Entering 2010, many home sellers feel they're mired in the winter of their discontent, but there are signs the real estate market is on the mend. Sales activity is up, homebuilders are finally moving inventory and values are rising slightly in many American cities. At year-end 2009, mortgage rates stood at historic lows, spurring a wave of new applications.
But don't be too jubilant. A recent report by Deutsche Bank estimates that by 2011, about 48 percent of all U.S. mortgages will be underwater. Short sales and foreclosures will continue to put pressure on home prices in 2010 as they work their way through the pipeline slowly. It was apparent in 2009 that lenders were holding back much of their foreclosure inventories and REO, or real estate-owned property, in an effort to keep values up.
Meanwhile, housing's biggest economic driver -- the job market -- continues to stagnate as average unemployment remains high, at around 10 percent. So it's no surprise the new year will ring in another buyer's market, though with far more upside than in 2009. With that as a backdrop, here are 10 real estate tips for homebuyers and owners in 2010.
Take up Uncle Sam on his offer.Might as well get a piece of that big stimulus pie while it lasts. At some point, the federal government will have to let the toddler walk on its own legs.
The $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit program that helped jump-start the real estate market in 2009 has been extended into 2010 and expanded. First-time homebuyers who sign a binding contract to buy a home by April 30, 2010, and close on it by June 30, 2010, qualify. The program's maximum income limits have jumped from $75,000 to $125,000 for individuals and from $150,000 to $225,000 for couples.
For those who have owned their homes for at least five years and want to trade up to a different primary residence, a separate $6,500 tax credit has been added. Further, many homeowners who are underwater in their real estate loans are eligible for a loan-modification program with their current mortgage company or loan servicer through the Making Home Affordable Program.
Find down payment assistance.There are several down payment assistance programs for first-time homebuyers at the federal and local levels. Other down-payment assistance programs that can piggyback ongoing federal programs are often available at the city, county and state level. Just conduct an Internet search for "down-payment assistance programs" with your locality's name added.
Make home improvements now.For households with access to credit, now may be the best time in years to fix up the homestead, either for a potential sale or simply for the sake of better living. Low financing costs, reduced construction materials costs and lower contractor costs make rehabs more affordable. Repairs that typically yield the highest returns are kitchen and bathroom makeovers with an emphasis on counters and cabinets. Get three different estimates. Then, factor in an additional 10 percent for those on-the-fly "change orders" that inevitably crop up. See home improvement strategies and checklists at Homegain.com.