7 Quick-and-Easy Winter Weather Preparations to Do Right Now

A tiny $2 prevention could save big bucks later.

Wintry weather is great at turning up problems you didn’t even know you had. Like that first snowy night in front of your fireplace that you thought was pure bliss — until you noticed a leak in the ceiling corner, which apparently was caused by a lack of insulation. How were you supposed to know that?

Here are seven things to do now to avoid costly wintertime mistakes:

#1 Buy a $2 Protector for Your Outdoor Faucet

The cost if you don’t: Up to $15,000 and a whole lot of grief

It’s amazing what a little frozen water can do damage-wise. An inch of water in your basement can cost up to $15,000 to pump out and dry out. And, yet, it’s so easy to prevent, especially with outdoor faucets, which are the most susceptible to freezing temps.

The simplest thing to do is to remove your garden hose from your outdoor faucet and drain it. Then add a faucet protector to keep cold air from getting into your pipes. They’re really cheap (some are under $2; the more expensive ones are still less than $10). “Get these now,” says Danny Lipford, home improvement expert and host of the “Today’s Homeowner” television and radio shows. “When the weatherman says we’ve got cold coming, they’ll sell out in minutes.”

While you’re at it, make sure any exposed pipes in an unheated basement or garage are insulated, too, or you’ll face the same pricey problem.

Wrap pipes with foam plumbing insulation — before the weather drops. It’s cheap, too, just like the faucet cover (only $1 for six feet of polyethylene insulation). And it’s an easy DIY project, as long as you can reach the pipes.

#2 Add Insulation to Prevent Ice Dams

The cost if you don’t: $500 — if you’re lucky; a lot more if you’re not

Those icicles make your home look so picturesque, you just gotta take a few pics. But you better make them quick. Those icicles can literally be a dam problem. (Yes, dam — not the curse word that sounds the same. )

Icicles are a clear sign that you’ve got an ice dam, which is exactly what it sounds like: a buildup of ice on your gutter or roof that prevents melting snow and ice from flowing through your gutters. That’s really bad news because these icy blocks can lead to expensive roofing repairs.

Depending on where you live, expect to pay at least $500 for each ice dam to be steamed off. Leave the ice and you risk long-term damage, which could ultimately cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to your roof, depending on what type of shingles you have and the size of the damaged area.

How to prevent them? Insulation. “Ice dams, icicles, and ice buildup on the gutters is a symptom of not enough insulation in the attic,” says Chris Johnson, owner of Navarre True Value and several other stores in the Twin Cities area.

And “you need to have at least 14 inches of insulation in your attic, no matter where you live,” says Lipford. If you live in a colder climate, you’ll need more.

If you don’t have the cash to insulate, heated gutter cables, which run between $50 and $150 each, can be a less expensive alternative when temporarily affixed to areas prone to ice damming, Johnson suggests.

#3 Clean Your Gutters

The cost if you don’t:: You really don’t want to be in a position to find out

It can be so tempting to skip gutter cleanups as winter nears. It seems like as soon as you clear your gutters, they clog right back up again. So what’s the point?

Well, if it looks like you’re living inside a waterfall when it rains, water is missing your gutter system completely. It’s being directed to your foundation instead. And a water-damaged foundation is never, ever cheap to fix.

A contractor can plug foundation cracks for $1,500 to $3,000, says David Verbofsky, director of training for exterior home products manufacturer Ply Gem. But a worse problem, one that requires a foundation excavation or rebuild, can set you back (gulp$30,000 or more.

Suddenly, cleaning your gutters a few times each fall doesn’t seem so bad. A pro can do the work for anywhere between $70 and $250, depending on the size of your gutter system.

#4 Seal Up Leaks

The cost if you don’t: Nights where you never feel warm, despite sky-high heating bills

“If it were possible to take every crack on the outside of a typical home and drag them together, you’d have the equivalent of a three-by-three window open all the time,” says Lipford. Yikes.

