5 Things You Didn’t Know a VA Loan Could Do for You

Because of the bravery and sacrifices of veterans and active military, the rest of the country’s civilians can live the American dream in safety. As one tangible way to say “thank you for your service,” current and former members of the military have access to Veterans Affairs home loans. These unique mortgage options allow veterans and those still serving to own a piece of the American dream by potentially qualifying for homes they might have thought were out of reach.

Veterans, active-duty service personnel, and select Reservists or National Guard members are among those who can quality for VA loans. (Find specific eligibility requirements here.) Wondering what some of the benefits of a VA loan might be? Here are five to consider.

1. No down payment

This is one of the most valuable and touted benefits—and for good reason. Saving enough for a down payment can be the biggest obstacle to buying a home. But a VA loan eliminates that roadblock.

“Most of the buyers I work with don’t have extra resources available, so the fact that they can purchase a home with zero down makes the transaction feasible,” says Benny Dinsmore, a Realtor® with Coldwell Banker in Frisco, TX.

In most parts of the country, qualified buyers can purchase up to $424,100 before factoring in the cost of a down payment. In pricier areas, borrowers can go beyond that threshold.

But beware: The “no money down” aspect of a VA loan shouldn’t be confused with “no money out of pocket,” a common misconception, notes Michael Garcia, broker and owner of TQS Realty in Palm Beach, FL.

A VA loan still requires closing costs and the earnest money deposit (a negotiated amount of money that the buyer puts in escrow to essentially “hold” the house).

“However, that money will often come back at the closing, when the title company will write a check back to the veteran on the spot for the total amount that was put into escrow,” Garcia says.

2. More lenient loan requirements

The required credit score for a VA loan can be lower than for a conventional loan—around 620 for a VA loan compared with a range of 650 to 700 for most conventional loans.

In addition, the required debt-to-income ratio for VA loans is often more flexible than for conventional mortgages.

“It allows someone with less-than-perfect credit and some debt to still be able to qualify for a loan,” Dinsmore says.

3. No mortgage insurance

Most conventional buyers have to pay private mortgage insurance if they put less than 20% down. FHA loans come with their own forms of mortgage insurance. But a VA loan waives that insurance requirement.

And trust us—this one’s important.

“This can be a big savings in monthly payments, since PMI typically runs around $200 a month,” says Realtor® Twila Lukavich with Russell Real Estate Services in Cleveland.

Even though there’s no mortgage insurance, there is a “funding fee”—an upfront cost applied to every purchase loan or refinance. The proceeds help the VA cover losses on the few loans that go into default. But borrowers can roll it into their monthly payment, or pay it all at once. Plus, it’s tax-deductible. And veterans with a service-connected disability don’t have to pay the funding fee at all.

4. Limited closing costs

Legally, veterans are allowed to pay for certain closing costs, which include the following:

  • Appraisal
  • Credit report
  • Origination fee
  • Recording fee
  • Survey
  • Title insurance

But there are some fees that veterans are not allowed to pay. And the VA allows lenders to charge no more than 1% to cover the costs of originating and underwriting the loan.

So for example, if the purchase price is $280,000, the veteran might offer $300,000 and ask for 3% back to cover the closing costs.

“In this way the veteran is essentially financing their closing costs into the loan, meaning less out of pocket at the start,” Dinsmore explains.

5. Extra assistance with appraisals

When a home that a veteran is considering purchasing is having trouble reaching the purchase price during the appraisal process, buyers and lenders can ask the VA appraiser to consider adjusting the valuation before making a final determination.

Appraisers notify lenders in the event the appraised value is likely to come in low, giving buyers and real estate agents 48 hours to supply additional information that the appraiser might not be aware of to help justify the home’s value.

“Typically I assemble an itemized list of upgrades and improvements that the seller has performed on the home in the past three years that the appraiser didn’t know about, and therefore didn’t include in the home value,” Lukavich says.

This process “gives the agents an opportunity to assist the appraiser in making sure they have the whole picture of the home and gives the local agent an opening to help an appraiser be educated on specific local values,” she adds.

It’s just another benefit of VA loans aimed at helping our service men and women buy the home of their dreams.

5 Plumbing Maintenance Tasks You Should Really Address Before the Summer Months

Can it really be? Summer is finally right around the corner. And after a year of being stuck indoors, you probably have plans to seriously enjoy the warm-weather months and live life as carefree as possible. Your home’s plumbing is likely not topping the list of things you want to be thinking about right now. But performing preventive maintenance before those summer days come can give you peace of mind all season long.

“You might be hosting families and friends over the summertime and your home’s plumbing system will see an uptick in usage, so it’s important that you conduct the necessary maintenance now to avoid unexpected plumbing issues,” says Jack Pruitt, brand manager at Benjamin Franklin Plumbing. “Be proactive instead of reactive.”

Make sure you accomplish the projects below to ensure a plumbing-disaster-free summer.https://010d441ee963dfaae424304811c9e070.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

1. Clear your home’s drains of residue

Drains can get gunky and build up residue over time due to daily hand-washing, showering, and other tasks. While you’re performing your pre-summer maintenance tasks, it’s important to clean the drains to avoid unexpected clogs.

“While some homeowners rely on commercial drain cleaners to get the job done, that’s not always the best or safest option,” says Pruitt. “Consider using an all-natural and less expensive option to clean your drains.”

He suggests pouring a half-cup baking soda down the drain, then a half-cup vinegar. The chemical reaction will help dissolve any clog. After 10 to 15 minutes, slowly pour hot water to clear out lingering residue.

“If you don’t like the smell of vinegar, swap it out for lemon juice—the acidity of lemons can have a similar effect on cleaning your drains,” says Pruitt.

2. Clean the gutters ahead of summer rainstorms

Many plumbers consider gutters part of your plumbing system because they carry water away from your house. If gutters are overtopped with water, it can damage the home’s foundation and walls of the basement, creating cracks that may grow over time.

Pruitt says all kinds of debris can land in your gutters, including leaves, twigs, seeds, and even wind-borne trash like plastic bags.

“When this happens, the first part of your home in danger of water damage is the roof, as pooling water can rot your fascia, shingles, and the edge of your roofline,” he says.

“To clean your gutters, use a ladder on leveled ground that locks in place,” he says. “Hook an empty bucket to the top of the ladder to collect the debris you remove, and be sure to use work gloves as you’re removing the debris.”

