How To Buy A Foreclosed Home

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in  How to Buy a Foreclosed Home. It opens,

As home prices soar in many cities, buyers might look to foreclosures as an affordable option for landing their dream home. Typically, a foreclosure occurs when a homeowner no longer can make the mortgage payments and the lender seizes the property. The lender then requires the former owner to vacate the property before offering it for sale, usually at a discounted price. In some cases, the home is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Foreclosures offer home shoppers the potential to score a great deal, says Elizabeth Mendenhall, a Realtor in Columbia, Missouri, who is president of the National Association of Realtors.

“Sometimes people think a foreclosure only happens to the lower end of the market, but you can definitely find foreclosures at any price range,” she says.

But while buying a foreclosure can save you a lot of cash, it does come with risks. If you pursue a foreclosure, it helps to have a “stomach of steel,” says David Reiss, law professor and academic programs director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
“There’s going to be a lot more ups and downs” than in a typical homebuying process, says Reiss, whose work focuses on real estate finance and community development.

Why Buy a Foreclosure?

In recent years, foreclosure sales have been trending downward, according to national property data curating company Attom Data Solutions. That is largely because a strengthening U.S. economy has reduced the number of borrowers who lose their homes as a result of failing to pay the mortgage. In 2017, distressed home sales – including foreclosures and short sales – made up 14 percent of all U.S. single family home and condo sales, according to Attom Data Solutions. That number was down from 15.5 percent in 2016 and a recent high of 38.6 percent in 2011.

Still, some buyers look to foreclosures to get the best possible deal. Homes may be for sale in various states of foreclosure. For example, pre-foreclosure is a period when the owner has fallen behind on payments, but the lender has not actually taken the home from the owner. Homes sold at this point often go through the short sale process, where the lender agrees to accept an amount of money from the buyer that is less than what the current owner owes on the mortgage.

Properties that are already in foreclosure are sold at an online or offline auction, or by a real estate agent. The biggest lure of buying a foreclosure is the potential savings you get compared with buying a similar nondistressed property.

“It can be like a 15 percent discount on your neighboring houses,” Reiss says. “So, it can be significant.”

But Mendenhall says how much you will save depends on the local real estate market and the stage of foreclosure of the property.

The Risks of Buying a Foreclosure

Purchasing a foreclosure involves several substantial risks, so buyers must enter the process with their eyes wide open. In many cases, if you buy a foreclosure at auction, you must purchase the property sight unseen. Reiss says this is the biggest potential danger of buying a foreclosure.

“The big, scary thing is that with a number of foreclosures, you can’t actually inspect the property before you actually bid,” he says. “That’s in part why the prices are below the market.”

Even if you can get a professional inspection on a foreclosure, you typically have to buy the house “as is.” Once you purchase the home, any problems that pop up are yours – as is the responsibility for finding and paying for a remedy. Such problems are more likely in a foreclosure than in a nondistressed property. For example, in some cases, a frustrated family might strip the home of valuable elements before vacating the house.

“Or they kind of just beat it up because they were angry about having to go through the foreclosure,” Reiss says.

The mere fact that the home is vacant also can lead to problems. Reiss says a home is like a plant – if you don’t tend to it regularly, it can wither and die. “If you happen to leave it alone on its own for too long, water leaks in, pipes can burst, rodents can get in, just the elements can do damage,” he says.

Mendenhall adds that people who lose their homes to foreclosure typically have major financial troubles. That can trigger other troubles for the new owner. “If the previous owner was in financial distress, there’s a chance that there’s more maintenance and work maybe that they haven’t completed,” she says.

Reducing the Dangers of Buying a Foreclosure

There are a few things you can do to mitigate the risks associated with buying a foreclosure. For starters, see if you can get a professional inspection of the property. Although buyers often cannot inspect a foreclosure property, that is not always the case. So, be sure to ask a real estate agent or the seller about hiring a home inspector.

“Even though it may extend the process, if you can have a qualified inspector come in, you can know a little bit more about what you’re getting into,” Mendenhall says.

