10 Questions to Ask a Real Estate Agent Before the Pro Helps You Buy a Home

real estate agent home buyers

Ready to buy a house? Then you’ll want to learn a few questions to ask a real estate agent—the go-to pro whose sole goal (at least as far as you’re concerned) is to help make your home-buying dream come true.

But not all real estate agents are created equal, which is why Peggy Yee, a supervising broker at Frankly Realtors in Vienna, VA, recommends interviewing at least three agents before deciding who you want by your side for this most important of all purchases. To help you figure that out, here are 10 questions to ask a real estate agent to suss out which one is right for you.

  1. How long have you been a real estate agent?

You want a professional who knows the ins and outs of the business, and that level of knowledge comes only with experience. Look for someone with at least a few years in the business. If the agent is a rookie, ask him if he will receive hands-on guidance from a real estate broker in his office (a broker is someone who has taken real estate education courses beyond the agent level and often manages a team of agents).

2. What neighborhoods do you specialize in?

Your agent should be well-acquainted with the areas you’re interested in, so search for someone who can rattle off key info about your desired neighborhood, including home prices, schools, safety, public transportation, and cultural amenities.

3. What’s your schedule and availability?

Many real estate agents work only part time, which could present problems: What if a bidding war has just begun on the home you just have to have, or you encounter last-minute closing snafus? Ideally you want an agent who works full time or, if not, the agent should make it abundantly clear that urgent matters will be addressed if necessary (which leads to our next point).

4. Do you work independently or with a team?

Some people think real estate is a solo sport, but many agents work on a real estate team with other agents, an administrative assistant, and a team leader—and there are benefits to working with an agent who’s part of a pack. For example, if your agent is tied up and you need to see a property ASAP, someone else on the team can step in and show you the home, or handle last-minute problems in lieu of your agent.

5. What percentage of your business is working with home buyers?

While most agents help both home buyers and sellers, the very best tend to specialize in one or the other, since the specialities are quite different. To buy a home, you should team up with a buyer’s agent—someone who specializes in working with home buyers. A listing agent, by comparison, focuses on working with home sellers. Look for an agent with a buyer-to-seller client ratio of at least 7 to 3, or ideally higher.

6. How many homes did you help buyers close in the past year?

This question is specific, because you want someone who successfully helps people buy homes.

“There’s a big difference between ‘working’ with home buyers and actually selling people homes,” Yee points out.

7. How long does it typically take buyers you’ve worked with to find and purchase a home?

Buying a house takes time. In general it takes an average of 30 to 60 days to shop for a house, and 14 to 60 days to go from contract to closing. However, this number varies widely from area to area, and it’s crucial that you have a handle on how long it’ll take you. Yet you also don’t want an agent who drags his feet unnecessarily. Translation: If an agent says it typically takes six months to a year to buy a house, that’s a red flag you could end up frustrated.

8. How will you determine what homes may match my wants and needs?

A good buyer’s agent provides clients with a comprehensive questionnaire to help them pinpoint their home-buying criteria, so ask for this survey in advance. Also, your agent should be able to tell you whether your list of “needs” is realistically affordable in your area.

9. How many clients are you currently working with?

You want an agent who’s busy but not too busy: Anyone juggling much more than 10 clients might be too busy to provide you with high-quality, one-on-one service.

10. How will you keep in contact with me during the buying process, and how often?

Does your agent prefer to stay in touch mainly by phone, email, or text—and how about you? Generally it’s best if your agent’s preferred method of communication aligns with your own. If your agent’s a texter while you prefer an actual conversation on the phone (or vice versa), that could drive you both bananas.

You should also ask how often you two will be touching base. Navigating the home-buying process requires good communication between you and your agent, so you want an agent who will stay in touch and check in with you on at least a weekly basis. In a fast-moving market, your agent should be touching base with you daily, lest you miss out.

You can search for agents in your area at realtor.com/realestateagents, where you can also read real estate agent reviews from previous clients.

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5 Surprisingly Smart Reasons to Buy a Home During the Holidays

holiday home buying

By: Cathie Ericson

Turkeys and tinsel, dreidels and pumpkin pie. Yes friends, the holidays are here again, and it’s the perfect time for … house hunting? OK, we know you’re busy enough planning family feasts and much-needed vacations while dealing with blustery weather, but hear us out. While it might seem counterintuitive to put a big-ticket item like a home on your holiday shopping list, it really does make sense.

Don’t believe us? Check out these surprisingly smart reasons to let everyone else hit the mall to buy half-off sweaters while you make the purchase of a lifetime: a new house to ring in the New Year.

1. Less competition from home buyers

Most buyers take the month off to celebrate the holidays, attend parties, host out-of-town guests and, quite frankly, avoid trudging around in inclement weather to look at houses. Or, maybe they’ve heard that this is a lousy time to buy a house. Whatever the reason, shopping for real estate at a time when fewer buyers are in the market can pay off big.