Using a handheld garden tool such as a trowel can be useful while cleaning gutters and can help scrape up sludge from the bottom of the gutter. Once the gutter is clear, use a hose to wash it completely clean and ensure the water is flowing freely through the downspout.

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Watch: Fix Your Own Garbage Disposer—Without Calling the PlumberVolume 90% 

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3. Test your toilets for leaks

A likely source for leaks in plumbing is a faulty flapper, a small piece of rubber that acts as a stopper, separating the tank from the bowl. When the toilet is flushed, the flapper lifts, allowing water to flow into the bowl below and flush away the waste. But over time, the rubber can degrade, wear out, and develop cracks. 

“A good way to test for a leaking flapper is to add a few drops of food coloring to the top of the tank where the flapper and flush valve are. Check to see if the water inside the bowl is turning the color of the food coloring you added,” says Aaron Mulder, co-owner and operations manager for Mr. Rooter of San Antonio.

If you see color, then you have a leaking/passing flapper. Mulder says you can expect to replace your flapper every two to three years. They can be purchased at a local hardware store or home center.

4. Flush the water heater to remove built-up sediment

This is one of those annual tasks that should be tackled with the rest of your spring-cleaning. Throughout the year, calcium and magnesium that can accumulate in your water heater solidify, and potentially mix with dirt and other inclusions, becoming sediment that accumulates at the bottom of your tank. The sediment could increase the chances of a leak coming out of the bottom of the tank and prevent your water heater from heating as effectively.

“Flushing your water heater is a generally simple task. All you will need is a hose that can connect tightly to the flushing valve on the side of your tank and a large bucket,” says Don Glovan, franchise consultant with Mr. Rooter Plumbing.

He says to first shut off the gas or electrical connection to your tank and connect the hose to the drain valve. Make sure the other end of the hose is in a large bucket or storm drain, open the drain valve, and let the water flow out. At the same time, open your temperature and pressure-relief valve.

If the bucket has sediment crystals in the bottom, then continue letting the water drain through. When new crystals stop appearing in the bottom, close the drain valve and let the tank refill. 

“Then restart your pilot light or turn your electrical connection back on, and your tank should heat up again,” he says.

5. Inspect and maintain your septic tank

If your house runs on a septic system, it’s a good idea to make sure your septic tank is ready to handle the extra use that occurs during the summer. This means keeping your system well-maintained and practicing good septic hygiene.

“Regular maintenance can help prevent problems before they occur, so you don’t end up with sewage backing up into your yard or home,” says Pruitt. “How often you need inspection and maintenance depends on the specific type of system you have, but most need to be checked by an inspector at a minimum every three years.”

5 Reasons To Not Pay Off Your Mortgage Early

You’ve imagined it: that party you’ll throw (and the happy dance you’ll undoubtedly do) the day you pay off your mortgage. Ah, the joy of being debt-free and the full owner of your home!

But hold on: While paying off that principal on your home loan is certainly an achievement, it’s not one you want to rush unnecessarily.

We know, holding on to a mortgage payment can seem counterproductive—especially when you have a large amount of debt looming over your head—but getting rid of it isn’t always the smartest financial move.

You’re probably thinking, “Um, what about all that interest I’ll save?!” Stick with us here. For one, mortgage interest rates are at historic lows, so you aren’t really saving that much by eliminating a mortgage. And that money might be better used elsewhere. Here are some circumstances when you might want to hold on to that monthly payment, and why.

1. You get a tax break on your interest

Homeowners get a federal and state tax deduction on mortgage and home equity loan interest, which can contribute to a hefty overall deduction if you itemize your taxes.

In a nutshell, homeowners with a mortgage that went into effect before Dec. 15, 2017, can deduct interest on loans up to $1 million. However, for acquisition debt incurred after Dec. 15, 2017, homeowners can deduct the interest on only the first $750,000.

In either case, holding on to your mortgage longer allows you to claim that deduction for the life of your loan.

2. You can take out a home equity loan

As long as you have a mortgage, you have the ability to take out a home equity line of credit, or HELOC. And, bonus, the interest you pay on that loan is deductible as long as the loan is used specifically to “buy, build, or improve a property,” according to the IRS. Just note you can deduct the interest up to a $750,000 cap on your HELOC and mortgage combined.

So hold on to that mortgage if a bathroom overhaul is in your future.

3. You could be making a higher return elsewhere

Take a step back and think: “Could my money be doing more for me?” If you spend all your hard-earned cash paying off your mortgage, you won’t have it to invest in other places—which, of course, limits your potential for a cash return.

Jim Ludwick, founder of Main Street Financial Planning, suggests that homeowners who are considering paying off their mortgage instead consider buying a rental property. Crunch your numbers in our mortgage calculator, and apply for mortgage pre-approval if you decide to go that route.

“Sometimes having a mortgage on one property allows you to go out and purchase a rental property and get a good cash-on-cash return,” he says. (Just make sure you know what you’re getting into—being a landlord ain’t easy, either.)

4. You have other debt with a high-interest rate

“Mortgages are relatively cheap money to borrow, so it could make sense to use the cash to pay for other needs such as higher-interest credit card debt,” explains Robbie Schoonmaker, a principal at Matterhorn Financial Planning.

Because mortgages tend to have lower interest rates than, say, a credit card, using extra cash to pay off those debts will save you money on interest in the long run.

5. You want to make sure your emergency and retirement funds are safe

If you’re planning on paying off your principal by dipping into your savings account or retirement fund, think again. Using one of these options to pay off your mortgage can give you a false sense of financial security.

Unexpected expenses—such as medical costs, needed home repairs, or emergency travel—can destroy your financial standing if you don’t have a cash reserve at the ready.

“Once you pay the mortgage off, it could be hard to get the money back, particularly since a time of financial need may be the very time that it is hardest to get a new loan,” Schoonmaker explains.

And as far as dipping into your retirement goes—just don’t do it unless you absolutely have to. And if you do, prepare for it to cost you: Since the money has never been taxed before, you’ll see deep cuts when you take it out.

Finally, don’t skimp on your retirement fund, either. Sure, it might be tempting to scale back on your 401(k) contributions in order to put that cash toward your mortgage. But we’re pretty sure you’ll be sorry when you’re 65.

Whether it’s investing in real estate or buying bonds, just think of what will give you the biggest financial gains. And if your payday really is paying off your mortgage, then we’ll just say congrats! Now let us show you the best ways to celebrate.

