Starting Your 2022 Home Search

Question: We are looking forward to buying a home in 2022. 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 a list of 12-15 things. Then give yourself 100 points and allocate points to each based on how important each item is 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 so each home you see is scored on a 100-point scale.

Length of Ownership

How long you expect to be in your home is one of the most important considerations in defining what you prioritize and how you use your budget. 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 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 for single-family and townhouses right now with low supply, high demand, and increasing prices, but the condo market is more balanced.

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’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Who Is Responsible for Main Supply Lines?

Question: We bought an older home with original water and sewer lines. Who is responsible for the maintenance and replacement of these lines and how do I know if there’s a problem?

Answer: You are responsible for the main plumbing lines for water and sewage running between your home and the public lines. In most cases, the gas company is responsible for everything to and including the meter (attached to your home) and you’re responsible for the lines after the meter.

The main lines are usually buried under your front yard and replacement costs (water and sewage) often start at a couple thousand dollars and can easily exceed $10,000. Costs vary based on some key factors including:

  • Distance from the public line to your home
  • Pipe material
  • Type of excavation/installation (difficulty in digging up old plumbing, # of turns in new pipe)
  • Cost to return landscaping to original state (this is on you, not the County)

In most cases, Washington Gas will return your property/landscaping to its original condition, including hardscape and your lawn (even your driveway), after excavating for repair or replacement. It’s not a bad idea to find out where your gas supply line is and plan landscaping with that in mind.

Identifying Problems

The life expectancy on many of the most common materials used for main plumbing lines range from 50-100 years, but tree root growth, unnatural disturbances like new landscaping, corrosion, and pressure build-ups can cause leaks, blockages, and other damage that you should monitor.

The most effective and most expensive way to look for problems is to hire a plumber to scope the lines with a camera to see if there are any issues. The cost of doing this often exceeds $500 per line, but can give you piece of mind or early warnings of a problem.

If you don’t want to pay a plumber to scope your lines, you can monitor for signs of a problem:

  • Water Line: higher water bills, lower water pressure, flooding in yard when there isn’t rain
  • Sewer Line: slow drainage/clogs in multiple areas of the house, foul smell inside or outside, odd behavior from plumbing like bubbling sounds
  • Gas Line: if you smell a gas/rotten egg odor, hissing sound from a gas line/meter, hazy/cloudy near gas line, plants dying, issues with gas-powered appliances

Good To Know

Here are some other helpful tips regarding the main lines for water, sewage, and gas:

  • HomeServce USA, through Dominion Energy, offers insurance protection for the water supply line, sewer line, and in-home gas lines
  • In most cases, you can expect the gas company to have a utility easement on your property which allows them the right to access your property for repairs or replacement as needed. Check your survey/plat to verify this right of access.
  • Polybutylene pipes (grey plastic) were used from the 70s-90s and prone to breakage. If your sewer lines is Polybutylene, consider replacing them now.
  • Lead pipes (dull grey) were used in the early 1900s for water supply lines and risk leaching lead into your drinking water and should be tested or replaced
  • CSST (Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing) became popular for gas lines in the early 90s and is often not property bonded which means a lightning strike can blow a hole in your gas line. Bonding your gas line is simple enough that most home owners do it themselves, although I must recommend you use a qualified Electrician.
  • These days, PVC/CPVC are the most common piping for the main water and sewer lines instead of the heavier cast iron/galvanized steel options that used to be the standard. Copper is still a popular choice for water lines, but more expensive and more difficult to install.

If you’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Answering Your Appraisal Questions

Question: Can you explain the basics of the appraisal process?

Answer: I sat down with one of the best local lenders, Jake Ryon at First Home Mortgage (Jryon@firsthome.com), and came up with a list of some of the most common questions we hear about appraisals, which I’ll answer below:

What is an appraisal?

An appraisal is an objective assessment of a property’s value, conducted by an unbiased third party who does not have a stake in the sale of the property.

Below is an example of the core component of a recent appraisal in Arlington, the Comparable Sales Analysis. It compares objective features of the subject property (the home being assessed by the Appraiser) to the same features of similar/comparable homes that have sold nearby to reach a valuation of the subject home based on the Appraiser’s determination of how the difference in features change the value of the homes.

Why are appraisals done?

In most cases, the bank/lender is the primary investor in a home purchase. If you put 20% down, the bank is investing the other 80%. Appraisals are done to ensure that banks are making responsible investments in homes they otherwise know very little about and to make sure they do not lose substantially if you, the borrower, default on the loan and the bank is forced to take over (and sell it).

