Buying a Home? Better Get to it Before Wall Street Does

By MICHAEL A. FLETCHER, The Washington Post
April 23, 2013

Big investors are pouring unprecedented amounts of money into real estate hard hit by the housing crash, bringing those moribund markets back to life but raising the prospect of another Wall Street-fueled bubble that won’t be sustainable.

Drawn by the prospect of double-figure profit margins on rents and the resale of homes whose prices plummeted in the crash, hedge funds, Wall Street investors and other institutions are crowding out individual home buyers. If the chain of easy credit and dangerous leverage that started on Wall Street fanned the housing bubble and eventual crash, some analysts find it disturbing that major investors are the ones snapping up the bargains — and eventual big profits — left in its wake.

“There is the possibility that Wall Street and the banks and the affluent 1 percent stand to gain the most from this,” said Jack McCabe, a real estate consultant based in Deerfield Beach, Fla. “Meanwhile, lower-income Americans will lose their opportunity for the American Dream of building wealth through owning a home.”

Real estate executives say institutional investors — who in some cases are bidding on hundreds of homes a day — account for as much as 70 percent of sales in some Florida markets. Over the past two years, analysts say, they also have accounted for a majority of purchases in other parts of the country where housing prices are rebounding sharply.

The influx of investors may explain why home prices have been rising in parts of the country most affected by the housing crash, despite high jobless rates and relatively few new mortgages being issued by lenders. In the past year, prices have risen 23 percent in the Phoenix area, 15 percent in Las Vegas, 9 percent in Tampa and 11 percent in Miami, according to the Case-Shiller home-price indices. Nationally, prices are up more than 8 percent over the past year.

“I don’t know whether things are as good as they seem to be. A lot of properties are being occupied by institutional investors, not the end-user,” said Scott Kranz, co-principal of Title Capital Management, a firm that helps big investors scout, buy and manage homes in Florida. “The end-user would need to see a great increase in jobs, availability of mortgage money and a loosening of the reins that have been holding them back. But all the economic indicators are that we are not at that point.”

The ability of investors to make cash deals is helping them buy a large portion of the distressed homes that continue to flood the market. Property brokers and others in Florida say traditional buyers — even those able to qualify for financing in a still-tight mortgage market — are finding it difficult to compete with the cash and market savvy of large investors.

“The investors are making it hard for a regular homeowner to buy a property,” said Robert Russotto, a broker with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate in Fort Lauderdale. “They are getting outbid by people with cash.” Russotto noted that out of the 20 home sale contracts he is the process of completing, 17 of the buyers are major investors.

Before the housing crash, big investors almost never wanted single-family homes, largely because of slow returns and the money-draining hassle of managing tenants in often far-flung properties.

But with prices still depressed and with low interest rates and high stock prices limiting prospective returns elsewhere, major investors see the prospect of healthy profits in single-family homes. “Residential property is an on-fire asset class,” said Kranz, noting that his firm has plowed more than $100 million into residential real estate for investors in the past year and is on course to spend $250 million to buy an additional 2,000 homes in 2013.

At Title Capital Management, nearly four dozen analysts and lawyers are glued to computer monitors — some seven days a week — hunting for deals among the flood of foreclosures that have bedeviled this state. Aided by its proprietary software, Title Capital sizes up each home for square footage, special features and the prices and rents they can command. The firm’s legal team then scrubs each property for liens and title problems before determining a price that would allow its clients on Wall Street and elsewhere to turn a tidy profit.

The company bids on about 200 houses a day, making it one of the largest players in Florida that help hedge funds and other Wall Street firms buy distressed properties. It is proving to be a lucrative niche.

Last year, famed investor Warren Buffett said on CNBC: “If I had a way of buying a couple-hundred-thousand single-family homes, I would load up on them. It’s a very attractive asset class now. I could buy them at distressed prices and find renters.”

A growing number of private-equity groups have done as much. Over the past year, Blackstone has amassed a portfolio of 20,000 rental homes worth $3 billion, spokesman Peter Rose said. American Homes 4 Rent, a firm run by warehousing magnate B. Wayne Hughes, has bought about 10,000 rental properties, according to news reports.

