Closing on your home
Go to any local courthouse and you can find property records detailing real estate ownership in your community — sometimes records that date back hundreds of years.
These records are important because they provide today’s owners with proof that they have good, marketable and insurable title to the property they are selling. Equally important, such records enable buyers to provide proof of ownership when they sell.
The closing process, which in different parts of the country is also known as “settlement” or “escrow,” is increasingly computerized and automated. In many cases, buyers and sellers don’t need to attend a specific event; signed paperwork can be sent to the closing agent via overnight delivery.
In practice, closings bring together a variety of parties who are part of the “transaction” process. For example, while the history of property ownership has been checked, it’s possible that the records contain errors, unrecorded claims or flaws in the review itself, thus title insurance is necessary. At closing, transfer taxes must be paid and other claims must also be settled (including closing costs, legal fees and adjustments). In most transactions, the closing agent also completes the paperwork needed to record the loan.
What to expect.
Settlement is a brief process where all of the necessary paperwork needed to complete the transaction is signed. Closing is typically held in an office setting, sometimes with both buyer and seller at the same table, sometimes with each party completing their papers separately.
Whatever the case, the result is that title to the property is transferred from seller to buyer. The buyer receives the keys and the seller receives payment for the home. From the amount credited to the seller, the closing agent subtracts money to pay off the existing mortgage and other transaction costs. Deeds, loan papers, and other documents are prepared, signed and filed with local property record offices.
What you need to do.
One of the best parts of settlement is that buyers and sellers need to do very little.
Before closing, buyers typically have a final opportunity to walk through the property to assure that its condition has not materially changed since the sale agreement was signed. At closing itself, all papers have been prepared by closing agents, title companies, lenders and lawyers. This paperwork reflects the sale agreement and allows all parties to the transaction to verify their interests. For instance, buyers get the title to the property, lenders have their loans recorded in the public records and state governments collect their transfer taxes.
Get a Real Estate Professional
Before placing a home on the market you should also identify Real Estate Professionals in your community who can assist with the sale. NAR (National Association of Realtors) members must adhere to a strict Code of Ethics. By joining NAR, individuals have access to a wide range of classes, seminars and certification opportunities. Local Real Estate Professional groups are active in community matters, and individual members are routinely involved in PTAs and other neighborhood organizations.
In essence, local Real Estate Professionals are community experts. They track real estate trends, share neighborhood concerns and participate in local matters. They’re good neighbors who are in the business of helping others buy and sell homes.
How do you choose a Real Estate Professional?
Whether you’re a first-time seller or someone who has sold many homes, there are several ways to find a local Real Estate Professional:
- Get recommendations from past sellers.
- Look for Real Estate Professional signs in your community.
- Check the classifieds in local newspapers and “shopper” publications.
- Look at the listings in local real estate magazines.
In some cases, sellers elect to meet only with one Real Estate Professional while other owners elect to meet with several. Whatever your preference, there will be a number of questions you will want to ask, including:
What services do you offer?
What type of representation do you provide? (There are various forms of representation in different states. Some brokers represent buyers, some represent sellers, some facilitate transactions as a neutral party, and in some cases different salespeople in a single firm may represent different parties within a transaction.)
What experience do you have in my immediate area?
How long are homes in this neighborhood typically on the market? (Be aware that because all homes are unique, some will sell faster than others. Several factors can impact the amount of time a home remains on the market, including changing interest rates and local economic trends.)
How would you price my home?
Ask about recent home sales and comparable properties currently on the market. If you speak with several Real Estate Professionals and their price estimates differ, that’s OK, but be sure to ask how their price opinions were determined and why they think your home would sell for a given value.
How will you market my home?
At listing presentations, brokers will provide a detailed summary of how they market homes, what marketing strategies have worked in the past and which marketing efforts may be effective for your home.
What is your fee?
Brokerage fees are established in the marketplace and not set by law or regulation. Typically, brokers who list homes are compensated on a performance basis – that is, the broker is not paid unless the home sells under the terms and conditions that are acceptable to you.
What happens if another Real Estate Professional locates a purchaser? That is, who will that broker represent, and how will he or she be paid? What disclosures should you receive? State rules require brokers to provide extensive agency disclosure information, usually at the first sit-down meeting with an owner or buyer. How long do you want to list your home? A “listing” agreement is a contract that shows the broker’s obligations and outlines the terms under which your home is being made available for sale. The length of the agreement is a negotiable matter.
