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Adding Privacy to Your Patio or Yard

A yard or patio is the perfect spot for enjoying the outdoors, whether that means playtime with your kids or quiet relaxation after a long day. And while you may like your neighbors, you may not want to see and hear them every time you venture into your backyard. If more privacy interests you, consider these options below:

Fencing — Probably the most straightforward solution, fences have long been the go-to for homeowners seeking seclusion. Be sure to check city ordinances and HOA policies before installing one.

Hedges — Shrubs like boxwood and privet are commonly planted along property lines. Choose an evergreen variety for year-long privacy. Make sure it’s suited for your climate and matures to your desired height.

Screens — Stylish and effective, folding wood-panel screens add a nice visual element while blocking unwanted views. Opt for a weather-resistant screen designed for the outdoors.

Trellis — The lattice configurations on these simple wooden structures offer an element of privacy. They’re also a perfect host for climbing vines and plants if you’d like additional coverage. Just be sure to check the sunlight and care requirements for the vegetation you plant.

Pergola — A pergola helps block views from second-story windows and balconies. It can be as simple or intricate as you’d like and will offer a degree of shade along with privacy.

Drapes — Budget-friendly and chic, panels help screen off your patio and can be moved as desired. Make sure the fabric is suitable for outdoor use or spray it with a water-resistant coating.

Vertical Garden — If you’re looking to increase privacy and also want to grow your own herbs, consider a living wall. You can buy prefabricated tower planters for easy installation.

If neighborly noise is a problem, a water fountain is a relaxing, sound-muffling solution. Consider your outdoor space and choose the privacy-adding options that work for you.

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4 Appliances That Need a Cleaning

Occasionally cleaning household appliances like stoves and refrigerators may seem obvious, but what about equipment that does the cleaning, like the dishwasher and washing machine? Give these often overlooked appliances a deep clean with the following tips before the holidays have them working overtime.

Unclog the dishwasher. The cleaner the dishwasher, the cleaner your dishes will turn out after going through a wash cycle. Take a moment to clean the dishwasher’s filter, usually located on the inside bottom of the machine. This detachable filter becomes clogged with food and debris over time, so empty it out regularly to keep it working efficiently.

De-gunk your garbage disposal. Use a natural abrasive combo of ice and salt to loosen grime from the blades. Though it will be loud, run the disposal until the ice is gone. When finished, you can grind up a lemon or lime wedge to deodorize the drain.

Give your washing machine a wash. Hosting out-of-towners during the holiday season? Avoid musty bedding and towels by sanitizing the machine and removing mildew buildup every few months. To do this, run a hot wash cycle without a load and add one cup of bleach to the soap dispenser or directly into the machine.

Give your vacuum more power. Increased foot traffic could have this tool working harder over the holidays. Keep your vacuum maintained with simple fixes like unclogging hoses, cleaning the rotating brush and replacing the filter.

Want to keep your appliances working hard for you? Give them regular attention and their own cleaning now and then.

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How to Shop for a Mortgage: A Bargain Hunter’s Guide to Home Loans

Ready to go shopping … for a mortgage? We know: It’s not exactly the kind of fun holiday shopping you had in mind. Still, your ability to sniff out a great mortgage is crucial to your financial well-being as a future homeowner, because the decision you make could stick with you for a very long time, maybe even 30 years. Gulp.

No pressure, right? All we’re trying to say is, it pays to learn how to best compare your options—which is where this latest installment in our Stress-Free Guide to Getting a Mortgage will come in handy. Like your most trusted shopping buddy, our guide will show you how to hone your bargain hunting skills and get the most for your money.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Step 1. Shop for a mortgage that fits your needs

Ideally, you should start shopping for a mortgage three to six months before you plan to buy a home. This lengthy lead time is important because you may have to invest time in boosting your credit score. You’ll need 760 or higher to qualify for the best interest rates, says Richard Redmond, mortgage broker at All California Mortgage in Larkspur and author of “Mortgages: The Insider’s Guide.” You’ll need a minimum credit score of around 660 to qualify for any mortgage at all.

If your score isn’t up to par, a mortgage lender can tell you what you need to do to improve it. This could involve getting an error removed from your credit report, which is a real possibility given that one in four Americans reported spotting errors on their reports in a 2013 Federal Trade Commission survey.

Step 2. Find low interest rates

As you probably know, one of your main goals while shopping around is to secure a low interest rate. Interest, after all, is basically a service fee charged by lenders. The lower your rate, the less money you’ll pay them back—and every quarter of a percent counts!

