Shopping for Your Home

Monday, March 17, 2014

10 Ways To Spruce Up Your Home For Under $100

10 Ways To Spruce Up Your Home For Under $100
             Written by Jaymi Naciri

1. Update your bathroom. You can change your faucets and fixtures out for under $100, but if you're not super DIY, you may have to deal with plumbers and electricians, which can bust your $100 budget. Instead, take those dusty old tulip glass light shades and swap them for something more modern. You can find shades in a variety of styles, like this four-pack for $45. And, you can apply the same update to a ceiling fan. And, if your fan has ugly blades, you can easily switch those out to shiny new ones inexpensively.
2. Get your carpets cleaned. Yeah, it seems like a no-brainer, but it's an easy fix that can make a big difference in how you feel about your home. Stains just not coming out? A throw rug can help ground the room or create a focal point. Check your favorite home décor store, or try Costco, which sometimes has 8x10 rugs for $99.
3. Paint something. Paint everything! We talk about the power of paint all the time, and how a simple can of color can help transform a space. For $30, you can turn a drab room into a dramatic room, take a too-bold space down a notch or turn a boring bedroom into as romantic lair. All it takes is a trip to the local paint or big box store, a steady hand, and a few rolls of tape.
4. Buy some new drapes. Think it's too expensive? These drapes from Target start under $20.
And they come in two other colors and a couple of different sizes.
5. Paint your front door. Don't underestimate the impact it can have on your curb appeal. Not sure of what color to go? Blue is a great Feng Shui color, says Houzz. Yellow evokes mental clarity, perception, understanding, wisdom, confidence, curiosity, humor and merriment." Red is welcoming. Want more ideas? Visit Houzz.
6. Plant some flowers. Even if you don't have a green thumb, you can pretty up your yard without too much effort or money. Check out this easy spring planting guide from P. Allen Smith.
7. Inject some color. Hate your couch or need to freshen it up? We've been there. But when $2,000 isn't in the budget, a throw and a few pillows can make a world of difference. HomeGoods and TJ Maxx are great options for affordable décor. Or hit up online marketplace Overstock, where these statement zebra print pillows start at $20.
8. Get new furniture for the backyard. You don't have to buy a full-blown set. Look at these colorful Adirondack chairs from Lowes. They're plastic, which makes them easy to care for, and they're $18, which makes them easy on the budget.
9. Jazz up your table. If your dining room table has seen better days, refinish it. Stain or paint can give it a whole new look, as long as you're willing to put in a little elbow grease. A sander can make the job easier, and you can get an entry-level version for about $50.
10. Celebrate the season. Any season. In Spring, give your home an instant lift with a centerpiece of tulips. Or paint a piece of furniture bright yellow. You can't be unhappy when you're walking past a yellow table.
With a little effort and a little money, you can make updates to your home that will make it feel fresh again.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Written by  on Monday, 10 March 2014 1:45 pm

