Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Should I Refinance?

I'm getting a lot of questions lately about whether or not to refinance. I'm looking into it myself, actually, so thought I'd share some thoughts.

First, let's talk about rates and the elusive 4.5% that some government agencies announced, then recanted, as a 'target'. First, that rate may never get here. Second, it may have restrictions around it (like only available to purchases) if it does get here. Third, rates are bouncing really darn close to that number now. Note that the rate also applies only to the conforming limit (currently $417K). "Jumbo conforming" (loans between $417K and $625K) will be higher, and regular "jumbo" above $625K are higher still. (As an aside, if your current loan balance is near one of these breakpoints, you should think about paying the difference down to get into the 'better' loan category.)

So, personally, I'm right on the verge of pulling the trigger. A bird in hand, as they say. Best thing to do is calculate the break even number of months where your closing costs equal the savings in your monthly payment. If you're going to be in the new loan that number of months, then you should seriously think about locking in that savings.

Historically, a rule of thumb is that if rates are 1% lower than what you’re currently paying, you should at least look into it. Remember rates change several times each day, so don’t be surprised if you call one day and then the next day rates are back up again. The decision of whether refinancing makes sense for you -- even with a 1% drop in rates -- can get complicated very quickly given our recent market conditions though.

First thing to think about is the current market value of the home and your equity in it. That’s important because if you got a loan a few years ago, credit conditions have changed dramatically and you may not be happy with the loan options available to you right now, even if the rates are low. For example, if you have two trusts on your current home loan (popular a few years ago in order to avoid paying Private Mortgage Insurance) then that option is no longer available. Banks are requiring private mortgage insurance for anything higher than 80% Loan-To-Value (LTV) – in other words, unless you have 20% equity in your home, you will be required to get one loan and pay the PMI. Second trusts are no longer available in almost any situation. In fact, it’s rare to find a bank willing to lend more than 90% of the current market value of the home, which becomes an issue if your home has depreciated in value. So if you have two trusts it may not be as lucrative for you to refinance as you think, even with lower rates. Similarly, if the home has depreciated at all then you may run into issues as well because your LTV has changed and you will have to pony up some big cash to make up the difference in your "underwater" home.

Let’s take an example: Let’s say you bought a home at $400K with $20K down. Let’s say further that now it’s worth $390K. (The bank will require you to pay for a non-refundable appraisal, which costs about $350-400, to justify the current value of the home before you refinance. And the bank has to choose the appraiser, so don’t bother paying for one on your own and then shopping it around.) The bank may only be willing to lend 90% of that amount (depending on your credit and other factors), or $351K. But you only have $20K equity in the property and still owe $380K. That means in order to finance you have to come up with the difference of $380K-$351K = $29K PLUS your closing costs (similar to costs when you first purchased, and includes county fees, lender fees, title fees, etc.)

Even if your property hasn’t depreciated at all, but the bank’s new policy could very well be to lend no more than 90%, then you still can only borrow $400K * 90% = $360K, leaving you to still come up with $20K (= $380 you owe less the $360 the new bank is willing to lend) PLUS closing costs.

Finally, even if the property hasn’t depreciated, and even if the bank is still willing to lend you 95% of the value—in this example the entire $380K you owe—then your payment still may not be as low as you expect because now you’re required to have a single loan at 95% LTV which requires PMI (rather than your current two trusts at 80% + 15%).

Closing costs can generally be rolled into the loan amount if you have enough equity to meet the LTV requirements. But unfortunately a lot of people will have to come up with significant cash if they want to refinance. But if your property has held it’s value, and/or you have sizable equity in it, then it’s almost definitely worth it to re-fi. So the bottom line is that there are a lot of variables to determine whether or not it’s worth it to refinance. It’s best to talk to a lender to figure out your specific situation. Contact me if you want my recommendations on lenders I would (and do) personally use.

Closing costs, by the way, vary by lender and by settlement company, just like with a purchase. When a lender gives you a good faith estimate, you should focus first on the 800 section “Lender Fees” to see what they’re charging you, and compare that across lenders to find the best deal. Those fees are always negotiable. But banks need to make money too, so don't expect them to charge nothing. Also look at the settlement company fees in the 1100 section, also somewhat negotiable. You do NOT need to use the settlement company the bank recommends. Contact me if you want a recommendation on who I personally would use.

Paying Points: Whether or not to pay points to get a lower rate is a judgment call, and depends on how long you’re going to stay in the property. A point equals 1% of the loan amount. So you might get a quote for 5.125% (no points) and 4.875% (1 point). If you have a $380K loan then that means you pay $3800 at closing to get the 4.875%. So you just calculate the savings in payment, divided by the $3800, and that gives you the number of months you need to keep that loan in order to make it worthwhile to pay the point.

So as you can see there are a LOT of variables in the decision of whether or not to refinance, so the best advice I can give is to (1) have a realistic idea of what your home is worth and (2) talk to a lender. Even if you start down the re-fi road and one of these scenarios ends up being bad news for you, the worst case is that your out the $400ish for the appraisal and you keep your current loan.

Home Seller Classes Now Available in Northern Virginia

Equipping Home Sellers to Make Better Decisions

Our home seller classes are educational sessions designed to give an overview of current market conditions and the home selling process. We cover a recap of the market, current trends and market stats including days on market, average sales prices, and inventory levels.