What should you expect when working with a Real Estate Professional?
Once your home is listed with a Real Estate Professional, he or she will immediately begin to market your home according to the most appropriate conventions for your community.
Your Real Estate Professional should keep you informed as the marketing process unfolds and as expressions of interest are received. In time, the marketing plan may be modified to reflect buyer reactions and changes in the marketplace.
In real estate there are written offers and oral offers. Oral offers (“Would they take $225,000 for the home?”) are not acceptable because they generally cannot be enforced (“Gee, did I say $225,000? I was sure I said $215,000”). Written offers created by the Real Estate Professional with assistance from qualified attorneys address numerous issues, are consistent with local requirements and provide the foundation for an actionable offer.
Get the House Ready to Sell
A house that “sparkles” on the surface will sell faster than its shabby neighbor, even though both are structurally well-maintained.
From experience, REALTORS® also know that a “well-polished” house appeals to more buyers and will sell faster and for a higher price. Additionally, buyers feel more comfortable purchasing a well-cared for home because if what they can see is maintained, what they can’t see has probably also been maintained. In readying your house for sale, consider:
- How much should you spend
- Exterior and curb appeal
- Preparing the interior
- How much should you spend
In preparing your home for the market, spend as little money as possible. Buyers will be impressed by a brand new roof, but they aren’t likely to give you enough extra money to pay for it. There is a big difference between making minor and inexpensive “polishes” and “touch-ups” to your house, such as putting new knobs on cabinets and a fresh coat of neutral paint in the living room, and doing extensive and costly renovations, like installing a new kitchen. Your REALTOR®, who is familiar with buyers’ expectations in your neighborhood, can advise you specifically on what improvements need to be made. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice.
For Your Home
Our home improvement section features how-to tips and important information about repairing and remodeling your home.
Maximizing exterior and curb appeal
Before putting your house on the market, take as much time as necessary (and as little money as possible) to maximize its exterior and interior appeal. Tips to enhance your home’s exterior and curb appeal:
Keep the lawn edged, cut and watered regularly.
- Trim hedges, weed lawns and flowerbeds, and prune trees regularly.
- Check the foundation, steps, walkways, walls and patios for cracks and crumbling.
- Inspect doors and windows for peeling paint.
- Clean and align gutters.
- Inspect and clean the chimney.
- Repair and replace loose or damaged roof shingles.
- Repair and repaint loose siding and caulking.
- In Northern winters, keep walks neatly cleared of snow and ice.
- During spring and summer months consider adding a few showy annuals, perhaps in pots, near your front entrance.
- Re-seal an asphalt driveway.
- Keep your garage door closed.
- Store RVs or old and beaten up cars elsewhere while the house is on the market.
- Apply a fresh coat of paint to the front door.
Maximizing interior appeal
Enhance your home’s interior by:
- Giving every room in the house a thorough cleaning, as well as removing all clutter. This alone will make your house appear bigger and brighter. Some homeowners with crowded rooms have actually rented storage garages and moved half their furniture out, creating a sleeker, more spacious look.
- Hiring a professional cleaning service, once every few weeks while the house is on the market. This may be a good investment for owners who are busy elsewhere. Removing the less frequently used, even daily used items from kitchen counters, closets, and attics, making these areas much more inviting. Since you’re anticipating a move anyhow, holding a garage sale at this point is a great idea. If necessary, repainting dingy, soiled or strongly colored walls with a neutral shade of paint, such as off-white or beige. The same neutral scheme can be applied to carpets and linoleum.
- Checking for cracks, leaks and signs of dampness in the attic and basement.
- Repairing cracks, holes or damage to plaster, wallboard, wallpaper, paint, and tiles.
- Replacing broken or cracked windowpanes, moldings, and other woodwork. Inspecting and repairing the plumbing, heating , cooling, and alarm systems.
- Repairing dripping faucets and showerheads. Buying showy new towels for the bathroom, to be brought out only when prospective buyers are on the way.
- Sprucing up a kitchen in need of more major remodeling by investing in new cabinet knobs, new curtains, or a coat of neutral paint.
The Home Inspector’s Coming
Regardless of what the inspector may uncover, you shouldn’t be overly concerned about the actual home inspection.
