What really happened this spring in the real estate market?

inventorySo 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?

real-estate-commissionI 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.

If you are a seller, you can probably negotiate for a lower commission from your agent. The statistics indicate that it happens plenty often.  However, I have some questions for you to ponder before you negotiate a lower commission. With the overwhelming majority of listings offering the buyer’s agent a 2.5% commission, do you really want your property listed with only a 2.25% co-broke, or even a 2% co-broke? This puts your property at a competitive disadvantage. On the other hand, what if you negotiated a 4.5% total commission with the co-broke at 2.5% and your agent earning 2%. It is impossible to determine how often this happens but I know it happens. This is problematic for different reasons. Do you want your agent working for 20% less than the buyer’s agent and most agents in general? If your agent will so easily negotiate her own commission down, how easily will she negotiate on your behalf? What are the overall implications of having your agent working for less than most agents most of the time? I would expect the answer depends on the situation, but I also know from experience that you generally get what you pay for.

The “Escalation Clause” Conundrum

multiple-bidMultiple 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.

boston-real-estate

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.

US 30 Year Mortgage Rate Chart

US 30 Year Mortgage Rate data by YCharts

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.

The 2012 Results Are In And Uncertainty Lies Ahead

2012-2013-boston-real-estatelThe 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

A Deal is a Deal

real-estate-dealMy last post explored what constitutes a valid signature on a contract. In this post, I focus on when a signed contract to sell real estate is enforceable.

Most real estate transactions in Massachusetts start with an Offer to Purchase (“OTP”). The buyer signs the OTP and writes an escrow deposit check. After some negotiation, both parties sign the final version of the OTP. Most real estate agents in Massachusetts use a version of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board’s “standard” form. In the section entitled “Riders,” buyers usually reference an attached mortgage contingency and an inspection contingency. For condominiums, buyers also normally write in a contingency to review the “condominium documents.”

The buyer’s legal obligations
Paragraph 5 of the standard offer states that if the buyer does not “fulfill his obligations,” the worst that can happen is the loss of the initial deposit, usually $1,000. In my experience, buyers very rarely lose their initial deposit. I have never heard of an instance where a buyer had a good faith reason for changing her mind and did not get her deposit back. If the buyer makes a sincere attempt to purchase the property, sellers generally agree to return the deposit if the deal falls apart. It is bad business for a seller to try and hold a buyer’s deposit. The only real damage to the seller is loss of market time. A buyer has to behave extremely badly for a seller to consider retaining a deposit.

The seller’s legal obligations
On the other hand, the OTP is binding and enforceable against a seller. The seller’s only obligation specifically articulated in the standard OTP is in Paragraph 3, which says that both parties “shall sign” a purchase and sales agreement (“P&S”) at some point, generally within two weeks. Real estate and contract law requires that both parties act in “good faith” during the course of the contract, which includes bargaining over the terms of the P&S. Although “good faith” is subjective, a seller cannot change his mind about the deal because he just got a better offer or he just no longer likes the basic terms and conditions. If the seller backs out of the deal, and the buyer files a successful lawsuit, the seller will be required to sell the property to the buyer.

Whether you are a buyer or a seller, do not enter into a real estate transaction lightly. You should have the intention of doing what you can to make it work. Buyers have several avenues of escape if the deal no longer makes sense. Sellers, however, are basically locked in unless the buyer becomes unreasonable.

 

* In most cases, just because the buyer can’t get the deposit back doesn’t mean that the seller automatically gets it. The deposit is initially stuck in the agent’s escrow account. The seller cannot receive the deposit until the escrow agent obtains the consent of both parties. Initially, this can prove difficult. Most often, the parties eventually agree to some compromise based on the threat of litigation and the trouble and time related to fighting over $1,000. I have also seen the parties simply fail to come to an agreement and the money never released.

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In the electronic age, when is a deal a deal?

esignatures-real-estateMassachusetts courts have been grappling with the question of “when is a deal a deal” for a long time. Most communication in real estate is now done via email and other electronic means. It was just a matter of time before a court was faced with whether and to what extent emails, and electronic signatures constitute a binding and enforceable agreement to purchase and sell real estate.

