By Rich Bruder:
I’ve lived in homes with small or no backyard since moving out of my parents’ house many years ago. Up until recently, I’ve lived within a 3 mile radius of Center City, Philadelphia. All but one of the places had a small cement backyard somewhere around 12 X 15 feet.
Now, I have more space but not a huge, hell of a lot more: roughly 25 x 35 feet. I think you can tell a lot about a person by how they keep their backyard. I am a prime example of this assumption: I and my yard are low maintenance, my family and I like to cook outside, garden and quite frankly, just hang out. I have a wife, an 8 year-old daughter and a dog.
After years of moving and experimenting, I’ve crafted my list of 3 favorite small yard living tips. One of the things that drew me to the home I currently live in was very little yard space in front of my house. I wanted all my outdoor space in the back where I can enjoy it in privacy. Rather than a small front lawn, it had hardscaping along the front yard and edges around the backyard which I loved immediately. Little white pebbles don’t require mowing, or so I thought…What I didn’t know was the previous homeowner didn’t really do such a great job at prepping it so weeds and dandelions would grow out through the pebbles which is a huge drag to someone like myself. This leads me to easy yard living tip #1:
MULCH. Mulch comes in a variety of colors: black, brown and red. It requires 0 mowing unto itself. Laying it poorly will also result in weeds and such growing out from between it just like pebbles. But here’s the kicker: if you hit dandelions with a weed wacker on your pebbles you run the risk of slinging dangerous little pebbles into eyes and windows. Nobody has ever broken a window with a chunk of mulch that has taken flight.
Now mulch is great but we’d like a little greenery as well. Mulch is good for the front and the edges around the back fence because we don’t walk on it, for that you want something more grass-like. Grass requires mowing, watering and if you’re so inclined: weed killing. A perfect golf course style lawn is a lifestyle and is pretty much out of the question for a small yard housing a small family and their dog. You can shop for durable grass that can take the kind of abuse we’re laying down, but then you have to mow durable grass which is actually considerably more difficult on the weed-wacker I like to use to mow my tiny lawn.
Tip# 2 CLOVER! Although you don’t see it advertised, the people who make grass seed are aware that people like me exist. They package grass seed fortified with clover seed which not only is durable to child and dog play: it requires very little mowing! Clover is still a plant and doesn’t exactly thrive on pet urine, you do have to hose it down every so often to keep it alive and happy. Hey: nothing is perfect, but clover is good, durable stuff! Clover is a wild plant and may be considered a weed, but plants and soil thrive alongside it. We grow a vegetable garden every summer in it!
TIp #3: My last tip is on picking the right barbecue grill for small yard living. In my small yard journey, I’ve had a variety of gas grills, charcoal grills as well as gas and electric smokers. All grills require your attention: you’ll get flare ups on most grills that can burn your food if not attended properly. There are gas and electric grills advertised as infrared cookers that cook searing hot with indirect heat. They will never burn your food via flare up. They generally run too hot to cook things low and slow like barbecued brisket and ribs, so if you’re a fan of low and slow, you’ll need another cooker as well. I like to entertain but having a small yard means I’m not throwing huge lavish barbecues that may require a giant smoker like one might see on barbecue competitions on TV.
My favorite is the old school Weber Kettle charcoal grill. There’s a reason the design has changed so little in all the years they’ve made them: they’re awesome. With research and practice I’ve learned I can sear at temperatures over 600 degrees, as well as cook for hours at low and slow temperatures closer to 200 degrees. Gas grills have the advantage of being easier to light, but there’s nothing like a live fire for roasting hotdogs on a stick or making s’mores.
By Brooke L. Willmes:
I hope you all are doing well and staying healthy and sane! Last night, Governor Wolf extended our stay-at-home order until June 4th. As such, we (the business of real estate) continue to be deemed “non-essential” to life sustaining activities. What does this mean? We cannot physically interact with any clients in person, which means no showing houses, no in person meetings of any kind, no attendance at home inspections, no attending vacant houses without clients, no attendance at settlement.
Houses are still selling right now and in the past two weeks, the volume has definitely picked up. Why? Because there is a lot of pent up demand from the spring from people who would have been seeking to move anyway, leases that are ending in the summer that people don’t want to renew and ridiculously low interest rates. When inventory is an issue, which it is because everyone is holding their houses off the market that they are living in and the prevailing wisdom has been not to list anything if it cannot be shown, inventory is seriously at an all time low.