Your home is in escrow, and the buyer has scheduled a home inspection. Should you be worried about what the inspector might find? The answer depends, of course, on the condition of your home and how well you’ve maintained its major components over the years. Regardless of what the inspector may uncover, however, you shouldn’t be overly concerned about the actual home inspection. Keeping in mind that disclosure laws and customary real estate practices vary from place to place, here are six suggestions as to how you might help the home inspection process go smoothly:
1. Leave the premises. It’s perfectly reasonable to absent yourself from your home during the home inspector’s visit and turn over the duties to your real estate agent. Your agent should be familiar with the home inspection process and be able to act as your representative. In fact, many listing agents prefer that the seller not be at home during the buyer’s home inspection.
2. Be courteous. Some sellers mistakenly assume the home inspector is an adversary. Experienced professional home inspectors aren’t on a mission to find fault with every tiny aspect of your home. The home inspector’s role is to offer the buyer a fair assessment of the property. Tips: Don’t keep the inspector waiting on your doorstep and allow at least two hours for the inspection.
3. Don’t attempt to refute negative comments about your home during the inspection. Inspectors don’t appreciate being followed around by argumentative or defensive home sellers (or sellers’ real estate agents). The time to explain and negotiate will come after you receive and review your copy of the inspector’s report.
4. Don’t make statements about your home that are beyond your personal knowledge or can’t be verified. For instance, if the inspector asks you how old the roof is or when certain appliances were installed, check your records before you answer. If you have documentation, provide a copy of it. If repairs or modifications were made prior to your purchasing the home, don’t guess when that work was performed. The same caution about misrepresentations applies to questions about whether permits were obtained for remodeling, the exact square footage of your home, the name of the architect who designed it and so on.
5. Don’t block access to normal living areas of your home. If the home inspector can’t enter a room or complete some other aspect of the inspection, that will be noted in his or her report and the buyer may question it.
6. Make agreed-upon repairs promptly. The buyer may ask the inspector to okay any repairs you agree to make as a result of the inspection. The sooner you make the repairs, the sooner the contingency can be met. Delaying the repairs until the last minute won’t stop the buyer from having those items reinspected, but it could delay the closing of escrow.
Negotiating to Yes
Negotiating a purchase agreement is perhaps the trickiest aspect of any real estate transaction.
Most home buyers and home sellers want to arrive at a win-win agreement, but that’s not to say either side would regret getting a bigger “win” than the other. Successful negotiating is more than a matter of luck or natural talent. It also encompasses the learned ability to use certain skills and techniques to bring about those coveted win-win results. Here are six tips and suggestions to turn negotiation into agreement:
1. Start with a fair price and a fair offer. There’s no question that significantly overpricing your home will turn off potential buyers. Likewise, making an offer that’s far lower than the asking price is practically guaranteed to alienate the sellers. Asking and offering prices should be based on recent sales prices of comparable homes.
2. Respect the other side’s priorities. Knowing what’s most important to the person on the other side of the negotiating table can help you avoid pushing too hard on hot or sensitive issues. For example, a seller who won’t budge on the sales price, might be willing to pay more of the transaction costs or make more repairs to the home, while a buyer with an urgent move-in date might be willing to pay a higher portion of the transaction costs or forgo some major repairs.
3. Be prepared to compromise. “Win-win” doesn’t mean both the buyer and the seller will get everything they want. It means both sides will win some and give some. Rather than approaching negotiations from an adversarial winner-take-all perspective, focus on your top priorities and don’t let your emotions overrule your better judgment.
4. Meet in the middle. Can’t decide who will pay the recording fee? Can’t agree on a close-of-escrow date? Arguing over cosmetic repairs? Splitting the difference is a time-honored and often successful negotiation strategy. Pay half the fee. Count off half the days. Fix half the blemishes.
5. Leave it aside. Politicians and corporate executives are famous for their “for future discussion” agreements. If you have a major sticking point that’s not material to the overall contract (e.g., the purchase of furniture or fixtures), finish the main agreement, then resolve the other difficulties in a side agreement or amendment. This technique allows both sides to recognize and solidify basic areas of agreement, then move ahead toward a fair compromise on other terms and conditions. Summarizing the points of agreement in writing is another helpful strategy.
