Easy Property Fixes to Prompt a Quick Sale

Easy Property Fixes to Prompt a Quick Sale

Small upgrades and aesthetic swaps can make all the difference in drawing buyers to a home.

October 26, 2020


Key takeaways:

  • Instead of replacing outdated furnishings, consider paring down decorative distractions to show off the natural attributes of a well-structured space.
  • Focus on flourishes in common, small hardware such as doorknobs and handles on kitchen cabinetry.
  • If there are significant property defects, play up the home’s backstory to redirect attention to a positive talking point.

Despite the thought and preparation that goes into listing a home, the two biggest hurdles to the sale are property photos, which should motivate buyers to request an in-person tour, and the showing, which needs to justify the photos, says Kenny Dahill, CEO and co-founder of Burbz Co., an à la carte property manager platform. Your sellers could do expensive home improvements like a kitchen renovation or a room addition. But how can they complete a project of similar impact without spending thousands? And after the work is done, how do you promote your listing’s new look?

The National Association of REALTORS®’ Remodeling Impact report shows the following are the projects with the highest ROI:

  • New roofing: 107%
  • New hardwood floors: 106%
  • Refinished hardwood floors: 100%

But there are even easier tricks to get houses looking snazzy without spending too much time or money.

Focus on Spaces and Fixtures

Sometimes less is more, says Tamika Todd, a Bermuda-based broker with Platinum Realty.

Todd had a rental listing laden with outdated finish work and furnishings, including 1960s wall tiles and heavy drapery. She suggested that her client open up the space by removing the furnishings so the room contained only a bed, a small desk, and a chair. This helped highlight the depth of the 17-by-17-foot room and the ceiling height of the 750-square-foot loft-style unit. Todd showed the space with sheer curtains, neutral-colored walls, and open windows.

“The transformation definitely made the owner say ‘wow,’ along with every person who viewed it thereafter. It allowed prospects to see the size of the unit and to visualize living in the space without being distracted by the owner’s personal preferences,” Todd says. The owner of the rental originally wanted $1,500 per month in rent, but Todd listed it for $1,700 after the refresh of the unit and received five lease requests.

If your listing has other apparent physical issues that can’t be staged and must be disclosed, amplify the story behind the property to redirect buyers’ attention, Todd suggests. Talk about the family whose children climbed the trees in the backyard, who witnessed a surprise proposal while hosting a family dinner by candlelight, or who welcomed aging parents to join the household. Ideally, you’ll capture these stories on video from the people who lived them and share with potential buyers ahead of their visit to the home, Todd says. “You will find that the people who view the property in person start to feel the story come alive and envision themselves in the space with their own dreams.”

One small, more tangible fix Todd often makes is replacing doorknobs, which are often overlooked. But when chosen correctly, they can attract the eye of a buyer. “Imagine an entry door with a new coat of paint that already catches the eye but stands out even more with a just-as-eye-catching doorknob feature,” she says. For these, she selects ornate, modern doorknobs, or those that are traditional with a hint of flair, to spark intrigue and beckon buyers to wonder what’s inside. Todd instructs her listing photographer to get detail shots of the doorknob so house hunters searching online can see the thoughtfulness put into the welcoming feature of the home.

Swapping out light fixtures and other hardware, such as cabinet handles, is the first step Erik Wright, owner of New Horizon Home Buyers, a real estate investment company in Chattanooga, Tenn., takes before flipping a home. The replacement fixtures and hardware you choose depends on trends in your market. Wright prefers simple, quality light fixtures throughout the home, with just one or two standouts, like a chandelier in an entryway or above the dining table. “Homes in my area usually do well with farmhouse chic or industrial-style fixtures,” Wright says. “Darker metal fixtures that use Edison-style bulbs are some of my favorites.”

If the floors need work, Wright selects an easy-to-install flooring option. His favorite is luxury vinyl plank. “It looks like beautiful hardwood floors while also being much more durable and resistant to water,” Wright says. Once the floor is replaced, Wright makes sure to add “brand-new flooring” to the listing description.

Upgrades and No-Nos

Christina McCaffrey, CRS, broker-owner of Triangle Trusted Realty in Willow Springs, N.C., suggests a surprising property upgrade to her clients: She encourages adding a fence. “It’s a major expense, even if you’re doing the work yourself, but it will be a great asset when you go to sell,” she says. “Homes that have fenced yards tend to sell quickly, and the look is appealing because it makes the yard look bigger.”

