CHARLESTON, SC

HOME BUYER’S GUIDE

Buying a home can be complicated, but here are some valuable resource articles that may be helpful for you as you are going through the home buying process. These articles cover the basics from understanding how real estate agents assist with the process to analyzing your budget and financial status; in addition there is advice for  dealing with inspections, making an offer for a home, and preparing for the paperwork process that goes along with this life-changing financial decision. For assistance or quick answers to your real estate questions, give a call to (843) 452-1200 or Contact us!

Appraisals & Market Value

What is the return on new versus previously owned homes?

Buying into a new-home community may seem riskier than purchasing a house in an established neighborhood, but any increase in home value depends upon the same factors: quality of the neighborhood, growth in the local housing market, and the state of the overall economy. Many newer home communities now have HOA boards that can assure one that the neighborhood that you buy into will remain so over the years and thus give you the same measure of confidence as buying into an established neighborhood.

What’s a house worth?

A home ultimately is worth what someone will pay for it. Everything else is an estimate of value. With that said, there are two primary ways to estimate value; the first way is to get your agent or broker to preform a comparative market analysis. Most agents will do this for free as part of their services. Your agent will compare your house to others in the proximity that have recently sold and therefore have a proven estimate of value. These sales should be no older than 4 months. The other way to estimate value is to have a certified appraiser do an appraisal on the house. The appraiser will also use comparable house sales to determine the property’s value. He/she will take into account the age of the property, the square footage, construction quality and design, as well as location to schools transportation and shopping. These typically run $300-400.

What standards do appraisers use to estimate value?

Appraisers use numerous factors when determining a property’s value. These typically are, age, square footage, construction quality and design, the condition of the house and the lot, the neighborhood and it’s proximity to schools, transportation, and shopping. They compare these values with comparable recent sales prices in the proximity to the property.

Can I find out the value of my home through the Internet?

While an Internet search is not as exact as an appraisal, you can get a broad estimate of value through an Internet search. There are numerous web services that use public records to estimate value and they are a good resource. With that said, you should still get your knowledgeable real estate agent to do a comparative market analysis as he/she may know issues about the market and/or the neighborhood that an internet algorithm doesn’t pick up on.

What is the difference between list price, sales price and appraised value?

The list price is the price that the seller has chosen and is what the house is being marketed as; this price is the one that the seller hopes to get for the house. The sales price is the price that a buyer is willing to pay for the home. This might be the same price as the list price or it could be higher or lower. The appraised price is the price that a certified appraiser gives to a property and it is based on comparable actual sales on properties in the neighborhood as well as the condition of the property.

What are the standard ways of finding out how much a home is worth?

There are two main methods to find a home’s value and you can perform one or both of them. The first is a comparative market analysis which is done by your realtor or broker. This is generally done as part of the agents proposal and it is an informal evaluation of your property based on current sales prices of homes in your neighborhood. The second method is to have a certified appraiser do an appraisal of your home which also takes into account the recent home sales but also compares your home to others that have sold in terms of size, quality and design of construction, age, etc.  Appraisals generally run $300-400.

How do you determine the value of a troubled property?

If you are thinking about buying a foreclosure property, you should try and get ats much information as you can. Lenders will often give you the range of bids expected. If you can get into the house , you should have an inspection done so that you won’t have an unforeseen major expense but many foreclosed properties will not let you inside before the auction and most are sold “as is.” You should definitely find out from the lender or the public records if there are any liens, encroachments, or title problems as many of these issues are non-negotiable or cannot be repaired.

What is the difference between market value and appraised value?

Really, your home’s market value is what a ready, willing and able buyer is willing to pay at any given time. You should, however, have some idea of your home’s worth before listing it. There are two main ways to determine this. The first is to have a certified appraiser do an appraisal which most lenders require as part of the lending package. This usually runs about $300-$400. On the other hand, most Realtors or brokers will do a comparative market analysis as part of his/her services. This is a more informal estimate of value and it compares your house to the sales of comparable homes in your area.

Escrow & Closing Costs

How can I save on closing costs?

Closing costs generally are 2 to 3 percent of a total home purchase but can run as high as 5 percent so you should know some tips on how to reduce them. Here are some tips to help you when the time comes:

  • First, you should try to negotiate with the seller to pay all or part of the closing costs. If you’re successful with this, the lender must agree.
  • If you don’t have a lot of cash for the down-payment, you may be able to get a no-point loan. Unfortunately , this usually comes with a higher interest rate but it might be worth it to get you into the house.
  • Your lender is required by law to give you a Loan Estimate (previously known as a Good Faith Estimate). This will tell you exactly what your closing costs will be and there may be some things in it that are negotiable. Compare this Loan Estimate with other banks before locking anything in, and you may be able to save some money.
  • You may be able to get a no-fee loan. Again this usually comes with a higher interest rate, but again, this is a way to save upfront costs.
  • If you’re buying in a low interest-rate environment, you probably won’t need to pay extra for points to lower your interest rate. If not, that is always an option.

Who pays the closing costs?

Closing costs are either paid by the home seller or home buyer. In SC it generally is a buyer cost but it is always negotiable.

