How to choose a really good real estate agent

The idea of buying a home is simultaneously enchanting and daunting. For instance, it's fun to daydream about color palettes and kitchen / bathroom renovations and coming home to your very own Home Sweet Home. It's less fun to think about what the transition from daydreaming and dream home entails.

A really good real estate agent can walk you through the steps of homebuying and even help you negotiate an offer that might lower your upfront and ongoing costs of home ownership.

Really good real estate agents are familiar with the neighborhoods where you'd like to live. They know how long houses have sat on the market and can tell you the difference between listing prices and recent purchase prices.

The question is how do you find a really good real estate agent?

Talk to friends & relatives

Whether through Facebook or other social media platforms or (gasp!) face-to-face, ask your friends and relatives who've had recent homebuying experiences what real estate agents they recommend. And find out why.

Was their agent especially skilled at contract negotiation? Did he or she have encyclopedic knowledge about the local market? What about their communication skills? Did their agent return phone calls and emails in a timely manner?

These kind of details will help to paint a colorful picture of what it's like to work with a real estate agent. And presumably, if it's coming from your friends and relatives, it's coming from a source you know well and one you can trust.

Read online reviews

If you don't have friends or relatives with recent homebuying experiences in your area, the Internet may be the next best thing. Sites like Angie's List (paid subscription required) and Yelp (no subscription necessary, but be sure to check the "filtered reviews) have tons of reviews about local real estate professionals.

Real estate sites like Redfin, Zillow and Trulia post agent reviews as well. The downside of online reviews is you most likely don't know who the source is. More than likely the review is bias, but reading multiple reviews should allow you to get a fairly balanced picture.

Contact top prospects, interview them

Once you've made a short list of prospects, call them and ask more questions. For added peace of mind, find out if your prospective agents have additional references.

Pick their brains about the neighborhoods where you'd like to live. Find out, on average, what percent of the listing price do their clients typically pay. Obviously a real estate agent who negotiates deals for less than the asking price is someone you want negotiating your home purchase.

The more research you do at the beginning of the agent selection process, the better your chances of finding a really good real estate agent and having a pleasant homebuying experience.

Once you've made it through the all the steps, consider posting your own agent review to give future homebuyers an idea of what it was like to work with your agent selection.

And if these tips don't help to ease your mind about how to select a real estate agent, feel free to reach out to our office and ask for even more agent recommendations. We closed roughly 1,500 deals last year, so we know a lot of real estate agents (mortgage lenders, too).

Lenders, be careful when calculating income for D.C. Tax Abatement

The D.C. Tax Abatement Program is a great program for those homebuyers who qualify. Qualifying homebuyers are exempt from paying transfer and recordation taxes at closing and will also be exempt from paying real property taxes for 5 years beginning the next full tax year after filing. It is understandable that lenders want their clients to qualify for the program wherever possible.

One of the key qualifications is income. The household must have an income under a certain limit.

Often, lenders will use the income they have calculated for their client for underwriting purposes as a basis for determining whether their client will qualify for the Tax Abatement Program. Lenders will usually take a conservative approach when calculating income for underwriting purposes, because this approach reduces their risk.

Lenders need to be aware that the D.C. government will do its own, independent calculation of income (looking at tax returns and W-2’s for the past two years as well as the applicant’s last two pay stubs) when determining an applicant’s qualification for the Tax Abatement Program. D.C.’s approach may not be as conservative as the lender’s.

We have seen some cases recently where the lender’s determination of income for underwriting purposes was low enough for a homebuyer to qualify for the Tax Abatement Program, but when the D.C. government did its own calculation, the homebuyer did not qualify.

If lenders have any questions about Tax Abatement income qualifications, they should ask the title company.

DC wants to 'Open Doors' to potential home owners

A new program from the DC Housing Finance Agency (DCHFA) called ‘DC Open Doors’ seeks to make homeownership in the District even more affordable. This new program offers qualified homebuyers a variety of mortgage loans, including FHA and Fannie Mae conventional mortgages, as well as down payment assistance.