Don’t real estate deals need to be in writing?

The Statute of Frauds is the genesis of the saying “always get it in writing.” The ancient law, originating in England, provides that all real estate contracts must be in writing signed by the party (or agent) to be charged. In the old days, application of the Statute was quite simple. If there wasn’t a written agreement signed in ink, there was no binding deal. Now, email makes it much more complicated.

The UETA
In 2004, Massachusetts adopted the Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA), which provides that parties to a real estate transaction may consent to conduct the transaction electronically via email or electronic signature technology if they use such technology in their dealings (which everybody does these days). The UETA requires some form of electronic signature.  Just what exactly constitutes an electronic signature has not yet been fully determined by the courts. In a recent Superior Court case, Feldberg v. Coxall (May 22, 2012),  the judge ruled that an email signature block or even the “from” portion of the email could constitute a valid electronic signature. Accordingly, the judge found that the buyer would at least have the opportunity to make a case that a binding deal had been reached, despite the seller refusing to sign the hard copy offer. Email signature technology in the residential real estate business

Many real estate agents in Massachusetts still work with hard copy contracts signed in ink, hard copies of contracts,  or, at best, electronic copies (PDFs).  I expect this practice will wane. There are a variety of free Internet services that enable you to sign documents electronically. Check out DocuSign.com (which I was able to register for and use in minutes), e-signlive.com, or rightsignature.com. My office of Keller Williams recently started accepting electronic signatures and takes it one step further by using a company called Dotloop. With this system, all the parties to a transaction can register for access to a common electronic file cabinet. Any party can enter a password to access and electronically sign a document.

A deal is still a deal in Massachusetts, but a signature is not what it used to be.

This article is a modified version of the article “Think Before You Hit Send: Emails May Constitute Binding Real Estate Agreement Without Signed Offer.” Many thanks to Attorney Vetstein for allowing me to use his article.  The Mass. Real Estate Law Blog is absolutely one of the best out there.

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5 Stats that Determine the Real Estate Market

housingPeople often ask me, “How’s the market?” The answer is clearly subjective, but careful analysis of the following statistics leads to at least an educated subjective judgment:

1.Value

Values or prices are usually expressed in terms of how the median price of closed sales compare year-to-year or month-to-month. Because the seasons strongly affect home sales, I recommend considering the median prices for any given month compared to the same month a year ago:

  • In April 2012, the median selling price of single family homes in the greater Boston area fell 2.5%, and condominium prices were up 6%, compared to April  2011.

 2. Volume

The most relevant statistic for sales volume (the number of homes sold) is the number of homes sold compared to the same month a year ago.

  •  The number of single family homes sold in the greater Boston area was up 11%, while condos were up 18.5%.

 3. Inventory

Take a look at how many homes are on the market compared to a year ago.

  •  The inventory of single family homes was down 10% in April, and for condos the inventory was down a whopping 30%.

 4. Days on Market

Still relevant but not quite as important, are the figures for “days on market and “supply.” This is the average time it takes a home to go under contract.

  •  The average days on market for real estate in the greater Boston area stayed relatively stable, declining two days from 122 to 120 days for April 2012 compared to April 2011. For condos, the time fell 19 days from 117 days to 98 days.

 5. Supply

The “supply” is the number of homes on the market divided by the monthly rate that they are selling. For example, if there are 50 homes on the market and 120 homes sold over the past 12 months (an average of 10 per month), there is a 5 month supply. Most experts consider somewhere between 7.5 and 8.5 months supply of homes a fairly balanced market.

  •  The supply of single family homes was down about 10% from 7.9 months in April 2011 to just 6.4 months of supply in April 2012. There was a 4.8 month supply of condominiums available in April, down sharply from April of one year ago when there was an 8.2 month supply.

 If you can get the answer to these statistical questions for the geographic area (neighborhood, town, city, state, or country) that you are interested in, you should have a pretty clear picture of what the real estate market is doing. So how’s the greater Boston area market doing? My analysis is that the greater Boston area is experiencing a transition to more of a seller’s market. The supply is shrinking and demand appears to be growing, pushing prices up and making it easier for sellers to sell. What’s your analysis?

