MONEY selling a home

8 Ways to Screw Up Your Home Sale

With the positive momentum in the housing market, more homeowners are ready to put their homes on the market. Don't mess it up.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news headlines, you’ll know that it’s a “sellers’ market” in many cities right now. But beware – just because prices are up and inventory is down and the market seems prime, don’t become overconfident or careless with your own home. There are plenty of ways you could still sabotage your sale:

  1. Selling A House Via “For Sale by Owner” (FSBO). Trying to sell your home by yourself is sheer madness. Many people think that it’s easily doable because the market is hot and you can save on the commission. Despite the lure of not having to pay an agent a commission, you need the expertise and know-how of a professional, who can help you navigate the stacks of paperwork, provide priceless neighborhood knowledge – and negotiate on your behalf. The numbers also don’t lie: the typical FSBO home sold for $174,900, compared to $215,000 for agent-assisted home sales.
  2. Mispricing Your Home. Overpricing your house is a huge money-losing mistake. Yes, the market is hot. But not hot enough that you can push the envelope and price it for way more that the comps will support. Overpricing your home is dangerous – and you can end up burned in this ‘hot market.’ You run the risk that your home will sit on the market for weeks and months and become the stale listing that every home seller wants to avoid. Know the competition and set the right price – never overprice too high in hopes that someone will unknowingly overpay.
  3. Using Lousy Photos. – 90% of all home shoppers start their home search online, and bad photos can tank your home sale. If you let your agent grab a few fast photos of your house on their cell phone on a rainy day and use those for all your online listings, then you’ll likely get passed over for a home with more flattering photos. You also must showcase your house on its ‘best day.’ When the light is shining through the windows, when the countertops and other spaces are clear of clutter and unnecessary items. It astounds me when any home sellers (and their agents) allow photos of rooms scattered with old clothes and filthy, messy kitchens. Every photo should illicit a “wow!”
  4. Refusing to Make Obvious Repairs Prior to Sale. You will lose money if you don’t take care of repairs before the house goes on the market. Showing the house when there are leaking faucets, cracks in the walls, water stains on the celling, and a busted hot water heater are all ways to turn off potential buyers. When you do find a buyer willing to overlook those necessary repairs, they are going to want discounts or credits worth far more than what it would have cost you to make the repair yourself.
  5. Keeping All Your Clutter and Junk. “Oh the house looks fine” you say to your agent. “It’s going to take too long to pack up and get rid of all our extra stuff” you say to your husband. “Buyer’s will see right past all my boxes and collections of plaster cookie jars and shelves overflowing with nick-knacks” you think to yourself. It may sound like a good idea, but it’s not a smart approach. Believe me, I have seen homes come on the market that obviously could have sold so much faster, had the home owners spent just one weekend depersonalizing and removing all their “stuff” inside the home. Clutter makes your home seem smaller, ultimately eating equity and killing deals. Period. De-clutter immediately! Take inventory of all your possessions and think to yourself: should I save it, store it, sell it, or chuck it?
  6. Ignoring the Backyard – Everybody knows that fantastic front curb appeal sells homes, but don’t forget what’s out back. In the summer and fall months, everyone’s attention turns to the outside spaces, where they dream of warm summer nights and outdoor entertaining. If you don’t maximize and capitalize on your backyard, you are missing a huge component of your warm weather living spaces. That back yard patio is not just for storage of old bikes and broken patio furniture that should have been thrown out years ago. In a buyer’s eyes, it can be the most important ‘room’ in the house. You need to stage your backyard and outdoor entertaining areas as beautifully as you would the interior of your home. Green grass, flowers and trimmed trees should be the same standard as your curb-appealed front.
  7. Hiding Problem Issues From the Buyers. I’ve watched too many home sellers pay out big bucks because they didn’t “reveal it all.” Disclose! Disclose! Disclose! Once you have an accepted offer, sellers are required to fill out disclosure statements. If you did renovations to the house without a permit over the years, disclose. If there was a roof leak that damaged the attic two years ago, disclose. If the electrical blows every time you run the dishwasher and the microwave at the same time, disclose. The buyer’s will find out eventually. And if you knowingly have kept things from them, it sets the tone for an ugly and difficult closing. Not to mention that you are setting yourself up for the liability.
  8. Getting Your Ego Involved When Negotiating. Real estate transactions are business deals. Plain and simple. There is no room for ego here. If an offer comes in low, the mistake is to be insulted and not counter back. Always counter back and keep deals in play. Too many sellers take negotiations personally and lose out on creating a win-win deal. Keep your ego out of the equation and put your head back into it. Remember your end goal: getting your house sold and having a smooth and successful closing.