So how are people “seeing” houses they’re buying? While it’s not possible to have me take you on a showing, there are virtual tours for many homes. (Many real estate agents have been scrambling to get tours done by non-real estate professionals whom are allowed to go in vacant houses for listings that have been on the market prior to the stay-at-home order.) People are putting in offers, sight unseen and when their offer is accepted, they are able to see the home via the lockbox during a due diligence or inspection period. They can facetime with their agent when they’re in the house. If they don’t like the house, they can terminate the Agreement of Sale, which usually involves some time getting the first deposit back.
There are home inspection companies with exemptions to the Governor’s Order who come in after that will Facetime with you, being the next best thing to being there. From there, we negotiate inspections over the phone and everything is the same from this point until settlement.
Settlements are virtual now–you’ll sign your loan paperwork online the day before or of settlement, seller signs in advance and seller and buyer agents are not present. The title agent must still see the buyer(s) sign the paperwork but can do so while maintaining social distance–in a park, at the house during the final walkthrough or whatever arrangements we make (not in a real estate office by law however).
While not ideal, there are adaptations happening quickly as buyers still need to buy and sellers still need to sell. I don’t ever have a crystal ball to determine exactly where things will be at the end of this or (maybe what I’d prefer:) know when this will end but it does appear that demand is strong and shows no signs of slowing down.
Let me know what questions you have! Always happy to jump on Facetime/Zoom as your schedule permits!
By Jennifer Bazydlo:
Off-street parking is a hot commodity in Philadelphia. This is especially true in the relatively denser neighborhoods near Center City like Fishtown, Pennsport, and Graduate Hospital where on-street parking has become notoriously challenging. Because of the high demand, a home with an off-street parking spot in these neighborhoods can often sell for substantially more than similar homes without a parking spot.
But not everything that looks like an off-street parking space is an actual legal parking space. And just because the property is listed as including “off-street parking” does not guarantee that the space is fully legal since even many well-intentioned sellers and listing agents incorrectly assume existing spaces are correctly permitted.
Most rowhomes in these near neighborhoods are zoned RSA-5. Under the current City of Philadelphia Zoning Code, off-street parking in RSA-5 zoning districts is prohibited by the city code unless it can be accessed from a shared driveway (used to access parking for 3 or more properties), alley, or rear street on which no on-street parking is permitted on the side of the rear street adjacent to the property. A new exception to this general prohibition requires a variance from the zoning code, which depending on the configuration and location of your property, could be very difficult to obtain. Prior to 2012, the standards for off-street parking were less strict but still required proper permits.
An off-street parking spot (surface spot or garage space) is considered an accessory use to the residential home and requires a permit from the city. Without a permit, the space is not legal.
So how can a buyer be certain that an off-street parking spot is legal and properly permitted? The first step is to look at the space and see if it “looks right.” Is there an actual curb cut? Do you have to pull in at a weird angle? Is the parking area large enough to meet the city requirements (8.5’ by 22’)? Is it accessed from a rear street, alley, or shared driveway? Nine times out of ten, if it does not “look right” it is not right and you should dig a little deeper. Even if everything “looks right” you might want to double check that what you are seeing is what you are getting–even if it goes into a garage.
The licenses and permits issued for a property in Philadelphia are available at Atlas.phila.gov. Type in the property address on the main page then click on the Licenses and Inspections tab. Here you will be able to see if a zoning/ use permit was issued for the accessory off-street parking spot or if there are any other historical zoning documents indicating that the space is in fact permitted and legal. Atlas.phila.gov is a great place to start your research, but it cannot and should not replace the expert analysis of a real estate or land use attorney. The expert realtors with Brooke + Co are trained to recognize potential legal issues concerning off-street parking in Philadelphia and can assist with connecting you to with our trusted legal partners when needed.
By Brooke L. Willmes
It’s just a long period of sitting around and waiting right now for so many of us. If you’re like many renters and homeowners, you’ve decided when this ends you need a new place to call home. You’re looking at the MLS listings we are sending you or –gasp–going on Zillow 700 times a day and you’re not seeing many houses. Why? People are holding off listing their homes because it’s actually illegal to show/see homes right now. So the inventory is being held back until Governor Wolf either considers real estate essential OR the state is opened back up again.