We'll also discuss how to price your home, marketing channels, staging and showing your home, real estate fees and commissions, and how to choose an agent.

There's never any cost or obligation to attend our classes.

Home Seller Classes in Arlington County
The first classes of 2009 are now scheduled at Arlington County Library. As in the past, there is absolutely no cost or obligation to attend this one hour educational session where we will recap the current market conditions, discuss the future outlook, and provide an overview of the home sale process. Simply email katie@katiewethman.com to register so that we may have materials available for you. Details are as follows:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Arlington County Library
1015 N Quincy St, 2nd Floor Mtg Room
Ballston (Orange Line)

Though there is no cost to attend, you must contact us to register since seating is limited.

Read More: Seller Resources
Read More: What to Expect when Working with Katie as your Listing Agent

Home Seller Classes in Maryland and DC
The class schedule for 2009 has not yet been determined. Classes will begin in February and will be held at various sites in Montgomery County and the District of Columbia.

We're always happy to meet with first time buyers over coffee to give a quick overview (with no obligation) if the class schedule does not fit your needs. Just drop us a line!

Contact us to be notified of the class schedule when available.

Read More: Seller Resources
Read More: What to Expect when Working with Katie as your Listing Agent

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Attn Condo Owners: Burglary Ring

One of my clients in Clarendon sent me this, which came from his management company. Let's be careful out there!

There is a professional burglary ring targeting condominiums in Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax.

This group has been described as "very brazen" and walk onto properties like they belong there. They wave to residents and staff, even stop and have conversations. Gated communities and access control do not stop them. They frequently knock on doors and ask for a fictitious person if the door is answered. If no one is home they break in.

The police need the residents' help in catching this group. Someone needs to see them, witness them breaking in or call the police because a stranger knocks on their door looking for someone and gives a description.

If you experience anything matching the MO described please call 911 immediately and report the incident.

Please remember to always keep your doors locked.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Buyers May Not WANT Condo Docs for Short Sales & Foreclosures

I was quoted in the Washington Post yesterday for my recommended strategy of NOT asking for condo docs on a foreclosure or short sale.

In the original article here, the author discusses the fact that:
Virginia law requires sellers or their real estate agents to get a presale financial disclosure packet from the association and give it to buyers. Buyers have three days to review the financial disclosures and rules governing life in the association and can back out of the deal if they don't like what they see. In Maryland, buyers have seven days in which to review the documents and cancel the purchase. In the District, buyers are allowed three business days.
The challenge with short sales and foreclosures is that the sellers either can't or won't provide these documents (which come with a charge of several hundred dollars.) This leaves buyers in a tough spot -- they don't know whether there are any problems with the Association's finances, for example, because they never received the packet. Sometimes buyers can pay for the pack themselves, but often Associations won't give them to anyone but a current owner.

BUT, there's an upside to this frustrating situation: Buyers who never receive the packet retain their right to back out at any time up until, and for 3 to 7 days after receiving them (depending on jurisdiction). See my quote here:
Katie Wethman, a real estate agent in McLean, pointed out a way to game the system. "It can be a strategic choice not to ask for the documents," she wrote. "Buyers retain a right of rescission up until, and for three to seven days after, the receipt of the documents. If the buyer is concerned about timing, financing, finding a better deal, or just getting cold feet, they may wish to delay receipt of those documents as long as possible. They may forgo them altogether in an attempt to keep their right to walk away right up until settlement."
So talk to your agent about your situation and whether it makes sense to try to obtain the documents or not...you may come to regret having asked for them.

Scared about taking on a short sale or foreclosure home because of the rehab work involved? Consider purchasing one using an FHA 203(k) loan, described in my blog post here.

First Time Home Buyer Class - Scheduled in Arlington

Note> For the most recent schedule of dates for 2008 and 2009, please visit the First Time Home Buyer class page at my website. Classes will be held in Montgomery County, DC, Arlington, and elsewhere in Northern Virginia.

The first classes of 2009 are now scheduled at Arlington County Library. As in the past, there is absolutely no cost or obligation to attend this one hour educational session where we will recap the current market conditions (including stats like days on market, inventory levels, and average sales prices), discuss the future outlook, and provide an overview of the home purchase process, including common pitfalls and financing basics. Simply contact us to register (enter seminar and the date in the comments) so that we may have materials available for you. Space is limited. Details are as follows:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009
7:15 pm - 8:30 pm
registration required


Arlington Central Library, 2nd floor meeting room
1015 N. Quincy St
Arlington, VA
Metro: Orange Line/Ballston

Cost: There is no obligation, and the session is FREE, but registration is required by emailing me at Katie@katiewethman.com. Seating is limited.

Related Link: Search the MLS

Read More: Working with Katie as Your Buyer's Agent

Read More: Buyer's Resources

Read More: $7500 Home Buyer Credit

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Finding an Investment Property in Northern Virginia

As prices plummet, some solid investment opportunities are starting to emerge…but how do you identify good investment properties?

Step 1: Identify some target neighborhoods.