More from Trulia:
Top Reasons Millennials Shouldn’t Buy a Home–Yet
Can Buying an Older Home Ruin Your Marriage?

Michael Corbett is Trulia‘s real estate and lifestyle expert. He hosts NBC’s EXTRA’s Mansions and Millionaires and has authored three books on real estate, including Before You Buy!

MONEY Buying a House

The Letter That Saved $11,000. Really.

House shaped mailbox or postbox
Melissa Ross—Getty Images

A personal letter could make the difference between winning and losing your dream home. Here's how to do it right.

After a six-month-long house hunt through northern Virginia neighborhoods, Alison and Greg Fitzgerald were’t feeling very optimistic.

Finding homes they liked wasn’t a problem, there were plenty. The hard part was making a deal. It seemed like every house had multiple offers or was sold minutes after being listed. By the time they were able to visit the last two properties that had caught their eye, both had gone under contract.

So when Alison walked in to a beautiful four-bedroom house in Alexandria in May, she knew her family needed to do more than make a fair offer. “They need to feel like we’re their friends so they’ll give us the house,” said Alison.

After noticing the seller shared the couple’s love of the Washington Capitals hockey team, Alison rushed home to write a letter. The result was a textbook example of a tactic many home buyers—especially those in competitive markets—are using to get an edge. Alison’s note, attached to her offer, gave a personal account of the couple’s love for the neighborhood, nearby schools, and the property itself (“we have a baby boy who is about to turn 1 year old… we can already see him playing in that big back yard with our dog!”). She also gushed about the family’s Capitals fandom and included a picture of their 11-month-old son at his first Caps game.

Despite four other offers—one $11,000 higher than their own—the Fitzgeralds got the home. Alison still remembers the sellers’ agent’s call, conveyed to them by their broker: “You got the house. Your letter definitely had something to do with it.”

When the family arrived at their new home, previous owners had left a bottle of champagne and a Caps Kids’ Club banner on the stairs.

Looking for inspiration? Check out this album of actual cover letters (click on the top-right gear for full size):

 

It might seem cheesy (or manipulative), but the Fitzgeralds are one of a growing number of families who triumphed in bidding wars by giving their seller a human connection instead of the highest offer. Redfin, a real estate brokerage with locations in 25 markets, found that writing a personal cover letter “tugging at the seller’s heart strings” increases your chances of winning multiple offer situations by almost 10%. For something that doesn’t cost a cent, that’s a pretty solid return.

“I don’t see where it hurts,” says Anthony Rael, a Denver Re/Max agent who advises his clients to write such cover letters. “It gives a lot of weight to your offer and really shows intent.”

So, if everyone’s writing letters, how to make yours stand out?

Build connection. Agents say you should emphasize commonalities, enabling the sellers to see a little of themselves in your family. Tanya Larson-Topp and husband Benjamin had been searching the Chicago area for two months before falling in love with a four-bedroom on Estes Avenue. When they visited the house, Tanya discovered its owners, the Browns, had a young daughter with the same name as their own three-year-old Eliana. She and Benjamin had also attended the same graduate school as one of the sellers.”We both went to SSA [School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago],” wrote Tanya in her cover letter. “What could be better than a couple of social workers living in your old house?”

Nothing, apparently. The Larson-Topps not only beat out a competing bid, they even received a letter from the sellers expressing how thrilled they were. “Selling to two social workers is truly a dream come true!” wrote the Browns. “Feel free to contact us with any questions about the house or neighborhood.”

Don’t worry if you’re not an exact clone, even more minor commonalities can be enough. One of Rael’s buyers struggled to find a seller willing to accept his Veteran’s Affairs financing, until a fellow veteran saw his letter and happily sold him the home. One of his other buyers, a pre-retired couple, won the home of a current retiree despite bidding $50,000 under list price, “much to his [agent’s] amazement.”

Don’t skimp on the emotion. You may feel like pouring one’s heart out to a seller is too corny. But an effective cover letter does more than tug on the heartstrings. It also shows you’re serious about the house and, if you need financing, even helps you stand up against the dreaded all-cash offer. Los Angeles agent Eric Tan says sellers have become frustrated by investors who bid cash on multiple properties, select the choicest out of their accepted offers and cancel the rest. A financed offer, paired with a cover letter emphasizing your attachment to a particular home, can tip the scales away from the investor. “Sellers like to see that a buyer has something more at stake the just the investment of the property,” Tan says.