ARM vs. Fixed-Rate Mortgage: Which Home Loan Is Better for You?

If you’re raring to buy a home, chances are you’ll need a mortgage. But which kind of mortgage should you get?

Home loans aren’t one size fits all, but come in a variety of forms to suit home buyers in different circumstances. One good place to start figuring out your options is a mortgage calculator, where you can plug in various home prices and and have this sum broken down into monthly payments. Still, in addition to a home’s price, you should carefully consider the type of loan you get.

Two of the main types of mortgages home buyers consider getting are a fixed-rate mortgage and an adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM.

So what’s the difference between these two types of home loans? In a nutshell, a fixed-rate mortgage has an interest rate that stays the same over the life of the loan. An ARM, by contrast, has an interest rate that changes over time.

Before you seek out mortgage pre-approval, let’s break down the pros and cons of each loan so you can decide which one is right for you.

Fixed-rate mortgage

According to Wells Fargo Home Mortgage Area branch manager Chris Jurilla, the majority of homeowners tend to prefer fixed-rate mortgages. And for good reason: A fixed interest rate means your mortgage payments remain steady over the life of your loan.

“Fixed-rate mortgages provide more long-term stability,” Jurilla says. “And with rates still low, borrowers prefer the security of not risking a rate increase or adjustment if the market were to turn.”

If you’re a home buyer with steady employment who wants to put down roots in a community, a fixed-rate mortgage might appeal to you. This kind of loan is also advantageous to people approaching retirement, because the fixed payments make it easier to plan their finances.

The pros of a fixed-rate mortgage:

  • Predictability: The interest rate doesn’t change for the life of the loan, giving home buyers peace of mind.
  • Fixed costs: You can budget more easily as the rate and payments remain constant.
  • Straightforward numbers: The math involved with figuring out your loan is way easier than for an ARM.
  • Stability: This predictable loan is more appealing for the risk-averse.

And the cons:

  • You’re locked in: You won’t be able to take advantage of falling interest rates without refinancing.
  • Your borrowing has a ceiling: You may not qualify for as much house as you would like, because those mortgage payments are typically higher.

Adjustable-rate mortgage

An ARM starts out at a fixed, predetermined interest rate, likely lower than what you would get with a comparable fixed-rate mortgage. However, the rate adjusts after a specified initial period—usually three, five, seven, or 10 years—based on market indexes. If those indexes go up, your payment will go up, too (sometimes way up).

If you’re a more mobile or first-time home buyer who wants to keep your long-term options open, an ARM’s low introductory interest rate is certainly tempting. As long as you’re ready to move on before the introductory period ends, you’ll benefit from the advantage of making lower payments while you’re living in the home. And because your lender will be qualifying you based on a lower monthly payment, you could qualify for a more expensive house than you would with a fixed-rate mortgage.

“ARMs are best suited for investors or home buyers who have short-term ownership goals in mind,” says Jurilla. “Most opt for an ARM if they don’t foresee themselves staying in the home for an extended period of time. There are some who use it as a stepping-stone loan, a short-term solution with a lower monthly payment.”

The pros of an ARM:

  • Low initial rate: There are lower rates and payments early in the loan term than in a traditional fixed-rate mortgage.
  • You can borrow more: You have a chance of being approved for a more expensive house because your lender will look at the lower payment when qualifying you for the loan.
  • Falling rates: Some ARMs allow you to automatically take advantage of lower rates without the hassle and expense of refinancing.

And the cons:

  • Unpredictable rates: After the introductory term, payments and rates can rise substantially. However, if market indexes go down, that doesn’t necessarily mean your mortgage payments will, too. Be sure to read the fine print on your mortgage.
  • Complicated mortgage agreements: You’ll need to understand the complex terms of your agreement, such as margins, caps, and adjustment indexes.
  • Math and more math: You have to put in significantly more work to figure out the math of an ARM and how it could potentially affect your budget.
  • Prepayment penalty: You can’t pay off your loan for the number of years specified in your agreement. So if interest rates jump while you still have a prepayment penalty in place, you can’t refinance or sell your home without incurring a huge cost.

Choose the loan that’s best for you

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is the most popular in America, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect for you. An adjustable-rate mortgage can work well for many young or financially savvy homeowners. Still, many borrowers would rather deal with the stability of a fixed rate than the fluctuating payments of an ARM.

So, who wins? Either mortgage can—it all depends on your individual circumstances. Talk to a mortgage lender or mortgage broker to learn more about which one is right for you. And be sure you understand each loan’s terms, and always compare rates before signing onto a mortgage.

Luxe Up Your Loo! 7 Bathroom Improvements You Should Make Before Selling Your Home

It’s a seller’s market in many parts of the country right now. But if you’re serious about selling your house fast, you need to make sure your bathrooms are updated to impress.

Kitchens and bathrooms sell homes,” says Kris Lindahl, CEO and founder of Kris Lindahl Real Estate. “If a buyer sees a bathroom that still needs projects or upgrades, the home is going to be much less appealing to them.”

1. Go for double sinks

Photo by Tidewater Pro Build 

This is one of those cases where two is better than one. A double vanity upgrade is a worthwhile splurge, according to the pros.

“Upgrading to double sinks is always appreciated by buyers,” Lindahl says.

Worried about space? You might be surprised by how much you can fit into a modestly sized bathroom.

“You don’t need a big bathroom to pull it off,” says Susan Kelleher, an associate broker at R New York. “Even two small sinks are so much better than one in a home with limited bathrooms, and one waterline can be diverted to a second sink.”

2. Install new bathroom hardware and accessories

This upgrade requires zero DIY skills, and it’s guaranteed to instantly elevate the look of a bathroom. All you need is a few hours and a screwdriver.

“Swapping out hardware like light fixtures, towel bars, cabinet pulls and sink fixtures can make an impact relatively affordably,” Lindahl says.

If you’re updating your hardware, this is also a good time to make sure everything matches.

“Your faucet, doorknobs, and shower frame should all complement one another,” says Tricia Turner, owner of Tricia Turner Properties Group in Houston. “Try not to have mixed metals clashing with one another.”

And what about the mirror, mirror on the wall? Swap it for a framed mirror or frame the existing one to add some style.

“Framing the mirror over the sink can add so much value to the space without costing a ton of money,” Turner says.

3. Replace or paint your vanity

Photo by Elms Interior Design

The vanity is a centerpiece in any bathroom, so don’t overlook this feature when preparing your house to sell.

