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9 Open House Hacks That’ll Sell Your Home Before Buyers Even Knock

If you’re prepping your home for an open house, you already know it’s important to polish how your home looks inside. But many sellers overlook the outside of their home—and if you neglect that, you could miss out on potential offers. Lots of them.

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Sure, painting the whole house, redoing the landscaping, or installing a new garage door sound like backbreaking work. Yet here’s the deal: Real estate agents say you can prep the outside of your home without going nuts. Try these easy outdoor open house hacks to ensure your place has buyers at “hello.”
1. Slap fresh paint on your front door

No time to paint your entire house? Then paint just your front door to make your place feel cared for as potential buyers cross the threshold.

If your house is a neutral hue, use the front door to add a pop of bright color; and if your house is not neutral, paint the door a complementary color.
2. Fake a ‘just landscaped’ look

If landscaping the whole yard won’t fit in your schedule, just sprinkle some bark mulch around in-ground plants to give the whole yard a polished look.

Mulch is the No. 1 way to give your garden a face-lift really fast. And if you don’t want to prune every tree and bush on your lawn, be sure to pare down anything that obstructs visitors’ view of the house or crowds the path to your front door.
3. Light up your porch

Before they decide whether to attend an open house, home shoppers might drive by after dark, so add extra outdoor lighting to ensure your home looks warm, welcoming, and safe. Rejuvenation makes outdoor lights in a range of styles that look both classic and contemporary.

For extra panache, place up-lights under big trees and add path lights leading to the front door. Last but not least, put the lights on a timer so they’ll always switch on at dusk (especially important during the fall and winter when you might not get home until after dark).
4. Make over the mailbox

Freshen up your mailbox with a coat of spray paint, maybe the same color you used on the front door. If your mailbox needs more than paint to look appealing, replace it with one with a brushed metal finish.

5. Add chic street numbers

Visually prominent street numbers send a message that your address inspires pride, so show it off with number forms that have clean lines and are visible from the street. One affordable style: The Cast House Number, available at Wayfair, strikes a balance between modern and traditional and is available in nickel, copper, and bronze.
6. Greet them with flowers

When the day of your open house arrives, place a flowering potted plant or two on the front porch to create a cheerful, welcoming effect and distract from any less-appealing aspects of the home’s exterior.

Keep flower choices simple and tied to the season, like pansies in the spring, flowering petunias in the summer, mums in the fall, and evergreens in the winter.
7. Lay out a new welcome mat

A brand-new doormat looks welcoming and can distract visitors from the fact that your windowsills need to be painted.

Skip the monogram, and stick to a classic style to appeal to the biggest swath of buyers, A lattice rubber mat or a natural fiber mat such as these “picture frame” coir doormat or braided knot doormat.

 

8. Remove personal items from your yard

You know to put away your family photos and knickknacks when showing a home. However, it’s equally important to remove personal touches on the outside. So pack away any kid and pet toys, take down the flag of your favorite football team, and remove the life-size animatronic manger scene from last Christmas. In fact, hold off on all the holiday décor, since not everybody celebrates the same holidays or gets festive in the same way.
9. Tie it all together

One sneaky way to make your home look more high-end on a shoestring budget is to make sure little things match.

Get a new doorknob, door knocker, and porch light in the same metal and finish. Or paint the porch railing and the mailbox the same color, and add two or more matching accessories (e.g., blue flowers that complement the cushion on the porch bench or a stripe on the welcome mat).

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What People Say About Your Home When You’re Not There

If you’re putting your home on market, you’re probably dying to know what home buyers will have to say as they tour your property. While you hope there’ll be nothing but oohs and aahs, that’s not always the case.

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Just so you know what potential buyers are really thinking when you’re not there, we asked Realtors® to reveal some of the most noteworthy—and cringeworthy—statements they’ve overheard as potential buyers inspect the goods. Wince, take note, and act accordingly.
‘What’s that smell?’
Apparently, home buyers follow their nose, so get the funk out before they arrive.
A real estate adviser was asked about a home’s odor recently during a tour, she had what she thought was a logical answer: The smell was of carpet cleaner, because the owners had just cleaned the rugs for the showings. Sure they looked nice, but the smell was harsh, nasty even—so much so that the buyer said, “I could never live here” and scrammed. Odious odors, by far, top the list of things home buyers comment on. Here are some of their favorite things to say:

‘Did someone die in here?’ “I have shown homes where the smell was so bad that the clients asked, ‘Did someone die in here and their body is in here decomposing?’ ‘Wow, this place smells like a dog, cat, hamster, ferret, etc.’ No, we’re not sure what ferrets smell like either. But do your best to keep pet odors in check by regularly grooming your critters, cleaning litter boxes, and making sure they don’t leave a scent trail of any kind.
‘A smoker lives here—let’s leave’

If it smells of tobacco smoke, more and more people walk in, take a few whiffs, and then walk right back out.

