Thanks to abnormally low mortgage interest rates, home sellers had an extremely favorable “seller’s market” for the last few years. That means there were more qualified home buyers in the market than there were homes available for sale.

Homes often sold in just a few days or weeks. Typical home sale prices appreciated 10 percent or more annually for the last few years in many communities. Since 2000, the average U.S. home has doubled in market value, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Purchase Bob Bruss reports online.

But the 2006 home sales market pace has rapidly slowed down in most communities, mostly due to rising mortgage interest rates, according to home industry economists. The volume of home sales is down. But home sales prices are holding steady in most communities.

The result for this year’s peak spring home sales season appears to be a “buyer’s market.” That means there are more houses and condominiums available for sale than there are qualified home buyers.

As a result, home buyers can be more selective and negotiate harder even though mortgage interest rates remain remarkably affordable in the 6 percent interest range. To help home buyers negotiate their best possible sales price and terms, here are the five key questions home sellers and their real estate agents hope buyers don’t ask:

1.) WHY ARE YOU SELLING THIS LOVELY HOME?

Having bought and sold dozens of houses and condominiums for both personal use and as investments, this is my favorite and most revealing question to ask of home sellers and their listing agents.

Even if the home is run-down and shabby, I always try to use that word “lovely” to see if the seller and/or the listing agent have a sense of humor.

The primary reasons the home buyer needs to know why the seller is selling are to (1) tailor a purchase offer that will meet the seller’s needs, and (2) determine if the seller is highly motivated to sell.

To illustrate, if you learn the sellers are moving to a retirement residence, perhaps they will carry back a first or second mortgage, thus creating superb secured income earning around 6 percent for them and easy financing for you as the buyer. Or, maybe you learn the sellers are in foreclosure so the buyer needs to act fast to close the purchase before the foreclosure auction.

Unless the buyer asks, the listing agent is unlikely to volunteer the reason for selling. Occasionally, the buyer will be rebuffed.

For example, I recall I once asked this key question and the nasty listing agent said, “It’s none of your business.” Later, I learned the sellers were retiring to move to Palm Springs, Calif., and they would have been perfect candidates for a seller-financed mortgage.

2.) HOW MUCH DID THE SELLER PAY FOR THIS HOME?

In most communities, this information is a public record, which the buyer’s agent can easily obtain. The reason smart home buyers insist on knowing this vital information is it shows how much negotiation room the seller has.

A key follow-up question is, “What is the current mortgage balance and are there any other liens against the home, such as a second mortgage or home equity loan, judgment liens, and mechanics’ liens?”

The answer from the seller or the listing agent shows how much cash the seller absolutely must receive. If you learn the home is free and clear with no encumbrances, you just struck gold because the seller can then be flexible as to price and terms.

As a seller, when a home buyer asks me what I paid for the property, I politely reply, “I got a bargain purchase price when this was a run-down shack before I renovated it so my purchase price is irrelevant to today’s market value.”

If a smart home buyer, and his or her buyer’s agent, discover the seller paid a low purchase price many years ago, that means the seller has lots of room to negotiate. However, if you find out the seller bought the house in the last year or two with a large mortgage or two, the seller might not have much negotiation flexibility.

3.) WHAT DEFECTS DOES THE HOME HAVE AND HAVE THERE BEEN ANY RECENT PROFESSIONAL HOME INSPECTIONS?

In most states, home sellers must now provide buyers with written home sale disclosures revealing any material facts that affect the home’s market value or desirability.

Smart listing agents obtain the seller’s written disclosures at the time of listing and have it easily available to prospective buyers. Then buyers won’t be surprised later by discovering the home has major problems that were already disclosed by the seller.

Home sellers, at the suggestion of their listing agents, often have customary professional inspections completed before the home is put on the market. Then the seller can either have any defects repaired, or at least can make the buyer aware of them before the purchase offer is made.

Of course, after the seller accepts the buyer’s purchase offer in writing, the buyer should always hire his or her own professional inspector just to double-check the seller’s inspector. If the buyer’s inspector discovers any undisclosed defects, then negotiations can be reopened if the buyer included a professional inspection contingency clause in the sales contract.

A good source of quality home inspectors is the American Society of Home Inspectors. To find local ASHI members, go to www.ashi.org or phone 1-800-743-2744.

4.) WHAT PROBLEMS HAVE YOU HAD WITH THIS HOME?

An open-end question like this will remind the home seller of any problems that, hopefully, have been corrected.

For example, when I first moved to my current home I quickly discovered I couldn’t have a decent garden because the deer would eat virtually everything. So I constructed fences to solve that problem. A few years later, the wood shingle roof began to leak but new leaks kept reappearing after a roofer made repairs. About 20 years ago, I had a new metal “lifetime” roof installed and I have had no further roof problems.

In most states, court decisions and statutes do not require home sellers to reveal past problems that have been corrected. But it is still important for buyers to know if those past problems might again become future problems.

5.) WHAT IS THE QUALITY OF THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS?

If you don’t have school-age children, it’s easy to forget this important question. But top quality schools contribute to home values and future market value appreciation. Families prefer to buy in communities with superb public schools and are willing to pay extra for the privilege.

However, in many big cities where the public schools are poor quality, families who buy a house or condo there realize the low school quality contributes little or nothing toward residence values.

Because most home sellers do not have accurate information on public school quality, the buyer’s agent should provide their home buyer with the latest school quality statistics, usually based on standard test scores and high school graduation rates.

Most real estate brokerages have access to the Internet resource www.schoolmatch.com, which tracks over 14,000 public school districts. Over 7 million parents accessed School Match services last year. A related Internet resource is www.houseappreciation.com, which rates the top 32 percent of communities based on their school quality and home value appreciation since 1994.

SUMMARY: Home buyers should always ask the five key questions sellers and their listing agents hope you don’t ask. The answers help eliminate undesirable homes and maximize the home buyer’s negotiation information. More details are in my special report, “The 10 Most Important Questions Home Sellers Hope Their Buyers Don’t Ask,” available for $5 from Robert Bruss, 251 Park Road, Burlingame, CA 94010 or by credit card at 1-800-736-1736 or instant Internet delivery at www.BobBruss.com.

(For more information on Bob Bruss publications, visit his
Real Estate Center
).

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