United States military veterans are not a protected class for purposes of anti-discrimination actions. But, in some areas, they should be. My market (south Orange County, California) is one of those areas. OK, ok, to be precise, it is not vets, per se, who are treated in a discriminatory fashion, it is vets who want to use V.A. financing.
That this is an issue could certainly be surprising to many real estate agents. There are many parts of the country where V.A. financing is the bread and butter of the business. There are market areas where V.A. and FHA financing are the norm. If you work in one of those areas, you might find it almost incomprehensible that many -- probably most -- agents in areas such as this one have never been involved in a transaction in which V.A. financing was used.
The problem, then, becomes this: When an offer is brought that involves V.A. financing, it is liable to be dismissed out of hand. Why? Because the agent -- never having had first-hand experience with V.A. financing -- relies on horror stories and bad-news experiences handed down from days long gone by.
Thus we thank our good friend, Kevin Budde, one of the brighter lights in our part of the lending world, for providing the inspiration and most of the factual content, for today's column.
Kevin says that there are four myths about V.A. financing that inhibit agents in our, and similar, areas from using and/or accepting V.A. financing.
Myth number one is that sellers will have to pay points based upon the loan amount. This belief dates back to days when the (maximum) interest rate was set periodically by the V.A. In those days, if market rates available to lenders were higher than the rate set by the V.A., the veteran could not make up the difference, so the seller had to. Today, V.A. loan rates float with the market. (At the time of this writing they are about 4.125%). There is no longer a ‘gap' that the seller has to fill.
The second myth is that sellers have to pay additional closing cost fees that the veteran is not allowed to pay. Undertoday's rules, the veteran pays customary buyer's fees in the market area.
A third ancient seller objection to V.A. loans is that V.A. appraisals often require "fix it" work (paint window sills, replace cabinet handles, etc.) that increases the seller's costs. Kevin points out that now, "…the focus is on health and safety issues of the property which are deficiencies that could cause harm to the occupant." These would need to be addressed in any kind of transaction.
Finally, there are those who still believe that V.A. insured loans take much longer to close than do conventional ones. It just isn't -- or needn't be -- so. If everyone does their homework and submits information on time, V.A. loans close within the same time frames that conventional loans do.
V.A. loan guarantee limits vary from area to area. In Orange County, California, the limit -- with no down payment -- is $687,500. In Monterey County, California, it is $500,000. In Arapahoe County, Colorado, it is $425,000. But a vet can buy above the limit by putting down 25% of the amount above the limit. Thus, here in this area, a vet could buy an $800,000 house putting only $28,125 (3.5%) down. What former E-4 Corporal wouldn't want to do that?
V.A. financing opens up purchasing possibilities to a significant number of qualified buyers. Sellers -- or their agents -- who don't want to accommodate that are making a serious mistake.
Bob Hunt is a director of the California Association of Realtors®. He is the author of Real Estate the Ethical Way.

Friday, February 14, 2014

It's Tax Time - What Homeowners Should Know

It's Tax Time - What Homeowners Should Know
Written by    
"The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin."
-- Mark Twain
It's tax season, and many Americans are determining whether to file early, file on the April 15 deadline, or file late.

If you request an automatic extension, you will have to pay any tax you owe in April, but the final return would not have to be filed until October 15.
Regardless of when you decide to file, you should start preparing now. Every year, the Internal Revenue Service circulates a large publication, entitled "1040 Instructions" which is available on its Web site. According to the IRS, the average time required to complete and file Form 1040 (the most commonly used income tax return form) is 15 hours. The bulk of this time - eight hours - involves only record keeping; tax planning accounts for two hours, completion of the form and submission another four hours, and one hour for miscellaneous.

You should have received statements from your employer and lender at the end of January. By law, any lender (private or commercial) that receives $600 or more in mortgage interest must send the borrower Form 1098. Although in recent years, most consumers were not paying points to buy down a mortgage loan, any points that were paid must also be listed on this form. The form will also include any mortgage insurance premiums that were paid last year.

If you paid such insurance premiums on policies issued on or after Jan. 1, 2007, and if the policy was for "aquisition debt" - which refers to a home that you purchased or substantially improved - those payments may be deductible on your 2013 tax return. Unfortunately, this was one of the many tax benefits that Congress did not extend for this year.

When you get Form 1098, don't just put it in your tax file. Review it carefully, since the same information has been transmitted to the IRS. Get an amortization table - available on the Internet or in local bookstores - and make sure that all of your payments have been properly credited. This is especially important for those of you who have been making extra principal payments over the years, so as to reduce your loan obligation as quickly as possible.

And if you bought or refinanced a house (including a condominium or a cooperative apartment) last year, there may be real estate tax adjustments or interest payments reflected on the HUD-1 settlement statement which may not be included in the1098 form.
Every year, there is always something new in the tax law. Sometimes, it will cost you more money. For example, beginning in 2013, a 0.9 percent Medicare tax may be imposed, depending on your income.