In order to qualify for the new program, the following conditions must be met:
  1. There is a borrower income limit of $123,395. Please note, this is not a household limit, so if two people live together and have a combined income of over $123,395, one member can still apply for the loan as long as his/her income is less than the limit.

  2. The borrower has a minimum credit score of 640.

  3. While borrowers are not prohibited from purchasing a higher priced home, there is a $417,000 loan limit.

  4. Once a borrower has applied, he/she is then required to take 8 hours of homebuyer education classes in person or online, and

  5. The program is not just available to first-time homebuyers.

The benefit of the down payment assistance program is that it is a 0%, non-amortizing, subordinate loan that has a 5-year term. The loan is only repayable if the borrower sells the property, refinances or converts it to a rental property within the first 5 years of owning the property.

The program provides for a 20% annual forgiveness for each year the property remains the borrower’s principal residence, therefore at the end of 5 years, the loan will be 100% forgiven.

The DCHFA website provides a list of participating lenders for any potential homebuyer who may have questions or be interested in the program and who meets the above-referenced criteria.

FHA issues new rule on foreclosure, bankruptcy and short sale waiting period

In its August 2013 Mortgagee Letter, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) issued updated guidelines for giving an FHA-insured mortgage to borrowers who may otherwise be ineligible as a result of its post-bankruptcy, foreclosure or short sale waiting period.

For the majority of FHA-insured mortgages, the guidelines are fairly straightforward:
  • The borrowers monthly debt should not exceed 45% of their household income, unless exceptional cause is shown,
  • The borrowers must put down at least 3.5% of the purchase price or appraised value (whichever is less),
  • The borrowers must have a credit score of at least 580 or higher, and
  • The amount of the loan cannot exceed the local FHA loan limits.
However, under the prior guidelines, if a borrower filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, or underwent a foreclosure or short sale, the mandatory waiting period for borrowers to obtain another FHA-insured mortgage were as follows:
  • Foreclosure: Must wait for 3 years before eligible
  • Short Sale in Default: Must wait 3 years before eligible
  • Chapter 7 Bankruptcy: Must wait 2 years before eligible
Due changes in the housing market, these mandatory waiting periods have now essentially been waived.  The FHA will, however, require that borrowers prove:
  • That any major credit issues have been cleared from their credit history,
  • Completion of housing counseling, and
  • They meet all other HUD requirements.
This has the potential of introducing more buyers into the housing market, thereby driving demand for more housing inventory and increasing home values.  However, it also begs the question……is this opening the door for another housing crisis in the years to come?

Sellers should consider an appraisal addendum

As we are again finding ourselves in a competitive market, with sellers in many cases receiving multiple offers, one issue that has re-surfaced is the concept of “waiving the appraisal contingency.”   What does this mean to a buyer and seller?    First, a little history.

History of the GCAAR Appraisal Contingency

The concept of an appraisal contingency has been contained in the various versions of the GCAAR contracts, but the language has been revised – and moved around – over the years.

In the 1999 GCAAR contract, the appraisal contingency was automatically part of the contract as an element of the conventional financing paragraph (Paragraph 8) unless a purchaser specifically eliminated it.  Back in the bidding war days of the early 2000’s, this was often done.  Purchasers struck through the language contained in that paragraph.  Hence the origin of the phrase, “waiving the appraisal contingency.”  

In the 2006 revision of the GCAAR contract, the purchaser was required to select between two options listed under Paragraph 10, Conventional Financing Terms.  Under Option 1, the contract was contingent on an appraisal not less than the sales price, and under Option 2, it was not contingent.   Under Option 2, “Purchaser shall complete Settlement without regard to the value of the Property set forth in any Appraisal and acknowledges that this may reduce the amount of financing available from lender and may require Purchaser to tender additional funds at Settlement.  If Purchaser fails to settle except due to any Default by Seller, then the provisions of paragraph #26 (Default) shall apply.”  This language was continued in the 2009 version of the contract.

