MONEY home prices

Buying or Selling a Home in 2015? Here’s What You Need to Know

After a boom, a bust, and a bounce, housing finally gets back to "normal."

Housing should be a drama-free zone in 2015. “After the boom, the bust, and the recovery bounce, we are transitioning to a calmer market driven by fundamentals,” says Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia.

Even though the econ­omy is growing and mortgage rates will remain low—the 30-year fixed isn’t likely to pass 5%—bubbly gains in housing are unlikely. Household income has barely budged since the housing market bottomed in late 2011, while home prices are already about 20% higher on average. Plus, with cautious lenders requiring hefty down payments and low debt/income ratios, it’s not as if buyers have the capacity to push prices sharply up.

All that figured in, CoreLogic forecasts a 4.4% rise in the national median home price. “That’s healthy and sustainable,” says chief economist Mark Fleming.

Here’s what to do if you’re thinking about buying or selling in 2015.

Sellers, forget bidding wars. In most markets you still have leverage, but less than you did. In the summer of 2013 about 20% of homes were selling at a premium to original list; this fall, 11% are, the National Association of Realtors reported. The takeaway: “You have to price your house right,” says Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson. ­Review recent comps and list within 5% to allow for counteroffers.

Buyers, save interest. While the 30-year fixed is not expected to hit 5% until later in the year, a winter move will likely nab the lowest rates. Meanwhile, the 15-year mortgage, now at 3.3%, should stay under 4% for most of 2015—and can be a good call if you’re looking to pay off the house before retirement.

Owners, renovate. Especially if you have a low-rate mortgage, “it can be a lot cheaper to remodel to age in place than move,” says Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Rates on home-equity loans and lines of credit are still “in shouting distance of record lows,” says Keith Gum­binger of mortgage data service HSH.com. While loans are pricier than HELOCs—possibly 6.5% vs. 5.5% by year’s end—the fixed-rate HEL can be a safer bet in a rising rate climate.

Read More on Home Buying and Selling in Money 101:

How Much House Can I Afford?
What Renovations Will Pay Off When I Sell?
How Do I Get the Best Rate on a Mortgage?

Read next: The World’s 10 Most Expensive Houses—and Who Owns Them

MONEY Ask the Expert

Home Insurance Policies to Skip

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I just bought an $89-per-year insurance policy for our sewer pipe. My wife says these kinds of policies (of which I have quite a few) are a waste of money. What do you say?

A: Well, if your sewer pipe cracks over the next 12 months, that’s money well spent. With tens of thousands in excavation, repair, and cleanup bills, you’ll be glad you get paid back for whatever portion of the expense the policy covers (perhaps $5,000).

Of course, it’s unlikely that the pipe under your front lawn will crack this year, in which case you won’t collect anything on your policy except perhaps some peace of mind. Now, $89 certainly isn’t a big outlay if it helps you sleep at night, but consider all of the similar insurance plans and extended warranties you can buy for just about every appliance, electronic gadget, and piece of home equipment you ever purchase.

Those can add up to many hundreds of dollars spent annually on policies that, frankly, have dubious value because of likely coverage restrictions in the fine print, because you may not remember exactly what policies you’ve bought or where the paperwork is if something does happen to a covered product, and because if the company providing the policy goes belly-up, your insurance goes with it.

“As a general rule, I’d advise against buying any sort of extended warranty or product insurance policy,” says Linda Sherry, a director at Consumer Action, a national nonprofit advocacy group based in San Francisco. Those plans are huge profit centers for the retailers, which often pay large commissions to the salesmen who pressure you so hard to buy them.

Most products come with a one-year warranty anyway—and that’s often doubled by the credit card you buy it with (check your card policy). So the extended warranty you buy from an appliance retailer, for example, could be duplicative.

Besides, the point of insurance should be to protect you from financially catastrophic expenses like a house fire, car accident, or health emergency. Smaller emergency costs, such as replacing a section of sewer pipe, a water heater, or a big screen TV, are hopefully the sorts of expenses that you could cover by other means, such as shifting funds from your contingency savings.