If you can’t inspect the property, Reiss recommends researching its history. Look at publicly available records to find out when the property was last sold and how long the current owner had possession. Also, check whether building permits were drawn and what type of work was done. “Maybe you’ll see some good news, like a boiler was replaced two years ago,” Reiss says. “Or maybe you’ll see some scary news, like there’s all these permits and you don’t know if the work was completed.”

Also, visit the house and perform a “curbside inspection” of your own, Reiss says. “Even if you can’t go inside the house, you want to look at the property,” he says. “If you can peek in the windows, you probably want to peek in the windows.”

Knock on the doors of nearby neighbors. Tell them you want to bid on the property but need to learn all that you can about the previous owners, including how long they lived in the home and whether they took care of it. And ask if there have been any signs of squatters or recent break-ins.

“Try to get all that information,” Reiss says. “Neighbors are probably going to have a good sense of a lot of that, and I think that kind of informal due diligence can be helpful.”

Working with a real estate agent experienced in selling distressed property may help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls of buying foreclosures, Mendenhall says. Some agents have earned the National Association of Realtors’ Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource Certification, or SFR. Such Realtors can help guide you through processes unique to purchasing distressed properties, Mendenhall says.

How to Find a Foreclosure

You can find foreclosures by searching the listings at bank websites, including those of giants such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America. The government-sponsored companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also have listings on their websites.

The federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development owns and sells foreclosed homes. You can find listings on the website.

Private companies such as RealtyTrac offer foreclosure listings online, typically for a fee. Finally, you can contact a real estate agent who will find foreclosures for you. These agents may help you find foreclosures before others snatch them up.

Is a Foreclosure Right for You?

Before you pursue a foreclosure, Reiss encourages you to ask yourself whether you are in a good position to take on the risk – and, hopefully, to reap the reward – of buying a foreclosure. It is possible to use conventional financing, or even a loan from the Federal Housing Administration or Department of Veterans Affairs, to buy a foreclosure. However, people with deeper pockets are often better candidates for buying a foreclosure.

Because the process can be highly competitive, buyers with access to large amounts of cash can swoop in and land the best deals. “You can get financing, but you need to get it quickly,” Reiss says. “I think a lot of people who go into purchasing foreclosure(s) want to have the cash to just kind of act.”

Sellers of distressed properties love cash-only buyers, because the home can be sold without a lender requiring either a home appraisal or a home inspection. “So, the more cash you have on hand, the more likely you’re playing in those sandboxes,” Reiss says.

In addition, buyers of foreclosures often need to spend money to bring a property up to code or to make it competitive with other homes in the neighborhood. “Have a big cushion in case the building is in much worse condition than you expected,” Reiss says.

He cites the example of someone who buys a foreclosure, only to discover that the piping has been stripped out of the basement and will cost $10,000 to repair and replace. “You need to know that you can handle that one way or the other,” Reiss says.

People with solid home maintenance and repair skills also are good candidates for buying a foreclosure. “I think if you’re a handy person, you might be able to address a lot of the issues yourself,” Reiss says. He describes such buyers as anyone who has “a can-do attitude and is looking to trade sweat equity for home equity.”

Reiss and Mendenhall agree that flexibility is crucial to successfully shopping for and purchasing a foreclosure. Mendenhall notes that a foreclosure sale can take a long time to complete. “It can be a long process, or a frustrating one,” she says. “It can depend upon where they are in the foreclosure process. It can take a much longer time to go from contract to close.”

For that reason, a foreclosure might not make sense for buyers who need to move into a property quickly, she says. Also, think hard about how you really feel about buying a house that needs extensive renovation work that might take a long time to complete.

“It can be hard for some people to live in a property and do repairs at the same time,” Mendenhall says.

