DEAR BOB: I would like to trade my fourplex for a larger apartment building. But I have talked with several local realty agents and they tell me it is better to sell my fourplex, pay the profit tax and then buy an apartment building. That sounds crazy to me.
You are always writing about those Starker delayed exchanges. Where can I find a realty agent who knows how to do one? -- Vivian C.
DEAR VIVIAN: Unfortunately, most real estate agents could not explain a Starker delayed exchange if their lives depended on it. Even many CPAs and real estate attorneys do not know delayed exchanges are authorized by Internal Revenue Code 1031(a)(3).
Such a tax-deferred exchange is really quite simple. You find a buyer for your fourplex and close the sale. However, the sales proceeds must be held by a third-party intermediary, such as a bank trust department, beyond your constructive receipt. Then you have 45 days to designate a property of greater value and greater equity that you must acquire within 180 days to complete your tax-deferred Starker delayed exchange.
To find a realty agent to assist with your exchange, I suggest you phone the local Board of Realtors for a list of their Traders or Exchange Club members. These agents are usually very qualified and eager to handle tax-deferred exchanges.
DEAR BOB: I am considering investing in some vacant land not too far from my home. It should be ripe for commercial development in a few years. What makes it so attractive is the owner will sell for just $10,000 down and the balance on easy payments. Do you think this is a good deal? -- Rich R.
DEAR RICH: I cannot advise on the wisdom of specific investments. However, I do not recommend investing in vacant land that you don't plan to use within six months. So many unexpected events can happen, such as downzoning of the property, that vacant land purchases cannot be considered safe investments.
Those easy terms also concern me. Perhaps you are being dazzled by the easy financing and are not aware the price might be above the land's market value. Another problem is you will have to make the monthly payments from your pocket unless the land produces income, such as rental to a farmer. In summary, I am less than enthusiastic about your so-called investment.
DEAR BOB: I live in an apartment building that was recently sold. The new owner verified my rent and lease, but did not say anything about my $500 security deposit. I didn't lose my deposit when the building was sold, did I? -- Agnes H.
DEAR AGNES: No. Sellers of buildings in which the tenants have security deposits are required to transfer those deposits to the new owner. However, just to be sure there is no misunderstanding, write a certified letter with a return receipt to the new owner explaining you want to verify your full $500 security deposit was transferred. Now is the time to confirm your security deposit was properly transferred, while the matter is fresh in the buyer's and seller's minds.
DEAR BOB: I am a new real estate agent. As you know, getting started selling homes is not easy. But you make my job much tougher by recommending home sellers interview only experienced successful agents.
I suggest you drop that idea because it isn't helping me when prospective home sellers ask me for references of previous sellers and I have none. -- Ava H.
DEAR AVA: I sense you have a chip on your shoulder. Although I sympathize with you because I was once a novice real estate agent trying to get started selling real estate by working seven days a week, in good faith I must continue recommending home sellers hire the most successful agents they can find.
To overcome your lack of real estate sales experience, until you catch up to the experienced agents, you will need to work twice as hard as the most successful agents. That's what I did.
To get listings you must impress your prospective sellers with your knowledge, your ability to work hard and smart, plus your enthusiasm. To overcome your weakness of lack of sales experience, I suggest you concentrate on being as helpful as possible to every homeowner within your "farm" territory where you prospect for listings.
While you work to get listings, spend every Sunday afternoon holding an open house for another agent in your office who is too busy. You will soon have plenty of client references.
DEAR BOB: Last weekend we were talking with a local home builder about buying one of his unsold houses. We brought up the idea of a lease with option to purchase because we read about it in your column. The builder said he will give us a 12-month lease-option at today's price for the home. Is there any risk for us in a lease-option? -- Ned McC.
DEAR NED: Congratulations on negotiating a lease-option with a home builder. I hope you also negotiated a rent credit toward your down payment. Without a rent credit, a lease-option isn't much fun for the tenant-buyer.
If the builder is highly motivated, he will give you a 100 percent rent credit toward the down payment. You would be a fool to walk away at the end of a year from a deal like that. However, if the builder is not highly motivated to sell his homes, then he might only give you a 50 percent or 33 percent rent credit toward the down payment. If he won't give you any rent credit, that lease-option is not a very good deal for you.
As for lease-option risks for the buyer, the only serious one is home mortgage interest rates might skyrocket by the time you are ready to exercise your option to buy. But I doubt that will happen and the slight risk is probably worth taking.
DEAR BOB: Several years ago, I was conned by a real estate agent into buying a warehouse leased to a major discount store chain for 22 years. I thought it would be a great investment. Based on the rental income and the expense payments, I was earning about 10 percent on my money.
Then the discount chain got mixed up in a leveraged buyout, the company went bankrupt and they moved out of my warehouse. That was almost two years ago. Since then I have hired several realty agents trying to rent my warehouse for enough to cover my expenses, but I've learned the discount chain was paying above-market rent.
The insurance company that holds the mortgage has started foreclosure. If I sell the warehouse at a loss before the foreclosure sale, can I deduct the loss on my tax returns? -- Byron H.
DEAR BYRON: Consult your tax adviser. Losses on the sale of property held for use in a trade or business can be tax deductible as an ordinary loss.
