Tips To Start Your Home Search

Question: We are looking forward to buying our first home in 2020. Do you have any recommendations on how we should start the home buying process?

Answer: Google “home buyer tips” or “what to know before buying a home” and you’ll find plenty of advice on the topic, so I’ll include some suggestions I don’t see on most of those lists and also put my own spin on others that you have heard before.

Weighted Criteria

It’s easy to come up with 3-5 things that are most important to you, but challenge yourself early to come up with 12-15 things that are important to you. Then give yourself 100 points and allocate points to each based on how important they are to you and you’ll end up with a weighted criteria list to help you focus your search and objectively compare properties.

If you want to take it to the next level, bring your weighted criteria list with you on showings and score each house out of the total points allocated to it.

Length of Ownership

This is one of the most important conversations to have with yourself/your partner. You should focus on the following:

  1. Likely length of ownership
  2. Difference in criteria for a 3-5 year house vs a 10-12+ year house
  3. Difference in budget requirements for a 3-5 year house vs a 10-12+ year house

Appreciation is not guaranteed and difficult to predict, but the value of longer ownership periods is undisputed. One way longer ownership adds value is the potential for eliminating one or more real estate transactions, and the associated costs (fees, taxes, moving expenses, new furniture, etc) and stress that comes with moving, over the course of your lifetime.

If you have an opportunity to significantly increase your length of ownership by stretching your budget, it’s often justifiable. On the other hand, if your budget or future plans restrict you to housing that’s likely to be suitable for just 3-4 years (and buying now still makes sense), it’s generally better to stay under budget.

Influencers (not the Instagram ones)

Family, friends, colleagues…they’re all happy to offer opinions and contribute to your home buying process, but the input can be overwhelming and unproductive if you don’t set boundaries. Try to determine up-front who you want involved in the process and how you’d like them to be involved.

Think about how you’ve made other major decisions in life – what college to attend, what kind of car to buy, where to get married, whether to change jobs – and if you’re the type of person who likes input from your friends and family, you’ll likely do the same when buying a house. Plan ahead with those influencers so their input is productive.

Does Your House Exist?

Before jumping too far into the search process, spend a little bit of time searching For Sale and Sold homes on your favorite real estate search website/app to see if the homes selling in the area you want and within 10% of your upper budget are at least close to what you’re looking for. If not, spend some time adjusting price, location, and non-critical criteria to figure out what high-level compromises you’ll need to make and then compare those compromises to your current living situation and/or continuing to rent.

Know Your Market

We’re in a strong seller’s market right now with low supply, high demand, and increasing prices. Each sub-market behaves a bit differently and comes with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities, so take time early on to understand the sub-market(s) you’ll be involved in and what you’re likely to experience. This is something your agent should be able to assist with.

Pre-Approval & Budget

There is a lot of value in working with a lender early on in the search process. For starters, you’ll have somebody who can provide real rates and advice based on your specific financial situation/needs. A lender can only do this if they’ve reviewed your financial documents and credit. The more you put in, the more you get out.

You’ll need to have a lender pre-approval to submit an offer (seller has to know you qualify for the purchase you’re offering to make) so if you have to do it anyway, why not doing it early on so you get the most value out of your lender? It also means that you’ll be prepared to make an offer if you find the right home before you expect to be ready.

Given how competitive the Arlington/Northern VA/DMV real estate market is, the quality of your pre-approval can make a big difference when you make an offer. You should strongly consider partnering with a local lender with a great reputation to give yourself an advantage (or not put you at a disadvantage) when making an offer. Pre-approval letters from big banks and online lenders don’t go over as well in our market. If you’re looking for a recommendation, consider Jake Ryon of First Home Mortgage (JRyon@firsthome.com).

Find an Agent

The least surprising suggestion on this list! Agents come in many different forms and finding somebody who suits your personality and goals is important. Ask friends, colleagues, and family for referrals and meet with multiple people until you find the right fit.

The worst thing you can do is choose your agent based on whoever responds to an online showing request faster. A good agent can provide a ton of value being involved in your buying process 3-6+ months before you’re ready to buy. Be wary of anybody who wants you to “wait until you’re ready” before working with you.

If you’re considering buying (or selling) in the DMV in 2020 and would like to meet, feel free to email me at Eli@EliResidential.com!

How To Choose A Title Company

Question: Do you have any guidance on choosing which Title Company to work with when buying or selling real estate?