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The strategy makes sense, as a shrinking share of Americans own their homes. After more than a decade of robust increases, the national home-ownership rate peaked in 2004 at 69.2 percent. Since then, it has been in steady decline, falling to 65.4 percent at the end of 2012, according to Census Bureau figures.

The big investor activity is pushing up prices, which is good for the large number of homeowners whose mortgages are larger than their home’s values. But for people being shut out of the biggest bargains offered by the housing market, it means a longer, slower slog to building equity. It also raises the specter of future price declines when investors lose interest or decide to dump their properties.

“Clearly the investors are moving markets in some places,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of a popular housing blog. “In some markets at the bottom end, you are looking at 30 or 40 percent gains year to year. That is frightening to me. At some point the music stops. The investors if they get hurt, that is their problem. But invariably a lot of other people will get caught up in that.”

But as things stand, many investors say the opportunities are growing, particularly in Florida. The data firm RealtyTrac reported this month that one in 104 properties in the state had received a foreclosure filing in the first three months of 2013, the highest rate in the nation. On top of that, nearly half of the homeowners with mortgages owe more than their houses are worth, which means many more foreclosures are on the way. Investors think foreclosures could surge for up to five more years.

Dallas Wharton, co-founder of Delavaco Residential Property Trust, a real estate investment firm in Fort Lauderdale, is ready. The firm, which is backed by Canadian investors, started out with 14 homes two years ago and now has 700. Meanwhile, Delavaco is preparing for a public offering on the Toronto Stock Exchange that Wharton hopes will raise as much as $40 million.

Wharton said his company is riding a lucrative wave. It is able to scoop up many homes for $60,000 or $70,000, which is just a fraction of the building costs. After making repairs, the company rents them out for as much as $1,700 a month. The firm’s biggest client is the federal Section 8 program, which subsidizes the rents of low-income tenants. Delavaco notes that Section 8 provides “over 60 percent” of the firm’s revenue.

“That’s a pretty good opportunity,” Wharton said, adding that investors help stabilize communities even as they make money. “If the end-user does not have the ability to enter in the market, and they do down the road, have they missed an opportunity? Perhaps. But if it weren’t for investors, where would the market bottom be? What would happen to neighborhoods if homes were just to sit there and rot?”

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post .

5 Revelations of a First Time Home Seller

By Tara-Nicholle Nelson |        Broker in        San Francisco, CA

1. Beware the endowment effect.

Behavioral economics researchers have found that humans on the whole tend to overestimate the value of things they own, compared with the value the market will actually bear for those things. This creates a perpetual disconnect between what buyers will pay and what sellers expect to receive. It’s no different with our homes than it is with our cars and other belongings.

Well, there is one difference – if you overprice your home, it can ultimately cost you a lot of money in terms of:
• buyers who never find your home online,
•buyers who see your home online, but never come to see it, because it’s not as nice as other homes in their price range, and
•lowball offers that happen when your home has lagged on the market longer than it would have had it been correctly priced.

That’s why we rely so heavily on the comparable sales data, which reflects the actual prices actual buyers recently paid for actual homes in the neighborhood.

When I was selling my own first home, not only did I rely on the data, I also had friends and colleagues who were real estate agents come in and check it out to give me their feedback on pricing. And because I was selling it myself, I was also able to glean the feedback from prospective buyers themselves as to what they thought about the home and its price. This sort of feedback is available to every home seller, in the form of CMAs and home price estimates that prospective listing agents will create for you, as well as the feedback your agent can collect from buyer’s brokers.

The challenge is to know the bias exists, to understand how critical it is to overcome it and then to commit wholeheartedly to overcoming it by paying attention to the data, listening to feedback and course-correcting as necessary.

2. You only need one offer.

When I first put my first home on the market, I acted as cool as a cucumber, but was an emotional wreck on the inside. The days of crazy multiple offers were gone, but homes were still selling at a pretty brisk pace. A week went by, then another, and it became pretty clear that despite my great pricing and brilliant staging (!), I was likely not going to be inundated with a flood of offers anytime soon. Right around the fourth week on the market, though, I got a call from an agent who had shown the home independently – and they wanted to make an offer.

