Knock, knock: I'd like to buy your home

By Marcie Geffner -

Shopping for a home can be frustrating when so few houses are for sale. However, a sharp Realtor can help you locate and buy a home that's ripe for sale, but not yet posted on the brokers' multiple-listing service (MLS) or public real estate websites.

Ken Pozek, a Realtor at Keller Williams Realty in Northville, Mich., says he uses three direct approaches to contact potential sellers:

No. 1: Letters. Mail a letter to homeowners in the area. The letter mentions you by name, tells the homeowners your home-shopping story and tries to induce them to consider selling their home.

No. 2: Phone calls. Call those same homeowners, asking whether they or anyone they know in the neighborhood might be willing to sell you their home.

Read on:

DIY Remodeling is rewarding when not frustrating

By Marcie Geffner -

By day, John Melton, 42, is a human resources manager at a construction company in Phoenix.

By night, weekend and vacation, he's the quintessential do-it-yourself home remodeler, equipped with a workshop, tools, materials and the know-how to get such jobs done.

His latest DIY home remodeling project, a family room makeover, took longer than he'd expected, but his budget, about $3,500, was pretty close to the final cost, and the results were well worth the time and money, he says.

Read on:

Bank arbitration: strategies for fighting it

By Marcie Geffner -

Consumers who get into an argument with a big bank might want to write off their loss and run for the exit rather than stand and fight.

That's because most large banks restrict consumers' dispute resolution options, according to "Banking on Arbitration: Big Banks, Consumers and Checking Account Dispute Resolution," a report last year by the Safe Checking in the Electronic Age Project by The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.

The report found 64 percent of big banks' checking account agreements contained clauses that required mandatory binding arbitration, banned class-action lawsuits, waived the consumer's right to a jury trial, limited damages and liability, shortened statutes of limitations, or imposed other limits on dispute resolution.

Read on:

Housing market's for-sale inventory has shrunk

By Marcie Geffner -

Homebuyers are back. But they're not finding many for-sale houses to choose from.

This dearth of houses isn't imaginary. In fact, the pool of properties actually has shrunk in housing markets across the nation.

Only 2.32 million existing homes were available for sale in the U.S. at the end of September, according to the National Association of Realtors. That figure represented a 5.9-month supply of for-sale homes at the September pace of sales. The supply would have lasted 8.1 months at the previous year's then-current pace of sales.

So, what happened to all the houses?

Leslie Appleton-Young, chief economist for the California Association of Realtors in Los Angeles, and Rick Sharga, executive vice president of Carrington Mortgage Holdings, a mortgage company in Aliso Viejo, Calif., offer some answers.

Sellers are on the sidelines. Some homeowners have no reason to move. Others aren't motivated because they would take a loss at current prices or they still owe more than their homes are worth.

"They're not sure what they want to do," Appleton-Young says.

Read on:

Pull the necessary permits when remodeling

By Marcie Geffner -

If there's one part of the home remodeling process that homeowners especially dislike, it's getting a building permit. But permits are more than mere pieces of paper. Homeowners who skirt around them face risks.

One protection afforded by a permit is usually an inspection by the municipality, says Jim Bateman, owner of Bateman Custom Construction, a home remodeling company in Fairfax, Va.

Inspections can expose shoddy workmanship, building code violations and safety hazards that otherwise might not be discovered until a problem occurs.

Bateman offers this hypothetical example: "If I did electrical work on somebody's house and I wasn't a licensed electrician, I may have done it to code, but if, for some reason, I violated the code and the house burned down, the (homeowners) insurance (company) possibly won't pay for it."

Still, a municipal inspection isn't a guarantee.

Read on:

Consider kitchen remodel a few years before moving

By Marcie Geffner -

It's no secret to Realtors that fabulous kitchens sell homes. Improve the room used primarily for food preparation, and the entire house will feel homier to residents, guests and prospective buyers alike.

The appeal of a modern kitchen is so powerful that Robert Criner, president of Criner Remodeling, a home remodeling company in Newport News, Va., said homeowners should consider remodeling an outdated or dysfunctional kitchen regardless of how long they intend to keep the home.

"A lot of people think they aren't going to sell for two or three years," Criner said. "Then they realize right before they decide to sell: I have to put a face-lift on the kitchen. Why not do it now, and enjoy it for three or four years, and then it's modernized and ready to sell when you get to that point?"

Read on:

Refinancing a rental house isn't easy

By Marcie Geffner -

Buying a house is an attractive proposition in these days of low mortgage interest rates and fallen prices. But if you want to buy a new home, while renting out the old one, you could face a glitch. It might be hard to refinance a house that you're renting out.

That's because "things change when you're no longer dealing with a primary residence," warns Ben Chenault Jr., regional manager at Fairway Independent Mortgage in Birmingham, Ala.

"A lot of people want to jump on the great deals, but they still have their current home and don't want to wait for that home to sell," Chenault says. "They think, 'Aha! The rental market is good; I'll just rent it out.' But what if someone stops paying the rent? Are you sunk? If the answer is 'yes,' you probably shouldn't do it."

Read on:

10 tips for first-time home buyers

By Marcie Geffner -

First-timers are crucial to healthy housing markets because they enable existing home owners to sell their current home and purchase another one. That means if you're thinking about buying a home, you're important -- someone who owns a home can't sell it without you.

With that in mind, here are 10 tips to help you achieve your goal of homeownership.

No. 1: Get prequalified. Sellers typically won't accept your offer unless it's all cash or you have a lender's letter saying you can get the financing you need to close the deal. Consequently, being prequalified for a loan is crucial, says Matt Phipps, a Realtor at Phipps Real Estate in Warwick, R.I.

Read more:

Mortgage rates remain rangebound

By Marcie Geffner -

Mortgage rates remained essentially unchanged this week, or "rangebound," to use a little mortgage industry-speak, as U.S. economic conditions continued to be stable, yet uninspiring.

The benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage fell to 3.61% compared to 3.64% last week, according to the national survey of large lenders. The mortgages in this week's survey had an average total of 0.32 discount and origination points. One year ago, that rate stood at 4.1%. Four weeks ago, it was 3.78%.

Read more: