Relevant Real Estate Statistics!

I think that most people would agree that we live in a world of too much information. The business of residential real estate is no different. When you try to digest too much data or information, you end up feeling like you know a more facts but not really what it all adds up. I compiled a list of statistics from the MLS database on what I consider the “downtown” Boston neighborhoods. The following chart shows what I think is most interesting and most relevant about the immediate past 5 years in downtown Boston. Year 1 is 3/8/2012-3/8/2013 and Year 2 is 3/8/2015-3/8/2016, etc. through Year 5, the immediate past year 3/8/16-3/8/17.

Quick Glossary
# = Number of total Lisings sold
DOM = Days on market from listing to contract for sale
SP = Mean Sale Price
SP:LP = The ratio of the final sales price to the last listing price. A “100” means the property sold for the last asking price.

Year      #              DOM                 SP                              SP:LP
5            2566         32                \$770,000                      100
4            2661         30                  695,000                       100
3            2655         32                  637,000                       100
2            3082        33                  585,000                         99
1            3048        33                  530,000                         98

Inventory
These statistics tell most of the story of the downtown real estate market over the last 5 years. First, inventory is up – about 20% over the last 5 years. I think this is the result of the large number of new high end construction projects in the downtown markets, as well as the consistent and constant development in the neighborhoods.

DOM
To understand the meaning of the DOM statistic it is helpful to know that the national average for the past 5 years is about 86 days, and it rarely dips below 70 in any given month. The Boston average has hovered at about 30 for the last 5 years. Property sells FAST in Boston.

SP:OP
Along the same lines, the SP:OP ratio has creeped up from the high 90s to 100%. Property sells at about asking price in Boston.

Prices
Prices are up 45% in 5 years with an average appreciation of over 9% per year. The immediate past year saw the largest increase with prices going up about 10.8%

Conclusion

The evidence is clear that the market has been strong and consistent for the last 5 years. Can it go on forever? Probably not, and, as always, the \$64,000 questions is when the market will turn? I will be looking for the statistical signs of a slowdown and I will let you know when I see them!

Is The Real Estate Market Too Tight?

You have probably heard about the dearth of residential real estate listings in the Boston area. So how tight is it and does it even matter?

It is in fact very tight from an historical perspective. However, my interpretation of the data is that inventory has been falling for a while, and has gradually reached a point where people are noticing that there is so little for sale. The following is a recent snapshot of 3 different areas that represent a good cross section of the entire Boston area. [all data is directly from MLS].

All Brookline Residential Properties for Sale:
March 30, 2015: 64
1 Year ago:           99
2 Years ago:        94
3 Years ago:       201
4 Years ago:       249
10 Years ago:      177

Downtown Boston (Back Bay, South End, Beacon Hill, South Boston, Midtown, Waterfront, Leather District) Residential Properties for Sale:
March 30, 2015: 287
1 Year ago:          299
2 Years ago:       304
3 Years ago:       682
4 Years ago:     1028
10 Years ago:    683
Note: Many of the new ultra-luxury high rise units coming on the market are sometimes not reflected in MLS and that can distort this data.

Newton:
March 30, 2015: 131
1 Year ago:           150
2 Years ago:        138
3 Years ago:        279
4 Years ago:        311
10 Years ago:      297

Clearly, inventory has been shrinking the last few years and is substantially down since 2011, and from the numbers 10 years ago. I don’t think there is anything alarming or “bad” about this situation. It is merely how the market is different than it has been. When there is too much inventory or the market is slow, the popular news focuses on all the heartache associated with homeowners not being able to sell their homes. Now, the popular news focuses on all the heartache associated with bidding wars (see The Boston Globe, Low Inventory + Low Price=Bidding War, March 31, 2015 p.1) and notes that agents have begun to price properties low to promote bidding wars. I think the Globe is correct about the facts, although they emphasize the negative effects on the folks who are on the short end of the stick this time around. The bottom line is that it is a good time to be a seller rather than a buyer.

What really happened this spring in the real estate market?

So much has been written about what happened this spring. Most of it is about prices going up, bidding wars and the lack of inventory. Now that the summer is a few months behind us, and most properties that went under agreement by the end of the summer have closed, we can look at what actually happened. I have analyzed the numbers that I think matter most.