What are closing costs?

Closing costs are the fees, taxes and interest costs that are associated with purchasing a home. They include loan points,, attorneys fees, title insurance, escrow or closing day charges, property taxes, document fees, and any prepaid interest. Some lenders will let you incorporate some or all of these fees into the loan but most must be paid when the home is closed.

Where do I get information about closing costs?

For more on closing costs, ask for the “Consumers Guide to Mortgage Settlement Costs,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Public Information Department, P.O. Box 7702, San Francisco, CA 94120 or call (415) 974-2163.

Why do I need a title report?

As much as you as a buyer may want to believe that the home you have found is perfect, a clear title report ensures that there are no liens placed against the prior owners or any documents that will restrict your use of the property. A preliminary title report provides you with an opportunity to review any impediment that would prevent clear title from passing to you. When reading a preliminary report, it is important to check the extent of your ownership rights or interests. The most common form of interest is “fee simple” or “fee,” which is the highest type of interest an owner can have in land. Liens, restrictions, and interests of others excluded from title coverage will be listed numerically as exceptions in the report. You also may have to consider interests of any third parties, such as easements granted by prior owners that limit use of the property. Some buyers attempt to clear these unwanted items prior to purchase. A list of standard exceptions and exclusions not covered by the title insurance policy may be attached. This section includes items the buyer may want to investigate further, such as any laws governing building and zoning.

Finding the Right Home

What are the pros and cons of adding on or buying new?

Before making a choice between adding on to an existing home or buying a larger one, consider these questions:
* How much money is available, either from cash reserves or through a home improvement loan, to remodel your current house?
* How much additional space is required? Would the foundation support a second floor or does the lot have room to expand on the ground level?
* What do local zoning and building ordinances permit?
* How much equity already exists in the property?
* Are there affordable properties for sale that would satisfy your changing housing needs?

Do we dig deep and buy a dream home or settle for a starter home?

Choosing between a smaller house in an affluent neighborhood, an older, bigger house in a more working-class community, or a brand-new home is not easy. If you’re in this situation, start by examining your priorities and asking the following questions:
* Is the surrounding neighborhood or the home itself the most important consideration?
* Is each of the neighborhoods safe?
* Is quality of the schools an issue?
* Do any of the areas seem to attract more families with children or adult residents? And where do you fit in?

As for the return on your investment, home-price appreciation is hard to predict. In the late 1980s, and again 10 years later, the more expensive move-up housing appreciated wildly. But during the recession that followed, smaller homes tended to hold their value better than more expensive ones.

How do you choose between buying and renting?

Home ownership offers tax benefits as well as the freedom to make decisions about your home. An advantage of renting is not worrying about maintenance and other financial obligations associated with owning property. There also are a number of economic considerations. Unlike renters, home owners who secure a fixed-rate loan can lock in their monthly housing costs and make prudent investment plans knowing these expenses will not increase substantially. Home ownership is a highly leveraged investment that can yield substantial profit on a nominal front-end investment. However, such returns depend on home-price appreciation.

“For some people, owning a home is a great feeling,” writes Mitchell A. Levy in his book, Home Ownership: The American Myth, Myth Breakers Press, Cupertino, Calif.; 1993. “It does, however, have a price. Besides the maintenance headache, the amount of after-tax money paid to the lender is usually greater than the amount of money otherwise paid in rent,” Levy concludes.

As for evaluating the risk associated with home ownership, David T. Schumacher and Erik Page Bucy write in their book, The Buy & Hold Real Estate Strategy, John Wiley & Sons, New York; 1992, that “good property located in growth areas should be regarded as an investment as opposed to a speculation or gamble.” The authors recommend that prospective buyers spend a few months investigating a community. Many people make the mistake of buying in the wrong area. “Just because certain properties are high-priced doesn’t necessarily mean they have some inherent advantage,” the authors write. “One property may cost more than another today, but will it still be worth more down the line?”

How do I get the real scoop on homes I am looking at?

Home inspections, seller disclosure requirements, and the agent’s experience will help. Disclosure laws vary by state, but in some states, the law requires the seller to complete a real estate transfer disclosure statement. Here is a summary of the things you could expect to see in a disclosure form:
* In the kitchen — a range, oven, microwave, dishwasher, garbage disposal, trash compactor.
* Safety features such as burglar and fire alarms, smoke detectors, sprinklers, security gate, window screens, and intercom.
* The presence of a TV antenna or satellite dish, carport or garage, automatic garage door opener, rain gutters, sump pump.
* Amenities such as a pool or spa, patio or deck, built-in barbeque and fireplaces.
* Type of heating, condition of electrical wiring, gas suppl,y and presence of any external power source, such as solar panels.
* The type of water heater, water supply, sewer system or septic tank  should also be disclosed.

Sellers also are required to indicate any significant defects or malfunctions existing in the home’s major systems. A checklist specifies interior and exterior walls, ceilings, roof, insulation, windows, fences, driveway, sidewalks, floors, doors, foundation, as well as the electrical and plumbing systems. The form also asks sellers to note the presence of environmental hazards, walls or fences shared with adjoining landowners, any encroachments or easements, room additions or repairs made without the necessary permits or not in compliance with building codes, zoning violations, citations against the property, and lawsuits against the seller affecting the property.