The figures for this post can be found here on the Great Boston Association of Realtors site.

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Has your home’s value decreased? Buy a more expensive one!

trading-upIf your home has decreased in value and you are thinking about selling it, it’s hard to see any silver lining. However, if you have other resources and have been thinking about buying a larger home, this is, surprisingly, the best time to “trade up.”

Here’s why…

I recommend that homeowners consider home ownership a long term investment in the residential real estate market. Most people plan to “stay invested,” buying and selling several homes in their lifetimes, or stay in the same home for decades. Most people enter the residential market when they first buy a home. They leave the market when they sell their last home or leave their last residence to heirs. People might trade up into a more expensive home or make a lateral move or two to something of similar value before downsizing in retirement as “empty nesters.” If you don’t sell your home and completely step out of the housing market by renting for a long time or traveling the world for few years, you stay invested. Similarly, you are no longer invested if sell your home and move to a completely different market, like moving from Boston to Florida. In these cases, you might want to carefully consider your relative position in each market.

Here is an example of how trading up could look when the value of your home is down:

2006: The value of your home (either just purchased or not) – Home A: $500,000

2012: Your home has decreased in value 15%. Current value Home A: $425,000

2012: You purchase your dream home – Home B: $750,000

2027: 15 years later the market has recovered and gone up a total of 30% since 2012

The value of your home – Home B: $975,000

The value of your old home – Home A: $552,500

You benefit in the long run, because you purchased the more expensive home in a lower market. Your home is down today, but the more expensive home is down more!

The point is that it doesn’t make sense to put off selling your home, because you can’t get what you want for it. Sell when it makes sense in your life to be in a different home. Your investment in the residential real estate market will take care of itself in the long term.

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Ask The Tough Questions!

Real Estate ConceptThis week’s post is courtesy of negotiation consultant and blogger, Chad Ellis.

During a recent family visit my father reminded me of an unusual house near where I grew up.  It was a lovely house with a good-sized yard next to a pond.  Perfect for a family, and many families happily bought it.  In fact, the house was bought by a new family almost once a year, for what always seemed a bargain price.  Most families sold the house within a year of moving in.

Nothing was wrong with the house, per se.  The problem was that the yard and pond were the summer home for a large flock of geese.  During the warm season they would arrive and spend the next few months defecating all over the yard, turning what looked like a dream into something quite less pleasant.  When the geese had gone, the new owners would look at their mess of a yard, clean things up as best they could, and put their lovely house on the market.

In my last post we discussed the importance of information.  Clearly the buyers of this home lacked a key piece of information.  But why?  Buying a home is a big deal — for most of us it’s the biggest purchase we’ll ever make.  Paying 10% more than you have to is a huge loss as is buying a house you decide you can’t keep.  Even without the Internet making research fairly easy, it would have been relatively easy for home buyers to learn about the history of the Goose House.  So why didn’t they?

In my experience, there are two reasons people enter negotiations without key information.  First, we don’t make a list of what information we’d like to have.  Second, we become extremely reluctant to ask questions.

If anything, this problem escalates with major purchases.  The same person who will check movie reviews before putting $10 and an evening at risk will do little or no preparation when buying a house or negotiating salary at a new position.  Having more at stake sometimes makes us less willing to prepare, perhaps because it’s more frightening to admit a lack of knowledge when it comes to something important.  If this sounds like you, make extra certain that you commit to asking the sorts of questions we discussed last time.  Then, when you consider about how you might go about acquiring that information, be aware of the options that make you uncomfortable — and spell out the costs and potential gains of that option.  An experienced buyer’s agent you trust can help you to identify the tough questions you need to ask and will know how to ask and where to look to get the answers.

If the buyers of the Goose House had done that, they might have learned about the house’s history…and avoided a costly mistake.

Chad Ellis
Check out my Negotiations Blog:
www.negotiatewithchad.blogspot.com

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