Downtown
An analysis of the closed sales of all the more upscale downtown Boston neighborhoods, from Charlestown to South Boston to Jamaica Plain, show that the median price of a residential home, including condominiums, single families and multi-families, rose about 10% in 2013 from the same time in 2012. In 2012 it was up about 6% from 2011. The recent figures are substantial, but not mind-boggling. The mind-boggling numbers are the average “days-on-market” statistics. In 2011, average days-on-market was 97. That figure fell 17% to 76 days in 2012, and then fell another 47% to 40 days in 2013. Surprisingly, the inventory has been fairly consistent. The number of homes sold fell 20% from 2011 to 2012 but then stayed about even for 2013.

Cambridge
Cambridge’s value numbers are more dramatic. Up 6% from 2011 to 2012, and then up another 17% from 2012 to 2013. Days on market fell 28% from 72 in 2011 to 52 in 2012, and then another 35% in 2013 to 34. I would consider this number for days on market in the ‘mind boggling’ category.

Brookline
Brookline’s value numbers are quite different. Values actually fell about 1.5% from 2011 to 2012, and then rose 14% from 2012 to 2013. dns database Days on market fell about 27% from 82 in 2011 to 60 in 2012, and then another 38% to 37 in 2013. Here again, the days on market falls in the “mind boggling’ category.

High End Suburban snapshot (Lexington, Wellesley, Weston, Winchester)
I thought it would be interesting to look at the numbers of these 4 “high-end” suburbs considered together. Here is what I found: prices increased 2% from 2011 to 2012, and then went up 13% in 2013. Days on market stayed flat at 107 from 2011 to 2012, but decreased by 35% to 70 for 2013.

All in all, it was one hell of a spring.

The Commission Conundrum – Should you negotiate it?

I charge my clients what I consider a fair and “standard” commission for the Boston area real estate market. I tell my listing clients that my commission is 5%, and that I don’t ask for more and I rarely negotiate less. Under special circumstances I may take a slightly lower commission (multiple transactions) and in no circumstances will I take less than 4.5% as a total commission.

What makes 5% “standard”?

Commissions are NOT standardized according to any governmental or non-governmental agency or body. In addition, no realtor organization makes anything approaching a “suggestion” as to actual commissions, as it is probably prohibited from doing so. Commissions are determined by the market and are technically “freely” negotiated between agents and sellers. Individual agencies can set their own standards but it would be borderline illegal for brokers from different agencies to discuss commissions. Agents are taught that just talking about commissions with agents from other brokerages can be seen as an anti-competitive violation of the Federal anti-monopoly laws. 5% is merely standard in a colloquial sense based on what I see agents charging in the metropolitan Boston area.

The Statistics

There is no way to track the actual commissions that agents charge. However, we can infer what they are charging by looking at what MLS shows agents are offering as a “co-broke” commission to the buyers’ agents. Agents almost universally “co-broke” or “offer to compensate” the buyer’s agent with 50% of the total commission. According to MLS for the past year:

1. In Brookline, on 93.6% of the residential listings, the listing agent offered a 2.5% commission co-broke 93.6% of the time, offered less, 5.4% of time, and more, 1% of the time.
2. In Newton the numbers are similar. The listing agent offered a 2.5% commission co-broke 89% of the time, offered less, 8% of time, and more, 3% of the time.
3. In Boston, which involves thousands of listings, the numbers are somewhat different. On about 75% of the residential listings, the listing agent offered a 2.5% commission co-broke, offered less 22% of the time, and more, about 3% of the time.

While there are occasions when the listing agent will not compensate the buyer’s agent with 50% of the commission, based on my experience, it happens so rarely that the message here is clear: 5% is what most agents charge most of the time.

The “Escalation Clause” Conundrum

Multiple offer situations have become so common this year, I knew that sooner or later I was going to have to deal with an offer that contained an “escalation clause.”

What’s an “Escalation Clause?”

When new listings bring in multiple bids, listing agents often create a time table and request that all offers be submitted by a certain time. Usually, the listing agent indicates that there will not be further bidding rounds, and that bidders should make their “best, last and final” offer by the deadline. When a buyer expects that he will not have an opportunity to raise his bid later, it is difficult to determine how much to bid to secure the property without bidding far more than may be necessary. Some agents have begun to put in language whereby the buyer will pay an amount exceeding the highest offer, usually up to a certain amount. This language is often referred to as an “escalation clause.” I recently received an offer with one as follows:

“Buyer agrees to top any offer on the table by \$2,000 up to a total purchase price of \$490,777 with proof of the other offer.”