Also look for, or ask about, settling, sliding or soil problems, flooding or drainage problems, and any major damage resulting from earthquakes, floods, or landslides.

People buying a condominium must be told about covenants, codes and restrictions or other deed restrictions. It’s important to note that the simple idea of disclosing defects has broadened significantly in recent years. Many jurisdictions have their own mandated disclosure forms as do many brokers and agents. Also, the home inspection and home warranty industries have grown.

What do all of those real estate acronyms in the ads mean?

If you find yourself stumbling over weird acronyms in a real estate listing, don’t be alarmed. There is method to the madness of this shorthand (which is mostly adopted by sellers to save money in advertising charges). Here are some abbreviations and the meaning of each, taken from a recent newspaper classified section:
* assum. fin. — assumable financing
* dk — deck
* gar — garage (garden is usually abbreviated “gard”)
* expansion pot’l — may be extra space on the lot, or possibly vertical potential for a top floor or room addition. Verify actual potential by checking local zoning restrictions prior to purchase.
* fab pentrm — fabulous pentroom, a room on top, underneath the roof, that sometimes has views
* FDR — formal dining room (not the former president)
* frplc, fplc, FP — fireplace
* grmet kit — gourmet kitchen
* HDW, HWF, Hdwd — hardwood floors
* hi ceils — high ceilings
* In-law potential — potential for a separate apartment. Sometimes, local zoning codes restrict rentals of such units so be sure the conversion is legal first.
* large E-2 plan — this is one of several floor plans available in a specific building
* lsd pkg. — leased parking area, may come with an additional cost
* lo dues — find out just how low these homeowner’s dues are, and in comparison to what?
* nr bst schls — near the best schools
* pvt — private
* pwdr rm — powder room, or half-bath
* upr- upper floor
* vw, vu, vws, vus — view(s)
* Wow! — better check this one out.

Will a neighbor problem reduce the value of my property?

While it may not reduce the actual value, a cluttered landscape next door can detract from the positive aspects of your home. Review your local laws, which should be on file at the public library, county law library or City Hall. A typical “junk vehicle” ordinance, for example, requires any disabled car to either be enclosed or placed behind a fence. And most cities prohibit parking any vehicle on a city street too long. It also may be worthwhile to check into local zoning ordinances. An operator of a home-based business usually is required to obtain a variance or permanent zoning change in residential areas. In addition, if a neighbor’s repair work produces loud noises, he or she may be breaking local noise-control ordinances, which are enforced by the police department. Before bringing in the authorities, you may want to make a copy of the pertinent ordinance and give it to your neighbor to give them a chance to correct the problem.

Resources:
* “Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries and Noise,” Cora Jordan, Nolo Press, Berkeley, Calif.; 1991.

How do I get the real scoop on homes I am looking at?

Home inspections, seller disclosure requirements and the agent’s experience will help. Disclosure laws vary by state, but in some states, the law requires the seller to complete a real estate transfer disclosure statement. Here is a summary of the things you could expect to see in a disclosure form:
* In the kitchen — a range, oven, microwave, dishwasher, garbage disposal, trash compactor.
* Safety features such as burglar and fire alarms, smoke detectors, sprinklers, security gate, window screens, and intercom.
* The presence of a TV antenna or satellite dish, carport or garage, automatic garage door opener, rain gutters, sump pump.
* Amenities such as a pool or spa, patio or deck, built-in barbeque and fireplaces.
* Type of heating, condition of electrical wiring, gas supply and presence of any external power source, such as solar panels.
* The type of water heater, water supply, sewer system or septic tank also should be disclosed.

Sellers also are required to indicate any significant defects or malfunctions existing in the home’s major systems. A checklist specifies interior and exterior walls, ceilings, roof, insulation, windows, fences, driveway, sidewalks, floors, doors, foundation, as well as the electrical and plumbing systems. The form also asks sellers to note the presence of environmental hazards, walls or fences shared with adjoining landowners, any encroachments or easements, room additions or repairs made without the necessary permits or not in compliance with building codes, zoning violations, citations against the property and lawsuits against the seller affecting the property. Also look for, or ask about, settling, sliding or soil problems, flooding or drainage problems and any major damage resulting from earthquakes, floods or landslides.

People buying a condominium must be told about covenants, codes and restrictions or other deed restrictions. It’s important to note that the simple idea of disclosing defects has broadened significantly in recent years. Many jurisdictions have their own mandated disclosure forms as do many brokers and agents. Also, the home inspection and home warranty industries have grown significantly to accommodate increased demand from cautious buyers. Be sure to ask questions about anything that remains unclear or does not seem to be properly addressed by the forms provided to you.

Home Inspections & Warranties

Do I need a home inspection?

Absolutely. Even if you are buying a house “as is” you should have an inspection contingency on your offer. A professional and careful inspection of the house will let you know how much money it will take to make any necessary repairs. If you have an inspection contingency, and you find out that there are serious problems that you were unaware of during the negotiation phase, you can either renegotiate the price of the home, or you can back out of the contract and get your deposit back.

How do I find a home inspector?

Your Realtor or broker is a good source. An experienced agent should have a list of competent inspectors. If, however, you choose to keep your agent and your inspector separate, there are things you can look at to do your own research. Always look at reviews which you can find on Angies List, Google, or Yelp. Interview some possibilities and ask to see some sample reports. Ask about experience and certifications as well as any professional inspectors group like ASHI, NAHI, or InterNACHI.

What’s a home inspection?

A home inspection is when a paid professional inspector who is often a contractor or engineer thoroughly inspects a house prior to the purchase. It’s vital to have a competent inspector so that the buyer is aware of all the potential defects of a home. If something unforeseen shows up on an inspection, the buyer can either renegotiate the price, ask the seller to make repairs, or cancel the offer in which case, he/she can get the down payment money returned. The home inspection is arranged and paid for by the buyer.

Making an Offer

Can you buy homes below market?

While a typical buyer may look at five to 10 homes before making an offer, an investor who makes bargain buys usually goes through many more. Most experts agree it takes a lot of determination to find a real “bargain.” There are a number of ways to buy a bargain property:
* Buy a fixer-upper in a transitional neighborhood, improve it and keep it, or resell at a higher price.
* Buy a foreclosure property (after doing your research carefully).
* Buy a house due to be torn down and move it to a new lot.
* Buy a partial interest in a piece of real estate, such as part of a tenants- in-common partnership.
* Buy a leftover house in a new-home development.

What is the difference between list and sales prices?

The list price is how much a house is advertised for and is usually only an estimate of what a seller would like to get for the property. The sales price is the amount a property actually sells for. It may be the same as the listing price, or higher or lower, depending on how accurately the property was originally priced and on market conditions. If you are a seller, you may need to adjust the listing price if there have been no offers within the first few months of the property’s listing period.

Are low-ball offers advisable?

A low-ball offer is a term used to describe an offer on a house that is substantially less than the asking price. While any offer can be presented, a low-ball offer can sour a prospective sale and discourage the seller from negotiating at all. Unless the house is very overpriced, the offer will probably be rejected. You should always do your homework about comparable prices in the neighborhood before making an y offer. It also pays to know something about the seller’s motivation. A lower price with a speedy escrow, for example, may motivate a seller who must move, has another house under contract, or must sell quickly for other reasons.

What is the difference between list price, sales price and appraised value?

The list price is a seller’s advertised price, a figure that usually is only a rough estimate of what the seller wants to get. Sellers can price high, low, or close to what they hope to get. To judge whether the list price is a fair one, be sure to consult comparable sales prices in the area. The sales price is the amount of money you as a buyer would pay for a property. The appraisal value is a certified appraiser’s estimate of the worth of a property, and is based on comparable sales, the condition of the property, and numerous other factors.

Is a low offer a good idea?

While your low offer in a normal market might be rejected immediately, in a buyer’s market a motivated seller will either accept or make a counteroffer. Full-price offers or above are more likely to be accepted by the seller. But there are other considerations involved:
* Is the offer contingent upon anything, such as the sale of the buyer’s current house? If so, a low offer, even at full price, may not be as attractive as an offer without that condition.
* Is the offer made on the house as is, or does the buyer want the seller to make some repairs or lower the price instead?
* Is the offer all cash, meaning the buyer has waived the financing contingency? If so, then an offer at less than the asking price may be more attractive to the seller than a full-price offer with a financing contingency.

What contingencies should be put in an offer?

Most offers include two standard contingencies: a financing contingency, which makes the sale dependent on the buyers’ ability to obtain a loan commitment from a lender, and an inspection contingency, which allows buyers to have professionals inspect the property to their satisfaction. A buyer could forfeit his or her deposit under certain circumstances, such as backing out of the deal for a reason not stipulated in the contract. The purchase contract must include the seller’s responsibilities, such things as passing clear title, maintaining the property in its present condition until closing, and making any agreed-upon repairs to the property.

Who gets the furnishings when a home is sold?

It depends. Fixtures, any kind of personal property that is permanently attached to a house (such as drapery rods, built-in bookcases, tacked-down carpeting or a furnace) automatically stay with the house unless specified otherwise in the sales contract. But anything that is not nailed down is negotiable. This most often involves appliances that are not built in (washer, dryer, refrigerator, for example), although some sellers will be interested in negotiating for other items, such as a piano.

Whose obligation is it to disclose pertinent information about a property?

In most states, it is the seller, but obligations to disclose information about a property vary. Under the strictest laws, you and your agent, if you have one, are required to disclose all facts materially affecting the value or desirability of the property which are known or accessible only to you. This might include: homeowners association dues; whether or not work done on the house meets local building codes and permits requirements; the presence of any neighborhood nuisances or noises which a prospective buyer might not notice, such as a dog that barks every night or poor TV reception; any death within three years on the property; and any restrictions on the use of the property, such as zoning ordinances or association rules. It is wise to check your state’s disclosure rules prior to a home purchase.