- The first thing to do is to consider long term (e.g., 10 years) appreciation potential. Think about area employment (and more importantly where those employers are—commuting time is a big factor). Also think about long term demographic shifts like BRAC, as well as infrastructure projects like new metro stations or light rail lines.
- Consider the neighborhood. Ideally you want to find the lone problem house in a great neighborhood, but that’s easier said than done. Also consider neighborhoods that previously had been more desirable in terms of age, location, and home condition, but perhaps were hit hard by this recent wave of foreclosures.
- Consider the price range – While you hope to ultimately find a property that will be cash flow positive, you nonetheless have to front the money to buy it, and getting a loan these days isn’t easy, especially for investors. Financing remains a problem, and lenders require investors to put 30% down, plus closing costs of about 3%. Interest rates run about a percentage point higher than owner occupied properties. Figure out how much cash you’re willing to put into the property, what you can qualify for in a mortgage, and back into a price range from there.
- Look at rents the neighborhood can command. Once you identify a few target neighborhoods, begin collecting rent data. The best place to collect rent data is on Craigs List in addition to the MLS. This is because many landlords conduct the process themselves and so the listings are never in the MLS. You also can’t be sure how aggressive a listing agent was in procuring a renter, which may skew the price. If they put it into the MLS but then never on Craigs List (by far the more popular site for finding renters), then it’s likely the rents there are lower than what the market actually commands. Unfortunately there’s no easy way to gather historical Craigs List data – you just need to keep watching and see which rentals seem to go quickly. Consider calling some of the landlords to ask whether they’ve had a lot of responses.

Step 2: Identify some target properties

- Short Sales & Foreclosures are a great opportunity because you can be patient. (See my post on the challenges of timing a foreclosure transaction here and the frustrations of shorts sales that never close here.) While an owner occupant doesn’t have the luxury of time and can get frustrated with all the problems of these transactions, investors can go with the flow since their timing is more flexible. And that flexibility pays off by getting properties for less money.
- Consider the home’s condition and your level of expertise in doing or managing renovations. Many of the short sales and foreclosures on the market today come at bargain prices, but require everything from heavy cosmetic work to kitchen and bath remodels to mold remediation. Very few properties in the attractive price ranges are move-in ready, but there's a lot of upside for people not afraid of elbow grease and with the right handyman connections.
- Be patient. You may need to wait for the right house at the right price. Set up an alert so that you can be ready to jump on a property that meets your investment needs as soon as it comes on the market—you can be sure other investors are circling and waiting for the right opportunity as well!

I’ve seen some inside the beltway single family homes below $400K and townhouses in under $300 in areas that I feel have great long term potential given our area's strong job market and expected government growth (see this post on the best place to live in a recession here, and article on the bailout being a boon to our local economy here.)

In another post I’ll cover how to look at cash flows for an investment property.

I’m working with several investors and have already previewed many homes that fit the criteria above. Call or email me to set up an appointment to discuss investing opportunities!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How Much Do I Need for a Downpayment?

How much do I need for a downpayment?

It depends.

(Come on, you knew I was going to say that.)

There are some rules of thumb though. First, you can bet you need a heck of a lot more than buyers did a few years ago, or even one year ago. There are lots of influencing factors: type of financing, amount financed, type of home (condo/townhouse/detached house), and whether it’s an investment property or you intend to occupy it.

To understand downpayments, we really need to understand the Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) industry. These are the guys who ‘insure’ the loan for the bank. If you have less than 20% equity in the property (whether via a downpayment or appreciation), any lender will require you to buy PMI. PMI premiums are paid by the borrower, but the beneficiary is the lender. So in other words, if the borrower defaults, then the PMI policy will pay the lender.

Up until recently, banks would issue a “second trust (mortgage)” rather than requiring the borrower to pay for PMI. So a borrower would have a first mortgage for 80% of the value, then a second mortgage for somewhere between 5% and 20% of the value—so the borrower needed as little as 0%. The mortgage interest on the second trust was deductible (a win for the borrower), there was less downpayment needed (another win for the borrower), and the bank got a second loan at a higher interest rate than the first (a win for the bank, or so they thought at the time, AND they held the home as collateral, which couldn’t possibly fall below the value at which it was purchased, right??) The only people that lost out were the mortgage insurance folks.

Fast forward to the default wave of the last two years. Banks are now holding two bad loans instead of one, and no insurance policy to collect on. PMI folks were just fine with that, as they had their hands full anyway with all of their own defaults. In today’s lending world, you can’t find a bank who’s willing to do a second trust that takes the total loan-to-value (LTV) ratio above 80%. So basically: no second trusts. And it’s really tough to find a PMI firm who will insure a loan without meeting certain conditions.

To really know what downpayment you need, you need to talk to a lender and find a program that works for you. But here are some rules of thumb:

- Conventional loans, count on needing 10 to 20%
- FHA – will require 3.5% (as of 01/01/09)
- VA loans – this is about the only program going where you can still get 100% financing, so if you’re a vet, look into it!
- Investment properties – 30%

There ARE special programs out there, though, like HPAP in the District and VHDA in Virginia. So, again, talk to a lender. I can recommend some great ones. You also need to keep your realtor in the loop. Often certain property types don’t work well with certain loan programs, or may trigger additional downpayment requirements.

If you’re confused about where to start your search and understanding how much you can afford, send me an email. I’m happy to work with you to see what types of homes and program combinations will work best for you.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thinking of Renting Your Home for Inauguration Week?

