Are you a first-time homebuyer eager to get into the market? Here you will find some information that can help ease the process.
Acronyms & Lingo
4B/2B — four bedrooms and two bathrooms. “Bedroom” usually means a sleeping area with a window and a closet, but the definition varies in different places. A “full bathroom” is a room with a toilet, a sink and a bathtub. A “three-quarter bathroom” has a toilet, a sink and a shower. A “half bathroom” or powder room has only a toilet and a sink.
closing costs — the entire package of miscellaneous expenses paid by the buyer and the seller when the real estate deal closes. These costs include the brokerage commission, mortgage-related fees, escrow or attorney’s settlement charges, transfer taxes, recording fees, title insurance and so on. Closing costs are generally paid through escrow.
CMA — comparative market analysis or competitive market analysis. A CMA is a report that shows prices of homes that are comparable to a subject home and that were recently sold, are currently on the market or were on the market, but not sold within the listing period.
contingency — a provision of an agreement that keeps the agreement from being fully legally binding until a certain condition is met. One example is a buyer’s contractual right to obtain a professional home inspection before purchasing the home.
fixture — anything of value that is permanently attached to or a part of real property. (Real estate is legally called “real property,” while movables are called “personal property.”) Examples of fixtures include installed wall-to-wall carpeting, light fixtures, window coverings, landscaping and so on. Fixtures are a frequent subject of buyer and seller disputes. When in doubt, get it in writing.
listing — an agreement between a real estate broker and a home owner that allows the broker to market and arrange for the sale of the owner’s home. The word “listing” is also used to refer to the for-sale home itself. A home being sold by the owner without a real estate agent isn’t a “listing.”
lock box — locked key-holding device affixed to a for-sale home so real estate professionals can gain entry into the home after obtaining permission from the listing agent
MLS — Multiple Listing Service. An MLS is an organization that collects, compiles and distributes information about homes listed for sale by its members, who are real estate brokers. Membership isn’t open to the general public, although selected MLS data may be sold to real estate listings Web sites. MLSs are local or regional. There is no MLS covering the whole country.
REALTOR® — a real estate broker or sales associate who is a member of the National Association of REALTORS®. Not all real estate agents are REALTORS®.
title insurance — an insurance policy that protects a lender’s or owner’s interest in real property from assorted types of unexpected or fraudulent claims of ownership. It’s customary for the buyer to pay for the lender’s title insurance policy.
Making an Offer
Oral promises are not legally enforceable when it comes to the sale of real estate. Therefore, you need to enter into a written contract, which starts with your written proposal. This proposal not only specifies price, but all the terms and conditions of the purchase. For example, if the sellers said they’d help with $2,000 toward your closing costs, be sure that’s included in your written offer and in the final completed contract, or you won’t have grounds for collecting it later.
REALTORS® usually have a variety of standard forms (including Residential Purchase Agreements) that are kept up to date with the changing laws. When you use a REALTOR® these forms will be available to you. In addition, REALTORS® cover the questions that need to be answered during the process. In many states certain disclosure laws must be complied with by the seller, and the REALTOR® will ensure that this takes place.
After the offer is drawn up and signed, it will usually be presented to the seller by your REALTOR®, by the seller’s REALTOR® if that’s a different agent, or often by the two together. In a few areas, sales contracts are typically drawn up by the parties’ lawyers.
What the offer contains
The purchase offer you submit, if accepted as it stands, will become a binding sales contract (known in some areas as a purchase agreement, earnest money agreement or deposit receipt). It’s important, therefore, that it contains all the items that will serve as a “blueprint for the final sale.” These purchase offer items include such things as:
- Address and sometimes a legal description of the property
- Sale price
- Terms — for example, all cash or subject to your obtaining a mortgage for a given amount
- Seller’s promise to provide clear title (ownership)
- Target date for closing (the actual sale)
- Amount of earnest money deposit accompanying the offer, and whether it’s a check, cash or promissory note, and how it’s to be returned to you if the offer is rejected — or kept as damages if you later back out for no good reason
- Method by which real estate taxes, rents, fuel, water bills and utilities are to be adjusted (prorated) between buyer and seller
- Provisions about who will pay for title insurance, survey, termite inspections and the like
- Type of deed to be given
- Other requirements specific to your state, which might include a chance for attorney review of the contract, disclosure of specific environmental hazards or other state-specific clauses
- A provision that the buyer may make a last-minute walk-through inspection of the property just before the closing
- A time limit (preferably short) after which the offer will expire
- Contingencies, which are an extremely important matter and discussed in detail below
If your offer says “this offer is contingent upon (or subject to) a certain event,” you’re saying that you will only go through with the purchase if that event occurs. The following are two common contingencies contained in a purchase order:
- The buyer obtaining specific financing from a lending institution. If the loan can’t be found, the buyer won’t be bound by the contract.
- A satisfactory report by a home inspector “within 10 days (for example) after acceptance of the offer.” The seller must wait 10 days to see if the inspector submits a report that satisfies you. If not, the contract would become void. Again, make sure that all the details are nailed down in the written contract.
You’re in a strong bargaining position — meaning, you look particularly welcome to a seller — if:
- You’re an all-cash buyer; or
- You’re already pre-approved for a mortgage; and
- You don’t have a present house that has to be sold before you can afford to buy.
In those circumstances, you may be able to negotiate some discount from the listed price. On the other hand, in a “hot” seller’s market, if the perfect house comes on the market, you may want to offer the list price (or more) to beat out other early offers.