It goes without saying that a good cleaning and opening the windows will eliminate most funky smells, but if an odor won’t budge, consider lighting some scented candles. And since even cleaning products can have an off-putting scent, Witt Leiken suggests leaving some time between shampooing those carpets and putting your place on the market.
‘I don’t know where you’ll keep your clothes, honey’

Here’s a joke frequently heard: A couple walks into a closet. One person turns to the other and says, Well, this closet is great, but I don’t know where you’ll keep your clothes, honey!

Joke or not (and we’re not entirely sure it is one) , there’s a huge grain of truth here: Every inch of storage space matters. Even if you have to store clothing and accessories elsewhere, it pays to make your closets look as spacious as possible. Remove stuff.
‘Wow, these people take a lot of meds’

You’ve been warned: Buyers will open kitchen cupboards, medicine cabinets, and anything else they feel they need to see to make a decision on the home. And that can come with some snide commentary on your stash of Zoloft, Viagra, or prescription laxatives. So do yourself a favor and hide your medicine some place safe, like inside your nightstand (even the most prying home buyer usually won’t go there).
‘Adults live here?’

The questions came as buyers toured a home that featured a Disney theme throughout. As much as you (or your kids) may love your “Frozen” shower curtain and Elsa and Anna salt and pepper shakers, try to stick with neutral decor.
‘The house seems dark and depressing’

Even if your home is pristine, dark or dimly lit rooms are a mood killer, say Realtors. Luckily, this is a flaw that can easily be remedied, even if your home doesn’t get tons of natural light.

For starters, be sure to pull back the curtains, take them down completely, or switch them to a sheer material that lets in light but maintains your privacy. And if you need even more help, flip on every switch or get more lamps. Many buyers won’t care if they’re basking in sunlight or lamplight as long as it’s bright.
‘It’s awfully loud’

Since homes are supposed to be our place of refuge, noise—from traffic to rowdy neighbors—can be a huge turnoff. So if you live in a noisy area, do what you can to block it out by planting trees and shrubs between your home and the road, or between you and our neighbors’ yards. You can also get soundproof windows, which could be well worth the investment.
‘If these walls had a fresh coat of paint…’

 

Realtors often hear buyers say, “If this had a fresh coat of paint it would make it so much nicer!” Talk about a missed opportunity.

It’s true that a nice bright coat of paint goes a long way. It is an inexpensive way to brighten up any space. And to get top dollar on your home, of course.

Why Home Buying Is (or Isn’t) Like Dating

There’s something desperately missing in your life. You decide to do something about it now, and so you sign up for one of a slew of websites that aim to help yearning hearts like yours find a match. You flip through profiles late at night, and certain phrases or well-lit photos make your heart skip a beat. And when you think you may have found “The One,” you figure it’s time to make an assessment in person.

Dating? Or house hunting?

It could be either.

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Neither buying your dream home nor finding true love comes without effort. But just how deep does the comparison go? To find out, we pulled together some data about both—the emotional highs and devastating lows that people experience on their journeys. You be the judge.

 

 

  1. You Have To Have Faith

Before you even begin to look for homes, you’ve probably heard all about rising home prices, bidding wars, stringent mortgage standards, and other rough-and-tumble tales (especially if you’re a regular reader of realtor.com®!). If you feel a little disheartened, you’re not alone. A little over half of home buyers (52%) believe they will find their dream home in their price range, while 48% say it’s impossible, according to a 2014 survey by BMO Harris Bank.

People are way more optimistic when it comes to love. A 2011 Marist poll showed that 73% of Americans believe that they are destined to find their soul mate.

But while some say that positive thinking is the key to success, thinking alone won’t get you there. It’s all about the numbers, baby! Which leads us to…

2. It’s a Numbers Game

Life would be so much simpler if the first house you ever visited, or the first person you ever kissed, was The One—but you don’t live in a fairy tale. (Do you? If so, please contact us!)

Home buyers, be prepared for the long haul: Buyers typically search for 10 weeks and look at 10 homes before purchasing, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

Love doesn’t come easily, either. According to a British study, an average adult woman will have five relationships, four disaster dates, 15 kisses with different men, and two heartbreaks before meeting The one.

What about the guys? The “player” stereotype doesn’t really hold up: The average man will have six relationships and be stood up twice before finding his perfect half.

3. Looking Online is More Effective

The Internet has made finding a home much easier than ever. The NAR report shows 92% of home buyers use the Internet at some point during their search. Online websites (such as, ahem, realtor.com) are deemed a very useful information source by 82% of buyers, while not quite as many (but still a high number: 78%) say the same about their flesh-and-blood real estate agent.

Although there’s been a sea change in the way that people view online dating (the idea of finding love on the Internet once fell somewhere on the scale between dubious and pathetic), people aren’t quite as quick to jump online to seek a mate as they are to look for a house.

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey showed 38% of Americans who were single and actively looking for a partner had used online dating sites or mobile dating apps. But among those who have, the majority say dating sites and apps help people find a better romantic match because of the wide range of potential partners they can access.

