Real Estate Live

Maryann Haggerty and Elizabeth Razzi
Washington Post Real Estate Editor and Columnist
Friday, July 6, 2007; 1:00 PM

Welcome to Real Estate Live, an online discussion of the Washington area housing market with Post Real Estate editor Maryann Haggerty.

Maryann has been with The Post for 18 years and has served as real estate editor for the last five years. She's been a business and real estate editor and reporter for about 25 years. In all that time, she still hasn't figured out where you can find a lovely but inexpensive house in a charming neighborhood.

She's online twice a month to answer your questions about the local housing market -- from condos and investment properties to contracts and mortgages.

Today, she is joined by Elizabeth Razzi, the Local Address columnist for The Post's Sunday Real Estate section in Business. Razzi's written about real estate and other personal finance topics for magazines and newspapers since the days of double-digit interest rates. She is also the author of two consumer-advice books, The Fearless Home Buyer (2006) and The Fearless Home Seller (2007).

For more on local real estate, visit washingtonpost.com's Real Estate section.

A transcript follows.

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Maryann Haggerty: Thanks for joining us this holiday Friday. It appears that just about everyone but Elizabeth, you & me is out of town -- and for all I know, you're out of town, too.

Please, jump in with your questions & comments.

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Elizabeth Razzi: Hello! I must admit I kind of like D.C. when everyone else is away on vacation. Those of us remaining in the city can find time to think -- and maybe to chat online.

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Alexandria, Va.: I am curious about how beachfront property is renting. The common wisdom is that rentals are down this year (I think I hear that every summer). Is there anywhere on the Web I can check?

Maryann Haggerty: Well, actually, for several years there, what you were hearing is that beach front rentals were up, up, up -- rents were high and vacancies low. It seemed every piece of barrier island from Massachusetts to Florida was being built up as investors/baby boomers/whoever made their move.

This summer? Your best bet is just to see whether there's a nice place available at the place you like during the weeks you want. I think Travel section recently had a story about that. Can we find that?

And as far as a definitive Web source for this data: I've seen a lot of Web sites that purport to follow trends, but none seems to have a definitive data base to work off. Some folks argue that high gas prices are restricting vacations; others, that high gas prices mean people are driving to the beach rather than flying to more exotic locales.

Elizabeth Razzi: Quite a bit of supply has been added to rental markets, in general. Before you invest, though, you need to do a good analysis of the rental performance of that specific condo or house. A real estate agent should be able to give you solid records of a unit's rental history, including its history of vacancies, and those of competing properties. And you can always pick up the phone and see what it would cost if you were in the market to rent such a property.

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Herndon, Va.: With the last of our college grad sons finally moving out of our 4-bedroom house, we're getting ready to sell. The new tile is in, painting almost finished, and all minor repairs done. We're trying to decide when go on the market, and believe we'll wait until September since August seems to be the worst month of the year for sales. Agree?

Elizabeth Razzi: August, in particular, is the doldrums of the local real estate market. But the flurry of interest in houses stirs up quickly once September hits. You might talk with an agent about listing your home during the last week of August, so you can maximize your exposure during September and October. You don't want to wait until Labor Day to sign a listing, and then have it take a few days to get photographed and put on the Multiple Listing System -- and thereby lose the first week of September or more.

Maryann Haggerty: August really is dead around here, which means you do want to use that time for all the last-minute cleaning up, etc.

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Arlington, Va.: Maryann,

I appreciated the article yesterday regarding foreclosures and the county budget in Prince William County. This will be adding a lot of downward pressure on prices. It will create a negative feedback loop as even stable income folks will have their ARMs resetting and they realize that with little to no money down it doesn't make sense to keep on making increasing payments when you're so far upside down and renting would be significantly cheaper.

washingtonpost.com: Foreclosures, Home Sales Cast a Pall on Public Spending Plans ( Post, July 5)

Elizabeth Razzi: With any luck, many of these income-stable owners will be able to refinance into a more-affordable fixed-rate loan -- at least if their home value has not declined severely. It's terribly painful to lose a home to foreclosure, and many people will try to hang on to their homes and ride out a slumping market. After all, it's not a realized loss until you sell.