On a 30-year $200,000 loan with a 4% interest rate, for instance, you’ll end up paying back not only that $200,000, but an extra $143,739 in interest by the time those 30 years are up. That massive mountain of money will end up higher or lower depending on the interest rate you get.

You can compare interest rates at realtor.com/mortgage/rates, but keep in mind the rates listed there may not necessarily apply to you. What rates you qualify for depends on your credit score; better (meaning higher) credit scores merit better (meaning lower) interest rates.

But there are exceptions. Some first-time buyers may have access to lower interest rates through the Federal Housing Administration. Loans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which are available to active or retired military personnel, enable borrowers to buy homes with lower interest rates than conventional loans as well.

Step 3. Analyze your closing costs

A low interest rate may win you bragging rights, but it’s hardly your only goal. That’s because mortgages come with sizable closing costs totaling an additional 2% to 7% of the sales price of your home. Some of these extra fees are non-negotiable, such as state transfer taxes, but some fees are negotiable, says Katie Miller, vice president of mortgage lending at Navy Federal Credit Union.

As such, aim to meet with three mortgage lenders—which could be banks, credit unions, mortgage brokers, or any combination thereof—and get what’s called a good-faith estimate, which breaks down the mortgage’s terms, including the interest rate and fees.

Also find out from each loan officer what fees are government-regulated and what fees the lender prices—then haggle on the latter, says Sylvia Gutierrez, a loan officer in South Florida and author of “Mortgage Matters: Demystifying the Loan Approval Maze.”

A caveat: When a mortgage lender processes your loan application, it runs a “hard inquiry” on your credit score, which can dock your score by up to 5 points, says Beverly Harzog, a consumer credit expert and author of “The Debt Escape Plan.” Your score will recover over time, but it may take a few months. As a result, you should limit your loan shopping to three lenders.

Step 4. Be mindful of interest rate fluctuations

Once you commit to a particular lender, it will process your loan application and you’ll receive a pre-approval letter, which is a commitment to lend you the money you need to buy a home. Although a pre-approval letter is typically good for 90 days, your interest rate isn’t guaranteed until you sign a purchase agreement with a seller, so you’ll want to keep an eye on changes in the market. However, you can opt to lock in your rate for a period of 30, 45, 60, or even 90 days, depending on your lender.

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Credit:  | Dec 13, 2016

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What Is a Listing Agent? Why a Home Sale Hinges on Agent’s Expertise

If you’re getting ready to sell your home, finding a listing agent should be at the top of your to-do list. But just what is a listing agent? You might have a vague mental image of someone who plants a “For Sale” sign on your front lawn and shows potential buyers around your place, but there’s plenty more to it.

Here’s a primer on what a listing agent does, how the agent makes or breaks your sale, and how to find the right agent for you.

How listing agents help you price your home

How much is your home worth? That’s a hard question to answer. You can get an estimated value by entering your address on realtor.com®, but from there you’ll want to do some fine-tuning—and that’s where a good listing agent can help.

And the stakes are high: Price your home too low, and you could lose out on a lot of money. Price it too high, however, and the picture isn’t pretty either. While it may be tempting to work with an agent who says he can fetch a fortune for your home, overpricing may mean your home languishes on the market for months or even years—making buyers wonder if something’s wrong with your home and lowball you anyway.

“Listing agents have many duties and responsibilities, but at the top of the list is to properly price your home,” says Janine Acquafredda, a Realtor® with House-n-Key Realty.

To do this, a listing agent will analyze the sales prices of comparable homes, or “comps,” in your area to see where yours should fit in, and advise you accordingly.

How listing agents help you sell your home

After you determine an asking price, a listing agent should provide you with a comprehensive marketing plan detailing how she’ll get your property sold. This plan should include the following:

  • Recommendations for home improvements or home staging, if necessary. Yes, these alterations will cost you time and money, but they will improve your chances of a faster sale and higher asking price.
  • Taking photos or hiring a photographer who will be able to highlight your home’s best features.
  • Adding your home to the multiple listing service, where home buyers and their agents can view your property and decide if they’d like to come visit for a closer look.
  • Advertising and holding open houses.
  • Coordinating showings with prospective buyers.