Yet cracks can be easily and inexpensively sealed with a simple tube of caulk, and it’s available in hundreds of colors to match your window panes, outside siding, and even brick. Not sure where to caulk? Look for visible cracks around:

  • Window sills
  • Baseboards
  • Fireplace or dryer vents
  • Anywhere something inside pokes a hole to the outside

#5 Program Your Thermostat

The cost if you don’t: Money you could spend on something else besides heating

We all know we should, but we seem to have some mental block when it comes to programming our thermostats to align with our schedules. It’s not that hard, and sometimes all it takes is buying a new one that suits you. (Like maybe a Wi-Fi one that’ll give you a little money-saving thrill each time you swipe your app.)

“From a cost-savings perspective, a programmable thermostat is a great investment,” Lipford says — as much as 10% off your energy bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

#6 Get a Furnace Tune-Up

The cost if you don’t: A furnace that’ll die years before it should — and higher energy bills

“Forget to service your furnace and you could easily cut five years off the life of your system,” says Lipford, who added that five years is a full third of the typical unit’s life span. New units can cost around $4,000 installed, making the $125 annual maintenance charge a no-brainer.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to replace the furnace filter, which cleans the air in your home, and also keeps your furnace coils cleaner, which can shave up to 15% off your energy bill. Johnson suggests at least every three months, but possibly as often as monthly if you have allergies, pets, or smoke cigarettes at home.

#7 Get a Fireplace Inspection

The cost if you don’t: Possibly your life — and your home

“A cozy fire is great, but if you don’t maintain your chimney, a fire can cost you thousands of dollars,” says Johnson, not to mention the risk to you and your family.

Schedule your maintenance appointment as early as you can.”If you wait until the busy season, you’ll have a hard time getting them out there, you’ll pay more, and you’ll get a lower quality job,” says Lipford.

How to Prevent Freezing Pipes

You CAN prevent freezing pipes and the costly damage that goes with them.

Wicked winter weather can cause plumbing pipes to freeze and possibly burst, causing flooding and costly water damage to your home. Taking preventive measures before winter sets in can reduce and eliminate the risk of frozen pipes and other cold-weather threats.

Where the Trouble Lies

“Some pipes are more prone to freezing than others because of their location in the home,” explains Paul Abrams, spokesman for Roto-Rooter.

Pipes most at risk for freezing include:

  • Exposed pipes in unheated areas of the home.
  • Pipes located in exterior walls.
  • Any plumbing on the exterior of the home.

Preventative Measures for Outside

A frozen garden hose can cause more damage than a busted hose; it can actually burst an interior pipe. When the water in the hose freezes, it expands, increasing pressure throughout the whole plumbing system. As part of your regular seasonal maintenance, garden hoses should be disconnected, drained, and stored before the first hard freeze.

If you don’t have frost-proof spigots, close the interior shut-off valve leading to that faucet, open and drain the spigot, and install a faucet insulator. They cost only a couple bucks and are worth every penny. Don’t forget, outdoor kitchens need winterizing, too, to prevent damage.

Exposed Interior Plumbing

Exposed pipes in the basement are rarely in danger of freezing because they are in a heated portion of the home. But plumbing pipes in an unheated area, such as an attic, crawl space, and garage, are at risk of freezing.

Often, inexpensive foam pipe insulation is enough for moderately cold climates. For severe climes, opt for wrapping problem pipes with thermostatically controlled heat tape (from $50 to $200, depending on length), which will turn on at certain minimum temps.

Under-Insulated Walls

If pipes traveling in exterior walls have frozen in the past (tell-tale signs include water damage, mold, and moisture build-up), it’s probably because of inadequate or improperly installed insulation. It might well be worth the couple hundred dollars it costs to open up the wall and beef up the insulation.

“When nothing else works, say for a northern wall in a really cold climate, the last resort is to reroute a pipe,” notes Abrams. Depending on how far the pipe needs to be moved — and how much damage is caused in the process — this preventative measure costs anywhere from $700 on up. Of course, putting the room back together is extra.

Heading South for the Winter?

For folks leaving their houses for an extended period of time in winter, additional preventative measures must be taken to adequately protect the home from frozen pipes.

  • Make sure the furnace is set no lower than 55 degrees.
  • Shut off the main water supply and drain the system by opening all faucets and flushing the toilets.