So if there are no homes to see right now, what can you do? You can “meet” with a real estate agent and choose your “team” to work with during the process. We are meeting with lots of buyers on Zoom, Facetime or other formats. Sure, you’re not meeting in person but talking with that agent will determine if you’re a good fit and we can get you teed up with a search so that when new homes do hit the market, you’ll be ready to go. Some of my clients are buying now sight unseen through virtual tours and while that may seem like a far fetched idea, there are now bidding wars going on for the most desirable houses and you may find yourself buying sooner than you anticipated during a pandemic!
You can get preapproved! This is the process of reaching out to a lender and giving that lender the required information to figure out what you qualify for as well as pull your credit. Credit score and your debt to income ratio will likely present you with a few options to sort through and a great lender will offer side by side comparisons of those options. You could seek max approval or seek an approval with a monthly payment that meets your comfortable level–a lot of my clients base this off what monthly rent they currently pay–and what $100 or $200 more a month might feel like…something like that. From there, you can get a sense of the loan you’d want to take and what your price range should be. Most people come up with an “ideal” price point and one that they could go up to if the perfect thing came along. From there, your agent can set up your search and you’re not overshooting or undershooting what homes you are receiving.
You can also become educated as to the process. A good agent will explain the process of buying a house and what to expect–but there are also a lot of resources out there that are helpful. Pennsylvania makes a great “Consumer Guide to the Agreement of Sale” your agent can provide that breaks down the eventual “offer” you will put in. You can google local homebuyer grants and seminars–you may just find a free few hundred dollars sitting around for you if you take a class…that’s like paying yourself during this time!
By Mary Hogan:
Since the dot-com explosion of the late 1990s, online mortgage companies have become an increasingly significant force in the home loan industry. We now have so many options both online and traditional brick and mortar. As consumers, we need to evaluate what is best for us and can start by asking a few questions:
- Do you care about speed and certainty?
- Do you care about affordability and rates?
- Do you care about transparency and accessibility?
- Do you care about face-to-face interactions?
Brick and Mortar Loans
- Local expertise and connections: Smaller banks argue that there is an advantage to working with people who know the area and sometimes have an existing relationship with the realtor. This can put them in a better position to resolve conflicts during the loan approval process.
- Simplicity: Most people lead busy lives, so there is something to be said for eliminating as many hassles as possible. For example, if you apply for a mortgage at your local bank, you might have the opportunity to manage all your accounts using a single log-in. That can make paying your monthly bill easier, too.
- Local ties: When you make payments to a nearby bank, there is a good chance it will take that money and lend it to other individuals and businesses in the area. Smaller banks also tend to support local events and charities, thus bolstering the local community.
- Personalized service: No matter how you look at it, using an online mortgage lender just doesn’t provide the same kind of one-on-one service you get when you work with a local mortgage lender. For a number of home buyers, that kind of face-to-face customer service is invaluable. And yes, many online mortgage lenders do have loan officers you can speak to on the phone, but they are often available only during business hours. Alternatively, loan officers at brick and mortar banks may be available during nights and weekends, which can be helpful when you need that pre-approval to put that offer in on a Sunday by 4pm. In a competitive market, that accessibility and timeliness can be a serious advantage.
- Online lenders may be limited in expertise-IMPORTANT: Many online lenders don’t employ mortgage specialists who know the ins and outs of your local market. Online mortgage lenders aren’t typically as well-versed in local home buyer’s incentive programs, or such programs that could reduce closing costs or interest rates. Its also a big disadvantage if you’re applying for a complicated loan, such as an FHA, VA or self-employed loan. Keep in mind online lenders are great for conventional scenarios: salaried borrowers without financial or rough credit, and like properties that are typical or similar for the area. Working with and having access to the same loan officer throughout the process and able to evaluate your particular financial position is invaluable. Additionally, your real estate agent may want discuss the various options that would work well for you with your lender depending on the regional market.
Going with an online lender has certain benefits, especially if you are someone who likes to feel in control of the loan process.Younger home buyers tend to be keen on online mortgages: A recent survey by NerdWallet found that a full 64% of millennial mortgage applicants would prefer to get it all done digitally.
- Convenience: Online mortgage lenders such as LendingTree and Quicken Loan’s Rocket Mortgage allow home buyers to complete the entire mortgage application on their laptop or phone and can be done in a matter of minutes.