That’s because competing with multiple offers is one of the most stressful parts of the home-buying process, says Brian Wasson, a real estate broker with Center Coast Realty in Chicago.

2. Motivated (OK, desperate) home sellers

The December seller is likely to be serious and motivated—and therefore more open to negotiation. So what you might lack in choice of available homes could be balanced out by dealing with a more flexible seller.

Most sellers have a compelling reason for putting their house on the market during the holidays. (Let’s face it: It’s no holiday party for them to have strangers wandering through their house.) They might be facing a relocation and want to get their kids settled before the new term. Or they might just be feeling some stress if they listed their home in the fall and it’s still languishing post–Turkey Day, making them just a little more desperate and anxious to deal.

Many sellers might also want a contract in hand for tax advantages. If it’s a rental property on which they incurred a loss, they are likely to want to take the deduction this calendar year, Wasson says.

Another tax-related reason: If sellers are likely to make a hefty profit and have a salary raise set to kick in on Jan. 1, they might be subject to a higher capital gains tax on their home sale in the coming year. In this scenario, sellers may want to unload a property before the new year.

Sellers are exempt from paying capital gains tax on the first $250,000 in proceeds from a home sale for a single person, or $500,000 for a couple. After that, the capital gains tax kicks in, based on their income bracket.

3. Tax advantages

In case you weren’t aware, the tax benefits go both ways, notes Realtor® Al Cannistra with Texas Premier Realty in San Antonio. Buying now can help you save in April and beyond. Homeownership brings numerous tax perks, from deducting mortgage interest to property taxes. (Update: The House of Representatives just passed its version of the GOP proposed tax plan, which would cap the property tax deduction at $10,000. The House bill also would only allow homeowners to deduct the interest on mortgages up to $500,000, down from the current $1 million.)

Some states also might have a homeowner’s tax exemption, says Cannistra: “If your state does, closing the deal by Dec. 31 rather than waiting for the first week of the new year can make a year’s difference in whether or not you get that valuable tax savings.”

Also, many closing fees are tax-deductible if you itemize—although you should always double-check with your accountant about any tax questions.

4. A realistic picture of the house

What house doesn’t look amazing in the typical spring buying season, with newly planted flowers and plenty of sunlight streaming through the windows? Checking it out during the miserable winter season, on the other hand, might give you a more accurate idea of what you might be living with the rest of the year.

In addition to seeing the house, warts and all, you can check for issues that you’d notice only during cold weather.

“Maybe there’s a bedroom in the home that doesn’t get sufficient heat, or the front door gets jammed in icy conditions,” says Wasson. “Inspectors are less likely to catch these issues with the home when they check them out of season.”

Of course, don’t forget that issues that crop up more during summer will be less accessible—such as how well the air conditioning works or what the roof really looks like under all that snow and ice—so make sure that your home inspector does a thorough job on those fronts, too.

5. Greater accessibility to professionals

“Since December is usually a slower month all around, you will have easier access to movers, inspectors, and mortgage brokers,” says Jennifer Sommers with Sotheby’s International Realty in Boca Raton, FL.

In addition, motivated real estate agents will bend over backward to provide service with fewer client demands and will share your desire to get it done and in the books before the new year rolls around.  Ditto on your mortgage broker, who is bound to speed your closing through.

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Don’t Budge: 7 Compromises You Should Never Make When Buying a Home

7 compromises on home buying

By: Wendy Helfenbaum

Every successful home search begins with a wish list. Armed with your inventory of must-haves, you’ll know how to focus your search and recognize a potential home that isn’t worth your time.

Still, there’s a strange thing that seems to happen when you’re deep in the trenches of house hunting: The more you look, the longer that wish list seems to grow. But sooner or later, you have to own up to the fact that you can’t have everything—it’s inevitable that you’ll make some compromises somewhere.

And, in these days of tight inventory and cutthroat competition from other buyers, you might feel forced to waver far afield from your hallowed wish list in order to land a home.

That’s OK—it’s important to be flexible. But there are a few times when you absolutely should draw the line. Here are seven areas where you’ll want to dig in your heels.

1. Buying a fixer-upper when you really want turnkey

You have never swung a hammer, have a phobia of power tools, and always pictured yourself in something new and shiny. But that doesn’t mean you won’t fall in love with a charming, century-old farmhouse that needs a ton of work. Now’s when you have to decide: Are you up to the financial and emotional challenges of taking on major renovations?

It’s an option you should seriously consider (with the help of an experienced general contractor) if you’re in a highly competitive market. But if you don’t think your bank account or your marriage could survive many months of upheaval, stick to your guns and insist on a turnkey home, says Mike Kessler, a broker with TSG Residential, in Davidson, NC.