In the kitchen, painting the cabinets can do wonders. And if you have older appliances, it’s worth it to swap them out for stainless steel, McCaffrey says. White cabinetry is the preferred look in her area, so she aims for clean and sleek in her kitchens. Swapping out the faucets and adding in solid-surface countertops will also help if clients don’t have the latest look. “An older appliance will make a house look shabby,” McCaffrey says. “You only have one opportunity to ‘wow’ the buyer, so you should think about replacing the worn-out dishwasher with a new stainless one.”

In her market, she says, demand for these items is high, so most sellers recoup the cost of the replacements. However, some fixes shouldn’t be advertised, says Ricardo Mello, co-founder and managing partner at Manhattan Miami, a luxury residential real estate agency with offices in New York and Miami. The first thing buyers see when viewing a listing is the outside of the home, so curb appeal is a big deal. You don’t need to hire a landscaper to make your listing’s outdoor areas shine; small things, such as refreshing mulch, planting seasonal flowers, keeping on top of lawn maintenance, and adding a new doormat, can make an excellent first impression, Mello says.

“I find that making sure these are taken care of definitely results in a better overall impression in photos, which translates to more people opting to view the home in person,” Mello says. “These small changes aren’t something I’d advertise in a listing. I want potential buyers to have the impression that this home has been well cared for versus quickly updated to be on the market.”

Danielle Braff

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer living in Chicago with her husband, two daughters, two cats, and a dog. Learn more about her at DanielleBraff.com.

Mortgage Myths

Myth No. 1: Everyone qualifies for low interest rates

There’s a lot of buzz about record-low mortgage interest rates lately. Most recently, a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dropped to 2.88% for the week of Aug. 6, according to Freddie Mac.

This is great news for borrowers, but here’s the rub: “Not everyone will qualify for the lowest rates,” explains Danielle Hale, chief economist at realtor.com®.

Get Pre-Approved

Find a lender who can offer competitive mortgage rates and help you with pre-approval.

So who stands to get the best rates? Namely, borrowers with a good credit score, Hale says. Most lenders require a minimum credit score of about 620. Some lenders might require an even higher threshold (more on that later).

Your credit score isn’t the only factor affecting what interest rate you get. It also depends on the size of your down payment, type of home, type of loan, and much more. So, keep your expectations in check, and make sure to shop around to increase the odds you’ll get a good rate.

Myth No. 2: Getting a mortgage today is easy

Many assume today’s low interest rates mean that getting a mortgage will be a breeze. On the contrary, these low rates mean just about everyone is trying to get a mortgage, or refinance the one they have. This glut of applicants, combined with the uncertain economy, means some lenders may actually tighten loan requirements.

In fact, a realtor.com analysis found that 5% to 20% of potential borrowers may struggle to get a mortgage because of these stricter standards. And getting a mortgage could become even tougher if the recession gets worse.

For example, some lenders may also require higher minimum credit scores and larger down payments. In April, JPMorgan Chase began requiring a 700 minimum credit score and 20% down payment.

Jason Lee, executive vice president and director of capital markets at Flagstar Bank, says some lenders aren’t offering the loans that are considered riskier—such as jumbo loans, which exceed the conforming loan limit (for 2020, that max is $510,400).

“There aren’t as many loan products available,” Lee says.

And even if you do manage to get a loan, it may take longer than you’d typically expect.

“Based on low rates and a high volume of refinances, loans are taking longer to complete from application to closing,” says Staci Titsworth, a regional mortgage manager for PNC Bank.

As such, borrowers should ask their lender how long the process will take to close, and make sure they’re aware of the expiration date on the interest rate they’ve locked in—since with rates this low, they could go up.

“Most lenders are locking in the customer’s interest rate so it’s protected from market fluctuations,” Titsworth adds.

Myth No. 3: Everyone should refinance their mortgage

“With mortgage rates hovering near record lows, a refinance can make sense and can help free up monthly cash flow,” Hale says.

Still, not everyone should refinance. Homeowners should make sure to take a good hard look at their situation to see whether it makes sense for them.

For one, it will depend on your current interest rate. If it’s low already, it may not be worth the trouble—particularly since refinancing comes with fees amounting to around 2% to 6% of your loan amount.