“Luxe sophistication and clean lines: That’s the theme for bathrooms in every price point,” Kelleher says. If you can’t afford a sleek new vanity, she suggests painting the cabinets in a high-gloss white or pale gray.

For the vanity countertop, opt for a high-quality stone like quartz or granite. A new medicine cabinet above the vanity can also make a bathroom look more luxurious,

“I love the mirrored medicine cabinets from Restoration Hardware—functional, beautiful, and tres chic,” Kelleher says.

4. Update old floors

If you have scuffed-up vinyl, chipped tile, or—heaven forbid—carpet in your bathroom, you’ll definitely want to invest in new flooring.

“Updating old floors to tile or luxury vinyl tile really adds appeal,” Lindahl says.

Bathroom tile is a simple enough project for some DIYers, or you can hire a contractor.

5. Install new light fixtures

Photo by REFINED LLC 

Unfortunately, ’80s-style lights gathering dust above the vanity are more tacky than throwback. Swapping them for simple, sophisticated light fixtures is your best bet.

“Great lighting [and] high-end faucets and hardware appeal to buyers in every price point,” Kelleher says.

Lindahl agrees: “Updating light and plumbing fixtures is a quick way to modernize an old bath.”

The best part? Most light fixtures are simple enough to pick up from the hardware store and swap out on your own—no electrician needed.

6. Add space and storage

Who doesn’t want more space in the bathroom? From room for toiletries to linen closets and king-size showers, buyers expect bathrooms that make the most of the space.

“Buyers are looking for more space in new homes, and the bathroom is no exception,” Turner says. “Think about expanding the shower in the master bathroom to fit a bench or seat. It’s an important feature that can be utilized in a lot of different ways.”

It might even be worth it to borrow space from a neighboring room to expand a bathroom.

“Take the adjacent linen closet to make a larger bathroom,” Kelleher says. “Even a small closet can make a big difference, and you can create cabinet space under each sink for maximum storage.”

7. Make your bathroom bright and light

Photo by Electric Bowery 

When in doubt, replace loud, bold patterns with clean neutrals in all your bathrooms. A blank slate is more likely to appeal to a wide array of potential buyers.

“Classic white never goes out of style in a bathroom,” Lindahl says. “Replacing an old, colorful tub with a white one is a good idea.”

Plus, a neutral base will make the rest of your bathroom improvements shine—and will sway buyers in the right direction when it comes time to make an offer.

“If the basic tile colors are neutral, it’s amazing what some paint and new fixtures can do,” Kelleher says.bathroomshome sellinghome upgradesROI

Lauren Sieben is a writer in Milwaukee. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Washington Post, Milwaukee Magazine, and other outlets.

California First-Time Home Buyer Assistance Programs for 2021

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While these programs are geared toward home buyers with low or moderate income, many may qualify who might not realize they do—so it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re stressed about making those monthly mortgage payments.

Here’s a rundown of the various Golden State–sponsored programs for first-time home buyers, as well as who is eligible and how they can help lower the costs of homeownership so that it’s more within reach.

CalHFA’s first-time home buyer loan programs

The majority of financial assistance programs for the state’s first-time home buyers is offered by the California Housing Finance Agency, or CalHFA. Established in 1975, this institution was chartered as California’s affordable housing lender—although to be clear, it doesn’t actually loan you money. Rather, it puts applicants in touch with approved lenders who can grant a variety of affordable loans that home buyers might not qualify for on the open mortgage market, as well as additional financial assistance.

CalHFA home buyer requirements

Here is a list of home buyer eligibility requirements to help you understand whether or not you qualify for these loans.

  • First-time home buyer: In most cases, to qualify for a loan you must be a first-time home buyer. If you’ve bought a home in the past, that does not necessarily mean you don’t qualify. You’re considered a first-time home buyer if you haven’t owned a home in the three years prior to applying for a loan.
  • Decent credit score: You must have a minimum credit score of 660 for a conventional low-income-rate loan, and a minimum credit score of 680 for a conventional standard-rate loan.
  • Acceptable debt-to-income (DTI) ratio: Your debt-to-income ratio, which compares the amount of money you owe to what you make, cannot exceed 45% for automated underwriting, or 43% for manual underwriting.
  • Income cap: Your earnings can’t exceed CalHFA’s income limits, which are based on the specific area you are looking to buy in.
  • Nationality: You must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or qualified alien.
  • Complete a home-buying course: You must complete a home-buying counseling course and present a certificate of completion. A course can be taken online, or in person through a HUD-approved housing counseling agency.

Note: Meeting these qualifications is no guarantee you’ll qualify for a loan, because each CalHFA-approved lender may have additional borrowing requirements.

“While California has many options regarding first-time homeowners needing financial assistance, it is important to remember that many of these assistance programs will have their own set of regulations and standards that must be met before being approved,” says Simon Ru, CEO of UpNest. Still, if you meet the above criteria, it’s a good start.

CalHFA property requirements

In addition to seeing if you qualify as a borrower, properties must meet certain CalHFA standards, too.

  • Sales price: The home’s sales price can’t be above $765,000.
  • Location: The home must be located within California and used as your primary residence.
  • Property type: The property must be a single-family, one-unit home with a maximum lot size of 5 acres. Some condos, accessory dwelling units (e.g., guesthouses and in-law quarters), and manufactured homes are permitted.

6 types of CalHFA home loan programs

The California Housing Finance Agency offers a variety of loans for first-time home buyers. Here’s a rundown of the main options:

Government loans

  • CalHFA FHA Program: The CalHFA FHA Program offers a 30-year fixed-rate loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Note that the FHA has specific borrowing and property requirements that must be met in addition to those of CalHFA.
  • CalPLUS FHA Program: The CalPLUS FHA Program is an FHA-insured first mortgage with a slightly higher 30-year fixed rate than the standard FHA program, but the upside is it can be combined with other financial assistance programs (outlined below).
  • CalHFA VA Program: The CalHFA VA Program is a 30-year fixed-rate loan insured by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Note that the VA has its own requirements for eligibility.
  • CalHFA USDA Program: The CalHFA USDA Program offers a USDA-guaranteed 30-year fixed-rate loan. Note that to qualify for this loan, a property must be located in a USDA-eligible rural area.

Conventional loans

Financial assistance for down payments, closing costs, and more in California

In addition to affordable loans, the California Housing Finance Agency also offers a variety of financial assistance programs that can be combined with their loans that help lower the costs of a mortgage even further.

