Selling Your Home? Keep Your Eye On the Ball to Get From Contract to Closing

Selling your home is a major undertaking, and there are many tasks required to move from contract to closing. If you take your eye off the ball, a lot that’s preventable can go wrong. Heed these reminders to prevent your home sale from coming to a screeching halt.

It’s All in the Pricing: Make Decisions Logically, Not Emotionally

2020 has been an epic year for the suburban New Jersey real estate market as city dwellers flock to the suburbs, in large part because of COVID-19. The increase in prospective buyers led to bidding wars which in turn led to many houses selling for tens of thousands of dollars (sometimes more!) over the listing price. Higher than normal pricing worked for sellers if their buyers were purchasing without a mortgage but against them when buyers needed to borrow to complete the sale. Because comparable pre-Covid sales could not support the high selling price, in many cases a lender’s appraisal did not match the agreed upon purchase price. This puts the parties in a position of having to scuttle the deal or renegotiate the purchase price if a buyer cannot or is unwilling to pony up the extra cash or restructure the terms of their financing.

It’s important to remember that price is a reflection of market circumstances, past sale performance on comparable properties and what the current lending market will bear. You must temper the excitement of bidding war reality and bring your house to market at a fair and reasonable price. Pricing your home is one situation where following just your pocketbook can get you into trouble and leave you holding the bag on what you thought was a done deal.

Freeze Your Equity Line

Unlike a conventional mortgage, a home equity line is like a credit card that can be used by a homeowner to make purchases that have no relationship to the property. However, the line of credit is secured by the property and the bank that extends the credit has a lien on the property as a means of insuring they are paid back.

Although the proceeds of your sale can be used to pay off your home equity loan balance at closing, the title company and buyer’s attorney will require that the line has been blocked or frozen from future use well in advance of closing. This prevents a seller from making a last minute, high-price purchase which is not reflected in the payoff amount and prevents the release of the bank’s lien. It often takes banks weeks to issue formal confirmation that a home equity line has been frozen. And while your attorney may be able to obtain the payoff amount, she will not be able freeze your home equity line for you. To avoid closing delays, homeowners should request a “freeze letter” well in advance of closing.

Dig out the Paperwork: Poor Recordkeeping Could Get You Into Hot Water

Decreasing interest rates have caused many homeowners to refinance their mortgages, and you may be one of them. In any refinance or lender change, documentation is required at the conclusion of each loan to verify that the loan has been properly discharged. It’s wise to have these documents on hand to move your real estate deal forward. Left undone, a title search may reveal undischarged liens on your property and, once again, prevent your buyer from getting clear title. This is another potential obstacle that can be prevented by keeping records related to all refinancing and associated loan payoffs through your period of ownership.

Cover Your Bases: Get the Necessary Certificates From Your Town

Two key municipal certificates may be required to move your closing to final: the fire inspection certificate that confirms your fire alarm system, carbon monoxide warning system and fire extinguisher are functioning properly; and a certificate of occupancy. Failure to schedule inspections confirming that everything is up to speed can delay your closing. Your realtors typically will arrange these inspections, procure the documents and deliver them to your attorney in advance of closing. If, however, you’ve sold your house on your own, you will be responsible for arranging the inspections and getting the documents. No documents, no closing. So make sure these items are on your closing preparation checklist, and this includes reaching out to your realtor to make sure they’ve taken care of this detail as well.

The Past Can Haunt You: Disclosures and Permits are Necessary to Complete the Sale

happy couple with SOLD sign

Diligence leads to succesfull sale

If you’re like many homeowners, you’ve likely made improvements to your home during the time you lived there. Relatively minor renovations, like replacing flooring or countertops, can generally be done without obtaining a permit from your local municipality. But major projects like a new roof, an addition or other structural work, electrical or duct work, water heater or HVAC replacement may require a permit prior to getting started. The permit is more than a rubber stamp. The permit means that your town knows that the work is being done and inspected the work upon completion of the project to confirm it has been done to code. You should file an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with your town’s building department when you list your home to confirm that all permitted work has been properly closed. If your prospective buyers find an open permit first, it may be difficult for you to schedule the appropriate town inspections to get the permit closed before your scheduled closing.