Given these upfront costs, refinancing often makes sense only if you plan to remain in your house for a while.

In general, “refinancing is a good idea for homeowners who plan to live in the same home for several years, because they will reap the monthly savings over a longer time period,” Hale explains.

Myth No. 4: You can apply for a mortgage after you’ve found a home

Many people assume that you can find your dream home first, then apply for the mortgage. But that’s backward—now more than ever. Today, your first stop when shopping for a house should be a mortgage lender or broker, who can get you pre-approved for a home loan.

For “a buyer in a competitive market, it’s typically essential to have pre-approval done in order to submit an offer, so getting it done before you even look at homes is a smart move that will enable a buyer to move fast to put an offer in on the right home,” Hale says.

Mortgage pre-approval is all the more essential in the era of the coronavirus pandemic. Why? Because many home sellers, leery of letting just anyone tour their home, want to know a buyer is serious—and has the cash and financing to make a firm offer. As such, some real estate agents and sellers require a pre-approval letter before a potential buyer can view a home in person.

Nonetheless, according to a realtor.com survey conducted in June of over 2,000 active home shoppers who plan to purchase a home in the next 12 months, only 52% obtained a pre-approval letter before beginning their home search, which means nearly half of home buyers are missing this crucial piece of paperwork.

Aside from getting their foot in the door of homes they want to see, home buyers benefit from pre-approval in other ways. Since pre-approval lets you know exactly how much money a lender will loan you, it also helps you target the right homes within your budget.

After all, as Lee points out, “You don’t want to get your heart set on a home only to find out you can’t afford it.”

Myth No. 5: Mortgage forbearance means you don’t have to pay back your loan

The record unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means millions of Americans have struggled to pay their mortgages. To get some relief, many have been granted mortgage forbearance.

Nearly 8% of mortgages, or 3.8 million homeowners, were in forbearance as of July 26, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The problem? Many mistakenly assume that mortgage forbearance means you won’t have to pay your loan, period. But forbearance means different things for different homeowners, depending on the terms of the mortgage and what type of arrangement was worked out with the lender.

“Forbearance is not forgiveness,” Lee says. “Rather, it’s a timeout from having to make a mortgage payment where your servicer—the company you send your mortgage payments to—will ensure that negative impacts to your credit report and late fees will not occur. However, because forbearance is not forgiveness, you will need to reach some sort of resolution with your loan servicer about the missed payments.”

The paused payments may be added to the back end of the loan or repaid over time.

“It does not forgive the payments, meaning the borrower still owes the money,” Hale says. “The specifics of when payments need to be made up will vary from borrower to borrower.”

For more smart financial news and advice, head over to MarketWatch.

Erica Sweeney is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Parade, HuffPost, and other publications.

How to understand your mortgage

Shane Murphy  

How to understand your mortgage (and get the lowest rate you canThe thought of a mortgage can seem overwhelming, because it’s one of the largest financial commitments you’ll ever make, if not the biggest. But the concept itself is actually pretty simple.
a large brick building with grass in front of a house: What is a mortgage? And how do you get a low rate?© Claud B. / Shutterstock What is a mortgage? And how do you get a low rate?A mortgage is a loan from a bank or a financial institution that helps you purchase or refinance a home.

You pay back a mortgage in monthly installments over an agreed-upon period of time, typically 30 or 15 years.

Mortgages are secured loans, meaning you need to put up an asset — in this case, your house — as collateral.

If you want to live the American dream of being a homeowner, you’re most likely going to need a mortgage.

A home loan is a major responsibility. So, before buying or refinancing a home, you need to understand several basics about mortgages: how they work, the types that are available, and what you can do to make sure you’ll get the best mortgage rate possible.

How does a mortgage work?

fizkes / Shutterstock At closing, you sign a mortgage note, agreeing to pay back your loan.© Provided by MoneyWise fizkes / Shutterstock At closing, you sign a mortgage note, agreeing to pay back your loan.When you take out a mortgage, you agree to repay the loan, with interest, under the condition that if you don’t, your house could be taken away — foreclosed on, in real estate lingo.

The many documents you sign at a mortgage closing include your mortgage note, which is a legal contract confirming your promise to pay back your loan, with interest, within the agreed-upon term.