How do you determine the value of a troubled property?

Buyers considering a foreclosure property should obtain as much information as possible from the lender, including the range of bids expected. It also is important to examine the property. If you are unable to get into a foreclosure property, check with surrounding neighbors about the property’s condition. It also is possible to do your own cost comparison through researching comparable properties recorded at local county recorder’s and assessor’s offices, or through Internet sites specializing in property records.

What are some tips on negotiation?

The more you know about a seller’s motivation, the stronger a negotiating position you are in. For example, seller who must move quickly due to a job transfer may be amenable to a lower price with a speedy escrow. Other so-called “motivated sellers” include people going through a divorce or those who have already purchased another home.
Remember, that the listing price is what the seller would like to receive but is not necessarily what they will settle for. Before making an offer, check the recent sales prices of comparable homes in the neighborhood to see how the seller’s asking price stacks up. Some experts discourage making deliberate low-ball offers. While such an offer can be presented, it can also sour the sale and discourage the seller from negotiating at all.

Do I need an attorney when I buy a house?

In some states, you do need an attorney to complete a real estate transaction, but in others you do not. Most home buyers are capable of handling routine real estate purchase contracts as long as they make certain they read the fine print and understand all the terms of the contract. In particular, you should be clear on the terms of any contingency clauses that will allow them to back out of the contract. If you have any questions at all, it may be advisable to consult an attorney to avoid future legal hassles. In looking for an attorney, ask friends for recommendations, or ask your real estate agent to recommend several. Call to inquire about fees and to check on their experience. In general, more experienced attorneys will cost more, but real estate fees as a rule are small relative to the cost of the property you are buying.

What are the standard contingencies?

Most purchase offers include two standard contingencies: a financing contingency, which makes the sale dependent on the buyers’ ability to obtain a loan commitment from a lender, and an inspection contingency, which allows buyers to have professionals inspect the property to their satisfaction. As a buyer, you could forfeit your deposit under certain circumstances, such as backing out of the deal for a reason not stipulated in the contract. The purchase contract must include the sellers responsibilities, such things as passing clear title, maintaining the property in its present condition until closing and making any agreed-upon repairs to the property.

Property Taxes

Are taxes on second homes deductible?

Mortgage interest and property taxes are deductible on a second home if you itemize. Check with your accountant or tax adviser for specifics.

Do all loans require impound accounts?

If you are taking out a FHA or VA loan, the lender can require an impound account to pay real estate taxes and hazard insurance premiums, as with a standard loan. Most conventional loans do not require an impound account.

Are property taxes deductible?

Property taxes on all real estate, including those levied by state and local governments and school districts, are fully deductible against current income taxes.

Where can I learn more about appealing my property taxes?

Contact your local tax assessor’s office to see what procedures to follow to appeal your property tax assessment. You may be able to appeal your assessment informally.  Mostly likely, however, you will have to go through a formal tax-appeal processes, which begin with an appeal filed with the appropriate assessment appeals board.

How do property taxes work?

Property taxes are what most homeowners in the United States pay for the privilege of owning a piece of real estate, on average 1.5 percent of the property’s current market value. These annual local assessments by county or local authorities help pay for public services and are calculated using a variety of formulas.

What is an impound account?

An impound account is a trust account established by the lender to hold money to pay for real estate taxes, and mortgage and homeowners insurance premiums as they are received each month.

How is a home’s value determined?

You have several ways to determine the value of a home. An appraisal is a professional estimate of a property’s market value, based on recent sales of comparable properties, location, square footage and construction quality. This service varies in cost depending on the price of the home. On average, an appraisal costs about $300 for a $250,000 house. A comparative market analysis is an informal estimate of market value performed by a real estate agent based on similar sales and property attributes. Most agents offer free analyses in the hopes of winning your business. You also can get a comparable sales report for a fee from private companies that specialize in real estate data or find comparable sales information available on various real estate Internet sites.

Tax Considerations

Where do I get information on IRS publications?

The Internal Revenue Service publishes a number of real estate publications. They are listed by number:
* 521 “Moving Expenses”
* 523 “Selling Your Home”
* 527 “Residential Rental Property”
* 534 “Depreciation”
* 541 “Tax Information on Partnerships”
* 551 “Basis of Assets”
* 555 “Federal Tax Information on Community Property”
* 561 “Determining the Value of Donated Property”
* 590 “Individual Retirement Arrangements”
* 908 “Bankruptcy and Other Debt Cancellation”
* 936 “Home Mortgage Interest Deduction”
Order by calling 1-800- TAX-FORM.

Are seller-paid points deductible?

As of Jan. 1, 1991, homeowners have been able to deduct points paid by the seller. This deduction previously was reserved only for points actually paid by the buyer.

When is the best time to buy?

Here are some frequently cited reasons for buying a house:
* You need a tax break. The mortgage interest deduction can make home ownership very appealing.
* You are not counting on price appreciation in the short term.
* You can afford the monthly payments.
* You plan to stay in the house long enough for the appreciation to cover your transaction costs. The costs of buying and selling a home include real estate commissions, lender fees and closing costs that can amount to more than 10 percent of the sales price.
* You prefer to be an owner rather than a renter.
* You can handle the maintenance expenses and headaches.
* You are not greatly concerned by dips in home values.