Keep it short—and positive. Redfin’s cover letter guidelines warn against buyers telling “your entire life story,” and suggest you refrain from mentioning offers you have lost because past failures may be taken as a sign of weakness. Appearing too desperate or pushy can also put off a seller. Tan recalls one instance where a family of buyers and their agent randomly showed up on his client’s property asking for a showing. “The seller says there’s someone who’s been waiting on the front lawn for 40 minutes,” says Tan, remembering the phone conversation. “I said I’m glad you called but we need to call the police.”

Really want it? Make a video. Agent John Venti, who operates primarily in California’s San Gabriel Valley, started making videos with clients in May, using only their smart phone’s camera and editing tools. The videos, he says, are a “way for someone to say ‘here I am, here’s who I am’,” in a time when emails have depersonalized the process (back in the day, offers were presented in person). So far, he’s made 10 different videos, each for clients in multiple offer situations, and these buyers have won out more than 50% of the time.

Is your seller a builder or investor? Don’t bother. Those sellers are generally focused on either the most money or the fastest closing, and often ask their agents to remove any cover letters they receive.

But for many owners, “there’s more to consider than list price and offer price,” Tan says. “In those situations, it does make a big difference.”

MONEY house hunt

Share Your House Hunt Story With MONEY!

Have you bought a home in the last month? Or are you about to close on a purchase? MONEY wants to help tell your home buying story while offering relevant, real-life advice to all the other buyers out there.

See examples here:
‘At 27, I’m the First of My Friends to Own a Home’
‘I Have $1M in Investments and I Couldn’t Get a Mortgage’

We’re looking for buyers of all stripes and in all towns, whether your search took a day or a year. We hope to highlight situations that can be useful to other people planning to buy a home — hunting tactics, negotiating challenges, and mortgage nightmares overcome (or not).

Got a story to tell? Fill out the confidential form below. (We won’t use your story unless we speak with you first.)

Thank you!

 

MONEY selling a home

What’s the Best Way to Sell My Home to a Relative?

Q: I want to sell my home to my sister for $1. What’s the cheapest way? Do I need a lawyer? — Stacy C. Bouknight, Glenside, Pa.

A: No, you don’t need a lawyer to unload your home in most states, including Pennsylvania. To transfer the home cheaply, don’t sell it; that would require a title search and insurance to do cleanly, costing several hundred dollars at least. Instead, use what’s known as a quitclaim deed, which transfers your ownership but makes no guarantee the home is unencumbered, says Nolo legal editor Mary Randolph. Fill out the document ($14.99 at nolo .com), have it notarized, and record the transaction with your county land records office.

Have a mortgage? No matter how you turn the home over to your sister, you are still responsible for paying off the note; until you do, your lender has a claim on the house.

MONEY Rentals

Rent Too $@#% High? These 7 Tips Can Get You a Better Deal

Jimmy McMillan, The Rent is Too Damn High guy
There are better ways to lower your rent than running for Governor of New York. David Shankbone

Rents are surging across the nation, but you don't need to join the "Rent is Too Damn High" party to get a discount.

Renters who aren’t leasing space under a rock have probably noticed prices are kind of insane lately. Since last year, rents are up everywhere (in some cities, over 10%), and an average 2-bedroom in a major city could cost as much as $3,550 a month.

Short of running for political office, how can you cut your rent bill from impossible to merely outrageous? We’ve got a couple of tips.

1. Have low realistic expectations

The economy is getting better, more people are going back to work, and most of them are renting. That means there’s a huge clamor for condos, especially in major metropolitan areas, and landlords can set their prices accordingly. Gary Malin, president of the New York City brokerage firm Citi Habitats, warns waiting for an out-of-this-world deal in a hot area is a sure way to end up with no place to live.

Instead of looking for a huge bargain, he suggests, try to negotiate somewhere between $25-100 off your monthly rent. (Talk in dollars, not percentages, so your landlord doesn’t have to break out a calculator.) In San Francisco, 50 bucks off might just be a 1% discount on a typical two-bedroom’s monthly bill, but over a year it works out to $600 in savings. That’s not nothing.

2. Show the landlord how awesome you are

How awesome you are as a tenant, that is. Someone with solid financials who will sign quickly can land a discount even in tight markets, Malin says.

Build a strong application by including all the necessary paperwork and emphasizing your strengths (current employment and great credit can go a long way). Complimenting the apartment doesn’t hurt. Include references from previous landlords: Niccole Schreck of Rent.com says letters from past property owners attesting to your amazingness can win your new lessor’s confidence—and maybe a bargain as well.