6. Ask for advice. Successful REALTORS® tend to be experienced negotiators. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t in countless real estate transactions, and they’ve established a track-record of bringing buyers and sellers together. Consult your REALTOR about negotiating strategies, win-win compromises and creative alternatives.
Maximize your price and minimize your hassles
Some 5 million existing homes are sold each year, and while each transaction is different every owner wants the same thing – the best possible deal with the least amount of hassle and aggravation.
Unfortunately, home selling has become a more complex business than it used to be. New seller disclosure statements, longer and more mysterious form agreements, and a range of environmental concerns have all emerged in the past decade.
More importantly, the home-selling process has changed. Buyer brokerage – where REALTORS® represent home buyers – is now common nationwide, and good buyer-brokers want the best for their clients.
The result is that while almost 100,000 existing homes are sold each week, the process is not as easy for sellers as it was five or 10 years ago. Surviving in today’s real estate world requires experience and training in such fields as real estate marketing, financing, negotiation and closing – the very expertise available from local REALTORS®.
Are you ready?
The home-selling process typically starts several months before a property is made available for sale. It’s necessary to look at a home through the eyes of a prospective buyer and determine what needs to be cleaned, painted, repaired and tossed out.
Ask yourself: If you were buying this home what would you want to see? The goal is to show a home which looks good, maximizes space and attracts as many buyers – and as much demand – as possible.
While part of the “getting ready” phase relates to repairs, painting and other home improvements, this is also a good time to ask why you really want to sell.
Selling a home is an important matter and there should be a good reason to sell – perhaps a job change to a new community or the need for more space. Your reason for selling can impact the negotiating process so it’s important to discuss your needs and wants in private with the REALTOR® who lists your home.
When should you sell?
The marketplace tends to be more active in the summer because parents want to enroll children in classes at the beginning of the school year (usually August). The summer is also typically when most homes are likely to be available.
Generally speaking, markets tend to have some balance between buyers and sellers year-round. In a given community, for example, there may be fewer buyers in late December, but there are also likely to be fewer homes available for purchase. So, home prices tend to rise or fall because of general demand patterns rather than the time of the year.
Owners are encouraged to sell when the property is ready for sale, there is a need or desire to sell, and the services of a local REALTOR® have been retained.
How do you improve your home’s value?
The general rule in real estate is that buyers seek the least expensive home in the best neighborhood they can afford. In terms of improvements, this means you want a home that fits in the neighborhood but is not over-improved. For example, if most homes in your neighborhood have three bedrooms, two baths and 2,500 sq. ft. of finished space, a property with five bedrooms, more baths and far more space would likely be priced much higher and likely be more difficult to sell.
Improvements should be made so that the property shows well, is consistent with the neighborhood and does not involve capital investments, the cost of which cannot be recovered from the sale. Furthermore, improvements should reflect community preferences.
Cosmetic improvements – paint, wallpaper and landscaping – help a home “show” better and often are good investments. Mechanical repairs – to ensure that all systems and appliances are in good working condition – are required to get a top price.
Ideally, you want to be sure that your property is competitive with other homes available in the community. REALTORS®, who see numerous homes, can provide suggestions that are consistent with your marketplace.
Setting the Price
Every reasonable owner wants the best possible price and terms for his or her home. Several factors, including market conditions and interest rates, will determine how much you can get for your home. The idea is to get the maximum price and the best terms during the window of time when your home is being marketed.
In other words, home selling is part science, part marketing, part negotiation and part art. Unlike math where 2 + 2 always equals 4, in real estate there is no certain conclusion. All transactions are different, and because of this, you should do as much as possible to prepare your home for sale and engage the REALTOR® you feel is best able to sell your home.
What is your home worth?
All homes have a price, and sometimes more than one. There’s the price owners would like to get, the value buyers would like to offer and a point of agreement which can result in a sale.
In considering home values, several factors are important:
The value of your home relates to local sale prices. The same home, located elsewhere, would likely have a different value.
Sale prices are a product of supply and demand. If you live in a community with an expanding job base, a growing population and a limited housing supply, it’s likely that prices will rise. Alternatively, it’s important to be realistic. If the local community is losing jobs and people are moving out, then you’ll likely have a buyer’s market.
Owner needs can impact sale values. If owner Smith “must” sell quickly, he will have less leverage in the marketplace. Buyers may think that Smith is willing to trade a quick closing for a lower price — and they may be right. If Smith has no incentive to sell quickly, he may have more marketplace strength.