But you may also get a tax benefit. If you have a same-sex spouse whom you legally married in a state (or even a foreign country) that recognizes same-sex marriage, you and your spouse generally can use the married filing jointly or married filing separately on your 2013 return. According to the IRS, this is true even if you and your spouse now live in a state that does not recognized such marriages.

I am always asked - especially by homeowners who for the first time will be able to itemize their tax deductions - what's the best way to start. My suggestion: Go to the IRS Web site, and download a number of its helpful publications.

Recently, the IRS announced that it has significantly updated "Your Federal Income Tax" forms. According to the IRS, Publication 17 includes important changes to help taxpayers "get the most out of various tax benefits and get a jump on preparing their 2013 federal income tax returns." This 292-page guide contains thousands of interactive links to help taxpayers quickly get answers to their questions.

Other publications which may assist you include: No. 1, "Your Rights as a Taxpayer;" No. 502, "Medical and Dental Expenses;" No. 504, "Divorced or Separated Individuals;" No. 523, "Selling Your Home;" and No. 530, "Tax Information for First Time Homebuyers."
A complete list can be found at, click on Forms and Publications.

Additionally, you can obtain free help with problems you cannot resolve on your own by contacting the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service. According to the IRS, there are offices in every state as well as in the District.

Finally, beware of scam e-mails or phone calls. The IRS periodically issues a warning not to provide any personal and financial information - such as name, Social Security number, bank account and credit card or even PIN numbers - to anyone calling or e-mailing claiming to represent the IRS.

The IRS makes it very clear: It does not send taxpayers e-mails about their accounts. And the only way to get a tax refund or to arrange for a direct deposit is to file a tax return. For more information, see "Suspicious e-mails and identity theft" on the IRS Web site.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

When Remodeling, Protect Yourself


When Remodeling, Protect Yourself  

Written by

You are planning major renovation to your home. There are many steps you have to take in order to adequately protect yourself.

First, do you need an architect? That's a difficult question to answer. The architect can assist you with developing the appropriate plans, but this comes at an additional cost. Many legitimate home improvement contractors - while not licensed architects - can serve the same function, at little or no additional cost to you. Equally important, it's the contractor that will be doing the job, and invariably you will find that changes have to be made. So quite often, the architect's plans have to be modified when the job is ongoing.   
Next, how do you find a good home improvement contractor? In my experience, word of mouth from friends and neighbors is your best bet. Interview at least three contractors; ask for references and personally inspect the jobs they did for others.
Keep in mind, however, that you will only get good references. Obviously, no one will give you names of those who will bad-mouth the contractor. You should also contact your local Better Business Bureau to determine if any complaints have been filed against the company you are considering.
Finally, you - or your attorney - should review the court records in your jurisdiction to determine if there are any lawsuits pending against the contractor. This information is now publically available from your local courts, and even available online (search "court cases in X state), although some are accessible only by attorneys.

When you have selected the contractor, before you sign any contract, call the licensing board in your state, county or city. You want to make sure that the appropriate licenses have been issues - and are current.

Negotiate the price of the job. Will this be a fixed price or a time-and-materials contract? The latter means that you will be paying the contractor an hourly fee for the work done by the contractor and the subs that work on your house. If it is a time-and-material contract, make sure you get in writing the maximum hourly rates, and a statement in your contract that you will get a weekly statement of how many hours were worked that week, and by whom. I have been involved in cases where the contractor padded his hours; we discovered this when the homeowner said he was at home one day and no one showed up - despite the fact that he was billed for 6 hours.
You need a written contract. Many contractors use what I call the "two page special". This is a simple contract which merely states who the contractor is, a very general description of the work to be performed, and the total cost of the job.

This is not in your best interest.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., publishes a number of contract forms for use by homeowners, architects and contractors, and you should insist that your contractor use one of these forms. One such form is A105, a standard agreement between owner and contractor for a residential or small commercial project. Form A107 - which is more comprehensive - can also be used for projects of limited scope.