It may not be a bad idea. As the Washington Post reports, many area residents are already getting phone calls from friends looking to crash, and Craigs List has condos and homes going for literally thousands of dollars for just a few days. If you're thinking of renting your home or a room, here are some tips to keep in mind:

- You're entering into a lease -- treat it that way. Spend the money to buy a legal lease either online, at an office supply store, or bum one off a real estate agent friend (check that it's legal for your jurisdiction). If something does go wrong, you won't regret having a legally enforceable agreement that dictates things like move in/move out times, damage to property, and the like.

- Remember you're bound by fair housing laws when you advertise and when you choose a tenant. Focus on the property and its features, and not on the type of tenant you're looking for.

- Protect your property condition. Charge a security deposit. (Consider an extra deposit if they are bringing pets). Complete a move in exam with your tenant, and complete another one as soon as they vacate. Make sure everything is in writing. Take lots of photos prior to them moving in, and then take photos of anything you think was damaged. If you won't allow pets or smoking, specify that in your written agreement. Same with parties.

- Have your tenants complete an application. Consider running a credit report on your tenant (you need to get their permission). You can find an online service, like this one, to help with this. (Update 11/16: The Post article has a good suggestion - consider using Paypal, or even just require the tenant to provide full payment in advance to make sure the check clears, so you don't have to worry about credit report. I'd argue, though, that a credit report gives you a good indication of the level of respect the person will give your property.)

- If you are currently a tenant yourself, make sure your lease allows for sublets. If not, you will be responsible for any and all damages your 'guests' do, and may be subject to other penalties.

- Charge a non-refundable deposit, and make sure the check clears (if you are accepting checks). Consider requiring a cashiers check or money order.

- Keep in mind the potential tax consequences. Most of the time you needn't worry, but consult your accountant.

- There are certainly insurance implications to consider as well. What if your tenant/guest gets hurt in your home? What if they leave the stove on and cause a fire? Your homeowners insurance may have a clause that will void your coverage if you engage in a for-profit rental -- check with them, and be sure you understand the risks!

Like this post? Consider subscribing (buttons are in the right hand column) to hear my take on the local real estate market in future posts, or subscribe to my monthly newsletter on local market trends.

Update 11/15: The Post just had a good article with some tips on renting out your place too.

Update 11/22: More from WaPo: DC easing property rules to allow rentals and another article on renting your property out and some of the pitfalls.

Update 12/7: Here's the next trend in inauguration housing - Travel someplace cool on the cheap by swapping for the week. People are certainly more likely to take good care of your home if they know you are in theirs!

Discussion: Are you renting your place out? What rents are you looking to charge, and if you've successfully found a renter, how much and what terms did you negotiate? Post your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!

Update 12/12: More resources from About.com

Need A Cheap Place to Stay During the Inauguration?
Do you know someone who is still hoping to find a cheap place to stay during the inauguration? Here's some news to share, but you better act fast...Read more

Presidential Inauguration 2009
The Presidential Inauguration will be held on January 20, 2009. A week of festivities will include the Presidential Swearing in Ceremony, Inaugural Address, Inaugural Parade and a night of Inaugural Balls and galas honoring the new President of the United States... Read more

Inauguration Transportation Guide
Officials are expecting record breaking crowds in Washington, DC for the 2009 Inauguration and getting around the region throughout the four-day weekend will be challenging. See the plans so far...Read more

Monday, November 3, 2008

Guest Post: Rehabbing Properties Using the FHA 203K Program

Thanks, Cindy Fox of SunTrust, for information on this program which can really help buyers who have found their diamond in the rough! You can find Cindy's contact information at the bottom of this post.

Looking for a bargain in the real estate market?

Have you seen the perfect place for you and maybe your family – but then the inside of the place has been trashed? Or is simply is older, outdated, and in need of updating and/or repair?

Sometimes you just need to see beyond to cosmetic abuse to the eye, and maybe structural deficiencies, and envision a place after tender loving care – and a lot of tear down, build up and sweat has been applied!

So – you have the vision. Great! Now – how to pay for putting that vision into action to bring to a reality that vision?

There is an option for you! The FHA, which is a part of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has a program that will help finance the purchase of such a dwelling, as well as the financing of rehabilitation of the house.

203(k) - How It Is Different from Conventional Construction Financing

The 203(k) program is a section of HUD’s home financing guidelines and its primary program for the rehabilitation and repair of single family properties. The program was designed to promote and facilitate the restoration and preservation of the Nation’s existing (and aging) housing stock. Most of the time lenders will only lend money to purchase homes that are complete. The condition of the property must meet certain standards. Under normal purchase transactions (or refinance transactions) properties that are complete and meet a certain property condition provide the necessary collateral for the lender to lend with confidence. Additionally, most loan programs require that if there are repairs, or renovations to be completed, this must occur before the lender will release funds to complete the purchase and close the loan.

Under conventional guidelines, when a homebuyer wants to purchase a house in need of repair or modernization, the homebuyer usually has to obtain financing first to purchase the dwelling; additional financing to do the rehabilitation construction; and a permanent mortgage when the work is completed to pay off the interim loans with a permanent mortgage. Often the interim financing (the acquisition and construction loans) involves relatively high interest rates and short amortization periods.