If you’re still tempted to pay for certain extended warranty coverage, perhaps because it includes an annual maintenance visit (as with oil-furnace coverage) or free tech help (as with some computer plans), just make sure the price of the annual policy is no more than 10% of the purchase price of the covered product, says Sherry. “Anything higher is overpriced.”

MONEY

6 Simple Projects To Make Your Home More Retirement-Friendly

open kitchen with multi-level island
James Brey—Getty Images

Hoping to stay in your house for the long haul? These manageable changes will make your place more comfortable now—and for years to come.

Houses—especially prewar houses—can be tough places to navigate as you get older. Steep stairs, deep tubs, and narrow doorways, once just petty annoyances, can become serious obstacles.

Remodeling your home to remove those impediments is a major undertaking, likely to cost tens of thousands of dollars, says Louis Tenenbaum, an independent living strategist based in Potomac, Md. Plus, by the time these changes become a necessity, you probably won’t want to get involved in an expensive and inconvenient construction project.

A smarter strategy? Tackle these jobs early on, when you’re already planning a renovation. Whether you’re updating a fixer-upper, expanding a starter home for a growing family, or remodeling for your empty-nest years, making a few simple design choices now will help you live comfortably in your home for decades to come. Even better: Most will add little or nothing to the cost of your current project.

Making your home more retirement-friendly doesn’t have to mean sacrificing good looks. “We’re not talking about grab bars in the shower or a ramp by the front door,” says Columbus, Ohio, contractor Bill Owens, a National Association of Home Builders’ expert in so-called universal design. “The idea of universal design is that good design is people-centered and works for all ages and body types,” he says. Sought-after features like spacious bathrooms, farmhouse-table style kitchen islands, and freezer-on-the-bottom refrigerators are all examples of universal design.

Make it clear to your project designer and contractor that universal design is a priority whenever you renovate. Doing so will not only help you age-in-place gracefully, but will also increase the value of your home by making it more attractive and comfortable, says home designer and builder Mark Mackmiller, of Eden Prairie, Minn.

Ready to get started? Here are six changes to consider, as well as an estimate of what they’ll add to the total cost of your renovation project.

Open Floorplans

Removing walls between the living and dining rooms, kitchen, family room, and/or entry halls makes a house feel bigger, more modern, and more comfortable—and makes the space easier to negotiate in old age.

Cost: $3,000 to $5,000 per removed wall

Curb-Free Showers

Visit any high-end resort or flip through a glossy design magazine and you’ll notice that every shower has glass doors that go all the way to the floor, with no lip to step over. Aside from being a sleek and sophisticated look, this eliminates a major tripping hazard.

Cost: $500 to $1,000 for lowered plumbing and shower floor

Multiple Height Counters

When you redo the kitchen, include some counters at standard height (36 inches), some at breakfast bar height (42 inches), and some at table height (30 inches) with knee space for sitting. Having a range of counters will give you more options for prepping or cooking while standing or seated, all without requiring that you to bend over.

Cost: Nothing more than what you’re already spending on the renovation

Wide Doorways

Anytime you’re reconfiguring doorways, make sure the new openings are at least 32 inches wide. This makes your home feel more spacious, and will allow for wheelchair access should you ever need it later.

Cost: $50 to $400 per door

Lever-Style Doorknobs

Just as lever-style faucets have become the norm for kitchens and showers because they’re attractive and easy to operate, lever doorknobs are more ergonomic than standard round versions. They’re easier to grab and manipulate if you’re carrying a load of groceries or laundry—or if you’re aging in place.

Cost: No additional cost.

High Outlets

Left to their own devices, most electricians will install new outlets at 12 to 18 inches off the floor. But that requires bending over every time you need to plug in the vacuum. Ask for outlets 24 inches high instead, and you’ll make your house easier to use now, when you get older, and if you’re ever fighting a bad back.

Cost: No added cost.

 

MONEY Investing

6 Ways Newbie Landlords Can Protect Against Bad Tenants

Hoarder apartment
Alamy

Skip the hassle of dealing with deadbeat renters by adding these steps to your screening process.

