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.

Cash is King, but Maybe It Shouldn’t Be

cash-offerWith the recent, and drastic, heating up of the real estate market in the Boston area, buyers in multiple bid situations are again making “cash” offers. Just recently, I had a couple make a very strong offer on a fantastic single family home in Lexington. Like most nice homes in good suburbs, it had just gone on the market and there were multiple offers. My buyers ultimately lost out to other buyers who submitted a “cash” offer. In practical terms, the winning bidders made an offer with no mortgage contingency. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those buyers had ready access to all the funds necessary to close on the property without a mortgage. It only means that they were willing to risk their deposit if they couldn’t come up with the funds at closing. My experience is that even buyers who forgo mortgage contingencies still plan to get a mortgage. Rates are at historic lows and the interest, up to a mortgage of $1.1M, is tax-deductible. In addition, I believe that most buyers who have easy access to that much cash are probably buying more expensive property. So where does this leave responsible buyers (and their agents) who don’t want to take the risk of losing a significant deposit?

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

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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Don’t Renovate and Sell!

home renovationsHomeowners often consider making renovations before selling. They believe the increased value of their home will exceed the cost of renovation. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. For every dollar you spend on renovations, you generally recoup less than a dollar back.  See the annual report in Remodeling magazine, which compiles statistics on the cost recouped of most remodeling projects.

Based on surveys of thousands of real estate professionals, Remodeling magazine concludes that the highest return projects are around 70%, while the lowest are in the neighborhood of 40%. The magazine sends out surveys to thousands of real estate professionals across the country essentially asking for their experience and opinions. The conclusions can’t be scientifically proven, but as the costs of construction are fairly easy to determine there is no reason to doubt the survey’s construction figures. However, I wouldn’t rely too heavily on the specifics of cost recoupment figures. I have seen the surveys they send out and there is simply no way to compile figures in any truly scientific way. Who really knows how much a particular home would have sold for if the kitchen hadn’t been renovated?? Rather, the opinions of thousands of real estate agents, appraisers and other real estate professionals are probably fairly accurate in a general sense. They should be used as a general guide as to which projects result in higher or lower cost recoupment, and very approximately what to expect.

Interestingly, according to the study, renovated kitchens and baths recoup somewhere around 55-65% versus other projects that return more. Common real estate wisdom says that kitchens and bathrooms sell homes. So what’s going on? The answer to this conundrum is that nice kitchens and baths make homes appeal to more people and easier to sell, but are just not valuable enough to recoup the initial investment.

The value proposition of renovating your kitchen and baths looks much better when you do the renovations a few years before you sell your home. You also get the chance to actually enjoy the renovations. Most real estate agents consider kitchens and baths fairly new up to around 3 years after renovation. For example, you spend $50,000 on a new kitchen and enjoy it for 3 years. You then recoup 65% of the cost at sale, so the renovations cost you about $17,500 and help sell your home.

In real life, it may be difficult to plan ahead. However, if you are considering making improvements to your home, considering recoupment values may help you determine what renovations make the most sense in the long term. After making improvements, I often hear sellers say, “Wow, I should have done this earlier.”

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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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Converting to Investment Property

Sell or Rent HouseRenting Your Home vs. Selling Your Home

Many of the sales I handle are in urban neighborhoods where people consider keeping their condominium as an investment property instead of selling it. This is more common lately as many homeowners become painfully aware that they cannot sell their home for the price they want. They naturally consider holding and renting the property until the value of their home recovers. However, if a home’s value is much higher than what was paid for it, this strategy has serious tax implications.

Capital Gains Tax Rules  – The Basics

According to Federal and State (Massachusetts) tax rules, gains in value are tax free up to certain limits for people who lived in the home as a primary residence for two out of the last five years. A gain of up to $500,000 for a couple or $250,000 for an individual is tax free when you sell the home. Basically, if you rent your home instead of selling it right away, you have a three year window to sell and avoid paying capital gains tax. Gains on homes not sold in the three year window are taxed at 15% Federal and 5% State. Another option is to keep the property for life and pass it on to your heirs. A discussion of this option is complicated and beyond the scope of this post.

The Three Year Plan

If you hold onto a property and rent it, you will have to deal with one unpredictable variable – tenants. In my experience, the presence of tenants usually compromises your ability to get the highest possible price for the property. Tenants are not usually the best decorators and may not have the highest standards of cleanliness. Plus, it is extremely difficult to make improvements with tenants in the unit. To get the highest possible price, you may have to wait for the tenants to leave, make improvements, and then thoroughly stage the unit starting from scratch. With tenants in your unit, you could get anywhere from 3 to 5% off the highest possible price. The discount may be even greater if the home shows badly, or the tenants make showings difficult or are problematic. Being a landlord carries significant risk.

These costs and headaches must be considered against any expected future increase in the value of your condominium. If you decide to sell immediately, many of these costs can be avoided. There is no danger of a tenant causing wear and tear or making showings difficult. If your home is in good condition and well-decorated, you can probably prepare it for sale without making costly cosmetic improvements and can stage it using many of your own furnishings. Ultimately, you may decide to rent your condominium, but it’s important to be aware of what you’re getting into.

Home Inspections – A Context Shift

inspectionIn my experience, the home inspection is at the fulcrum of the residential real estate transaction. If a deal is going to sour, it is likely due to the home inspection. Although not required by laws or regulations, home buyers in Massachusetts almost always have a home inspection and the right to cancel the transaction if they are dissatisfied with the results.

Most buyers start the buying process thinking that the home inspector will find all the issues including what is not functioning properly and what may need attention in the near future. Buyers assume they’ll have the agent negotiate with the sellers to fix the problems or compensate the buyer in some way.

Sellers usually have a different perspective. They often feel that the issues are to be  reasonably expected given the age and general condition of the home or should have been obvious to the buyer from the start. In the sellers’ minds, the house comes “as-is” and the price has already been negotiated. After all, the sellers have lived with the issues for some time.

These very different approaches can make for difficult negotiations over issues that actually don’t involve a great deal of money. The solution is a different context for the home inspection.

Buyers will benefit most by using the home inspection to determine whether the home generally meets their expectations and if they want to proceed with the purchase. It is best if buyers focus on specific problems that were unknown prior to negotiating the sale price.  What doesn’t function properly given the age of the renovation, or the home, and the general condition of the house? Reasonable wear and tear is to be expected.  If an item is past its life expectancy and still works, then it is actually functioning better than expected.

The buyers and their agent should present the seller with a reasonable dollar amount for fixing the problems (I generally recommend against asking the sellers to make repairs because the buyers will have to inspect the work and this opens up a new set of problems). The sellers ought to approach the buyers’ requests essentially the same way. If the buyers could reasonably have expected the item to function properly, and it doesn’t, then the buyers request for compensation is reasonable.

There will still be complicated issues to resolve around what is reasonableness. However, if buyers and sellers approach the home inspection from the same context, those issues should be easier to resolve.

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