1. Get "Pre-Approved" - Not "Pre-Qualified!"
Do you want to get the best property in Northern Virginia, DC or Maryland you can for the least amount of money? Then make sure you are in the strongest negotiating position possible. Price is only one element in the negotiations, and not necessarily the most important one. Often other terms, such as the strength of the buyer or the length of escrow, are critical to a seller.
In years past, I always recommended that buyers get "pre-qualified" by a lender. This means that you spend a few minutes on the phone with a lender who asks you a few questions. Based on the answers, the lender pronounces you "pre-qualified" and issues a certificate that you can show to a seller. Sellers are aware that such certificates are WORTHLESS, and here's why! None of the information has been verified!
Many times, unknown problems can come to the surface! Some of the problems I've seen include recorded judgments, alimony payments due, glitches on the credit report due to any number of reasons both accurately and inaccurately, down payments that have not been in the clients' bank account long enough, etc.
So, the way to make the strongest offer today is to get "pre-approved".
This happens AFTER all information has been checked and verified. You are actually APPROVED for the loan and the only loose end is the appraisal on the property. This process takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on your situation. It's VERY POWERFUL and a weapon I recommend all my clients have in their negotiating arsenal.
2. Sell your property first, then buy the house
If you have a house to sell get it on the market and sell it before selecting a house to buy! Contingency sales aren't nearly as strong as one that comes in with a ready, willing and able buyer. Consider this scenario You've found the perfect house - now you have to go make an offer to the seller.
You want the seller to reduce the price and wait until you sell your house. The seller figures that this is a risky deal, since he might pass up a buyer who does not have to sell a house while he's waiting for you. So, he says OK, he'll do the contingency but it has to be a full price offer! You have now paid more for the house than you could have because of the contingency, and you have to sell your existing house in a hurry! Otherwise you lose the house! So, to sell quickly you might take an offer that's lower than if you had more time. The bottom line is that buying before selling might cost you many months of dual mortgage payments, and this really adds up!
If you're concerned that there is not a house on the market for you, then go on a window-shopping trip. You can identify possible houses and locations without falling in love with a specific house. If you feel confident after that then put your house on the market. Another tactic is to make the sale "subject to seller finding suitable housing". Adding this phrase to the listing means that WHEN YOU DO FIND A BUYER, you will have some time to find the new place. If you don't find anything to your liking, you don't have to sell your present home.
3. Play the game of nines
Before house hunting, make a list of things you want in the new place. Then make a list of the things you don't want. You can use this list as a guide to rate each property that you see. The one with the biggest score wins! This helps avoid confusion and keeps things in perspective when you're comparing homes. When house hunting, keep in mind the difference between "STYLE AND SUBSTANCE". The SUBSTANCE are things that cannot be changed such as the location, view, size of lot, noise in the area, school district, and floor plan. The STYLE represents easily changed surface finishes like carpet, wallpaper, color, and window coverings. Buy the house with good SUBSTANCE, because the STYLE can always be changed to match your tastes. I always recommend that you imagine each house as if it were vacant. Consider each house on its underlying merits, not the seller's decorating skills.
4. Don't be pushed into any house
Your agent should show you everything available that meets your requirements. Don't make a decision on a house until you feel that you've seen enough to pick the best one. In the not too distant past, homes were selling quickly, usually a few days after listing. In that kind of market, agents advised their clients to make an offer ON THE SPOT if they liked the house. That was good advice at the time. Today there isn't always this urgency, unless a home is drastically underpriced, and you'll know if it is.
Don't forget to check into the School Districts of the area you're considering. Information is available on every school; such as class sizes, % of students that go on to college, SAT scores, etc. You can get this information from this web site.
5. Be prepared to act fast!
The biggest mistake I see home buyers make is they find something they really like, ask to see other homes, and by the time they decide their first choice was right, the home is gone. In a seller's market, there aren't enough homes to satisfy every homebuyer. Prices are usually sky high because of the low inventory. Homebuyers typically make a fast offer - often for more than the list price - or risk losing the home to a more agile homebuyer. There isn't much room to negotiate in a seller's market unless the property is overpriced. Your agent should show you everything available that meets your requirements. If you see something you like and can afford, buy it. Inexperienced or not, in today's market you must be willing to act fast.
Copyright National Association of REALTORS®, Reprinted with permission.