In extreme situations (vacation home in a bitterly cold climate), Abrams recommends having a plumber come to inspect the system, drain the hot water heater, and perhaps replace the water in traps and drains with nontoxic antifreeze.

Keep Your Home Sale from Falling Apart

After finding a buyer, all you have to do to make it to closing is to avoid these five traps.

Finding a buyer for your home is just the first step on the homeselling path. Tread carefully in the weeks ahead because if you make one of these common seller mistakes, your deal may not close.

Mistake #1: Ignore Contingencies

If your contract requires you to do something before the sale, do it. If the buyers make the sale contingent on certain repairs, don’t do cheap patch-jobs and expect the buyers not to notice the fixes weren’t done properly.

Mistake #2: Don’t Bother to Fix Things That Break

The last thing any seller needs is for the buyers to notice on the pre-closing walk-through that the home isn’t in the same condition as when they made their offer. When things fall apart in a home about to be purchased, sellers must make the repairs. If the furnace fails, get a professional to fix it, and inform the buyers that the work was done. When you fail to maintain the home, the buyers may lose confidence in your integrity and the condition of the home and back out of the sale.

Mistake #3: Get Lax About Deadlines

Treat deadlines as sacrosanct. If you have three days to accept or reject the home inspection, make your decision within three days. If you’re selling, move out a few days early, so you can turn over the keys at closing.

Mistake #4: Refuse to Negotiate Any Further

Once you’ve negotiated a price, it’s natural to calculate how much you’ll walk away with from the closing table. However, problems uncovered during inspections will have to be fixed. The appraisal may come in at a price below what the buyers offered to pay. Be prepared to negotiate with the buyers over these bottom-line-influencing issues.

Mistake #5: Hide Liens from Buyers

Did you neglect to mention that Uncle Sam has placed a tax lien on your home or you owe six months of homeowners association fees? The title search is going to turn up any liens filed on your house. To sell your house, you have to pay off the lien (or get the borrower to agree to pay it off). If you can do that with the sales proceeds, great. If not, the sale isn’t going to close.

Home Upgrades with the Lowest ROI

File these six upgrades under wish fulfillment, not value investment.

Life is a balancing act, and upgrading your home is no different. Some upgrades, like a kitchen remodel or an additional bathroom, typically add value to your home. Others, like putting in a pool, provide little dollar return on your investment.

Of course, homeowning isn’t just about building wealth; it’s also about living well and making memories — even if that means outclassing your neighborhood or turning off future buyers. So if any of these six upgrades is something you can’t be dissuaded from, enjoy! We won’t judge. But go in with your eyes wide open. Here’s why: 

1. Outdoor Kitchen

The fantasy: You’re the man — grilling steaks, blending margaritas, and washing highball glasses without ever leaving your pimped-out patio kitchen.

The reality: For what it costs — on average $12,000 to $15,000 — are you really gonna use it? Despite our penchant for eating alfresco, families spend most leisure time in front of some screen and almost no leisure time outdoors, no matter how much they spend on amenities, according to UCLA’s “Life At Home” study. And the National Association of Home Builders’ 2013 “What Home Buyers Really Want” report says 35% of mid-range buyers don’t want an outdoor kitchen.

The bottom-line: Instead, buy a tricked out gas grill, which will do just fine when you need to char something. If you’re dying for an outdoor upgrade, install exterior lighting — only 1% of buyers don’t want that.

2. In-Ground Swimming Pool

The fantasy: Floating aimlessly, sipping umbrella drinks, staying cool in the dog days of summer.

The reality: Pools are money pits that you’ll spend $17,000 to $45,000+ to install (concrete), and thousands more to insure, secure, and maintain. Plus, you won’t use them as much as you think, and when you’re ready to sell, buyers will call your pool a maintenance pain.

The bottom-line: If your idea of making it includes a backyard swimming pool, go for it. But, get real about:

  • How many days per year you’ll actually swim.
  • How much your energy bills will climb to heat the water ($760 to $1,845 depending on location and temperature).
  • What you’ll pay to clean and chemically treat the pool ($20 to $100 per month in-season if you do it yourself; $75 to $165 per month for a pool service).
  • The fact that you’ll likely need to invest in a pool fence. In fact, some insurance carriers require it.