4. First Impressions Matter

The first few minutes home buyers spend at an open house go a long way in influencing their decisions. Three-quarters (77%) of home buyers say they’ll know immediately when they’ve found their ideal house, says the BMO Harris Bank survey.

About half (52%) of Americans say they believe in love at first sight, reveals a Gallup poll. Another study shows it takes only 12 minutes for people on a first date to decide if they’re interested in the other person. As soon as people sit down, they will be immediately judged on their smile (64%), whether they make eye contact (58%), and their tone of voice (25%).

5. Regrets Are Common

Just like the sexy-hot European sports car you bought which turns out to get 4.5 miles per gallon and not even have room for a suitcase in its trunk, the house that you spend months buying may turn out to be a bummer. About 80% of home buyers have at least one major regret about their new home, says an HSH.com survey. Some top complaints include being too small, not having enough storage space, neighbors, and school system.

What about people? Well, the person that you pledge to share your life with can also turn out to be Mr. (or Mrs.) Wrong. A whopping 72% of married women have considered leaving their husband at some point, and more than half (57%) sometimes regret marrying him, according to a poll by Woman’s Day and AOL Living. Relax, that doesn’t mean all of them are getting a divorce. Despite the regrets, 71% still expect to be married to their spouse for the rest of their lives.

The reality, of course, is that neither homes nor relationships are ever truly perfect. But if you really work at understanding what you want and what you need, and taking the time to assess a variety of options, you’re likely to find a pretty good fit. Maybe even one that will improve with time.

Buying a Vacation Home to Make Some Cash? Don’t Make These 5 Mistakes

Buying your primary home is like achieving an essential piece of the American dream. And once you’ve experienced the satisfaction of homeownership, you might be tempted to purchase another. Hey, who wouldn’t want a leisurely vacation getaway spot—especially if you can turn it into a cash cow by renting it out?

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While vacation homes can be an excellent source of income, managing them isn’t as easy as washing the sheets and posting a listing on VRBO. Avoid these mistakes, and you’ll soon be on the road to vacation home heaven. And, hey, maybe we can come stay once in a while?
1. Not checking the local regulations on renting

It’s a big gotcha for a lot of people.

Before committing to a purchase, check homeowners association rules and city or municipality regulations. Your real estate agent should be able to help—but make sure you’ve picked a pro who’s familiar with vacation rentals.

You might be tempted to skip this step, because you see other folks renting out their homes nearby. But beware—if you’re caught, you could face hefty fines.
2. Not being picky about your management company

Guests are paying their hard-earned money to stay at your place instead of the traditional hotel down the block.

That means it’s your responsibility to keep the place clean and manage the arrival and departure of guests—as well as any problems that arise along the way. And while you certainly can manage those details yourself, you might want to consider outsourcing them.

A lot of people get into and find out it’s way more work than they thought. It’s a pseudo part-time job.

That’s where a management company comes into play. But don’t choose a company based on which takes the lowest percentage cut, and be wary of the ones that charge a ridiculously low rate.

They might be absentee, unskilled marketers, or maybe just dirty. That way, you’ll be able to see how clean they keep each home, without giving them a chance to scrub beforehand.
3. Being thrown off by a furnished home

Many vacation homes are sold furnished, so don’t be turned off by one that needs a makeover.

 

Think of that garish wallpaper as a gift: It might throw off other buyers and nudge the price down, while you—the smart buyer—can just peel it off.
4. Buying to please yourself

We know the idea of having your own personal getaway, surrounded by all the things you treasure, is basically living the dream. But we’ve got some bad news: If you’re looking to rent out your property, your tastes simply don’t matter.

You want something that aligns with the market and that renters are likely to be searching for. For instance, one- or three-bedroom homes rent better than two-bedroom ones.

Pay attention to what works in the vacation rentals nearby: Are buyers gaga for lake views or furnished porches? Spend your money on that, instead of making the home comfy according to your own standards.
5. Viewing it as a hobby

Sites such as Airbnb and HomeAway have made renting out vacation homes a relatively painless process—while being fun at the same time. But that doesn’t mean you can treat managing your vacation home as a hobby.

Sure, you could post some photos and get up and running right away. But you’ll be better off taking your time and making sure you didn’t miss anything that could throw your would-be vacationers for a loop. Quite simply: You’ll want to go above and beyond—providing amenities, guidebooks, and around-the-clock service.

If you charge a nightly rate that is competitive with a hotel, you’re responsible to deliver a hotel-like service. You’re running your vacation rental like a business and not a lemonade stand.

Before You Buy a Winter Getaway, Read This

With apologies to “Game of Thrones” fans, winter isn’t just coming—it’s finally arrived! That is, if the massive snowstorm that swept across much of the U.S. this weekend didn’t already give you a heads up on this fact.