Try this: owners of smaller complexes have the most to lose if tenants don’t pay up. If you can show you’re a prize, you might nab a better deal in buildings with fewer units.

3. Go by the numbers

When asking for a discount, approach the landlord “intellectually, not emotionally,” Malin says. Translation: no sob stories. Instead, do your research and show the property manager why you should get a better rate. Schreck advises renters to look up the prices of other units in the neighborhood (use Rent.com and similar sites) and make notes of the amenities other buildings offer, like gyms or laundry rooms. If surrounding real estate rents for less or offers more perks, use that to your advantage.

4. Be flexible about location, location, location

Jason Kaczmarczyk, partner at the Boston-based Encore Realty, says he saves clients thousands by steering them from the sought-after Brookline neighborhood to the more affordable Cleveland Circle. The kicker? Cleveland Circle is just feet from the Brookline town limits—and it has free parking.

To find a cheaper area, use your commute time to create a list of all the neighborhoods where you could feasibly live. At Trulia.com, enter where you work and generate a map of your city, color-coded by shortest travel time. From there, look for lower-priced parts of town.

5. Wait for winter

The summer months are the No. 1 season for new leases, meaning huge competition and high rates. Once temperatures drop, so do prices, as landlords get antsy. Consider subletting for the summer and starting your search in October or November. Malin says landlords who don’t rent a unit by Thanksgiving might cut rent by up to 10% to avoid the risk it will sit empty until January.

Off-season renters are also twice as likely to find “move-in incentives” such as paying brokerage fees, a free month’s rent, or complimentary gym membership. Some landlords prefer these over discounts, and Schreck says they’re typically easier to negotiate.

Keep in mind though: it’s no fun to move in the snow.

6. Read the lease agreement

We know you’re excited, but rushing through your lease can cost you bigtime. As MONEY’s Amanda Gengler writes, a recent Rent.com survey found that 26% of renters lost their entire security deposit. She recommends checking the fine print—painting your apartment or putting holes in the walls might be off limits—and making sure anything the landlord tells you in person (“of COURSE you can have a cat!”) is in writing, attached to the lease if necessary. Check that the utility bills included in your rent match the landlord’s promises.

7. Offer to sign a longer lease

The one thing landlords hate most is vacancies, and signing for longer means your property owner won’t have to worry about filling your apartment for an additional year. This may not work in hot spots like New York City, as landlords prefer to reassess market conditions at the end of every year and decide whether (read: how much) to raise rent.

But in slower markets with more vacancies, a longer lease can earn you some concessions. Rent.com has a list of the 10 fastest growing cities (ie. places people actually want to live) with above average vacancy rates to help you decide if you should use this tactic.

More: Rents Just Won’t Stop Going Up

MONEY Housing Market

The Future’s Most Walkable Cities: Prepare to Be Surprised

061417_REA_boston
Urbanization of next-door neighbor Cambridge is one of the chief reasons Boston's walkability is on the rise. Boston Harbor Association—Boston Harbor Association

Walkable urban places are the cities of the future, a new study says. And where will those be? New York, Boston? Try Miami and Phoenix. No, we're not kidding.

If you live in Washington D.C., New York City or Boston and your legs are your main mode of transport, this won’t be news to you: These three cities rank among the country’s most walkable large cities, and they are destined to remain so.

After those top three, watch out: Cities known more for suburban sprawl and traffic jams have new development planned that will shoot them up into the top scores as “walkable urban place,” or, WalkUPs, as researchers at George Washington University and advocacy group Smart Growth America call them.

Miami, Detroit, Denver, and Tampa will vault into the new Top 10 large WalkUPs, according to a new study released today. Atlanta, Los Angeles and Phoenix will also take a big leap forward. Future rankings are based on things like planned investment in public transportation and commercial clusters.

jefferson memorial
D.C. ranks No. 1. Its suburbs are as walkable as the central city. Destination DC—Destination DC

“The WalkUPs are witnessing the end of sprawl,” said Christopher Leinberger, a professor of urban real estate at George Washington University School of Business. “This is a change in how we built the country in the 20th century.” Suburban sprawl, he argues, has constrained the country’s economic growth.

Walkable urban places, sometimes referred to as urban burbs, have high concentrations of college-educated adults and demonstrate a strong correlation between urban development, education and economic growth. Office rents in urbanized areas, for example, command a 74% premium over suburban. (Researchers focused on the 30 largest metropolitan areas because they comprise 46% of the U.S. population and 58% of the country’s GDP.)