Related: Natural Swimming Pools: 9 Myths Busted

3. In-Ground Spa

The fantasy: Soothing aching muscles and sipping chardonnay with friends while being surrounded by warm water and bubbles.

The reality: In-ground spas are nearly as expensive ($15,000 to $20,000) as pools and cost about $1 a day for electricity and chemicals. You’ll have to buy a cover ($50 to $400) to keep children, pets, and leaves out. And, like in-ground pools, in-ground spas’ ROI depends solely on how much the next homeowner wants one.

The bottom-line: Unless you have a chronic condition that requires hydrotherapy, you probably won’t use your spa as much as you imagine. A portable hot tub will give you the same benefits for as little as $1,000 to $2,500, and you can take it with you when you move.

4. Elevator

Your fantasy: No more climbing stairs for you or for your parents when they move in.

The reality: Elevators top the list of features buyers don’t want in the NAHB “What Buyers Really Want” report. They cost upwards of $25,000 to install, which requires sawing through floors, laying concrete, and crafting high-precision framing. And, at sales time, elevators can turn off some families, especially those with little kids who love to push buttons.

The bottom-line: If you truly need help climbing stairs, you can install a chair lift on a rail system ($1,000 to $5,000). Best feature: It can be removed.

5. Backup Power Generator

Your fantasy: The power in your area goes kaput, but not for you. You were smart enough to install a backup power generator. While the neighbors eat cold hot dogs by a flashlight beam, you’re poaching salmon in your oven and pumping out Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes.

The reality: Power outages may seem to go on forever, but they don’t. Fifty dollars worth of batteries can power portable lights, radios, and TVs; a car adaptor will charge your cell phones and iPods; and some dry ice will keep freezer food cold for at least a couple of days.

The bottom-line: If you live in areas where power shortages are the rule, not the exception, spend the money for reliable backup power: Your still-frozen steaks, home office fax, and refrigerated medicine will thank you. But if the power goes out rarely, then installing a standby generator is overkill.

6. New Windows

The fantasy: Brand new windows that don’t stick, and slash energy bills.

The reality: A $15,000 vinyl window replacement project will return about 80% of your investment at resale, according to the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. And if they’re Energy Star-qualified, they can save you around $300 in energy bills per year.  So, plan to live in your house about another 10 years to recoup the cost of new windows.

The bottom-line: We get it — new windows are sturdy, pretty energy savers. But unless old window frames are thoroughly rotten, most windows can be repaired for a fraction of replacement costs. And if you spend about $1,000 to update insulation, caulking, and weather-stripping, you’ll save 10% to 20% on your energy bill.

4 Simple Tasks to Do in Fall for an Awesome Lawn in Spring

Fall is the most crucial time for your lawn.

Although spring lawn care gets all the attention, fall lawn care is the make-it or break-it season for grass.

“I’m already thinking about next year,” says John Dillon, who takes care of New York City’s Central Park, which features 200 acres of lawn in the middle of Manhattan. “The grass I grow this fall is what will be there next spring.”

Fall lawn care is no walk in the park. It’s hard work, and Dillon guides you through the four basic steps.

#1 Aerate

Aeration gives your lawn a breather in autumn and provides room for new grass to spread without competition from spring weeds. Aeration tools pull up plugs of grass and soil, breaking up compacted turf. That allows water, oxygen, and nutrients to reach roots, and gives seeds room to sprout.

If kids frequently play on your lawn, plan to aerate twice a year — fall and spring. If your lawn is just for show, then aerate once a year — and maybe even once every other year.

A hand-aerating tool ($20), which looks like a pitchfork with hollow tines, is labor-intensive and meant for unplugging small sections of grass. Gas-powered aerating machines (rental, $20/hour) are about the size of a big lawn mower, and are good for working entire lawns. Bring some muscle when you pick up your rental: Aerating machines are heavy and can be hard to lift into your truck or SUV.