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Purchasing a mountain retreat that can serve as a base for skiing or snowboarding trips may be the real estate equivalent of that black diamond run. It offers plenty of rewards—but also some big-time challenges and more than a few risks.

We spoke to some of the best folks in the business on the subject, so make sure you think about the following things before you push off the edge. Ready? Let’s shred the gnar!
What’s your budget?

It seems obvious, but this will determine whether you’re going for one of the shiny new winter resort developments or a fixer-upper. And, yes, it will also determine just how close you’ll get to the slopes.

Obviously, as with all real estate, location is key. If you can’t buy on the mountain, you try to buy something that has reasonable proximity.

Ask yourself if the home truly fits your downtime needs: Will you have large dinner crowds who need a large kitchen and dining area? Is the floor plan flexible enough for multiple guests? Is a hot tub or sauna a must-have?

Saunas are not too expensive to install. It’s a fun little amenity that you don’t typically have back home. So why not take the plunge?
What do you get for your money?

Say you spring for a pricey mountain place. Even if the home itself is swanky, you need to look beyond the front door and find out what else is being offered along with that key to your snowy kingdom.

If you’ve paid top dollar for true slope-side, ski-in, ski-out living, the last thing you want is to bother with maintenance and upkeep.

Many newer communities come with standard amenities such as a clubhouse, pool, and fitness center. Some even have concierge service. You want mountain rustic? Go rustic. You want mountain luxury? Search it out, and make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

Do you know your developer?

If not, get to know him, pronto.

What’s their staying power and long-term vision? Do they have a track record of coming back regularly and continue to improve [their developments]? That’s always a great sign of the level of commitment.
Have you read the fine print?

Before you sink your money into such a long-term investment, find out the homeowners association rules. Are you allowed to rent out your place when you’re not using it? Are you guarded against major structural problems involving, say, how the roof handles the snow load?

Yeah, we know it’s a vacation home and we understand that you’re eager to hit the slopes and start Zorbing already. But you should apply the same level of due diligence you would when buying a primary residence.
What happens when you’re not there?

New or old, vacation homes need maintenance when you’re not around. If you buy a place that’s not part of a development, that’s where a property manager comes in.

You can choose a big firm or find a single person to handle your empty home. (You can ask your Realtor® for recommendations.) Either way, you’ll be provided with a menu of services—for a monthly fee. The more maintenance, the higher the fees (duh).

But the price can be well worth it compared to a burst pipe that goes unnoticed for days, weeks, or months.

The cost of having a property manager is relatively tiny compared to the cost of the house. And what that peace of mind buys you is priceless.
Will this home work for all four seasons?

Maybe you’re one of those rare snow bunnies who wants to vacay only in the most frigid conditions. But, if you have a second home, it would be nice to use it year-round, right?

If a four-season retreat is your goal, pick carefully.

The summer season is as big or bigger than the winter season. Also noted, the nearby attractions, from hiking and biking to music festivals, Theater Aspen, the Aspen Institute, the Aspen ballet, restaurants, and concerts.

Think of the old winter resort mantra: “I came for the winter; I stayed for the summer.” Sounds pretty good, right?

Find Out What Really Happens When You Waive Contingencies to Score a Home

In a white-hot market, you may feel pressure to make some concessions to win over a seller—and, no, we’re not talking about sending a basket of banana-nut muffins.

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When you make an offer on a home, it’s standard to throw in some contingencies—telling the seller that if the home isn’t up to snuff for a variety of reasons, you have the right to walk away from the deal—with all of your cash in hand.

That’s all hunky-dory in a buyer’s market. But as the housing market has rebounded, buyers are getting competitive—more and more are waiving those contingencies, or protections, in order to speed the deal through to closing.

You want the house, and the seller doesn’t want any hiccups. So getting those pesky contingencies out of the way is a win-win, right?

Of course not!

It’s riskier to waive some contingencies than others. We set out to discover which are the most innocuous of the bunch—and which are the most terrifying.

Remember—these aren’t hard rules. Everything depends on your local market, your personal situation, and, above all else, your tolerance for risk.

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Contingency: Early move-in

Closings can be delayed, so many buyers ask for the right to move in their possessions (or themselves) early. But it isn’t something sellers or seller’s agents love.

I would never allow my sellers to agree to it. There are just too many unknowns if the deal doesn’t close.

And those unknowns go both ways.

If you move in early, you’ll lose some of your negotiating power. After all, it’ll be much harder for the seller to believe you’ll walk on the deal if you’ve already moved all your stuff in. And if the deal falls through, you’ll face eviction from the seller and scramble to find a short-term living arrangement.

Bottom line: Moving in early could potentially do more harm than good, so waiving this contingency has minimal risk.

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Contingency: Homeowners association rules

The homeowners association rules contingency lets you get out of the deal if you discover the restrictions don’t jibe with your lifestyle (say, they won’t allow you to have three Rottweilers or paint your front door eggplant).