Answer: Title companies handle the legal side of the transaction such as ensuring the buyer has clear ownership, reviewing and recording the deed, issuing title insurance, and preparing paperwork for the buyer and seller to sign at closing. They operate in the background of transactions and usually the less you hear from them, the better. They are not legal representatives of either party and objectively support the buyer and seller.

In Virginia (and DC/MD), buyers select the title company. In some cases, a seller may want to use their own firm/attorney and will request a “split settlement” but that is less common and should be done for a good reason.

Most people don’t know a title attorney or get a referral from a friend, so how do you go about choosing your title company?

Your Real Estate Agent

You shouldn’t be hiring a real estate agent because they’re the first person to raise their hand to meet you at a property you found online. Among the reasons you hire an agent should be because you trust their advice and want access to their network of professionals who are relevant to a real estate transaction.

Your agent should be the first person you turn to for a recommendation on the title company. He/she has likely worked with dozens or hundreds of title companies before and hopefully has one or two to recommend.

It’s perfectly fair to ask your agent why they’re recommending a specific title company.

Fees

The highest fee associated with a title company is title insurance and those prices are set by the insurance company, not the title company. Different title companies work with different title insurance companies, but rates are similar (or identical) amongst them. If you see big differences in title insurance between two title companies, one may be quoting a basic vs enhanced coverage (buyer’s choice).

I rarely see discretionary fees charged by the title company vary by more than a few hundred dollars. You can always find a cheaper option for title services, but the legal support on a real estate transaction worth hundreds of thousands or millions may not be a smart place to save a few hundred dollars and risk quality of service.

Location

It’s important to use a local title company who is familiar with local real estate and tax practices, not just licensed to practice here. I use one title company (Universal Title) for Northern VA transactions and one title company for Washington DC and Maryland transactions (District Title).

Attorney Experience

Most sales follow a pretty standard, predictable process that inexperienced title companies/attorneys can handle but occasionally something unexpected comes up that requires experience/expertise to identify and resolve an issue. If problems do surface, having access to an experienced local title attorney can be the difference in whether or not the problem is even identified, whether a sale closes, and/or how much time and stress it takes to resolve the issue.

Back-Office Support

The quality and experience of the support staff is equally as important as the attorney. Look for a title company who has experienced processors who have been with the company for a while. Title companies who can afford to cut fees below their competition likely do so by not having a full supporting cast or not paying to hold onto experienced processors.

Insurance Provider

One of the key roles of a title company is that they issue title insurance, which protects your ownership interests in the property from any future claims. Most title companies have one insurance company they issue policies for such as First American, Old Republic, and Chicago Title.

Most buyers are indifferent about their title insurance provider, but you may want to confirm who the title company uses to do some background on them such as size (market share) and how long they’ve been in business. I generally prefer larger insurers who have been in business for a long time.

If you’d like a recommendation on a title company in the DMV, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

The Missing Ultra High-End in Arlington

Question: I recently saw a home listed in Arlington for almost $30M. Are there neighborhoods in Arlington with ultra-expensive homes like this?

Answer: We hear a lot about the “missing middle” in Arlington housing, but there’s another market that Arlington struggles to support that nobody is talking about…the super-rich. Sure we have plenty of homes that sell for $1M-$2.5M (457 sold in 2019) but in 2019 there were only seven sales over $2.5M and just one over $3M (and that was a sub-dividable lot). So what gives with everybody calling Arlington “expensive” if we can’t support the super-rich? Where do they live? (I hope my sarcasm is coming across…)

405 Chain Bridge Rd Arlington VA 22207. Listed by Mark Lowham, TTR Sotheby’s.

Arlington’s Most Expensive Homes

The recently listed $28.5M home, by Mark Lowham of TTR Sotheby’s, on the Potomac River side of Chain Bridge Rd is an anomaly in Arlington. Outside of the prestigious Country Club Hills neighborhood and Turnberry Tower penthouse-level condos, sale prices in Arlington rarely eclipse the $3M mark and even in those communities the handful of $3M+ sales historically top out at $4M. And then you have a very small pocket of ultra-luxury homes at $5M+ along the Potomac, off Chain Bridge Rd, which fall within Arlington County, but actually have a Mclean mailing address and zip code (22101).

Note: There are dozens more homes in Arlington worth $3M-$5M that just haven’t been sold. Many are custom built in the last 10-15 years with the original owners still occupying them. There are also a handful of private sales that aren’t entered into the MLS because they were sold off-market.