What home-buying costs are deductible?

Any points you or the seller pay to purchase your home loan are deductible for that year. Property taxes and interest are deductible every year. But while other home-buying costs (closing costs in particular) are not immediately tax-deductible, they can be figured into the adjusted cost basis of your home when you go to sell (any significant home improvements also can be calculated into your basis). These fees would include title insurance, loan-application fees, credit report, appraisal fees, service fees, settlement or closing fees, bank attorney’s fees, attorney’s fees, document preparation fees and recording fees. Points paid when you refinance an existing mortgage must be deducted  over the life of the new loan.

What is the Mortgage Credit Certificate program?

The Mortgage Credit Certificate program allows first-time home buyers to take advantage of a special federal income tax credit. This program allows buyers credit in qualifying for the tax advantage they’ll receive after they purchase the home. The amount of the credit is tied to a local formula that every city with an MCC program must follow. A MCC credit, which can total $2,000 or more, reduces the borrower’s federal tax liability by an amount tied to how much one pays in annual mortgage interest. Both the borrower’s income and the purchase price of the home must fall within established guidelines. To see if your community has an MCC program, call your local housing or redevelopment agency. You also may inquire with your real estate broker or the local association of Realtors.

What are the rules for mortgage credit certificates?

To qualify for a mortgage credit certificate, both your income and the purchase price of the home must fall within established city guidelines. These guidelines vary by city but generally only permit people who earn an average income or slightly higher than average income. A limited number of cities have authorized the MCC program. Contact your municipal housing department for more information.

Should I buy a vacation home?

Today a vacation home can be purchased for investment purposes as well as enjoyment. And yes, there are tax benefits. Some people buy a vacation home with the idea of turning it into a permanent retirement home down the road, which puts them ahead on their payments. Another benefit is that the interest and property taxes are tax deductible, which helps to offset the cost of paying for a second home. A vacation home also can be depreciated if you live in it fewer than 14 days a year, or 10 percent of the rented days – whichever is greater.

Resources:
 Real Estate Investing From A to Z, William Pivar, Probus Publishing, Chicago; 1993.
* “The Ultimate Language of Real Estate,” John Reilly, Dearborn Financial

How do I save on taxes?

Here are some ways to save money on taxes:
* Mortgage interest on loans up to $1 million is completely deductible for the year in which you pay it to buy, build, or improve your principal residence plus a second home.
* Points, or loan origination fees, also are deductible no matter who pays them, the buyer or the seller.
* Most homeowners, except the wealthy and those living in high-priced markets, no longer need to worry about capital gains taxes. The exemption has been raised to $500,000 for married couples and $250,000 for single owners. It can be taken every two years. Homeowners should always keep all receipts of permanent home improvements and of mortgage closing costs. If you do have to pay capital gains taxes, these costs can be added to your adjusted cost basis. Consult your tax adviser for more information.

Resources:
* “Tax Information for First-Time Homeowners,” IRS Publication 530, and “Selling Your Home,” IRS Publication 523. Call (800) TAX-FORM to order.

Are taxes on second homes deductible?

Mortgage interest and property taxes are deductible on a second home if you itemize. Check with your accountant or tax adviser for specifics.

Are points deductible?

If you are a buyer, and you or the seller pays points, they are deductible for the year in which they are paid only. You also can deduct any points you pay when you refinance your home, but you must do so over the life of the loan. Consult your tax or financial adviser.

How do you choose between buying and renting?

Home ownership offers tax benefits as well as the freedom to make decisions about your home. An advantage of renting is not worrying about maintenance and other financial obligations associated with owning property. There also are a number of economic considerations. Unlike renters, home owners who secure a fixed-rate loan can lock in their monthly housing costs and make prudent investment plans knowing these expenses will not increase substantially. Home ownership is a highly leveraged investment that can yield substantial profit on a nominal front-end investment. However, such returns depend on home-price appreciation.

“For some people, owning a home is a great feeling,” writes Mitchell A. Levy in his book, Home Ownership: The American Myth, Myth Breakers Press, Cupertino, Calif.: 1993. “It does, however, have a price. Besides the maintenance headache, the amount of after-tax money paid to the lender is usually greater than the amount of money otherwise paid in rent,” Levy concludes.  As for evaluating the risk associated with home ownership, David T. Schumacher and Erik Page Bucy write in their book  The Buy & Hold Real Estate Strategy, John Wiley & Sons, New York; 1992, that “good property located in growth areas should be regarded as an investment as opposed to a speculation or gamble.” The authors recommend that prospective buyers spend a few months investigating a community. Many people make the mistake of buying in the wrong area. “Just because certain properties are high-priced doesn’t necessarily mean they have some inherent advantage” the authors write. “One property may cost more than another today, but will it still be worth more down the line?”

Are there tax credits for first-time home buyers?