Fortunately, another buyer made a bid over the amount indicated in this clause, so my seller-client never had to respond and negotiate with the escalation clause bidder. Escalation clauses are not popular with listing agents. As a listing agent you may likely have one or more offers with firm prices on them. Then you have this other offer with an escalation clause. What do you do? Do you go back to the bidder who made the offer to see if he is really willing to stand by the terms of the clause? What if the ceiling number is truly absurd and it is obvious that bidder is looking for an opportunity to beat the highest offer? Do you show him the other offer? Do you just refuse to play the game and ask him what his final firm number is? Are any of these scenarios really fair to the other bidders and does it matter? I think these issues can be navigated, but I am not sure it is really worth the risk that comes from putting the listing agent in this thorny situation. There is a clear risk that the listing agent may not cooperate with you, and you may never actually get a chance to make your best offer. I think this is a significant risk. The better strategy may be to do the hard work of figuring out how much you are really willing to pay, and then make a firm offer of that amount.

Real Estate Market Gone Nuts!

After 18 years selling residential real estate I thought I had seen it all, or at least most of it. During the spring market this year I received the most offers I have ever received on a listing, 4 times in a row. The first was a 2-family in West Roxbury. Listed at \$469,000, we scheduled a public open house for Sunday, and indicated that offers were due the coming Tuesday night. We had 60 people at the open house, received 12 offers, and are scheduled to close soon for well into the mid \$500s. The winning bidder had no mortgage contingency. Next was a very cute and somewhat diminutive house in Natick listed at \$359,000. It looked great, we had over 50 people come to the open house, received 9 offers, and sold it for \$378,000 after deducting a fairly big sum for a failing porch. The third was a very nice, but dated, 2+bd/1 ½ bath condo in Cambridge priced at \$549,000. This time we received 8 offers, with the winning bidder willing to pay a bit over \$600,000 and no mortgage contingency. The last one was a mint condition 2bd/2 bath condominium in Allston/Brighton with garage parking built in 2007 and priced at \$479,00. We only received 5 offers this time and are selling it for around \$500,000.

If you have read the news or talked to other people in the industry I am sure you know that this kind of thing has been happening all the time and is continuing to happen. So what’s going on? I think there are 2 main reasons for the feeding frenzy of this recent spring market. The first and foremost is low inventory. Take a look at this graph showing the inventory  for the condominium market of the Back Bay, South End, and Beacon Hill combined. Other highly desirable neighborhoods around Boston  have similar statistics.

The decline year over year from 2012 to 2013 reaches as high as about 33%. Going back 2 years, the inventory is down in the range of 45-50%. In short, inventory has been declining for some time.  This year interest rates also hit an historical low at the beginning of the year.  See below.

I think it is fair to conclude that this spring there was the widespread perception that interest rates were probably as low as they would ever go. This made borrowing  inexpensive, and naturally increased the impetus for people to want to buy homes. The lowest rates ever, combined with the widespread knowledge that inventory was low, created a perfect storm of high demand and low supply. The result has been the consistent scenario of multiple offers and prices shooting up so widespread this past spring. Now with interest rates going up, it will be interesting to see what happens this summer and fall.

It’s All A Write Off! Tax Deductions For Massachusetts Real Estate Sellers and Buyers

Original article by RICH VETSTEIN posted on MARCH 30, 2013 · massrealestatelawblog.com. Slightly modified and reprinted with permission.

One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes is the one where Kramer tries to explain to Jerry how tax write-offs work. “It’s all a write-off!” exclaims Kramer who, not surprisingly, had no idea what he was talking about.

With the April 15 tax deadline quickly approaching, let’s talk about some of the taxes, deductions, and “write-offs” arising out of a Massachusetts residential real estate purchase and sale. (Disclaimer: I am neither a CPA nor tax attorney, so consult your own tax professional for specific questions).

Real Estate Property Taxes

Every Massachusetts municipality levies a real estate property tax on residential property. Indeed, the real estate tax is the primary revenue producer for most towns with a limited commercial tax base. The real estate tax rate is set by the local board of assessors and is keyed to the assessed value of your land and home, which is often less than the true market value.

