Entire feature films, websites and hour-long cable specials have been devoted to debunking urban legends, those modern fables that circulate at the speed of the internet. And real estate is not immune; modern-day myths of easy-peasy seller financing, distressed sellers practically throwing their properties at buyers, and cosmetic fixers that can be had for pennies are just that – fairy tales which, if believed, can result in some not-so-happy endings.
The real deal is that real estate is much more affordable than it used to be, but the barriers to entry are higher, and the days in which you could get something for nothing are over. Here are five real estate and mortgage urban legends, and the truth which lies beneath.
Urban Legend #1: Got bad credit? Get seller financing. Does seller financing exist? Of course. Is it as easy to get – or desirable – as they make it seem in the infomercials? Not even close. Most seller financed homes require a 25% down payment and higher then normal interest rates with a 3 balloon payment.
Here’s the real deal: most sellers who have a mortgage they obtained in the last 10 years or so also have a due on sale clause which requires them to pay it off when they sell the property. Financing the sale themselves, vs. requiring the buyer to obtain mortgage or other financing to pay for the property, prevents them from having the cash to pay their mortgage off, as required. And the vast majority of those who don’t have a mortgage of recent vintage need the proceeds from the sale of their homes to buy their next home or invest in their next property.
What’s more, even the few sellers who don’t need the cash often don’t want to take on the long-term risk and hassle involved with having to collect payments from a buyer for 10, 15, or 30 years. The sellers who can and will agree to seller financing usually want a premium price and interest rate for it – and the smart ones will require some type of credit check and a deeper down payment than a traditional lender.
And seller financing, as sweet as it sounds, poses risks for buyers, too. If the seller keeps a bank mortgage on the property and fails to make the payment, the seller-financed buyer could end up losing the home they’ve paid for to foreclosure. Best targets for seller-financing are investor sellers who are looking to avoid capital gains, and best practice is to get a local real estate attorney involved in drafting and recording the transfer and financing documentation.
Urban Legend # 2: Buyers save big bucks on cosmetic fixers. Sellers aren’t stupid – and neither are their agents. There might have been a day and time in which you could find listings that were deeply discounted because they needed a little cosmetic refresh. But those days are long gone – even in today’s down market, sellers expect to invest a little cash into paint and carpet to stage and spruce up their biggest asset and get as much as humanly possible for it. Today’s sellers also know that homes not in tip-top shape may not sell at all these days, so they go to great lengths to do make their homes shine. (And those who can’t afford to aren’t slashing tens of thousands off their homes’ list prices, though some will offer buyers a credit at closing.)
That’s not to say you can’t get a discount on a place that needs some work. But the meatiest discounts are on the places that need the most work; roof leaks, old windows and laundry-list long pest inspection reports are much more likely to get you a big price break than scuffed walls and grungy carpeting on a home in otherwise sound condition.
Urban Legend #3: 100 percent financing for first-time buyers. Most of the national first-time buyer programs are mere figments of our collective mortgage memory. But during the subprime mortgage era, 100 percent financing was available to pretty much everyone, not just first-timers. And the post-bubble first-time buyer programs tended to be tax credits that could defray some of the up front investment required to buy a home, rather than zero-down home loans.
FHA loans, which are extremely popular with first-time buyers, are available to any buyer who can qualify, whether or not they have owned homes before or own one now. Most of the state and local first-time buyer programs that still exist involve some level of down payment or closing cost assistance, but the vast majority also require that the buyer put some of their own cash into the transaction. The prevailing theory today is that homeowners who have put their own hard-earned cash into their homes are less likely to walk away from it later, whether or not they are first-time buyers. It has also become clear that the financial management skills and discipline it takes to save up for a down payment or closing costs are skills and habits that stand prospective buyers in good stead for the rest of their lifetimes as homeowners.
Long story short, while virgin homebuyers can and should seek out the assistance programs available to them (local real estate and mortgage pros often know the ins and outs), they should also tuck their pennies away and expect to have to put some of their own financial skin in the game.
Urban Legend #4: Nearly free foreclosures. Banks are not giving houses away at pennies on the dollar. In fact, bank-owned homes, as a rule, must be sold at as close as possible to their fair market value.
Urban Legend #5: Distressed owners who will sign their home over to you, gratis. This one is fantasy of the highest level.
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