And homeowners, take note: Walkability and proximity to shopping, restaurants and work are becoming increasingly important to buyers, especially young buyers. Research has shown that increases in measures of walkability such as WalkScore translate into increased property values.

Today’s Top 15 Walkable Cities

1. Washington, D.C.
2. New York City
3. Boston
4. San Francisco
5. Chicago
6. Seattle
7. Portland, Ore.
8. Atlanta
9. Pittsburgh
10. Cleveland
11. Baltimore
12. Miami
13. Philadelphia
14. Denver
15. Houston
Least Walkable: Tampa, Phoenix, Orlando

The Future’s Most Walkable Cities

1. Boston
2. Washington, D.C.
3. New York City
4. Miami
5. Atlanta
6. Seattle
7. San Francisco
8. Detroit
9. Denver
10. Tampa
11. Los Angeles
12. Phoenix
13. Houston
14. Portland
15. Chicago
Least Walkable: San Diego, Kansas City, San Antonio

MONEY buying a home

Top Reasons Millennials Shouldn’t Buy a Home — Yet

couple standing by outline of house
Martin Barraud—Getty Images/OJO Images

Many millennials want to buy a home. But maybe they shouldn't just yet, says Trulia's consumer expert.

There are many reasons to buy your first home, including dozens of financial benefits and lifestyle benefits. And right now, it’s a buyer’s market; interest rates are still low, hitting 4.34% for a 30 year fixed loan this month. According to the latest Trulia survey, 68% of Millennials are in the market for a home priced at $200,000 or lower. However, home buying is not for everyone. For all the positive aspects to home ownership, there are some very compelling reasons not to buy a home right now. So, if you’re ready to jump headfirst into the ‘American Dream,’ read this first.

More: Why This Millennial Will Send My Son To College Before He Buys a Home

Losing Flexibility

Home ownership provides stability, but that may not always be a good thing when you are in your career-building years. If you are looking for a promotion, an advance, or job change, you may have to relocate to get to that next level. You need to have the ability to move on short notice, maybe even as fast as 30 to 60 days. Having to sell your home quickly could force you to offer it up at a bargain price to snag a buyer, in addition to incurring thousands of dollars of closing costs.

No Room For Baby

Millennials are in the prime years for starting families. You may not have one now, but chances are you may in the near future. So, buying that cozy home or condo perfect for the two of you may not be such a great idea when baby makes three. Afterall, having a baby is stressful enough. Having to sell your house to buy a larger one with a due date looming can be unbearably stressful, costly, and may even put you in the red.

Five Years In

If for any reason you think you may not be able to stay in your home for five to seven years, you should not buy. It will be cheaper to rent. The rule of thumb used to be seven years, but now that the housing market is stabilizing, that timeline has shifted slightly. With only moderate market appreciation, it will generally take five years for you to recoup the costs of buying, selling, and carrying costs. Unfortunately, in the first years of your mortgage, you won’t be building up too much equity. Banks charge a hefty portion of your interest upfront, with very little going to your principal in the first few years.

No Money Down, No House

If you don’t have enough money saved for a down payment, don’t buy a house right now. I am a big proponent of 20% down. That is not always feasible for most Millennials starting out, and it is lot of money to have saved up. But, unfortunately, it is the safest, most conservative approach to home ownership. If you can’t bank on Mom and Dad for a leg up on the down payment, then you need to keep saving.

Too Much Debt

Student loans, car loans, and any other debt you have accumulated are all reasons not to buy a house just yet. You will need to pay down your debt first. Not only will a home purchase put a dent in you debt reduction plan, banks will not be willing to approve you for a loan with a high debt-to-income ratio.

Shaky Job Security

First, purchasing a home with today’s new qualified loan standards requires some consistent job history. When you’re in the early stages of your career, there may be jumps and gaps in your history, so getting the loan is going to be a challenge. Once you own a home, be aware that job situations can change overnight. Losing a job, periods of unemployment, and changes in income are not as easily weathered when you own a home. Your income may change, but your housing costs will remain the same. You won’t be able to quickly downsize, leaving you to sell your home out of financial desperation.

Cash Poor

Home buying often leaves buyers cash poor. After you dip into your savings to come up with the down payment, the closing costs, and any renovation that you need to make prior to moving in could leave your bank account in the double digits. That is not the way you want to start living the ‘American Dream.’ Make sure you will have enough cash leftover to weather a job loss, an unexpected emergency, or even a health issue that could impact your earning power. Bottom line: Don’t end up house rich, cash poor and emergency fundless.

