Between the dream of home ownership and turning the key to your new home, a lot has to happen—and a lot can go wrong. After all, real estate transactions take place between two imperfect parties: human beings.
When I started out as a Realtor, I made mistakes just like anyone. I also witnessed clients make mistakes, some that cost them tens of thousands of dollars and many that killed the deals they were trying so hard to close.
Based on those experiences, here are seven lessons that I hope will make your next real estate transaction a little easier.
1. Do your homework.
Buying a home is a lot like writing a school paper…it takes some research, and it’s best not to procrastinate.
I once had a buyer make an offer on a property with the intention of building a guest house in the backyard. Although I offered him information about certain building restrictions in that county, a friend of the buyer had told her guest houses are allowed in the area and she continued with the transaction.
After I checked the zoning codes myself, I again warned her that what she wanted to do wasn’t allowed. About a week after she paid for and attended the home inspection, she decided if the guest house might not be allowed her would rather not buy the house. I was not disappointed that she cancelled the escrow, but more disappointed that she wasted $400 on a home inspection and didn’t heed my warnings about checking into the zoning earlier on. The lesson: Always work with your agent to research potential restrictions on the property you want to buy as early as possible—before putting an offer down or, at least, before sinking money into inspections.
Another note about additions, guest houses, etc.—if they were built without a permit, they can get in the way of getting certain types of financing like VA or FHA loans. It’s easy to ask a seller what was done with and without permits, but the best way to confirm is by going to the county building department.
2. A note about condos.
Condo buyers beware—there are more hoops to jump through to get a mortgage on a condo compared to a single family home. This common hang-up wasn’t an issue years ago, but today, underwriting guidelines are stricter than ever.
In my hometown of San Diego, most lenders won’t allow a buyer to purchase a condo unit with an FHA or VA loan if the complex is less than 51% owner occupied. This means if you want to buy a condo but you can’t put 20% down, it’s going to take a lot of extra time to find a condo that meets this restrictions.
Before I knew this, if a buyer liked a condo and was qualified for a loan, I’d go ahead and put in the offer for them. Then, my buyers and I found out after an offer was accepted that the loan wouldn’t be able to fund for a condo in the complex because of the owner occupancy rate. No one lost any money, but we did waste time. Now, when I have a VA or FHA buyer who wants a condo, I call up every HOA and/or management company to find out the owner occupancy rate before we even head out to see them. Again, the more research you do ahead of time, the less likely you’ll face a costly surprise later.
3. Patience is a virtue.
Do not be rushed into buying a home. Yes, you may want to lock in the best interest rate possible, but what’s a great interest rate going to matter if you’re unsatisfied with the home.
I worked with a couple that wanted to write up an offer on pretty much every house we saw, but after we saw the next house they’d say, “well, this one is better than the last, I guess we don’t really like that one that much.” Here’s where I could have done a better job of preparing the buyers that there are tons of houses on the market and, depending on what you can afford, you may be able to be picky! Don’t ever rush into buying a home because you think there’s nothing better, unless perhaps you’ve already seen 100+ houses with your agent. (In which case, you should probably also treat your agent to a free lunch if you want her to keep working with you!)
4. Make your list, check it twice.
In my first few months as a Realtor, I assumed that buyers knew exactly what they were looking for and would tell me what they liked and didn’t like about houses. Then something funny happened. I saw buyers who liked granite countertops in one house and hated them in another, who wanted a big backyard one day and a small backyard so that they’d have less maintenance the next. It’s fair to say that people’s wants change, this much is understandable. For that reason, I now recommend that before seeing houses, buyers create a list of things they need in a house versus things they want, and, finally if there are any things they absolutely do not want.
When touring homes, you can then weigh what’s most important to you. Because there is no such thing as a perfect house, distinguishing between needs and wants makes it easier to accept small compromises when getting the big things that will make you happy.
5. Whatever you do, DO NOT do this!
In the past, I assumed that each buyer’s lender would discuss the importance of keeping your credit score high when buying a home, especially during the escrow period. Now, I make no assumptions. It really is worth putting this in all caps: DO NOT BUY A NEW CAR OR MAKE ANY MAJOR FINANCIAL CHANGES DURING ESCROW!
Sure, there are exceptions to the rules. If you’re not going to need a loan for the house then it isn’t a big deal to buy a car simultaneously. If your credit is already very high, there’s a chance that the ding on your credit from financing a car or taking on a new credit card won’t affect your ability to qualify for the loan, but do you want to take that risk? What if one more ding on your credit means you won’t qualify to buy at all? Or what if it means you’ll qualify for a loan, but at a higher interest rate? This stuff happens all the time. You have been warned.
6. Honesty is the best policy.
When you sell a house, you’ll have to fill out a bunch of disclosure forms where you state what material facts you know about the property. For example, “Is the property located in a flood zone?”, “Do you know of any alterations that have been done to the property in the past 5 years?” and “Are any of the appliances not in working condition?”.
Because your real estate agent has not lived in your house, she typically won’t know the answers. That’s why when she provides the disclosure forms, it’s your job to fill them out…truthfully. If you don’t, and for some reason the buyer or buyer’s agent finds out, you can get in huge trouble! The punishment will be up to the courts, but let’s just say trying to pull the wool over a buyer’s eyes is not worth this risk.
7. Use your agent.
If you’re under contract to sell your house, you don’t want to make alterations on the property that could affect the value. But did you know, in certain cases, even simply moving out could throw a wrench in the closing process? Well, if you’re selling your house in a short sale and trying to get it approved under the HAFA (Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives) plan, which allows you $3,000 in moving expenses at close of escrow, you do NOT want to move out halfway through the process. One requirement of HAFA is that the home needs to be owner-occupied, unless the borrower can prove that he was required to move at least 100 miles away for work. If you just move out while negotiations are being done because you feel like renting a bigger place, you might be losing $3,000.
This is an extreme example, but the point is when you’re selling your house, don’t just assume anything…check with your agent!
What about you? Have you made any mistakes buying or selling a home that cost you time, money—or at least your pride? Share your story in a comment.