- Anonymity: Many customers like the anonymity of electronic communication, which sometimes makes it easier to disclose one’s financial situation.
- Selection: Bigger mortgage companies may provide more financial products. For example, Quicken Loans offers specialized products such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and VA loans. However, brick and mortar banks and brokerage generally always offer these and more and provide easily accessible loan advice.
- Comparing: It always makes sense to check out a minimum of three lenders, and online is the easiest way to compare rates and terms. You’ll want to get a good-faith estimate that breaks down the mortgage’s terms, including the interest rate and fees, in order to make an apples-to-apples comparison for the best deal.
- Possible Lower Rates: Online mortgage lenders don’t have the overhead costs that brick-and-mortar banks do, some will pass a portion of the savings onto their customers in the form of lower mortgage rates and/or lower fees.
- Online Scams Are Rampant: Keep in mind, the internet is filled with scams and fraudulent predatory lenders. Remember, if a home loan offer sounds like it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
At the end of the day choosing the right mortgage process is specific to the consumer. So you should think about what works best for you and the level of buyer you may be, i.e., first time, repeat, FHA, VA, investor. Additionally, consider your comfort zone in terms of conducting business…online vs. in person. You want to consult your real estate agent as they know the market and may have insight into various lenders having done transactions with them in the past. The good news is that we have lots of options!
By Sal Gardner:
You’ve decided to buy a house…you think it’s going to take a long time and you’re excited for the process. But what happen when you find a home you see yourself living in? Should you take time to think it over or move forward with making an offer right away? If you see a house you like, should you sleep on it?
The first question to ask is, “How would I feel if I don’t get this house?” Even if a home has been sitting on the market for a while, someone else can still get it before you get the chance. If this is the right house, you could be letting the right one get away. It’s best to make the offer and move forward so you won’t regret it later—if you’d be upset. If you wouldn’t, it might not be the right house.
The next question to ask is, “How much do I actually like it?” Does this house have all the features you want? Is the neighborhood where you want to be? Is it accessible to work via highways or public transportation? Not every home will have everything you want-there will always be compromises. Most times it’s a balance of wants and needs, along with a feeling of seeing yourself living there. If it’s a good fit and you like it, why take the chance of it getting away?
What about getting cold feet? If you truly regret making that offer, there is a way out during the home inspection process. It will cost the price of the inspection, but at least you secured the property and gave yourself time to think before taking the next steps. This will allow you to look again for the right house.It’s best not to wait before making an offer on a house you like. With good homes going fast, it’s better to move forward, than to take time to think it over. By the time you decide, it could be gone.
By Rich Bruder:
Moving into a rental property should be the easiest type of real estate transaction possible. In renting a home, it is true you do not get the tax relief, financial stability or equity that is the fruit of homeownership, but you do have the luxury of being the “customer.” As a renter, you remain a consumer paying a monthly fee for a valuable service. A renter has the luxury of a lease that can be negotiated by his or her realtor that spells out what property maintenance they never need to worry about. Generally speaking, a renter need never call a plumber, a roofer or any such general contractor.
So, if renting a property sounds like your cup of tea, how do you get started? All that’s needed is approval from the property manager, owner or landlord. This approval starts with an application. It’s a lot like applying for a job: in fact I would recommend dressing like you were applying for a job when meeting potential landlords. Just as you are sizing up their property to rent, they are sizing you up as their potential source of income. The application will request ID including your Social Security number, they may ask for 2 or 3 personal references, proof of income, proof of employment, rental history, and a brief list of assets and liabilities.
In most cases, they’ll ask permission to pull your credit score. In some cases, they may ask for 2-3 months of bank statements. It may look like a lot but it’s much less invasive than what is required to borrow funds for home purchase.
I would also recommend an introductory letter to go along with your rental application. Much like an employment cover letter, it is a great way to humanize all the basic facts, dates and numbers provided. Also, if there are gaps in your rental history, employment history, or blemishes to your credit, this is a great way to explain yourself. Perhaps you’ve never rented before. Maybe you’ve taken off time from work to go back to school, or suffered through a messy divorce that may have impacted your credit score. Everybody has a story; in many cases potential landlords may be more sympathetic to them than a bank would.
