JimattheTop Blog | Jim Pedicord | RE/MAX Top Realty Houston | 713-558-2537

Are you considering purchasing real estate as an investment, maybe to buy and sell in a short period of time (“flipping”), buying to lease out, buy to hold for appreciation?  Or do you want to  “invest” in your own primary home, looking at its purchase considering the long-term potential for increasing in value?

There are a number of possible ways to approach investing in real estate.  Here are some comments and suggestions concerning the most popular:
•    Foreclosures
•    Fixer-Uppers
•    Vacation Homes

Are foreclosures a good investment?
A foreclosure property is a home that has been repossessed by the lender because the owners failed to pay the mortgage. Thousands of homes end up in foreclosure every year. Economic conditions affect the number of foreclosures, too. The unfortunate reality of life is that many people lose their homes due to job loss, credit problems or unexpected expenses.

It is wise to be cautious when considering a foreclosure. Many experts, in fact, advise inexperienced buyers to hire an expert to take them through the process. It is important to have the house thoroughly inspected and to be sure that any liens, undisclosed mortgages or court judgments are cleared or at least disclosed.

But, the answer to the question is, “it depends”.  That’s not a cop-out answer, but a realistic response considering the many variables that affect a potential return on investment.  Bargains can be found, and properties in good stable neighborhoods particularly will generally have lower risk.  Another major issue is the condition of the home and what repairs and/or upgrades may be required (an out-of-pocket expense to the investor) to bring a good price on sale, or a good rental rate. 

Are there different types of foreclosures?
Judicial foreclosure action is a proceeding in which a mortgage, a trustee or another lien holder on property requests a court-supervised sale of the property to cover the unpaid balance of a delinquent debt.

Non-judicial foreclosure is the process of selling real property under a power of sale in a mortgage or deed of trust that is in default. In such a foreclosure, however, the lender is unable to obtain a deficiency judgment, which makes some title insurance companies reluctant to issue a policy.
How do I find a property about to be foreclosed?
In most states, a foreclosure notice must be published in the legal notices section of a local newspaper where the property is located or in the nearest city. Also, foreclosure notices are usually posted on the property itself and somewhere in the city where the sale is to take place.

Typically when a homeowner is late by three payments, the bank will record a notice of default against the property. If the owner fails to pay up, a trustee sale is held and the property is sold to the highest bidder. The financial institution that has initiated foreclosure proceedings usually will set the bid price at the loan amount. 

Despite these seemingly straightforward rules, buying foreclosures is not as easy as it may sound. Sophisticated investors use the technique so novices may find themselves among stiff competition and it requires very strong financial position and available cash.  If no one comes forward with a bid that is more than what the lender set, the lender becomes the “less-than-proud-owner” of the property.  The property becomes “Bank REO” for Real Estate Owned.

Buying a foreclosure property can be risky, especially for the novice. Usually, you buy a foreclosure property "as is," which means there is no warranty implied for the condition of the property (in other words, you can't go back to the seller for repairs). The condition of foreclosure properties is usually not known because an inspection of the interior of the house is not possible before the sale.

In addition, there may be problems with the title, though that is something you can check out before the purchase.

What are trustee sales?
Trustee sales are advertised in advance and require an all-cash bid. A sheriff, a constable or lawyer acting as trustee usually conducts the sale, generally at the county courthouse. This kind of sale, which usually attracts savvy investors, is not for the novice. Buying directly at a legal foreclosure sale is risky and dangerous. It is strictly caveat emptor ("Let the buyer beware").

In a trustee sale, the lender who holds the first loan on the property starts the bidding at the amount of the loan being foreclosed. Successful bidders receive a trustee's deed.

The process has many disadvantages. One reason there are few bidders at foreclosure sales is that it is next to impossible to get financing for such a property. You generally need to show up with cash and lots of it, or a line of credit with your bank upon which you can draw cashier's checks. The title needs to be checked before the purchase or the buyer could buy a seriously deficient title. The property's condition is not well known and an interior inspection of the property may not be possible before the sale.

In addition, only estate (probate) and foreclosure sales are exempt from some states' disclosure laws. In both cases, the law protects the seller (usually an heir or financial institution) who has recently acquired the property through adverse circumstances and may have little or no direct information about it.
How does HUD affect my buying a foreclosure?
If you are strapped for cash and looking for a bargain, you may be able to buy a foreclosure property acquired by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for as little as $100 down.

With HUD foreclosures, down payments vary depending on whether the property is eligible for FHA insurance. If not, payments range from the conventional market's 5 to 20 percent. But when the property is FHA-insured, the down payment can go much lower. Eligibility for FHA insurance generally requires that no more than $5000 worth of repairs are required to make the property safely habitable.