Why use an AIA form? Because it contains many provisions that will protect you. For example, what warranty will you get? Any changes in the scope of work must be in writing. There will be a schedule of when you have to make periodic payments. What happens if the contractor walks off the job? What rights do you have if you are dissatisfied with the quality (or timeliness) of the job? And, perhaps the most important provision: how much money should you hold-back (retain) until the job is finished, you are satisfied, and you get a written release of liens from the contractor and all subs. I like to see a 15 percent retention of the total price, but in any event no less then 10 percent.

The AIA can be reached on the web at, or by phone at 1-800-AIA-3837.
You now have a good contract, and the work has begun. When it is completed - at least in the eyes of the contractor - you are not happy with a number of items. What can you do?

The AIA contract provides for arbitration of such disputes. You can contact the American Arbitration Association ( or by a toll free call to 1-800-778-7879, to get more information about the process and the costs involved. If there is an arbitration requirement in your contract, you cannot file a lawsuit. And in many situations, arbitration may be much less expensive - and faster - than the court system.
What if you did not follow my advice and do not have a good contract. You are unhappy with the work and stop making payments. The contractor walks off the job, and now you are forced to find someone else to make the necessary corrections and finish the project.

You now learn that your contractor did not have the appropriate home improvement contractor license. The laws vary: in many states, if the contractor is not licensed at the time the contract was initially signed (or when the work began) the contract cannot collect anything. In fact, he/she might have to give back what was already paid by the homeowner. For example:

District of Columbia: The laws here provide the best consumer protection in the area. If you have paid an unlicensed contractor $300 or more up front, you are entitled to get back all of the moneys you paid him or her. It does not matter that you knew the contractor was unlicensed when you first started the job, nor how good the job is. According to DC law, no person shall accept payment for a home improvement contract in advance of full completion of the work without a home improvement license issued by the District Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Department. The public policy of the District is to penalize contractors who do not have that license.

Virginia: the Virginia Board for Contractors issues different classes of licenses, depending on the dollar amount of the job. For example Class C contractors can perform work on single jobs that are greater than $1,000 but not more than $7,500, and yearly not to exceed $150,000 for all jobs.
It is a misdemeanor, punishable by fine (and perhaps jail) for a contractor that does not have a license. Additionally, it may be a violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, which allows recovery of treble damages and attorneys fees if the homeowner is successful in court.

Maryland: as in the District of Columbia, unlicensed contractors are not entitled to recover if they sue the homeowner for breach of their contract. The Maryland Home Improvement Commission regulates and supervised contractors. It is a misdemeanor not to have a license, and upon conviction, the contractor can be fined up to $1000 or imprisoned for up to 30 days.

Conversely, if the contractor is licensed in Maryland, homeowners can recover up to $20,000 from the Home Improvement Guaranty Fund for losses caused by poor or incomplete work.

Before you sign up with a home improvement contractor, do your homework. Too many homeowners have found themselves having paid 80 or even 100 percent of the contract price and the contractor has walked off the job having done less than 75 percent of the work. Careful planning - and with a fair and balanced contract, you will be in the driver's seat.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Kitchens Sell a House

Kitchens Sell a House
             Written by Carla Hill

It's a tool used by house flippers all across the nation. Stagers know its power. Real estate agents push its importance. What is this not-so-well-kept secret of real estate? A kitchen can sell a house.

A kitchen is the heart of a home. This is true all across the globe. The old saying that the "stomach is the way to the heart" carries a lot of truth. Kitchens are where we spend much of our time and most of that is with our families. It's the room where we nourish our bodies and our spirits.    
Kitchens are integral to entertaining and in today's age of open floor plans, they're a focal piece of many family rooms. It's because of this that kitchens play such an important role in the buying and selling process.
This one room is the showpiece of the house. You'll see it every day and your guests will see it during most visits. This means buyers want homes with up-to-date kitchens.
Kitchens, however, can be one of the most expensive rooms to renovate. These projects can also be the most labor and time intensive of all home renovations. It's not just a new layer of paint.