Last, you will need a down payment of at least 3 months rent. These monies will be your first month’s rent, your last month’s rent and security deposit. If you have a pet, a landlord may request an additional security deposit, which may be refundable if the pet does no damage it may be additional rent. Bring a checkbook: the best places go quickly and if you have a check in place, a landlord will view you as highly motivated and if approved, secures the place for you in a first come, first serve mindset.
The typical lease commitment on a rental home is a year. Should you choose to move out at the end of your rental agreement and you’ve maintained your rental property in the condition you originally leased it, you have the luxury of not paying rent for the last month you are living there and you would get your security deposit back to have some money to put towards your next real estate transaction.
By Jenn Bazydlo:
Coming up with enough money for a down payment and closing cost can be a major obstacle for many homebuyers, especially many first time homebuyers. In Philadelphia, closing costs alone can run between 5% and 6% of the purchase price of the home. For a $250,000 home that means coming up with an additional $12-15k on top of your down payment. Luckily, if you are purchasing a home with an FHA, VA, or conventional mortgage underwritten by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, there is an opportunity to have the seller pay some or all of your closing costs through something called a “seller assist.”
The amount of seller assist permitted is based on the type of mortgage and the down payment percentage. For an FHA loan, a buyer could make as little as a 3.5% down payment and have the seller cover up to 6% of their closing costs. For conventional loans, the buyer is eligible for up to a 3% seller assist when making a down payment of less than 10% and up to 6% if making a down payment above 10%. (Conventional down payments can be as little as 3%).
Even if you are not short on funds, there are some other reasons a seller assist might be useful. For example, having the seller pay your closing costs may allow you to put more money down. This is especially helpful if you are close to a benchmark down payment that would lower your interest rate. Maybe you have come up with an 18% down payment, but are struggling to get to 20% down which would allow you to avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI) and get you a better interest rate. If the seller covers part of the closing costs, you can now put that money towards your down payment. Conventional loans tend to have lower PMI costs than FHA and unlike FHA loans, PMI can be eliminated when your equity reaches 20%, saving your thousands of dollars over the life of the loan.
But seller assist is not right for everyone. In a seller’s market with low inventory, asking for a seller assist might cause you to lose out on your dream home to a competing with offer without seller assist or because the home needs to appraise for the inflated amount (net to seller PLUS the seller assist), the home may not appraise if you submit an above market price offer to compensate for the sellers assistance. Additionally, your variable costs (the closing costs dependent upon the cost of the house) will go up when you take an assist. Typically these are transfer tax and title insurance. You’re adding money to what you need to pay off on your mortgage by rolling in your costs so it typically isn’t done unless you need to take it.
So how do you know if a seller assist is right for you? Talk to one of the expert realtors with Brooke + Co. They, along with our trusted lending partners, can discuss all your options and come up with solutions that get you in your desired home with a mortgage that best suits your needs.
By Rich Bruder:
During these crazy times with COVID-19 quarantines not allowing the majority of our population to be able to go about our usual business, shopping for real estate is also impacted. April should be smack in the middle of what would traditionally be the real estate market’s busiest season. Virus or no virus, buildings still stand, so it stands to reason an investment in real estate is still a smart one. You can’t quarantine yourself in your home without a home!
So the traditional way of shopping for a home has morphed into virtual online shopping just like everything else.
GPAR, (The Greater Pennsylvania Association of Realtors) released the following;
“Given the substantial problems Governor Wolf’s order will create with ongoing transactions, PAR is releasing a brand new COVID-19 addendum to the agreement of sale (Form COVID) so parties can agree to postpone contractual deadlines while the impacts of this situation can be
assessed. This form allows the buyer and seller to agree that in the event performance becomes impossible or impractical either party can unilaterally invoke an automatic extension of all deadlines (the default is 30 days) that have not yet passed, including the settlement date. For example, if the Agreement was signed just a few days ago, pretty much every deadline would have 30 days added. If the parties are just a few days from settlement the addendum extends settlement by 30 days but doesn’t reach back and reset the inspection contingency or other deadlines that have already passed.”
This form is basically a pause button. It gives the parties a set time to figure out a backup plan without being under the gun with immediate deadlines, but it doesn’t change anything else in the agreement.
So by all means while you’re sitting at home looking online at properties thinking about how someday you might like to start looking at investing in real estate, keep in mind, you still can.