Each offer must be accompanied by an "earnest money" deposit equal to 5 percent of the bid price, not to exceed $2,000 but not less than $500.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also offers foreclosed properties which can be purchased directly from the VA often well below market value and with a down payment amount as low as 2 percent for owner-occupants. Investors may be required to pay up to 10 percent of the purchase price as a down payment. This is because the VA guarantees home loans and often ends up owning the property if the veteran defaults.
If you are interested in purchasing a VA foreclosure, call 1-800-827-1000 to request a current listing. About 100 new properties are listed every two weeks.

You should be aware that foreclosure properties are sold "as is," meaning limited repairs may have been made but no structural or mechanical warranties are implied.
You can only purchase a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development property through a licensed real estate broker. HUD will pay the typical broker's commission up to 6 percent of the sales price.

Where do you find foreclosed homes owned by the government?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development acquires properties from lenders who foreclose on mortgages insured by HUD. These properties are available for sale to both homeowner-occupants and investors.  The best source for government-owned properties that are currently available for purchase is the HUD Homestore.  Anyone can access the information there, but only a registered and licensed real estate broker or agent can submit an offer for a prospective buyer.

Other federal, state and local government agencies involved in the real estate lending process may also acquire foreclosed property and will, in turn, sell to the public.  A foreclosure and sale can be forced by a taxing authority or even Home Owners Associations. The rules for dealing with each of them will vary somewhat. 

Can I get financing on a foreclosure?
As noted above, generally you will need to show up at a trustee’s sale with cash and lots of it, or a line of credit with your bank upon which you can draw cashier's checks.  If you are buying from the lender (a REO property), HUD, VA or other seller once the original homeowner has been foreclosed on, then you may be able to qualify for any one of a number of loan programs, both private and assisted. 

This potential for buying with what might be bargain financing is another area that can make foreclosures attractive to some buyers.

Is it smart to even consider a fixer-upper?
Once again, it depends. Distressed properties or fixer-uppers can be found anywhere, even in wealthier neighborhoods. Such properties have been poorly maintained and have a lower market value than other houses in the neighborhood.

Many experts recommend that before you make such an investment, first find the least desirable house in a neighborhood you would want to live in. Then do the math to see if what it would cost to bring up the value of that property to its full potential market value is within your budget. If you are a novice buyer, it may be wiser to look for properties that only need cosmetic fixes rather than run-down houses that need major structural repairs or gutting to rehabilitate them to meet current market standards.
Is there a tax break for a fixer-upper house if it is considered historical?

Qualified rehabilitated buildings and certified historic structures may enjoy a 20 percent investment tax credit for qualified rehabilitation expenses. A historic structure is one listed in the National Register of Historic Places or so designated by an appropriate state or local historic district also certified by the government.+

The tax code does not allow deductions for the demolition or significant alteration of a historic structure.

If you are active-duty military or a retired veteran, loans from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also can be used to buy a home, build a home, improve a home, or refinance an existing loan. VA loans frequently offer lower interest rates and lower down payments than ordinarily available with other kinds of loans. To qualify for a loan, the first step is to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility.
Are there special loans for fixer-uppers?
If you need a home loan to buy a "fixer-upper" and remodel it, look at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 203 (K) rehabilitation loan program is designed to facilitate major structural rehabilitation of houses with one to four units that are more than one year old. Condominiums are not eligible.

The 203(K) loan is usually done as a combination loan to purchase a fixer-upper property "as is" and rehabilitate it, or to refinance a temporary loan to buy the property and do the rehabilitation. It can also be done as a rehabilitation-only loan.

Two appraisals are generally required. Plans and specifications for the proposed work must be submitted for architectural review and cost estimation. Mortgage proceeds are advanced periodically during the rehabilitation period to finance the construction costs.

Investors must put 15 percent down while owner-occupants are required to come up with only 3 to 5 percent. HUD requires that a minimum of $5,000 be spent on improvements.

For a list of participating lenders, call HUD at (202) 708-2720.

How do building codes affect investors?
Building codes are established by local authorities to set minimum public-safety standards for building design, construction, quality, use and occupancy, location and maintenance. There are specialized codes for plumbing, electrical and fire, which usually involve separate inspections and inspectors.

Buildings must generally be issued a building permit and a Certificate of Occupancy before they can be used. During construction, housing inspectors must make checks at key points. Codes are usually enforced by denying permits, occupancy certificates and by imposing fines.