Why Doesn’t Arlington Have Ultra-Expensive Homes?

So with so much wealth and close proximity to DC, why doesn’t Arlington have more ultra-expensive homes? The answer is lot size.

For anybody that has looked for a home with a little elbow room/privacy in Arlington, you’ve reached the unfortunate conclusion that it’s very difficult to find anything with more than ¾ acres (even ½ acre is highly coveted) and there are just a small handful of properties with more than 1.5 acres. Smaller lots make it difficult to build enough house to justify a $5M+ price tag.

Where To Spend $5M+?

So where do people with $5M+ to spend on a home live? In Northern VA, most of those homes are in Mclean or Great Falls, as well as further west in Loudon County’s horse/wine country. DC’s most popular ultra-expensive neighborhoods are Georgetown and Kalorama, with a spattering of other neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park. In Maryland you’ll find the most expensive homes in Potomac along River Rd, as well as Chevy Chase and Bethesda.

Enjoy Some Photos

For those of you who are here just for the pictures, here you go! I’ve linked to $5M homes either for sale or sold in the last few years in the area:

Northern Virginia

Washington DC

Maryland (Montgomery County and Eastern Shore)

How Agents and Agent Teams Are Structured

Question: I’m in the process of searching for a real estate agent and having trouble understanding the different organizational structures. Can you explain how it works?

Answer: Most real estate agents operate as independent contractors within their brokerage (office), thus have autonomy to operate their business/service model as they choose. With over 12,000 Realtors in the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors alone, the organizational structures and business models vary widely to suit an agent’s style of business and/or target clientele.

I think it’s almost as important for home buyers and sellers to learn about their prospective agent’s operating model as it is to make sure they know your market. An agent’s operating model will impact your experience and you need to make sure it aligns with your expectations.

I’ll break down some of the organizational structures that are most common today so you have an idea of what to look for.

Brokerage

At the top of the organizational structure is the brokerage, which is best described as the office your agent works for. The brokerage is the legal entity involved in the transaction and when you sign a Buyer Representation or Listing Agreement, it’s actually with the brokerage, with your agent as the assigned representative of the brokerage.

Currently in the DC Metro, most brokerages are made up of multiple agents, often dozens to hundreds, and function like a shared office. An agent cannot operate independently outside of a brokerage, but an individual agent can have their own broker’s license and operate an independent brokerage.

Most agents operate as independent contractors within their brokerage, but there are some models, Redfin being the most popular, where agents are employees.

Agent Models

In most cases agents operate individually or within a team, structured in a some common ways:

  1. Individual Agent, No Support: Many agents work independently without any sort of support staff. The advantage for clients is that you always know who you’ll be working with and who is handling every detail of your transaction. The main disadvantage is that there is a single point of failure if that person is unavailable.
  2. Individual Agent With Administrative Support: Some independent agents hire one or more people to support administrative tasks like scheduling and marketing. Some brokerages also offer this type of administrative support to their agents. This should be an advantage over #1 because the agent has more time for high-value tasks, but it also requires the administrative support to be on top of things and strong communication between agent and admin.
  3. Team Partnership: Two or more experienced agents with strong individual businesses may partner to share some administrative support costs and build a stronger brand together. For the client, it has many of the same qualities as #2, but there’s usually an added benefit of knowing that there’s at least one other experienced agent available as back-up in case your agent in unavailable.
  4. Team Lead With Coordinators: An individual agent or partnership with a large book of business that uses specialized buyer and seller coordinators to support client activities. An advantage to clients is that the transaction is generally led/directed by an experienced agent and that there is no single point of failure, you’re working with a support team. A disadvantage is that some or many high-value pieces of the transaction are handled by coordinators, not the lead (experienced) agent.
  5. Team “CEO” With Junior Agents: An experienced agent who acts more as a CEO, overseeing the operations of a large team of agents, and personally handling very few transactions, if any. Clients should benefit from systems and processes the “CEO” agent used to become successful, imparted on the junior agents. A disadvantage is that these teams often have dozens or more agents and the experience of those agents varies widely and don’t necessarily reflect the talent of the “CEO” agent.
What Should You Ask?

It’s important for you to understand how your real estate agent operates and it shouldn’t be hard to find out by asking some simple questions.

  • Will I work with anybody else during the transaction?
  • Will anybody else work on my transaction?
  • What happens if I need something when you’re unavailable or out-of-town?