Let us be clear: We do not recommend getting to this point on your path to homeownership without asking about the basics of the home you’re trying to buy—including HOA rules. Ask for a copy and read it before making an offer.

Bottom line: Since we think you should do your homework, waiving the HOA contingency seems pretty low-risk.
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Contingency: Financing

This contingency gives you the right to back out of the deal if your home financing falls through. And waiving it can go very, very wrong.

That’s because any number of things could happen before your loan’s been sent through underwriting. The lender could decide to lower the total loan amount, spike the interest rate, disqualify you from a certain loan, or a myriad of other “oh crap” situations. If you’re locked into a home offer and can’t hold up your end of the bargain, you could lose your earnest money.

But not every buyer needs to worry as much about financing. Say, for example, you’re paying in cash. You won’t need the lender, so you won’t need this contingency. And if your credit is spotless, you’re making a solid (at least 20%) down payment, and you’ve had the same good job for a while, you’re also in a better position to take this risk.

Bottom line: Talk it over with your Realtor and mortgage broker and find out just how confident you should be in your financing. But keep in mind: Even with a pre-approval letter, things can still go awry in the final lending stages (including the appraisal—see the next item). That’s why we’re rating this one high on the risk radar.
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Contingency: Appraisal

An appraisal is required by most lenders, and it can be useful to buyers trying to negotiate a price. But appraisals can be tricky.

That’s because a number of factors can affect the outcome of an appraisal: the appraiser might rely heavily on the value of comparable homes that sold for mysteriously low prices, or perhaps he saw the house in less-than-ideal conditions.

And especially in a hot market where homes are selling for inflated prices, the appraisal value might not match your expectations—but you still won’t get a discount.

Sometimes the market—that is, the price a buyer and seller agree to—isn’t the same number as what an appraiser thinks it’s worth.

Bottom line: If you’re looking to woo a seller, you might want to skip the appraisal contingency, especially if you think it won’t change the asking price of the house. But be careful—your lender may not agree to a loan over the appraisal price, leaving you to foot the remaining cost of the home.

Because it could go either way, we’re placing the risk level squarely in the middle.
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Contingency: Home inspection

The right to get a full, professional home inspection—and flee into the night if new and horrifying info comes to light—is a crucial contingency.

Without a licensed inspector viewing the property, you can only guess what might be potentially wrong with the home, now or 10 years down the line.

By waiving this contingency, you lose the right to make any requests for additional repairs—or to run away—before the deal closes. This is scary stuff, people. Nobody wants to be stuck in a money pit.

If you’re still convinced waiving this contingency is the only way to win the seller’s heart, try finding some neutral ground. Like a general inspection contingency, which gives you the right to void the contract, but not to ask for repairs.

Bottom line: Unless you know you’re getting a fixer-upper and will have to make repairs anyway, you’re gambling big time by waiving this one.
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Contingency: Clear title

If the opportunity arises to waive this one, it’s time to run for the hills. Abort mission. Just say no.

You may not be able to waive a clear title search in your area—in some parts of the country, it isn’t even legal. But if you discover you can, don’t.

A title search will churn up all kinds of important info—like who actually owns the home and if there are any liens on the property. It might seem far-fetched, but title problems happen all the time. Waive your right to it, and you might find that along with your new home, you’ve acquired thousands of dollars’ in liens.

Personally, I would never waive this even if it was an option.

Bottom line: Seriously, the risk is high.

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Don’t forget to ask your Realtor’s advice before you waive any contingency. All deals are unique, and only a pro who knows you and the market can tell you how to strike the best deals to score your dream home.

Should I Use My Friend or Family Member as My Realtor?

A good Realtor® is sort of like your own personal Yoda—someone you can trust with your most pressing questions and biggest decisions, guiding you safely toward your destiny (of a brand new home!).

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But how do you choose the right Realtor when there are literally hundreds of options in your area?

They say in California the difference between a driver’s license and a real estate license is that not everyone in California has a driver’s license. The joke rings true in other states as well.

With so many options, why not go with a known commodity? Like, for example, a friend or family member—someone who not only knows you, but has a license and is thus perfectly qualified to help you buy your dream home. Sounds like a dream scenario, right?

The answer is usually “no way” for a host of reasons (except in a few rare cases). And don’t feel guilty about not sending business their way—recommend them to someone else!

Heed the following expert advice about why you should be wary of mixing business with friendship:
The pitfalls

While your personal relationship might seem like an important qualification, if your Realtor doesn’t have the other key attributes you need, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Experience with and understanding of the area where you’re hoping to move, rave reviews from previous clients, and the ability to assess your situation dispassionately are absolutely essential.

Real estate often brings out the worst in people. It’s very stressful. It’s a big and expensive life decision. Sometimes you just need the assistance of someone who doesn’t have a personal relationship with you.

And, if the home-buying process isn’t going well, you need to be able to fire that person. Better to tell your friend you can’t hire them right off the bat than risk canning them—an act almost guaranteed to ruin your relationship.