The 203(k) program through HUD was designed to address this situation. The borrower can get just one mortgage loan, at a long-term fixed, to finance both the acquisition and the rehabilitation of the property. To provide funds for the rehabilitation, the mortgage amount is based on the projected value of the property with the work completed, taking into account the cost of the work.

Eligible Improvements:
Luxury items and improvements that do not become a permanent part of the real property are not eligible as a cost of rehabilitation. However, the homeowner can use the 203(k) program to finance such items as painting, room additions, decks and other items even if the home does not need any other improvements. All health, safety and energy conservation items must be addressed prior to completing general home improvements.

How the Program Works:
The improvements, repairs, and rehabilitation proposals must be part of the loan package and can be prepared by a builder, or a consultant and show the scope of the work to be done. Cost estimates must include labor and materials sufficient to complete the work.

The scope of the work as presented in the proposal determines the amount of the loan. Usually, an appraiser will evaluate the proposal in conjunction with the current value of the property and determine an “after-improved” value which will determine the amount of money available for the repairs and rehabilitation.

For More Information: For more information on eligible properties, how the program can be used, required improvements, how the program works, and the application process, contact Cindy Fox at SunTrust Mortgage at (703) 464-4345, or email Katie (info in right hand sidebar) for more information.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Relocation Guide for the Incoming Administration

Welcome to Washington!

No doubt you’re excited about what the next four years holds for both our country as well as your own relocation. Washington, DC, Northern Virginia, and suburban Maryland are fantastic places to live, as you will soon discover. Obviously there are lots of other factors to consider in choosing a new neighborhood: schools, taxes, amenities, and lifestyle just to name a few. There are lots of great places to live in DC, MD and VA. Here are a few other tips to get you started:

1) Decide whether to rent or buy. If you’re looking for rental resources, check out my web page here. But I’d seriously considering buying if your expected time frame for living here is four years or more. Prices are lower than they’ve been in years, interest rates are low, and opportunities abound. Washington, DC, and Arlington were just named two of the top ten places to live in a recession, and the recent bailout is expected to be a boon to our local economy. This area is often pegged to be one of the first to “recover” and prices are expected to rise in the next two years.

If you’re thinking of buying in the District and meet certain income requirements, you’ll be entitled to a $5000 tax credit! This might also be a good opportunity for you to take advantage of the $7500 tax “credit” (really a loan) recently passed as well.

2) Carefully consider your commute time in choosing where to live. Most transferees to our area are shocked by the commute time—it can easily be 30 minutes to go just 3 or 4 miles, so don’t just look at a map and decide “it’s not that far.” This area’s congestion is among the worst in the nation. Our public transportation system is very good though; our subway system (known as Metro) is fantastic, though very expensive to live near. And don’t forget VRE and MARC trains. If you’re willing to commute by rail, you can get a lot more for your housing dollar. Commute times also vary widely based on whether you choose to live in the District proper, Maryland, or Virginia.

3) Get ready for sticker shock. Despite the national downturn in housing, prices in the Washington, DC, area have held up much better than other parts of the country, especially in close-in areas with under-an-hour commute times or along a metro line. For example, a one bedroom condo in North Arlington along the orange line will run you in the high $300s. But there’s some good news: there are definitely some pockets of under-valued homes right now—areas that were hit disproportionately hard by foreclosures and short sales in recent years, and in my opinion are primed for a comeback due to their proximity to public transportation and/or area demographic and employment trends. Keep in mind, though, that foreclosures and short sales, while attractive in terms of pricing, come with a host of other challenges that may be particularly difficult for someone on a tight timeline.

Looking for more info on area schools, government, crime stats, or cultural events? Check out my web page here. There’s an amazing array of activities and events in this area. I send out a list every month as part of my monthly real estate newsletter. (You can sign up on the right hand side of my blog here.)

If you need help with your relocation, please contact me to discuss the local market and your needs. Put my local knowledge, experience, and consultative background to work for you. I'm licensed in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, and I’d be happy to help you with your real estate needs!

Relocating to the area? Check out our new blog for military PCSing and relocations: www.militarymovetovirginia.com

How will the election and relocating administration staff impact the Washington, DC, area real estate market?

I’m often asked whether the market will pick up after the election, with the incoming administration. Whether the Republicans or Democrats win, a wave of new junior staffers and senior officials will sweep into Washington, DC. My guess is that the impact on the real estate market will be positive—by which I mean positive for sellers--for this reason: people who make a career of politics often don’t leave once they’re here.

What I mean is this: many of the current administration won’t leave, so it’s not a one-for-one swap in residents even with a complete turnover in administration. Some will have fallen in love with the area, some will have kids in schools or other local commitments that they don’t want to give up, many will be absorbed into local lobbying and law firms. So 100% of the current administration won’t be leaving. Of course there will be some houses put on the market, but I’m guessing not many.

On the flip side, though some of the next administration will undoubtedly already be living locally, there will be definitely be an influx of new residents as staffers and administration are relocated here from other parts of the country for their new appointments. Those people all need a place to live, whether it’s renting or buying. Junior staffers will undoubtedly rent, but senior officials and their families could just as easily look to buy—especially when they absorb the sticker shock of high rental prices in this area. They’ll likely decide this is certainly a good time to buy, with historically low rates, relatively high (though shrinking) level of inventory from which to choose, and their new four-to-eight year time horizon. The District and Arlington, after all, were recently named two of the top ten places to live in a recession, and our local real estate market has held up relatively well versus most of the country.

