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10 best real estate tips for 2016


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Think twice before putting more money toward your mortgage. People do this all the time and what it does is it limits their financial flexibility because the money is tied up in the house.

Money in the bank will pay the bills. Home equity will not.

Sales of single-family homes will rise modestly again in 2016 and median sales prices should be up 3% to 5%, trade groups and researchers say. While rising mortgage rates and a shortage of first-time buyers may temper that outlook some, the coming year should be another seller's market for real estate.

Despite an upsurge in construction, home inventories remain low and multiple offers are still common.

While a 6-month home supply is considered a balanced housing market, most markets are well below that, some significantly. Moreover, supporting fundamentals are far more solid than about a decade ago in the pre-bust years of 2006-2007.

With that as a backdrop, here are 10 tips for buying and selling real estate in a presumed up-market in 2016.

Looking to buy a house? First, check your credit score for free at myBankrate.

Home for sale © karamysh/Shutterstock.com

1. Buyers: Don't overreach

A bidding war might spur you to overspend, but paying an inflated price can make it tough to resell when prices stabilize or sink. (Read 2008-2009 real estate columns as a reminder.)

A decision to pay a premium isn't always an errant one, though, when you plan to live in the house long term. Rather than focus on overheated developments, look at comparable homes in neighboring areas with the same access to the schools and amenities that you value. Set a bid ceiling, and try to have a few other deals in the works so you're less inclined to overbid.

2. Sellers: Exercise your clout, but don't overplay it

If you set a price from 5% to 10% above the market, you're more apt to get an offer close to your home's real value than if you start much higher and force your listing to go stale. However, if your home has better qualities than area comps, you have a bit more latitude.

No need to pay closing costs or offer other incentives to the buyer, especially if it means keeping your in-demand home off the real estate market. For example, a sale contingent on the buyers selling their home is reasonable but only with a contractual escape for you, often called a "kick-out" clause. That gives you the right to continue marketing your home. If a less-encumbered bid comes in, you then offer the initial buyers a set time of 48 or 72 hours to withdraw their contingency.

3. Buyers: Be ready, be early, be flexible

Are the best houses still getting snapped up quickly? Then don't wait until you find a home to go loan shopping. Keep your preapproval letter, as opposed to a basic prequalification letter, in tow. Winnow your neighborhood choices before you shop.

Line up an action-ready inspector for an immediate property visit.

Have your agent ask what the sellers would value most in the sale. If you can accommodate a fast settlement or short-term, rent-back condition or fewer contingencies and conditions, that can make you stand out when that dream home is hanging in the balance.

4. Sellers: Know your agent's commission split

A heated market is causing sellers to question why they should pay the full 6% commission.

Hence, sellers' agents are accepting less, then offering less of a split to buyers' agents in a practice known as "sell to the commission."

When the co-op fee is low, buyers' agents tend to be less than enthusiastic in showing such houses, and yours will typically take longer to sell.

5. Buyers: Buying new?

Get what you pay for. Builders are cranking production to pre-recession levels. But some are cutting corners by hiring untrained help, not waiting for concrete to cure, painting walls without primers or quietly substituting cheaper materials such as a lower grade of countertop granite, or installing inadequate plumbing or HVAC units.

Consider hiring an independent inspector to oversee construction (at $400-plus). Builders may tell you not to worry because they'll hire one. Ahem!

And, be sure the builder is established and that you research online reviews, complaint pages and consumer ratings. Ask specific questions about the crew's experience and certifications.

6. Sellers: Know your influential rooms

Upgrades rarely pay for themselves, but there are 2 spaces that can make or break a home sale: the kitchen and master bath.

Because kitchens are the heart of the home, or the "new living room," make yours homey. Hide the coffee maker and toaster. Add simple decorative touches to the wall behind the sink.

Sure, new granite countertops and appliances are optimal, but new hardware for cabinets, new faucets, new lighting fixtures and fresh (neutral) wallpaper are inexpensive touches that carry weight. Thoroughly scour and depopulate the fridge and take magnets off it, please.

For bathrooms, always display a sparkling bathtub and commode. A new tub liner, or "shell," can make that marred tub look like new and save you from replacing it.

A new faucet, new lights, fresh caulking, a new towel rack or new mirror may be in order. Clean out the medicine cabinet. Of course, this doesn't mean you shouldn't declutter, depersonalize, paint and scrub the rest of your space, too.

7. Buyers: Beware hidden costs

When is a $250,000 house not a $250,000 house?

Answer: Always! Consider these and myriad other closing costs when buying:

  • Origination fee: On a $200,000 mortgage for a $250,000 home, assuming 3.5% interest and no points, you'd pay the lender about $1,800.
  • Home inspection: Even if the mortgage insurer doesn't require one, get one for peace of mind.
  • Property taxes: You'll usually pay a few months upfront.
  • Appraisal: The bank will need to determine how much the place is really worth.
  • Private mortgage insurance, or PMI: This depends on your down payment and credit rating.

Other pre-occupancy costs should include home insurance, title insurance and deed-recording fee, and possibly title insurance, survey costs, credit report fees, flood insurance and homeowners association dues/insurance.

On that $250,000 home, allow an extra $5,000 or more atop the sale price.

8. Sellers: Consider the replacement

You're getting multiple offers on your home, with several over asking price. Wow, that was fast! But can you find your next home in time to move once you sign?

If not, one option would be to request a lease-back from the buyer, allowing you to remain in your old home for the time you need to shop for the replacement. This will be contingent on when the new owners need to occupy, and the period is usually limited to 60 days.

The other option is to slow the selling process by asking for a longer period before closing.

Whatever you do, get your prospects and finances lined up (see tip No. 3!). Yes, a seller's market swings 2 ways!

9. Buyers: Seek out an up-and-coming neighborhood

Things to look for include proximity to a new or resurgent business center, the addition of a major employer, a light-rail station, a city cleanup initiative, young people moving there, crime watch and other neighborhood groups being formed, multiple renovations underway and other up-and-coming neighborhoods abutting it.

New retailers, restaurants and other commercial tenants are also a good sign. Research by RealtyTrac shows that homes in ZIP codes that have a Trader Joe's grocery store appreciated 40% on average since the homes were last purchased. Homes with a Whole Foods nearby appreciated 34% on average.

10. Sellers and buyers: Don't play the bubble game

Thousands of would-be sellers and buyers are agonizing over how they can time their next sale or purchase to coincide with the "pop" of this housing bubble, either by selling soon for optimal profit or swooping in with cash to pounce on post-pop pricing.

True, the bust of 2007-2008 was a loud and robust one, but don't look for anything catastrophic this time. The present froth is being fueled by narrow supply and widespread demand, not easy credit and "liars' loans."

Most real estate cycles don't explode like the last one; they just deflate slowly. Real estate continues to be a reliable long-term investment prone to usually modest peaks and valleys, done on a deal-by-deal basis and subject to local economies.

Good luck in the new year!

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