More from Trulia:
9 Things to Look For When Touring An Open House
The Pros and Cons of Buying a Newly Built Home
The 10 Most Costly Home Selling Mistakes – & How To Avoid Them

Michael Corbett is Trulia‘s real estate and lifestyle expert. He hosts NBC’s EXTRA’s Mansions and Millionaires and has authored three books on real estate, including Before You Buy!

MONEY selling a home

Selling An Upscale Home? You’re in Luck. Sales Remain Strong.

Sales of higher-priced homes continue to outpace the lower tier, according to April figures. Check out our tips for buyers, sellers and owners.

If you’re trying to sell a home priced above $500,000, you’re in luck. Demand for those upscale homes keeps humming along, at least for now, according to National Association of Realtor figures for April.

Sales in the lowest price tier fell by 12% while sales in higher-priced categories were up by 0 to 5% from a year ago, wrote Danielle Hale, NAR’s director of housing statistics, on the association’s economists blog. The share of home sales above $500,000 or more rose from 10.8% to 11.6%.

Here is how sales changed year-over-year in April by price tier:

Price %Change
<$100,000 -12%
$100k-$250k -5.1%
$250k-$500k 0.2%
$500-$750k 0.3%
$750k-$1M 2.4%
>$1M 5.2%

 

Part of the reason for the disparity is that there are fewer lower-priced homes on the market. Investors and first-time buyers already have snapped up most of those properties; price gains have pushed homes into upper tiers as well.

Hale noted that the trend is slowing. In April of last year, for example, sales then of homes in the $500,000-$750,000 tier were up 33.6% from April 2012. This year, the gain was just 0.3%.

For now, generally the higher-priced homes within a town are selling better. How you’ll know if your home is in the top tier: Check Zillow’s Local Info page for your town. There you’ll find the median home values for the low, middle, and top price tiers in your market. Then, gauge the strength of your specific tier by asking your agent for the inventory and days-on-market stats for homes in your range.

Trying to sell an upscale home? Or buy one? Check out these tips:

BUYERS

Time it right. Want a more expensive home? Buy now before prices climb. However, if you live in a pricey house but are looking to downsize to something less expensive, it may be worth waiting for your current home to appreciate.

Look at jumbos. Will you need a large mortgage (typically more than $417,000)? The premium over what you’d pay for a smaller loan, which grew as wide as two full percentage points during the bust, has shrunk to next to nothing. Big banks often offer the best rates and options on these types of loans, says Keith Gumbinger of mortgage publisher HSH.com.

Don’t dismiss ARMs. While rising rates are a very real risk, ARMs at least deserve a look if you’re taking a big loan, says Gumbinger.

Buy for the future. Nearly 25% of owners regret the size of the home they picked, according to a Trulia study. With prices expected to climb, high-end homes are likely to be more affordable than they will be in the future, so think about how much space you’ll need in the coming years and buy appropriately.

Don’t go it alone. A recent study found that buyers of homes priced at more than $300,000 are more likely to try to negotiate the deal themselves than buyers of more moderately priced properties, says co-author Bennie Waller, professor of finance and real estate at Longwood University. It doesn’t end well: The DIYers end up paying an average of 9% more than those who use their own agent.

SELLERS

Price carefully. With sales of higher-end properties picking up, homes are increasingly “stigmatized if they stay on the market too long,” says Judson Henderson, a broker in Princeton, N.J.

Overprice, and your place could be the one with the black mark. If you’re unsure, pay the $500 or so for an appraisal. Also, if your home is older than 20 years, get an inspection to make sure your structure is sound, and your HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems function smoothly. Fix whatever’s on the fritz. “You don’t want people feeling like the house is a project,” says Henderson.

Make your listing tech-friendly. Most shoppers, and particularly those in the market for upscale houses, will be looking at your home on phones and tablets, says Amy Bohutinsky, chief marketing officer at Zillow. Photos on these gadgets need a higher resolution than what’s required by a desktop. Check your listing on a mobile device to make sure it looks great. Some buyers may look at photos of your home on Google, so you should do the same (type your address into the map search, then click on the Street View tab). If the photo is outdated or taken in winter, note that in your listing.

Highlight the right features. According to a study by the National Association of Home Builders, buyers who expect to pay at least $500,000 today put warming drawers, wine fridges, and outdoor kitchens high on their wish lists. If your home has these or other unique selling points, mention them in your listing.

OWNERS

Renovate sooner, not later. Don’t let dated features drag down the value of your home. Owners thinking about remodeling have good reason to act now. Quality contractors, already busier than they have been in recent years, are likely to get even tougher to snag. Then there’s the issue of rising rates, which would push up the cost of new home-equity loans and most lines of credit.