Instead you find a complicated array of flooring, tiling, cabinets, and counters. This means buyers may want a home with an up-to-date kitchen but they aren't willing to tackle this problem themselves. Most buyers want a kitchen that is ready to use the day they move in.

What do buyers look for in up-to-date kitchens? A lot of this depends on what price range your home is in.

The main thing to remember as a seller is to not price yourself out of your market. If homes in your neighborhood are selling for $100,000 with tidy, but not luxury kitchens, then this is no time to upgrade to granite, travertine, and marble at the price tag of $40,000+. You simply won't find a buyer.

Scope out the competition. Use open houses in your area or MLS listings to find out what your competitions' kitchens look like.

Do area homes have new solid wood cabinets and granite counters in today's designer colors? You'll be wise to consider making the same move. Are they including new stainless steel appliances and add-ons like dishwashers, wine-coolers, and trash compactors?

Are you in a higher-end neighborhood? It's time to think high-end. Your older home may have a highly functional kitchen, but a buyer will take one look at your formica counters and white appliances and become lost in the stress of how much money and time it would take to remodel. If you don't want to put in the time yourself to make upgrades then you'll have to make concessions in the price.

Don't become overwhelmed, though. Sometimes a kitchen update can mean doing just a few minor changes. Change the paint color to a warm, neutral tone. Get rid of any clutter. Update your appliances, paint your cabinets, change the pulls, or get a high-end looking counter for a fraction of the cost (faux-granite or lower end granite). You might even save a bundle by doing much of the work yourself.

The bottom line is a kitchen can sell a home. Do a little research and find out what your kitchen needs to make it competitive with area listings.

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Loan Requirements For Getting A Mortgage

New Loan Requirements For Getting A Mortgage
             Written by

The number of homes purchased with a home loan has been dropping steadily since May, according to RealtyTrac. Instead, cash is king for many reasons. As mortgage rates began creeping up, some homebuyers started opting to purchase with all cash. And that trend may continue as new loan requirements become more strict.

However, for those buyers who do need to purchase a home with a loan, expect to see some changes in the loan requirements as the new year rings in. Here are a just a few of the changes that are going into effect in January 2014. Some of these requirements are already in place by lenders.   
The new guidelines are being implemented under The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Qualified Mortgage (QM) and are designed to help avoid the borrowing catastrophes that caused the housing crisis. The guidelines are what the lenders use to prove borrowers' ability to repay a loan.
One of the guidelines’ requirements is that borrowers must have a maximum debt-to-income ratio of 43 percent. Debt-to-income ratios have already been in place but the new rules won't allow for any compensating circumstances. That means that not even a significant downpayment or a large cash reserve will be allowed to offset a higher debt ratio.

The incentive to follow these guidelines is huge for the lender. If the mortgages don't meet the QM guidelines, the lender will be required to hold the loan as opposed to selling it to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The QM requirements potentially may have lower loan limits for conventional conforming loans. The agency that regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, The Federal Housing Finance Agency, will delay its normal adjustment of loan limits from January 1, 2014 to sometime later in the year. The agency is trying to see what kind of impact the new QM guidelines will have on the housing industry. For most housing markets, the current limits are $417,000 and up to $625,000 in high-cost areas. How these figures will change remains to be seen in 2014.

Origination fees will be limited under the QM requirements, which could make getting a smaller loan more difficult. Origination loan fees will be limited to no more than 3 percent of the loan amount. This could make mortgage lenders less likely to offer smaller loan amounts because they may not always be able to recoup their costs and make a profit.

Self-employed borrowers already face tough standards and they'll likely be even more strict in 2014. In the QM guidelines, all borrowers must prove there is sufficient cash flow to make payments on their loan but self-employed borrowers' incomes typically fluctuate. These borrowers frequently have cash reserves that they rely on to pay bills when their income is off in a particular month. However, even if there is a large amount of money in reserve, it may still be difficult for the self-employed borrower to get a loan approved due to this new "ability-to-repay" QM guideline.

Expect to see changes in the loan approval process as the new year begins. However, some of the specific requirements may not be determined until later in 2014.