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washingtonpost.com: For One Week, Find A Home of Your Own ( Post, June 24)

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Rockville, Md.: I'm curious about modular (pre-fab) houses, which look quite good these days and are cheaper to build than conventionally-built houses. Does the fact that the homes were prefab affect the resale price? If not, is there a downside to building a modular house?

Thanks.

Elizabeth Razzi: It very well may affect the sale price, but that shouldn't be a problem because your investment in the modular home would be lower as well. And just because big chunks of your home arrived by truck doesn't mean it can't be built to last for decades, looking good all the while. In fact, there's a good argument that a factory-built modular may be better constructed than some site-built homes.

Maryann Haggerty: However, you really do need to check with the municipality to see what rules on pre-fab are. Not all towns embrace the technology.

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Silver Spring, Md.: MRIS stats for June are out next week ... What do you think they will look like?

Also, I often hear that people should not buy a house that costs more than 2 to 3 times their annual household income. Where does that rule of thumb come from and what is the real multiplier in the D.C. metro area ... I'm guessing 4 to 5X (yikes), but slowly coming down.

Elizabeth Razzi: This question reminds me that 7-7-07 is supposed to be a lucky day. I'd better buy a lottery ticket. Predicting home-sale stats, especially the monthly stats, would be pure guesswork. And that old chestnut about buying a home that's 2 to 3 times income dates back to a time when we didn't have personal computers and tons of up-to-date interest rate info at our fingertips. That formula doesn't even take into consideration how much money you have for a downpayment. Figure out how much you can afford by actually working your budget. There are tons of online tools, not to mention Quicken software and the like, that make it easy.

Maryann Haggerty: To echo Elizabeth: You can't predict statistics that are as decidedly micro as the MRIS numbers. Monthly swings in such small geographic areas are highly volatile, and for that reason to be taken with several grains of salt.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm trying to figure out what I need to do to become a landlord in D.C. and I'm puzzled as all get-out. I called the city and they say get a Basic Business License and directed me to their Web site but that doesn't provide clear information either. Can you help?

Maryann Haggerty: Don't expect crystal-clear. This is, after all, the District -- and I think the DCRA landlord info page is pretty clear for D.C. I'm not sure exactly what you're unlear on. However, you may want to check with the D.C. chapter of BOMA (the building owners & managers assn)for more details from a business point of view.

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Arlington, Va.: Maryann,

Some people are quick to call a bottom to this real estate market (it's a great time to buy), and others are wondering how far prices can fall before they are willing to buy. Could the Post do an article that does rent-to-own comparisons for various D.C. metro areas and housing types? It could be helpful if you could talk to longtime landlords about how much they're willing to pay for a condo/townhome based on current rent/interest/taxes/overhead? This would seem to be a reasonable floor to how low prices will go.

Maryann Haggerty: That's a good idea. I think I have someone assigned to write it later this summer

Elizabeth Razzi: One thing to remember, though, is that the supply of rental units is surprisingly high at the moment. Many condo projects have been switched to condos. If the market turns strong again, I'd expect some to switch again to condo, which will drive up rents. In other words, a low-rent lifestyle today could evaporate in a couple of years.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Maryann,

Thanks for taking my question. I am looking to buy at a condo community in Grosvenor where the difference between one bedroom and two bedrooms is about $60,000 to $75,000. Though I have no need for a two bedroom, I wonder if my one bedroom will be as worthy, in terms of resale, because for $75K more, there is the option of over 300 more square feet. Is this just jitters or a legitimate concern?

Elizabeth Razzi: Traditionally, two-bedroom condos have held or increased their value more than one-bedroom units. Many people like the extra room for guests, or as a home office. There's also a bit of extra safety there for you, just in case your circumstances change. Maybe the stork pays an unexpected visit, perhaps. Or maybe you need to take in a roommate to help pay the mortgage. With the second room, there's less chance that you would be forced to sell in a soft market. That said, it's certainly not worth the stretch if you truly can't afford the extra $60,000-$75,000. There's no safety in over-extending yourself.

Maryann Haggerty: Also: If a 1BR is all you can afford, then there are likely to be other buyers in the future who face the same constraint.

The market for upper-end condos in suburban locations such as Grosvenor has traditionally been quite thin.