I hope this has been helpful for anybody starting out their search for an agent or just generally confused by how the industry is structured. As always, if you would like to meet with me about buying, selling, or renting in Arlington or the surrounding DC Metro communities, feel free to email me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Expect A Slower Market Until February

Question: Does the Arlington market change in the winter?

Answer: November marks the start of the traditional “winter market” in Arlington that is defined by fewer homes being put up for sale and homes sitting on the market just a bit longer than they did earlier in the year. The decrease in new inventory will be obvious to anybody who has been searching for a home in 2019, but you’ll barely notice the increase in how long homes are taking to sell because the market is moving so quickly that even a slowdown will mimic spring markets in previous years.

Sharp Decrease In New Inventory

Historically, the fewest homes hit the market in Arlington from November-January, with the pace of new listings in December coming in at nearly 1/3 the rate of new listings from March-May. With inventory levels in 2019 already at historical lows, this winter will feel especially short on housing supply.

Month Contribution to Total New Listings
Buyer Demand Cools Off

Historically, the percentage of homes that go under contract within the first ten days decreases from November-January, with November and December (holiday season) having the most noticeable reduction in quick sales. However, with the pace of the Arlington market at all-time highs in 2019, you can expect the drop in demand in November and December to feel like peak spring demand in previous years.

Percentage of Homes Under Contract in First 1-10 Days
Is The Winter The Right Time For You?

The winter can be a great time to buy if you’re more focused on value because demand decreases so you may pick up some negotiation leverage.  However, if you’re searching for something unique and struggling to find properties that fit your criteria, the odds of the perfect place hitting the market in the winter decreases.

Given how low inventory is heading into this winter, I’m not sure buyers will find as many deals as they have in previous years. Demand is still strong from buyers who haven’t found a home yet in 2019 and low supply makes it a strong market for sellers, even during the holidays.

If you’re considering buying or selling in Arlington or the surrounding DC Metro communities and would like to learn more about the impact seasonality will have on your process, feel free to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

The 20% Down Payment Myth

Question: Is it possible to buy a home with less than 20% down?

Answer: I’m always surprised by the number of people who assume they have to put 20% down to buy a home and delay their goal of becoming a homeowner for years because of it. Studies show that the most common reason people give for not buying a home is that they don’t have enough for a down payment.

In reality, about 1/3 of Arlington buyers purchase a home with less than 20% down and for many buyers, especially first-time home buyers, they’re putting as little as 3-5% down.

Programs For Everybody

For those with good credit, there are popular Conventional Loan programs allowing for as little as 3% down and for those with lower credit scores, FHA Loan programs range from 3.5%-10% down. There are also some exceptional programs available to those with great credit and strong incomes allowing for 10%-15% down at great rates.

Specialty Programs For Military and Doctors

If you are an active-duty or former servicemember you likely know about VA Loans that allow purchases with zero down. Doctors also have access to special loan programs offering great rates with low down payments for large loan amounts.

Mortgage Insurance

Most loans with less than 20% down will include mortgage insurance, which I wrote about here. It will increase your monthly payment and generally represents a higher percentage of your loan amount the less you put down. However, there are options to get rid of the mortgage insurance fees by buying it out or applying for early removal after a couple of years. There are also some programs that do not include mortgage insurance at all.

Impact on Negotiations

Clients often ask me how much a lower down payment will impact their ability to negotiate, so last year I ran the numbers on the impact of different down payments on the percentage buyers were negotiating off the sale price. The results showed that only cash buyers (100% down) and buyers not putting any money down were materially impacted by their down payment, the negotiation leverage was pretty similar for everybody in between.

However, it would be misleading to suggest that down payment percentage doesn’t have any impact. Most sellers will respond more enthusiastically to higher down payments and this comes into play in competitive scenarios (multiple offers), which has become common in Arlington and the surrounding DC Metro neighborhoods. When sellers are choosing between multiple, similar offers, buyers with higher down payments have an advantage.

Buyers can combat the potential negative impact of a lower down payment in multiple offer scenarios by getting a strong pre-approval letter from a reputable local lender, offering to get pre-approved by a lender of the seller’s choosing, increasing the Earnest Money Deposit, or a number of other tweaks to the contract that will be looked at favorably by the seller, without increasing risk to the buyer or increasing the offer price.