More good news? “Since this program will be considered subordinate or junior loans, the payments are deferred until their homes are sold, refinanced, or paid in full,” says Tal Shelef, Realtor and co-founder of California’s CondoWizard. “That makes your monthly mortgage payments more affordable.”

Here are the options, who qualifies, and how the programs work.

MyHome Assistance Program

The MyHome Assistance Program provides up to 3.5% of a home’s purchase price or appraised value (whichever is lower) to help pay for down payment or closing costs associated with a home purchase. The maximum amount you can acquire is $11,000.

Since this program is a deferred-payment junior loan, there’s no need to pay it back until you sell or refinance the property. In many cases, you can combine MyHome Assistance with CalHFA’s loan programs, including FHA, USDA, VA, and conventional loans.

Home-buying assistance for school teachers and employees

The School Teacher and Employee Assistance Program is designed for first-time home buyers who are teachers, administrators, school district employees, and staff members who work at California’s K-12 public schools.

These loans provide funds of up to 4% of the purchase price that can then be used toward down payment and closing costs.

CalHFA Zero Interest Program

CalHFA Zero Interest Program, also known as ZIP, is a second mortgage that can work with certain CalPLUS loans. The program makes homeownership more affordable for low-income buyers by providing borrowers with a zero-interest loan amounting to 3% of a borrower’s first mortgage.

And since this is a junior loan, payments for the loan can be deferred as long as you live in your house. However, keep in mind you’ll have to pay for the loan if you ever default on your mortgage, sell, refinance, or transfer the title to someone else.

Can you combine CalHFA loans with financial assistance programs?

Finding it hard to pick among these many financial aid options? You may not have to choose.

“Sometimes, California Housing Finance Agency loans can be combined with other assistance offers, while others can’t,” says Tony Mariotti, a licensed real estate agent and the CEO of RubyHome in Los Angeles.

The trade-off, however, is that you might need to pick a loan with a slightly higher interest rate—but it may pay off, so it’s worth crunching the numbers. For instance, while the CalPLUS FHA Program comes with a slightly higher 30-year fixed rate than the CalHFA, a CalPLUS loan can be combined with the CalHFA ZIP, which can assist with closing costs and prepaid items, including the FHA’s mandatory mortgage insurance premium.

In some cases, you can even combine a CalPLUS loan with two financial assistance programs, offering home buyers three ways to save money. For instance, while the CalPLUS Conventional Program comes with a slightly higher 30-year fixed rate than the CalPLUS FHA loan, you can combine it with the MyHome Assistance Program and the CalHFA ZIP.

Just know that some loans, however, can’t be combined. When in doubt, ask your loan officer or real estate agent for guidance.

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But the good news is that many first-time home buyers in California qualify for special loans and financial assistance that can lower the costs of homeownership. While these programs are geared toward home buyers with low or moderate income, many may qualify who might not realize they do—so it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re stressed about making those monthly mortgage payments.

Here’s a rundown of the various Golden State–sponsored programs for first-time home buyers, as well as who is eligible and how they can help lower the costs of homeownership so that it’s more within reach.

CalHFA’s first-time home buyer loan programs

The majority of financial assistance programs for the state’s first-time home buyers is offered by the California Housing Finance Agency, or CalHFA. Established in 1975, this institution was chartered as California’s affordable housing lender—although to be clear, it doesn’t actually loan you money. Rather, it puts applicants in touch with approved lenders who can grant a variety of affordable loans that home buyers might not qualify for on the open mortgage market, as well as additional financial assistance.

CalHFA home buyer requirements

Here is a list of home buyer eligibility requirements to help you understand whether or not you qualify for these loans.

  • First-time home buyer: In most cases, to qualify for a loan you must be a first-time home buyer. If you’ve bought a home in the past, that does not necessarily mean you don’t qualify. You’re considered a first-time home buyer if you haven’t owned a home in the three years prior to applying for a loan.
  • Decent credit score: You must have a minimum credit score of 660 for a conventional low-income-rate loan, and a minimum credit score of 680 for a conventional standard-rate loan.
  • Acceptable debt-to-income (DTI) ratio: Your debt-to-income ratio, which compares the amount of money you owe to what you make, cannot exceed 45% for automated underwriting, or 43% for manual underwriting.
  • Income cap: Your earnings can’t exceed CalHFA’s income limits, which are based on the specific area you are looking to buy in.
  • Nationality: You must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or qualified alien.
  • Complete a home-buying course: You must complete a home-buying counseling course and present a certificate of completion. A course can be taken online, or in person through a HUD-approved housing counseling agency.

Note: Meeting these qualifications is no guarantee you’ll qualify for a loan, because each CalHFA-approved lender may have additional borrowing requirements.

“While California has many options regarding first-time homeowners needing financial assistance, it is important to remember that many of these assistance programs will have their own set of regulations and standards that must be met before being approved,” says Simon Ru, CEO of UpNest. Still, if you meet the above criteria, it’s a good start.

CalHFA property requirements

In addition to seeing if you qualify as a borrower, properties must meet certain CalHFA standards, too.

  • Sales price: The home’s sales price can’t be above $765,000.
  • Location: The home must be located within California and used as your primary residence.
  • Property type: The property must be a single-family, one-unit home with a maximum lot size of 5 acres. Some condos, accessory dwelling units (e.g., guesthouses and in-law quarters), and manufactured homes are permitted.

6 types of CalHFA home loan programs

The California Housing Finance Agency offers a variety of loans for first-time home buyers. Here’s a rundown of the main options:

Government loans

  • CalHFA FHA Program: The CalHFA FHA Program offers a 30-year fixed-rate loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Note that the FHA has specific borrowing and property requirements that must be met in addition to those of CalHFA.
  • CalPLUS FHA Program: The CalPLUS FHA Program is an FHA-insured first mortgage with a slightly higher 30-year fixed rate than the standard FHA program, but the upside is it can be combined with other financial assistance programs (outlined below).
  • CalHFA VA Program: The CalHFA VA Program is a 30-year fixed-rate loan insured by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Note that the VA has its own requirements for eligibility.
  • CalHFA USDA Program: The CalHFA USDA Program offers a USDA-guaranteed 30-year fixed-rate loan. Note that to qualify for this loan, a property must be located in a USDA-eligible rural area.

Conventional loans

Financial assistance for down payments, closing costs, and more in California

In addition to affordable loans, the California Housing Finance Agency also offers a variety of financial assistance programs that can be combined with their loans that help lower the costs of a mortgage even further.

