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

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:

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.)