Depending on the size of your property, professional aeration costs about $150.

Related: Lawn Aeration: Give Your Grass a Breath of Fresh Air

#2 Seed

Fall, when the soil temperature is about 55 degrees, is the best time to seed your lawn because turf roots grow vigorously in fall and winter. If you want a lush lawn, don’t cheap out on the seed.

Bags of inexpensive seed ($35 for 15 pounds) often contain hollow husks, weed seed, and annual rye grass seed, which grows until the first frost then drops dead. Splurge on the good stuff ($55 for 15 pounds of Kentucky Bluegrass seed), which resists drought, disease, and insects.

Water your new seed every day for 10 to 20 days until it germinates.

#3 Fertilize

A late fall fertilization — before the first frost — helps your grass survive a harsh winter and encourages it to grow green and lush in spring. Make your last fertilization of the year count by choosing a product high (10% to 15%) in phosphorous, which is critical for root growth, Dillon says.

Note: Some states are banning phosphorous-rich fertilizers, which are harmful to the watershed. In those places, look for nitrogen-rich fertilizers, which promote shoot and root growth. Check with your local extension service to see what regulations apply in your area.

#4 Mulch

Instead of raking leaves, run over them a couple of times with your mower to grind them into mulch. The shredded leaves protect grass from winter wind and desiccation. An added bonus — shredded leaves decompose into yummy organic matter to feed grass roots.

A mulching blade ($10) that attaches to your mower will grind the leaves even finer.

Should I Rent or Sell My House?

When it comes to deciding whether you should rent or sell your house, are you worried you’ll make the wrong financial moves? Here’s how to make the right call.

When your current home no longer suits you, selling it is a popular option. But in some cases, turning it into a rental home might make more sense.

There are lots of factors to consider when making the “sell vs. rent my home” decision, including:

  • Your financial situation.
  • Local market conditions for rental homes.
  • Your future housing plans.
  • Your tolerance for being a landlord.
  • State and federal income taxes.
  • Current and projected home prices.

Other factors to consider include:

Is Your Move Permanent?

Going away for a few years and planning to come back to the area? It may be cheaper to rent your house and move back in when you return, rather than paying sales commissions to sell your current home and purchase of another one when you get back.

You’re Being Transferred, But You Are Likely Coming Back

Suppose you have owned and lived in your home for two or more years but are now being transferred to a different city temporarily, after which you plan to return. You can rent your home for up to three years without losing the chance to sell it with no capital gains tax. So long as you owned and lived in the house for two of the five years prior to the sale, any capital gain on the sale can generally be excluded.

Therefore, by turning your home into a rental, you keep the option to move back in when you return, or sell it and avoid paying capital gains tax on any gain you might have.

Can You Rent Your Home for Enough to Cover the Mortgage Payment and Expenses?

If you can, keeping your house can be a smart way to help fund your retirement. Each month your tenants pay rent. You likely won’t pay tax on that income if you have enough expenses to offset it (like mortgage interest and repair costs).

When you finish paying off your mortgage or once you retire, you can sell the house and convert your equity into a lump sum, or continue renting it and collecting income during your retirement.

Do You Need More Tax Deductions?

When you rent your home instead of selling, you get to depreciate it for tax purposes. In most cases, you divide the amount you paid for the house, plus the cost of major improvements (less the value of the land) by 27.5 (that’s how many years the tax law says a house must be depreciated) to arrive at your annual depreciation.

For example, if you paid $100,000 for the house, and the portion allocated to the land is $20,000, you get to deduct $2,909 in depreciation annually ($80,000/27.5). Along with this, you can deduct other expenses, such as property taxes, repairs, and community association fees.

You Think Home Prices Are Going to Rise Over the Next Five Years

Even if your rental income doesn’t cover all your expenses (mortgage, property taxes, repairs, etc.), you might make up that loss if your home’s value rises before you sell it.

Say your home is worth $100,000 today and your expenses are $1,000 a year more than the rent you can collect. Over 10 years, you’ll lose $10,000 ($1,000 x 10 years), but if your home sale nets you more than $110,000, you’ll make money despite those annual losses. Your annual losses might be tax deductible, saving you money on your tax bill.