When your neighbors are getting dozens of offers, or when it seems like every town in the country is riddled with multiple offer scenarios and yours is not – here’s a helpful reality check: with every home sale transaction, there is ultimately only one buyer and one seller, in the final analysis. You don’t need loads of offers or floods of buyers. You only need one.
Your job, as a seller, is to work with your agent to:
(a) understand everything you can about who your home’s eventual buyer is likely to be, and
(b) price and market it in a way that maximizes the chance that one buyer will actually see it and realize that it fits their wish list.

3. Don’t just market, message.

Marketing is about preparing your property beautifully and describing it to its best advantage online and off, making sure there are abundant, good photos of the home on all the websites frequented by buyers in your area, that there are flyers in the drive-by box and that all the buyer’s brokers in your area are exposed to the property. Marketing is about holding Open Houses, if that’s the norm in your neck of the woods.

“Messaging,” on the other hand, is about making sure that these materials and your home’s online presence are flush with content – messages – about why your home is a great choice for the types of buyers who will likely be looking for it. For example, messaging might involve:
•Detailing with some precision the convenient commutes optimized by your home’s ease of access to 3 freeways within a mile, by the fact that X subway station is at the end of the block, or by the fact that the place is located within 3 miles of the local university and 5 other major employers in your area.
•Describing floor plan or layout advantages that might be rare in your area and would be attractive to an older buyer or an extended family, like the fact that your home has a level-in entry (no stairs to the front door) if that’s unusual in your area, or that it has a complete bedroom and bathroom suite downstairs (which someone who wants to move an aging parent in might appreciate).
•Highlighting any major remodeling work that has been done, which is a selling point to a wide variety of buyers who strongly prefer to move right in.

Work with your agent as they write up the listing description for your home, and focus on saving characters by eliminating words like “charming” and “cozy” in exchange for creating more meaningful messages of this sort.

In the end, my first home was purchased by an adult brother-sister pair, who were attracted to the water views, the brand-new kitchen, the uber-convenient commute to very different parts of the Bay and – the deal-maker: the fact that each could have their own suite on their own floor: all of which was “messaged” in the listing and marketing materials.

4. You are not your house.

Selling your home without going entirely nuts simply requires you to grow thicker skin. The endowment effect makes it likely that you’ll feel like you’re getting less than your home is worth, your agent and/or stager will likely come through and pull out half of the belongings you think are amazing and beautiful (yes – including your sequined butterfly mural) and you might even get incoming feedback from buyers and buyer’s brokers that is somewhat less than complimentary. All this can feel like you’re taking a beating right where it really hurts, on the subject of the home that’s been good enough for you and yours for all this time – the home you’ve possibly invested much of your time, personal taste and money into.

So, walk into the home selling process with a thick skin – an unkind comment about your home is not a personal attack on you, no matter how much it might feel that way. Understand that every critique or dig you hear about your home is a step on the path to getting it sold so you can move forward with your life. In fact, some might even be made as negotiating ploys – and have very little to do with your home at all! Again, this process of selling a home is largely a process of finding the buyer for whom your home is a right fit; you might find it helpful to think of those who dislike it as just getting you one prospective buyer closer to the one for whom it will be the perfect fit.

If it’s at all possible to show it vacant or to have it shown while you and your family are away from the home, that is ideal. Not only is it ideal for you and your emotions, it’s ideal for the buyers as well. Serious buyers like to be able to walk through a property and discuss it, visualize their life there, and start sorting through how they would make it their own, with only their agent and family present – without having to worry about how you’ll take their comments.
I had moved out of my first home into my next one before I put that place on the market, which also made it easier to do some of the property preparation projects – including a kitchen overhaul – before listing it. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, though, at the very least allow your agent to put a lockbox on the property and offer a simple way for buyer’s brokers to let you know when they plan to show the property.

At Open Houses for my first home, I heard buyers say it was too small, too fragmented a floor plan, lacked the deck it should have to take advantage of the views, lacked a backyard, was too green – and the list goes on. And those things were probably all true, from their individual perspectives. Turned out, some of the things they disliked were the very things that attracted the family that eventually bought the home.

5. Only worry about the levers you can pull.

The three major levers that you, as a home seller, have the most power to pull are simple: price, preparation and marketing. You control the list price, you control how your home is primped and staged for sale, and you control the agent who is responsible for marketing and messaging your home to prospective buyers. So, focus your efforts on doing those three things wisely. Anything else has the potential to create panic and fear – and panic and fear are completely counterproductive to your efforts to make smart, logical decisions.