And your relationship will definitely be in jeopardy if you have trouble relinquishing control. Your agent will likely need to hold the reins—after all, they’re in a better position to quickly find you an amazing space.

If you get two controlling people, there’s going to be problems. You have to be able to find someone whose personality will mesh with yours.
How to ease the sting

Still feel like you need to extend the offer to your “frealtor“? (Yes, we just made that a word.)

If they’re local but you’re not confident because of their experience level, ask them to co-list with someone from their office—giving them valuable experience during the buying process. That way, they feel involved and you still receive expert guidance.

And if they’re out of the area but still want to help, it’s recommended arranging for them to receive a referral fee from the agent you choose, and leaning on them for advice and commiseration during the process.

That’s a nice thing to do, and you always have them in your hip pocket to rely on if the Realtor you thought was great turns out not to be.

When to say yes

OK, but maybe your friend has tons of experience, is super-familiar with all your favorite ‘hoods, and your personalities meld perfectly. If you’re 100% comfortable entering a business relationship with them, go for it!

A good agent who is also a good friend is going to work harder for you than any other agent you can hire.

Not only will they work hard, but they may be better able to understand your specific needs. For example, if they’ve seen the mess your children make in the living room, they probably won’t encourage you to temper your playroom dreams. And, since they know your preferences, they might just spot an oddball house you wouldn’t have considered otherwise—which may turn out to be perfect.

Bottom line: A real friend wants to do right by you.

So You Wanna Buy a House? Step 1: Clean Up Your Credit Score

It’s easy to fall in love with the idea of buying a home. You’ve got it all planned out: a five-bedroom home in your favorite neighborhood with a manicured lawn and—why not?—a nice pool.

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Well, it may be the middle of winter now (we haven’t even tossed our Christmas trees yet, actually), but you’ve got a lot to do before prime home-shopping season this spring. So if you really want to land that dream home, you’d better get started now!

Step 1 is to clean up your credit score, also called a FICO score—a simplified calculation of your history of paying back debts and making regular payments on loans. If you’re borrowing money to buy a home (as most do), lenders want to know you’ll pay them back in a timely manner, and a credit score is an easy estimate of those odds.

Here’s your crash course on this all-important little number, and how to whip it into the best home-buying shape possible by spring.
Pull your credit report

There are three major U.S. credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion), and each releases its own credit scores and reports (a more detailed history that’s used to determine your score). Their scores should be roughly equivalent, although they do pull from different sources. For example, Experian considers on-time rent payments while TransUnion has detailed information about previous employers.

Or check with your credit card company: Some, including Discover and Capital One, offer free access to scores and reports. Once you’ve got your report, thoroughly review it page by page, particularly the “adverse accounts” section that details late payments and other slip-ups.
Assess where you stand

It’s simple: The better your credit history, the higher your score—and the better your opportunities for a home loan. The Federal Housing Administration requires a minimum credit score of 580 to permit a 3.5% down payment, and major lenders often require at least 620, if not more. So what can you do if your credit report is in less than shipshape? Don’t panic, there are ways to clean it up.
Dispute any errors

A 2013 Federal Trade Commission study found that 5% of credit reports contain errors that can erroneously ding your score. So if you spot any, start by sending a dispute letter to the bureau, providing as much documentation as possible, per FTC guidelines. You’ll also need to contact the organization that provided the bad intel, such as a bank or medical provider, and ask it to update the info with the bureau. This may take a while, and you may need documentation to make your case. But once the bad info is removed, you should see a bump in your score.
Erase one-time mistakes

So you’ve made a late payment or two—who hasn’t? Call the company that registered the late payment and ask that it be removed from your record. If you had an oopsy and missed just a payment or two, most companies will indeed tell their reporting division to remove this from your credit report. Granted, this won’t work if you have a history of late payments, but for accidents and small errors, it’s an easy boost for your score.
Increase your limits

One no-brainer way to increase your credit standing is to simply pay off your debt. Not an option right now? Here’s a cool loophole: Ask your credit card companies to increase your credit limit instead. This improves your debt-to-credit ratio, which compares how much you owe to how much you can borrow.

Having $1,000 of credit card debt is bad if you have a limit of $1,500. It isn’t nearly as bad if your limit is $5,000. The simple math: Although you owe the same amount, you’re using a much smaller percentage of your available credit, which shines well on your borrowing practices.
Pay on time

If you’re often late with payments, now’s the time to change. Commit to always paying your bills on time; consider signing up for automatic payments so it’s guaranteed to get done.
Give yourself time

Unfortunately, negative items (such as those habitually late or nonexistent payments) can stay on your report for up to seven years. The good news? Changing your habits makes a big difference in the “payment history” segment of your report, which accounts for 35% of your score. That’s why it’s essential to start early so that you’re sitting pretty once you’re shopping for homes and find one that makes you swoon.

Once you’ve set your credit on a better path, it’s time to tackle the next major hurdle: saving for a down payment. Stayed tuned next week for the steps!

