5 New Rules of Real Estate

CBS MoneyWatch

In the 20-odd years that I have been writing about real estate, I don't believe there has ever been a better time to buy a home.

Why? For starters, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages can be had for less than 5 percent. Recently, the 30-year rate hit 4.6 percent. If you want a 15-year mortgage, you can (for now) still get it for less than 4 percent. These are astounding rates. As Robert Fogel, a Nobel prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, recently told me, it's like borrowing for free. That's how it feels to me, too: When my husband and I bought our first home in 1989, our interest rate was 11.75 percent.

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At this point, it seems everyone wants the real estate market to get better:

Realtors are selling a fraction of the homes they once were, taking a huge hit in income.

Builders (at least, those that are still in business) are selling about one-eighth as many homes as they were selling in 2005.

Appraisers continue to take some of the blame for the housing crisis, for over-appraising property in the boom years and under-appraising it now. Realtors say that more than 75 percent of the homes sales that fall apart do so because the appraisal comes in so far below the contract price that a deal can't be worked out.

• And homeowners are desperate for the housing market to rebound -- especially the more than 25 percent who are underwater with their homes -- so they can refinance or sell their homes and move on with their lives.

[Click here to check home equity rates in your area.]

There's no reason you shouldn't buy a home now and take advantage of super-low prices, historically low mortgage interest rates, and a significant supply of homes on the market. But to be successful in today's real estate market, you need to understand that the game has changed.

Here's my list of the biggest shifts:

1. R.I.P., Big Housing Price Jumps

If you want to buy a house, you have to have enough income to support the mortgage. Now, take it the next step: If everyone in a particular neighborhood earns around the same money, then all the houses in the neighborhood will be priced about the same and home values will only rise 3 percent per year.

That's about the typical raise most Americans used to get, but the decidedly old-fashioned expectation went out in the 2000s because banks told borrowers that exotic mortgages (like the infamous pay-option adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM) would allow them to "leverage up" to a much more expensive house payment. It was a payment most clearly couldn't afford; the bulk of those loans started going delinquent within three months of closing. Now that every borrower has to have a job and some sort of down payment, and the only basic loan types available are 30-year and 15-year fixed-rate mortgages, you won't be able to leverage up with your mortgage, and housing prices will remain far more steady.

In short -- buy now, but don't expect a huge pop in home prices. It ain't going to happen.

2. Mortgage Lenders: Just Not That into You

Most home buyers don't have enough cash in their pocket to purchase a home without a mortgage. But, lenders are extremely risk-averse at the moment -- so they don't want to approve a mortgage application unless you have an extremely good FICO score (preferably 700 or higher, and at least 760 to get the best rates); you have plenty of cash in the bank (for your down payment, closing costs and a healthy cash reserve); you don't have anything weird or amiss in your financial data. And it helps if you have another loan application approved from a competing institution. Which is to say: They only want you if you don't really need them.

You'll also need to make sure the property appraises at or above the contracted price and the neighborhood is steady (without too many foreclosures).

3. The Best Deals Are in New Places

Sure, there are amazing short sales and foreclosures out there. To find them, you'll have to hire a great agent who really knows what he or she is doing, has connections with the foreclosure-sale (also known as real estate owned, or REO) departments of big lenders, and can help you navigate a tricky and frustrating negotiation cycle.

For example, if you want to buy a HUD home (an FHA foreclosure), you'll need a HUD-certified real estate agent who can help you make an offer at HUDHomeStore.com. But the agent may not tell you that short sales and foreclosures are often damaged properties that will require tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in deferred maintenance, rebuilding or renovating.

Instead, look for a property where the seller has plenty of equity and has to sell, but is confronted with a neighborhood full of foreclosures. The seller will have to price the home to compete with foreclosures, and you'll scoop up a property that is in much better shape and will, in all likelihood, require a lot less maintenance, renovation and upkeep.

4. Investing? Focus on Income

Somewhere along the way, ordinary civilians got the idea that there were massive profits to be made in real estate, if only they could flip the properties fast enough. The problem with that strategy became apparent when the real estate market crashed, and investors (who were leveraged to the hilt) couldn't get out of their properties in time. When you're paying thousands of dollars for a mortgage but don't have any income -- nor hopes of a sale -- it's a fast track to bankruptcy.

But now is an amazing time to buy investment property. Purchase a foreclosure or two (or up to 10, if you can find the financing), and focus on how much income you can get each month. If you buy a foreclosure in the Atlanta area for $75,000 and can get $800 to $1,000 per month in rent, that's a terrific return on investment.

5. Time to Think Medium Term ... at Minimum

I'm not sure where home buyers got the idea that they could buy and flip houses every 24 months and collect a king's ransom's worth of tax-free profits. But those days are over. Whether you're buying as an investor or plan to live in the property, you'll need a 7- to 10-year plan in order to make sure you won't lose money after factoring in the costs of sale.

Even those investors who are buying bottom-feeder foreclosures and fixing them up might not be able to resell them so quickly. And if they do, they might find that lenders won't finance their buyers. So come up with a long-term plan that will let you rake in money ... while the rest of the real estate market catches up.

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