MONEY real estate

Obama Cuts Mortgage Insurance Premiums to Help Low-Income Home Buyers

aerial view of subdivision
David Sucsy

The changes will save borrowers an average of nearly $1,000 a year.

The White House announced on Wednesday plans to reduce government mortgage insurance premiums in an effort to make homeownership more affordable for low-income buyers. President Obama is scheduled to talk about the policy in a speech Thursday in Phoenix, Arizona.

In the announcement, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said the Federal Housing Administration would slash insurance fees by more than a third, from 1.35% of the loan amount down to .85 percent. The FHA had a 30% share of the mortgage insurance market in the third quarter of 2014, according to Bloomberg.

Mortgage insurance, required of FHA borrowers, is meant to protect the lenders in case of default by allowing them to recoup some of their losses.

Over the next three years, the FHA projects the rate drop will allow 2 million borrowers to save an average of $900 a year when they purchase or refinance a home. The agency also estimates these savings will encourage 250,000 first-time buyers to enter the market.

The move marks a trend of recent policy changes meant to help low-income Americans get into the housing market. In December, mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced that certain first-time buyers could now qualify for a loan with a down payment of just 3 percent of the home’s value.

Taken together, today’s announcement and lower down payment requirements should make the housing market far friendlier for the economically disadvantaged. However, David Stevens, CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association, told CNBC that the effect of the new policy may not spur an especially large increase in home buying.

“I think the marginal impact on sales will be small because potential buyers make the decision to purchase based on trigger events, such as a new job, marriage, kids, etc,” Stevens told the network. “Changes in affordability only impact how much home they can buy.”

While Democrats have been supportive of policies that aid low-income and new homebuyers, Republicans are concerned that lower insurance premiums could put the government at risk if borrowers once again default in large numbers. The FHA has previously required billions in taxpayer assistance, and while the agency is no longer losing money, its capital requirements will not meet the legal limit until 2016.

Find more answers to your home-buying questions in Money 101:
What mortgage is right for me?
How to I get the best rate on a mortgage?
What are the steps in a home purchase?

MONEY buying a home

Sound Advice for Home-Buyers…From a TV Detective

Telly Savalas of the TV series 'Kojak.'
Photoshot Telly Savalas in "Kojak."

The NYPD's legendary Theo Kojak has some wise words for a young couple ready to purchase their first home.

Terri and David came in for a meeting with me. They were expecting a baby and wanted to buy a house.

“I’m a contractor,” David said. “I do painting.” Terri was an attorney with a law firm. Together they made about $150,000.

They had their eye on a $500,000 house, and wanted to make a down payment of 5%, or $25,000. Their question for me: “How should we make the down payment?”

David, who had $30,000 stashed in a safe deposit box, wanted to use that cash for the down payment. Terri wasn’t quite sure that was a good idea. Terri hugged her chair nervously.

Their basic problem was becoming clear: David worked in a business that can be largely cash. Terri liked to follow rules. She wanted to know whether showing up at the closing with a pile of $100 bills would get them into trouble later.

It’s at times like this that you need to remember Telly Savalas. That’s right, the actor who played the detective Kojak in the 1970s TV series of that name. He was famous for sucking on a lollipop and saying, “Who loves ya, baby?

“You’re asking the wrong question,” I said to them.

I had their attention.

“What both of you should be worried about is that you can’t comfortably afford this house,” I said. “I don’t care where the down payment is currently located. Let me be clear: You’re buying too much house.”

“But the mortgage guy said that we could swing it,” said David. “I should be able to replace the cash in a year. I’ve calculated it all out and we can do it before the baby arrives.”

This is when we need Telly Savalas.

The answer to the question “Who loves ya baby?” is not “your mortgage broker” or “your realtor.”

This is a lesson I learned the hard way.

Before I started working as a financial planner, I didn’t know what I know today. I made a big mistake.

I bought a house I couldn’t afford. That’s not what I intended to do. It’s just that I was listening to the wrong people and not to Telly Savalas.