Real estate taxes are generally tax deductible if you itemize your deductions on IRS Form 1040, Schedule A. At closing, the closing attorney will ensure that all real estate taxes are paid up and allocated between buyer and seller as of the closing date. If the end of the fiscal quarter is approaching, most lenders will require that the buyer pay the upcoming real estate tax bill in advance.

Most lenders these days require an escrow account for the payment of real estate taxes, and the mortgage company will actually send the payment to the assessor. However, the homeowner should check the actual property tax bill to calculate the exact amount of real estate taxes paid for the year.

Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction

The mortgage interest tax deduction is typically the largest tax deduction taken by a typical homeowner. The deduction applies to interest paid on a qualifying mortgage for both a principal residence and a second home. It also applies to home equity lines and second mortgages subject to some limitation, discussed below.

If you paid any points for getting a mortgage, they may also be tax deductible, either the year paid or over the life of the loan. This applies to both purchase loans and refinances. (Check your HUD-1 Settlement Statement). The same is true for PMI — mortgage insurance premiums. They remain tax deductible for 2012 and 2013 thanks to the Fiscal Cliff Bill.

Cash out refinances and equity lines have some special rules. If you use the money for a car, a vacation, college tuition, etc., then you can deduct your interest on loan amounts up to \$100,000. If you borrow more than \$100,000, the interest on the excess is not deductible. However, if you use the money to make improvements on your home, then the money is treated for tax purposes as though it’s part of your home mortgage … so you can deduct all the interest, along with your mortgage interest, as long as the total amount you’ve borrowed doesn’t exceed \$1 million plus \$100,000.

Consult IRS Publication 936 for more information on the mortgage interest deduction.

Massachusetts Property Transfer Tax

Sometimes called deed stamps, transfer tax or excise tax, Massachusetts home sellers must pay a tax on selling their property. For every Massachusetts county except Barnstable and the Islands, the tax is \$4.56 per thousand of the purchase price on the deed. So for a \$500,000 sale, that’s a whopping \$2,280 tax bill. There is considerable debate among tax professionals as to whether this tax is deductible on your federal and state return. It’s best to consult your tax preparer.

Capital Gains On Sale

If you sell your home for more than you paid for it, you have a capital gain, and in theory you have to pay capital gains tax. However, in most cases, you don’t have to pay taxes on the first \$500,000 of capital gain on a home (or \$250,000 if you’re married and filing separately). To get this special treatment, you have to have owned the home and lived in it as your primary residence for two years out of the last five years prior to the sale. Even if you didn’t own and live in the home for two full years, you might still be able to exclude some or all of your capital gain; you just won’t be eligible for the full \$500,000 exception.

Other Closing Costs

Unfortunately, most of the typical real estate closing costs are not tax deductible. This includes lender origination fees, credit report, flood certification, homeowner’s insurance, appraisals, attorney fees, title abstract, title insurance, county recording fees, and real estate commissions.

Cash is King, but Maybe It Shouldn’t Be

I think the phenomenon is simply an expression of buyer desperation. Buyers that waive the mortgage contingency may have lost several bidding wars, and are looking for an advantage. I assert, however, that an offer from a pre-qualified buyer who is also “well-qualified” is not significantly better than a “cash” offer.  Sellers should only prefer the cash offer if the price and other terms are also better than an offer from a strong buyer with a mortgage contingency. Cash offers are genuinely stronger in transactions where getting financing is actually difficult, like commercial properties and multi-unit investment properties. Standard single family homes and condos are simply not that hard to finance.* Buyers with good credit, nothing to sell, and a job are going to get financing. The seller should focus more on the offering price and possible inspection issues. Deals fall apart over inspection issues when buyers are not properly prepared for an inspection and then get scared off by something major that they weren’t aware of before they bid on the property. Deals rarely fall apart after a purchase and sale agreement is signed and the buyers then fail to get financing.

Buyer should never waive a mortgage contingency unless they are really prepared to pay cash. It is simply too big a price to pay even for a small risk. At the same time, I would recommend that sellers only place a very small value on the lack of a mortgage contingency. At the closing, the money is green no matter where it comes from and the goal is to sell the property, not keep the deposit.

Next Up: what buyers can do with regards to the other terms to make an offer as attractive as possible.