8 Things Your Realtor Does Behind Your Back

Have you ever wondered what on Earth your real estate agent is doing behind your back?

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No, we don’t mean anything underhanded, naughty, or downright felonious—far from it, in fact. So relax. What we’re talking about is a mystery: In the sometimes confusing, occasionally hectic, and always stressful world of buying and selling, what are your agents really doing behind the scenes?

We’re here to shed some light! For every hour an agent spends in your presence, he or she will spend an average of nine hours out of eyesight working on your behalf. Why? Because agents don’t get paid if they don’t close the deal! Unlike lawyers who bill by the hour, agents won’t receive a penny until (or unless) a sale comes through. It’s all a gamble, in which they could shoot snake eyes and come away empty-handed. This is the business.

So if you’re wondering what that 6% commission is actually going toward, we’ve compiled a list of things agents do when you’re not watching (or should be doing—if they’re not, maybe you need a different agent!).
They shop property online

Don’t we all? And yet, their real estate research goes beyond oohing and ahhing over a few photos on a Saturday night.

This could include looking up flood zones, previewing the homes for out-of-state clients, or any number of specific things.

Plus, listings come and go fast in the real estate world, so agents need to check their multiple listing service database constantly, or else they’ll miss out. Sometimes the process of matching up properties with clients can take a very long time.

I have a client who wants a Mid-Century Modern house in Carlsbad, but there aren’t many there. That means that she’s been searching the database regularly for that particular kind of property for three years (here’s hoping all that patience pays off).
They go prospecting

Of course, there’s nothing like seeing a house in all its brick-and-mortar glory, which is why most Realtors worth their salt spend tons of time driving around checking out new listings. In Friedman’s San Diego area, they call it “caravan day.”

It’s a good way to preview properties, and it’s a good time to network with other agents and talk up your listing,” she says.
They attend pitch sessions

Agents don’t spend all their time sizing up homes. They also spend tons of face time with other pros at pitch sessions—gatherings of local agents at cafes where they swap listing info in order to spread the word about your property if you’re selling, or to find the house that checks every box on your wish list if you’re buying.
They spend their own money on marketing

In addition to not getting paid until a deal is done, selling agents also spend their own money on marketing: magazine and newspaper ads, fliers, hiring a photographer, glossy prints, and premium placements on listing sites.

Agents can spend thousands marketing a property.
They write up offers and counteroffers

Offers and counteroffers are an extremely important part of the transaction, as they can save or net you thousands of dollars on a sale. Yet getting to the right price requires written offers and counteroffers every step of the way.

It’s time-consuming to be writing them up, explaining to the client how to counteroffer and the ways to do so, and just keeping track of it all.
They stick around for inspections

You might not be present when it’s inspection time, but a good agent will be. This gives the agent an immediate knowledge of what’s going on. Anything from termites to an iffy foundation can be relayed to the buyer immediately, according to Friedman. McGlone estimates inspections take roughly two hours.
They smooth bumps in the road

Not every sale goes smoothly—buyers and sellers get difficult all the time—but good agents try to shield their clients from the high drama unless there’s a reason to fill them in.

It’s called putting out fires. It’s just fixing issues that a lot of times buyers and sellers never needed to be made aware of.
They keep you calm when the pressure’s on

Good agents don’t just hand you a house. They can also act as a therapist, making your sale much less stressful.

People get emotional. You have to be a problem-solver and keep a positive approach and come up with a positive solution. It might not take a lot of time, but it takes emotional energy.

Tell that to your therapist.

Open Kitchens: BAD Closed Kitchens: GOOD

A few years ago, my husband and I moved into a gorgeous Craftsman-style house in the Pacific Northwest. It was chockablock with original details like dark wood paneling, stained-glass transom windows … and a 100-square-foot, totally enclosed kitchen in a faux country style—think yellow oak cabinets paired with linoleum countertops. And though we found most of the historical elements quite charming, the kitchen needed a complete overhaul.

So we hired an architect who hatched a plan to steal some space from the nearby office area. But he didn’t want to stop there. He also wanted to knock down the wall between the kitchen and the formal dining room, to give us the open-concept kitchen that it seems just about everybody else has these days.

We balked. Lose the cool, old-fashioned swinging door? And the opportunity to leave my kitchen a mess during dinner parties?

Heck no. Because after having grown up in a New York City apartment where public and private spaces were blurred—both bathrooms were en suite, so guests had to traipse through our bedrooms to use the loo—I loved the idea of an older house’s separate rooms. (Remember Julia Child’s famous quip: If you drop something, you can always pick it up if you’re alone in the kitchen. Who is going to see?”) To me, they aren’t isolated and inconvenient, but rather refined and gracious. Though open kitchens may be all the rage, let me dare to say right here: I’m anti-open kitchen.