Building codes also cover most remodeling and rehabilitation projects. If you are buying a house that has been significantly remodeled, ask for proof of the permits involved before you purchase to avoid future liability for fines.  You could even be require to tear out non-permitted work or remove additions if they were build without a permit.  And, if you plan to purchase and then undertake a remodeling and rehabilitation project, you will need to factor in the time and cost of permits and inspections accordingly.

How do I find a good contractor?
While hiring contractors recommended by friends is usually a safe route, never hire a construction professional without first checking him or her out.  Angie's List is a good source and there are other similar referral systems as well.

If your state has a licensing board for contractors, call to find out if there are any outstanding complaints against that license holder. Also, call your local Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints on file.

If you are satisfied with the answers you find there, interview the contractor candidates. Ask what kind of worker's compensation insurance they carry and get policy and insurance company phone numbers so you can verify the information. If they are not covered, you could be liable for any work-related injury incurred during the project. Also be sure that the contractor has an umbrella general liability policy.

If they pass the insurance hurdle, next check some of their references. A good contractor will be happy to provide as many as you want.

Finally, don't let yourself be rushed into making a decision no matter how competitive the market may seem. Also, never pay a deposit to a contractor at the first meeting. You may end up losing your money.

Is remodeling worth the price and time?
Remodeling magazine produces an annual "Cost vs. Value Report" that answers just that question. The most important point to remember is that remodeling a home not only improves its livability for you but its "curb appeal" with a potential buyer down the road.

Most recently, the highest remodeling paybacks have come from updating kitchens and baths, home-office additions and extra amenities in older homes. While home offices are a relatively new remodeling trend, for example, you could expect to recoup 58 percent of the cost of adding a home office, according to the survey. BUT, that is not true if you take away a bedroom!  A bedroom adds far more resale value than an office.
The National Association of Realtors publishes the "Cost vs. Value Report" report on their Houselogic website, along with a wealth of information about home ownership and home improvements.

Many remodeling/improvement ideas that seem to be “hot” at some point may turn out to be short-lived fads that do not help your property value or have limited appeal. 

Some specialized customization projects would be exactly the right thing to do if you are doing it for yourself, to improve YOUR quality of life, YOUR enjoyment of the home you plan to live in for a while.  Don’t expect a “one-of-a-kind” specialty to appeal to others as much as it has to you though.

One extreme example I heard of was a property with a meticulously and expensively crafted and maintained Japanese Zen Garden that the seller was boastfully proud of, but the buyer planned to rip out and replace with low-maintenance low-water consumption local plants because they were too busy to spend a lot of time caring for a fancy garden.

How do I look for fixer-uppers?
Property for-sale listings generally will identify fixer-uppers with some “revealing” terms in the description, such as “handyman special” or “needs a little TLC” (Tender Loving Care) – or maybe needs a LOT of TLC – or “needs work”.  The Agent Remarks may sometimes reveal more information about foundation issues or other problems not posted in the Public Description. For this reason it is always critical to be working closely a Buyer’s Agent experienced in this special market.

Ascertaining whether the property you're interested in is a wise investment takes some work. You and your agent need to figure what the average house in a given area sells for, as well as what the most desirable houses in that area are like and what they cost.

Beginning buyers who take the fixer-upper route might be best advised to try to find a "cosmetic fixer" that can be completely refurbished with paint, wallpaper, new floor and window coverings, landscaping and new appliances. Remember, a house price that looks too good to be true probably is. A smart buyer will find out why it is priced below market before buying it.

The basic strategy for a fixer is to find the least desirable house in the most desirable neighborhood, and then decide if the expenses needed to bring the value of that property up to its full potential market value are within one's rehab budget.

Vacation Homes
Are vacation homes a good investment?
You can buy a vacation home today for investment purposes as well as enjoyment. And yes, there may be tax benefits.

Some people buy a vacation home to use as a permanent retirement home later, which allows them to get ahead on their payments. Another benefit is that the interest and property taxes on a vacation home are currently tax-deductible.

Some real estate experts predict that vacation homes will appreciate in value due to rising demand from the aging Baby Boom generation. You also can depreciate the property if you live in the house less than 14 days a year.

You also need to consider whether you can afford to carry two mortgages, pay for the extra utilities and maintenance costs, and how this investment fits into your total personal finance picture.  If you want to rent it out for some offsetting income, there will be associated expenses and you will probably need someone to manage the property, but it could be a good idea.  Your tax picture could change though, so be sure to do a careful analysis of the ramifications.

Condos vs Single Family
What are the differences between condos and single-family homes?
Using appreciation as a measure, condominiums in some areas have been as profitable an investment as single-family homes in the past five years. And in some markets, condos appreciated even more, according to some experts.