*It may be important to inquire as to a buyer’s ability and willingness to put down more money in the event the property does not appraise at the selling price.  This is a real risk in the current market of quickly increasing prices.

The 2012 Results Are In And Uncertainty Lies Ahead

The number of single family homes sold in Massachusetts last year rose by 18.4% compared to 2011, and the median price point rose 1.8%. The number of condominium sales rose 25% and the median price went up 2.6%. For the Greater Boston Area, the numbers were even better.  The single family median home price went up 6.8%, and for condominiums it was up 10.3%. With numbers like these, it is clear that the market has hit bottom and values are recovering. In addition, towards the end of the year the numbers were even stronger, with December posting the 2nd highest number of sales on record in Greater Boston for a December.

At the same time, the rental market is also experiencing a boom. Rents in the Boston area began to show signs of upward movement last year. This year, the rental market is off to a very strong start and I believe that we will see a further increase in rents. A rental agent I work with recently remarked to me that this kind of market “only comes around about once every 15 years.”

The immediate cause of the upward pressure on prices in the local housing market is the pronounced lack of sales inventory. Based on MLS data, the early February residential sales inventory for the downtown Boston neighborhoods for the past few years is as follows:

2010: 1185

2011: 987

2012: 798

2013: 417

Statistically, the situation is similar in most of eastern Massachusetts.  Almost all the real estate agents that I speak with regularly report that demand is substantial, and the “squeeze” is creating a situation where prices are rising fast.  There is no consensus, however, as to the reason for the dramatic reduction in inventory. In my opinion, we are in a market-wide catch-22 “gridlock” situation. Those potential sellers who would like to move locally don’t see much on the market to buy. Without the confidence that they can find a new place, they won’t  put their house on the market. Simply put, it isn’t a good time to sell because there is nowhere to go. The only people putting their homes on the market are those who are truly under real pressure to move. As the spring market is still just getting started, however, the situation may straighten itself out. On the other hand, it may not and we could just continue to see tight inventory leading to higher prices. Either way, we will find out.

Take a look at this month’s Keller Williams video newsletter

New Rental Housing Rights for Victims of Abuse in Massachusetts

As I have recently written about landlord/tenant issues in Massachusetts, I thought it apropos to discuss a new domestic violence law that directly affects landlords. Just last month, Massachusetts enacted a new law that gives victims of domestic violence a fairly broad right to break their leases and have the landlord change their locks. The important provisions of the new law are as follows:

• In order to break a lease, victims are required to provide notice to landlords that they were subject to a sexual assault or rape or under imminent threat of same within three (3) months of the incident.
• Landlords may request supporting documentation such as a police report or restraining order (which they must keep confidential).
• Provided the tenant or co-tenant victim provides the proper notice, she can terminate her lease and be relieved of financial liability to the landlord for the remainder of the rental period. The landlord must return any last month’s rent and security deposit.
• Victims of sexual assault or stalking may require that the landlord change the unit’s locks within 48 hours and at the tenant’s expense. If the landlord fails to act, the tenant may change the locks herself.
• If the perpetrator of the sex crime or threat is a household member (i.e., spouse/boyfriend), the landlord may authorize changing the locks and withholding the new key from the perpetrator.
• Landlords who make a good faith attempt to comply with the new law, and do not give a new key to the alleged perpetrator, are generally absolved from liability to the perpetrator for not providing a key.
• Noncompliance with the new law can result in damages against the landlord equal to 3x the rental amount, plus payment of the tenant’s legal fees, which may be set off against any unpaid rent.

The bill, as finally passed, was signed off by both tenant and landlord industry groups after several years of debate. It is clearly a step forward for victims of abuse. If you are a victim of domestic abuse and you have to leave your apartment, not violating your lease is one less thing you have to worry about.  It also gives landlords a way to deal with a request by a tenant to change the locks in order to keep another tenant out.  Before this law, landlords faced with a request by a tenant to change the locks in order to keep another tenant out faced a difficult situation.  Property owners now have a clearer path to navigate a difficult situation and help a victim of abuse. It is also, as a landlord, one more thing you need know.  A link to the new Massachusetts domestic violence law can be found here.

This article is a slightly modified version of a January 13, 2013 post by Rich Vetstein on 1/13 on The Mass. Real Estate Blog and posted with his permission. Rich writes on a variety of subjects and I highly recommend you check him out!