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Desi Sowers


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Mortgage Rate Locks Become Crucial

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS


An interest rate lock is always a good idea in any market. But it becomes a better idea when it's crucial to lock in an interest rate and other loan costs at a level you can afford.

A changing market -- especially when the change is for the worst -- is one of those crucial times. During the first half of 2008, nearly a full percentage point separated the high of 6.45 percent in recent weeks and the low of 5.48 percent in January, according to Freddie Mac.

Get off the interest rate elevator ride with an interest rate lock. A traditional rate lock is a lender's guarantee that your mortgage will come with a specific interest rate, points, other costs and terms. Most locks are designed to protect home buyers from rising rates, but those refinancing can also benefit.

A rate lock's terms include a specified period for the lock. If you fail to complete your home purchase or refinance before the clock runs out, and interest rates rise, brace yourself for higher costs. Those higher costs could come in the form of more up front cash to keep monthly payments in line with what you can afford or what you lender will allow.

With a refinance, if your home ownership isn't at stake, you have more wiggle room and can wait out the market, take less cash out or otherwise cope. Of course, those refinancing to stave off foreclosure could also find higher rates, without a rate lock, to be just as problematic as for home owners.

In an up-and-down interest rate market, falling interest rates are another strong reason for a rate lock. If interest rates fall during the lock period you can't take advantage of the lower rate unless you rewrite the lock at additional cost or include a "float down" provision in the original lock.

The "float down" option grants you a lower rate if rates fall within a given window of time. Again, unless specified otherwise, float downs stick you with the higher rate if rates rise during the lock period.

All these rate lock variations underscore the importance of being sure the language of the lock contract gives you the options you need, for a sufficient term.

Get it all in writing. It's difficult to enforce a verbal agreement. The contract should lock should lock in the interest rate, points and other costs, where possible. The agreement should include your name; the lock's effective date; lock cost; what terms are locked; the lock's expiration date and time; and any post-lock options.

Lock as soon as you see the desired rate or "on application" -- when you first apply for the mortgage -- so that your rate is locked as you spend time getting the application approved. That's particularly important if you barely qualify at today's rates, and an increase would make buying unaffordable.

Of course, you can choose to set the lock on approval, especially in markets where loan applications are prolonged due to heavy demand for housing. In any event, the lock period should be long enough to allow for settlement, contingencies, and other potential delays. Locks average 30 days, but can range from 15 to 60 days.

Also consider:


  • Locks cost money. Shop around for both the terms of the lock contract and its cost, which varies from lender to lender. Some lenders want up-front lock fees. Others take them at settlement. There are non-refundable fees, flat fees, and fees based on a percentage of the mortgage, among the variations.


  • Before choosing a lock-in period, determine the average time for loan processing. Ask your lender to estimate the time necessary to process your loan and verify the information with other realty professionals. If the loan doesn't close on time, lenders can extend your lock for free, charge more for the extension or charge an additional percentage of the loan amount.


  • Once you lock-in a rate, if you haven't already, quickly submit the application and other required documents. You should have previously checked your credit report, prepared income, job, debt, asset and other documents to back up your application information.


  • If you have a floater, it's your job to keep an eye on the market.

    Written by Broderick Perkins
  • Don't Overlook The Garage When Getting Your Home Ready To Sell

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

    There's a lot of talk about curb appeal being the driving force drawing buyers into your home. It makes sense. If the house looks a mess from the outside, what buyer would want to set foot inside?

    Well, maybe your house isn't quite a mess. You have taken the time to fix-up the landscape, power-washed the house, and even painted the mailbox. But did you overlook what can be the biggest eyesore -- the garage?

    "It's the largest architectural element on the house. So it really, in this day and age, is impossible to dismiss the garage door as an important architectural element," says Braden Wasserman, owner of Access Custom Garage Doors.

    But the garage door is more than an architectural element. It can be a trigger point for buyers. They're driving down the street in a tract-home neighborhood and suddenly they spot a custom wooden garage door. It's striking and different and often gives them reason to stop and take a closer look, maybe even come inside.

    "If you have a house that has a nice garage door, it sets the stage for the fact that everything else in the house is going to have attention to detail and it really does differentiate homes that are on the same street," says Wasserman. He says with some exterior paint and a unique garage door, "The house really becomes a semi-custom house."