Favorite Mortgage Programs

Here’s a link to an article I wrote with some of my favorite mortgage programs and contact information for great lenders who offer them.

If you’d like any additional information or recommendations on lenders or loan programs, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com. If you’re thinking about buying a home in Arlington or the surrounding Northern VA/DC Metro neighborhoods, I’d be happy to meet with you to discuss your options.

New Condo Building, 2000 Clarendon, Banning Smoking

Question: Are there any smoke-free condo buildings in Arlington?

Answer: There is overwhelming support amongst condo owners in Arlington and the DC Metro to ban smoking in condo buildings, including within individual units and balconies. The problem is that it requires a two-thirds (or more) vote in all existing condo buildings to change the by-laws to ban smoking completely and only a handful of buildings have successfully done so.

2000 Clarendon To Be Smoke-Free, LEED Certified

I’d like to recognize The Bush Companies for making 2000 Clarendon, an 87-unit condo building currently under construction in the Courthouse neighborhood, for being the first developer in Arlington to ban smoking outright in the original by-laws. Per the by-laws:

“Smoking is prohibited inside the Condominium building. Smoking is prohibited outside the Condominium building except in designated smoking areas located at least 25 feet from all entries, outdoor air intakes, and operable windows. The no-smoking policy applies to spaces outside the property line used for business purposes.”

In addition to being smoke-free, 2000 Clarendon will also be a LEED Certified “green” building.

There is real demand in the Arlington condo market for smoke-free buildings and there will likely be multiple owners who choose 2000 Clarendon as their home because of the smoking ban. I believe that the decision by The Bush Companies to ban smoking will result in stronger sales and I expect more developers in Arlington and the surrounding DC Metro to follow suit.

On October 15th I’m hosting a panel and info session on smoking bans in existing condo buildings. If you are interested in attending or getting a recording of the meeting, please email me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

2000 Clarendon Sales Update

If you’re in the market for a condo in the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor and aren’t aware of 2000 Clarendon, it’s because marketing has been very limited and nothing has been entered into the MLS yet (hopefully you saw my column introducing 2000 Clarendon in April). However, demand has been high enough without a full marketing push that over 50% of the units are already under contract.

The shift in demand within the Arlington condo market to larger units with 2+ bedrooms is evident at 2000 Clarendon, with impressive demand for their 2BR and 2BR+Den units and double-digit waiting lists. The 1BR+Den floor plans have been nearly as popular, but 1BR sales have lagged. I expect the 1BRs to move rather quickly once they’re entered into the MLS for broader distribution.

The developer is releasing units for sale by floor and to-date ten of the fourteen floors have been released with floors 9, 11, 13, and 14 yet to be offered. Some units on the upper floors are expected to have direct DC views.

If you’re interested in learning more about available units at 2000 Clarendon or other new condo development in Arlington or the DC Metro, feel free to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Arlington’s Next Luxury Condo Building

Question: Do you think Pierce condos in Rosslyn will be able to sell for the prices they’re advertising?

Answer: A few months ago, local developer Penzance released details on their upcoming Highlands development that includes three luxury residential buildings, one of which will be a 27-story condo building called Pierce.  Here’s a summary of what we know:

  • Large Floor Plans: 104 units ranging from a 1,270sqft 1BR+Den to a 3BR with over 2,400sqft
  • Larger Prices: Starting at $900k and increasing to over $3M
  • Luxury Finishes: Thermador appliances, hardwood throughout, Snaidero cabinets, floor-to-ceiling windows, some direct-access elevators and other luxury touches
  • Top Amenities: 24hr staff, rooftop pool, two-story gym, club room, to name a few

Courtesy of Mayhood at PierceVA.com

Is There Anything Else Like It?

It seems that Penzance is modeling its approach after Turnberry Tower, the iconic all-glass blue building a block from the Rosslyn Metro. Both buildings’ smallest units are 1BR+Den with about 1,300sqft, they have similar high-end finishes, many units with direct-access elevators, and both have luxury amenities.

Demand and prices at Turnberry have increased significantly over the last 18-24 months, which is a good sign for Penzance.

Meeting New Demand

There is a significant, relatively new, demand in Arlington for large condos to satisfy Baby Boomers downsizing from big suburban homes around the DC Metro. Over the last 20 years of condo development in Arlington, most floor plans have been 1BR-2BR, ranging from 700-1,000sqft. To find larger floor plans, buyers are mostly left with buildings constructed in the 70s and 80s, so there is currently an underserved market for newer condos with large floor plans.