Since most of these new residents will be working in the District, I expect the real estate market to tighten in the District and close in, metro-accessible areas like Arlington, Alexandria, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Falls Church, and Vienna. Outer areas like Prince William likely won’t see a bump, but that’s okay—their current uptick is coming from the investor community.

Time will tell, but I predict that the incoming administration will cause a tightening of both the rental and purchase markets in close-in areas.

Are you a member of the new administration looking for help in understanding the local real estate market? Confused about where to rent or buy? I’m licensed in DC, VA, and MD and would love to help you. Contact me for an overview of the area and the local real estate trends.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

DC & Arlington Named Best Places to Be During a Recession

Worried about the economy? Here's a bit of good news: DC and Arlington were named by Business Week as two of the top ten places to live during a recession. Cities with a focus on health care, law, education, energy, and government rose to the top. The article notes:
Government towns tend to be relatively stable because—even though budgets are slashed—the public sector still must pay the salaries of politicians, building inspectors, police officers, military personnel, and tax-authority employees. Cities that we think might benefit from government employment include Chesapeake, Va., near the massive Norfolk Naval base, and the state capitals of Baton Rouge, La.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Madison, Wis.
And another piece of good news for our local area: the bailout will be a boon to our local economy. The Washington Business Journal notes:

...the most massive government takeover of private capital in U.S. history likely will bring economic activity to the region’s economy, in much the same way the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks spawned a new homeland security sector, the panelists said. The savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s also led to another government boon, the creation of the Resolution Trust Corp., which maintained office space in downtown D.C. for a decade to deal with fallout from the S&L insolvencies.

“It’s going to create a whole new industry of services for all of us, for the banking sector, for commercial real estate, the advisory and brokerage sector, legal and accounting,” said David Kessler, a principal with the accounting firm Reznick Group P.C. “We’re going to see a boost in the local economy as a result of that.”

Another boon from the bailout: the $5000 tax credit for DC first time home buyers was included in the bill! (Not buying in DC? You can still take advantage of the $7500 first time buyer "credit" (really an interest free loan) until July 9, 2009.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Clarendon Named One of Nation's 'Great Streets'

Congratulations to the Wilson-Clarendon Blvd area, which was named one of the Top 10 "Great Streets" in America.

The area is one of Arlington's famed "Urban Villages" along the Orange line which combines public transportation, business centers, retail, and residential buildings into a walkable AND livable mini-city. The concept, ground-breaking when it was introduced, has transformed Arlington into one of the most highly sought after places to live and work in our area. North Arlington, in particular, epitomizes the best of both urban and suburban living.

Are you thinking of buying along the Orange Line? Check out recent condo prices in my post here, and contact me to discuss current market conditions and how to get started.

$5000 Credit for DC First Time Home Buyers

Here's a little known add-on to the 2008 Emergency Economic and Stabilization Act - aka the $700 billion bailout bill: the $5000 credit for DC first time home buyers.

Area residents are familiar with this credit, and know that it had expired on Dec 31, 2007. Though typically every year it's passed in a last minute rush of bill approvals, there's never a guarantee and 2008 home buyers had their fingers crossed that it would once again find its way into a bill before year end. Well, DC home buyers, start celebrating: The bailout bill approved the $5000 credit retroactively for all 2008 purchases, and approved its use for all 2009 purchases as well!

To use the credit:
- You must buy a home in the District of Columbia (and not have owned a home in the previous year)
- You must occupy the home as your principal residence
- You must meet the income requirements (up to $70K AGI for single filers, phased out until no credit for AGI above $90K; up to $110K AGI for joint filers, phased out until no credit for AGI above $130K).

Note that this is an actual $5000 credit (not a deduction--an actual dollar for dollar offset on money owed!) on your Federal Taxes. That's the same as Uncle Sam giving you $5000 of your hard earned money back just as a 'thank you' for buying in the District. But you can't take advantage of both this credit and the new Federal $7500 "credit"--not really a credit at all, but rather an interest free loan. For almost all buyers, you're much better off taking the DC credit and passing on the Federal loan.

If you're interested in buying a DC property and want to learn more, contact me.

Buying an Investment Property in Northern Virginia

The Washington Posts' Express paper had a special Home Buyer's Guide this past Wednesday, and I was honored to be asked for my thoughts on buying investment properties.

During my conversation with the author, I noted that prices inside the Beltway--areas that are optimal for finding renters--have not dropped to the extent people may think, and thus finding an investment property that is cash flow positive is difficult. Having said that, it's not impossible to find a good property with long term potential, and if you're looking out side the Beltway, there are deals to be had in terms of price (though finding renters may be more difficult than with close-in areas). The challenge right now is in obtaining financing, as I and Will Gaines, of Access National Mortgage, noted here.

» DOUBLE DOWN: Expect to break the piggy bank open — wide open. "You usually need a minimum of 15 percent down for an investment property, and, ideally, for good pricing, it should be 20 percent," says Will Gaines, senior loan officer with Access National Mortgage in Reston, Va. "To get your very most competitive pricing, you really need to have 30 percent to put down."