Sale prices are not based on what owners “need.” When an owner says, “I must sell for $300,000 because I need $100,000 in cash to buy my next home,” buyers will quickly ask if $300,000 is a reasonable price for the property. If similar homes in the same community are selling for $250,000, the seller will not be successful.
Sale prices are NOT the whole deal. Which would you rather have: A sale price of $200,000, or a sale price of $205,000 but where you agree to make a “seller contribution” of $5,000 to offset the buyer’s closing costs, pay a $2,000 allowance for roof repairs, fund two mortgage points, re-paint the entire house and leave the washer and dryer?
How much is too much?
Because all transactions are unique there is flexibility in the marketplace. The amount of flexibility depends on local conditions.
For example, suppose you’re selling a townhouse. Suppose also that there have been five recent sales of the model you own and that sale values have ranged between $200,000 and $210,000. You now have an idea of how your home might be priced. In a strong market perhaps you can ask for $210,000 or a little more. If the market has slowed, $210,000 may be a reasonable asking price, but perhaps more than the final sale price.
Here’s another scenario. Imagine that you live in a community of Victorian-style homes, most of which were built in the 1920s. All the homes are different in terms of size, condition, modernization, style and features. In such a neighborhood, an average sale price is just a statistic without much practical meaning. On a single block one home may sell for $400,000 while another is priced at more than $1 million. The average price may be outrageously high for one home and staggeringly low for another.
Who can help?
Experienced REALTORS® are active in the local marketplace and can provide assistance with pricing, marketing, negotiation and closing.
Because experienced REALTORS® have handled many transactions, they’re familiar with the terms and conditions that went into individual sales, not just published sale prices which may not reflect various premiums, discounts and adjustments.
Who Represents You?
One of the hot topics facing the world of real estate right now is the issue of agency. Some would have you believe that it really doesn’t affect you, the buyer, and that nothing much has changed. But they are wrong.
The topic of agency is important to you because it answers the most basic and fundamental question that can be asked of any real estate professional: Who do you represent in this transaction?
Until that question is answered, you may be left with the impression that all agents who work with buyers actually represent those buyers, and that you have somebody going to bat for you in this transaction. Well, the issue of agency is important because without it, we can never be sure who represents who.
Here’s the scenario: You meet a really nice agent at an open house named Bonnie. Even though Bonnie’s house is not right for you, she tells you she has others to show you that fit your needs exactly. You spend an hour or so with Bonnie looking at a half dozen homes and talking about your needs and your wants. During the course of the conversation, you volunteer that you have $100,000 cash to spend and that you will not go over $100,000 purchase price no matter what. Then you find the perfect house. Asking price is $100,000 but you decide to offer $92,500 based on recent sales in the area. During negotiations, the seller asks Bonnie directly how much cash you have and how high will you go? What does Bonnie say?
Here’s the answer: Unless you have signed a “Buyer Agency Agreement” with Bonnie making her your buyer agent, she is most likely acting as a sub-agent to the listing broker who represents the seller. If that is the case, she has a fiduciary obligation to the seller to disclose to him any information she has that might “promote or protect his interest” in the transaction. Guess what? Bonnie has that information.
The Seller, now having knowledge of your financial position, counters at a full $100,000. He knows you can afford it and that this price falls within your desired range. He also knows that you have seen a number of other homes and that his is the one you want.
Regardless of what eventually happens in this scenario, it can hardly be called an even playing field. So, how can you protect yourself from a possible disclosure required of a seller’s agent?
1. Make sure that the agent you are working with has agreed, in writing, to represent you as a “Buyer’s Agent.” This will mean signing a buyer brokerage agreement in which you promise to work only with that particular agent for a specific period of time, often 90 days. It also means that you promise not to buy from anybody else, even FSBOs, without involving your buyer’s agent. In almost every case, the commission will still come from the seller, but your agent must present the offer.
2. Never say anything to anybody unless you would be willing to have that information repeated into a seller’s ear. Assume that everybody, and I mean everybody, is working for a seller unless you have specifically hired them to work for you. And even then, be discreet. During the second world war, the military promoted a phrase designed to stop idle gossip: Loose lips sink ships! You would do well to adopt that philosophy in your home-buying as well.