D.C. area home buyers get creative in return of bidding wars


Emily Reuter and Kyle Skellchock,with their dogs Wilson and Leo walk in front of the home they bought in May. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 10, 2012

After months of frustration, first-time home buyers Emily Reuter and Kyle Skellchock finally found a house they loved. As a bonus, they also fell in love with the sellers’ dog.

Buddy, a white and tan chiffon, turned out to be the deal clincher. Because their offer was nearly identical to another offer made on the home, the willingness of Reuter and Skellchock to take Buddy — the sellers were moving to Florida and couldn’t bring the dog with them — made all the difference. Reuter and Skellchock got the house.

These days, buyers are having to come up with more and more creative ways to win the bidding wars that are breaking out again in the Washington area real estate market.

“Multiple contracts have been popping up the last [several] months as the inventory shrinks in the marketplace and there’s more competition for getting a house,” said Holly Worthington, a Long & Foster managing broker in the Washington area. “We have way more buyers than we have properties to sell.”

The heightened demand is fueled by record-low mortgage rates. Freddie Mac reported on Thursday that the 30-year fixed-rate average was 3.59 percent. The 30-year rate has been below 4 percent all but one week this year. The 15-year fixed-rate average has lingered below 3 percent the past 11 weeks. These low rates make homeownership more affordable. Many would-be homeowners, spurred by the low rates, are seeking to buy, but they aren’t finding much to choose from.

Typically, the number of listings swells after the new year and continues to rise through the spring selling season. This year, listings fell in January, dropped some more in February and rebounded slightly in March and April, according to data provided by RBIntel, a subsidiary of MRIS. Even with that slight improvement in the spring, the number of active listings in April compared with the figure a year ago was down more than 30 percent.

In June, the Washington area had its 16th consecutive month of year-over-year declines in active listings. The number of active listings in June shrank to a historic low, falling to 10,374, down 33 percent from a year ago. The 5,588 new listings entered in June are the lowest for the month of June since RBIntel started tracking the data in 1997.

Tim Ellis, a real estate analyst, monitors housing data for Redfin. “It’s a really weird dynamic this year,” he said. “What you typically see seasonally is really not what we’re seeing.”

The lingering effects of the housing bust are in part causing this stagnation in the market. Too many people can’t afford to sell their houses because they are underwater on their mortgages or they bought at such a high price they are waiting for the market to rebound. The continued economic uncertainly also makes people reluctant to make major purchases. And those who can sell are afraid there won’t be anything for them to buy, so they do nothing.

‘Speed dating’

For those looking to buy a home, especially first-time buyers, it is a frustrating time. Ben Bennett, a 26-year-old teacher at a D.C. public charter school, has been house hunting for the past year without success. Bennett appears to be a perfect candidate for home ownership. He has no debt, he has saved for a down payment and his credit score is excellent.

One home he was interested in sold four hours after it came on the market. He never even got a chance to put a contract on it. When he heard about a fixer-upper in Eckington, a neighborhood in Northeast Washington, he and his real estate agent, Tim Barley, moved quickly. But despite the $50,000 escalation clause in his contract, Bennett lost out to an investor who paid cash.

“I feel like I’m at speed dating with an engagement ring,” Bennett said. “As somebody who wants to put some sweat equity into a home, it’s frustrating knowing you have to compete against people who can put cash offers up for the same property.”

Jenny Hughes, the listing agent for the Eckington house, said she felt bad that Bennett lost out.

“What breaks my heart is there are homeowners who are making offers on these places, too, that want to take out loans. They’re not getting the houses,” Hughes said. “It’s all about the cash. The seller doesn’t want to have to live through a financing.”

Hughes said she had 19 offers on the Eckington property, which listed for $250,000 and sold for more than $300,000. She had another property on Capitol Hill that drew more than 30 offers. “It was like the cast of ‘Ben-Hur’ came out,” she said. “What I find interesting is how many people in D.C. have so much cash. . . . The D.C. market is just so hot. There are so many investors with so much cash.”

Worthington has followed the Washington market closely for almost 30 years. She says this is the best time to get value in the marketplace.

“Investors know that this is a great time to buy and that the market is going up,” Worthington said. “We’re past the bottom of the market pricing cycle. I’ve been through three dips before. We’re past the bottom of it. There’s no doubt about that.”

Reuter and Skellchock also experienced frustration as they tried to buy their first home. For the first house they put an offer on, they spent $1,500 on an inspection that revealed too many problems for them to go ahead with the purchase. After that, they gave up looking for a while.

“We can’t just waste a thousand dollars every time we like a house,” Reuter said.

Even though they had suspended their active search, Reuter kept looking on Redfin’s Web site. When the ranch-style home in Gaithersburg came on the market, she persuaded Skellchock to go look at it.

“We went there, and we’re like, ‘This house is awesome,’ ” Reuter said. The sellers “seemed like they were kind of joking. ‘You can have Buddy with the house, too.’ ”

Buddy seals the deal

Reuter and Skellchock had been thinking about getting another dog to keep Leo, their black snoodle (a schnauzer and poodle mix), company while they were at work. It seemed like a perfect situation. Their real estate agent, Karen Parnes, suggested they include their desire for the dog in the contract.