What’s Your Home’s Condition?

Renters, more so than buyers, can be willing to overlook outdated home fixtures because renters know they’re just passing through your home, not owning it.

If you don’t have the money to invest in improvements and your home’s fixtures scream 1970s (and not in a good, retro chic way), renting may be the better choice.

You Need the Profit From Selling Your Home to Fund Your Move-Up Home

If you need a different home and must sell your current home so you can use the equity as a downpayment, you might want to sell your home vs. renting it.

If you don’t need all the equity in your home for your downpayment, you might be able to take out a home equity loan or refinance into an investor loan and use the loan proceeds as your downpayment, and still make your home a rental.

You Freak Out About Condition and Panic Over Repairs

When someone lives in your home, they can scuff the walls, burn the countertops, and forget to water your prized shrubberies. If you can’t live with that wear and tear, sell rather than rent your home.

Becoming a landlord usually means you still have to maintain your house. You’ll get the bills when the plumbing springs a leak or the refrigerator dies. If making DIY repairs is beyond you and paying for upkeep is going to cause you to panic, opt to sell your house vs. renting it to save your sanity. You can save many of these headaches by using a property manager, but this, of course, will cost you.

Can You Evict a Tenant Who Fails to Pay?

If you wouldn’t have the heart to force out a renter who didn’t pay, you shouldn’t become a landlord — or if you do become a landlord, plan to have a pro manage your property.

6 Reasons to Reduce Your Home Price

While you’d like to get the best price for your home, consider our six reasons to reduce your home price.

Home not selling? That could happen for a number of reasons you can’t control, like a unique home layout or having one of the few homes in the neighborhood without a garage. There is one factor you can control: your home price.

These six signs may be telling you it’s time to lower your price.

1. You’re drawing few lookers.

You get the most interest in your home right after you put it on the market because buyers want to catch a great new home before anybody else takes it. If your real estate agent reports there have been fewer buyers calling about and asking to tour your home than there have been for other homes in your area, that may be a sign buyers think it’s overpriced and are waiting for the price to fall before viewing it.

2. You’re drawing lots of lookers but have no offers.

If you’ve had 30 sets of potential buyers come through your home and not a single one has made an offer, something is off. What are other agents telling your agent about your home? An overly high price may be discouraging buyers from making an offer.

3. Your home’s been on the market longer than similar homes.

Ask your real estate agent about the average number of days it takes to sell a home in your market. If the answer is 30 and you’re pushing 45, your price may be affecting buyer interest. When a home sits on the market, buyers can begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with it, which can delay a sale even further. At least consider lowering your asking price.

4. You have a deadline.

If you’ve got to sell soon because of a job transfer or you’ve already purchased another home, it may be necessary to generate buyer interest by dropping your price so your home is a little lower priced than comparable homes in your area. Remember: It’s not how much money you need that determines the sale price of your home, it’s how much money a buyer is willing to spend.

5. You can’t make upgrades.

Maybe you’re plum out of cash and don’t have the funds to put fresh paint on the walls, clean the carpets, and add curb appeal. But the feedback your agent is reporting from buyers is that your home isn’t as well-appointed as similarly priced homes. When your home has been on the market longer than comparable homes in better condition, it’s time to accept that buyers expect to pay less for a home that doesn’t show as well as others.

6. The competition has changed.

If weeks go by with no offers, continue to check out the competition. What have comparable homes sold for and what’s still on the market? What new listings have been added since you listed your home for sale? If comparable home sales or new listings show your price is too steep, consider a price reduction.

 

7 Steps to Take Before You Buy a Home

By doing your homework before you buy, you’ll feel more content about your new home.

Most potential home buyers are a smidge daunted by the fact that they’re about to agree to a hefty mortgage that they’ll be paying for the next few decades. The best way to relieve that anxiety is to be confident you’re purchasing the best home at a price you can afford with the most favorable financing. These seven steps will help you make smart decisions about your biggest purchase.