One of the main components of being a successful real estate investor is finding good, qualified renters for your properties. There are few things more frustrating and cash flow draining than a renter who is always late on paying their bills or worse, a renter who never makes their payments.

Here are six easy tips for you to follow to protect yourself against deadbeat renters.

1. Before you rent your property, come up with a “perfect renter” profile.

To do this, first list the main selling points of your house from a renter’s point of view. What does the perfect renter do for a living? Do they have children? What would be the renter’s interests? Once you have your avatar built, then you can actively start marketing your property to the perfect client.

For example, if the main selling point of your house its school district, then you might want to let the local PTA group of the grade school, middle school, and high school know that your house is on the rental market. You might also want to put up flyers of your house on the school’s community board.

2. Perform background checks.

This might seem like a very logical thing to do, but you would be surprised at how many landlords never ask the prospective tenant for a background check. The one I use is Tenant Background Search. This service provides me with an eviction report, FICA score, and nationwide criminal background report — and the best part is that it costs around $25 per report.

3. Have a real estate attorney provide you with all legal documents.

Don’t be cheap and buy your rental agreements off the internet at one of these do it yourself websites. Many of these agreements have loopholes that allow the renter too much wiggle room. As my father always told me, “Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.”

Related: 6 Reasons Landlords Should Thank Their Tenants This Holiday Season

To prepare for the worse, you should go into the agreement with the understanding that you might have to take legal action against the renter — so wouldn’t you feel more at ease knowing that your attorney provided the legal agreement?

4. Be upfront and honest with the renters before they rent.

I have one rental property here in Orlando that has joust windows. Now, these windows give the house a lot of character, and it does give the house a lot of appeal; however, these windows are not air tight, and the electricity bill can be quite expensive, especially in the summer months. I have always been very upfront with all the renters, and I even put this warning in the contractual agreement.

What is interesting is that I have had only one person who decided not to rent the house because of this language, and not one renter in the past 8 years has tried to get out of the rental agreement early due to the high monthly upkeep. On the flip side, the house next door has the same joust windows, and that house always seems to have a “for rent” sign in the yard. As a landlord it is always the best practice to be fair and upfront when dealing with your tenants.

5. Include routine maintenance in the monthly rental amount.

I had to learn this the hard way by having to re-sod the front yard to one of my houses because the tenants never cut the grass, and the yard was overrun with weeds. There is nothing that will hurt the value of a house more than poor curb appeal.

Related: Rent Payment Plans Can Benefit Both Tenant & Landlord: Here’s Why

To protect your investment, include the upkeep of the yard, spraying of weeds, trash removal service, etc. in the monthly amount. This way, you can pay to have someone other than the renter provide these services, and you can make sure they are done properly.

6. Make sure the renters provide their own insurance.

It is always a good idea to put in the agreement that the renters must provide their own renter’s insurance. This way, if something unfortunate happens, it does not back up on you. I also think it is a good idea to have the rental property or properties set up in an LLC; this way, your personal assets are protected should something happen unexpectedly at your rental property. If your accountant tells you an LLC is not advantageous for you, then I would get a million or two million dollar umbrella policy for extra protection.

Being a landlord is really not that hard — just be careful and treat people fairly. Word of mouth is the best marketing, and people want to rent from good landlords.

Read more from The Bigger Pockets Blog:
-7 Smart Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Property Inspection
-Offering Rent Specials to Tenants Can Be a Costly Mistake: Here’s Why
-11 Things Landlords Should Be Doing Every Year…But Probably Aren’t

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Negotiate the Best Price From a Home-Improvement Contractor

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Can I negotiate the cost of a home improvement project? I feel like these guys all really want my business, but I don’t want to anger anyone by suggesting they lower their bids.

A: Yes, you can negotiate with a contractor; the trick is doing it without making it feel like a negotiation. Anytime you’re haggling over someone’s work (versus a mass-produced product like a car or flat-screen television), look for a way to ask for a lower price without any suggestion of insult. The last thing you want is an angry contractor looking for ways to cut corners on your project to make it come in at what he thinks is an unjustly low price.