    According to Wasserman, swapping out an old steel-style, raised-panel garage door that once was so very traditional is a huge improvement to a home.

    "It was interesting that you would go past these $5 or $6 million houses where the architects and designers paid such critical attention to detail to the stucco color, the stonework, and the rooftop. Then for the biggest element, they would just put this wide raised-panel steel door because the consumer wasn't educated on how important the garage door can be in really just buttoning up and completing the design of a house," says Wasserman.

    However, these days, custom wooden doors aren't just for multi-million dollar homes. People in tract homes are making the switch either for their own benefit, a faster sale, or a potential gain in the value of the property.

    "There is definitely an increase in the property value commensurate with the investment that you make in the garage door. And then there is the perceived value. For every $5,000 of door that you put in, you get four times that dollar in perceived value," says Wasserman.

    What makes wooden garage doors so special is not only the escape from conformity but also the fact that they function like traditional automated steel doors.

    "They work exactly like a standard upward-acting sectional garage door. They segment on a track and they use a conventional residential garage door opener. Only from the front elevation do we try to design the doors to look like they're the old fashion carriage garage doors that swing open," explains Wasserman.

    The added decorative hardware, including handles and hinges, helps create the effect of an old-fashioned-garage door.

    But not every garage door works with every style of home. Wasserman says you should really take a close look at your architectural style before you decide on the right garage door. He says homeowners should match their home architecture to a garage door that is architecturally congruent.

    "That way you're making the whole house just look that much more custom and fitted," says Wasserman.

    Then next vital thing to look for in custom doors is to choose the appropriate material. "It's very, very critical that the lumber you select is designed and can last and can be durable for an exterior application," says Wasserman. He says typically that lumber would be mahogany, cedar, or redwood. Teak also works well outside but is very expensive.

    You should also note that with wooden garage doors there may be a little more maintenance depending on how much sun exposure the door gets. Wasserman recommends using a resin-based product to finish the garage door rather than a varnish. "A varnish is a really difficult product to maintain because when it fails, you have to strip the wood back down to the bare wood and you have to re-start the process from scratch and that becomes cost-prohibitive for these doors," explains Wasserman. Resin-based products are easier to clean. New product can also be applied directly over the old.

    Whether or not you decide to replace your garage door, it's important to make sure it at least is working properly.

    "Besides the garage door looking good, it's really an appliance on the house that has to operate efficiently, reliably, and without failure every single day," says Wasserman.

    The key concept to remember is that a garage door shouldn't just house your car and all your stuff that won't fit in your home. Instead it should help to entice buyers to want to see more of the house.

    Written by Phoebe Chongchua

    Man's Best Friend May Be Costly When Selling Your Home

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

    As beloved as pets may be to sellers they can be a detriment to the sale of a home.

    One of the main reasons has to do with how convenient it is for buyers to see your home. There can be issues caused by the pets that make seeing your home more difficult than viewing other properties. For instance, if sellers have to be called first before their home can be shown this can make it less appealing to buyers and agents.

    "You've got issues of access because you might have special pet instructions such as remove pets prior to entering home," says Benjamin Little, Realtor with John Hall & Associates in Scottsdale, Arizona. He says that makes it so agents and buyers have to set special appointments. "And in today's market, anything that impedes a showing is a hindrance to selling the house," cautions Little. He adds, "There are so many properties out there for sale that if you've got special pet instructions and there are 10 properties, that on paper are equal, those Realtors are going to be showing the other ones that they have easier access to and don't have to worry about setting up a time so that the pets are removed."

    It's not just access to viewing the property that causes the problem. Sometimes, regardless of how friendly the pet is, potential buyers can be reluctant to enter the home.

    "You might have an overly friendly dog, but the buyer still isn't comfortable being in the room with the dog and it could reduce the show time," says Little.

    He gives this example. "I was showing a house recently and the sellers left the house. I felt they should have taken the dogs, because an important feature was going out back and seeing the horse set-up on the property but potential buyers weren't allowed outside because of the dogs," says Little. He says the seller's dogs were left in the backyard and the laundry room. There was even a note from the sellers warning buyers and agents that the sellers were unsure of how friendly their dogs were. This makes viewing the home not only uncomfortable but potentially unsafe.