While single-family homes have been the preferred investment by homebuyers, changing demographics are helping make condos more popular, especially among single homebuyers, empty nesters and first-time buyers in high-priced markets.

Also, the condominium community has worked hard in the last few years to overcome image problems brought on by association and developer disputes as well as all too frequent construction-defect litigation.

Should I be looking into condos?
While condos generally did not have the kind of appreciation experienced by single-family homes in the go-go 1980s, most ultimately have not lost value, say some experts. And with high prices in many urban markets and more single homebuyers in the market than ever before, the market for condos is strong.

As with any home purchase, you should do your homework about the neighborhood or development before you buy.  Some developments and neighborhoods have fared better than others over the years.  In the case of condominiums, it is important to read the past six months of homeowners association minutes to see how effective the board is and to learn about any possibly detracting issues (such as protracted litigation with the developer).

Condominiums for the most part have held their value as an investment despite economic downturns and problems with some associations. In fact, condos have appreciated more in the past few years than when they first came on the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, experts say.

While there are lots of reports about condo association disputes and construction-defect problems, the industry has worked hard to turn its image around. Associations are becoming more sophisticated about property management and taking steps to prevent legal problems and disputes. Paid professionals and elected volunteers who serve on association boards are getting better trained at handling complex budget and legal issues.  Most boards go to great lengths to avoid the kind of protracted and expensive litigation that has hurt resale value in the past.

Meanwhile, changing demographics are making condominiums more attractive investments for single homebuyers, empty nesters and first-time buyers in expensive markets.

How do condo & homeowners associations work?
Whether you are looking at a condo or single-family property, you will be well-served to learn everything you can about the condo or homeowners association before you buy into a subdivision or development governed by one. The association's financial, political and legal conditions are very important to your investment and quality of life.

When run properly, condo and homeowners associations maintain the common grounds and keep civility in the complex. If you follow the rules, the association should not intrude on your privacy or cost you too much in association dues.

Poorly managed associations can drag down property values and make living there difficult for residents. Start by studying the association's covenants, codes and restrictions, or CC&Rs, and find out if you can live by them. For example, if the rules prohibit loud music after a certain hour and you like to play your CDs late at night, this may not be the place for you. Don't move in thinking you can get away with violating the rules or change them later because you may find yourself in turmoil with determined neighbors firmly in control of the association board.  Of course, as the landlord renting a home or condo out, your tenants can put you into the same kind of trouble.

Find out all you can about the association's finances. Beyond reviewing the budget, talk to the association treasurer and find out if dues are expected to increase and if any special assessments are planned. Ask if special inspections have revealed problems with roofs or plumbing that may cause a dues hike or special assessment later on.  Keep in mind, unexpected expenses can occur in the future that could require all or some of the property owners to come up with either a one-time assessment or an increase in the monthly dues.  The current and possible future dues are certainly something to be considered in an investor’s financial calculations.

Speak with residents to get their views on the association's finances, its managers, how it operates and any politics. Associations are volunteer organizations with elected boards, like a mini-government, so politics can enter the picture and spoil a good thing.  You might consider meeting with the association president. If you are the type of person who despises intrusions into your private life and the president seems more interested in gossip about the residents than maintaining the property, this may not be the right place for you.

Lastly, take some time to understand how homeowners associations are organized and how they conduct business. Like all investments, the more you know the better off you are.

Is it difficult to project rental income?
If you are buying a rental income property and applying for a loan to do so, the lender will probably require an area rent survey by a certified appraiser. The amount a landlord can expect to receive in monthly rent largely depends on what the property has rented for in the past, the condition of the building, its location and the current housing market.

Lenders also look at other cash-flow considerations. They want to know if you have enough reserves on hand to cover predictable and unforeseen expenses, such as property insurance, taxes, regular maintenance and repairs.

Whether you are planning to apply for a loan or are going all-cash, there are a number of investment analysis tools available on the Internet, ranging from simple to complex and sophisticated. Whether you do it yourself or have a CPA or financial advisor to assist you, it is important to carefully think through all of the costs and risks you could be facing and establish your own investment comfort level.  A series of what-if exercises exploring various options, ranging from conservative to aggressive, will likely serve you well in the end.

An in-depth Comparative Market Analysis is essential to acquiring the right properties for successful investing in real estate, and I have access to advanced tools and data that other Realtors may not have or may not have taken advantage of.  And these are some of the same tools that appraisers will use in their valuations, which is what may ultimately govern what you can get for the property, whether you are planning to sell or hold and rent your property. 
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James Pedicord
James Pedicord
Realtor® MRP, ACP, GMA, NHCB