MONEY Rentals

The Top 10 Cities for Singles Who Rent

If you're single and looking for a place to live, here are the 10 best cities for those ready to mingle.

Thinking of moving to a new city? Lots of lists will help you find places with the lowest (or most outrageous) housing prices and highest incomes, but for young people looking to meet someone, there are more things to consider than pure affordability.

Rent.com partnered with Onboard Informatics to rank cities based on factors like quality of nightlife, restaurants, lifestyle (what percentage of residents do things like attend concerts and cultural events), and, primarily, the percentage of single adults.

Here’s what they found.

Methodology: All indexes were ranked on a scale of 1-1000. This list is based on cities with more than 50,000 rental dwellings, a high concentration of single adults and an overall population greater than 100,000. More details here.

  • San Francisco, CA

    It may be expensive, but the City by the Bay is safe, ranks high on lifestyle, and the average income is off the charts. Best of all? 39% of town is single.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 39%

    Non-Family Households: 58%

    Average Household Income: $104,540

    Safety Index: 822

    Lifestyle Index: 736

    The Bad

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $2,920

    Nightlife Options Index: 374

    Restaurant Option Index: 236

     

     

     

  • Manhattan, NY

    When it comes to nightlife, lifestyle, and great food, nobody tops the Big Apple. Like SF, cost is a (huge) factor, but if you can afford it, there’s nowhere better.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 38%

    Non-Family Households: 60%

    Average Household Income: $125,205

    Safety Index: 896

    Lifestyle Index: 781

    Nightlife Options Index: 1000

    Restaurant Option Index: 1000

    Frequent Coffee Shop Goers Index: 1000

    The Bad

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $3,800

     

     

  • Washington, D.C.

    It’s a company town, but that town is very single and very safe. Average salaries are also high, but there isn’t much nightlife or fine dining to spend that disposable income on.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 38%

    Non-Family Households: 58%

    Average Household Income: $93,637

    Safety Index: 776

    Lifestyle Index: 652

    The Bad

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $2,300

    Nightlife Options Index: 173

    Restaurant Option Index: 228

     

     

     

  • Boston, MA

    The Hub’s restaurant and nightlife options don’t exactly compare to New York, but it’s a safe, fun city where one-third of the adult population is single.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 33%

    Non-Family Households: 55%

    Average Household Income: $76,661

    Safety Index: 719

    Lifestyle Index: 671

    The Bad

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $3,150

    Nightlife Options Index: 192

    Restaurant Option Index: 224

     

     

  • Seattle, WA

    The second West Coast city on the list boasts lots of restaurant goers, good cultural events, and rentals in the neighborhood of affordable—at least for a big city.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 30%

    Non-Family Households: 57%

    Average Household Income: $88,211

    Lifestyle Index: 732

    Frequent Restaurant Goers Index: 616

    The Bad

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $1,584

    Nightlife Options Index: 302

    Restaurant Option Index: 199

  • Philadelphia, PA

    Philly can’t stand up to higher-ranked towns in most categories, but the rent isn’t too bad, more than a fourth of the population is single, and the nightlife is better than all but a few cities on this list.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 26%

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $1,295

    Safety Index: 686

    Nightlife Options Index: 502

    The Bad

    Restaurant Option Index: 340

    Frequent Restaurant Goers Index: 439

  • Minneapolis, MN

    The most notable of the Twin Cities has lots of singles and lots of rental housing. Nothing too special as we approach the back of the list, but Minneapolis stands her ground in most categories.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 25%

    Non-Family Households: 57%

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $1,395

    Lifestyle Index: 643

    Frequent Restaurant Goers Index: 555

    The Bad

    Nightlife Options Index: 149

    Restaurant Option Index: 108

     

     

  • Portland, OR

    Portlandia‘s home is safe, fun, and great for people who like to eat out. The rent is also relatively low compared to other listed cities.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 24%

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $1,335

    Safety Index: 632

    Lifestyle Index: 668

    Frequent Restaurant Goers Index: 585

    The Bad

    Nightlife Options Index: 383

    Restaurant Option Index: 168

  • Jersey City, NJ

    Jersey is safe and good for restaurants and culture, but the price of rent might make you think twice.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 23%

    Average Household Income: $77,804

    Safety Index: 766

    Lifestyle Index: 623

    Restaurant Option Index: 512

    The Bad

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $2,480

    Nightlife Options Index: 421

  • Chicago, IL

    Chi-Town has the cheapest median rent on the list, with high nightlife and lifestyle ratings to boot. It’s also safer (on the whole) than you probably think.