How listings agents negotiate with buyers

Once you get an offer on your home, it’s the listing agent’s job to present it to you and advise if any haggling needs to be done. For instance, if you get an offer way below asking price, your knee-jerk reaction may be to refuse in a huff. But a listing agent might be able to negotiate with the buyers and bring that price up to a decent level—or, if the buyers truly can’t budge much, find other ways to sweeten the deal like a faster closing date or waived contingencies. These compromises can actually save you tens of thousands of dollars.

How to choose a listing agent

If you’re looking for a listing agent, you can find ones in your area at realtor.com/realestateagents, where you’ll find such details as their years of experience, number of homes sold, clients’ reviews, and more. Don’t just move forward with the first agent you meet. Choose at least a few and ask them some questions to assess whether they’re right for you.

Here are some questions to ask a prospective listing agent:

  • How many homes have you sold in this area, and how long did it take?
  • In what price range do you sell most of your homes?
  • Do you have advice for me about the condition of my home, and what could be improved to glean a higher sales price?
  • What is your marketing plan?
  • Can you recommend contractors, photographers, moving companies, etc.?
  • Are you a member of the National Association of Realtors®? (Realtors must abide by the group’s code of ethics.)
  • Is this your full-time job? (A part-time agent is not a problem, but you will want to gauge her availability during off-hours.)
  • How often will you touch base with me?
  • Are you planning any vacations, and if so, who will back you up?

How much listing agents get paid

Listing agents don’t receive a dime unless your home gets sold. If it does, the typical agent commission is 6% of the price of your home (which is typically split between the listing agent and the buyer’s agent). This price may seem substantial, but consider this: For every hour an agent spends with you, he will spend an average of nine hours behind the scenes working on your behalf. In other words, listings agents work hard to earn that commission and get your home sold.

Credit: | Sep 14, 2016
Michele Lerner contributed to this report.

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Real Estate News Roundup!

10 Real Estate Blogs You Should Read

In no particular order, here they are:
  1. Bigger Pockets – This blog covers a wide range of topics touching on just about every question that a Real Estate Agent could have. Posts have titles such as, “What is the best interior paint for Landlords and House Flippers?” to “Never (Ever!) offer a Distressed Seller This…” and finally, “How to Start Investing in Real Estate at a Young Age“. And best of all, with this blog you’re getting the perspective of over a dozen people. It’s a must follow.
  2. RISMedia – This blog touts itself as “The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems” and they definitely do their best to back up their claim. One thing that really makes this blog standout from the rest is the fact that they have their own TV show. Yes, Real Estate TV. Perfect for folks who don’t like to read!
  3. The Real Estate Bloggers – This blog is all about the latest news, trends and marketing information. Don’t let the word trends scare you away. These guys are bringing the freshest real estate news out there. Like this post on a man that was swallowed by a sinkhole while sleeping
  4. The Real Estate Tomato – Jim Cronin has worked hard to help thousands of realtors develop a superior online presence that enhances their businesses. This blog is one of the ways he does that. And, the proof is in the pudding, he has over seven thousand twitter followers. The Real Estate Tomato blog strives to develop real estate agents into proficient bloggers, so if you’re looking to get started online, or get better about your blogging, this is the place to start.
  5. Inman News – Most of you have heard of Inman News by now. They’re one of the industry thought leaders when it comes to just about everything real estate. One thing I appreciate is their focus on the use of technology and the amount of data they often gather for their articles and conferences.
  6. Trulia – This is another industry leader when it comes to the real estate industry. If you haven’t seen their blog though, you really need to check it out and subscribe. One immaediate takeaway you can get from reading their blog is to see how to use a blog to target very specific people and instances. This post on finding an apartment in Manhattan is a good example.
  7. Zillow – Here is another great example for agents to get a lot of good information from industry leaders and see how they are using technology to sell homes. This recent post on “A Guide to Sublet Etiquette” seems quirky at first, but it could come in handy.
  8. Houselogic – This blog is great because it covers everything from helping people get organized, to green living and taxes and financing. There’s so much here, you could spend days reading it all.
  9. Paper Money – If you get excited when Excel opens up and dream in charts and graphs, this blog is for you my friend! It’s primarily focused on the US Real Estate Bubble, but the amount of information they provide to each blog post is astounding! Get caught up on where the housing market sits in this blog.
  10. Realtor.com – Last, but certainly not least is Realtor.com. They’ve got all kinds of topics they cover from celebrity houses that make people on Cribs look poor to trends in home decor. My favorite is their article on Michal Jordan turning 50 and buying himself a mansion. A lot of the 12,000 square feet is hardwood flooring. Do you think he’s allowed to play basketball in the house?
Well, that’s it for the roundup! Hope you enjoyed, have a great weekend and let us know what your favorite blog is in the comments!
Credit: Rainer Title, Mar 2016
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How a Home Appraisal Can Make or Break Your Mortgage