Here are three effective techniques you can use:

1. Announce that you’re getting multiple bids. One of the major advantages to getting three or more bids for any significant (say, more than $5,000) home project is that you can tell the prospective contractors, honestly, that you’re doing so. That gets the message across that a) you’re concerned about the price, b) he’s competing with other contractors for your job, and c) he’d better sharpen his pencil and give you the best possible number he can. This is not to say that you should hire the contractor with the lowest bid. Hire the one whose work and reputation are the best. But the process of competing for your business will almost certainly drive down everyone’s price.

2. Ask him to “value engineer” the plans. Rather than flat-out asking your contractor if he will lower his price to win your business, which could backfire, ask for his advice on how you can rein in the cost of your plans. If his bid is $30,000 and you’re trying to keep the project to $25,000, for example, tell him so, and ask him if he can recommend any changes that could bring the cost in line. Maybe he will suggest a similar-looking-yet-more-affordable tile for your new master bathroom or a different layout that keeps the fixtures where they are and therefore slashes the plumbing costs. An open conversation about where to scale back doesn’t run the risk of making him mad—in fact, it shows that you value his opinion. And it further drives home the message that your budget is tight, possibly leading him to make other money-saving suggestions elsewhere.

3. See if you can contribute some sweat equity. If you’re handy and have the time, you might be able to knock off a portion of the project yourself. In that case you can ask the contractor to reduce his price accordingly. If you have a good hand for painting, for example, that’s a perfect project to tackle yourself. You could also do some basic demolition (assuming you have the know-how and gear to do it safely), excavation work (for small projects that don’t require power earth-moving equipment), or landscaping around the finished job. Any of these could easily slash hundreds or thousands of dollars off the project price.

 

MONEY mortgages

Here Come Cheap Mortgages for Millennials. Should We Worry?

young couple admiring their new home
Justin Horrocks—Getty Images

The federal agencies that guarantee most mortgages are launching new loan programs that require only 3% down payments for first-time buyers. Is this the start of financial crisis redux?  

According to new research from Trulia, in metro areas teeming with millennials, such as Austin, Honolulu, New York, and San Diego, more than two-thirds of the homes for sale are out of reach for the typical millennial household.

That goes a long way to explaining why first-time homebuyers have recently accounted for about one-third of homes sales, according to the National Association of Realtors, down from a historic norm of about 40%. And it should concern you even if you’re not a millennial or related to one: A shortage of first-time buyers makes it harder for households that want to trade up to find potential buyers; and spending by homeowners for homes and housing-related services accounts for about 15% of GDP.

Now the federal government appears intent on reversing the trend — or at least on easing the pain of the still-sluggish housing industry.

Trulia’s dire analysis assumes that buyers need to make a 20% down payment — a high hurdle for anyone, let along a younger adult. But Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government agencies that guarantee the vast majority of mortgages, this week launched new loan options that will require down payments of as little as 3% for first-time buyers (and, in limited instances, refinancers as well). Fannie’s program will be live next week; Freddie’s, which will be available to repeat buyers as well, will launch in early spring.

Before you get all “Isn’t that the sort of lax standard that fueled the financial crisis!?”, it’s important to realize significant differences between now and then.

The only deals that will qualify for the 3%-down programs are plain-vanilla 30-year fixed-rate loans. No adjustable-rate deals, no teaser-rate come-ons, and, lordy, no interest-only payment options. And flippers are not welcome; the home must be the borrower’s principal residence.

Both Fannie Mae’s MyCommunityMortgage and Freddie Mac’s Home Possible Mortgage program are aimed at moderate-income households. For example, to qualify for Fannie Mae’s program, household income must typically be below the area median. Income limits are relaxed a bit in some high cost areas, such as the State of California (up to 140% of the local median) and pricey counties in New York (165% of the median).

That said, lenders will be allowed to extend these loans to borrowers with credit scores as low as 620. That’s even lower than the average 661 FICO credit score for Federal Housing Administration-insured loan applications that were turned down in October, according to mortgage data firm Ellie Mae. (The average FICO credit score for FHA approved loans was 683.)

