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Owning a Home


Home Price Appreciation

How can I improve the value of my property?

Outside of a homeowner's control, the biggest factor is market conditions. Other important issues are:

The greatest rise in home prices occurs when the economy is strong and the number of home sales is increasing. Specific home improvements can increase the value above the cost of the improvements.

Remember, quality pays. Well-planned and well-executed remodeling jobs are a good investment while bad work seldom enhances value or livability.

The safety and security of a neighborhood can affect property values, too. If you live in a high-crime area, an organized community watch program not only will lower the crime rate but give home values a boost, too.

How can I increase the value of my property?

Specific home improvements can increase your property value above the cost of the improvements themselves, such as remodeling a kitchen, adding a bathroom, finishing a basement or upgrading landscaping. Just be sure that quality pays with remodeling. A bad remodeling job will do little to boost your property value.

If you live in a high-crime area, an organized community watch program not only will lower the crime rate but can enhance property values, too. It also helps to live in an area where other homeowners are upgrading their homes, which can help pull up your property value, too.

The bottom line is to measure the cost of any improvements you want to make against the overall values in your neighborhood. If you over improve for the neighborhood, you may not necessarily recover your costs or boost your property value significantly.

Will buying a bigger home increase my profit?

Consider these questions before making a choice between adding on to an existing home or moving up in the market to a bigger house:

Ultimately, the decision should be based on individual needs, the extent of work involved and what will add the most value.

How do I find out how much my home is worth?

A comparative market analysis and an appraisal are the standard methods for determining a home's value.

Your real estate agent will be able to provide a comparative market analysis, an informal estimate of value based on comparable sales in the neighborhood. Be sure you get listing prices of current homes on the market as well as those that have sold. You also can research this yourself by checking on recent sales in public records. Be sure that you are researching properties that are similar in size, construction and location. This information is not only available at your local recorder's or assessor's office but also through private companies and on the Internet.

An appraisal, which generally costs $200 to $300 to perform, is a certified appraiser's opinion of the value of a home at any given time. Appraisers review numerous factors including recent comparable sales, location, square footage and construction quality.

What are the differences between market value and appraised value?

The appraised value of a house is a certified appraiser's opinion of the worth of a home at a given point in time. Lenders require appraisals as part of the loan application process; fees range from $200 to $300.

Market value is what price the house will bring at a given point in time. A comparative market analysis is an informal estimate of market value, based on sales of comparable properties, performed by a real estate agent or broker. Either an appraisal or a comparative market analysis is the most accurate way to determine what your home is worth.

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Condos and Home Associations

Are condos a good investment?

Condominiums have held their value as an investment despite economic downturns and problems with some associations. In fact, condos have appreciated more in the past few years than when they first came on the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, experts say.

While there are lots of reports about homeowners association disputes and construction-defect problems, the industry has worked hard to turn its image around. Elected volunteers who serve on association boards are better trained at handling complex budget and legal issues, for example, while many boards go to great lengths to avoid the kind of protracted and expensive litigation that has hurt resale value in the past.

Meanwhile, changing demographics are making condominiums more attractive investments for single homebuyers, empty nesters and first-time buyers in expensive markets.

What kinds of rules and regulations do Associations regulate?

Typical covenants, codes and restrictions (CC&Rs), which govern condo associations, give the board authority to make and enforce reasonable rules for the use of common property. But that would not apply to interior spaces owned by smokers themselves.

A homeowners association's board of directors can restrict smoking if it applies to indoor common spaces such as hallways or recreation rooms. Outdoor spaces are a different story, say legal experts. Any restriction would probably hinge on local laws (i.e. if a city banned smoking outdoors, a homeowners association probably could restrict smoking in its outdoor spaces).

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act does not require strictly residential apartments and single-family homes to be made accessible. But all new construction of public accommodations or commercial projects (such as a government building or a shopping mall) must be accessible. New multi-family construction also falls into this category.

In all states, the Federal Fair Housing Act provides protection against discrimination for people with physical or mental disabilities. Discrimination includes the refusal to make reasonable modifications to buildings that aren't accessible to the disabled.

What fees can I expect to pay a home association?

Condominium owners pay a fee, usually monthly, to the homeowner?s association to cover the costs of managing and maintaining all common areas. In addition, you may pay extra assessments for major maintenance projects. In general these must be voted on by the association board or in some cases by all of the owners. The particular cost of monthly fees and the rules regarding special assessments vary from association to association. When considering a condominium, it?s a good idea to thoroughly research the fees and bylaws of the condo association.

Are homeowner association fees tax deductible?