    Little says as a result, the showing time was compromised and his clients were not able to see several features of the property such as the horse area, laundry room, and garage.

    The longer buyers stay in a home, the more likely they are to be considering it for their own residence.

    Even if you don't leave notes about potentially unfriendly pets, sellers should also consider the stigma that goes along with listing a home for sale when it's obvious a pet is living in it.

    "If the house smells anything like a pet and buyers see the pet, it is a definite problem because non-pet owners are not sure that they can ever get that smell out of the home," says Little.

    However, Little says pets can also cause potential buyers to assume there are problems with the house even when there aren't any.

    Little says he worked with a buyer that didn't want any home that had a cat in it even if she couldn't see evidence of a cat living in the home. Her feeling was that cats are climbing around on everything and getting things dirty. Little says that when buyers learn that a pet lives in the house, it can be hard to shake the negative image they create. "The house may be spotless but they already have that image in their mind," says Little.

    "Sellers need to understand that they may be comfortable with their pet, but the general public won't be; so they need to do everything they can to make the home as accessible as possible. They need to really have a protocol for getting the pets out of the house before a showing," says Little.

    Little says removing pets or putting them in an area of the property that is not considered vital to selling the home is going to create a better experience for potential buyers.

    He also recommends asking for advice from people who are non-pet owners. Little says, "You should ask your friends if there is any smell or how they would feel if they saw the cat or dog in the house?" But not all pets are a potential hindrance to showing a home. Some pets can actually help to sell a home. "A fish tank can be considered exotic and help to enhance the color of the home, says Little. And if it's a horse property, by all means, have a horse there!

    "The horse can actually be a bonus if you're marketing a horse property. So in that sense, the pet actually enhances the property," says Little.

    But for the most part, sellers have to remember that even though their pet may be treated like family, there's still good reason that man's best friend isn't always friendly to the most successful real estate deals.

    Written by Phoebe Chongchua

    Driving in circles

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

    Eight proposed roundabouts in the Roanoke and New River valleys may change the way you get around.

    JUSTIN COOK The Roanoke Times

    The roundabout on Virginia Tech's campus has helped traffic and hasn't seen any significant accidents, a spokesman for the school said.


    Message board

    Some neighborhoods in Roanoke, Roanoke County and Blacksburg could soon become home to intersections governed not by stop signs or traffic lights but by concrete circles and yield signs.

    That's because transportation engineers have proposed building at least eight traffic roundabouts in the region within the next five years.

    Engineers and many residents hope this type of junction, where traffic flows in a circle around an island at about 15 to 25 miles per hour, will calm traffic and reduce vehicle collisions. Others fear they may create new problems.

    "This is just a good way to handle traffic and provide a safe intersection," said Mark Jamison, Roanoke's traffic engineer.

    Though a relative novelty in the Roanoke and New River valleys, roundabouts in recent years have become popular in other states -- including Maryland, Nevada and North Carolina -- and many European countries.

    This month, when the Virginia Department of Transportation publishes a revision of its road design manual, roundabouts will become the department's preferred alternative to intersections, according to Walter Pribble, senior transportation manager for VDOT. Since 1997, more than 40 roundabouts have been constructed in the state.

    The eight roundabouts proposed include one in Roanoke at Bennington Street and Riverland Road; two more are being considered for 13th Street's intersections with Tazewell and Wise avenues.

    In Roanoke County, plans are in the works to place one at the intersection of Penn Forest Boulevard and Colonial Avenue and another at Merriman and Meadowlark roads.

    The proposals in Blacksburg are for two roundabouts where Givens Lane intersects with Progress Street and with Aden Lane, and one at the intersection of Main Street and Prices Fork Road.

    A roundabout usually costs between $400,000 and $1.2 million to build, Pribble said. The question of who picks up the tab depends on where it is built.

    A roundabout on secondary routes is paid for by the locality with funds allocated by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, VDOT spokeswoman Heidi Coy said. If it's on a primary route or an interstate route, then the funding comes from VDOT's construction budget.

    It can take years to get from planning to paving. Roundabout projects need enough funding to move through about a six-year planning process, according to VDOT spokesman Jason Bond.

