Investment Comparison: How Does Real Estate Stack Up?

There’s no question that we are in funny economic times.  The stability of the housing market is potentially uncertain.  With the downgrade, the stock market is extremely volatile.  Even “safe” investments (like commodities and bonds) bring their own risks.  Here’s why to invest in real estate versus other places:

  1. Leveraging: the idea of leveraging is very important within real estate.  Let’s say you’ve got $100,000 to invest.  You can take that money into the stock market and invest in companies.  Today, the United Parcel Service (UPS) is trading at $66.26 per share.  You can take your $100,000 and buy about 1,500 share of UPS stock.  If UPS increases by 10% in one year you’ve made yourself $10,000.  Congratulations.  Within real estate, however, you can leverage that same money and increase your return on investment.  With a mortgage, $100,000 can be a 20% down payment on a $500,000 house.  If one year later the real estate market appreciates by 10% your $500,000 is now worth $550,000.  Same time period.  Same percentage increase.  Different result: congratulations times 5.
  2. Tangibility: similar case as the one above, only flipped.  Instead of a 10% increase, both the stock market and real estate markets take a hit of 50%.  Everything is worth half of yesterday.  Your $100,000 investment in UPS is worth $50,000 (on paper) and your $500,000 house is worth $250,000 (on paper).  The difference is that your house is something tangible you use everyday.  If UPS goes out of business and their stock goes to $0.00 you just had a really bad day and nothing to show for it.  If your house became “worthless” in the same time period, you would still be living there, still raising your family there, still able to rent it out or run a business out of it.  Neither is a great day and paying a mortgage on a house less than is owed is a crappy place to be, but nevertheless you’ve got a roof over your head and something physical to hold on to.
  3. Tax Shelter: I’ve talked about it much within many other blogs.  In the stock market (like other places) you can write off your loss.  Only in real estate is there the potential for tax write-offs when the property is going up in value. Property taxes and interest are just two of many places to save money within your taxes by owning.  Consult your CPA for additional information.

Writing an Offer: How Much of a Discount Should I Write the Initial Offer at?

Watterson had it correct in this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, and dealing with the compromise and negotiations of an offer can be difficult.  The question in the title is a common one I get from buyers.  The house is listed at “such-and-such” price.  What should we write the initial offer at?  10% off the asking price?  More?

The thought is that there is some kind of formula which will allow you to get the best deal.  However, the most important thing to note is that the offer you should write is based off the market value of the home, not the price it’s listed at.  In other words, if a house is worth $400,000 and it’s listed at $500,000 a 10% discount off the asking price would still be over paying for the house.  On the same token, if the same house is listed at $375,000 there is no need to go in at a discount because it’s listed at a discount.  Learning market value is key and discerning the features that may add or subtract value is extremely important.  Now, just because a house is worth $400,000 (market value) doesn’t mean it’s worth that to you.  Maybe you aren’t totally in love with it but at the right price it would make sense and the best price for you is $375,000 no matter what.

In writing the initial offer I generally work under two strategies, each with their own advantages and disadvantages I’ll discuss:

1) Write an offer that’s strong enough that it doesn’t piss the seller off where they don’t respond, but low enough that you create some room to negotiate.  Let’s say the house is worth $400,000 and it’s obvious (i.e. it’s a tract home with a model match of similar upgrades that sold two weeks ago at $400,000 with no difference in view, lots size, location, etc etc).  The first strategy is have your Realtor do some background work.  Why is the seller selling?  What’s their motivation?  Did they get a job transfer and he’s leaving in two weeks or are they just testing the market?  What kind of activity have they had on the house?  Any previous offers?  Any offer now?  Anything we should know about the property before writing the offer (i.e. seller wants to take all the appliances or that the seller will credit for a carpet allowance)?  Identifying these things will help with the initial offer.  With that information I make my recommendations as to what the initial offer should be.  If the seller has a job relocation and needs to sell it, maybe we start at $370,000 and hope we split the difference around the mid $380,000’s and can feel like we’re walking into equity.   Sometimes this happens where the buyer writes the offer at $370,000 and we end up splitting it right down the middle and go into escrow at $385,000.  The common complaint is, “Had I known we were going to split it 50/50 I would’ve started lower.”  Makes sense but remember it’s based off market value not the initial offer written.  If that was the case then we should’ve written the initial offer at $1 and the seller would’ve split the difference and we’d be in escrow at $200,000 right?  Wrong.  Thus, the biggest challenge of this style of offer writing: writing the initial offer too low.  Same scenario but the buyer writes the offer at $350,000 and the seller rejects the offer outright as an insult or ridiculous.  Now, as a buyer you’ve put yourself in a tough spot because you need to go back to the seller and increase your offer.  Now it looks like you really want the house and you’re begging for it.  Not exactly the way you want to start out with negotiations.

2.  The second style of offer writing is the “highest-and-best” tactic.  For the scenario above, this would be like writing the offer at $385,000 and holding firm on it.  You go in relatively strong and back it up with data and explain that this is the best you will do.  The biggest part of this is that you have to stand firm.  The seller will probably test you and may even become frustrated with you because it’s such a power play.  Usually when I write these kinds of offers with clients the seller doesn’t agree to it because of the lack of negotiations and 4-6 weeks later I check in with the listing agent and say that the offer still stands (if we haven’t found something else) and we’ll go into escrow.  Psychologically it’s tough on a seller to deal with this kind of offer because everybody wants the game.  I’ll give up this if you give up that.  The biggest challenge I find is two-fold for these kinds of offers: 1) is the challenge that a seller may pass on a legitimate, good offer because of the lack of negotiations and 2) is the susceptibility of the buyer to not stand firm on their offer.  If you go in and say that $385,000 is your highest-and-best, “take it or leave it”, and the seller counters at $387,500 what do you do?  It’s a difference of $2,500.  Are you willing to let the deal fall apart over $2,500?  But are you willing to enter a more challenging escrow from the beginning because what you originally said was highest and best really isn’t?