For example, 2000 Clarendon, a condo building in Courthouse set to deliver next year, originally planned six 2BR+Den units of ~1,400 and ~1,700sqft. They had so much interest that they added two more. Their current waitlist for the 2BR+Den units has over 20 people on it. However, the price of 2000 Clarendon units are about half what similar units at Pierce will cost.

Will People Pay These Prices?

  • 1BR+Den with 1,270+sqft start at $900k (4 units)
  • 2BR with 1,320+sqft start at $1.1M (44 units)
  • 2BR+Den with 1,953+sqft start at $2M (46 units)
  • 3BR with 2,411sqft start at $2.6M (10 units)
  • More than half of the units will be $2M+
  • More than half of the units will be over $1,000/sqft. Over the last five years, seven Turnberry condos and two Waterview condos have cross the $1,000/sqft mark. DC hits this mark in its premier buildings.

Rosslyn has only begun its transition into a luxury market and Pierce will be a great indicator of where Rosslyn is in the eyes of the market. The sales won’t come overnight, or be without challenges, but the developer can afford to be patient for:

  • The down-sizing Baby Boomers that Pierce is suited for can afford to pay a significant premium for the right floor plan and building
  • Amazon, Nestle, consulting/law firms, Defense contractors, and tech start-ups are supplying more and more highly-paid Executives to the Arlington housing market
  • International money will be drawn to its proximity to DC and Amazon
  • Trophy units with direct views of DC and the Potomac River should be in high demand because it’s unlikely that future developments will block those views, something that has had a major impact on many Turnberry owners in the last five years (I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of them move a couple of blocks up the street to reclaim their views)

There are some challenges that will likely slow the pace of sales and maybe even cause them to bring prices down on some units:

  • At these prices, buyers will also be looking at similar units in DC’s top addresses in neighborhoods like Georgetown, West End, and The Wharf
  • There will be a 7-11, fire station (quiet-exits will help, but won’t convince everybody), and a school (a negative for most, despite the beautiful design) within one block
  • Being up the (steep) hill from many of the neighborhood’s top draws including Rosslyn Metro, Key Bridge, Mt Vernon Trail, and new dining options
  • Rosslyn still has many elements from its sleepy government office district days and probably 5-10 years from shedding that completely via redevelopment that’s in the pipeline

Pre-sales are scheduled to begin in early 2020, but the building probably won’t be finished and ready for move-in until well into 2021. I don’t think the current market, or even the 2020 market, will be ready to pay these prices for most of the 104 units, but I think by 2021 we’ll see Rosslyn far enough along and Arlington’s market driving forward enough to generate some eye-popping sales for Penzance’s Pierce condos.

15 Minutes Not Enough For Homeowners Insurance

Question: How do I know that I have the right homeowner’s insurance coverage?

Answer: Most people will spend more time figuring out what movie to watch on Netflix than setting up homeowner’s insurance on their most valuable asset(s). Despite how fast and easy insurance companies make the process, you should be spending more time with a real person designing an insurance policy that fits your home and your risk tolerance.

Two weeks ago, ARLnow columnist Peter Rousselot wrote an article about a home flooded with sewage because of a back-up in the public sewer line that didn’t have proper Water & Sewer coverage and was denied coverage by the County, thus costing them almost $20,000 and a ton of headache. According to my insurance partners at Day, Deadrick, and Marshall (DDM Insurance), Water & Sewer Back-up Coverage is one of many things commonly missing from most homeowner’s insurance policies written by popular “fast and simple” insurance providers.

In addition to having the right coverage, a good insurance provider will also make sure you understand what is NOT covered that people often think is covered. Basement flooding from heavy rains is a good example of something that is often not covered, a lesson many locals have learned the hard way over the last few years. If you understand what isn’t covered, you may make different decisions on where and how you store valuables or where you invest in expensive renovations.