In short, the bank conducts an appraisal to make sure they agree with the value (aka the agreed upon sale price) you’ve placed on the home.

Who does the appraisal?

Anybody can hire a licensed appraisal to provide an opinion on a property’s value, but most appraisals are done through a bank/lender. Lenders have a pool of independent, licensed appraisers or appraisal companies that receive a notice when an appraisal is needed for a loan and an appraiser from the lender’s pool claims the job.

The selection of the appraiser is designed to be a blind selection process to maintain independence and objectivity so that lenders can’t handpick the appraiser they want and potentially influence the results.

Is an appraisal required? What is an “appraisal wavier”?

Most lenders require an appraisal to approve a loan, but in some cases an “appraisal waiver” is issued if Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac determine that that they do not need the additional assessment of an Appraiser because the sale price falls within an acceptable range based on sales history and reliability of comparable sales.

Waivers may also be given if the borrower has a high enough down payment that enough of the risk of overpaying for a property is being absorbed by the buyer.

How long does an appraisal usually take?

When Appraisers are not overwhelmed with orders and a lender submits a rush order right away, I’ve seen appraisals completed in as little as a few days. However, in most cases, appraisal reports are usually completed within 1-2 weeks of the order being placed by the lender.

What effect does a low or high appraisal have on a property sale?

If the appraisal value comes in at or above the purchase price, the bank is happy and the loan proceeds along the approval process. If the appraisal value is below the sale price, the bank will require the sale price to be reduced to the appraisal value or that the buyer put more money down to satisfy the loan-to-value ratio.

In most cases, the amount of additional money a buyer needs to put down is equal to the percentage the bank is contributing to the purchase (e.g. 80% if you’re making a 20% down payment or 95% if you’re making a 5% down payment) multiplied by the difference between the contract’s sale price and the appraisal value. However, this additional contribution can vary or may not be needed depending on your down payment amount, type of loan, and other details of your loan arrangement.

What happens if we disagree with the value or it comes in low?

The borrower/buyer is the only party who can challenge an appraisal and they must provide other (better) comparable sales, facts, or justifications to support an adjusted valuation.

I have dealt with some frustrating scenarios as a listing/seller’s agent when an appraisal came in low based on factually incorrect information on the appraisal report (incorrect bedroom count, square footage, etc) and there is nothing that can be done unless the borrower/buyer requests a revision.

What is an appraisal contingency?

An appraisal contingency is one of the three “standard” contingencies in the residential real estate contract (inspection, financing, and appraisal are the “big three”). It protects the buyer in the event a property appraises for less than the sale price by giving the buyer the ability to renegotiate the sale price or void the contract without losing their deposit.

Who pays for the appraisal and how much does it cost?

Buyers pay for the appraisal as a pre-closing expense and the cost usually ranges from $500-$1,000 depending on the type of loan and value/complexity of the property.

Does appraisal value equal market value?

I would argue that the answer is no. Market value is the price a buyer and seller are willing to exchange a property for and often incorporates forward-looking expectations (future construction, development pipeline, market trends, etc).

The appraisal value is generally backward-looking given that Appraisers are tasked with determining a home’s value based on similar properties that have sold/closed nearby (generally within 6-12 months). There is subjectivity in which comparable sales an Appraiser chooses for the report and how they value different features, like a pool, view, or extra garage space.

Oftentimes I find that things the market values like beautiful finishes/design, a quiet neighborhood street lined with mature trees, or lot quality (privacy, flat yard, etc) are not valued by Appraisers to the same extend as they are buyers. Appraisers are generally focused on objective, measurable criteria like bedrooms/bathroom count, square footage, parking, lot size, etc.

It is worth noting here that Appraisers do know the contract sale price of the property they’re appraising in real-world appraisals for lenders (as opposed to my hypothetical scenario above).

Does appraisal value impact my property tax assessment?

No, the appraisal value has no impact on anything outside of the loan. The County will not receive the appraisal value to include in their assessment for tax purposes.

Can I switch lenders and use the same appraisal?

For Conventional loans (the majority of loans in Arlington), most lenders will not accept an appraisal done through another lender, but VA and FHA appraisals do have reciprocity on appraisals between lenders.

If you have additional questions about appraisals, you can email me at Eli@EliResidential.com or a great local lender, Jake Ryon of First Home Mortgage at Jryon@firsthome.com.