1. Decide How Much Home You Can Afford

Generally, you can afford a home priced two to three times your gross income. Remember to consider costs every homeowner must cover: property taxes, insurance, maintenance, utilities, and community association fees, if applicable, as well as costs specific to your family, such as day care if you plan to have children.

2. Develop Your Home Wish List

Be honest about which features you must have and which you’d like to have. Handicap accessibility for an aging parent or special needs child is a must. Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are in the bonus category. Come up with your top five must-haves and top five wants to help you focus your search and make a logical, rather than emotional, choice when home shopping.

3. Select Where You Want to Live

Make a list of your top five community priorities, such as commute time, schools, and recreational facilities. Ask a REALTOR® to help you identify three to four target neighborhoods based on your priorities.

4. Start Saving

Have you saved enough money to qualify for a mortgage and cover your down payment? Ideally, you should have 20% of the purchase price set aside for a down payment, but some lenders allow as little as 5% down. A small down payment preserves your savings for emergencies.

However, the lower your down payment, the higher the loan amount you’ll need to qualify for, and if you still qualify, the higher your monthly payment. Your down payment size can also influence your interest rate and the type of loan you can get.

Finally, if your down payment is less than 20%, you’ll be required to purchase private mortgage insurance. Depending on the size of your loan, PMI can add hundreds to your monthly payment. Check with your state and local government for mortgage and down payment assistance programs for first-time buyers.

5. Ask About All the Costs Before You Sign

A down payment is just one home buying cost. A REALTOR® can tell you what other costs buyers commonly pay in your area — including home inspections, attorneys’ fees, and transfer fees of 2% to 7% of the home price. Tally up the extras you’ll also want to buy after you move-in, such as window coverings and patio furniture for your new yard.

6. Get Your Credit in Order

A credit report details your borrowing history, including any late payments and bad debts, and typically includes a credit score. Lenders lean heavily on your credit report and credit score in determining whether, how much, and at what interest rate to lend for a home. The minimum credit score you can have to qualify for a loan depends on many factors, including the size of your down payment. Talk to a REALTOR® or lender about your particular circumstance.

You’re entitled to free copies of your credit reports annually from the major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Order and then pore over them to ensure the information is accurate, and try to correct any errors before you buy. If your credit score isn’t up to snuff, the easiest ways to improve it are to pay every bill on time and pay down high credit card debt.

7. Get Prequalified

Meet with a lender to get a prequalification letter that says how much house you’re qualified to buy. Start gathering the paperwork your lender says it needs. Most want to see W-2 forms verifying your employment and income, copies of pay stubs, and two to four months of banking statements.

If you’re self-employed, you’ll need your current profit and loss statement, a current balance sheet, and personal and business income tax returns for the previous two years.

Consider your financing options. The longer the loan, the smaller your monthly payment. Fixed-rate mortgages offer payment certainty; an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) offers a lower monthly payment. However, an adjustable-rate mortgage may adjust dramatically. Be sure to calculate your affordability at both the lowest and highest possible ARM rate.

 

Keep Your Home Sale from Falling Apart

After finding a buyer, all you have to do to make it to closing is to avoid these five traps.

Finding a buyer for your home is just the first step on the homeselling path. Tread carefully in the weeks ahead because if you make one of these common seller mistakes, your deal may not close.

Mistake #1: Ignore Contingencies

If your contract requires you to do something before the sale, do it. If the buyers make the sale contingent on certain repairs, don’t do cheap patch-jobs and expect the buyers not to notice the fixes weren’t done properly.

Mistake #2: Don’t Bother to Fix Things That Break

The last thing any seller needs is for the buyers to notice on the pre-closing walk-through that the home isn’t in the same condition as when they made their offer. When things fall apart in a home about to be purchased, sellers must make the repairs. If the furnace fails, get a professional to fix it, and inform the buyers that the work was done. When you fail to maintain the home, the buyers may lose confidence in your integrity and the condition of the home and back out of the sale.

Mistake #3: Get Lax About Deadlines

Treat deadlines as sacrosanct. If you have three days to accept or reject the home inspection, make your decision within three days. If you’re selling, move out a few days early, so you can turn over the keys at closing.