Your monthly mortgage payments cover a variety of costs, including:

1. Principal. The principal balance on your mortgage is the amount you still have left to pay; it’s the value of your original loan minus your down payment and any monthly payments you’ve made so far.

Each monthly payment you make toward your mortgage reduces your principal and the amount of interest you owe.

Most mortgage payment schedules start with a larger portion of your monthly payment going toward interest. As you near the end of the loan term, this distribution will shift — and the bulk of your payment will go toward your principal.

Your payments stay the same, but the mix of interest and principal changes — through a process called amortization.

2. Interest. The interest rate on your mortgage is the annual cost of borrowing the money, expressed as a percentage of your loan.

There are two main options when it comes to mortgage interest: fixed rate or adjustable rate.

  • With a fixed-rate mortgage, your interest rate will hold steady for the life of your loan. Fixed-rate mortgages are a good option if your income is stable and you’re planning to stay in your house for the long haul; your monthly payments will remain the same and you won’t have to worry about any surprise rate increases.
  • With an adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM, you’ll pay a fixed rate for the first part of your loan term, and then your interest rate can go up or down based on the movement of a benchmark, such as the prime rate.

“An ARM is an attractive program for someone who is planning on living in their home for less than 10 years,” says Alan Rosenbaum, founder and CEO of GuardHill Financial, a mortgage banking and brokerage firm in New York. “It comes with a lower rate than a fixed-rate mortgage and is locked in for a stable period of five to 10 years before it can adjust up or down.”

“An ARM with an interest-only option is ideal for homeowners whose income fluctuates, since they have the option of how much principal they want to pay each month,” Rosenbaum says.

3. Mortgage insurance. Mortgage insurance protects lenders against the risk of borrowers defaulting on their loans.

Most mortgage lenders will require you to buy private mortgage insurance, or PMI, if your down payment is less than 20% of your home’s purchase price, or if you’re refinancing and your equity is less than 20% of your home’s value.

If you’re paying PMI and your equity reaches 20% of your home’s purchase price, your lender may be willing to cancel your PMI.

For loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA, you can make a down payment of as little as 3.5%, but you must pay a mortgage insurance premium, or MIP. You make a MIP payment upfront, at closing, and then pay annual premiums spread across your monthly mortgage payments.

If your down payment on an FHA loan is less than 10% of your home’s purchase price, you’ll be required to pay your MIP for the entire term of your loan. If you put more than 10% down, you’ll pay MIP for only 11 years.

4. Taxes. In addition to your mortgage payment, your lender might collect property taxes and keep the money in an escrow account until your property tax bill is due, then pay it on your behalf.

But it’s possible you may have to pay your property taxes on your own, so you should get this issue nailed down with your lender — so you won’t miss a payment.

5. Homeowners insurance. Some lenders may require you to pay for home insurance, which covers damage to your house caused by weather, accidents and natural disasters. Rates for home insurance have been going up, so be sure to shop around and compare premiums.

As with property taxes, your lender might collect your homeowners insurance premiums as part of your mortgage payments and keep the funds in an escrow account until it’s time to pay your bill. It’s a good idea to confirm this with your financial institution, just to make sure.

The different types of mortgages

a woman wearing glasses: fizkes / Shutterstock You have many choices when it comes to a mortgage.© Provided by MoneyWise fizkes / Shutterstock You have many choices when it comes to a mortgage.Most mortgages are made up of the same core elements — principal, interest, monthly payments, and so on — but different types of home loans have their own unique conditions you should know about.

1. Conventional mortgages. These are the most common mortgages taken out by U.S. homebuyers and homeowners.

The requirements for getting a conventional mortgage are stricter than for a government-sponsored loan, such as an FHA mortgage.

Conventional mortgages are typically available only to people with good credit. The minimum credit score to qualify for a conventional loan is typically around 620.

These mortgages require private mortgage insurance if the down payment amount is less than 20% of the home’s purchase price.

There are two main types of conventional loans: conforming and nonconforming.

2. Conforming mortgages follow specific dollar-amount limits set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-sponsored agencies that buy mortgages from lenders and sell them as investments while guaranteeing the underlying loans.