It’s very helpful to find out why the house is being sold and whether the seller is under pressure. Keep these considerations in mind:
- Every month a vacant house remains unsold represents considerable extra expense for the seller;
- If the sellers are divorcing, they may just want out quickly; and
- Estate sales often yield a bargain in return for a prompt deal.
This is a deposit that you give when making an offer on a house. A seller is understandably suspicious of a written offer that is not accompanied by a cash deposit to show “good faith.” A REALTOR® or an attorney usually holds the deposit, the amount of which varies from community to community. This will become part of your down payment.
The seller’s response to your offer
You will have a binding contract if the seller, upon receiving your written offer, signs an acceptance just as it stands, unconditionally. The offer becomes a firm contract as soon as you are notified of acceptance. If the offer is rejected, that’s that, and the sellers could not later change their minds and hold you to it.
If the seller likes everything except the sale price, or the proposed closing date, or the basement pool table you want left with the property, you may receive a written counteroffer, with the changes the seller prefers. You are then free to accept or reject it or to even make your own counteroffer. For example, “We accept the counteroffer with the higher price, except that we still insist on having the pool table.”
Each time either party makes any change in the terms, the other side is free to accept or reject it, or counter again. The document becomes a binding contract only when one party finally signs an unconditional acceptance of the other side’s proposal.
Withdrawing an offer
Can you take back an offer? In most cases the answer is yes, right up until the moment it is accepted, or even in some cases, if you haven’t yet been notified of acceptance. If you do want to revoke your offer, be sure to do so only after consulting a lawyer who is experienced in real estate matters. You don’t want to lose your earnest money deposit, or find yourself being sued for damages the seller may have suffered by relying on your actions.
FOUR THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HOME INSPECTIONS
Buying a home is one of the most important purchases you will make in your lifetime, so you should be sure that the home you want to buy is in good condition. A home inspection is an objective visual evaluation of a home’s condition by a trained expert. During a home inspection, a qualified inspector takes an in-depth and impartial look at the property you plan to buy, from the physical structure and systems of a house, from the roof to the foundation. The inspector will:
- Evaluate the physical condition: the structure, construction and mechanical systems.
- Identify items that should be repaired or replaced.
- Estimate the remaining useful life of the major systems (such as electrical, plumbing, heating, air conditioning), equipment, structure and finishes.
After the inspection is complete, you will receive a written report of the findings from the home inspector, usually within five to seven days. The standard home inspector’s report will cover the condition of the home’s heating system; central air conditioning system (temperature permitting); interior plumbing and electrical systems; the roof, attic and visible insulation; walls, ceilings, floors, windows and doors; the foundation, basement and structural components.
A home inspection is not only a great way to find out about the home’s systems, but it can also be a crucial tool in negotiation the most equitable price on the home.
Why do I need a home inspection?
Buying a home could be the largest single investment you will ever make. To minimize unpleasant surprises and unexpected difficulties, you’ll want to learn as much as you can about the newly constructed or existing house before you buy it. A home inspection may identify the need for major repairs or builder oversights, as well as the need for maintenance to keep it in good shape. After the inspection, you will know more about the house, which will allow you to make decisions with confidence.
If you already are a homeowner, a home inspection can identify problems in the making and suggest preventive measures that might help you avoid costly future repairs.
If you are planning to sell your home, a home inspection can give you the opportunity to make repairs that will put the house in better selling condition.
To help homebuyers and sellers alike make the best educated decision, here are some tips from HouseMaster, one of the first and largest home inspection franchisors in North America:
- Inspect the Inspector. Only hire a home inspector with an excellent reputation and credentials. Ask how long the company has been in business, ask about specific formal training and ongoing education the inspector has and verify the inspector carries professional liability insurance also known as “Errors & Omissions” (E&O). If the company doesn’t carry this insurance, it could indicate a poor track record or lack of experience.
- Ask for a sample report. The credential of the inspection company and the quality of the final inspection report will be important. A poorly prepared report without pictures or clear, concise details addressing all the various systems and accessible elements of the home is less likely to be taken seriously by a home seller.
- Inspect ancillary systems. It’s hard for first-time home buyers to know what they need, so be sure to ask what additional services the company offers. If the home you are considering has a septic system for example, a professional home inspection company may offer septic system inspections or can coordinate that service for you. Generally, the company will offer you a multiple services discount as well as the added convenience of only having to attend one inspection appointment. Other common services offered by home inspectors are termite inspections, mold screening, water testing and radon testing.
- Go along on the inspection. Ask the inspection company if they encourage buyers to tag along on the inspection. If the inspector discourages you from going along and asking questions, find another inspector. A home inspection is not simply a laundry list of what is wrong with the home. In addition to documenting issues and needed repairs that may exist, a professional home inspector will also show the new buyer how to operate the various systems in the home and provide tips on improving energy efficiency and maintaining the home in general. And being present in the inspection will make the final written report that much more meaningful.
Do not let cost be a factor in deciding whether or not to have a home inspection or in the selection of your home inspector. The sense of security and knowledge gained from an inspection is well worth the cost, and the lowest-priced inspection is not necessarily a bargain. Use the inspector’s qualifications, including experience, training, compliance with your state’s regulations, if any, and professional affiliations as a guide.
Also, do not be afraid to ask for a referral from your Realtor. Experienced real estate agents often have a few recommended home inspectors who they have worked with in the past and is familiar with the way they do business. Find an agent you can trust and use their expertise and connections– it doesn’t cost you anything to ask questions and you will make the home buying process a lot easier and even enjoyable.