Put Your Best Offer Forward & Get Pre-Approved Beforehand, Advise Local Experts
Well, it’s official now. With buyers back in droves, an abnormally low inventory of good properties, and bidding wars popping up all over the place, the Greater Boston real estate market has now made full circle into a seller’s market. As the Boston Globe recently wrote, the market is “desperately seeking sellers.”
For prospective buyers in a seller’s market, the strategies to succeed and find your dream home are very different from just a year or two ago. To help you navigate these unfamiliar waters, I’ve asked Cambridge-Somerville Realtor, Lara Gordon of Coldwell Banker, and Brian Cavanaugh, Senior Mortgage Banker at RMS Mortgage, to join me in this “round-table” discussion about how buyers can succeed in a seller’s market. Lara and Brian were both featured in this month’s Boston Magazine Best Places to Live 2013.
Q: Laura, what are you seeing out there on the streets in terms of inventory, pricing, and respective bargaining power between buyers and sellers? Has the tide really shifted back to sellers?
A: (Lara Gordon) Yes—in a very big way. When sellers have 5-10 offers to choose from, which is typical for most listings in Cambridge & Somerville right now, they are really setting the terms, and some buyers are willing to accommodate just about any request they make, from waiving the inspection to offering a sale-and-lease-back if the seller needs time to find a new place. My listing at 27 Osgood Street, Unit 7 in Somerville (pictures to the right) is a good example — 6 bids.
Q: Lara, I’m hearing about bidding wars on well-priced, good condition properties. What are you seeing out there, and what’s your best advice on getting that winning bid?
A: (Lara Gordon) I always tell my buyer clients this: if you know you’re going into a multiple offer situation, you should put your best foot forward from the start. Some people feel nervous about coming in high on their offer, thinking they need to leave some room to come up during negotiations, but that is a mistake. If a seller receives one offer that is significantly stronger than the others, they may well accept it without going back for a “best and final” round.
And again, price is just one aspect of the offer, so have a good pre-approval from a respected lender, do the best you can with the downpayment, be willing to work with sellers’ preferred dates, and make sure your agent is “selling” you as a knowledgeable buyer, reasonable to deal with, and committed to seeing the transaction through.
Q: What do buyers need to do in terms of making their best and most competitive offer? Are we back to buyer’s writing a personal appeal to sellers and that sort of thing?
A: (Lara Gordon) Some buyers do write letters to sellers, but it’s the list agent’s job to keep them focused on the strengths of the respective offers, so an emotional appeal really only gets a buyer so far. Buyers really need to put their best foot forward. This starts with price, downpayment, a solid pre-approval from a respected lender, tight contingency dates and as much as possible accommodating the sellers’ preferred timeframe for closing. Beyond that, list agents and sellers are looking for a deal that will proceed smoothly and will “stick” through closing, so buyers’ agents really need to “sell” their clients as educated on the market, realistic about the home inspection and committed to seeing the deal through.
Q: Brian, I hear that buyers are coming to you at all hours and weekends for pre-approvals. When buyers come to you for mortgage approval, what sort of documentation should they have ready to go and how quickly can you close loans these days?
A: (Cavanaugh). Well, I’ll start off by staying that the pendulum has definitely swung around. When the market favored buyers, you would go look for houses, get an offer accepted then go to your mortgage banker for an approval. Now it’s the other way around. You need a mortgager approval in hand when you are out looking for homes. And that means from the start you need a very firm grasp on exactly what you can afford, how much to put down, etc. You need to work with a mortgage banker with a strong grasp of Fannie and Freddie guidelines.
As for the paperwork, you need 2 years of tax return and W2’s, 30 days of pay-stubs, one year of bank statements, statements for your 401ks, IRAs, and investment accounts. A lot of first time buyers use gifts of downpayment from their parents, which are particularly tricky. I tell them to get those monies into your account ASAP. You will need a gift letter executed by all parties involved and verification of funds.
Currently, we can close a single family loan in 45 days, and a condo purchase in about 60 days, since condo mortgages require more extensive FNMA approval.
Q: How much are sellers looking at buyers’ financing? Are cash buyers winning out over financed buyers? What are the ways to ensure a seller that a financed buyer is of no greater risk that a cash buyer?