I focused on how much mortgage a bank would lend me. Here’s what my experience taught: The bankers don’t love me. They don’t give a rip about me. All they care about is making the most money for themselves. They got their money, but I was miserable.

I made the decision in a month or two and locked myself into the expenses for years to come.

In retrospect, this was predictable. A good rule of thumb is that a home is out of your price range if it costs more than two or two-and-a-half times your annual income. The house I bought was way over this range of affordability.

Housing costs soaked up my disposable income and made it tough to save. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, I couldn’t afford a decent vacation. When an emergency arose, I didn’t have adequate funds. So I felt the stress of both the emergency and scrambling to pay for the emergency.

All this stress was unnecessary.

If I did it right, I would have bought a condo that cost less than 2.5 times my annual income — say, $150,000 instead of the $200,000 I spent. And I would have saved up and made a 20% down payment, not the 10% payment I made.

Yes, the location wouldn’t have been as nice. And I wouldn’t have had an extra half-bath and an icemaker, both of which I enjoyed having — but which I didn’t really need.

Mortgage people and realtors will tell you there isn’t much of a difference. Let’s run some numbers, though: what I did, and what I should have done.

What I did What I should have done
Home price $200,000 $150,000
Down payment 20,000 30,000
Monthly mortgage and tax payments 1,400 860
Monthly assessment 140 110
Monthly utilities 95 75
Monthly maintenance 165 125
Total monthly cost $1,800 $1,170

Spending $1,170 a month on housing would have been fine. Spending $1,800 made me feel “house poor.” It wasn’t the mortgage. It was everything else.

My message to Terri and David: David, report your income. Then, Terri, it doesn’t matter if the money is stored in a savings account, safe deposit box, or plastic baggie in the basement freezer. Don’t worry about it. And for the question that you didn’t ask: When buying a house, remember who loves ya, baby!

———-

Bridget Sullivan Mermel helps clients throughout the country with her comprehensive fee-only financial planning firm based in Chicago. She’s the author of the upcoming book More Money, More Meaning. Both a certified public accountant and a certified financial planner, she specializes in helping clients lower their tax burden with tax-smart investing.

MONEY Rentals

US Renters Spent $441 Billion on Rent Last Year

According to Zillow, college kids, newlyweds and all other renters around the country paid a grand total of $441 billion for rent in 2014, up 4.9% from the year before.

MONEY Housing Market

The Hottest Homes of 2014

You clicked on these 15 homes—from a sleek penthouse to a wacky mushroom house—more than any others.

Which homes piqued the most curiosity in 2014? We went door-to-door, virtually, and scoured realtor.com® data to figure out which homes were the most-clicked over the past year. We limited our list to show only homes that are currently on the market. The resulting list shows us exactly what you want to see when curiosity strikes.

This article was originally published on realtor.com.

  • Connecticut Castle

    Rank: 1
    Address: 450 Brickyard Rd, Woodstock, CT
    Price: $45 million
    Choice quote: Curbed memorably called it a “Ludicrous Nightmare Castle.”

  • Mushroom House

    Rank: 2
    Address: 142 Park Rd, Perinton, NY
    Price: $729,000
    Choice quote: On the market since April 2013, the Mushroom House was described byThe Wall Street Journal as “composed of several 80-ton concrete pods and built partially into the side of a hill.”

  • Palladian Estate

    Rank: 3
    Address: 172 Bliss Canyon Rd, Bradbury, CA
    Price: $68.8 million
    Choice quote: The listing describes this home that’s been on the market for almost three years as a “Palladian Masterpiece” and also states, “Nothing compares.”

  • Brick Manse

    Rank: 4
    Address: 5200 Moore Rd, Suwanee, GA
    Price: $13.995 million
    Choice quote: From the listing: “Underground tunnel connects detached garages with main house.”

  • Texas Chateau

    Rank: 5
    Address: 4939 Manson Ct, Dallas, TX
    Price: $29.995 million
    Choice quote: Candy’s Dirt opines, “Any Dallas socialite would kill to have one of the kid’s rooms in this house.”