Like FHA-insured loans, the new 3% mortgages offered by Fannie and Freddie will require home buyers have private mortgage insurance (PMI). That can add significantly to mortgage costs.

For example, a $300,000 home purchased with a 3.5% fixed rate loan and a 3% down payment would have monthly principal and interest charges of about $1,300 a month. The PMI adds another $240 or so to the monthly cost; that’s nearly 20% of the base monthly mortgage amount. (You can estimate the bite of PMI using Zillow’s Mortgage Calculator.)

But one significant advantage the new Fannie/Freddie loan programs have over the FHA program is that they will allow homeowners to cancel their PMI once their home equity reaches at least 20%. Beginning in 2013, the annual insurance charge on FHA-insured loans, currently 1.35% of the loan balance, can never be cancelled regardless of whether the borrower has more than 20% equity.

 

MONEY housing

Fannie, Freddie Announce Plans to Back 3% Down-Payment Mortgages

According to officials with the companies the move is designed to help those with lower income and good credit to afford homes.

MONEY Retirement

Don’t Choose These 10 Cities If You Want to Retire Comfortably

These spots fall short when it comes to housing costs, taxes, health care, and activities.

Retirement is a time to enjoy hobbies, move a little slower in daily life, travel, and after decades of hard work, just rest. All of which is tough if you pick the wrong retirement city. (See also: 10 Unexpected Things You Should Consider When Picking Where You Retire)

When looking at locations, you’ll generally want to weigh six categories: cost of living, housing costs, taxes, the health care system, activities for seniors, and, yes, the weather. And with those in mind, you’ll likely want to steer clear of these 10 cities that fall short in one or two or more of those categories.

 

  • 10. Providence, RI

    Providence Performing Arts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, USA.
    Sean Pavone—Alamy

    Across numerous rating scales out there, Providence almost always appears at the top of the worst lists. This is due to a high cost of living, high tax rates, and one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation (currently at a rate of 10% for the city and 3rd highest for the entire state.) If you are hoping to supplement your income or kill some boredom during your retired years, finding a part-time job in Providence may be impossible.

  • 9. Washington, D.C.

    Georgetown, Washington, DC
    Glowimages—Getty Images

    In addition to brutally cold winters, economics continues to be a problem for our nation’s capital, with the numbers of those under the poverty line increasing — despite a rise in median income. With seniors living on a fixed income, the high cost of real estate can also cause concern.

  • 8. Philadelphia, PA

    House of James Madison on Spruce Street.
    Franz Marc Frei—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

    While it’s not as expensive to live in as New York City, there are some issues that may keep the 65 and older crowd away from the city of brotherly love. A higher-than-average sales tax and poor air quality may be of concern to retirees. Throw in the high rate of crime (it ranks 5th nationwide), and you have a few good reasons to shop around for your retirement abode.

  • 7. Chicago, IL

    El train crossing North Clark Street, The Loop, Chicago, Illinois, United States of America, North America
    Amanda Hall—Getty Images/Robert Harding Worl

    Illinois as a whole gets a low approval rating from its own residents, with one in four saying the state is the worst place to live. Why? It could possibly be because of the high income tax hikes and lower bond rates, both signs of a troubled economy. Add in the fact that many Chicago residents have decided to leave the city altogether, making Chi-town the 6th most-abandoned large city in the U.S. and it’s a less appealing option to live out the rest of your years.

  • 6. New York, NY

    Brownstone townhouses, Brooklyn, New York City
    Antenna—Getty Images

    The Big Apple requires a big budget, as real estate is pricey and hard to afford on a fixed income. By taking your current retirement budget and adjusting it to the high cost of living for any of the more popular parts of NYC via this calculator, you can see that the real estate isn’t the only thing that will cost you. Even retirees who own their own homes will feel the pinch of higher utility bills and transportation fees.