    The proposal for the 13th Street roundabouts, for example, was first introduced at a public information meeting in May 2006 -- and has a public hearing scheduled for late this year or early 2009. After that, VDOT will still have to buy the necessary land and start construction.

    At a recent information meeting regarding the proposed roundabout at Bennington Street, neighbors were vocal about the need to curb traffic tie-ups that occur weekday mornings and late afternoons near the IGA grocery store.

    "It's been a nightmare for years," said Janet Corcoran, who lives nearby. She thinks anything would be better than the current traffic situation, but she worried that closing one of the entrances to the IGA, as dictated by the plan, would cause drivers additional inconvenience.

    In Roanoke County, Marcia Weis, who lives on Colonial Avenue, shares with two other homes a driveway that exits directly into the street's busy T-intersection with Penn Forest Boulevard.

    "It's terrible," Weis said. "In the mornings, you just take your life into your own hands."

    Safety is the benefit of roundabouts that proponents cite most often. A 2001 study of 23 intersections by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that converting from traffic signals or stop signs to roundabouts reduced injury crashes by 80 percent and overall crashes by 40 percent.

    Opponents of roundabouts also cite safety. Alice Kemp a Roanoke solid waste truck driver, said she crosses the 13th Street-Tazewell Avenue intersection four times a day, and she doesn't expect a round junction to improve traffic flow.

    "They're crazy," she said about the city's engineers and the proposal. "I think there are going to be a bunch of accidents because people drive really fast through here."

    In 2002, Blacksburg's first experience with a circular intersection ended quickly. The town spent $500 to introduce a traffic circle, which is similar to a roundabout but larger and with a higher speed limit, to slow traffic at Draper Road and Clay Street. About 100 people complained to the administration and it was removed within two months.

    "People were really, really confused," said Bill Brown, the town's police chief at the time.

    Four years after Blacksburg's failed traffic circle, and just a few blocks southwest of that intersection, Virginia Tech installed a roundabout to connect West Campus Drive with Washington Street. That intersection had been regulated by a stop sign.

    "Washington Street had continuous traffic, and traffic was being backed up on West Campus Drive all the way down to the Drillfield at peak traffic times, because drivers had to wait for a break in traffic," said Mark Owczarski, the school's director of news and information.

    The roundabout got rid of the backup yet allowed traffic to continue to flow, he said.

    Owczarski said he was not aware of any significant accidents that have occurred since the roundabout was added. Safety, he said, was a primary concern because there are many pedestrian-marked crosswalks near that intersection.

    Citing a statistic from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Pribble said people are usually against roundabouts 2-to-1 before construction, but that they tend to favor them 3-to-1 after construction.

    "I think people were worried about it before it happened, and then once it was there, they kind of realized how easy it was," Owczarski said. "People don't even give it a second thought anymore."

    On the Web:

    Grill Burgers, Not Your Home

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

    For years, New York City has prohibited propane barbecue grilling on a balcony, terrace or roof. Residents can barbecue with charcoal on a balcony or terrace provided there's sufficient clearance and a source of water to douse any flare-ups.

    Last year, Washington State began banning open-flame gas or charcoal barbecues on certain multifamily housing balconies where there's no overhead sprinkler.

    And beginning this year, Silicon Valley placed a permanent ban on charcoal and gas fired grills on multi-family housing balconies made of wood or other combustible materials, if there is no sprinkler overhead. Propane tanks heavier than one pound are forbidden on such balconies -- sprinkler or not.

    Residential barbecue bans amount to gustatory purgatory for a growing number of barbecue fans who have to wait get their thrill from a grill away from home.

    Nearly 80 percent of households own an outdoor barbecue appliance and nearly 60 percent use them year round, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA).

    But firing up a grill with an open flame presents a clear and present fire danger, especially in confined spaces.

    The U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Data Center estimates that barbecuing accounts for more than 6,000 fires, 170 injuries, a half dozen fatalities and some $35 million in property loss each year.

    Grilling responds to our primal longing for fire-kissed feasts, but singeing sustenance into submission comes with another primal directive -- protecting life and property.

    The HPBA offers these tips to get you safely through a barbecued meal.

    Read the owners manual. As simple as it sounds, many fail to follow instructions in their rush to barbecue heaven. The manual contains specific assembly, use and safety procedures, as well as manufacturer contact information.