For much of domesticated human history—until mid-past century—I wasn’t alone in the enclosed-kitchen camp. Walk into an American home built before the 1950s, and you’ll most likely find the kitchen tucked away in a far-off corner of the main floor. Rarely visited by guests and not a place where the family spent much time, the kitchen was separate and functional, not designed for hanging out.

The equipment was usually along the periphery, meaning that anyone who entered the kitchen was most likely greeted by the cook’s back. Or they wouldn’t see the cook at all—how often does Lord Crawley visit Mrs. Patmore on “Downton Abbey”?

Only that wasn’t thought of as hugely rude or anything, because most social interaction occurred either in front parlors (for welcoming guests) or in dens (primarily just for family). Not having to touch a hot pan was a sign of status.

These days, the kitchen is the place to entertain, thanks in part to mid-20th-century technology that made appliances fit into the cabinetry, not stand freely and hoard all the free space.

The kitchen was becoming quieter, cleaner, better organized and easier to work in. In essence, the kitchen was becoming a source of pride. These days, you flip on HGTV or pick up a flier for an open house in your neighborhood and chances are they’re heralding an open-concept kitchen. They’re great for wooing guests while cooking, or so goes the current real estate lore.

Food preparation is central to how we entertain and socialize. It’s how we live today. Nine out of 10 kitchen designers, she says, report that their clients want their living, dining, and cooking spaces to flow together.

There’s a practical reason for their popularity, too. In an age when houses are getting smaller for the first time since 2007 (the median size of a new U.S. home in 2010 was 2,169 square feet, up from 1,525 square feet in 1973 but down from the 2007 peak of 2,277 square feet) and house prices are rising like never before, open kitchens maximize space and minimize cost. In a closed-plan house, there are more doors and walls, more trim and details needed to delineate various rooms. And to build all that requires more tradespeople, like electricians and carpenters. Consequently, open-plan kitchens have become the new normal. There’s more natural daylight in an open kitchen, too.

And here’s another bitter pill for the fan of the closed-off kitchen to swallow: Open-concept kitchens might help boost a home’s resale value.

The most common conversation I overhear when showing a property to potential buyers is ‘Is this wall load-bearing? Can we knock it down to open things up? So no matter how gorgeous a home is, it will most likely sell for less if the kitchen is separate.

OK, so those are compelling reasons, but I remain unconvinced. In part it’s because I find it beyond challenging to turn out culinary masterpieces (or even just a nice meal) while guests are chatting around me in the kitchen, and also because I just don’t believe it’s a good time to “entertain” anyone while I’m wielding a knife and managing fire. Plus, I’m happier when my whole world—especially my living room furniture—doesn’t smell of bacon grease.

A cozier, rustic kitchen

As it turns out, others might be starting to see things my way. Hilarious and blasphemous blog posts detailing the difficulties of actually living with open floor plans have started to dot the Internet. (“‘Oh my gosh I dropped the chicken!’ In a perfect world, no one would know. Open floor plan? Well, it’ll be tweeted in minutes.”)

Some architects are seeing an uptick in clients asking for separate kitchens.

Many of the requests are from older clients, because that’s what they’re used to.

But interest is also stemming from sophisticated younger clients rediscovering the value—emotional, if not financial—in drawing a line between public and private space.

Many properties are designed for a mass market, and in order to appeal to as many people as possible, they include trends like an open-concept kitchen. But there’s also a market for interesting, well-thought-out separate spaces. It’s just that they appeal to a group with a more curated aesthetic.

People think they should love open-plan kitchens because they’ve been told to love them. They can be fine for low-impact prep like chopping, but real cooking is messy work and requires a great deal of concentration.m(Man, it feels good to be validated by a professional!)

So could it be a backlash against open-concept kitchens is emerging? Or maybe this is now just one of those things that you have to be either totally for or dead set against. Either way, I’m glad we bucked the trend and kept our separate kitchen. And if you ever come to my house for dinner and experience just how often we set the smoke alarm off, you’ll be glad we did, too.

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So which kitchen is right for you? Here are a few concepts to consider as you decide:
What kind of cook you are

If you tend to do takeout or don’t mind your mess being visible, then an open-concept kitchen could work for you. But if you’re into preparing elaborate meals and prefer to concentrate while cooking, then consider a space that’s separate from your home’s main living areas.
Think things through

In most states, changing walls requires building permits—and structural modifications can affect your home’s resale value. So before making plans to knock down an existing wall or rough in another, figure out if your long-term plan includes staying put or needing to appeal to other homebuyers in the future.
Be realistic

It’s easy to be dazzled by professional photos of dream kitchens, but what works well in one space might not in another. Consider your own home’s ceiling height, amount of wall space, windows, and views when creating a plan to fit your kitchen and living space.
Work with someone who sees beyond trends

Some architects value separate kitchen spaces while others think they’re outdated. So if you’re considering closing off your cooking space or shopping for a house that features a closed kitchen, consider working with a builder or Realtor who has an eye for creative elements that make separate spaces feel airy (think a bank of windows, skylights, or glass doors).