Spring is widely known as the hottest real estate season for both buyers and sellers. It's a season for frantic races from property to property and quickly calculating your mortgage pre-approval in your head while trying to beat the other potential buyers to the next house. Home sellers who've been renovating properties for months are finally ready to place them on the market - complete with new fences, budding gardens and recently-installed hardwood floors, all meant to appeal to buyers' aesthetic values. (Historical housing price data suggests ongoing increases in housing prices, but these numbers don't tell the whole truth. check out The Truth About Real Estate Prices.)
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But spring also uncovers another type of home seller. The type who puts Band-Aids on bullet wounds, and hopes you don't ask any non-appearance-related questions. And for that reason, spring can be both a blessing and a curse, especially for first-time shoppers.
The House-Flipping Craze
The home renovation business is a $300 billion industry in the United States. And thanks to Mike Holmes, Bob Vila and Ty Pennington's magical bus of overvalued dreams, every homeowner with an electric sander is assumed to be a renovations expert. Unfortunately, many do-it-yourselfers attempt to overshoot their skill levels, and the winter months provide just the right combination of time and isolation to completely fudge a job that should have been left to the professionals in the first place.
Luckily for them (and you), there are many home renovations projects that fall into the "basics" category. Painting a room, installing new flooring or molding, and even wiring a new light fixture can be completed by most construction novices in the span of a weekend.
With home renovations, as with plastic surgery, the value is in the details. You wouldn't want puffy duck lips from a bad Botox injection any more than you'd want uneven flooring or improperly cut baseboards. When viewing a home, don't be afraid to get a little dirty - check the corners of the walls for cracks (often painted over), and observe the gaps between the floors and the wall. If there are any items on the floor that look slightly out of place, move them and take a closer look. There's a fantastic chance they were put there to hide a flaw that the previous owner didn't (or couldn't) fix.
It's also a good idea to bring a level with you, to ensure that all countertops, shelves and ledges are completely flat. Any warping or uneven surfaces could be a sign of water or foundation damage, possibly caused during the spring thaw. (You think your updated house looks great, but potential buyers may not feel the same way. To learn more, refer to 4 Types Of Home Renovation: Which Ones Boost Value?)
Pay Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain
There's a reason that car salesmen wear suits, and not sweatpants. It's not because the suit makes that 1999 Hyundai look any better, handle any tighter or require any less maintenance - it's because the illusion of grooming and care often disguise deeper issues. Home staging has become another massive industry in the United States and Canada, and it is estimated that a properly staged home can bring in 15% more than a barren or improperly staged one.
But all of the alphabetized encyclopedias, cookie-scented air fresheners and fresh fruit in the world shouldn't deter you from the house's details. Even if you're greeted at the door with a handshake and a Starbucks gift certificate, have your usual list of questions ready:
- How old is the house?
- When was the furnace installed and when was it last inspected?
- What are the annual property taxes, on average?
- What is the crime rate in the neighborhood?
- Are there warranties on the appliances?
- What are the estimated utilities costs for each season?
All of the above questions can produce answers that sellers might rather gloss over, but once you've paid your deposit, your fees and signed the paperwork, it's too late to ask - and some of those answers won't become apparent until your car is broken into or the "hot" water tank gives you a chilly surprise.
In Like a Lion
Curb appeal is mentioned quite often in the real estate market. A house's external visual appeal can easily influence a buyer's willingness to seriously consider a property. And a glistening bed of snow in front of a decent property can bring a smile to a buyer's face faster than you can say "yard maintenance".
But what lies underneath that fresh layer of snow - especially if winter drags on, like it has in many locations this year? Unsodded and poorly-kept yards can cost new owners thousands in repairs. Not counting the costs of irrigation, fertilizers and herbicides, manpower and equipment, the sod alone can often cost up to 30 cents per square foot. With the average lawn size in the United States at approximately 0.20 acres, that works out to over $2,500 in sod alone.
Just to be sure that you're not in for a surprise when the snow melts, it's best to request pictures of the yard from different seasons. You might not be able to take note of the minute details, but at least you'll know where you stand. (Understanding the key factors that drive the real estate market is essential to performing a comprehensive evaluation of a potential investment. Read 4 Key Factors That Drive The Real Estate Market.)
The Springtime Blues
Springtime spawns a unique set of concerns for the real estate market. Potential homebuyers (and those who are just kicking tires) come out in record numbers between March and May, and this can often put serious shoppers in a panic, for fear of losing out on their dream homes to a higher bidder or stronger negotiator. But it's better to spot the signs of a poor investment sooner than later.
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