During the sale of my first home, while I was waiting for an offer, my mind went to some very dark places. I started to doubt everything: maybe the location was too off-the-grid, maybe the square footage wasn’t as ample as it had seemed to me, maybe the lack of a deck was really a deal-breaker, maybe I had wasted thousands of dollars on that kitchen remodel – maybe the whole town was just “out.”

As my mind spiraled in that direction, I had to force myself to get a grip with the knowledge that even if any of these absurdities were true, there was not a single thing I could do to change any of them. I couldn’t change the market. I couldn’t make buyers appear out of the woodwork. All I could do was price the place competitively, prepare it beautifully, market it thoroughly and place the right messages about it in the right places to the right buyers. So, that’s what I did. And you know what? It worked.

The Top Do’s & Don’ts When Selling Your Home

The Top Do’s and Don’ts When Selling Your Home

As a Morris County, NJ Home Stager there are universal do’s and don’ts when it comes to selling your home. Let’s cut right to the chase…

Selling Don’ts

1. Think you know more than your Realtor and insist on listing your home over what your Realtor advises. They are the experts and know the market. This is the most important “don’t” when selling your home, bar none!

2. Clean your home by cramming all your junk into every conceivable storage space. It’s a given that buyers will look in your closets, cabinets, basement and garage. If your storage areas are crammed with “stuff”, you’re sending a flag that their “stuff” won’t fit either.

3. Wait until a few days before your open house to discard or store unnecessary furniture, personal collections and family photos. Rent PODS – the newest, fastest growing self-storage units, or call on family to store the things you don’t absolutely need. This serves two purposes: you’ll have far less to do once you sell and showcase the room’s square footage.

4. Assume buyers are going to take on your deferred maintenance like broken doorbells, leaky faucets, chipped molding, running toilettes and/or torn screens. Buyers want turnkey homes. Moreover, you don’t want to give them instant negatives when they walk in the door.

5. Fill your home with Glad Plugins and similar products. It’s akin to spraying perfume in lieu of a shower – it doesn’t work and buyers suspect your trying to mask unpleasant odors. Clean is the only smell everyone loves!

6. Assume buyers are pet lovers – many are not and some are allergic to cats and dogs. During showings and open houses, temporarily take pets and all trances of them out of the home. Yes, this is a hassle, I know, but it’s temporary and your goal is to sell quickly.

7. Neglect curb appeal – it’s buyer’s first impression of your home in person and on MLS (where 90% of buyer’s start their home search). Hire a landscaping company or do it yourself. Don’t forget to trim hedges, add fresh mulch and blow debris clear from walkways, porch and driveway.

Selling Do’s

1. Find a reputable, seasoned Realtor and let them price your home based on their research, knowledge and comparable comps. Did you know that 85% of people think their home is worth more than it is?! Defer to your Realtor and trust that they understand the market and are experts at pricing homes!

2. Throw out any outdated, dusty floral arrangements and flower swags that went out with the eighties. Replace them with real plants, or buy high quality silk arrangements that will pass for the real thing – just not at the dollar store!

3. Paint the interior of your home in neutral colors. Nothing cleans and brightens up a home more than a fresh coat of paint. Moreover, it yields the biggest bang for your buck with a staggering 150% return on investment. Consult a NJ home stager for the most popular neutral wall colors that have mass appeal.

4. Have your rugs shampooed so they are clean and odor free. You can rent carpet cleaners at most grocery stores or hire a carpet cleaning company. While you’re at it, open all your windows and air out your home every few days.

5. Give every room a purpose taking the guess work out for buyers. If you’re selling your home as a 4 bedroom, but have been using one of the rooms as an office/home gym, return it to a bedroom. If you have a small room with no closet, make that room an office.

6. Make your master bedroom non-gender specific. Invest in neutral bedding and add some decorative pillows. Look at high-end hotels. They are designed to appeal to the masses. Grandma’s homemade afghan isn’t going to cut it!

7. Invest in a home staging consultation. Home stagers are experts on preparing your home for the market. They understand and can implement all the necessary changes that will give your home that competitive edge it needs in today’s market.

Get Your Home Ready to Sell in 30 Days!