Although there was nothing inherently wrong with your investment in that warehouse, now you know dependence on one tenant can be very risky, especially if that tenant is paying above-market rent. Triple net leases, where the tenant pays the maintenance, taxes and insurance, can be very advantageous for commercial property owners, unless something goes wrong.
DEAR BOB: We have a first and second mortgage on our home. The first mortgage has a 7.5 percent interest rate. The second mortgage is at 9 percent interest and is held by the woman who sold the house to us. We can afford to prepay either mortgage. Which one should we pay off? -- Nora W.
DEAR NORA: Don't pay off that first mortgage because of its low interest rate. As for the second mortgage, I wouldn't pay it off either, unless the lender will give you a discount for early payment.
When you prepay a mortgage you are investing money at the loan's interest rate. Neither the 7.5 nor the 9 percent interest rate is a good investment. Instead of prepaying either loan, conserve your cash for emergencies or other investments.
DEAR BOB: My wealthy aunt died recently. Since I am her only heir, I was hoping to inherit lots of money. However, after all her debts were paid and her gift to the Humane Society was funded, there wasn't much left for me. But I did get her brand-new Cadillac with 4,500 miles on it. Frankly, I don't enjoy driving it, but it is worth at least $20,000. Is there any way we can turn this into cash for a down payment on a house? -- Jeff R.
DEAR JEFF: Yes. Just offer the Cadillac as all or part of your down payment on the home you want to buy. Many home sellers will gladly accept trades for the down payment. Since the Cadillac's market value is your basis for the car, you won't have any tax to pay either. Your tax adviser can give you more details on the tax aspects.
DEAR BOB: Starting in February, I tried to sell my home, alone, without an agent. That was a big mistake. But a friendly real estate agent kept bugging me, in a nice way, so I listed my home for sale with her for 30 days. She heavily advertised the house and held open houses almost every weekend, so I renewed the listing for 90 days.
The agent tells me home sales are slow in our town and there are many listings. Since my listing is about to expire, do you think I should renew? Also, what can I do to get my home sold? -- Judith W.
DEAR JUDITH: Yes. Renew your listing. You need all the help you can get to sell your home in today's slow buyer's market in most cities. That means there are more listings of homes for sale than there are qualified buyers. If your agent is doing a good job, stick with that agent.
Remember there is a buyer for every home. But that buyer will only purchase at their price and terms.
To make your home stand out from the crowd of other listings of homes for sale in the multiple listing book, you've got to make your home especially attractive. One way is to offer it on a lease with option to purchase. Another way is to offer attractive seller financing terms.
Of course, I am presuming your home is already in tiptop first-class physical condition. If not, be sure to clean, paint and repair as necessary. Then price your home correctly. Don't make the mistake of asking too much in hopes a fool will overpay for your home. That rarely happens.
DEAR BOB: We were supposed to close the purchase of our home last Tuesday, but the seller had not yet moved out. The realty agent felt we should close the sale anyway. But my wife said we shouldn't start paying on our mortgage interest until we can move in.
Now the real estate agent says we are in breach of contract if we don't close the sale. What do you advise we do? -- Todd W.
DEAR TODD: If the seller has a legitimate reason for not moving out of the house yet, you could close the sale, but hold back from the seller's proceeds for a month's rent at some outrageous rate, such as $100 per day.
However, if the seller is just stalling and does not have a valid reason for delaying the closing, you may want to consult a real estate attorney about filing a lawsuit for specific performance of the purchase contract. In addition, the attorney will probably recommend recording a "lis pendens" against the property to prevent a sale to someone else.
DEAR BOB: That new $184,000 maximum VA mortgage amount is a mixed blessing. As a home seller I was thrilled when a buyer offered me my full price for my home. However, then I learned it is my "privilege" to either pay the buyer's VA loan fee or reject that buyer.
The Realtor tells me it is against the law for the veteran to pay his loan fee. How stupid. But I decided it is worthwhile to me to get an all-cash sale, so I agreed to pay the loan fee. Can I deduct this fee on my tax returns? -- Bretta S.
DEAR BRETTA: As the home seller you can subtract the VA loan fee from the gross sales price of your home. I agree it is a stupid federal law that prohibits veterans from paying their own loan fee. Consult your tax adviser for further details.
DEAR BOB: Since February I have been paying my father's mortgage payment because he is unable to work. It looks like he won't be able to return to work any time soon.
Can I deduct the mortgage interest on my income tax returns? -- Victor Y.
DEAR VICTOR: No, you cannot deduct the interest you pay on your father's mortgage unless you also are a co-owner of the property. If you hold title to the property and risk losing the property if you don't pay the mortgage, then you can deduct the mortgage interest you pay. Consult your tax adviser for more information.
DEAR BOB: About two weeks ago, our offer to buy a home was accepted by the seller. Then we asked the real estate agent for recommendations as to which mortgage companies are best for getting our home loan. He was not very helpful and acted as if it is our job to find a loan. Shouldn't the real estate agent help us obtain the best loan? -- Carlos C.
DEAR CARLOS: Yes. Smart agents know they can't sell a home unless they can finance it. Most realty agents are only too eager to recommend local real estate lenders who currently are offering the best home loan terms. Perhaps you can talk to the manager of the agent's office for assistance in obtaining the best available mortgage.
Readers with questions should write Robert J. Bruss directly at P.O. Box 280038, San Francisco, Calif. 94128.