  • Sprawling Southern

    Rank: 6
    Address: 7 Montagel Way, Birmingham, AL
    Price: $13.9 million
    Choice quote: According to the listing, it’s quite simply “America’s largest home.”

  • Stately Fixer-Upper

    Rank: 7
    Address: 809 N Jefferson St, Huntington, IN
    Price: $179,900
    Choice quote: The historic Purviance House “will require much renovation as there is currently no HVAC, plumbing, electrical, kitchen or baths.”

  • Manhattan Skybox

    Rank: 8
    Address: 20 W 53rd St, New York City, NY
    Price: $60 million
    Choice quote: This duplex atop the Baccarat Hotel and Residences offers “panoramic 360-degree views of iconic NYC landmarks.”

  • Beverly Hills Villa

    Rank: 9
    Address: 9904 Kip Dr, Beverly Hills, CA
    Price: $39.995 million
    Choice quote: Because the “main house comprises 10 bedrooms [and] 22 baths,” you won’t be squeezed for space.

  • Mountain Views

    Rank: 10
    Address: 8272 E Left Hand Fork Hobble Crk N, Springville, UT
    Price: $35 million
    Choice quote: On the market since July 2012, this mansion has a “2-lane bowling alley [and] indoor shooting range.”

  • Tuscany in the Desert

    Rank: 11
    Address: 10696 E Wingspan Way, Scottsdale, AZ
    Price: $32 million
    Choice quote: The most expensive listing in Arizona “combine[s] opulence and sophistication without overindulgence.”

  • Beach Retreat

    Rank: 12
    Address: 5800 N Bay Rd, Miami Beach, FL
    Price: $40 million
    Choice quote: Formerly owned by Jennifer Lopez, this mansion is “a sophisticated residence with impeccable style.”

  • Southern Belle

    Rank: 13
    Address: 490 W Paces Ferry Rd NW, Atlanta, GA
    Price: $15.9 million
    Choice quote: The listing doesn’t skimp on hyperbole: “Buckhead’s most palatial estate on Atlanta’s most prestigious street.”

  • Sweet in SoCal

    Rank: 14
    Address: 5444 Valerio Trl, San Diego, CA
    Price: $1.595 million
    Choice quote: While it’s not a multimillion-dollar mansion, this SoCal home “features charming curbside appeal, ideal privacy and a functional floor plan.”

  • New Orleans Classic

    Rank: 15
    Address: 1415 3rd St, New Orleans, LA
    Price: $7.999 million
    Choice quote: Built in 1859, the Robinson-Jordan Mansion “is reputed to be the first house with indoor plumbing in the city.”

MONEY home prices

What to Expect From the Housing Market in 2015

aerial view of subdivision
David Sucsy

Consumers think 2015 will be a better year than 2014, especially for selling a home. But the recovery faces an uphill climb.

What does 2015 have in store for the housing market? Nine years after the housing bubble peaked and three years after home prices bottomed, the boom and bust still cast a long shadow. None of the five measures we track in our Housing Barometer is back to normal yet, though three are getting close. The rebound effect drove the recovery after the bust but is now fading. Prices are no longer significantly undervalued and investor demand is falling. Ideally, strong economic and demographic fundamentals like job growth and household formation would take up the slack. But the virtuous cycle of gains in jobs and housing is relatively weak, and that will slow the recovery in 2015. All the same, consumers are optimistic, according to our survey of 2,008 American adults conducted November 6-10, 2014.

Consumers Expect 2015 to Be Better, Especially for Selling a Home

Consumers are as optimistic about the housing market as at any point since the recovery started. Nearly three-quarters — 74% — of respondents agreed that home ownership was part of achieving their personal American Dream, the same level as in our 2013 Q4 survey and slightly above the levels of the three previous years. For young adults, the dream has revived: 78% of 18-34 year-olds answered yes to our American Dream question, up from 73% in 2013 Q4 and a low of 65% in 2011 Q3.