    Never use a grill indoors. Barbecuing in your trailer, tent, house, garage, fireplace or any enclosed area can become a carbon monoxide accumulation hazard and kill you. Barbecue smoke can clog your fireplace flue.

    Even outdoors, use a well ventilated area. Laws prohibit use on certain small balconies because they don't have sufficient clearance from the building, can produce a back draft into the home and provide limited safe maneuvering space. Set the grill away from buildings, overhead combustibles, dry leaves, brush and swimming pools and swimmers. Beware of wind-blown sparks.

    Follow other codes. Electric grills or accessories (rotisseries, etc.) must be properly grounded in accordance with local codes. Place electrical cords out of traffic, walkways or where people can trip over them.

    Keep the grill still. Be sure all parts of the grill are level and firmly in place so that it cannot be tipped over. Don't allow play or young children near the grill. Never attempt to move a hot grill. If you stumble and drop the grill, nasty burns are possible.

    Use the proper equipment. Use long-handled utensils designed for barbecue work to avoid burns and splatters. Wear clothing that does not have hanging shirt tails, frills, or apron strings that can catch fire, and use flame-retardant mitts when adjusting hot vents.

    Keep the fire controlled. To put out flare-ups, either raise the food grid, spread out the coals evenly, or adjust the controls to reduce oxygen and/or lower the temperature. If you must douse the flames with a light spritz of water, first remove the food from the grill. Never leave a grill unattended once lit.

    Be ready to extinguish flames. Use baking soda to control a grease fire and have a fire extinguisher handy. Keep a bucket of sand or a garden hose near if you don’t have a commercial extinguisher.

    Buy a grill pad or splatter mat. Heat resistant pads placed beneath the grill are usually made of lightweight composite cement or plastic and will protect your deck or patio from any grease that misses the drip pan.

    Written by Broderick Perkins

    Paint the Perfect Sale

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

    Every seller is looking for the perfect sale and every buyer is looking for the perfect opportunity to seize a new home or investment property. Getting your home ready to close the deal for the most money, starts with knowing where to begin and, often, that means, quite literally, you need to paint the perfect sale.

    "Often times people are selling a home that they've lived in for 30 or 40 years and they're madly in love with the wallpaper but it is extremely dated," says John Peek, President and Owner of Peek Brothers Painting Contractors.

    Things like wallpaper and color on the interior and exterior walls of your home can significantly influence buyers. So it is worth carefully looking over your home before you put it on the market to see what areas need touching up or an entire re-do. If you find the wallpaper has to go, then knowing how to make the change is equally important so that you don't end up with an even bigger mess.

    "To strip wallpaper can be very time-consuming, expensive, and damaging to the underlying surface making it difficult to paint," says Peek. He adds, "You can paint over wallpaper if you prime it first with an oil-based primer such as Kilz. If you do that, it seals the surface well and then you can go over it with water-based paint. But if you go directly over wallpaper with water-based paint, without priming it with an oil-based undercoat, it will peel up at the edges. So the critical first step is to prime it with an oil-based undercoat," explains Peek.

    To paint the perfect sale, Peek suggests carefully looking around your home for the holes that frequently don't get filled after you've taken down family photos and artwork. "I'll often times go into homes and homeowners have put spackle up and they've just smeared a big chunk on the wall and then let it dry," says Peek.

    He offers this little trick to get a better outcome. "Take the spackle and put it in the hole and then take a wet sponge and lightly wipe the surface. It removes all excess spackle from around the hole and it just fills the hole itself. Often times you can get by without having to touch it up," says Peek.

    Another area of concern is the door -- in particular, doors that belong to teenagers. Picture this. Your teenager has turned her door into a collage board of photos, memorabilia, stickers, award ribbons, cards -- you name it -- all are stuck on her door, permanently securing her identity to the home you're now trying to sell. Pulling off the memories before listing the home for sale is important, otherwise buyers get caught up in all of your personal stuff and then can't see the home as theirs. Buyers also don't want the headache of having to pull down and repaint the door. And chances are you don't want to have to do that either.

    Here's what Peek says sellers with this issue can do. "There are products on the market that will help you to get all that sticky stuff off the door and it's worth a try. There's a product called Lift Off that you can get at the paint or hardware store; it works wonders," says Peek.