Homeowners association fees are considered personal living expenses and are not tax-deductible. If, however, an association has a special assessment to make one or more capital improvements, condo owners may be able to add the expense to their cost basis. Cost basis is a term for the money an owner spends for permanent improvements throughout their time in the home and is used to reduce eventual capital gains taxes when the property is sold. For example, if the association puts a new roof on a building, the expense could be considered part of a condo owner's cost basis only if they lived directly underneath it. Overall improvements to common areas, such as the installation of a swimming pool, need to be considered on a case-by-case basis but most can be included in the cost basis of any owner who can show their home directly benefits from the work.

To find out more about how the IRS views condo association fees, look to IRS Publication 17, "Your Federal Income Tax," which includes a section on condos. Order a free copy by calling (800) TAX-FORM.

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Improving Real Estate

Are there government programs for rehabilitation?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 203 (K) rehabilitation loan program is designed to facilitate major structural rehabilitation of houses with one to four units that are more than one year old. Condominiums are not eligible.

The 203(K) loan is usually done as a combination loan to purchase a fixer-upper property "as is" and rehabilitate it, or to refinance a temporary loan to buy the property and do the rehabilitation. It can also be done as a rehabilitation-only loan.

Plans and specifications for the proposed work must be submitted for architectural review and cost estimation. Mortgage proceeds are advanced periodically during the rehabilitation period to finance the construction costs.

For a list of participating lenders, call HUD at (202) 708-2720.

If you are a veteran, loans from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also can be used to buy a home, build a home, improve a home or to refinance an existing loan. VA loans frequently offer lower interest rates than ordinarily available with other kinds of loans. To qualify for a loan, the first step is to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility.

Another program is the Federal Housing Administration's Title 1 FHA loan program.

How much can I expect to spend on maintenance?

Experts generally agree that you can plan on annually spending 1 percent of the purchase price of your house on repairing gutters, caulking windows, sealing your driveway and the myriad other maintenance chores that come with the privilege of homeownership. Newer homes will cost less to maintain than older homes. It also depends on how well the house has been maintained over the years.

What repairs should I make before putting a home on the market?

If you want to get top dollar for your property, you probably need to make all minor repairs and selected major repairs before going on the market. Nearly all purchase contracts include an inspection clause, a buyer contingency that allows a buyer to back out if numerous defects are found or negotiate their repair.

The trick is not to overspend on pre-sale repairs, especially if there are few houses on the market but many buyers willing to buy at almost any price. On the other hand, making such repairs may be the only way to sell your house in a down market.

Can neighbor problems de-value the property?

While it may not reduce the actual value, a cluttered landscape next door can detract from the positive aspects of your home. Review your local laws, which should be on file at the public library, county law library or City Hall.

A typical "junk vehicle" ordinance, for example, requires any disabled car to either be enclosed or placed behind a fence. And most cities prohibit parking any vehicle on a city street too long.

It also may be worthwhile to check into local zoning ordinances. An operator of a home-based business usually is required to obtain a variance or permanent zoning change in residential areas.

In addition, if a neighbor's repair work produces loud noises, he may be breaking local noise-control ordinances, which are enforced by the police department.

Before bringing in the authorities, you may want to make a copy of the pertinent ordinance and give it to your neighbor to give them a chance to correct the problem.

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Insurance

What kind of insurance do I need?

A standard homeowners policy protects against fire, lightning, wind, storms, hail, explosions, riots, aircraft wrecks, vehicle crashes, smoke, vandalism, theft, breaking glass, falling objects, weight of snow or sleet, collapsing buildings, freezing of plumbing fixtures, electrical damage and water damage from plumbing, heating or air conditioning systems, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group for the insurance industry.

Such policies are "all-risk" policies, which cover everything except earthquakes, floods, war and nuclear accidents.

A basic policy can be expanded to include additional coverage, such as for floods and earthquakes and even workers' compensation for servants or contractors. Home-based business-coverage, an increasingly popular rider, does not cover liability associated with the business.

Insurance experts recommend that homeowners obtain insurance equal to the full replacement value of the home. On a 2,000-square-foot home, for example, if the replacement cost is $80 per square foot, the house should be insured for at least $160,000.

For personal items, homeowners can increase their coverage beyond the depreciated value of items such as televisions or furniture by purchasing a "replacement-cost endorsement" on personal property.

Some experts recommend an inflation rider, which increases coverage as the home increases in value.

What is guaranteed replacement cost insurance?

Guaranteed replacement insurance is a more comprehensive policy. It tends to cost more, but it promises to cover the complete costs less deductible of replacing a destroyed house. With these sorts of policies, limits on the policies are not as common, because complete coverage is more explicit.