Many city and county governments offer Mortgage Credit Certificate programs, which allow first-time home buyers to take advantage of a special federal income tax write-off, which makes qualifying for a mortgage loan easier. Requirements vary from program to program. People wanting to apply should contact their local housing or community development office. Here is a list of four general requirements to keep in mind:
* Some credit may be claimed only on your owner-occupied principal residence.
* There are maximum income limits, which vary by locality and family size.
* You must be a first-time home buyer, which means you must not have had any kind of ownership interest in a principal residence during the past three years. This restriction may be waived, however, if you are buying property within certain target areas.
* Allocations must be available. A local MCC program may have to decline new applications when it runs out of funds.

Explain the home mortgage deduction.

The mortgage interest deduction entitles you to completely deduct the interest on your home loan for the year in which you paid it. Mortgage interest is not a dollar-for-dollar tax cut; it reduces taxable income. You must itemize deductions in order to do this, which means your total deductions must exceed the IRS’s standard deduction. Another point to remember is that the amount of interest on your loan goes down each year you pay on your mortgage (all standard home-loan formulas pay off interest first before significantly paying into principal). That’s why paying extra on your principal every year can help you pay off your loan early.

How are fees and assessments figured in a homeowners association?

Homeowners association fees are considered personal living expenses and are not tax-deductible. If, however, an association has a special assessment to make one or more capital improvements, condo owners may be able to add the expense to their cost basis. Cost basis is a term for the money an owner spends for permanent improvements throughout their time in the home and is used to reduce eventual capital gains taxes when the property is sold. For example, if the association puts a new roof on a building, the expense could be considered part of a condo owner’s cost basis only if they lived directly underneath it. Overall improvements to common areas, such as the installation of a swimming pool, need to be considered on a case-by-case basis but most can be included in the cost basis of any owner who can show their home directly benefits from the work.

To find out more about how the IRS views condo association fees, look to IRS Publication 17, “Your Federal Income Tax,” which includes a section on condos. Order a free copy by calling (800) TAX-FORM.

How do I reach the IRS?

To reach the Internal Revenue Service, call (800) TAX-1040.

What Can You Afford

How much does my real estate agent need to know?

Real estate agents would say that the more you tell them, the better they can negotiate on your behalf. However, the degree of trust you have with an agent may depend upon their legal obligation. Agents working for buyers have three possible choices: they can represent the buyer exclusively, called single agency, or represent the seller exclusively, called sub- agency, or represent both the buyer and seller in a dual-agency situation. Some states require agents to disclose all possible agency relationships before they enter into a residential real estate transaction. Here is a summary of the three basic types:

* In a traditional relationship, real estate agents and brokers have a fiduciary relationship to the seller. Be aware that the seller pays the commission of both brokers, not just the one who lists and shows the property, but also to the sub-broker, who brings the ready, willing and able buyer to the table.

* Dual agency exists if two agents working for the same broker represent the buyer and seller in a transaction. A potential conflict of interest is created if the listing agent has advance knowledge of another buyer’s offer. Therefore, the law states that a dual agent shall not disclose to the buyer that the seller will accept less than the list price, or disclose to the seller that the buyer will pay more than the offer price, without express written permission.

* A buyer also can hire his or her own agent who will represent the buyer’s interests exclusively. A buyer’s agent usually must be paid out of the buyer’s own pocket but the buyer can trust them with financial information, knowing it will not be transmitted to the other broker and ultimately to the seller.

How much will I spend on maintenance expenses?

Experts generally agree that you can plan on annually spending 1 percent of the purchase price of your house on repairing gutters, caulking windows, sealing your driveway and the myriad other maintenance chores that come with the privilege of home ownership. Newer homes will cost less to maintain than older homes. It also depends on how well the house has been maintained over the years.

Where do I get information on housing market stats?

A real estate agent is a good source for finding out the status of the local housing market. So is your statewide association of Realtors, most of which are continuously compiling such statistics from local real estate boards. For overall housing statistics, U.S. Housing Markets regularly publishes quarterly reports on home building and home buying. Your local builder’s association probably gets this report. If not, the housing research firm is located in Canton, Mich.; call (800) 755-6269 for information. The firm also maintains an Internet site. Finally, check with the U.S. Bureau of the Census in Washington, D.C., (301) 763-2422. The census bureau also maintains a site on the Internet. The Chicago Title company also has published a pamphlet, “Who’s Buying Homes in America.” Write Chicago Title and Trust Family of Title Insurers, 171 North Clark St., Chicago, IL 60601-3294.

What is Fannie Mae’s low-down program?

Fannie Mae is expanding the availability of low-down-payment loans in an effort to help more people nationwide qualify for a mortgage. Two new programs will help potential buyers overcome two of the most common obstacles to home ownership: low savings and a modest income. To address many first-time buyers’ struggles to save the down payment, Fannie Mae developed Fannie 97. The program provides 97 percent financing on a fixed-rate mortgage with either a 25- or 30-year loan term through Fannie Mae’s Community Home Buyers Program. Fannie Mae’s new Start-Up Mortgage will assist buyers with a 5 percent down payment who are at any income level. Yet applicants do not need as much income to qualify and less cash for closing than with traditional mortgages. Borrowers will receive a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage with a first-year monthly payment that is lower than the standard fixed-rate loan. Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae’s counterpart, also offers low-down-payment loan programs.

