Builders to buyers: Take this house, please!
The once-hot housing market's about-face has created amazing incentives for buyers. What are you waiting for?
By Jean Chatzky, Money Magazine editor-at-large

NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- How would you like a $10,000 gift certificate for Pottery Barn? A $30,000 in-ground swimming pool - installed? The chance to toss back a few drinks with rocker John Legend? These and many other fabulous prizes can be yours if...you buy a house!

That's right, Bob Barker. After years of soaring prices, in the past few months the real estate market has dropped faster than most people thought it would, even in markets where most people thought it wouldn't. Home builders, mortgage lenders and even some enterprising individual sellers have been racking their brains to come up with tantalizing incentives to get potential buyers to the closing table and to convince top brokers to work with them.

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Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her at money_life@moneymail.com.
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As buyer's markets go, this is shaping up to be a good one - as long as you know how to play it to your advantage.

But gimmicks like new pools and mingling with rock stars are a distraction, says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com. If you're truly savvy about selecting and bidding on a home, you may be able to do better, he says. Much better.

Home inventories have gone skyward in the past year. In August (the most recent month for which data are available) there were 4 million homes on the market in the United States, a million more than at the same point in 2005. Combine that with the boost in interest rates and you have a lot of nervous sellers.

"Until now sellers didn't want to cut their prices. They were much more willing to provide an incentive - refinish the deck, seal the driveway, help with the financing, anything but cut the price," says Zandi. That's because incentives are cheaper for the seller in most cases.

Knocking 5% off a $300,000 home, for example, costs $15,000, but giving away that Pottery Barn shopping spree costs less and sounds sexier.

Right now, however, there's enough inventory that sellers are starting to do both: lower prices and provide incentives. This sharp change is not happening at all times in all markets, Zandi says, and only by knowing what kinds of freebies are being doled out can you jump on the trend and score a better deal (and maybe a new pool too).

Here's what to do.

Hit the Incentive Piņata

It makes sense that people selling on their own are often quick to offer incentives instead of dropping the price. Many have trouble coming to grips with the fact that their home is worth less than they thought it would be, so they resist cutting the price until absolutely necessary.

Instead they offer to pay your closing costs or to leave the Sub-Zero behind. Let your eyes - and the inspector you hire to check the place out - guide your requests. If the house needs painting, new windows or a fresh buffer of trees, now's the time to ask.

And ask for a price cut to boot. Builders and developers use incentives first for a different reason: Reducing the price on one house in a neighborhood could hurt the prices of the remaining homes (and it peeves buyers who already paid full price).

Anyone shopping for a newly constructed home has the most to gain. After drying up during the boom, explains David Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, incentives are back in force. A recent survey of NAHB members revealed that 55% of builders are offering more amenities, 42% are paying closing costs and 26% are absorbing points on mortgages.

In addition, the survey showed that 80% are encountering buyer resistance to the price of homes, the most since the early 1990s. As a result, nearly 45% of builders are trimming prices.

Improve Your Mortgage

Buyers are also getting incentives for taking out mortgages, says Anthony Hsieh, president of LendingTree.com. For example, 20% of home builders are using "buy-down" programs, in which they buy down your mortgage by two percentage points in year one and one point in year two.

That can, in fact, be a great deal. But tread carefully. Some other trendy mortgage offers are a little too much like credit cards with teaser rates attached. They're cheaper in the early years than what you might qualify for, but they escalate quickly.

"Buyers have to be very careful not to be swept off their feet to take the wrong product," says Hsieh. "You don't want to get blinded into the wrong mortgage." The key to knowing whether the loan being offered to you is a good deal or a bummer is to run the numbers on a few scenarios, says Keith Gumbinger of HSH.com, a publisher of mortgage information. You want to know what your actual payment will be not just in years one and two but for as many years as you're planning to live in the house.

Gumbinger recommends watching financing offers for early-termination fees and prepayment penalties. A lender's goal in offering subsidized financing is to keep you there until the payment escalates - and beyond - which often means making it expensive for you to get out.

Look for Alternative Cuts

The buyer's market has created a market for something that's not usually on the list of negotiable factors in the sale of a home: title insurance. (It's rarely on the list of comprehensible factors either, but that's another story.) That is changing thanks to Titleinsurance.com, a new Web site that operates kind of like a LendingTree.com for title insurance.

Consumers go to the site, fill in information about their transaction and get a handful of quotes from title insurers in the county. The site currently has some 325 title insurers signed up to bid and is limiting itself to five per county. The service is nonbinding and is free to consumers. Revenue comes from title insurers who pay, essentially, for leads.

How much money you will save depends on the competition in your area, but with title insurance averaging less than 0.5% of your loan but sometimes costing as much as 1.5%, the gap can be a couple thousand dollars or more.

Grill Your Broker

Another finding from the NAHB survey: In order to help move inventory, more than a third of today's home builders have increased their use of brokers over a year ago, often paying them higher-than-average commissions.

And there's more. "Owners and builders are inviting us to cocktail parties, and they're giving bonuses and increased commissions," says Diane Saatchi of the Corcoran Group.

Most buyers don't realize that the agent is getting an incentive, and there's no legal obligation to tell them. "But you can flat out ask a broker, 'Are you getting an incentive?' Then the broker has to tell," says Saatchi.

If a broker is getting an extra 2%, you will know that her "This house is perfect for you!" declarations might not be heartfelt.

You'll also know that the seller is desperate, so ask for a lower price. These days you just might get it.

_________________________

Beware the mortgage time-bomb

The housing slump - and your portfolio

Latest home prices: 151 markets Top of page



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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.