More good news? “Since this program will be considered subordinate or junior loans, the payments are deferred until their homes are sold, refinanced, or paid in full,” says Tal Shelef, Realtor and co-founder of California’s CondoWizard. “That makes your monthly mortgage payments more affordable.”

Here are the options, who qualifies, and how the programs work.

MyHome Assistance Program

The MyHome Assistance Program provides up to 3.5% of a home’s purchase price or appraised value (whichever is lower) to help pay for down payment or closing costs associated with a home purchase. The maximum amount you can acquire is $11,000.

Since this program is a deferred-payment junior loan, there’s no need to pay it back until you sell or refinance the property. In many cases, you can combine MyHome Assistance with CalHFA’s loan programs, including FHA, USDA, VA, and conventional loans.

Home-buying assistance for school teachers and employees

The School Teacher and Employee Assistance Program is designed for first-time home buyers who are teachers, administrators, school district employees, and staff members who work at California’s K-12 public schools.

These loans provide funds of up to 4% of the purchase price that can then be used toward down payment and closing costs.

CalHFA Zero Interest Program

CalHFA Zero Interest Program, also known as ZIP, is a second mortgage that can work with certain CalPLUS loans. The program makes homeownership more affordable for low-income buyers by providing borrowers with a zero-interest loan amounting to 3% of a borrower’s first mortgage.

And since this is a junior loan, payments for the loan can be deferred as long as you live in your house. However, keep in mind you’ll have to pay for the loan if you ever default on your mortgage, sell, refinance, or transfer the title to someone else.

Can you combine CalHFA loans with financial assistance programs?

Finding it hard to pick among these many financial aid options? You may not have to choose.

“Sometimes, California Housing Finance Agency loans can be combined with other assistance offers, while others can’t,” says Tony Mariotti, a licensed real estate agent and the CEO of RubyHome in Los Angeles.

The trade-off, however, is that you might need to pick a loan with a slightly higher interest rate—but it may pay off, so it’s worth crunching the numbers. For instance, while the CalPLUS FHA Program comes with a slightly higher 30-year fixed rate than the CalHFA, a CalPLUS loan can be combined with the CalHFA ZIP, which can assist with closing costs and prepaid items, including the FHA’s mandatory mortgage insurance premium.

In some cases, you can even combine a CalPLUS loan with two financial assistance programs, offering home buyers three ways to save money. For instance, while the CalPLUS Conventional Program comes with a slightly higher 30-year fixed rate than the CalPLUS FHA loan, you can combine it with the MyHome Assistance Program and the CalHFA ZIP.

Just know that some loans, however, can’t be combined. When in doubt, ask your loan officer or real estate agent for guidance.

Avoid These 6 Mistakes When Upsizing to a New Home

Tired of having your already cramped bedroom do double duty as a home office and at-home gym? It might be time to upsize. But while getting more space may seem enticing, upsizing can hold pitfalls for unwary home buyers.

“It is important to be aware of these mistakes because upsizing can be expensive, but if you plan it well, do your research, and shop around, it doesn’t have to be,” says Lior Rachmany, founder and CEO of Dumbo Moving and Storage in New York.

Before taking the plunge, here are some mistakes to avoid when upsizing to a larger home:

Mistake No. 1: Rushing to buy a bigger home

You can’t stop fantasizing about bigger spaces, but take a break for a reality check. You don’t want to ditch your current dwelling without understanding the market and thinking things through.

“Although the frenzy of the current real estate market creates motivation to move as quickly as possible, it is important to be diligent and thoughtful in your decision process,” says John Hollyer, senior portfolio manager at Bespoke Real Estate in New York. “Make sure you understand the market, comparable sales, and value of the house you may bid on. Your broker can assist with an analysis of sold properties and competing inventory.”

And in the rush, don’t get suckered into paying for any conveniences you don’t need, such as expediting certain services.

“A lot of times, when you want service to your old home or upsized home, you are paying more for speed,” says Rachmany.

Instead, allow yourself time to get those things done.

Mistake No. 2: Miscalculating your space needs

It’s important to be realistic about how much space you actually need.

“Assess your space in your current home, and what’s missing or necessary to improve upon it,” says Hollyer. It may turn out that the floor plan or your furniture layout is the problem, and not a lack of space. By the same token, make sure that space in a new home is laid out for maximum usability.

And once you move into that bigger space, live in it for a while, without buying extra furniture, to assess what pieces you really need, says Rachmany. He says furniture needs space to be used effectively, so you can move between pieces without squeezing through.  

“Also, plan your home for everyday use, not for special occasions. People have a habit of buying too much chairs and larger-than-needed sofas for company. But you can always use foldable chairs for that,” says Rachmany.

Mistake No. 3: Ignoring long-term factors

When making any major purchase, try to picture how your life might change in coming years.

“Buying a new home that won’t potentially fit your needs in the future will only lead to another purchase and move that could be avoided with proper forward thinking,” says Hollyer.

He says to make sure to have a realistic projection of how long you plan to stay in the new home, how your family’s needs might change in that time, and whether the home would continue to meet your requirements.

Another thing homeowners often forget is that upsizing brings extra costs that can snowball over time—bigger homes cost more to maintain. 

“Factor in for larger utility bills, and have [more] money set aside to do repairs when budgeting for your new home,” says Rachmany.

Mistake No. 4: Disregarding financing

Make sure to do your homework on financing, and don’t go in blind when trying to buy a bigger (read: more expensive) home.

“Without accurate information regarding what you are qualified for, you’ll be wasting time,” says Hollyer.

Rachmany suggests leaving it to the experts if you aren’t well-versed in applying for loans or mortgages. Consider using a financial consultant and/or a mortgage broker—ask around for referrals.

“It is very easy to get screwed over by interest rates when applying for loans,” says Rachmany.

And while mortgage rates are at historic lows, experts say you should still compare financing options, which can vary considerably.

“Bigger homes mean larger property taxes, larger mortgage, and larger homeowner insurance,” says Rachmany. “Only upsize your home if you have the budget, realistically, for it.”

Mistake No. 5: Neglecting your current home

Don’t let maintenance of your current home fall by the wayside in your rush to upsize.

Rachmany suggests keeping up the maintenance of your home, and if something breaks, to fix it before you move out.