Mistake #4: Refuse to Negotiate Any Further

Once you’ve negotiated a price, it’s natural to calculate how much you’ll walk away with from the closing table. However, problems uncovered during inspections will have to be fixed. The appraisal may come in at a price below what the buyers offered to pay. Be prepared to negotiate with the buyers over these bottom-line-influencing issues.

Mistake #5: Hide Liens from Buyers

Did you neglect to mention that Uncle Sam has placed a tax lien on your home or you owe six months of homeowners association fees? The title search is going to turn up any liens filed on your house. To sell your house, you have to pay off the lien (or get the borrower to agree to pay it off). If you can do that with the sales proceeds, great. If not, the sale isn’t going to close.

 

How to Use Comparable Sales to Price Your Home

Before you put your home up for sale, understand how the right comparable sales help you and your agent find the perfect price.

How much can you sell your home for? Probably about as much as the neighbors got, as long as the neighbors sold their house in recent memory and their home was just like your home.

Knowing how much homes similar to yours, called comparable sales (or in real estate lingo, comps), sold for gives you the best idea of the current estimated value of your home. The trick is finding sales that closely match yours.

What makes a good comparable sale?

Your best comparable sale is the same model as your house in the same subdivision—and it closed escrow last week. If you can’t find that, here are other factors that count:

Location: The closer to your house the better, but don’t just use any comparable sale within a mile radius. A good comparable sale is a house in your neighborhood, your subdivision, on the same type of street as your house, and in your school district.

Home type: Try to find comparable sales that are like your home in style, construction material, square footage, number of bedrooms and baths, basement (having one and whether it’s finished), finishes, and yard size.

Amenities and upgrades: Is the kitchen new? Does the comparable sale house have full A/C? Is there crown molding, a deck, or a pool? Does your community have the same amenities (pool, workout room, walking trails, etc.) and homeowners association fees?

Date of sale: You may want to use a comparable sale from two years ago when the market was high, but that won’t fly. Most buyers use government-guaranteed mortgages, and those lending programs say comparable sales can be no older than 90 days.

Sales sweeteners: Did the comparable-sale sellers give the buyers downpayment assistance, closing costs, or a free television? You have to reduce the value of any comparable sale to account for any deal sweeteners.

Agents can help adjust price based on insider insights

Even if you live in a subdivision, your home will always be different from your neighbors’. Evaluating those differences—like the fact that your home has one more bedroom than the comparables or a basement office—is one of the ways real estate agents add value.

An active agent has been inside a lot of homes in your neighborhood and knows all sorts of details about comparable sales. She has read the comments the selling agent put into the MLS, seen the ugly wallpaper, and heard what other REALTORS®, lenders, closing agents, and appraisers said about the comparable sale.

More ways to pick a home listing price

If you’re still having trouble picking out a listing price for your home, look at the current competition. Ask your real estate agent to be honest about your home and the other homes on the market (and then listen to her without taking the criticism personally).

Next, put your comparable sales into two piles: more expensive and less expensive. What makes your home more valuable than the cheaper comparable sales and less valuable than the pricier comparable sales?

Are foreclosures and short sales comparables?

If one or more of your comparable sales was a foreclosed home or a short sale (a home that sold for less money than the owners owed on the mortgage), ask your real estate agent how to treat those comps.

A foreclosed home is usually in poor condition because owners who can’t pay their mortgage can’t afford to pay for upkeep. Your home is in great shape, so the foreclosure should be priced lower than your home.

Short sales are typically in good condition, although they are still distressed sales. The owners usually have to sell because they’re divorcing, or their employer is moving them to Kansas.

How much short sales are discounted from their market value varies among local markets. The average short-sale home in Omaha in recent years was discounted by 8.5%, according to a University of Nebraska at Omaha study. In suburban Washington, D.C., sellers typically discount short-sale homes by 3% to 5% to get them quickly sold, real estate agents report. In other markets, sellers price short sales the same as other homes in the neighborhood.

So you have to rely on your real estate agent’s knowledge of the local market to use a short sale as a comparable sale.