    The Good

    Single Adults: 23%

    Median Rental Rate (1BR): $1,150

    Safety Index: 665

    Lifestyle Index: 604

    Nightlife Options Index: 869

    Restaurant Option Index: 507

    The Bad

    Frequent Restaurant Goers Index: 475

MONEY home improvement

How to Set a Landscaping Budget—and Stick to It

The right landscaping adds value to your property, so before you undertake a landscaping redo, understand your needs and make a proper budget.

Designing a landscape that suits your home, as well as your budget, is an important part of home ownership. It’s important to ensure you have the type of yard that fits your current needs, as well as establishing critical curb appeal for future sale. Regardless of the size of your property, beautiful landscaping adds value to your property. Before undertaking a landscaping renovation or upgrade, spend some time assessing your wants and needs and understanding the cost drivers for a project of this size.

Landscaping budget basics

A budget is an itemized description of anticipated expenses for your landscaping project. Your budget should be realistic, organized, detailed and easily to track. Establishing a budget helps you determine what is required to complete the landscaping project and should include how much each item should cost.

Effective budgeting is more than just planning. A responsible homeowner will monitor the budget closely and be conscious of the investment, regardless of who is actually performing the work. Build in some flexibility wherever possible to ensure your project can handle the unexpected. Depending on the size of the lot and the complexity of the landscaping project, a landscaping budget spreadsheet need not be lengthy, but it should be detailed enough to be reasonably accurate.

How to start your landscaping budget

Planning your landscape can be an enjoyable part of the pre-planning phase. Bringing these visions to reality starts with research to find the actual costs of what you want included based on the size of your property. Start with a general list of what projects you’d like to complete such as:

  • irrigation installation
  • lawn servicing
  • tree removal or limb pruning
  • general maintenance
  • new plants and shrubbery
  • excavation
  • water features
  • new dirt or mulch
  • hardscaping projects like patios, pathways, rockery or arbors
  • organic garden set-up
  • edible plants
  • fences or retaining walls
  • address drainage issues
  • flower bed preparation and planting
  • exterior lighting
  • outdoor entertainment features like firepit, built-in seating, or outdoor kitchens

In addition to specific actions, make a priority list of which areas of the property you’d like to focus on. Depending upon your land, you may want to improve the entire front, back and side yards or you may just want to focus on one area outside. Breaking up the landscaping renovation into different stages is an especially good idea if you have a limited budget or a large amount of land.

Keeping your landscape project on budget

Once you’ve put together your initial list of needs, make a note of who will be doing the work. If you plan on doing most of the work yourself, be realistic about your time and skills. If you have time to shop around and work on the weekends, your budget can be spread out over a longer period of time. You can also save money by waiting for sales or purchasing items in the off season.

If you plan on hiring a professional to do most or part of the work, have a clear idea of what you need them to do. Your pre-planning meetings should be detailed and thorough and allow time for any drawings to be made. Your professional will advise you to how long this project will take to complete and provide you with a quote or bid for the project. Once you’ve signed off on the bid, and signed a contract for the work, the project can begin.

Regardless of who is performing the work, keep track of expenses. For you DIY landscaping, this could mean keeping a simple spreadsheet of costs or tool rentals. For your professional, your quote should detail all expenses and fees. If any changes are made during the course of the project, a change work order form should be completed and signed by both parties. This ensures a paper trail is in place tracking all changes and costs. Check in regularly with your landscaper to ensure that the project is going according to plan and ask to be alerted to any potential changes in the budget. Be aware of professionals who may also charge for their consultation time. They should alert you if any of your phone calls or consulting appointments are costing you money.

Other cost drivers for landscaping projects

Depending upon the scope of your project, you may need to obtain a permit. Some fence designs, retaining walls or excavation, for example, may require a permit. It is the responsibility of the homeowner to ensure that the proper paperwork is filed and you can check with your local department of development and planning to see if your particular project requires a permit. Or check with your professional, who can obtain the permit on your behalf.

Delays in materials or shipping can increase your costs. If you budget is flexible you may be able to afford overnight shipping or change your material selection. Seasonal changes may also affect your budget, especially if you are trying to hire a professional during their busiest time of year.

More from Porch:
Keeping Your Workshop Remodel on Schedule
The Golden Triangle: Designing an Efficient Kitchen
How to Keep Pest Control Costs Under Control

Anne Reagan is the editor-in-chief of home improvement website Porch.com.

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