“In order to capture your current home’s peak value, you want to keep it in top condition,” says Hollyer. “Investing in routine and proactive maintenance of your current property is necessary to provide more value to you when it’s time to sell.”

Mistake No. 6: Spending too much on items for the new home

Upsizing to a new home doesn’t give you carte blanche to go crazy and overspend.

“People have an initial ‘hotel’ experience with their new home, where they leave all their lights on, and just really change their living at home habits and become more wasteful,” says Rachmany.

He suggests holding off on buying all new stuff. Instead, replace items when they break or are no longer usable.

“Extra space doesn’t always need extra items. You don’t have to fill up your kitchen counter with gadgets just because you have extra space,” says Rachmany. “See how much your living expenses change, then get extra items if needed.”

What Does ‘Under Contract’ Mean in a Real Estate Listing?

As you scroll through the real estate listings, you might spot a few that say the house is “under contract.” But what does “under contract” mean?

In most cases, a property is listed as “under contract” once a buyer has made an offer and the seller has accepted. While that’s a big step, it doesn’t mean the deal is done quite yet.

So if you see a house you love that’s “under contract,” don’t give up quite yet. Here’s how to handle this scenario and maybe even get the house.

What does ‘under contract’ mean?

When a real estate listing is “under contract,” there are still contingencies attached to that offer that must be cleared before closing, says Kelley Ramirez, a real estate agent with Charles Rutenberg Realty in Central and South Florida. These contingencies often include financing, a home inspectionhome appraisal, and sometimes the sale of the buyer’s current home.

Since it’s possible for any of these items to fall through along the way, seller’s agents will sometimes take backup offers. In other words, if you want this home for yourself, that could still happen.

“If a buyer were to find a home that they absolutely love that is listed under contract with contingencies, it definitely wouldn’t hurt to have their agent reach out to the seller’s agent with a backup offer—as long as the buyer understands that this backup offer is only good if the current contract falls through,” Ramirez says.

How good are your odds of a contract falling through? That depends on a number of factors, including the temperature of your local real estate market. The hotter the market, the less likely it is to fall through.

Hal Hovey, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Koetje Real Estate in Oak Harbor, WA, says in his market, about 20% of sales that are under contract don’t end up closing.

“In other words, the sales fail to complete, and typically the house comes back available for sale again,” he says.

However, Ramirez cautions buyers not to get their hopes up too high when it comes to putting in offers on properties that are already under contract.

“The majority of the time, the contingencies are cleared without a problem, and the sale goes through,” Ramirez says.

So how long do you have to wait to find out if you have a shot? Well, it could take a while. Hovey says it typically takes 30 to 45 days from the date an offer is accepted until the sales contract closes and the sale is complete.

‘Under contract’ vs. ‘sale pending’: What’s the difference?

Ramirez says while the terms are often used interchangeably, there are differences between a home that’s listed as “under contract” versus “sale pending.” In most cases, “sale pending” means it’s almost a done deal, and you should probably look for another house.

“If a property is listed as ‘sale pending,’ the contingencies have all been removed, and the property is ready to close,” Ramirez says. “At this point, one would assume it will close without issues, and thus making an offer on this type of property would be a moot point.”

It’s also important to note that these terms may vary by state and region. Your real estate agent can better help you understand where a particular home may be in the sale process and what your chances are of buying it. That said, if it’s truly your dream house, don’t give up hope completely, because issues can crop up, even if they’re unlikely, and until that final line is signed, a sale is not a sale.

So, if you see a home listed as “under contract,” you don’t necessarily have to rule it out.

Your chances of getting it aren’t going to be nearly as high as a home with an active “for sale” status, but it can’t hurt to make an offer or at least keep it on your radar until the final sale goes through.

goldrealestateca.com

10 Crucial Questions to Ask a Real Estate Agent When Selling Your Home

If you’re looking to sell your home, you’ll want to hire an amazing listing real estate agent to help—and there are certain questions to ask so that you can pinpoint the right professional for you.

It’s smart to be picky! A great real estate agent can help find buyers to sell your home fast, and for more money. Make the wrong choice, and your listing might languish. Then, the lowballing bargain hunters come circling—it’s not pretty.

Not sure where to get started? You can search for real estate agents in your area with online tools that offer you the chance to read real estate agent reviews from previous clients. From there, you’ll want to call or meet with a few you like and probe further.

Here are some important questions to ask a real estate agent when selling your home, to ensure you get a good price.

1. What are your credentials?

As you start out to sell your home, at the very least hire an agent who has a state license and belongs to the local real estate trade association. This means that they will have access to the multiple listing service, or MLS, and can list your property far and wide to attract buyers.

However, you may want to look further and find someone who’s a member of the National Association of Realtors®, which requires additional training and adherence to a code of ethics.

2. How many sales did you close last year?

A real estate agent’s past performance doesn’t guarantee a quick sale. Their track record of success with buyers and sellers, though, is some assurance that they are professionals who will know what they’re doing in selling your home.

Ask potential agents about how many clients they’ve worked with in the past and about the price range of the homes they have sold. You ideally want someone who knows just which real estate features will be valued by buyers in the appropriate income bracket. You may also want to ask for recommendations from previous clients.

3. Do you specialize in this neighborhood?

Having a local expert can be a huge advantage for sellers. Local agents will be aware of any upcoming developments in the area, plus plans for stores or other amenities that might affect the value of your property, how quickly it will sell, and the price you’re likely to get. They’ll also know what local buyers are looking for in real estate.

“You want to know that your agent understands the market for your neighborhood right now,” says Ashlie Roberson, a New York City–based agent at Triplemint. She also advises sellers to inquire about the agent’s favorite places in the area.

“Your agent needs to be able to not only sell your home, but your neighborhood.”

4. How do you arrive at the listing price?

Few things are as important to a seller as the discussion of how to price your home, and your real estate agent’s ability to land on a listing pricethat is pitched at just the right level for the local market.

A property that is priced too high will languish, eventually turning off potential buyers; but a home priced too low might leave money on the table.

Make sure your agent is knowledgeable about the local market and what other similar homes have recently sold for. This will help you arrive at the right price to complete your real estate transaction. Be sure to get answers to any of your questions about the process of coming up with a list price.

5. Whom will I be working with?

You want to find out if you will be working with one specific real estate agent or a member of the agent’s team. Each scenario has pros and cons for sellers, so ask lots of questions. Different agents work with clients in different ways.