AmericanDream

 

Furthermore, 93% of young renters plan to buy a home someday. That’s unchanged from 2012 Q4 despite rising home prices and worsening affordability.

Which real estate activities do consumers think will improve in 2015? All of them – but especially selling. Fully 36% said 2015 will be much or a little better than 2014 for selling a home. Just 16% said 2015 will be much or a little worse, a difference of 20 percentage points. The rest of the respondents said 2015 would be neither better nor worse, or weren’t sure. More consumers said 2015 will be better than 2014 for buying too. But the margin over those who said 2015 will be worse was not as wide.

BetterorWorse

 

Despite this optimism, barriers remain to homeownership. Saving for a down payment is still the highest hurdle, as it was last year, followed by poor credit and qualifying for a mortgage. Not having a stable job has become considerably less of an obstacle, dropping to 24% this year compared with 36% last year thanks to the recovering job market. But affordability has become a bigger obstacle. Some 32% of respondents cited rising home prices, compared with 22% last year.

BiggestObstacle

 

Housing Recovery in 2015: Rebound Effect to Fade Before Fundamentals Can Take Over

Different engines power each stage of the housing recovery. During the early years—roughly 2012 to 2014 – the rebound effect drove the recovery. Investors and other buyers scooped up undervalued homes and took advantage of foreclosures and short sales, boosting overall sales volumes. Local markets hit hardest in the housing bust posted the largest price rebounds. Now, though, the rebound effect is fading. Price levels and price changes are both approaching normal, foreclosure inventories are dwindling, and investors are pulling back. This is inevitable as the market improves and therefore shifts to slower, more sustainable price increases and a healthier mix of home sales.

So what replaces the rebound effect in the next stage of the housing recovery? The market increasingly depends on fundamentals such as job growth, rising incomes, and more household formation. But here’s the hitch: These fundamental drivers of supply and demand haven’t returned to full strength. They aren’t able to fully take the reins from the rebound effect. Importantly, the share of young adults with jobs is still less than halfway back to normal, many young adults are still living with their parents, and income growth is sluggish. This points to a tricky handoff, and means housing activity in 2015 might disappoint by some measures, though the rental market will remain vigorous.

Here’s what we expect:

  • Price gains slow, but affordability worsens. Price gains slowed in 2014 and we’ll see more of the same in 2015. In October 2014, prices increased4% year-over-year, down from 10.6% in October 2013. The slowdown has been especially sharp in metros that had a severe housing bust followed by a big rebound. Now, prices nationwide are just 3% undervalued relative to fundamentals. That leaves fewer bargains and scant room for prices to rise without becoming overvalued. What’s more, with consumers expecting 2015 to be a better year to sell than 2014, more homes should come onto the market, cooling prices further. Nevertheless, despite slowing price gains,home-buying affordability will worsen in 2015 for two reasons. First, even these smaller price increases will almost surely outpace income growth. In 2013, incomes rose just 1.8% year-over-year in nominal terms, and a negligible 0.3% after adjusting for inflation. Second, the strengthening economy and the Fed’s response should push up mortgage rates.
  • The rental market will keep burning bright. Next year will see strong rental demand and lots of new supply. The demand will come from young people leaving homes belonging to parents or roommates and renting their own places. Until now, they’ve been slow to leave the nest. But the 2014 job gains for 25-34 year-olds should lead to the rise in household formation we’ve been waiting years for. At the same time, the 2014 apartment construction boom will mean more supply in 2015 since multi-unit buildings take about a year to build. Will rent gains slow? Probably – provided that this new supply keeps up with formation of renter households. This surge of renters will probably cause the homeownership rate to fall. To be sure, the ranks of homeowners will probably rise. But an even larger number of young adults will enter the housing market as renters.
  • Single-family starts and new home sales could disappoint. While apartment construction is breaking records, single-family housing starts and new home sales are still not much better than half of normal levels. They’ll improve in 2015, but not as much as we’d like. Our consumer survey suggests more people will try to sell existing homes. That would add to the supply on the market and possibly reduce demand for new homes. Also, the strongest source of housing demand will be young people getting jobs and forming households. But they’ll be moving into rentals and saving for a down payment rather than buying homes right away. Finally, the vacancy rate for single-family homes is still near its recession high, which discourages new construction. The apartment construction boom shows that where there’s demand, builders will build. But buyer demand for single-family homes simply hasn’t recovered enough to support near-normal levels of single-family starts or new home sales.