In the 2012 revisions to the GCAAR contract, two of the big changes were to move the financing contingency to a separate addendum of its own and to move the appraisal contingency to the Addendum of Clauses.  Also, the language of the appraisal contingency was revised.

Appraisal contingency in addendum of clauses Rev. 2012

When sellers and their agents are reviewing offers today and evaluating what the offers say on the question of an appraisal contingency, they first look to see whether Paragraph 10 of the Addendum of Clauses is checked off, because this is where the appraisal contingency is now located. 

If this paragraph is checked off, the contract is contingent on appraisal not less than the sales price.  For example, if the offer is for a sales price of $1,000,000 with financing of $800,000, and the appraisal comes back at $900,000, the purchaser is not obligated to proceed with the contract and can instead negotiate with the seller to lower the sales price.  That much is clear.    

The bigger question is what if this paragraph is NOT checked off?  A seller might think that because there is no specific appraisal contingency, he or she would be protected against the contract falling through based on a low appraisal.  But that is not necessarily the case, if the contract includes a financing contingency.

If the contract contains a financing contingency, and if the lender denies the loan within the timeframe of the financing contingency based on the appraisal, the contract will become void if the buyer delivers a copy of the written rejection to the seller, and the buyer will not be in default, notwithstanding the fact that the buyer did not even check off Paragraph 10.  The buyer is protected.  

The Conventional Financing Addendum specifically states:

In the event Buyer’s financing described herein is declined based upon the Appraised Valuation of the Property, Buyer will not be in Default.  This provision will apply even if the Contract contains a separate Appraisal Contingency and that Appraisal Contingency has expired or has been removed.

(Paragraph E.)

The appraisal contingency itself contains the following language:  



This language would apply most directly in a situation where Paragraph 10 had been checked off, but the purchaser subsequently delivered to the seller a notice that the appraisal contingency had been removed (e.g., GCAAR form #1333).   In this case, as well as in the case where the paragraph had never been checked off, the seller would not be protected in a situation where a low appraisal resulted in the buyer’s financing being denied.

Obtaining a separate addendum

So what’s a seller to do?  The best way for a seller to be sure that they are protected in the case of a low appraisal, where there is a financing contingency, is to not only make sure that there is no appraisal contingency contained in the contract (i.e.,  make sure that Paragraph 10 in the Addendum of Clauses is not checked off) but also to include an addendum to the contract that specifically states that if the appraisal comes back low, the purchaser will complete settlement and make up the difference in cash.  This would be very similar to the language contained in the 2009 version of the GCAAR contract.     

The following is some suggested language for an addendum:

THIS CONTRACT IS NOT CONTINGENT ON AN APPRAISAL.  Purchaser shall proceed with this Contract at the stated Sales Price without regard to the Appraised Valuation of the Property.  In the event that the Appraisal reduces the amount of financing available from the Lender, Purchaser shall tender additional funds in cash at Settlement.  

Of course, from the buyer’s perspective, the buyer needs to be certain that he or she has the necessary cash to cover such a shortfall before including a provision like this in an offer.
  • Ways to save at closing

    Title charges are the largest chunk of closing costs and can vary by hundreds of dollars.

    Learn more

  • What are closing costs?

    The real estate closing process involves loan steps, legal steps and title steps.

    Learn more

  • What's title insurance?

    Insure your legal ownership just like you'd insure the building, but for lots cheaper.

    Learn more

Connect with us

Our blog contains general information only, not intended to be relied upon as, nor a substitute for, specific professional advice. Rate tables and figures that appear on our blog are deemed reliable but not guaranteed. For current rates & policies, refer to our Quick Quote and Consumer Guide. We accept no responsibility for loss occasioned to any purpose acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material on our blog.