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Taxes

Can property taxes be deducted?

Property taxes on all real estate, including those levied by state and local governments and school districts, are fully deductible against current income taxes.

Mortgage interest and property taxes are deductible on a second home if you itemize. Check with your accountant or tax adviser for specifics.

How are property taxes configured?

Property taxes are what most homeowners in the United States pay for the privilege of owning a piece of real estate, on average 1.5 percent of the property's current market value. These annual local assessments by county or local authorities help pay for public services and are calculated using a variety of formulas.

How does home mortgage tax deductions work?

The mortgage interest deduction entitles you to completely deduct the interest on your home loan for the year in which you paid it. Mortgage interest is not a dollar-for-dollar tax cut; it reduces taxable income. You must itemize deductions in order to do this, which means your total deductions must exceed the IRS's standard deduction.

Another point to remember is that the amount of interest on your loan goes down each year you pay on your mortgage (all standard home-loan formulas pay off interest first before significantly paying into principal). That's why paying extra on your principal every year can help you pay off your loan early.

What is an impound account?

An impound account is a trust account established by the lender to hold money to pay for real estate taxes, and mortgage and homeowners insurance premiums as they are received each month.

Are points deductible?

If you are a buyer, and you or the seller pays points, they are deductible for the year in which they are paid only. You also can deduct any points you pay when you refinance your home, but you must do so ratably over the life of the loan. Consult your tax or financial advisor.

Are there tax breaks for first-time buyers?

Many city and county governments offer Mortgage Credit Certificate programs, which allow first-time homebuyers to take advantage of a special federal income tax write-off, which makes qualifying for a mortgage loan easier.

Requirements vary from program to program. People wanting to apply should contact their local housing or community development office.

Some things to keep in mind:

You must be a first-time homebuyer, which means you must not have had any kind of ownership interest in a principal residence during the past three years. This restriction may be waived, however, if you are buying property within certain target areas.

Allocations must be available. A local MCC program may have to decline new applications when it runs out of funds.

Are home improvements deductible?

What you spend on permanent home improvements, such as new windows, can be added into your home's cost basis, or amount of money invested in a home, which reduces capital gains when it comes time to sell. Capital gains are determined by the difference in price from the time a home is purchased and the time it is sold, minus the cost of any permanent improvements.

However, the 1997 tax changes virtually eliminate the capital gains tax for most homeowners (the exemption is $250,000 for single homeowners and $500,000 for married homeowners.

Still, it is worthwhile to save all receipts for permanent home improvements just in case. They also can be useful documentation when it comes to marketing your home when you sell.

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Refinancing

When is the best time to refinance?

It depends on how long you plan to hold on to your house and if you have to pay anything to refinance. In addition, it also depends on how far along you are in paying off your current mortgage.

If you are going to be selling your house shortly, you probably will not recoup any costs you incur to refinance your mortgage. If you are more than halfway through paying your current mortgage, you probably will gain little by refinancing. However, if you are going to own your home for at least five years, that's probably long enough to recoup any refinancing costs you incur and to realize real savings on lowering your monthly payment. If it is going to cost you nothing to refinance, you can gain even more.

Many lenders will allow you to roll the costs of the refinancing into the new note and still reduce the amount of the monthly payment. Also, there are no-cost refinancing deals available. In any case, it pays to consult your lender or financial advisor, or run the numbers yourself, before you refinance.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of no-cost loans?

In many states, real estate regulatory agencies are cracking down on such advertising. The very term, "no-cost" loan, is misleading because borrowers are actually paying a higher interest rate in exchange for not having to pay fees or closing costs up front when the loan is secured.

A "no-points" loan is one for which the lender does not charge points (one point is equal to 1 percent of the loan amount). But there are other fees involved in no-point loans, as with most loans.

How does bankruptcy affect my refinancing?

Refinancing may be prudent but could be difficult after a bankruptcy. If you're considering bankruptcy, you may want to go to your current lender first and explain the situation. If you have been current on your payments, the lender may be accommodating and refinance your loan, easing your financial situation.

Which home buying costs are deductible?

Any points you or the seller pay to purchase your home loan are deductible for that year. Property taxes and interest are deductible every year.

But while other home-buying costs (closing costs in particular) are not immediately tax-deductible, they can be figured into the adjusted cost basis of your home when you go to sell (any significant home improvements also can be calculated into your basis). These fees would include title insurance, loan-application fee, credit report, appraisal fee, service fee, settlement or closing fees, bank attorney's fee, attorney's fee, document preparation fee and recording fees. Points paid when you refinance an existing mortgage must be deducted ratably over the life of the new loan.

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