If these predictions for 2015 sound similar to our predictions for 2014, you’re right. As the rebound effect fades and fundamentals take over, the recovery gets slower and the market starts to look more similar from one year to the next. But there’s good news here. Even though the recovery remains unfinished, the housing market is becoming more stable and more certain for buyers, sellers, and renters.

Markets to Watch in 2015

As the rebound effect fades, our 10 markets to watch have strong fundamentals for housing activity. These include solid job growth, which fuels housing demand, and a low vacancy rate, which spurs construction. We gave a few extra points to markets with a higher share of millennials. These young adults are getting back to work and that will drive household formation and rental demand. We didn’t include markets where prices looked at least 5% overvalued in our latest Bubble Watch report. Here are our markets to watch, in alphabetical order:

  1. Boston, MA
  2. Dallas, TX
  3. Fresno, CA
  4. Middlesex County, MA
  5. Nashville, TN
  6. New York, NY-NJ
  7. Raleigh, NC
  8. Salt Lake City, UT
  9. San Diego, CA
  10. Seattle, WA

MarketstoWatch1

 

These markets are spread across the country: Boston, Middlesex County (just west of Boston), and New York in the Northeast; Dallas, Nashville, and Raleigh in the South (the Census considers Texas part of the South); and Fresno, Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Seattle in the West. No Midwestern metros make the list because they generally have slower job growth and higher vacancy rates than other markets, even though many are quite affordable and prices are rebounding.

In 2015, more markets will settle back into their long-term housing patterns. Fast-growing markets that boomed last decade, collapsed in the bust, and then rebounded are now leveling off. Even the markets that have been slowest to recover and have struggled longest are seeing foreclosure inventories decline and the sales mix moving back toward normal.

At the same time, first-time homeownership, single-family starts, and new home sales won’t come close to fully recovering in 2015. But if 2015 brings strong job growth, big income gains, and the long-awaited jump in household formation, then 2016 could be the year when we see a major turnaround in homeownership and single-family construction.

MONEY best of 2014

5 Trends That Changed the Face of Real Estate in 2014

Lightbulb in doorway
MONEY (photo illustration)

Cheaper solar power (finally), what millennials really want in a home, and a better shot at a mortgage (for some).

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, retirement, health care, tech, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these five real estate trends.

Best Trend for Energy Efficiency

Thanks to better manufacturing methods, the cost of residential solar panels has fallen about 7% per year since 2000, says the Department of Energy. And that’s not the only thing making solar look like a brighter choice.

Better financing options: Low-interest, no-­money-down solar loans are now offered by lenders such as Admiral Bank, credit unions, and through major solar-panel sellers like SolarCity. (Energysage.com/solar lists the options.) David Feldman, senior financial analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, ran the numbers to compare loans to leasing, long the most popular way of going solar. He says a typical system, which might lease for $168 a month over 20 years, would cost $136 or less per month with a loan.

Chi Birmingham

Improved resale value: A study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that homes with owned, not leased, solar panels could sell for almost $25,000 more than comparable non-solar homes.

Best Price Cut to Root For

Home prices rise, home prices fall, but the commission you pay to sell has barely budged from 5% or so. (That’s split between listing and buyer’s agents.) A few years ago it looked like new competitors might change the status quo, but the housing crash seemed to slow progress down. Now price-cutting may be picking up again: In October the brokerage Redfin cut its already low 1.5% fee to list a home to just 1% in the D.C. area. Let’s hope this move is a sign of more competition to come.