If you’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Financing a Major Remodel or New Construction

Question: We are deciding between buying a lot to build a new house on or expanding and remodeling our current home. Do you have a recommendation for a lender who can finance these projects?

Answer: Over the years, I’ve found that one of the best banks for construction or major remodeling loans, and a favorite amongst local builders, is Sandy Spring Bank. They are large enough to offer some excellent, customized products with great rates and local enough that relationships with builders and homeowners matter to the success of their business. That’s usually a good combination for a business, especially lenders.

I have worked with Skip Clasper (sclasper@sandyspringbank.com), a loan officer at Sandy Spring Bank, for years so I reached out to him to gather up some details on their popular construction and remodel loan products.

Remodel Loans

Sandy Spring Bank will give you a loan to finance the cost of your remodeling project based on the expected post-construction value of your home. Given how high market values are now, that means you can get a significant amount of financing to expand and remodel your home.

There are a few things that stand-out about the way Sandy Spring Bank handles these loans:

  • They offer 90% loan-to-value (LTV), meaning you can get financing for 90% of the future value of your completed home. Most banks limit their loans to an 80% LTV.
  • They accommodate a flexible draw schedule. Banks give borrowers/builders draws to pay for construction incrementally as the project progresses. Many banks offer their draws on a fixed schedule, but given the unexpected twists and turns construction can take, a flexible draw schedule makes for a better process for everybody.
  • You only pay interest on the money you have drawn from the loan so you only pay interest on the money you’ve used, not the money you will use
  • Interest rates are competitive with rates you will find on standard, non-construction loans. This is noteworthy because oftentimes specialized loan products require paying higher interest rates.

Construction Loans

A construction loan allows buyers more control over building a new home because it allows you to finance the purchase of the lot and construction yourself. That means you can purchase the lot you want (easier said than done) and choose the builder you work with, as opposed to hoping that the builder who acquires a lot you like is also a builder you want to work with.

Here are some highlights and key pieces of information about the Sandy Spring Bank construction loans:

  • You can purchase a tear-down/lot and finance the construction of your home with a single closing. After closing on the tear-down/lot, they will finance the construction, and then the loan will automatically convert into a permanent 30-year loan after the construction is completed.
  • The loan is interest-only until construction is completed, making your payments during the construction phase much lower
  • Sandy Spring allows cross-collateralization on construction loans, meaning they will include equity in your current home towards your future down payment when considering your loan application/qualifications for your construction loan
  • It will take 6-8+ weeks to finalize the loan on your tear-down/lot purchase, which may put you at a disadvantage in some cases if you are competing against buyers or builders who are paying cash or using a standard loan product that can close faster
  • All construction loans are Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs), but can be refinanced into a fixed rate mortgage with a second closing
  • Interest rates are competitive with rates you will find on standard, non-construction loans. This is noteworthy because oftentimes specialized loan products require paying higher interest rates.

If you’d like to talk with Skip Clasper about Sandy Spring’s remodel, construction, or other loan products the best way to reach him is by email at sclasper@sandyspringbank.com or phone at 301-928-7523.

Answering Common Real Estate Timeline Questions

Question: I’m getting ready to buy my first home and wondering how long things will take during the process. Can you explain some basic timelines I should be aware of?

Answer: Timelines vary by regional markets quite a bit due to different customs, contract structure, or local/state governance. Below, I’ll offer a quick answer to common timeline questions I get as it relates to real estate in the greater DC Metro area.

1. How long does it take to close/settle on a home after an offer is accepted?

The median contract-to-close period in Arlington has been ~30 days since 2018, down from ~36-38 days a decade ago. Most sellers want to close as quickly as possible, so buyers who can close faster have an advantage. Be sure to talk to your lender about how long they need to close before signing off on your offer. Some bigger, national banks and credit unions often need 35-40+ days to close. Many of our local lenders can comfortably close in as little as three works (sometimes even faster).

2. How long does a seller (or buyer) have to respond to an offer/counteroffer?

Our contracts do not stipulate a response deadline so any deadline for a response must be written into the contract or otherwise communicated by the party who wishes to set a deadline. Technically, an offer/counteroffer can go on forever if it is never responded to or withdrawn.

3. When is the Earnest Money Deposit (EMD) due?

It is common for the EMD (usually 1-3% or more of the sale price) to be due to the EMD holder (usually the Title Co) within 3-5 days of going under contract. With such a quick turn-around for a substantial amount of cash, make sure those funds are in an account that you can quickly and easily transfer (wire or check) money out of. For a reminder on what the EMD is, here’s an article I wrote earlier this year.