Don't blame the banks for tighter restrictions. "The private mortgage insurers got burned so, so bad in the past few years, and they're reluctant to provide insurance," warns Katie Wethman of Long & Foster. She says they're especially wary of insuring rental properties because "if a borrower falls on hard times, they're more likely to skip a payment on an investment property than one they live in." That said, she advises borrowers to come up with a big chunk of cold, hard cash to sweeten the deal; the less credit you need, the more likely you are to get the loan you want.

» DOUBLE UP: Count on your friends. "I see more younger people going in together to buy investment properties," Gaines says. "That way, they can share the down payment and spread out the risk if they're without a renter for a period of time." Be sure to have a game plan for buying each other out in case one of you is ready to cry "Uncle!" before the other.

If you have the cash for a larger down payment, and the patience to ride out the downturn, there are investment opportunities out there. In particular, being flexible on timing and having a bit of cash for repairs makes short sales and foreclosures more of an opportunity for investors (versus someone who has to move before their lease is up: read more on my foreclosure risk post on timing a transaction.)

What else do you need to consider when searching for an investment property? Long term demographic trends, price to rent ratios, competing inventory (i.e., apartments), cash flow, and a host of other factors. If you're considering an investment property and need an advisor for your transaction, contact me to set up a meeting.

North Arlington Condo Market Update - Oct 2008

North Arlington/Orange Line Condo Prices
Zip Codes 22201, 22203. Includes Ballston, Clarendon

ACTIVE LISTINGS: 1BR Condos / 2BR Condos
Number of Active Listings: 46 / 68
Average List Price: $351,858 / $526,993
Days on Market (Property): 74 / 100

SOLD LISTINGS: 1BR Condos / 2BR Condos
Number of Sold Listings in Prior Month: 18 / 14
Average Sold Price (excludes subsidies): $313,085 / $461,407
Days on Market (Property): 66 / 64

Absorption Rate
6 = Balanced Market;
>6 = Buyer’s Market;
<6 = Seller’s Market

1 Bedroom Condos = 2.5
2 Bedroom Condos = 4.9

* Statistics exclude retirement communities
Click here to see the previous North Arlington Condo Market Update
Source: MRIS data as of 10/17/2008. All data deemed reliable but not guaranteed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Free Home Repair Class in Arlington

Arlington County is hosting a free 3 hour Home Maintenance class on Saturday, October 18 from 10:00am - 1:00pm at the Arlington Career Center. Home maintenance info is a must for anyone thinking of buying a home, current homeowners, and even those thinking of selling (after all, buyers are going to ask for all sorts of repairs!) The class is free and you can get more information in this flyer.

Monday, September 29, 2008

North Arlington Condo Market Update - September 2008

Zip Codes 22201 and 22203 (includes Ballston, Virginia Square, Clarendon)

1 BR Units

2BR Units


Average List Price



Number of Active Listings



Average Property DOM(P) – Actives




Average Sold Price for Previous Month (does not include seller subsidies)



Number of Sold Listings in Previous Month



Average Property DOM(P) - Solds



Absorption Rate

6 = Balanced Market

>6 = Buyer’s Market

<6 = Seller's Market

1 Bedroom Condos = 1.6

2 Bedroom Condos = 1.8

* Statistics exclude retirement communities

Click here to see the previous North Arlington Condo Market Update

Source: MRIS data as of 09/29/2008. All data deemed reliable but not guaranteed.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

First Time Home Buyer Class Now Scheduled in Montgomery County

Note> For the most recent schedule of dates for 2008 and 2009, please visit the First Time Home Buyer class page at my website. Classes will be held in Montgomery County, DC, Arlington, and elsewhere in Northern Virginia.

I am scheduled to teach another “First Time Home Buyer” seminar in Montgomery County on October 23. Please invite your friends and colleagues who currently rent to join me for this session where we will cover a recap of the market, current trends and market stats including days on market, average sales prices, and inventory levels. We'll also discuss the impact of the banking system collapse and bailout, the home purchase process and common pitfalls, financing basics (including interest rates, points, fees, and closing costs), and a how to get started checklist. Details are as follows:

registration required

7:30 – 8:45 pm
Location: 930 Wayne Avenue, Silver Spring MD 20910
Metro: Red Line/Silver Spring

Cost: There is no obligation, and the session is FREE, but registration is required by emailing me at Katie@katiewethman.com or leaving me a voicemail at (703) 847-3336. Seating is limited.

Monday, September 8, 2008

What Does the Fannie & Freddie Bailout Mean To Home Buyers?

Big news over the weekend and today is that the Federal government is 'bailing out' Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who lacked enough access to capital to keep the secondary mortgage market going. While buyers and sellers might initially think that this is bad news, it's actually good, as evidenced by the 300 point market rally at the opening bell today. The markets are glad that what was an 'implied' guarantee is now an explicit one and the markets like transparency.

This is critical to the mortgage industry: Freddie and Fannie buy mortgages that are originated by banks, then package those loans up, slaps a guarantee on them, and sell them to investors. This helps transform what would normally be a very illiquid and long-term investment (30 year mortgages) into a very liquid asset: mortgage-backed securities. This keeps access to capital for borrows high, and interest rates low. Both Fannie and Freddie were chartered by Congress for specifically this purpose.

