First-Time Home Buyer Credit & Short Sales Do Not Mix!

By now, even the most procrastinating of first time home buyers understands that the end is nigh.  The end of the $8000 first-time homebuyer tax credit, that is.  While rumors abound about a possible extension past the current deadline, rumors also persist that man did not actually walk on the moon in 1969 (if you happen to believe the latter, you can moonwalk your way right out of my blog catalog).  When it comes to our esteemed legislative bodies, I am not ready to take the leap of assumptive faith that they will do the logical thing.  As things stand, you have received sufficient warning from every warm and cold blooded Realtor type in the land that you need to get on the stick immediately.  With new appraisal regulations and loans which used to take 30 days now bogged down in underwriting quicksand, it is not a good idea to venture past mid October before pulling the trigger on that home you have been patiently watching for just one more price reduction.  With a fleet of fellow procrastinators waiting until the absolute zero hour (closing prior to 12/1/09), there is also the added risk of running into title company soup.  Think the end of the month is busy at your friendly title company and subsequently hectic in terms of getting your deal closed?  My hunch is that typical happenstance will be a walk along a tranquil beach in comparison to the buyer tsunami that figures to crash upon every escrow office near you between 11/1 and 11/30.

But these are the things you already know.  Just like you already know that the credit is not reserved solely for first time buyers, but also those who have not owned Real Estate within the past three calendar years.  This information is so readily available that I haven’t even bothered to write about it before now.  At great risk of being the guy who runs into the empty room to yell “Fire,” I do believe there is one more wrinkle that needs to be discussed.  With the deadline steadfastly approaching (just because it looms closer, doesn’t mean the pace has suddenly morphed to earn “rapidly approaching” designation, now does it?), lost in the prodding for first-timers to buy now is any discussion as to the kinds of homes you should be considering.  I shall rectify this egregious oversight now.

Earlier in the year, the Real Estate world was your oyster.  REOs, short sales, HUD homes, auctions … bring them on.  As long as you wrapped up your purchase prior to December, you were golden.  Thus, you had the ability to trawl every last oceanic trench to scrape up your sunken treasure.  It probably didn’t take long to realize that the biggest finds, those Titanics of the Real Estate deep, were teeming with sharp-elbowed and deep-pocketed prospectors.  Basically, you with more purchasing power.  Every time you made a play for a new bank property, you and your FHA-fueled dingy were left eating the wake of 50 foot conventional vessels and staring into the live canons of the scourge of the first timer’s sea: cash buyer pirates.

Resigned to the fact that your 3.5% down and government-backed loan vehicle is not a fair fight against the types of buyers that the best values attract, you most likely started looking at resale and short sale properties.  Resales have been tricky because most sellers are not in a position to compete with the banks.  Many that you would be interested in continue to be priced out of your affordability.

Now you may be thinking that short sales are the way to go.  The bank wants to offload a property that is in default without incurring the expense of foreclosure.  The seller just wants out and is not motivated by profit, thus creating a tantalizing asking price.  Sure there are only a couple months left to close on a house to secure your credit, but this listing says they are using a “Certified Negotiating Specialist.”  This other one says they have a 95% success rate!  Another even says that they are near bank approval!

Don’t do it.

I know you have gotten your teeth kicked in on the bidding wars that erupt on the bank properties, and the resale market is still too pricey, but short sales are not the way.  Not now.  If you had submitted an offer on one several months ago, you would have a shot, but I am telling you right now that YOU WILL NOT RECEIVE YOUR $8000 TAX CREDIT IF YOU WRITE ON A NON-APPROVED SHORT SALE LISTING at this point.  It is quite typical for the process to take 3-6 months, and the resolution is far from a sure thing.

Keep looking at the bank properties, but reset your sights a little.  Great values are still out there.  You can lock one up that isn’t priced so stupidly low that every buyer and his pet chimpanzee show up to vie for it, driving the price into the stratosphere.  Some of the best buys made right now are actually the ones with list prices that aren’t necessarily the most attractive.  When banks, just like typical sellers, miss that sweet spot, you have a better shot at negotiating the price lower versus bidding the stupid cheap one up.