“There have been times when I’ve said to clients, ‘after being with you for a week, I really think we need to look at new construction,'” Kessler says. Many of those clients, he adds, were later grateful for the course correction, saying, “We would never have been able to enjoy ourselves in [an older] house.”

2. A good school district

Even if you don’t have children, you should make sure the house you’re eyeing has desirable schools nearby, says Tina Maraj, a Realtor® with Re/Max North Orange County in Fullerton, CA.

Does it matter if you’re not looking to have a few kids? Well, things can always change. But even if they don’t, good schools typically translate to a higher resale value—potential buyers with families will want to be in the right district.

Just make sure to do your research and determine where the home sits in relation to the school district boundaries.

“Often agents will advertise a property as being near such-and-such school area, but not necessarily specify the district, which can be very confusing,” Maraj explains. “It can be a real eye-opener if a buyer closes and they’re on one side of a main street that is the dividing line between the top-rated and the lowest-rated high schools.”

Go to the school district’s website to get a map of the district boundaries.

3. The floor plan

Does the home fit your minimum criteria in terms of number of rooms and the flow of the main living areas? If not, cross it off your list, says Sarah Garza, a Realtor and military relocation specialist with Trident Homes Realty in Arnold, MD.

Garza can share some personal cautionary tales: A military spouse, she’s moved 12 times in the past 20 years, buying and selling nine homes in the process.

“I regret that I compromised on layout in the past,” she says. “When I really needed four bedrooms, I’ve gone to three and then wished I hadn’t.”

Sure, you can add on. But don’t use that option as a fallback, Maraj warns.

“You can change a layout to make it an open floor plan, but it’s a lot more difficult to change the bedroom and bathroom count,” she says. “In the long run, you could end up having a lot of problems and taking on a really big financial undertaking.”

4. The neighbors

During your search, don’t just focus on the house you’re interested in—check out the neighboring homes as well, Maraj says. Are the properties well-kept, or candidates for an episode of “Hoarders”?

The condition of the properties around you can affect your future resale value. And they can just plain drive you crazy. Make sure you look—and listen—any time you visit your prospective home.

“You can’t change the house in front of you or to the side of you,” Maraj cautions. “And if there’s a barking dog every time you’re viewing the property, that’s another thing that you absolutely cannot change.”

5. Your budget

You’ve probably already determined how much you’re willing to pay for a home—and you shouldn’t budge on that number. But you should also dig in your heels on the additional costs beyond the sticker price. That means setting a budget for your monthly payments, HOA dues, utility costs, and real estate taxes—and sticking to it. (Hint: You want to do this before you start looking at homes, and definitely before you start making offers.)

Yes, a lender will give you a pre-approval and tell you how much house you can afford. But this is just one piece of the puzzle, and the costs of homeownership can still land you in a mountain of debt if you’re not careful, Kessler points out.

“I try to do a lot of pre-planning with clients about what can they really afford, as opposed to what the bank tells you,” Kessler says. “You never want to be house poor.”

6. Commute time

If you’ve already determined that you’re willing to take on a 30-minute commute, don’t allow yourself to be swayed into anything longer, Garza says.

“Sometimes buyers fall in love with all the shiny bells and whistles of a house that’s an hour away from work, and want to compromise on what they’ve told me from the beginning,” she notes. “I tell them, ‘I know it doesn’t matter right now because you really love this house, but that’s two hours every day that you’ll be sitting in the car and not enjoying your house. Is that worth it to you?’”

She adds: Until you’ve actually driven the route to and from your potential home and your office, at the times you’ll be commuting, you should never consider compromising.

In some large cities, being just a few miles from the highway can tack on an additional hour of commuting. Could you handle that after a long day in the office? Think carefully before making the sacrifice.

7. Parking

Speaking of your car, if you own one (or two), you absolutely want a guaranteed spot to park, whether that means an enclosed garage, a driveway, or assigned parking.

“There are many communities that now restrict outside parking, guest spaces, and overnight parking, which could be a real homeowner nightmare if you have to fend for yourself,” Maraj says.

To avoid frustration after you’ve closed a deal, stick to your guns about the things that are most important to you while making your choice, and ignore the rest of the noise.

 

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10 Home-Buying Costs You Need to Know About

home finance

By: Craig Donofrio

If you’re a first-time home buyer, you might get a little queasy when the last line of your good-faith estimate comes in at several thousand dollars. And after the color returns to your face, you might also be a little more than perplexed by some of those fees.

Knowing what you’re paying for—like these 10 common costs—can ease that check-writing pain.