If you are like me, you are busy, busy, busy! There are many chores that I “ignore” when time is short, but if I were planning to sell my home, I’d need to tackle them and make my house sparkle!

If you are considering selling your home, go ahead and start working on the list below. In just 30 days, your home will SHINE! Don’t forget to continue with your everyday chores too! You will want your home to be “Show Ready” 24/7!

1. Clean the ceiling fan blades (all of them).

2. Use a damp cloth and wipe down all baseboards. I have heard that following with a fabric softener helps reduce dust build up in the future, but have never tried it myself.

3. Clean out the refrigerator! Be brutal and throw away all those condiments that you can’t even remember buying or using! Don’t forget to wipe down the outside too, dust the top and if you don’t have it on your regular maintenance list…. Vacuum the coils!

4. Clean out the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen. Follow by wiping down the doors and pulls.

5. Pressure Wash the drive and walkways. Clean the siding if necessary, being careful with wood or painted surfaces to avoid chipping or splintering.

6. Pull weeds from gardens, and plant a few colorful flowers near front door.

7. Repair any nail holes or damage to walls and touch up the paint.

8. Wipe down all door knobs and other hardware and polish if necessary.

9. Clean every window…. Inside & out!

10. Clean and organize bathroom cabinets and drawers.

11. Purge the pantry and clean, organize and show potential buyers just how much space is there!

12. Tackle the “honey do” list and fix all those small repairs. You know the ones, the loose door pull, the leaning mailbox, the creaky door hinge, etc.

13. Replace burnt out light bulbs and clean the fixtures while you’re at it.

14. As annoying as it is….. clean the grout of your tile floors (and any other tiled surface).

15. Clean the microwave and the oven!

16. Take down curtains and drapes, clean them, and decide whether or not they should be re-hung! Natural light can be a BIG selling point!

17. Purge and de-clutter! If you just can’t bring yourself to dispose of ANYTHING…. box it up and store it!

18. Clean and organize your closets! If you haven’t worn it in 2 years, chances are, you will never wear it! Get rid of it by donating to a great cause in your area. Then, organize by length and color and it will look amazing! Box up your out of season shoes and clothing and show those buyers just how “roomy” that closet is!

19. Dust! And I mean EVERYTHING! The lamps, the picture frames, the ugly artificial plants & flowers…. EVERYTHING!

20. Vacuum every inch of every room. Under the beds, the sofas, behind the bookshelves, the corners of the ceiling, the air vents (and change the air filters)….. EVERY INCH!

21. Clean the garage. Take everything out (I know it’s a big job), sweep, pressure wash the floors, repaint the floor if needed & possible, and then organize as you put the items back. Again, I want you to purge! Do you really need that broken leaf blower or those empty paint cans? Just do it…. It will feel Great!

22. If you store things in the attic or basement, you will need to clean and purge those areas too! Yep, buyers will look in your attic and if they choose to buy the home, a home inspector will appreciate clean and easy access!

23. Clean every sink, tub and toilet and re-caulk if needed.

24. Sweep and clean the patio or deck! If needed, clean any outdoor furniture. Add a couple of new cushions to the outdoor living area or maybe a few potted plants.

25. Clean the gutters, and the roof. Huge piles of pine straw or leaves scream “High Maintenance”. If you do not feel comfortable, hire someone to tackle the roof for you….. It can be a dangerous job!

26. Wash all of your throw rugs, bedding, pillow covers, blankets, etc. It will help the home smell and look “fresh”.

27. Clean the yard! Remove any fallen limbs or trash. Trim shrubs and branches from walkways and keep a clean path around the home. Keep the lawn mowed and raked and looking fabulous. Remember, first impressions are important!

28. I know you live in the home, but try to make it a little less “personal”. If you have hundreds of family photos hanging around (I have them too), pack some up. The doll collection that has taken over the guest room, box that up too. By de-personalizing the home, buyers find it easier to imagine the house with their “stuff” in it.

29. Buy a laundry basket or bin for each family member and place in the laundry room or a closet for everyday pickup. When your REALTOR® calls you to schedule a showing, each family member grabs their basket/bin and runs around filling it with items that need to be put away. Then deliver the items to where they belong.

30. On this day, I want you to rest! Call your REALTOR®, let them know you want to sell your home and schedule a meeting. Tell them to go ahead and bring their camera, because the house is READY!