Rental Potholes

photo by Eric Haddox

Realtor.com quoted me in Rental Potholes—and How to Avoid Falling Into Them. It opens,

Until you have the money to buy your own home, renting is eventually a part of just about every person’s life. And typically this transaction tends to work out just fine. Until it doesn’t. Because there is indeed plenty that can go wrong, leaving renters learning some difficult lessons through trial and error. To make sure you aren’t one of them, check out these rental roadblocks—and what you can do to keep from getting stuck.

Somebody’s watching you

“My work took our family to Florida and in our haste to find somewhere to live with our two kids, we found a gorgeous townhouse seaside rental. The ocean views were incredible, just what we’d dreamed of. So incredible, in fact, that we didn’t realize the unit lacked window coverings of any kind! And as much as I loved looking at the ocean, there were times when some level of privacy was desired; people could see into the whole house if they were walking along the beach. When we shared this ‘oversight’ with the landlord, his offer was to split the costs of full-house window coverings! We decided not to help the property owner increase the value of his home. We continued to enjoy ocean views on a 24/7 basis but moved out after a year.” – Rhonda Moret, Del Mar, CA

Lesson learned: Don’t let your enthusiasm keep you from doing your due diligence before thoroughly vetting a place and signing on the dotted line.

“This responsibility falls squarely on the tenant; you can’t expect someone else to look out for your interests. That’s your job,” says David Reiss, academic program director for Brooklyn Law School’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. But by the same turn, don’t fall for a landlord’s request to “split the cost”—any renovations should be his responsibility all the way.

Bye-bye, security deposit

“When I handed our landlord a $1,000 security deposit, I assumed I’d get it back whenever we left, and didn’t bother to do a walk-through of the apartment to make sure it was in decent shape. Big mistake! Once we moved out, the landlord sent us a letter stating he was keeping the security deposit because we had broken a window in the garage. Only we hadn’t—that must have been done by a previous tenant. We got charged for someone else’s damage.” – Mindy Jensen, Wheaton, IL

Lesson learned: “Doing a walk-through inspection is important if you want your security deposit back,” says Reiss. “It’s important to add details like time stamps to everything and get documentation that your landlord received the report.”

Also consider recording a video with your smartphone while you walk through the place. The more backup material you have, the better the odds that you’ll get back what you deserve.

Your pet or your pad

“A few years ago, my family and I rented a townhouse. There was a pet shop on the corner selling the cutest puppies, and we fell in love with a French bulldog and bought him. That’s when things started to get ugly. We hadn’t checked the rental agreement to see if we could own a pet. When our landlord found out, she became hysterical and asked us to leave—or get rid of the dog. We ended up homeless, but with a very cute puppy. Fortunately, we stayed at a friend’s place until we found a dog-friendly home.” – Derek McLane, Sydney, Australia

Lesson learned: “Read the fine print before you sign. This is pretty fundamental, even if it is not fun to do,” says Reiss.

At the very least, ask your landlord what the rules are and to specify where the pertinent parts can be found in the lease. Be aware that many leases don’t allow pets, or will make pet owners pay an extra fee known as pet rent.

You’ve got mail … a mile away

“I was living in an amazing apartment when the mailboxes in the foyer were vandalized to the point where the USPS deemed them ‘unsafe for delivery of mail.’ We were ‘temporarily’ redirected to pick up mail six blocks up and four very long avenue blocks over until the landlords had an opportunity to repair our mailboxes. A year and a half later, they still hadn’t been fixed—and to make matters worse, a stairwell skylight had collapsed. I was forced to take on the practically full-time job of challenging my landlord to make repairs. I finally was able to make something happen by researching the building and finding out that my landlord had illegally jacked up the rent more than was legally allowed by rent-stabilization laws. Eventually, my efforts resulted in a rent reduction, reinstated mail delivery, and a very bad tenant/landlord relationship.” – Tim Tucker, Las Vegas, NV

Lesson learned: “Know your rights. Tenants have a lot of them, particularly in rent-regulated apartments,” says Reiss.

When Buyers Change Their Minds

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in When Home Buyers Change Their Minds (behind paywall). It opens,

The offer was accepted. The mortgage was approved. What happens when the buyer gets cold feet and wants to back out of the deal?