Before you start slamming this as another taxpayer funded bailout, remember that Congress has control of both their charters and heavily regulates what they can buy and sell. Both companies, though publicly traded, have many restrictions on how they operate their businesses. (The government, for example, sets the conforming loan limit of $417,000, now $729,750 in our area, but due to drop back down to $625,000 at year end). If the governments wants the right to legislate how a publicly traded company--presumably accountable to shareholders--is going to operate, then it's only fair that when things get mucked up the government needs to help out.

In terms of rates, we should expect to see conforming/jumbo-conforming rates drop in the coming weeks by as much as a percentage point.

If you're on the fence about buying, this means the (possibly temporary) return of rates in the 5.5% range! For those of you who recently purchased, keep a close eye on rates -- if rates drop to a full percentage point below what you have, it may actually be worth it for you to refinance. Discuss this with your lender.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Flooded basement?

It appears the worst of Hanna has passed, and no doubt many homes in our area are now facing a flooded basement. Unfortunately the vacant homes will likely sit for days that way before someone checks on the property, and the damage will be extensive by then.

But if you find your home has water in it, what can you do? Here are some tips from doityourself.com and a Disaster Preparedness list:
  • If you just have a small amount of water, use a mop or old towels.
  • Be careful of shock hazards! Turn off electricity before entering.
  • Borrow or buy a portable sump pump, wet vac, or wet shop vac. (These are also available to rent.)
  • Ensure all the drains are clear - especially outside of doors.
  • Once it stops raining, open the windows to allow moisture in the air to escape.
  • Use fans to circulate the air and speed up the drying process.
  • Use a dehumidifier.
  • Check with your insurance company as soon as possible (consider snapping some photos or video to document the situation)
Luckily tomorrow is supposed to be a nice day, which should help with the drying out process.

Ready to waterproof your basement to avoid this in the future? There are any number of good companies you can contact for estimates and consultations. Your real estate agent should have an arsenal of qualified contractors in their rolodex. Ask them for a recommendation.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sunny End Unit 4 Level Brick TH in N. Arlington - Open Sunday 1-4

Rarely available spacious and bright corner unit 4br brick townhouse in quiet enclave of homes. Located right on bike path and close enough to walk to Rosslyn metro or Georgetown!

Beautiful sunny kitchen with breakfast area and sliding doors to deck. High ceilings, tons of windows for great light! Main level features gleaming hardwoods, crown molding, chair rails and two bay windows.

Huge master suite with vaulted ceiling, sitting area, two large closets. Luxurious master bath has dual sinks, whirlpool tub & separate shower. Two car garage.

See tons of pictures and more info at www.22ndStreetNorth.com

Listed at $892,500. Open Sun 9/7 1:00 - 4:00.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Renovated 3BR/2BA Condo in Cardinal Forest $224,500 - Open Sunday

Huge, renovated 3br/2ba unit with private patio backing to trees and parkland. Tons of updates include new carpet, paint, lighting, granite counters, frig, stove, bath vanity. Washer/dryer in unit!

Community is pet friendly, pool, tennis, tot lot, convenient to commuting routes, VRE, bus lines. FHA Approved! Home warranty. Condo fee incl heat & water, tons of amenities. Move in ready & quick settlement possible!

Open House Sunday, September 7, 1:00 pm-4:00 pm. Learn more about this property and see all the pictures at www.8318Kingsgate.com and view the MLS listing here.

Thinking of selling your condo? Contact me to learn more about my marketing plans, including open houses, professional photographers, dedicated websites, agent-provided home warranties, and free staging consultations!

Client Testimonial

I got the nicest letter today from a first time buyer client couple. It really made my day and I wanted to share it:


We wanted to thank for your guidance and tremendous service during our condo buying process. Given the issues with FHA and our lender situation, this process had a lot more twists and turns than we ever imagined. But at the same time, we were reassured that your innovative solutions and attention to detail would get us through and it did!

Honestly, as we told you, before attending your home buying seminar and leveraging your expertise during our condo purchase, our opinion of realtors was not the highest. However, after working with you, that has changed. We really appreciated your vast array of knowledge as well as your super prompt response to what at times were our incessant questions. Plus, the little extras like the website of preferred vendors, use of the pick up truck, and letting us borrow your dolly helped us to move in.

Finally, thank you for the card. It now graces our new stainless steel fridge and we have already put those gift cards to good use.

We had no idea how stressful this process could be and honestly, we could not have done this without you.

Thanks Katie!

If you're a first time buyer, please contact me. I'd love to help you find a home, too!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

North Arlington Condo Market Update - August 2008

Zip Codes 22201 and 22203 (includes Ballston, Virginia Square, Clarendon)

1 BR Units

2BR Units


Average List Price



Number of Active Listings



Average Property DOM(P) – Actives




Average Sold Price for Previous Month (does not include seller subsidies)



Number of Sold Listings in Previous Month



Average Property DOM(P) - Solds



Absorption Rate (Balanced Market = 6)

1 Bedroom Condos = 3.2

2 Bedroom Condos = 3.1

* Statistics exclude retirement communities

Click here to see the previous North Arlington Condo Market Update

Source: MRIS data as of 08/24/2008. All data deemed reliable but not guaranteed.