    Many sellers wonder how to get rid of a stain in the ceiling. Peek says you don't always have to re-paint the entire ceiling. "Say you've had all the leaks fixed in the roof and you still have some stains, sometimes you can by without painting by putting half bleach and half water in a little squirt bottle and lightly spritzing the surface until it's wet," says Peek. He says that you can spray the mixture on the surface of an acoustic or painted drywall ceiling. A second spray of the area will often diminish or completely remove the stain and you might not even need to paint!

    If you do need to paint the interior or exterior of your home, Mike Chism, President and Owner of Chism Brothers Painting, says you can avoid painting the whole house by touching up critical areas such as the front door, trim, and fascia board.

    "With exterior painting, usually the house doesn't go bad all at once," says Chism. He adds, "Sometimes windowsills or thresholds can get a lot of sun and can be prepared and touched up extending the life of the entire paint job for several years."

    Chism also recommends cleaning and pressure washing your home to give it a new and brighter look.

    A little tender loving care for your home before you list it is a warm welcoming sign for potential buyers.

    Written by Phoebe Chongchua

    Tax Rebate Use for Sellers

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

    What should a smart home seller do with that fat federal tax rebate check?

    Well, it's not THAT fat, but it could come in handy for sellers who use it wisely.

    The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 includes, among other provisions, tax rebates, bureaucratically dubbed "economic stimulus payments".

    Starting in May, the U.S. Treasury Department will begin sending rebates to taxpayers, who had $3,000 of income, filed a 2007 tax return and have a valid Social Security number. Eligible taxpayers will receive up to $600 ($1,200 for married couples). Parents will receive an additional $300 for each eligible child younger than 17.

    If you are a retiree, disabled veteran or low-wage worker who is otherwise exempt from filing a tax return, you must file a tax return this year in order to receive a rebate.

    The rebate –– both the basic component and the additional funds for qualifying children –– begins to phase out for individuals with adjusted gross incomes (AGI) over $75,000 and married couples who file a joint return with AGI over $150,000. The combined payment is reduced by 5 percent of the income above the AGI thresholds.

    You can estimate what your tax rebate take might be with the Economic Stimulus Payment Calculator online.

    And here are a few things you ought to consider doing with that unexpected windfall, if you are selling your home.

    Give it to the buyer. Cash is a great concession to help coax a buyer into escrow. Buyers can find a lot to do with a few hundred dollars to $1,000 or more, especially first-time buyers who likely will be strapped when the deal closes. A cash gift could be a deal maker.

    Buy a home inspection. Use a home inspection to determine what you need to do to put the home in the best competitive shape for the market, or to price it fairly to sell as-is. The inspection could also turn up building code violations the law mandates you correct before selling. The buyer may also opt to use the inspection as a guide to the condition of the home.

    Put some extra zeal in your curb appeal. Curb appeal, the first impression your home conveys to prospective buyers, should create an emotional desire to own the home and enjoy the lifestyle and status it represents. Putting the best face on your home also should give a lasting impression that motivates buyers to cross the threshold and take that first step toward closing the deal. More like a home improvement or exterior staging job than a cosmetic makeover, curb appeal that sings is particularly crucial when buyers are calling the shots. Hire a landscaper, consider painting the exterior of your home, tidy up the grounds.

    Clean house. Hire a round of service workers to get all the dirt and grime out of every nook and cranny and make the home look neat and tidy. Include house cleaners, carpet and rug cleaners, fence repairers, handy men and women, window washers, organizers (for the garage too), the works. To get the best help to make your home Spic and Span ready for fussy buyers, consider a $34 two year subscription to Consumer Checkbook, a service that rates service workers, like its affiliate Consumer Reports rates goods.

    Set the stage. Hire a staging expert. Staging is to the interior of a home what curb appeal is to the exterior -- nipping and tucking, furnishing and accessorizing, buffing and polishing until the place looks like a model home, without appearing too clinical. The new look will pay for itself in terms of sales speed or a higher sales price.

    Written by Broderick Perkins

    Six Keys to a Successful Real Estate Purchase Offer

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

    Will your real estate transaction run smoothly to completion, or will it creak along and wobble like a badly greased wheel? A good offer to purchase, also called a purchase agreement, can make all the difference.