How long do bankruptcies and foreclosures stay on a credit report?

Bankruptcies and foreclosures can remain on a credit report for seven to 10 years. Some lenders will consider a borrower earlier if they have reestablished good credit. The circumstances surrounding the bankruptcy can also influence a lender’s decision. For example, if you went through a bankruptcy because your employer had financial difficulties, a lender may be more sympathetic. If, however, you went through bankruptcy because you overextended personal credit lines and lived beyond your means, the lender probably will be less inclined to be flexible.

How do you determine the value of a troubled property?

Buyers considering a foreclosure property should obtain as much information as possible from the lender, including the range of bids expected. It also is important to examine the property. If you are unable to get into a foreclosure property, check with surrounding neighbors about the property’s condition. It also is possible to do your own cost comparison through researching comparable properties recorded at local county recorder’s and assessor’s offices, or through Internet sites specializing in property records.

Working With a Real Estate Agent

Can I use an agent for a new home?

Yes, however buyers should be aware of the differences inherent in working with sales agents who are employed by the developer, rather than traditional real estate agents.
Builders commonly require that an outside agent be present, and sign in, the first time a prospective purchaser visits a site before payment of commission even is discussed.  At times when buyers use an advertisement to find the development themselves first, builders can refuse to pay any commission regardless of how helpful an agent may become later in the process. It is advisable to call the development first and inquire about their policy on compensating real estate agents if you are using one.

How do I find a real estate agent?

Getting a recommendation from a friend or work colleague is an excellent way to find a good agent. Be sure to ask if they would use the agent again. You also can call the managers of reputable real estate firms and ask them for recommendations of agents who have worked in your neighborhood. In any case, whether you are a buyer or a seller, you should interview at least three agents to give yourself a choice. A good agent typically works full-time and has several years of experience. If you are a seller, you should expect to review a comparative market analysis, which includes recent home sale prices in your area, when you talk to a prospective agent.

What about a buyer’s agent?

In many states, it’s now common for an agent to represent the buyers exclusively in the transaction and be paid a commission by the sellers. More and more buyers are going a step further, hiring and paying for their own agent, referred to as buyers brokers.

How do you find a good agent?

Getting a recommendation from a friend or work colleague is an excellent way to find a good agent, whether you are a buyer or a seller. Be sure to ask if they would use the agent again. You also can call the managers of reputable real estate firms and ask them for recommendations of agents who have worked in your neighborhood.
A good agent typically works full-time and has several years of experience at minimum. If you are a buyer, you don’t usually pay for your agent’s services (in the form of a commission, or percentage of the sales price of the home). All agents in a transaction usually are paid by the seller from the sales proceeds. In many states, this means that your agent legally is acting as a subagent of the seller. But in some states, it’s legal for an agent to represent the buyers exclusively in the transaction and be paid a commission by the sellers. You also can hire and pay for your own agent, known as buyer’s brokers, whose legal obligation is exclusively to you. If you are a seller, you should interview at least three agents, all of whom should make a sales presentation including a comparative market analysis of local home prices in your area. The best choice isn’t always the agent with the highest asking price for your home. Be sure to evaluate all aspects of the agent’s marketing plan and how well you think you can work with the individual.

How much does my real estate agent need to know?

Real estate agents would say that the more you tell them, the better they can negotiate on your behalf. However, the degree of trust you have with an agent may depend upon their legal obligation. Agents working for buyers have three possible choices: They can represent the buyer exclusively, called single agency, or represent the seller exclusively, called sub- agency, or represent both the buyer and seller in a dual-agency situation. Some states require agents to disclose all possible agency relationships before they enter into a residential real estate transaction. Here is a summary of the three basic types:
* In a traditional relationship, real estate agents and brokers have a fiduciary relationship to the seller. Be aware that the seller pays the commission of both brokers, not just the one who lists and shows the property, but also to the sub- broker, who brings the ready, willing and able buyer to the table.
* Dual agency exists if two agents working for the same broker represent the buyer and seller in a transaction. A potential conflict of interest is created if the listing agent has advance knowledge of another buyer’s offer. Therefore, the law states that a dual agent shall not disclose to the buyer that the seller will accept less than the list price, or disclose to the seller that the buyer will pay more than the offer price, without express written permission.
* A buyer also can hire his or her own agent who will represent the buyer’s interests exclusively. A buyer’s agent usually must be paid out of the buyer’s own pocket but the buyer can trust them with financial information, knowing it will not be transmitted to the other broker and ultimately to the seller.

Where can I get information on buyer agents?

For information on buyer agents, contact the your area’s Realtor association or National Association of Exclusive Buyers Agents: 320 West Sabal Palm Place, Suite 150, Longwood, FL 32779. Phone: 407-767-7700, Toll-Free: 800-986-2322, FAX: 407-834-4747, WEBSITE: www.naeba.org.

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