Valuation Code of Conduct.  The new rules apply to all conventional single-family loans that began after May 1st and were sold to either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.  It does not apply to VA or FHA loans.

Here is some more of what’s covered under this new policy:

1. It forbids anyone from the lender’s staff choosing an appraiser or heavily communicating with an appraiser about the home valuation.  The lender can now get a middleman to order an appraisal from a management company which will then choose an individual appraiser. 

2. Real estate agents and mortgage brokers can not order or pay directly for an appraisal.

3. Lenders can not conduct value checks prior to an appraisal being ordered.  This is where they pulled comps to see if the numbers would work.  Many were doing this prior to appraisals being ordered.

4. Borrowers will receive a copy of their appraisal at least 3 days prior to closing and it will be free of charge.  This gives them some time to fight the number if they believe the appraisal was incorrect for any reason. 

So what are the negatives?  Realtors and mortgage brokers can no longer “recommend” an appraiser they’ve worked with in the past to conduct the appraisal.  Obviously, this prevents anyone from pressuring appraisers to determine a certain value, but it comes at a cost to everyone else. 

More appraisers are going to earn less money by working directly with the management companies instead of on their own. 

Appraisals will begin to cost a little more money.  And, now the whole process is almost guaranteed to take longer.  This means that borrowers will have to lock in rates for a longer period of time which could cost them more money. 

At least this will prevent some more foreclosures by allowing people who aren’t qualified to pay for a house to obtain it.  And appraisals should be much more straightforward and not influenced by any particular individual.  This Chicago Tribune article does a really good job of explaining more of the positives and negatives.

If you do have more questions, please be sure to visit me online.

What your congressman can do for you

If you’re having trouble communicating with your lender or bank for a refinance on your mortgage, you might have better luck with your congressman.  According to a USA Today article some congressmen are contacting banks on behalf of the homeowners in their districts.  They’re trying to negotiate on behalf of the homeowners who aren’t having luck on their own.  However, they’re most likely not getting special treatment either.

capitol_hill-751680Representative Maxine Waters is one of the representatives in California representing Los Angeles.  She says that it’s been extremely frustrating.  She’s had long hold times and been transferred back and forth between departments until she can speak to someone.  “Trying to contact the servicers is an absolute nightmare for anyone,” even a member of Congress, she said.  In two instances, she couldn’t get anywhere until she spoke to the CEO of Bank of America and Wells Fargo.  Then, they were able to help.

But what about the homeowners who wouldn’t get put through to the CEOs no matter what?  How is that fair for the rest of us?  She, like some other liberal Democrats, are hoping that the banks will absorb a lot of these losses to keep people in their homes.  However, some conservative Democrats and Republicans don’t like this approach.  The article states, “Forcing the industry to take even bigger hits could further clog credit lines or drive up interest rates for other customers. Last month, Republicans and conservative Democrats defeated a proposal by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that would have given judges the power to lower mortgage payments for people declaring bankruptcy. President Obama had once promised to help push the measure through Congress but backed off after banks warned that it would devastate the industry.”

So we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Keep more people in their homes but hurt the banking industry and the credit industry, forcing credit lines to be cut or taken away, or have more people lose their homes because of an inability to pay.  So what can we do?  Work harder to negotiate with the banks.  Don’t give up after you’re told no the first time.  Wait patiently and try to modify your loan.  See if talking to your congressman will help.  The House of Representatives’ rules does caution against getting involved in private disputes but doesn’t prohibit the representatives from doing so.

What do you think?  Is it worth it to get your congressman involved?  Leave me a comment or visit me online.