This is also not a bad time to take another hard look at the resale market.  Sellers of properties that will fit the budgets of first time buyers should be receiving advice from their agents right about now that they really need to get competitive if they are to capitalize on the last minute purchasing rush.  Granted, many sellers simply are not in a financial position to lower their prices, I have noticed more and more resale listings working their way into my searches.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t caution that the tax credit should not be the be all and end all for your purchasing decision.  If you simply cannot find the property you want at a price you can afford, don’t get caught up in the frenzy.  The worst decisions are often made in the face of such artificial pressure.

But if you are ready to take the plunge, find yourself a property in which the seller can give you a thumbs up or thumbs down within days instead of weeks.  Walking the short sale plank with less than 90 days to get it closed will net you an $8000 cold shower.

“It’s Only a First Home” (and other bad advice).

So I’m enjoying one of the myriad HGTV Real Estate shows the other night.  First time home buyers were the focus of this particular program.  Unable to  watch without properly entertaining myself with my own sarcastic commentary (did that agent really just say that?), this has become one of my favorite pastimes.

There is the Realtor who feels the need to point out the backyard or the front door to the dumbfounded buyers.  The agent who demands to know “if this is a house you can see yourself living in” within seconds of stepping through the front door.  It’s a carnival of overselling that I can only hope has more to do with the camera than the standard practices of my erstwhile colleagues.

There is one particular practice that repeats itself ad nauseam on these shows, though, that truly makes my blood boil.  I’m speaking of the agents who seemingly forget that their job description as a buyer’s agent is to protect the interest of their clients.  It’s awfully hard to do that portion of the job correctly when you push every property that you look at as the greatest thing since canned yams.

Homes have flaws and some are fatal.  While it is ultimately the burden of the consumer to make that determination, these silly shows raise my ire when the response to the buyer’s observation that there is a train running through the back yard is, “Hmm, let’s go back inside and look at that wonderful kitchen again!”

Or my personal favorite brand of exchange:

Buyer: “This only has 2 bedrooms?  We need at least 3.”

Agent: “Yes, but look at those hardwood floors!”

Buyer“The floors are nice …”

Agent:  “And remember that this is your first house.  The first house is never the dream house.  You can always move up to the bigger house in a few years.”

Timeout!  This is the worst brand of advice, and I simply cannot tolerate it.  No, the first house will not be the dream house, but to advocate making sacrifices on the aspects of the home that will impact resale potential the most is unconscionable.  You don’t eliminate the third bedroom and 75% of future buyers, you eliminate the hardwood.  You don’t purchase the stigmatized property with the highway behind it just to get the kitchen with the stainless steel appliances.  Those are poor purchasing decisions.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard that a first time buyer should not worry about some major feature of a house, I would be a piggy bank.  While it is always important for a buyer to discern the future value potential and ability to resell a property he or she is considering, it has somehow become cliche that it is not as important to the first time buyer.  As if the lower dollar value of the investment or the knowledge that he or she will only be in the home for a couple of years would somehow mitigate the importance of due diligence.

I maintain that future value concerns are even more important to first timers than most.  For the very reason that they will likely enjoy a shorter stay in the home, they need to be especially cognizant of resale capability.  The retired couple who is buying the home they envision for spending the duration of their golden years can more afford to make a purchasing decision with their specific needs in mind than the couple that is just getting started and will use their first property as a springboard to their ultimate home.  They don’t want to get off on the wrong foot by making a poor initial investment.

You can more afford to screw up your purchase if you never plan to sell it.  If this is the house you plan to die in, by all means, buy the one on the ancient burial ground with the sweet discount and benevolent (hopefully) spirits.  Otherwise, buy something that someone else will want to buy from you.

So first-time home buyers, you will have to make sacrifices, especially if you are looking in a higher end market like Scottsdale.  That does not mean you should settle for having a power plant next door or the funky one bedroom house with the garage converted to a recording studio.  Eliminate the properties that have unfixable or expensive structural/locational problems.  Remember, you can always replace the vinyl flooring and the laminate counter tops.

Not so easy to re-route the Amtrak.


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