The limits for single-unit homes in 2020 are:

  • $510,400 for most states.
  • $765,600 in high-cost areas, plus Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

3. Nonconforming mortgages, or jumbo loans, are larger loans that go beyond the limits.

Without the blessings of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, conforming loans are considered higher risk and often come with higher interest rates and require larger down payments, usually 20% of the purchase price or more.

4. FHA loans. FHA loans are guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration and are designed to benefit first-time homebuyers and those with lower or middle incomes.

The guidelines for FHA loans are less strict than for conventional loans: They require a lower minimum credit score to qualify — usually around 580.

The minimum down payment for an FHA loan is 3.5% of the loan amount. But again, any down payment under 10% of the purchase price will require you to pay a mortgage insurance premium (MIP) for the entire life of the loan, which can get pricey depending on the length of your term.

5. VA loans. VA loans are guaranteed by Department of Veterans Affairs and are available to active service members, veterans, and some surviving military spouses.

VA loans offer major benefits. They require no down payment or mortgage insurance, but borrowers do pay an upfront funding fee.

The fee typically ranges from 1.25% to 3.6% of the total amount of the loan, depending on your down payment amount and whether it’s your first VA loan.

6. USDA loans. USDA loans are mortgages for rural and suburban homeowners that are guaranteed by the United States Department of Agriculture and require no down payment and no private mortgage insurance.

You’ll have to pay an upfront guarantee fee of 1% of the loan amount and an annual fee of 0.35%, but these costs are generally more affordable than paying for mortgage insurance.

There are income limits to qualify, so you won’t be able to take out a USDA loan if your household earns too much.

The current income limits in most parts of the U.S. are $86,850 for one- to four-member households and $114,650 for five- to eight-member households, but the thresholds may be higher if you live in a county with a steeper-than-average cost of living.

7. Second mortgage. A second mortgage, also known as a home equity line of credit (HELOC), is a loan on a home that already has a primary mortgage.

It allows you to tap the equity, or value, you’ve built up in your home to cover expenses such as home improvements or your kid’s college tuition.

If you can’t make your mortgage payments, your lender will be able to foreclose on your home and sell it to recoup the company’s losses.

A second mortgage must be paid off after your first mortgage, so if you stop making payments your second lender won’t be paid until your primary lender has been fully reimbursed.

How to get a mortgage at the lowest interest rate

a person using a laptop computer: garagestock / Shutterstock A first step toward scoring a low mortgage rate is boosting your credit score.© Provided by MoneyWise garagestock / Shutterstock A first step toward scoring a low mortgage rate is boosting your credit score.Now that you’re up to speed on the basics of mortgages, here’s the part that you’ve been waiting for: how to get a loan at the lowest interest possible. Maybe one of today’s 30-year mortgages with rates under 3%.

The key is to make yourself as appealing as possible to a lender.

1. Boost your credit score. When you have a higher credit score, you’ll be seen as less risky — and will be rewarded with a better interest rate.

Credit scores are determined by information in your credit reports, including your payment history, the balance-to-limit ratios on your credit cards, the length of your credit history, and your current amount of debt.

The easiest way to increase your credit score is to pay your bills on time and keep your credit card balances low.

If you’re not sure about the current status of your credit score, get a free score online to find out.

2. Lower your debt-to-income ratio. Your debt-to-income ratio compares your monthly debt payments to your monthly gross income, and keeping it down can be a great way to get a better rate on your mortgage.

A lower ratio demonstrates to your lender that you have enough money to comfortably make your mortgage payments every month.

The ideal ratio is 36% or less, which signals that you’re managing debt well and have money left over after paying your monthly bills.

If your ratio is higher than 50%, that means you’re stuck spending a substantial portion of your monthly income on debt — not a good look if you’re applying for a mortgage.

The two primary ways to lower your debt-to-income ratio are to increase your income — maybe by taking on a part-time job or asking your boss for a raise — and to pay off your debt.

If you can get your debt fully paid off, maybe with the help of a debt consolidation loan, your ratio will drop down to 0% — which is a level that any lender will find very appealing.

3. Make a larger down payment. Another strategy for scoring a low mortgage rate is to make a larger down payment when you buy a home.

If you’re planning to take out a conventional loan, aim for a down payment of 20% or more of the purchase price so you can avoid that pesky private mortgage insurance.

If you qualify for an FHA loan, try to make a down payment of at least 10% of the price of your home to avoid getting locked into a mortgage insurance premium for your entire mortgage term.