A: (Lara Gordon) Cash is definitely an advantage in that it takes one element of risk out of the equation. For sellers in a rush to close, a cash deal is also appealing because it can close a lot faster than when a lender is involved. But if timing isn’t a big deal and there are good comps for the property, there’s no reason a seller shouldn’t consider a good offer from a buyer who will finance. Of course, the size of the downpayment has become increasingly important as bidding wars drive prices up and appraisals become a concern.
Q: How are you dealing with contingencies in a seller’s market? Are buyers waiving inspection or even financing?
A: (Lara Gordon) There are certainly buyers out there waiving both financing and inspection contingencies, but it’s not always a good idea. While it’s fine for buyers to waive the financing contingency if they’re prepared to pay cash, I personally, would never advise someone to forego a home inspection. The key is to approach it as educational and a way out in case of a major issue, and not as a tool for renegotiating the price.
A: (Vetstein) I’m going to weigh in on this topic as it deals with legal issues. I would STRONGLY advise a financed buyer to resist the temptation to waive the financing contingency in the hope that it will make an offer more attractive. In this day and age of strict underwriting and frequent delays, this is simply a recipe for losing your deposit. I don’t care if a handful of lenders have told you that your file is a slam dunk — you could get laid off a few weeks before close and you’d be DOA for the closing. Same goes for the inspection contingency. Sellers know that buyers want to check the home’s bones beforehand. Trust me, it will cost you a lot more money down the line if you wind up buying equivalent of the “Money Pit.” Tightening the deadlines, that’s fine. Waiving them, that’s just asinine.
A: (Cavanaugh) I would echo Rich’s sentiments. In this day and age of tight lending guidelines, I would hate to see a buyer lose his deposit because he was under the assumption that he could qualify for a mortgage he really couldn’t qualify for. Again, talk to your mortgage banker before you make the offer.
Q: Last question guys. I always recommend that my buyers use a Realtor. But please tell the readers exactly why having a Realtor can greatly increase your chances of succeeding in a seller’s market?
A: (Lara Gordon) I’m glad you asked this question, Rich, because some people think that they will do better if they go directly to the list agent, but given the nature of the market right now, it just doesn’t make sense to try to go it alone.
A: (Cavanaugh). When my borrower works with a Realtor, it always makes the transaction run smoothly. I operate under a “team” concept with the agents, so I’m used to constant contact with both the buyer and listing agent to ensure we get access for the appraisal and all the documentation in place for the loan commitment and closing. When there’s a team of professionals involved in a transaction, it’s a win-win for everyone.
A: (Vetstein) A low inventory/seller’s market is precisely why you want a Realtor who knows the market inside out and can be your salesperson/spokesperson on your side. In a market where perception is everything, I think it’s fair to say that a listing agent/seller will take you more seriously if you are working with a top notch Realtor, rather than sauntering solo into an open house in your Bean duck boots. Not to mention that the buyer does not typically pay an agent commission in Massachusetts. Also, selfishly, working with a client with a Realtor is less stressful for the attorney.
Q: Lara and Brian, any final words of wisdom as we head full bore into the busy spring market?
A: (Lara Gordon) I guess I’d just like to acknowledge that this is a tough market for buyers, and I totally understand the stress and frustration many people are feeling. In an ideal world, you’d find a great house, take some time to think things over, maybe visit a few times, then make a fair offer in a non-competitive situation, and you’d have a new home. But buyers need to accept the reality of the market we’re in: we’ve got low inventory and high demand, and you won’t necessarily get the first house you bid on. Maybe not even the second or third. But if you are qualified financially, have realistic expectations, are patient and persistent, and know how to play the game, you will ultimately find a home.
A: (Cavanaugh). I would urge would-be buyers to talk to a mortgage banker as early as possible in the process. We still have near all time mortgage interest rates. Affordability may never be as good as now, so hang in there in terms of bidding wars and a seller’s market. RMS Mortgage is well known brand and people either know me by reputation or have worked with me. So you have some instant credibility with the listing agent who can vouch for a smooth and successful transaction, and that’s very important in this seller’s market.
Thank you to Brian Cavanaugh and Lara Gordon for a great round-table discussion! Lara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-245-3939. Lara blogs at Cambridegville. Brian can be reached at email@example.com and 617-771-5021. Brian blogs at Smarterborrowing.com.