Jason Michael faced this issue about 18 months ago when he listed his three-bedroom home in St. Louis. Mr. Michael, a 36-year-old public-relations executive, asked $130,000 for his home and accepted an offer for $127,000. The buyers posted a $1,000 deposit of “earnest money,” completed inspections, negotiated repairs and were approved for a mortgage.

Then they told Mr. Michael that they had found another house and didn’t want to move ahead with the purchase.

While the contract allowed Mr. Michael to pocket the deposit if the buyers defaulted, they refused to authorize their agent to release it. Only after Mr. Michael threatened to sue did they surrender the $1,000.

“My agent had said that people don’t back out of house purchases—that this won’t happen,” Mr. Michael says. “But now I approach it as if the buyer can back out until the very last minute.” He ultimately decided to rent out the house.

According to an online survey of 2,241 adults conducted for finance website Nerdwallet.com in January, home-buyer’s remorse isn’t uncommon. Nearly half (49%) of homeowners who responded said they would do something differently if they had to go through the process again. Broken down by age group, 61% of Generation Xers (the mid-1960s through the 1970s) and 57% of millennial homeowners (born in the early 1980s through about 2004) indicated they had regrets. Many wished they had bought a bigger home or saved more money before buying.

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Here are a few things to consider if you might want to back out of your real-estate contract. Buyers and sellers should consult a qualified real-estate attorney for advice.

• Craft carefully. Rather than having a mortgage contingency allowing you to obtain a mortgage “at prevailing rates,” specify that the mortgage rate can be no more than 4%, for example. Or, consider making the contract contingent on the mortgage actually being funded by the lender. “This extends the contingency all the way to the closing,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in real estate.

• Sharpen your negotiation skills. Even if you can’t back out legally, try to negotiate a reduction or return of the deposit with the seller. In a market where prices are rising and the homeowner can get a higher price for their home, there might be a chance to come to terms.

• Remember the broker. Even if the seller lets the buyer off the hook, he may still be liable to the broker for the commission. Contracts state that the commission is due when the broker finds a ready, willing and able buyer. Many brokers will work with the seller in this situation, Mr. Haber says, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

 

Home Mis-Inspector

photo by Mark Moz

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Realtor.com quoted me in Yikes! What If Your Home Inspector Missed Something Huge? It opens,

Your offer has been accepted, and there’s just one more obstacle between you and your new home: the inspection. It can be a stressful event for both buyers and sellers as they wait for the report, hoping no major issues will surface that could sideline the deal.

But what if you make it through that day, let out a big sigh of relief, seal the deal, and then a few weeks or months later find an issue in your new home—a bat infestation, a leaky roof, a CDC-level mold problem—that the home inspector didn’t catch? Just how much peace of mind does a home inspection really buy you?

Find out how you can protect yourself.

Sadly, there’s no insurance home buyers can take out to protect themselves from a faulty inspection. As such, the most important step home buyers can take to prevent that scenario is to select a reputable inspection company.

Make sure you choose a firm that has been in the residential inspection business for a while and has a strong reputation (real estate agents and lenders often have recommendations).

But most important, your home inspector should have adequate insurance.

Keith Balsiger, president of Balsiger Insurance in Las Vegas, says buyers should ask for a current certificate of insurance that shows the inspection company has both general liability insurance and professional liability insurance (also known as errors and omissions insurance). This is what would potentially cover you as a buyer if there was a major “miss” on the part of the inspection.

If you want to be extra safe, you can call the insurance agency of the inspection company to confirm the coverage on the certificate is still valid.

You also want to closely examine the terms of the liability insurance. David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, says some contracts will state that the company is liable only for the cost of the inspection, which won’t be much solace if you find yourself on the hook for repairs that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Ideally, you would not want there to be any limit on the inspector’s liability in case he or she was negligent in doing the inspection,” says Reiss. At the very least, make sure the limit exceeds the cost of the inspection alone.