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Rockville, Md.: I am 25 and ready to make an investment in a house (not a big fan of condos). Since I can not currently afford to live in the D.C. area, I have begun to research other east coast cities that may be appealing to someone in my situation. Any suggestions as to affordable living on the East Coast outside of the D.C. area.

Elizabeth Razzi: Go where the rust was. Pennsylvania, where I was born and raised, has some wonderful communities. Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, the capital, will have houses more affordable than you would find around D.C. And don't forget Scranton, home of Dunder-Mifflin (for you fans of "The Office"). Actually, with the exception of New York and Boston, most of the East Coast will be more affordable than here.

Maryann Haggerty: I'm also from Pennsylvania, and most of my family still lives there. But let's be real: There's a reason Pennsylvania has just about the highest median age in the country. And that's because all the young people are moving out and have been doing so for a long time. And they're doing so because there are not enough good jobs.

If you can find work -- and can tolerate the weather -- you can indeed find a decent quality of life in the old Rust Belt. In Pittsburgh, I have had people point out, your car payment can easily be higher than your house payment.

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Laurel, Md.: If the cost of an agent is already built into the price of new homes, is it possible it negotiate that price as a discount? I am looking to purchase a new home and am asking what is the typical rate for agents these days?

Elizabeth Razzi: It's possible to negotiate EVERYTHING with new homes, especially given the abundance on the market today. Buyers' agents typically charge 2 or 3 percent, but that's negotiable. Negotiating a new home price these days is a lot like negotiating the price of a car. Is the cost of rustproofing negotiable? Sure. Just watch that they don't try to make it up with the cost of pinstripes. Keep your eye on the bottom line. That's all that matters.

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Bowie, Md.: Madams of Real Estate, what's the market like these for trailers and lots a few miles inland from the seashore? I keep reading about various political threats to limit that kind of development, but don't know how that's affected current availability.

Maryann Haggerty: There are very very few places left in the region that even allow trailers. There are likely to be even fewer in the future. (The political threats you describe.)

The market for these homes -- especially away from the beach -- has traditionally been the least affluent of families. These are not people who are willing or able to pay the soaring prices that land costs may merit. That means that land owners are often as eager as local politicians to get rid of the trailers and trade up to townhouses.

Elizabeth Razzi: Madam of Real Estate. Now, that's a new one for my resume. I'd like to add one more thing to your consideration of a trailer near the shore. Those things just don't offer the shelter you need during tropical storms and hurricanes. We can get 'em this far north!

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Washington, D.C.: Should sellers consider system upgrades in setting asking price, and do buyers/agents consider upgrades in determining fair market value? Sellers definitely get dinged for old systems, but do they get rewarded for new/high quality ones too? It seems like many buyers are more impressed by the color of paint on the walls or general aesthetics than a new energy efficient boiler or AC system. Inspections are an afterthought in the buying process, even with the market slowdown. A few cans of paint may cost $60, while a new boiler or A/C system can run anywhere from $5-15K.

Elizabeth Razzi: You raise some good points. Buyers shouldn't be as influenced as they are by easy upgrades like paint. The trouble is everyone expects a house to have a roof that doesn't leak and a heating system that works. If you're making these repairs with plans to re-sell in a few years, don't blow the bank on the highest quality. But if you plan to live there longer, you'll reap the rewards of investing in the best.

Maryann Haggerty: Such system upgrades don't really get taken into account when determining market value. What determines value is sale prices of other comparable homes -- but comparable refers to location, size, acreage, etc. If you spend more on systems than your neighbors do, then you're overimproving.

But there's also a new question here: How much if anything to enrgy-efficient or green upgrades add to the value of a home? As energy costs stubbornly rise, perhaps these will actually be seen to add value. It's too early to tell, but some argue that's the case.

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Colonial Village, Washington, D.C.: Anecdotal Evidence: the market seems to have really slowed the last few months. Homes in my beautiful neighborhood which would have been snapped up in a matter of days in the recent past are now sitting on the market and facing price reductions. And this isn't Prince William County!

Elizabeth Razzi: It's so difficult to know whether that is due to the normal seasonal slowdown that starts in June and July, or whether it marks a real slowdown.