Buying a home often requires some serious haggling between buyer and seller to arrive at a price they’re both willing to accept. But even if you reach an agreement, the negotiations may not be over. If you’re a buyer who needs a mortgage, most lenders will require a home appraisal. So that means you’ll need to get one more opinion on how much the property is worth.

Lenders require a home appraisal before they’ll provide a loan for the simple reason that the home serves as collateral. If for some reason you end up unable to make your mortgage payments, the lender will have to foreclose upon your home, then sell the property to recoup its costs. So it makes sense that it would want to make sure the property is worth that large chunk of change it’s handing over!

If all goes well, the home’s appraised value will end up the same as what you’d agreed to pay. But it could also end up higher—or lower—and this has ramifications for the whole deal.

In this fifth installment of our Stress-Free Guide to Getting a Mortgage, we walk you through everything you need to know about this crucial step and how to handle whatever news comes your way.

What appraisers do

To assess a home’s value, an appraiser considers these main criteria: location, structural condition, additions or renovations, and recent sales of comparable homes, or comps. Comps play the most important role when determining value, says Rick Phillips, an appraiser and real estate agent in Vienna, VA.

“We’re looking for homes sold within the last six months that are equivalent in the numbers of rooms, square footage, upgrades, and location to the home that’s being purchased,” he explains.

If a comp isn’t an exact match—which is typically the case—an appraiser will make adjustments in order to fairly assess the value of the property you want to buy.

For example, if a recently sold home has four bedrooms and the home being purchased has only three bedrooms, the appraiser will make a market-determined deduction on your home’s price.

A typical property appraisal costs around $300 to $500 and is usually paid for by the buyer upfront. But although the appraiser is hired by the buyer, “the appraiser doesn’t represent the seller or the buyer,” says Joe Parsons, senior loan officer at PFS Funding in Dublin, CA. And although an appraiser works to protect a lender from entering a bad deal, he doesn’t work for the lender, either. He is merely there to give an unbiased opinion about the value of a home.

How appraisals affect the sale

If the home appraises for the agreed-upon purchase price, you’re one step closer to settlement. If the appraisal comes in higher than what you’re paying, that’s even better.

For example, if you’re paying $500,000 for a home and the appraiser says it’s worth $515,000, you’ve instantly gained $15,000 in equity. But if the appraisal comes in lower than you’d agreed to pay for the home, that could cause trouble.

Low appraisals tend to occur in hot housing markets, where buyers are often forced to pay above market value for a home. The only problem is a lender won’t loan more than a home’s appraised value, which could leave the buyer to cover the difference, says Chris Dossman, a real estate agent with Century 21 Scheetz in Indianapolis. But if a buyer isn’t willing or able to do that, there are options:

  1. Negotiate with the seller. If the home doesn’t appraise for the contract price, the seller may agree to lower the sales price so the deal can go through. Dossman says this is the most common outcome.
  2. Appeal the appraisal. Sometimes called a “rebuttal of value,” an appeal involves your loan officer and real estate agent working together to find better comparable market data to justify a higher valuation. “Appraisers aren’t perfect,” says Parsons. “They make mistakes.” If you file an appeal, the appraiser will review the information and then make a judgment call on whether or not to adjust the valuation.
  3. Order a second appraisal. “It doesn’t happen very often, but it does when a buyer just absolutely has to have the property” and they believe the first appraisal wasn’t accurate, says Dossman. The initial appraisal might be significantly off base if, say, the appraiser overlooked a good comp or wasn’t familiar with the local housing market. Granted, if the seller is equally committed to keeping the deal alive, you might be able to persuade her to cover the costs of the second appraisal.
  4. Walk away. “It’s a bummer, but it may not be worth overpaying for a home,” says Dossman.

 

This is why, as ominous as the appraisal process might seem, home buyers should see it as a safety measure that keeps them from entering a bad deal.

To find an appraiser, you can ask your real estate agent for recommendations or search by ZIP code at the Appraisal Institute.

Credit: Daniel Bortz | Dec 15,2016, realtor.com