Be Ready for the Final Walkthrough: Do What You Say

The final walkthrough is the inspection that takes place a day or two before closing. The walkthrough is designed to make sure that repairs negotiated in the original home inspection have been completed, that all major mechanical systems are still working properly, and that the items you committed to leaving for the buyer in the contract (e.g., refrigerator, washing machine, a wall-mounted TV, etc.) are still in the home. Your house must also be in the same condition it was when you signed the contract with the buyer and there can be no physical damage from the move.

During the final walkthrough the buyer makes certain that all repairs negotiated in the original home inspection have been completed. Typically, receipts or other documentation of completed remediations are turned over to your attorney following your receiving an inspection checklist and negotiation on the items that will be completed. Forgetting to actually complete an inspection item or shortcutting the solution by completing it sloppily can cause your buyer to put the brakes on closing. Failure or forgetfulness in doing what has been required in the home inspection can delay closing and how long the delay or whether the deal will be canceled will depend on the magnitude of the issues involved. Alternately, you may have to make a financial concession to the buyer which lessens your profit. Money may also be held in escrow until the appropriate remediations are made. But if you and the buyer can’t reach agreement, your closing stands the risk of delay. And because omissions such as these may interfere with the trust with which your buyer approaches the deal, you risk your sale being terminated.

It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

When it comes to selling your home, no truer words were ever spoken. If you want to get from contract to closing, you need to cover all your bases. Think reasonably. Be on top of every detail. Follow through on everything you say. It’s only then that you can be certain that you have done everything you could to ensure a successful sale experience and enjoy the freedom to move on to your new home.

At Phelan, Frantz, Ohlig & Wegbreit LLC, we understand that selling your home is a huge and important undertaking. We are here to guide you in your decision-making and ensure that you complete all the proper steps that lead to a successful sale.

Call us at 908.232.2244 and enjoy the seamless selling experience that will ready you for your next passage.

Enroute to Your New Home: You Could Be Headed for a Buyside Flop Without the Appropriate Due Diligence

It’s a crazy real estate market right now in large part thanks to COVID-19. In the tristate area, people have been flocking from the city looking for suburban surroundings in which to raise their families. Eager buyers have bid up prices as they vied to land that very special house they were determined to call home. It’s been an exciting, heady time, and for both buyers and sellers, there were many happy outcomes.

It’s always gratifying to see clients achieve what they set out to accomplish. Unfortunately, however, not all the stories have happy endings. Sometimes buyers get so set on a particular house that they’re willing to cut corners to have their offer accepted. But as human nature can sometimes show us, over-eagerness can cause even positive events to turn sour. In matters of the heart, that could lead to a bad marriage. And, in real estate, much like with love between partners, acting too quickly, can cause deals to go south.

There are standard precautions you should take in doing your due diligence on a new home that can prevent a deal breaker from turning up too late. We can’t guarantee that taking these precautions will prevent you from being disappointed if you uncover an undesirable issue that prompts you to withdraw your offer. But thoughtfully approaching what is likely to be one of the biggest purchases of your lifetime will save you from the risk of lost time, lost money and an abrupt end to your transaction that may have steep financial consequences and the lost opportunity to bid on something else.

Here are three instances when moving too quickly and without appropriate due diligence could cause your real estate deal to implode.

Decommissioned Oil Tank: Far From Buried Treasure

Back in the day, the trend was for homeowners to convert from expensive oil heat to gas. To do this, the practice was to decommission the oil tank – most often located underground – by pumping out the oil and filling it with sand.  Fifteen years ago, there was no reason to worry—or so it seemed.  In most instances, this practice was sanctioned by town inspectors and environmental regulators. We have since learned, however, that many of the decommissioned tanks had holes and had leaked before they were decommissioned. For this reason, industry standard today dictates that even properly decommissioned tanks be removed.

Particularly in and around Union County, it is recommended that every potential home purchaser conduct a scan for underground tanks during the inspection period. Discovery of a tank can derail a transaction, particularly if the parties were intent on a quick close. If the tank is pulled and found to have leaked, soil remediation must take place and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection must review the test removal, remediation, and test results in order to issue a No Further Action letter sanctioning the work that was done.