4. How long do you have to complete a home inspection and decide whether or not to move forward with the purchase?

The game has changed lately for home inspections, which I wrote about earlier this year, but for buyers who can secure a post-contract inspection contingency, they usually have as little as two days to as many as ten days from going under contract to complete the home inspection and decide whether or not to move forward or submit their requests for repair or credit. The timing and type of inspection contingency are all negotiable terms and factor heavily into the strength of offer.

5. How long does the mortgage financing process take?

As noted earlier, this varies by the type of lender you choose to work with and can range from as little as 10-14 days to 45+ days. Here’s an article I wrote earlier this year highlighting the importance of choosing the right lender.

6. How long does it take to have an appraisal done?

In most cases, when you finance the purchase of your home through a lender, they require a third-party appraisal before approving the loan. In short, they need to make sure that the market value of a home, per the appraisal, is equal to or greater than the purchase price of the home (here’s the most relevant article I have, but I’ll do a deeper dive into appraisals soon). Most lenders will order the appraisal within a week of you going under contract and it usually takes a week or two for the appraiser to visit the home and submit the report, so the total time to get appraisal results back is usually 1-3 weeks depending on when it’s ordered and if it’s a rush order.

7. How long does the Attorney Review take?

An Attorney Review period is common in other jurisdictions (New York/New Jersey), but not here so there is no legal review period built into our contracts. It is rare that an attorney outside of the Title Company is involved in the transaction.

8. How long does it take to sign paperwork at closing/settlement?

For sellers, it often takes just 10-15 minutes and for buyers it usually takes 45-60+ minutes, depending on the size of the loan package and questions you have for the title attorney while signing.

9. When can you start moving into the house after closing?

You can walk through the front door and start moving in immediately following the closing, unless otherwise stipulated in the contract.

10. How long can a seller rent a home back from a buyer?

If a home is being purchased using a mortgage for a primary residence, the law states that a buyer must intend on moving into the home as their primary residence within 60 days, so the longest time a seller can rent-back (link to an article I wrote in 2019 on rent-backs) in that scenario is 60 days. If the buyer is paying cash or buying the home as an investment property, there are no restrictions on how long a seller can remain in the home after closing.

11. How long does the home search process last?

This is the question everybody wants to know but there’s no good answer for. I have worked with buyers who plan on buying a home 6-12+ months from starting their search and end up finding a home they love in the first week and have worked with buyers who want to buy right away and end up spending two years searching for the right home. If I had to estimate, I would say that most buyers find a home within 6-12 weeks of starting their search.

Remember that these timelines are not fixed and vary widely by jurisdiction/market across the country and a heavily dependent on the negotiations/circumstances of the buyer and seller on a specific transaction. Use these timelines as general guidance on the customs and common practices in the greater DC Metro area.

If you’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Expect Short-Term Increase in Listing, Contract Activity

Question: Will I see more homes being listed for sale in the fall or is there a stead drop in sales activity until next year?

Answer: It is completely normal for the market to slow down (pace of listing activity and contract activity)  during the summer, but it was discussed much more this year because the preceding months were so crazy, locally and nationally, and everybody is on high alert to a potential bubble.

Nothing I have seen so far has suggested that the change in market conditions over the last couple months is anything more than normal seasonal behavior, so I expect the next couple months to lead to similar seasonal patterns as in years past (except for 2020).

This means a quick bump in post-Labor Day listing activity and contract activity, followed by a steady drop in both measures through the end of the year.

The chart below shows monthly listing and contract activity as a percentage of total annual activity for Arlington from 2015-2019, broken out by single-family homes (SFH)/townhouses (TH) and apartment-style condos/coops. The following bullets are some highlights I pulled from the data:

  • The September bump in listing activity only lasts for a couple of weeks before starting a steady decline through the end of the year
  • The SFH/TH and condo markets behave similarly, but the changes in condo activity aren’t as extreme as the SFH/TH market. The spring peaks and summer lull are closer to average for condos, meaning seasonality plays less of a role in the condo market than the SFH/TH market.
  • The bump in post-Labor Day SFH/TH contract activity outlasts the short, but more extreme, burst in listing activity
  • From October-December, contract activity actually exceeds new listing volume, but this generally does not lead to better sales results during this time of year
  • The four months from March-June account for nearly 46% and 43% of annual SFH/TH and condo listing volume, respectively, and almost 44% and 40% of annual SFH/TH and condo contract activity, respectively.