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Any suggestions as to affordable living on the East Coast outside of the D.C. area.: Google cost of living calculator and compare lots of cities. It's amazing. Check out Charlotte, Wilmington ,N.C., Austin, Richmond, Jacksonville, Nashville. All cool cities for a young twentysomething with affordable housing and an active nightlife.

Elizabeth Razzi: Austin, Texas, would be on the far southwestern fringe of the East Coast, correct? Otherwise, though, they're all great suggestions for Eastern living.

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1 br or 2?: With a 2 br you can always take on a tenant if finances get thin

Elizabeth Razzi: Good point.

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Arlington, Va.: Elizabeth --

You're right, foreclosure has historically been painful and avoided at all costs. However, lately many people were gambling in the real estate market (but with other people's money) and it is just a business decision to walk away. To counter the stigma of losing your house, there is the 4-6 months of rent free living during the foreclosure process. Besides, nobody knows their neighbors anymore and the address was a gamble not a home. A good credit rating is nice to have, but what is it worth if you owe $100,000 more than your house is worth?

Elizabeth Razzi: It certainly is true that investors are more willing to walk away from a home that has lost value than residents are. That's one reason owner-occupants tend to get better loan terms (at least they did until the mortgage free-for-all of recent years).

Maryann Haggerty: An investor who has little or no equity in a house indeed may be making an intelligent business decision in walking away.

However, not everyone who bought during the boom was an investor or a gambler. Many people were indeed buying a home, not a lottery ticket.

Overall foreclosure rates are high now -- in the first quarter, 0.58% of loans entered foreclosure. That's an all-time high rate, but still a very tiny number. Subprime foreclosure rates are much higher -- 2.43%.

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Oakton, Va.: Ive signed on with a loan from Bank Of America with a 80 10 10 Loan Interest Only, No points. My credit is 710.

The rates I got are 6.875 1st and 7.5 2nd. Can I get better rates before I close on July 24? If so who do you recommend. Thanks

Maryann Haggerty: Did you shop around before signing? And you're comfortable with what you have? Then relax for the next two weeks.

If you didn't shop, you may want to do so now - -but realize you will lose some cash you've already paid (application fee & appraisal, at least). And again, it's only two weeks until your closing.

Elizabeth Razzi: And if you re-start the mortgage hunt you expose yourself to the risk of rising interest rates.

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S.F. (formerly D.C.): Selling in August: I put my condo on the market in mid-August 2005. After discussing with my realtor, we decided to just see what happened, and if there was no interest, we'd pull the listing and re-enter so the listing did not seem stale.

I priced my unit reasonably, and it was in good shape. I had multiple offers above the asking price after one open house, was under contract in 4 days and settled in 3 weeks.

So there are plusses and minuses about an August listing. My realtor told me that about 300 condos went on the market that year after labor day. While there are fewer buyers in August, they seemed to be more serious, and there may be less competition.

Elizabeth Razzi: Oh, if only a seller could bring back the market conditions of August 2005. It was still a strong seller's market in the D.C. area then. Condos are a much tougher sell this summer. And that pulling- and re-listing tactic is a bit controversial. Some agents will tell you it's an abuse of the Multiple Listing Service. But you're right about buyers who are in the market during August. They're not fooling around.

Maryann Haggerty: Specifically, they are buyers who want to get the kids settled and into school as soon as humanly possible.

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I'm trying to figure out what I need to do to become a landlord in D.C.: Contact your local Chamber of Ccommerce, they'll have info including how to start a business, get a business license, etc., checklist for common business types.

Maryann Haggerty: That works with most businesses in most towns -- but becoming a landlord in the District of Columbia actually can be more complicated than that, because of rent control laws in the big city. I would go straight to the landlord association, because we do have one in the city.

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But there's also a new question here: How much if anything to energy-efficient or green upgrades add to the value of a home? : Seems to me that what the questioner is trying to influence isn't necessarily value or price, but days on market. She's trying to sell her house. She's trying to close the deal.

Elizabeth Razzi: Days on market affect price. That's why buyers like to know how long the listing has been around.

Maryann Haggerty: Since the question was "should sellers consider ... when setting asking price," I didn't read beyond that.

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Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend bought a house in Brookland last fall. It was in really bad shape, but has good bones and a fairly large yard, and we're renovating it now. We were surprised to get a property tax assessment that was $100K higher than the sales price. We just got the notice back on the first appeal, and they haven't changed the assessment.