Although having to make a larger down payment will put more of a strain on your bank account, the long-term savings that come when you land an ultra-low mortgage rate will be worth it.

5 home improvements that may not pay off when you sell

Kate Wood

You spent the holidays binging on HGTV, and now visions of shiplap accent walls and freestanding soaking tubs are dancing through your head.

a kitchen with a wood floor: A massive kitchen renovation may not help resale value as much as you think.© Getty Images A massive kitchen renovation may not help resale value as much as you think.Don’t let your desire to upgrade your home downgrade your home’s market value. Before you make a renovation fantasy a reality, consider whether the project will pay off when you’re ready to sell. Plenty of home improvements add value, but others — like these five — can hurt it.

1. A chef-quality kitchen

If you love to cook, a high-end kitchen could be the ultimate gift — for you. But if you think a massive overhaul will majorly impact resale value, you might be in for a surprise. An upscale kitchen renovation recoups just 54% of its cost in added value, according to Remodeling magazine’s 2020 Cost vs. Value report.

“If you do marble countertops and high-end appliances, you could spend $100,000, and it doesn’t necessarily mean your house is worth an extra $100,000,” says Beatrice de Jong, a consumer trends expert for Opendoor, a San Francisco-based direct home buyer and seller.

Smaller kitchen upgrades could yield a bigger payoff. Chris Arienti, broker and owner of Remax Executive Realty near Boston, suggests keeping updates reasonable: Think granite rather than marble, and GE instead of Sub-Zero.

2. DIY painting

A bold statement wall can say the wrong thing to potential buyers if the workmanship is questionable. Streaky, chipped or low-quality paint can knock $1,700 off a home’s sale price, according to Opendoor data that looked at home offers made from June 2018 to June 2019.

“A good paint job is not easy,” says Sarah Cunningham, a real estate agent with Ethos Design + Remodel in Boise, Idaho. “It is all in the prep work, and most people don’t want to do the prep work.” Hiring a professional to paint can help ensure a more attractive result.

3. An expanded master suite

Knocking down a wall to create an oversize master bedroom or stealing closet space to build out a spa-style bathroom may sound dreamy. But how about as a selling point? “If you go from five bedrooms to four, and you can make it work, no big deal,” Arienti says. But he cautions that losing a bedroom in a smaller house could mean a lower selling price.

As for cutting into closet space, residential building codes don’t mandate that bedrooms have closets. But, Arienti says, “Once you take the closet out of a bedroom, to a buyer, that no longer looks like a bedroom.”

4. Plush wall-to-wall carpeting

Carpet can be especially unattractive to first-time home buyers, who may be used to landlords updating carpet between renters, de Jong says.

“In general, people are grossed out by [carpeting]. It can make a room look a little bit dated.”

It can also ding your sale price. Carpet as the primary flooring in a house drops the value by $3,900 — and carpeting in the master bedroom causes a $3,800 plunge, according to Opendoor. Conversely, a 2019 report from the National Association of Realtors estimated that sellers could recoup the entire cost of refinishing hardwood floors. New wood flooring could actually add value, with sellers getting $1.06 for every dollar spent according to NAR.

5. A swimming pool

It doesn’t matter if it’s infinity edge or above-ground: Any pool can be seen as a drawback by buyers who don’t want to deal with maintenance or insurance. Even in Florida, a pool doesn’t add value, Liede DeValdivielso, a real estate agent with the Keyes Company in Miami-Dade, said via email. If you’re thinking resale, it’s not worth it — you’ll never recoup the cost, DeValdivielso said. But if you’ll use it and enjoy it, put in a pool.

How to decide if a renovation is worth the cost

To ensure you’re making an informed decision:

  • Consider your timeline. “If you’re going to be in the home for 30 years, you can do anything, because at that point, your mortgage is paid off,” Arienti says. Looking to sell in the near future? Pay closer attention to whether your choices will appeal to a potential buyer.
  • Consult an expert. “Talk to a professional so you aren’t making misinformed choices that are going to work against you in five to 10 years,” Cunningham says. A designer can help you tell fleeting trends from future classics; a contractor can explain what kind of work a proposed renovation would entail.
  • Compare home features in your area. De Jong suggests looking at comparable homes for sale near you and going to open houses to make sure your improvements align with the norms for your neighborhood.
  • Get an appraisal. A licensed appraiser can do a feasibility study to estimate your home’s current value and its likely value after the improvements.



