MONEY

The best moves now for homebuyers

Six years after prices collapsed, housing has begun to climb out of its hole. So what are the best moves to make now? In a three-part series, we offer smart strategies for buyers, sellers, and owners in today’s market.

Real estate has finally started to bounce back across the country — even roar back in some places.

Low mortgage rates and pent-up demand have coaxed buyers back into the market, and homeowners who list their houses are seeing more traffic. That quaint relic of the bubble, the bidding war, has even started to reemerge in some cities.

Consider the mounting evidence that the long national real estate nightmare is over: During the past year, home prices increased in 92 of the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, according to data provider CoreLogic, with prices rising as high as 23% in Phoenix and 17% in San Francisco. Sales volume rose in 69 of the top 100 markets, and 35 of those showed double-digit gains.

Related: Home prices – your local market forecast

Yet while most economists agree that the bottom is behind us and the five-year outlook for housing is on solid footing, the shorter term is shakier. “Two thousand thirteen and 2014 are going to be transition years,” says Mark Fleming, CoreLogic’s chief economist. “The market’s improving, but it’s not totally healed.”

BUYERS

Thinking about buying a home? For the first time in more than half a decade, the economics of the market are working against you in most places.

Inventory is tight, and bidding wars are back in some parts of the country. To snag your dream home, you’ll have to pay up and contend with continuing strict loan requirements. The bright side: Despite rising prices and mortgage rates that are edging upward, buying a home is still cheaper than renting in the majority of the top 100 markets.

Don’t waste time with a low-ball offer.

Yes, home prices are still way down from their highs, but the days when you could scoop up a house for 20% less than the list price are long gone. The typical home sells for pretty close to what the owners asked for, and even in shaky markets, sellers have gotten more realistic about pricing.

The median sales-to-list-price ratio in Detroit, for example, is 98%; the national number is 97%. (To find the figure for your market, go to zillow.com/local-info and click on “More metrics.”)

Related: 5 best markets to buy a home

Here’s how to figure out how much to offer initially: In places where homes are still selling below list price but deals are being made in less than two months, come in no more than 2% to 3% below the asking price, says Michael Murphree, a realtor in Birmingham, Ala. Where homes are selling above the listing price, make your first offer the asking price.

Be the winner in a bidding war.

In January and February, 73% of agents with broker Redfin said their clients’ offers faced rival bids, up from 56% who said so in the fall of 2011.

You win bidding wars, of course, by raising your price; it also helps to have few contingencies and to move quickly, since today’s sellers don’t want multiple go-rounds. “You have to give your best offer,” says Dallas real estate agent Mary Beth Harrison. “Step up to the plate or walk away.”

Related: Closing on a new home

Be flexible about closing too: Quick deals — the median time on the market for homes is 71 days, down from 99 a year ago — have left many sellers scrambling for alternative housing. Leave the closing date blank on your contract for the seller to fill in, or negotiate a leaseback if the seller needs to stay put for a while.

Outsmart the pros who bring cash.

Thinking about investing in a rental property in a downtrodden market before prices there really start to take off?

To beat out the professional investors who have scooped up houses in these areas by offering all-cash deals, lead with your best offer; investors count on nabbing properties at a big discount and are unlikely to boost their bid by more than 5% to 10%. “They’ll just move on to another house,” Harrison says. Also include a bank prequalification letter or statement of funds to show that your money is as reliable as investors’ cash.

Assess the risk in your local market.

Though prices have revived in most areas of the country, they don’t all have the same staying power. In markets that bounced back last year merely because prices had fallen so far, you can’t assume a continued streak; once investors clear out, demand will die down.

“In rebounding markets, recent price gains might not last,” says Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko. Some near-term value setbacks may not be a problem if you plan to stick around for a long time, but a short time horizon calls for greater caution.

To get an idea of a neighborhood’s prospects, start with the foreclosure rate heat map at RealtyTrac.com (click on “Stats & Trends” at the top). The deeper the color you see, the weaker the market’s fundamentals. A broker should also be able to tell you whether cash-only offers dominate — a sure sign of an investor-driven market.

Play bankers off one another.

While it’s old news that credit unions and small banks tend to offer lower rates, they also can be less rigid about their underwriting, says Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. To obtain your best deal, says Cecala, get a good-faith estimate from one lender (you’ll have to shell out for a credit check). Then show the offer to other lenders and ask if they’ll beat it.

Tactics like this will work, he says, because market conditions have changed: “Some lenders want to build up market share and are willing to offer more aggressive pricing than their competitors.” In the past two months, he says, a few have sliced their profit margins on loans.

Housing is back! More smart strategies:

For home sellers

For homeowners staying put

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