You’ve found a home you can afford, in a great neighborhood with good schools. It even has a fenced-in yard for your dog. What could go wrong?
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Any number of things, ranging from a competing buyer’s all-cash offer to an insufficient earnest money deposit from you. In markets with houses in short supply, sellers have the advantage over buyers, and bidding wars often erupt between buyers vying for the nicest properties. Your purchase offer should persuade sellers that you are a serious contender who will give them most of what they want, even as it protects your interests.
1. Pay cash. Investors have been snapping up homes to flip or rent, and they usually come to the table with cash. Sellers love all-cash offers because they’re less likely to fall through before the sale closes. In January, all-cash transactions accounted for 28% of existing home sales, according to the National Association of Realtors. Cities currently attracting strong investor interest include Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas and Phoenix, reports CoreLogic. If you need a mortgage, a low appraisal could cause your bank to back out of the deal, forcing the sellers to put the house back on the market. (For ways to raise cash for a home, see How to Raise Cash to Invest in Real Estate.)
2. Get preapproved. If you can’t pay cash, you’ll need to get a mortgage. Three or four months before you shop for a home, check your credit reports, says Michael Corbett, a consultant to real estate Web site Trulia and author of Before You Buy! That will give you time to dispute any errors and take short-term steps, such as paying off debts, that will improve your credit score. You can get your reports once a year free from the three major credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. Then get a bank’s preapproval. It won’t guarantee that you’ll get a loan, but it will show sellers that a lender has verified your income and credit score and determined that you can afford payments on a mortgage for a certain amount.
3. Make your best offer on price. You may only have one shot to get it right, so make your best offer—what you’re willing and able to pay. Base your offer on recent sale prices of comparable properties in the neighborhood so that it will pass muster when the property is appraised. If you hold back, thinking you’ll sweeten the offer on the second try, you may lose the property to another buyer.
4. Up the ante. You can add an escalator clause, with which you agree to ratchet up your offer if there’s a higher bid from another buyer. Keep in mind that if you agree to pay more than the market value determined by an appraisal, you’re on the hook for the difference from your own funds.
5. Beef up your earnest money. This deposit signals how serious a buyer you are. Try doubling the amount that the seller requests or that is customary in the area. If you must renege on the offer for any reason allowed by the contract or state law, you’ll get your money back.
6. Pay for extras yourself. These might include some of the closing costs, homeowners association dues that must be prepaid, a one-time contribution to a community-enhancement fund, or a home warranty.
7. Make contingencies palatable. Most sellers prefer offers with no contingencies, but you probably can’t afford to forgo the protection that contingencies provide if you want to cancel the contract. Offset a financing contingency with preapproval and a strong earnest money deposit. If you have enough cash, temper an appraisal contingency by assuring sellers that if the appraisal comes in lower than the purchase price, you’ll pay the difference or split it with them (up to a certain amount). Include a home-inspection contingency, but tell sellers that you will cover the cost of any repairs. If the price tag on those repairs gets out of hand, you can back out of the deal.
8. Write a love letter to the sellers. Re/Max agent Gayle Henderson, of Scottsdale, Ariz., says this will help you connect with the sellers, especially if you haven’t met them. She suggests such points as: "We’re relocating from..." "We see ourselves living in your neighborhood or chose your schools because..." "We especially love..." and "We appreciate your accommodating our visits."
9. Give the gift of time. Express your willingness to work with the sellers’ timetable to go to closing. If the sellers want to remain in the home for a while after closing, offer them a "lease back" or "rent back," which means that you will be their temporary landlord. This is a legal arrangement, and you’ll need to work out the details with your agents and be sure that the sellers keep their homeowners insurance during their stay. If you are bidding on a short sale, make clear to the sellers that you are patient and can wait for the bank’s decision.