But first they wanted to make sure the dogs would like each other. So they made a playdate for Leo and Buddy. The dogs got along so well that they brought Leo back for another playdate during the home inspection.

When it came time to write a contract, Parnes wanted to include a clause about the dog, but the lender wouldn’t allow it. Even so, the sellers picked Reuter and Skellchock out of the offers they received. Buddy got to stay in his home, and Reuter and Skellchock got the house of their dreams. Unfortunately, not long after they moved in, Reuter developed allergies to Buddy and the dog is now living with friends of theirs whose pet recently died.

“Tons of jokes going around now,” Parnes said. “Maybe we can convey the kids. Somebody asked me if I can find a way to convey their mother-in-law.”

The experiences of Reuter and Skellchock and Bennett are not unusual. According to Ellis, more than half of the contracts Redfin’s agents have written this year have faced multiple offers. That’s left real estate agents and their buyers looking for unusual ways to encourage sellers to accept offers.

Rachel Musiker of Redfin has heard of buyers stalking sellers on social media — Facebook, Linkedin — to find out information they can use to their advantage, such as if the sellers are getting divorced or if they have friends in common.

Robyn Burdett, a real estate agent with Re/Max Allegiance, took a personal approach with her buyers. Her client needed to find a house fast. The military wife with five children had flown in from out of town and had four days to look at properties. She found one she liked, called her husband aboard the ship he was serving on in the Arabian Sea and put in an offer.

But before the offer was turned in, Burdett learned there were two more offers on the table. She went back to her clients, who agreed to strengthen their offer by proposing a two-month rent-back to the sellers.

Burdett told the listing agent that she wanted to drop off the offer in person and brought her client along in hopes that the seller would be home. The buyer and seller met and had so much in common that they ended up bonding. That evening, the listing agent called to say that the sellers “want [the buyer] to have the house,” Burdett said.

Finding a pre-market house

Suzanne Granoski, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty, also used a rent-back to win a bidding war. Because she knew the condominium in Arlington County that her buyers wanted would draw multiple offers, she called the listing agent to find out what the sellers’ needs and desires were. That’s when she learned that they hadn’t found their next home.

Granoski’s clients put in an escalation clause as well as an offer of a free rent-back for six weeks after settlement, an incentive valued in excess of $5,000.

“We won a multi-contract bidding war without having to increase our initial offer price,” Granoski said.

Koki Adasi, an associate broker with Long & Foster, said he tries to avoid bidding wars altogether.

“I’m getting more requests from buyers who are trying to find stuff offline, that have not hit the marketplace,” he said.

Adasi recently found a property for one of his clients just by being nosy. As he and his wife were coming back from playing basketball at a neighborhood park, Adasi noticed three houses under renovation. He stopped to talk to the contractor, who gave him the names of the owners. One owner said he wasn’t selling, but the other one was interested in making a deal before it went on the market.

Adasi’s client, who had been frustrated after being outbid on four properties, got the house.

“Another way that I’ve found properties — actually, the way I found my own residence — if you have a buyer who likes a condo building or likes a block in the city, simply send out a letter to the owners that says, ‘I have a buyer who is looking for property in the neighborhood,’ ” Adasi said. “We always get responses, always.”

Most real estate agents say this latest trend doesn’t appear to signal a return to the crazy days when buyers were putting in escalation clauses that went way above asking price and waiving inspection and appraisal contingencies.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to 2005, 2007. The reason I say that is because it was such an eye-opener,” Marshall Park, Redfin’s D.C. market manager, said. “I think with the [lending] restrictions we’ve put in place, the fear of what happened, I don’t think it will get to that ever again. I really don’t.

“The difference is, back in those times, there was inventory. People were just listing their houses at will. . . . With low inventory, anytime a place is priced right, shows well and is in a good location, our agents already know, before they even write the offer, there [are] going to be multiple offers on this property.”

Basic tips for buyers

Holly Worthington, who chaired a committee on multiple-offer buying situations for the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors in 2005 and then co-wrote a guide and taught a course on how to handle multiple offers, shared these tips for buyers caught in a bidding war:

●Put down a large earnest money deposit. “I see earnest money deposits as high as 20 percent of the purchase price,” she said.

●Write a compelling letter about why you want the property. Include how you plan to use the home and why it means something to you.

●Have your financing in order. If you are getting gift money, have it already in your bank account.

●Use a good real estate agent and a lender with a good reputation.

Marshall Park, Redfin’s D.C. market manager, also recommends considering a general contingency clause in the District. This contingency allows a buyer to have a home inspection for informational purposes and the right to void the contract, but doesn’t require the seller to make repairs. He also suggests shortening the contingency deadlines.

Kathy Orton is a reporter and Web editor for the Real Estate section. She covers the Washington metropolitan area housing market.
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