Purchase offers are legally binding contracts. Every state has its own real estate laws, and local real estate boards use different standard forms.

Ask your Accredited Buyer’s Representative to give you a copy of the standard contract so you can review it before searching for homes. That way, you can get familiar with the legal terminology and ask questions before you find a home you’d like to purchase.

Here are ten of the most common clauses:

1. Price

Of all real estate contract terms, the purchase price may be the easiest to understand and the hardest to agree upon. If the seller is asking too much relative to recent comparable sales, your buyer’s rep may suggest attaching a report that helps defend your offer price.

Also, the seller may be willing to accept a lower price if you include other desirable terms in your offer, like a quick closing date or an all-cash purchase.

2. Closing Date

The closing date (also called settlement date) is the proposed date when ownership will be transferred to the buyer.

It’s an essential contract term that keeps both parties on track to meet their respective obligations. That said, unexpected delays may occur from completing inspection repairs or finalizing your financing, for example.

The purchase agreement includes provisions for situations when the buyer or the seller can’t meet the closing date, potentially including penalties. It’s also possible that the sale could be canceled.

3. Inspection

Typically, buyers have ten days to conduct a professional home inspection once the sellers accept their offer. Your buyer’s agent can provide recommendations, but it’s your responsibility to hire the inspector.

Depending on the findings in the inspection report, you may need to negotiate repairs with the seller or agree to an adjustment in the purchase price.

4. Financing

Your purchase may be contingent upon securing funding with a mortgage company. This section of the real estate contract spells out the key terms of your mortgage commitment, such as the size of your down payment and the type of loan (for example, FHA or conventional).

Typically, sellers prefer buyers with larger down payments or who have already received pre-approval (which is stronger than being pre-qualified). These differences can be particularly significant in situations where you’re competing with other buyers.

5. Attorney Review

Real estate professionals are not licensed to practice law but are allowed to help home buyers (or sellers) enter into real estate contracts. This is why most real estate contracts include an attorney review clause, which gives both parties time (typically three to five days) to secure an attorney’s review and potentially cancel the contract under specific provisions.

6. Disclosures

Sellers are required to complete property disclosures that reveal various defects or improvements that may affect the home’s condition. Required disclosures vary by market, but common examples include revealing the presence of lead-based paint (a federal law), asbestos, or other environmental hazards.

Usually, disclosure documents are given to buyers once the seller has accepted your offer. In some cases, you may receive them before submitting a contract. Either way, buyers must sign off on all disclosures.

For sellers, it’s best to reveal everything about a home upfront because the transaction is less likely to fall apart. Also, if you discover after closing that the sellers lied on their disclosure forms, you may be able to take legal action against them.

7. Escrow of Earnest Money

As a buyer, you’ll need to show the sellers that you’re seriously interested in purchasing their home by depositing earnest money (also called a good faith deposit) into an escrow account.

Your buyer’s representative can advise you on local market conventions, but as a rule, the earnest money is 1% to 2% of the total home purchase and is applied to your down payment at closing.

Your purchase contract should stipulate where your escrow deposit will be held (typically a title company or the real estate broker) and how much you’ll be refunded if the transaction fails to close under various conditions.

8. Adjustments at Closing

This section of a purchase contract outlines any modifications to the property’s purchase price to accommodate the payment of property taxes, utilities, municipal assessments, association fees, etc.

For example, if the seller made a semi-annual property tax payment two months before closing, the buyer will need to “reimburse” the seller for the remaining four months.

9. Title Insurance Affidavit

An affidavit of title is a document that proves the seller owns the property and can legally convey ownership to you. It helps ensure that there are no claims against the property, such as a mechanic’s lien, which might happen if the seller hires someone to complete work on the home but doesn’t pay them.

10. Other Addendums

Additional terms and conditions beyond the general forms can be added to a real estate purchase contract as an addendum.

Typically, this is where you’d spell out requests to include personal property, ask for a home warranty, request information about the property’s Homeowners Association, or make other stipulations.

As a buyer, it’s essential to make sure that you clarify all the terms and conditions of your purchase. At the same time, you’ll need to balance these requests against your desire to successfully negotiate a purchase with a seller.

Sona Merlin