Why buyers should attend the home inspection

As an added safeguard, buyers should be physically present during the inspection. If an inspector balks at this idea, that’s a red flag. Make sure to find out what is covered by the inspection, and if there’s anything you want the inspector to scrutinize in particular (say, you know the boiler is old or the basement has water stains, suggesting flooding issues), state that upfront.

“It’s a buyer’s job to make the most of the home inspection,” says Bryant Dunivan Jr., a real estate and consumer protection attorney in Brandon, FL. Here are some things to watch for during the inspection:

  • The inspector is working off a checklist of items that was in the contract.
  • Major systems (air conditioning, heating, water, etc.) are tested.
  • The inspector actually enters attic and crawl spaces.
  • A report complete with pictures is provided.

What to look out for in a home inspection

Robert Pellegrini Jr., president of PK Boston, a real estate law firm based in Boston, says a typical red flag disclaimer on the inspection report is a statement that there was a problem with “access” to roofs, eaves, and areas behind locked or blocked doors or crawl spaces.

“That serves to absolve the inspector of any liability,” Pellegrini says.

Urge the home seller to remove all barriers that might prevent an inspector from doing a thorough job. Some home buyers even take the process into their own hands and hire drones or robots to view inaccessible areas.

Uh-oh! You’ve closed, but there’s a problem

No matter how many precautions you take, the nightmare scenario does happen: You move in and then discover a problem. A big one. Can you bring it up with the seller? After all, sellers are required to disclose any known issues about the home.

Well, here’s the rub: Proving the seller knew about something after the fact is nearly impossible, and the legal cost involved in trying to prove it is often too steep to make an attempt.

Which brings us back to the home inspector. If you encounter a problem, bring it up with your inspector. As long as you used one with decent liability insurance that covers more than just the cost of the inspection, odds are decent you’ll be compensated for any damages. Again, you’ll have to prove it. For example, if the inspector said the roof was in good condition, but there was a leak months later during a big storm, you would have to prove that nothing happened in the intervening time that damaged the roof.

“Bottom line: You would probably need pretty clear facts on your side to win,” Reiss says.

Calculating Closing Costs

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Realtor.com quoted me in How Much Are Closing Costs? What Home Buyers and Sellers Can Expect. It reads, in part,

Closing costs are the fees paid to third parties that help facilitate the sale of a home, and they vary widely by location. But as a rule, you can estimate that they typically total 2% to 7% of the home’s purchase price. So on a $250,000 home, your closing costs would amount to anywhere from $5,000 to $17,500. Yep that’s one heck of a wide range. More on that below.

Both buyers and sellers typically pitch in on closing costs, but buyers shoulder the lion’s share of the load (3% to 4% of the home’s price) compared with sellers (1% to 3%). And while some closing costs must be paid before the home is officially sold (e.g., the home inspection fee when the service is rendered), most are paid at the end when you close on the home and the keys exchange hands.

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Why Closing Costs Vary

The reason for the huge disparity in closing costs boils down to the fact that different states and municipalities have different legal requirements—and fees—for the sale of a home.

“If you live in a jurisdiction with high title insurance premiums and property transfer taxes, they can really add up,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “New York City, for instance, has something called a mansion tax, which adds a 1% tax to sales that exceed $1 million. And then there are the surprise expenses that can crop up like so-called ‘flip taxes’ that condos charge sellers.”

To estimate your closing costs, plug your numbers into an online closing costs calculator, or ask your Realtor, lender, or mortgage broker for a more accurate estimate. Then, at least three days before closing, the lender is required by federal law to send buyers a closing disclosure that outlines those costs once again. (Meanwhile sellers should receive similar documents from their Realtor outlining their own costs.)

Word to the wise: “Before you close, make sure to review these documents to see if the numbers line up to what you were originally quoted,” says Ameer. Errors can and do creep in, and since you’re already ponying up so much cash, it pays, literally, to eyeball those numbers one last time before the big day.