    Unfortunately, many new agents don’t advise their buyers adequately, and as a result, many transactions never get off the ground. On the other hand, the agents who have mastered the art of the purchase agreement are those who help their buyers understand a few simple rules. Understanding these rules means you’ll have a much better chance of getting the house you really want at terms you’re happy with.

    Expect competition.

    You should always expect there to be other buyers competing with you. This is true even in a "down market", when you’d expect that buyers would be able to take full advantage of desperate sellers. A buyer’s market doesn’t mean competition disappears. In a buyer’s market, the homes that are priced the lowest still attract multiple offers, while the more expensive homes just sit there. So unless you’re that rare buyer who picks out a home starting at a higher price because it’s exactly what you want, you should expect that there will be other buyers competing against you.

    Understand where the price is now.

    Before you write your offer, your Realtor® should "run the comps" for you. "The comps" are agent slang for a CMA, or Comparative Market Analysis. This is simply a printout of nearby homes that have sold recently that are similar in age, size, configuration, etc. Remember what we said above about expecting competition? Well, the comps show you whether to expect a lot of competition or just a little. This in turn should be the basis for your price. $10,000 below full price may not be enough discount if the home is overpriced to begin with. On the other hand, going $10,000 over full price may sound like something you’d never consider doing because it’s stupid; it turns out to be not so stupid if the value of the home is $80,000 below market and you can end up moving in with $70,000 in equity.

    A purchase agreement is not a referendum on the market.

    Real estate agents and newspapers love to publish market update articles, because they’re statistical generalizations that are easy to write. However, when you’re writing an offer on a home, you’re not there to make a statement on the market. Chances are good that the seller and their agent have "run the comps", so they know what they’re offering. The market may be terrible, but the home may be a fantastic bargain! Or the market may be so hot that you’re chasing after an overpriced turkey. Yes, you should have an idea about the forest, but your purchase agreement should zero in on a single tree.

    Days on market may or may not matter.

    Finding out how long a home has been on the market is a good idea, but you also need to find out if anything has changed in that time. For example, I once worked on an offer on a home that had been on the market for a year. Three weeks earlier, however, the tenant had left, the ugly pink paint was replaced with a neutral color, and the sunscreens on the windows were removed. As a result, my buyers, who were expecting no competition based on the days on market, were surprised to find that theirs was one of two offers on the property. (Yes, they did get the house, by the way!). A much more common example of the same thing is the home that’s been on the market six months and was just reduced $50,000 last week. The right way to think of this house is not as a $400,000 six-month house, but as a $350,000 one week house.

    Weak terms need a stronger price.

    The classic example of a buyer with terrific terms getting a better price is the cash buyer who negotiates more of a discount because the seller knows he can close. The flip side of this coin is that if you’re coming in with 100% financing based on a down payment assistance program, be prepared to offer the seller more in the way of price.

    What’s most important? Avoid kitchen sink offers.

    Before you write an offer, you should understand what’s most important to you and craft your offer accordingly. The best offers are written by buyers who understand that there’s another party involved in the transaction. and that an offer is a give and take process. The worst offers are the "kitchen sink offers", so named because they throw in everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes that, too!). This is the offer that takes 20% off the asking price, where the buyer has no cash, and asks the seller to repair the back fence, trim the trees, and replace the carpet. Oh, yes, did we mention, we want a 120 day escrow! If you think about it, this rule is a variation of rule #5. If you’re negotiating hard on price, be gentle with the seller on terms. Pick your battles well, and you’ll win every time!

    Blacksburg wins 2 state environmental awards

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

    Two Blacksburg environmental projects have won the 2008 Governor's Environmental Excellence awards.

    The awards were presented last week at the Environment Virginia Conference in Lexington to businesses and government agencies that strive for environmental protection and sustainability.

    The town's electronic waste recycling program, established in 2006 through a federal grant program, won a gold medal in the environmental partnerships category. According to the town's award application, through Blacksburg's partnership with the YMCA at Virginia Tech, 85,176 pounds of electronic devices and 801 pounds of batteries that would have gone into landfills have instead been reused or recycled.

    Sustainability Week 2007 -- an environmental awareness campaign and celebration put on by Virginia Tech, Blacksburg and numerous businesses, agencies and residents -- won a bronze award in the government environmental programs category.