I asked the team at DDM Insurance what some of the most common mistakes are that they see in other homeowner’s insurance policies they review and outlined some of them below:

  1. Sewer Water Drain Backup (what was missing in the policy for the homeowner in Peter’s article): Applies to sump pumps, wells, toilets and piping within the structure.  Separate coverage applies to the breaking or freezing of pipes, but any other back-up or over run of these sewage systems within a home require this coverage and should be no less than $25,000.
  2. Additional Living Expenses:  It covers hotel bills, restaurant meals, and other living expenses incurred while your home is being rebuilt. Typically, most policies will cover 20% of the value of your home, but for those with lower valued homes, it may be appropriate to increase this limit.  In the event of a total loss, it is very reasonable for these expenses to be over and above that amount.
  3. Guaranteed Replacement Coverage on the Dwelling:  This provides additional coverage on the dwelling if there is a total loss, so the client gets a percentage over the dwelling coverage listed on the policy declarations.  Those percentage options are usually 25%, 50%, or 100%, so if you have $100K on the dwelling coverage, with this endorsement, you get up to $125K, $150K or even $200K.  This is a must because you never actually know what it will cost to rebuild until it has to be done.  The replacement cost estimators that insurance companies require to be done are only estimates so this endorsement gives people a cushion so they are not out of pocket in the event the house is totaled.
  4. Supply Line Coverage: This helps to defray the cost to replace the incoming/outgoing water and sewer lines from the street to the house.  This covers the cost to dig up the front yard, replace the busted pipe and then backfill/repair your yard. It often costs $5,000-$10,000+ for this type of work, depending how far your house is from the street and the amount of landscaping/hardscaping to dig-up/replace.

You should also consider who the actual insurer is because when a claim is filed, the quality of service and responsiveness of your insurer is critical. Like anything else you buy, the cheapest providers often render the cheapest service when called upon.

If your homeowner’s insurance was set-up online or without involvement by a real person with expertise in local insurance practices, I highly recommend getting another opinion from an insurance agency/provider who offers a more personalized review of your policies. I also don’t suggest taking those recommendations and sourcing the cheapest version of it elsewhere because oftentimes, the personalized service you get (or don’t get) building a policy is reflective of the quality of service you’ll get when a claim arises.

For a review of your current policies or help setting up a new policy, I highly recommend contacting Matt Deadrick (mdeadrick@ddminsurance.com or 301-937-1500 x13) at DDM Insurance, who I use personally and recommend to my clients.

The Most Important Planning Tool For Condos

Question: How often should a condo building conduct a Reserve Study?

Answer: In my opinion, the Reserve Study is the most important planning tool for Condo Associations because it provides a roadmap for how much money needs to be saved and what projects the Board should prioritize.

What is a Reserve Study?

A Reserve Study should be done by an engineer who specializes in condo or apartment buildings. The engineer inspects all of the common elements like the roof, garage, hallway carpeting, pool, etc to determine the remaining useful life and major repair schedules for all common systems/elements. For buildings around here, the cost usually starts around a couple thousand dollars and goes up from there.

After the inspection is complete, the engineer provides a report that generally includes:

  • Summary of the common systems
  • Maintenance or repair recommendations
  • Replacement schedule over the next 30 years
  • Estimated annual cost of repairs and replacement needs over the next 30 years
  • Analysis of the Association’s current reserve balance, annual reserve contribution amounts, and projected annual costs to determine if the current balance and contributions are enough to support costs over the next 30 years

How Often Should a Study Be Done?

Virginia Code states that a new Reserve Study should be done at least once every five years. This will still be the case when the new code becomes effective on October 1 2019.

Who Cares?

The Reserve Study is important for many people including owners, Board members, management, and buyers.

  • The financial analysis is critical for the Treasurer to determine monthly fees and reserve contribution levels
  • The repair schedule allows the Board to set priorities for themselves and management to solicit bids for major repair or replacement projects.
  • Homeowners must provide a copy of the Reserve Study and current reserve account balance to buyers once they go under contract. Buyers have the right to cancel a contract within three days of receiving this information so having an updated Study and sufficient reserve funds is important.
  • Buyers should carefully review the Reserve Study and compare the recommended reserve balance and contribution levels with the current balance and current-year contributions in the budget.

Funding Depleted Reserves

After completing a new Reserve Study, you may find out there are insufficient reserve funds and contribution levels. Boards generally have two options – increase condo fees or issue a special assessment.

If the reserve deficiency is 5+ years out or relatively small, there’s likely enough time to slowly increase fees until you’re caught up. However, increasing fees by too much can have a negative impact on sale prices, so sometimes a one-time special assessment is in the best interest of the owners. A special assessment may also be your best option if the money is needed quickly to cover reserve costs in the next few years.

Not only does Virginia Code request Associations to complete a Reserve Study at least once every five years, it’s good practice for all stakeholders to have an update Study available for better financial planning and facility management.