“Having a team of agents makes accommodating showings easier, but specific requests made by the seller can get lost among a big team,” says JoAnn Schwimmer, associate broker and certified relocation professional with DJK Residential in New York City.

6. How much will selling my home cost?

Ask several questions about the costs that you, as the seller, will be paying in the real estate transaction, such as broker’s commissionclosing fees, and anything else, so you can plan accordingly—and compare from one agent to the next. This should all be covered in the listing agreement with the real estate agent.

7. What is your sales plan?

A good agent should have a written plan for selling your home that identifies the marketing plan for your property to attract buyers, from listing services to open houses to social media. This helps ensure you’ll get a high sales price.

“Don’t let them just rely on mailers,” says Roberson. She advises using an agent who has the capability to provide professional photography, a custom website, and even video, if appropriate. This will make the best impression on buyers.

“Marketing is the key to a successful sale,” she says.

8. What should I do to get my house ready?

See what the agents’ advice is for necessary repairs or upgrades or what hacks they might suggest for budget-friendly but impactful improvements that would attract buyers. Find out if they suggest staging services or just a good cleaning and declutter.

Also ask questions about whether the agents are willing to accommodate your schedule and what days and times they prefer to show houses.

9. How will we communicate?

If you’re a texter and your real estate agent prefers lengthy phone calls, that could present a problem. Likewise, you might prefer the personal touch of a call over an email. Knowing the method and frequency of communication can be important in selling your home. Your agent should also be available to answer any questions that you have along the way.

10. How long will the process take?

While no agents can guarantee how fast the sale and full real estate transaction will go, they should be able to give a ballpark range on how long it will take to sell your house. The national average is 65 days, but it depends greatly on where you live.

Home-Showing Tips That’ll Persuade Buyers to Bite

Having an open house is the exciting part of selling a home, but let’s face it: It takes a lot of work to get there.

Once you’ve made repairschosen a Realtor®, real estate agent or listing agent, and then decided on an asking price, your home is almost ready for market—but first, how about a little primping and polishing? Or maybe a lot of primping and polishing. This is where an open house for potential buyers comes into play.

Showing tips for a successful open house—and a big sale

After all, you want your home and your open house to make a great first impression on buyers—and that’s where we can help. To host an open house and show your home in the best possible light, it’s worth listening to these savvy seller tips and step-by-step advice.

Stash your stuff during an open house

When you’re just living in your home, a bit of clutter is business as usual—but for a buyer, a mess can spell doom.

You know the drill: video game cartridges in the bathroom, toolbox in the kitchen, tuxedo shirt inexplicably in the garage. But know this as a first-time seller: All this disorder can be deadly during an open house.

That’s because clutter can make even spacious real estate look cramped and dirty, distracting from a home’s assets and putting off potential buyers, says Darbi McGlone, a Realtor with Jim Talbot Real Estate in Baton Rouge, LA.

Smart open house ideas include paring down your belongings, by going room by room and boxing up anything you haven’t used or worn in at least six months.

What’s that you say? There’s nothing you’re not using? Try anyway—it’s important for an open house. You’ll probably be surprised by the stuff you won’t miss. (Bonus: You’ll have less to move later.)

One area where you’ll want to be merciless as you stage for an open house is your kitchen counter. Remove everything but your coffee maker, so that people (and potential buyers) will think, “Wow, such a huge kitchen!”

And to allow home buyers to really envision themselves living there, you’ll also want to depersonalize by removing items such as the framed photos, report cards on the fridge, or your kid’s collection of “Star Wars” snow globes. But don’t declutter by just stuffing those things in the closet.

“Closets often end up being the dumping ground to store all the clutter that was visible,” says McGlone. “Which is never good, because closet space is an important buying consideration. You want potential owners to be able to see the true amount of space in each closet (and buyers are going to open every door to peek inside and gauge how much real estate is in there).”

Instead, real estate agents say that it’s a good idea for sellers to stack boxes neatly in the attic, basement, or, best of all, a storage facility. The perceived extra space you add to your home could be worth the rental cost and then some.

Stage to sell for a successful open house

These days, home staging is all the rage in the real estate world: On average, staged homes sell 88% faster and for a whopping 20% more than ones where home sellers just kept their furnishings in place.

And while you can hire a professional stager for your open house, you can also cop a few of their tricks and tips for free—and maybe snag a buyer fast.

For instance, hanging curtain rods higher can give the illusion of taller ceilings. Well-placed mirrors can make rooms appear bigger and brighter during an open house.

Want to go the extra step as you prepare for your upcoming open house? Paint your walls white, layer in neutrals, then add pops of color with pillows or a cashmere throw on the couch, for a cozy glow.

“I always think to move the furniture toward the walls during an open house to make it feel like there is more space,” McGlone says. Push furniture out and away from each other to open up floor space, but be careful to keep window space clear.

Conceal flaws whenever possible; if the view from a window isn’t great, put up sheer curtains so that the light comes in but the scenery stays hidden, say real estate agents.

And as with all your possessions, think “Less is more,” although stagers do sometimes strategically add furniture (such as a cozy reading chair in a bedroom corner) to give a future buyer the illusion of more space. Go figure!

Boost curb appeal at your open house

Finally, it’s time to take a hard look at the outside of your house, the way a neighbor or buyer might do. After all, that’s the first thing buyers will see when they pull up, so you’ve got to work that curb appeal hard.

For starters, take a good hard look at the paint. If it’s looking dull or dingy, try power washing first.

You can rent a power washer from most home improvement stores; a good wash can take off layers of dirt that make your home look shabby.

Most professional paint jobs come with a 25-year warranty, and if you’re long past that, it may be time for a new coat.

At the very least, slapping a coat of paint on your front door will give you the most bang for your buck—because that’s what buyers will see up close before they even knock.

Door paint aside, your yard also needs to be in order. Overgrown trees can make a home seem dark and creepy. If your trees are touching any part of your house, you should scale them back. If your front lawn is lacking in shrubs and flowers, add some.

Even in winter, you can find hardy plants, such as evergreen boxwoods and holly bushes.

Also, make sure your lawn is mowed, and if you have a pool that’s open, keep it sparkling (your neighbors appreciate a pretty lawn and pool too).

“A dirty pool will remind people how much upkeep there is, even if they asked for a pool,” McGlone says.

Once you’ve gotten your home looking fantastic both inside and out, it’s time to break out your camera and spread the news (on social media, too) that it’s up for grabs: with an eye-catching real estate ad for your open-house flyers or open-house signs, of course!