Anxious buyers might be tempted to take a credit for tank removal to allow the sale to go through. But underground oil tanks represent an unknown financial liability. Remediation is costly, and it’s difficult to predetermine the cost without testing. A small leak can cost $5,000.00 to $10,000.00—larger leaks tens of thousands of dollars.

Even worse, you could close on the property and move into a nightmare: discovery of an active spill that has reached the water table. What if traces of the oil get into your new next-door neighbor’s water? Contractors are telling you that you could be spending $120,000 or more to clean it up.

If you’ve set your sights on an older home that weathered the transition from oil to gas, it’s imperative to hire an independent environmental company to test the soil and the tank for leaks and corrosion. A written report certifying that the tank hasn’t leaked and tainted the soil is the only proof that can guarantee that the property has not been compromised by oil.

Waive the Appraisal Contingency: Pay a High Price for a Low Appraisal

Appraisal contingency is a mustThe appraisal contingency is very important when you’re financing your purchase, because lenders rely on the value of the home in determining how much money they will loan you. Buyers seeking to borrow 80% of the purchase price need the home to appraise at full value or else they face having to restructure their financing, pay private mortgage insurance, or find ways to come up with additional cash to close. That said, waiving the appraisal contingency has become a trend in a highly competitive market as a way to beat competing bids from other buyers. It is important that you fully understand what you are giving up if you intend to take this tack. Do you have funds to make up the out-of-pocket difference? Or, even if you have the money, would paying extra eat up your cash and/or savings?

Understanding the Importance of the Title Contingency and Title Insurance.

A title search will dig up all kinds of information—things like if there are any liens on the property or, believe it or not, that a third party has an interest in your home. A title search may reveal that the seller has failed to pay their income taxes for a period of time, leading the IRS to put a lien on their home. If the seller also has a mortgage, it may be that the proceeds from the sale are insufficient to cover the amount due on their mortgage and the amount owed to the IRS.

In another troublesome scenario, a title search could reveal that a distant relative, or an ex-spouse, actually has a claim to the home’s ownership. The third party can rightly say that the seller did not have permission to sell the house to you. If that happens, a judge could support the party’s claim.

Part of the title search includes paying for a survey of the property to make sure there are no encroachments (from neighboring fences or sheds) or easements on the property that interfere with its use.  Some buyers are reluctant to pay for a survey, feeling it is an unnecessary additional cost among the many expenses of buying a home. Reluctance to obtain a survey to save a few hundred dollars can have a tremendous impact, however, if these issues later are discovered.

The title search gives everyone a chance to eliminate trouble spots before proceeding with the sale—or to call the sale off, if anything too serious is uncovered. The title insurance policy purchased during the transaction provides future protection if these issues arise after closing. The important thing to remember about not cutting corners on the insurance is that you must purchase title insurance to protect you as well as your lender.

Long story short, it is not worth it to cut corners in purchasing a house, even if you believe it to be the home of your dreams. If you waive any of the above protections, and then find an issue that leads you to want to terminate, it can create a dispute with the seller about the legitimacy of your termination and may put your deposit at risk. Trust that there will always be another property if the first one doesn’t work out and protecting yourself is the best path forward.

At Phelan, Frantz, Ohlig and Wegbreit, LLC we want nothing more than for you to have a seamless closing and a purchase that gets you the house you want. But we also know that moving too quickly and without the proper due diligence can result in financial consequences, lost time and the huge disappointment of a transaction that could be abruptly terminated. While ultimately, decisions are yours, we want to remind you that contingencies, inspections, and title insurance are rights to which you’re entitled. Our guidance is always to exercise the due diligence activities appropriate for your transaction and circumstances. Because our goal remains constant: enabling you to purchase the home you want and being in the position to fully enjoy it.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series that describes how home buyers and sellers sometimes fail to include important contingencies in their real estate contract and exercise the appropriate due diligence—and they end up with a deal that flops.

Call us at 908.232.2244 to schedule an appointment and turn your homebuying dreams into reality.