Best New Reason You May Finally Qualify for a Mortgage

That all-important three-digit score that determines how much you’ll pay to borrow money got an overhaul in 2014, which should mean a higher score for some consumers. Fair Isaac, which computes the most commonly used credit score, the FICO score, announced it would no longer ding borrowers who had a bill sent to collections if the balance was later paid or settled. Previously, even those paid accounts had remained a blemish for up to seven years.

The new formula will also give less weight to unpaid medical bills that end up in collections, in part because that can happen by accident when a patient believes the insurer covered the cost. More than one in five Americans will be contacted by a collection agency for medical bills this year, according to NerdWallet. If you have a single medical bill in collections, and no other blemishes, you can expect to see a 25-point jump in your score.

Best Tip for Advertising Your Home Sale

“One of the things younger buyers say is important to them is that the house has great cell coverage,” says Richard Davidson, CEO of Century 21 Real Estate.

Most Shocking True Confession

“I recently tried to refinance my mortgage, and I was unsuccessful in doing so … I’m not making that up,” said Ben Bernanke, former chair of the Federal Reserve, on how banks may be making it too hard to get a mortgage.

MONEY Housing Market

Why 2015 Might Be the Year You Finally Sell Your House

141224_REA_sold_1
Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Home price gains are slowing, credit is thawing, and more first-time buyers may be hitting the real estate market in 2015.

Better balance in the housing sector is “in” next year, as far as trends go. That’s likely to put buyers and sellers on a more even footing.

Some prospective sellers sound especially bullish on housing. In a recent Trulia survey, the biggest chunk of consumers, 36%, said they expect next year to be much or a little better than 2014 for selling a home.

To be sure, like politics, all real estate is local. Some sellers have stayed on the sidelines in recent years, investing in improvements amid a dearth of buyers. For others, low inventory and rising home prices meant a bidding-war bonanza.

The landscape next year’s sellers are likely to encounter depends a lot on where they live. But here are a few broad trends to bear in mind.

Bringing Back Buyers

Mortgage credit is becoming more available as lenders scale back requirements. The average FICO score on a conventional purchase loan in October was 754, according to Ellie Mae. That’s a five-point drop from last year’s average. (You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand.)

Tough credit and underwriting requirements have been a huge hurdle for many would-be buyers. So is liquidity, but there’s also good news on that front: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recently rolled out a mortgage option that allows for a 3% down payment. These two government-sponsored behemoths purchase about two-thirds of all new mortgages.

If conventional lenders get on board, the new low-down-payment option could pull more first-time buyers into the marketplace. During a time of tight credit and stagnant wages, this crucial group of buyers has been all but absent from the housing picture.

“If access to credit improves, we could see substantially larger numbers of young buyers in the market,” Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, noted in his 2015 housing forecast. “However, given a high dependency on financial qualifications, this activity will be skewed to geographic areas with higher affordability, such as the Midwest and South.”

Affordability May Be a Concern

Lower credit and down-payment thresholds are causes for optimism. But rising home values and mortgage rates will impact affordability, especially in costlier housing markets. Realtor.com’s Smoke expects affordability to decline 5-10% next year.

Job and wage growth will play a big role in shaping homebuying activity. Gains in both may offset the price and rate increases likely on the horizon.

Sellers in more affordable housing markets, especially those with improving economies, are likely to see more buyers.

Home Prices & Inventory

Home price growth is slowing after years of big gains. Zillow’s chief economist predicts home values will rise about 3% next year, about half the current clip. More listings are hitting the market each month, too, although inventories are still tight in some places and price ranges.

Housing inventory nationwide jumped nearly 16% in October year over year, according to Zillow.

The combination of cooling prices and more inventory means the balance of power is tilting back toward buyers in some markets.

“Sellers have had their day in the sun for several years in a row now,” Zillow’s economist, Stan Humphries, told U.S. News & World Report. “It’s time to get back to a balanced market and for buyers to have their day.”

More on Mortgages & Homebuying:

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.

 

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com