Hopefully the second stage will go better. I just thought this was a real no-brainer. And there were multiple bids on the house, so it was a competitive situation. I remember the RE section printing an article on appealing assessments. Any chance you could link to that?

Maryann Haggerty: We're looking for that article, but it didn't get very deeply into what you need to do when you're as far into the appeals process as you are. In DC, as you enter the second stage of the appeal, you may seriously want to consider consulting a lawyer who has experience with appeals. That's a big difference in value and one you may be stuck with for a very long time if you don't manage to whittle it down.

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washingtonpost.com: Dread on Arrival (Post, Feb. 3)

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Washington, D.C.: I entered into a contract for a condo located in Logan Circle in March '06. I felt at the time I was getting a great deal.

I know the market dipped even lower after I wrote my contract. Since my condo will not be complete till March '08 I have been watching the news and condo sales to see if my great deal is going to stay a great deal.

I have read in the Post and CNN Money that prices are holding the ground and they are expected to go back up in '08. I went to a few new condo releases and saw that prices being asked are more than what I paid in the same area.

I follow your column and market trends to rest my nerves. I also read that some developers are holding units and listing them for rent to make it appear as there is a stronger demand.

I know you do not have a crystal ball and I am happy with my purchase but, can you tell me where D.C. Logan Circle market has been since March '06 and what the expectations are for this area in 2008?

Elizabeth Razzi: The condo market in D.C. has held its value better than in Northern Virginia, where a tremendous number of new condos were being built in recent years. Analysts at Delta Associates, an Alexandria company that tracks real estate markets, say the condo market is pretty stable now in the District.

Developers pulled a ton of would-be condos off the market and made them rentals, easing the supply glut. Pay attention to your development, though. Is construction proceeding, or are they dragging their feet? If there haven't been enough sales, it could become yet another condo project that goes rental.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I realize that for most home purchases you don't need a real estate lawyer, but if you wanted one to make sure that all your bases are appropriately covered, about how much would it cost? Have you or any others reading this used a lawyer for a standard house purchase (i.e., not a foreclosure or REO) and found that they got a better deal than just working with a realtor?

Elizabeth Razzi: I haven't used a lawyer for a simple home-sale transaction, but I know some people who sell FSBO, without an agent, do use a lawyer. It would be easy enough to make a few phone calls to real estate lawyers' offices to ask how much they would charge for a straightforward home purchase transaction.

Maryann Haggerty: There are parts of the country where using a lawyer is routine. This isn't one of them. Many closings here go without lawyers, except for the lawyer/title agent who handles the actual closing. But like I just said: If you don't have an agent and you don't have experience with multiple property deals, please hire a lawyer. You should have SOMEONE on your side.

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Washington, D.C., area: Have you done any stories on pros and cons of having a buyer's agent? Our landlord finally realized that the current carrying costs on our place are higher than our rent and want to sell. I want to keep renting but my husband wants to maybe buy. However, I definitely don't want a real estate agent since I'm the kind of person who strongly prefers to do things on my own, and most of the ones we've met stated a lot of obvious things. For what it matters, although we've never bought, we don't need (though obviously we could choose to get) a mortgage, as we've saved easily enough in the 4 years we've been renting.

Maryann Haggerty: In your circumstance -- where the buyer & seller have already found each other -- going without agents on either side of the deal can save you money. Feel free to interview agents and ask why you should work with them. If the answers don't make you happy, don't hire one. BUT BUT BUT: If you do so, please hire a lawyer to help you with the contract.

Elizabeth Razzi: Don't even think about trying to buy without a lawyer OR an agent. That's downright foolish. Do I understand that you're thinking of paying all cash for this place, and skipping the mortgage? Maybe you also want to pay for a consult with a financial advisor. You could come out far ahead financially if you can buy the home with a reasonable mortgage AND invest part of your savings in stocks, bonds or mutual funds.

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Falls Church, Va.: MH: "Subprime forclosure rates are much higher -- 2.43 percent."

The flip side of this is that 97.5 percent of subprime mortgages are NOT in foreclosure, right? Doesn't that mean that a whole lot of people who would have been locked out of the conventional mortgage market are successfully owning homes today thanks to subprime lenders?