If you’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Demand Drops Regionally, Remains Competitive

Question: Is the housing market slowing down?

Answer: Over the last 2-3 months I’ve experienced a noticeable slowdown in the single-family and townhouse market relative to what we’ve experienced most of the last 12+ months. While slower than it has been, the market is still very competitive, and prices are holding.

Properties that would have gotten 8-10+ offers a few months ago might get 2-3 now. Escalations over asking are still common, but less extreme. And in some cases, Buyers can secure modest contingencies (inspection, appraisal, financing). I believe the main factors in this change are:

  • Buyers have distractions they didn’t have for much of the lockdown (vacations, events, commute, etc)
  • Asking prices are more reflective of market values now that 6+ months of closed sales in 2021 are available for market pricing analysis
  • Some Buyers have given up after months of struggling to find/win a home
  • Normal seasonal behavior. Demand usually subsides in the summer, relative to the previous spring.

Home Demand Index Readings

To put the receding demand into perspective, I pulled out some charts from the most recent Bright MLS Home Demand Index, which tracks regional and local demand by analyzing data ranging from buyer showing activity to closed sales to feedback from local real estate agents.

Demand in the overall Washington DC Metro housing market dropped 17% from June to July and 13% year-over-year. The July 2021 Demand Index reading of 123 is lower than the Demand Index reading in 10 of the last 14 months, with the four months from November 2020-February 2021 being the only months with lower readings since May 2020. July 2021 is also the first month with a year-over-year decline in demand over the last 12+ months.

Home Demand Index

The Index uses the same price ranges to track demand across all Bright MLS market centers (DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia) so the price ranges aren’t the best for the DC Metro/Arlington, but still provide a good indication of regional and local demand trends.

The Demand Index for single-family homes $395k-$950k dropped 19% from June to July and 9% year-over-year. For single-family homes over $950k, the Demand Index dropped 29% from June to July and just 2% year-over-year.

While these reports show significant drops in demand recently, the actual demand is still very high and is enough to support recent price appreciation.

Single Family Home $395K-$950K
Single Family Home Above $950K

Listing Volume Still High

The number of condos listed for sale over the last 12 months is significantly higher than any other 12-month period we’ve seen in Arlington, but July listing volume settled down to finish closer to historical averages than we’ve been seeing. This is a sign that the surge in condo supply may be tapering off while we’re also seeing condo demand increase relative to the 2nd half of 2020 and early 2021.

High market values and changing housing needs have also led to an increase in the number of single-family homes listed for sale in Arlington lately, but that volume is much closer to the historical average than what we’ve witnessed in the condo market. It also does not seem like it to most Buyers because demand has quickly absorbed the extra supply.

New Listings In Arlington County

Looking Ahead

There’s usually an increase in demand and homes listed for sale after Labor Day and I expect to see similar seasonal behavior this year until we reach the winter/holiday market starting around early November when demand and listing supply both tend to retract.

Historically, it has taken until late February/mid March for demand and listing volume to ramp up towards their spring peaks, but the last few years we’ve seen the ramp-up period, especially for demand, start in January. I expect a similar pattern next year, but will be surprised to see anything like the double-digit price appreciation that we experienced in 2021 repeat in 2022.

If you’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Arlington Condo Mid-Year Review

Question: How has Arlington’s condo market performed in the first half of 2021?

Answer: Given the tremendous appreciation we’ve seen locally and nationally on prices for single-family homes and townhouses, the mostly unchanged values of condos in Arlington highlights how much the condo market has struggled compared to the rest of the housing market. We did experience some periods of value loss in the last quarter of 2020 and early in 2021, but the first half data (and my experience in the market) suggests that prices have recovered and leveled out to about the same values we saw in 2019.

The biggest question I have is whether we will sustain these prices or see a slow decline as people adjust to new work arrangements and housing preferences in the wake of COVID. While it’s possible that we could see a delayed price surge due to sustained low interest rates and returns to offices, I think that scenario is unlikely.

This week we will take a look at Arlington’s condo market in the first half of 2021. Note that the data does not include Cooperatives (e.g. River Place) or age restricted housing (e.g. The Jefferson).

Prices Relatively Flat, Listing Volume and Inventory Up

I think the biggest story in the condo market for Arlington and the DC Metro area is the historically high number of condos being listed for sale since Q3 2020. There is clearly a flight out of condos by homeowners and investors and the demand is not high enough to absorb the extra supply, so inventory levels have returned to 2015-2016 levels when we were in the midst of a near zero-growth condo market (in Arlington).