    The recognition is "a source of pride" for all the individuals and groups who have worked so hard to make these projects happen, Blacksburg Public Works Director Kelly Mattingly said.

    Other winners included the city of Charlottesville, the University of Virginia and the Volvo Trucks North America plant in Dublin.

    Written by Tonia Moxley

    Roofing Projects Require Due Diligence

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

    As the weather improves, homeowners start to tackle a major home improvement project: fixing or replacing their roof. Often this is a job that homeowners delay doing because it can be a pricey, tedious process.

    "Some consumers are on top of it and start looking at new roofs well before the life span of their current roof runs out," says Steven James, VP Business Development for Eagle Ridge Construction & Roofing.

    But that's not typical. Generally a problem such as a leak prompts homeowners to finally get around to checking out what's going on atop their home. Part of the reason homeowners procrastinate is because finding the right contractor for the job is a difficult process.

    "Year after year, the Better Business Bureau consistently ranks roofing contractors as one of the top 20 most-complained-about businesses," says James.

    In fact, in 2006, the latest statistics currently available reveal that the Better Business Bureau received 8,089 complaints against roofing contractors nationwide. "Out of 2,900 business categories, roofing contractors ranked 16th on the list of the most-complained-about businesses," says James.

    But don't let that scare you into putting off your roofing job. Instead, use these helpful tips to select the best contractor for the job. At the top of the tip list, don't let price drive the deal.

    Cheaper generally means compromise. "There's always going to be a lower price and usually the lower price reflects a shortcoming in the contractors insurance level because there are different insurance levels that they can have," says James. For instance, James says that general liability insurance isn't required by the state so some contractors don't carry it. That can pose a real risk to the homeowner because if something goes wrong, the homeowner can end up being liable for any damage during the course of the job.

    He adds that "workers' compensation is required by the state by all contractors but some contractors use [Employee Leasing Plans] (which is kind of a way of getting around getting workers' comp insurance because the person who you lease the employees from is responsible for that), so you need to be cautious about the insurance that a contractor carries."

    Compare apples to apples. "Generally a contractor will push a name-brand shingle," says James. But he says contractors may try to cut corners in other less obvious ways. James says that various less visible products that contractors use can be inferior, generic, or even second-hand materials. Make sure you compare apples to apples when deciding which contractor to use and be certain to inquire about all of the materials that are being used in your roofing project.

    Find out how long a contractor has been in business. It's commonly known that most new businesses, regardless of the industry, fail within the first three to five years. "However, contractors and roofers generally fail at an even higher rate, so you have to consider that the warranty that you get from the contractor will only be as good as the contractors if they're still around. If they're not still around, obviously the warranty is worthless," explains James.

    Use a certified expert. "Most of the name-brand shingles will certify contractors to install shingles according to their own specifications," says James. James adds that consumers should look for contractors who are certified by the shingle companies as "opposed to contractors who do use the name brand but are not necessarily certified by the manufacturer to install the shingle. An additional benefit to using certified contractors is that they are often able to offer extended warranties that are backed by the manufacturer.

    Check your timing for your roofing project. Delays are common but a lot of people don't realize, especially during the winter months, that they're related to the weather. Any time you have even a chance of rain that means it's really risky to try to put a roof on and that's one thing consumers should be aware of," says James. He says often consumers see that it's currently sunny out and so they wonder why their roof isn't getting done. It could mean that the roofing company realizes that even a 20 percent chance of light showers could ruin the roofing project so the company is putting it off until better, safer weather conditions are predicted. "There are horror stories where there is a low chance of rain and so the roof is taken off and then the rain comes in and the house gets destroyed," says James.

    Search for a contractor who is a member of industry trade associations. The National Roofing Contractors Association is one industry group that helps to educate and keep contractors informed about industry standards and changes. "The contractor receives unbiased product knowledge from the association as opposed to just receiving sales-type material from the manufacturer. So it's a second source of information about products and [it's coming from] a more neutral source," says James. The associations also provide ongoing safety training material for contractors as well as information to keep contractors informed about changing rules and regulations for construction.

    Remember, what's atop your home protects all that's beneath it, so making sure you do your due diligence to hire the right contractor for the job can be the difference between a tedious or smoothly-run and completed roofing project.

    By Phoebe Chongchua

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