When it really comes down to it I think one of the biggest advantages of having a Realtor is having a qualified person who has been through the process many times to bounce your ideas off.  If you just want an order-taker anyone can be your agent.  If you want someone that can help you get a good deal through the negotiations, give me a call.

Renting vs Buying: The Whole Story

The age old question: is it worth it to buy or should I continue renting?  Well, let’s look at a hypothetical:

Let’s say John currently rents a 2 bedroom place in San Diego for $1,500 per month.  He’s tired of paying someone else’s mortgage and wants to begin putting money into his own equity and is trying to figure out if it’s worth it.  First off, let’s look at the financial side of things.  In order to do that we need to begin with a couple of rules of thumb:

1.  First off, calculating a payment can be complex and I always recommend speaking with a lender, but an easy way to start is to think that for every percentage point of interest rate you have, your monthly payment is equal to $100 times that for every $100,000 you finance.  In other words, let’s say you’re financing $300,000 at 5%.  A basic payment (before HOA dues and property taxes) would be $1,500 per month (5% at $100,000 would be $500.  $500 times 3 is $1,500).  Note that this doesn’t include property taxes, which in San Diego County are about 1.25% of the purchase price or any HOA.  Also, without getting too technical, the monthly payment depends on the type of loan.  If you do a VA loan or an FHA loan your property taxes are built into your monthly payment in an impounds account (i.e. assuming a $300,000 purchase price with a VA loan, property taxes would be $3,750 annually at 1.25%, or an additional $312.50 per month built into the payment within an impounds account).

2.  John’s payment is heavily reliant on his down payment and financing because the qualifications are different.  If he puts 20% down and does a conventional loan a lender only needs to see his last year’s tax statement.  An FHA loan (with 3.5% down) would be the last two years and these days banks want to see an increase in income from oldest to most recent.  Again, everything we’re doing here is “rule-of-thumb” without a calculator and just to give you a basic understanding.  In order to know what you qualify for and what a payment would be, speak with a lender.

Ok, back to John.  John’s trying to figure out if it’s worth it to buy today or one year from today since the market is so wacky.  John’s biggest concern is that if he buys something today and then prices soften more, maybe he should’ve waited.  Maybe.  Think of this: if John is paying $1,500 per month, in order to save money for next year the market needs to drop by $18,000 ($1,500 rent per month times 12 months).  That may not mean much at the $400,000 and $500,000 level but if John likes his payment around $1,500 per month, he’s probably looking in the $250,000 – $300,000 house area.  An $18,000 drop would be a drop of 7.2% drop (at $250,000).

Another major benefit to home ownership is the tax break.  Owning a house and paying a mortgage gives you the opportunity to  write off all your mortgage interest and property taxes.  Consult a CPA to know exactly what you can write off.  With the money saved in taxes, a $1,700 payment really becomes at least a $1,500 payment.

Making the jump to buy a home is a big step.  It means you are making a commitment to pay on a house for (usually) the next 30 years.  It means that you are established enough to feel like this will be home for at least the next couple of years, or that you can rent it out.  It means you are willing to take on the challenges of home ownership (i.e. plumbing breaks, roof leaks, etc) without the help of a management company or a landlord to call.  But here’s the kicker, after all the tax benefits and assuming he can find something he likes in his price range, John can actually save money by buying right now as compared with waiting until next year.

There’s no question our market is in uncertain times.  But if John knows that he will be staying in the house for at least the next 5 years, market signs are very strong that purchasing right now is a smart decision.  Based on the numbers above, if John is looking in the $250,000 house range, the market would need to drop 10% in the next year for him to break even.  Any drop less than that means he’s actually making (or saving) money.

If you have questions about it, please feel free to contact me.

Finding the Best Deals From Builders/New Construction

In this market the key to finding the best deals is all about timing.  Finding a home where the owners need to sale but have equity is the best chance to buy something well under market.  The same goes for builders of new construction.  They purposely try to limit supply and keep demand (and prices) high.  The economy is definitely a factor, but even in a good economy the builder doesn’t want to just dump 85 units all on the market at the same time.  So, they do it in phases.

The key is timing in the phases.  If you’re buying the first home for sale by the builder you have to understand that the sales price that goes for is going to be the basis for all other sales.  If (at the end of all the phases) there are 85 homes for sale and the first house goes for a 10% discount, every sale after that is going to have to be close to that discounted price because every other buy should be aware of the sales price.  Builders blow out the units at the end.  If they’re selling units 83, 84, and 85 of 85 total, that’s when you go in aggressive.  And when I say aggressive, I mean aggressive.  Ask for upgrades, closing costs, AND a 10-15% discount.  To have the showroom, models, sign-twirler and whole dog-and-pony show going on, the builder is paying money.  Many times the builder is more interested in closing out the project and taking the flags down rather than haggling for another $5k-$10k.  Go in with a strong down payment or at least highly qualified, and walk yourself into equity.

New to new construction, or don’t know where to start looking?  Feel free to contact me.