  • 5. Bridgeport, CT

    Bridgeport, CT
    iStock

    High taxes are a major concern for retirees, and some states tax retirement income much more than other states. (Florida’s low rate is what makes it one of the most desirable states for retirees, for example.) But Connecticut is one of those states that taxes both Social Security and pension income. Bridgeport, more specifically, has expensive housing costs and even more expensive health care costs. Assisted living facilities in this area of the country can charge over over $400 a day — almost twice the national average for long-term care, which will deplete your nest egg very quickly should you require assistance at some point.

  • 4. Louisville, KY

    Louisville, KY
    GoToLouisville

    The low cost of living, modest housing costs, and picturesque mountains may make it appear to be a good choice for retirement, but Louisville has been named as the “worst place for allergy sufferers to live,” making it an easy destination to avoid by retirees with respiratory or other health issues.

  • 3. Oklahoma City, OK

    Downtown Oklahoma City skyline, Oklahoma.
    Healthcare is a concern for all seniors, and it will be a real concern if you retire to Oklahoma, which ranks among one of the worst in the country for health care (trailed only by West Virginia). Crime is also a problem here, with the city ranking 7th in the nation for crime among large cities. Gary Cralle—Getty Images

    Healthcare is a concern for all seniors, and it will be a real concern if you retire to Oklahoma, which ranks among one of the worst in the country for health care (trailed only by West Virginia). Crime is also a problem here, with the city ranking 7th in the nation for crime among large cities.

  • 2. Honolulu, HI

    Honolulu, HI
    iStock

    While the location is beautiful and the weather gorgeous year round, Honolulu will require you to have quite a large nest egg. According to a recent study done by WalletHub, cost of living in the city are among the highest in the country. It’s also very expensive to travel to and from Hawaii, making family gatherings more difficult.

  • 1. San Francisco, CA

    San Francisco, CA
    Scott Chernis

    The weather is very mild — it doesn’t get hot in the summer and winters are usually rainy. However, the cost of housing in this area is so high that most retirees are not going to be able to find it within their budget. Retirement income is taxed heavily in the state of California, unlike many other states. The cost of living is also very high. In fact, Kiplinger ranked California as the worst state to retire.

     

    Read more articles from Wise Bread:

    -The Five Types of People Who Never Retire (Are You One of Them?)
    Book review: Cash-Rich Retirement
    -Tiny Nestegg? Retire abroad!

MONEY home prices

Brooklyn Is Now the Least Affordable Housing Market in the Country

Brooklyn brownstones
Jay Lazarin—Getty Images

Big surprise.

GENTRIFICATION, noun.

The process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents

- Merriam-Webster

Poor hipsters. In the process of turning Brooklyn into a hive of artisanal mustache boutiques and fixie-bike shops, they may have priced themselves out of the neighborhood. According to a recent study by RealtyTrac, which analyzed the affordability of 475 counties through October 2014, Kings County—also known as Brooklyn—was the least affordable in the nation.

The study gauges affordability by measuring the percentage of the locality’s median monthly household income that is required to make monthly payments on a median-priced home in the area.

When RealtyTrac ran the nation-wide numbers in October, payments on a median-priced home required 26% of the average household income. In Brooklyn, by contrast, where the median home costs $615,000 and the median household brings in only $46,960, home payments take up about 98% of a regular family’s wages. That’s less affordable than Manhattan — and even than San Francisco, where half of all homes sell for $1 million or more.

In fact, the typical homebuyer has been priced out of the borough’s real estate for longer than you might have thought. RealtyTrac’s report also measures affordability between January 2000 and October 2014. Over that 14-year period, home payments on a median-priced house still would have cost the typical family 95% of their income. Earlier this year, RealtyTrac found Brooklyn was also one of the most expensive places for young people looking to rent.

Why has BKLN gotten so expensive? The answer is probably a mixture of stagnant wages, investor interest, and an influx of more affluent residents. “Incomes have not grown nearly as fast as home prices” in the regions where affordability declined, said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, in an interview with Bloomberg. “That disconnected home-price growth has been driven by investors and other cash buyers who aren’t as constrained by income.”

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