1. Earnest money

To prove you’re “earnest” in your purchase commitment, expect to plunk down 1% to 2% of the total purchase price as an earnest money deposit. This amount can change depending on market factors. If demand in your area is high, a seller could expect a larger deposit. If the market is cold, a seller could be happy with less than 1%.

Other governing factors like state limitations and rules can cap how much earnest money a seller can ask for.

2. Escrow account

An escrow account is basically a way for your mortgage company to make sure you have enough money to cover related taxes and mortgage insurance. The amount you need to pay varies by location, lender, and loan type. It could cover costs for a few months to a year.

Escrow accounts are common for loans with less than a 20% down payment and mandatory for FHA loans, but it’s not required for VA loans.

3. Origination

The origination fee is a hefty one. It’s the price you pay the loan officer or broker for completing the loan, and it includes underwriting, originating, and processing costs.

The origination fee is a small percentage of the total loan. A typical origination fee is about 1%, but it can vary. Use your good-faith estimate to shop around.

4. Inspection

You want to be assured your new home is structurally sound and free of surprises such as leaks or pests living in the walls. Those assurances come with a price.

  • Home inspection: This is critical for home buyers. A good inspector will be able to notify you of structural problems, flooding issues, and other potentially serious problems. Expect to pay $300 to $500 for a home inspection, although cost varies by location.
  • Radon inspection: An EPA-recommended step, this inspection will determine whether your prospective home has elevated levels of the cancer-causing agent radon. A professional radon inspection can cost several hundred dollars.
  • Pest inspections: Roaches are one thing. Termites are a whole different story. Expect to pay up to $150 for a termite inspection.

5. Attorney

Some states, such as Georgia, require an attorney to be present at closing. In some other areas, this is optional. If you use a lawyer, expect to cover the costs, which vary by area and lawyer.

It’s typical for mortgage companies to have a lawyer on their end, although they should cover the bill.

6. Credit check

Just because you can get your credit report for free doesn’t mean your lender can (and it will actually pull all three). You have to reimburse the lender, usually around $30.

7. Extra insurance

If you live in a hazard-prone area, you might need to purchase extra insurance, like for flood.

8. Appraisal

Your lender won’t loan you money for a home without knowing what its fair market value is. An appraisal will cost $200 to $400, depending on location and property size.

9. Title company

You pay this to the title company to make sure the property’s title is free and clear. Your lender will recommend a title company, but you can also shop around for one.

10. Survey

It’s not required in all instances, but your lender may require a professional surveyor to determine exactly where your property lines are drawn. Prices vary widely, but expect to pay at least $100.

Remember: You have bargaining power. Shop around to get a feel for what rates and fees apply in your area. If you aren’t sure what a lender is charging, ask for an explanation—the charge might not be set in stone. If you’re unhappy with a charge, negotiate.

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How to Prepare Yourself for Making a Down Payment

save for a down payment

Down payments frustrate a lot of would-be homeowners. Coming up with a large sum of cash can seem impossible, but it doesn’t have to be.

Setting up a savings plan now will help you get the down payment you need and show lenders you’re a responsible borrower.

For Down Payments, Bigger Is Better

Sound financial planning can help you amass a large down payment, which has several benefits:

Make Saving a Habit

Saving for a down payment is tough, but there are some strategies you can use to making saving money a habit—not a chore:

  • Budgeting is important, because if you don’t know where your money goes, you won’t know where you can cut back.
  • Set up a payroll deposit into your savings account or set up an automatic checking-to-savings transfer on payday to make things easier.
  • Consider certificates of deposit (CDs), money market funds and other low- to no-risk savings or investment vehicles to help your savings accumulate faster.

Give Yourself a Boost

Saving for a down payment one paycheck at a time can be frustrating. To help you get there faster, use some of these tricks:

  • Cut back on nonessential spending. Do you really need to pay for Starbucks, name-brand items or subscriptions to magazines and cable TV? There could be many items you can eliminate from your budget, and the savings would be substantial.
  • Reduce your credit card debt to save credit cards for emergencies only.
  • Adjust your tax withholding to make sure you’re not overpaying. It may feel good to get a tax refund in the spring, but that really is a free loan to the government. The money you get back is cash on which you could have been earning interest. The IRS website has a calculator to learn how much in taxes you should have withheld from your income.
  • Liquidate expendable assets. Saving for a home may be just the reason you’ve been looking for to unload stamp, coin, baseball card and comic book collections or other items that are collecting dust in your closets, safe deposit box or storage space.
  • Get another job. If you are already squeezed, consider working retail during the holidays, selling on eBay, taking on freelance work or finding some other source of income solely for the purpose of saving for that down payment.
  • Organize. That’s right: Sell all that stuff you never use that won’t be a good fit for your new home. Clear the clutter—an organized home is a time-saving home, and time is money.

Updated from an earlier version by Broderick Perkins.

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