Maryann Haggerty: Yes, that's an argument a LOT of people make. The difficulty for policy makers is setting rules to produce what turns out to be the proper balancing point -- the optimum number of people get financing that they want/need, while the foreclosure rate is manageable.

Forclosures are bad not only for homeowners, but also for their neighbors and for the lending institutions. The savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s was in large part caused by overly lax lending (to commercial borrowers, not individuals, generally). Cleaning up that mess cost taxpayers billions, and no one wants to see that again.

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Falls Church, Va.: During this slow market at what percentage below the asking price should you go?

Elizabeth Razzi: If the seller has priced it to move, then you might want to snap it up at the full asking price. With the help of a real estate agent, research what similar homes have sold for RECENTLY, and make your offer accordingly, regardless of the seller's asking price.

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Re: 1 bdrm vs. 2: People seem to be advocating renting a second bedroom if $$ gets too tight. Just realize that there isn't always a renter available and sometimes you might have to go a few months without one. Just saying from someone with experience on the matter.

Maryann Haggerty: Correct. There can be multiple-month stretches without that roommate and the income they bring. That's why landlords prize stable tenants so much.

But renting out a room CAN be a big help when money gets tight. In a lot of cases, it beats taking a second job.

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To sell or to rent?: I've got a condo in Takoma Park (one of those dreaded 1-bedrooms) and I'll be moving abroad in a year or so. Should I try to sell the condo before moving, or rent it out for a year or so until I get my bearings in the new place? I definitely won't want to buy right away so I won't need the equity. The rent would probably pay the mortgage but not the condo fee, so I'd be taking a hit on that ... On the other hand selling in this market is a long and painful process and there's no guarantee it would be completed before I moved. What are your thoughts?

Maryann Haggerty: Do you know how long you'll be gone? If it's just a couple years, you probably will want to find a decent rental agent and hold on. If it's definitely forever, start talking to sales agents as well as rental agents and get a feel for how the two options shape up. You have time to think it thorugh.

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Austin, Tex., would be on the far southwestern fringe of the East Coast, correct?: i know, but it sounds like a cool place for a young adult: SXSW festival, hip music, etc. LIfe is short -- live somewhere affordable, yes, but also fun. (not dissing Penn, it does have Falling Water).

Elizabeth Razzi: Fallingwater is a little shy on nightlife. But Austin is certifiably cool (except for the heat).

Maryann Haggerty: And Austin really isn't the East Coast. Really.

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Richmond, Va.: Yes, the LW was asking about setting price, but them mentioned that buyers are more impressed by the color of paint on the walls or general aesthetics than a new energy efficient boiler or AC system -- which begins to address what makes a house sell, what makes a looker turn into a buyer. That's what a seller needs to know: What turns a looker into a buyer?

Elizabeth Razzi: "Oooh, honey, I want the house with the super-efficient AC." That's just not going to happen! People buy neighborhoods (the combined appeal of good schools, manageable commute, closeby shopping and overall ambiance) and houses (the combined appeal of necessary space, the appropriate number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and the wow-factor of beautiful, functional kitchens and other spaces.) And they expect a good furnace and A/C.

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Beach rental horror story: A neighbor of mine made a last-minute rental, the apartment hadn't been cleaned, and the TV was smashed. The listing office told him to go and buy a TV and they would clean it while he was out. They cleaned it, but never reimbursed him for the TV!

Elizabeth Razzi: Three words: Small Claims Court. At a minimum, I would write down the details of the entire experience, including the name of the person who told them to buy a replacement TV, and send it by registered mail (receipt requested) to the president of the rental company. It could be enough to nudge them into doing right by you, and if not, then it's useful to have this documentation in Small Claims Court.

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Maryann Haggerty: Well, time is running out already. Thanks for tuning in. Please try to pick up tomorrow's Real Estate section. Elizabeth's column will be there rather than on Sunday; she's looking at how much lower home sales prices in the region are likely to go.

There's also a story on home maintenance in no-longer-new subdivisions, plus lots of consumer advice. And for those of you who missed him this spring, Robert Bruss is back.

Elizabeth tells me to say good-bye for her, too. Have a great weekend!

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