The return to 2015-2016 inventory levels isn’t a bad thing, but the suddenness of that shift was difficult for sellers to manage after we experienced a red-hot condo market from late 2018 (Amazon HQ2 announcement) to early 2020 (pre-pandemic).

Demand Metrics Down, Disaster Avoided

Demand metrics like days on market, percentage of homes selling within a week, and the percentage of sold price to the original asking price are all down to 2017-2018 levels (pre-Amazon announcement) and prices are more reflective of what we saw in the first half of 2019.

During the pandemic, there were concerns of a fundamental shift in the condo market that would lead to a significant re-pricing of condo values but that’s clearly not the case. Sure, it’s tough for condo owners to take a step backward while the single-family/townhouse market surges ahead, but the condo market looks to be recovered and safe at this point.

If you’re interested in seeing last week’s mid-year analysis of the single-family housing market, you can check it out here.

If you’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Advice on Home Inspection Negotiations

Question: We just finished out home inspection and are a bit overwhelmed by the list of recommended repairs. How do we know what to ask for and what’s reasonable to expect from the seller?

Answer: As we head into the colder months and the market slows down a bit, buyers will start picking up more leverage to include home inspection contingencies with the right to negotiate, not just the right to void. I thought it would be helpful timing to revisit some tips, applicable for buyers and sellers, on home inspection negotiations.

Inspection negotiations can be frustrating for both parties so it’s helpful to establish some ground-rules heading into negotiations. Unless you’re buying a new home, you should expect the inspection to turn up at least a handful of items and you’ll need to quickly and reasonably determine which items are the responsibility of the seller or buyer.

What Is A Home Inspection?

After ratifying (signed by both parties) a contract to purchase a home, most buyers will hire a home inspector to inspect the entire home and produce a report of any issues/risks, from foundation cracks to missing door stops.

Depending on the contract terms, the buyer usually has the right to negotiate for repairs or credits, based on the results of the inspection, and the right to void if an agreement can’t be reached OR no negotiation period, just a right to void (aka a Pass/Fail Inspection). In either case, if the buyer voids under the terms of the inspection contingency, they will receive their full deposit back.

What Should You Look For?

In my opinion, the goal of an inspection is to ensure that the property is in the condition both sides expected while negotiating the purchase price. Items that have a material impact on the value of the home should be on the table for negotiation.

Generally, you can divide findings into big-ticket items that impact the value of the home and must be addressed and smaller punch-list items that are good housekeeping practices. The big-ticket items I look for during an inspection are:

  • Structural Flaws
  • Water Penetration
  • Safety Hazards
  • Inoperability (e.g. AC not working)
System Life Expectancy

You should also determine the age of major systems like the roof, windows, appliances, HVAC, and water heater prior to making your offer, and verify these are accurate during the inspection. Make sure you’re clear on the projected life expectancy of these systems while you’re negotiating the purchase price and factor this information into your offer. You’ll have a tough time convincing most sellers they’re on the hook for crediting you the cost of a 17-year-old water heater if that information was made available prior to your offer, assuming the system is working.

What Can You Ask For?

Negotiations can include all sorts of solutions, but most frequently the conversation is about whether a seller will handle the repairs or provide the buyer a credit (against closing costs) instead. Often times an inspection agreement includes both – a credit for some items and a request to fix/replace others. Sellers must use licensed contractors and provide works receipts for any work they do.

In general, if something you’re asking for involves personal preference or you want to have control over the quality of the result, it’s best to ask for a credit and handle it yourself. For example, if the deck is falling apart and needs to be replaced, you don’t want the seller managing the design and construction of a new deck so ask for a credit for the replacement cost and make sure you’re getting the deck you want.

Inspections Don’t Need To Be Contentious

Inspections are one of the most common points of contention between buyers and sellers, but with the right preparation and expectations going in, it can be a smooth process that both sides are happy with. Like the negotiations you had on the sale contract, the inspection period is also a negotiation that requires both parties to be understanding and reasonable to reach a win/win.

Starting Your 2021 Home Search

Question: We are looking forward to buying our first home in 2021. 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 for single-family and townhouses right now with low supply, high demand, and increasing prices, but the condo market is becoming more favorable for buyers.

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 2021 and would like to meet, feel free to email me at Eli@EliResidential.com!