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If you’re ready to buy a home, you might have noticed something: There aren’t as many “For Sale” signs dotting lawns in the neighborhoods in which you want to live. That’s because the number of homes on the market across the country is low compared to past years. It’s a trend that is making life more difficult for buyers.

These low inventory levels have resulted in a seller’s market. Homes priced well and in desirable locations are increasingly attracting multiple offers. Many are selling not just at listing price but above listing price.

How can buyers compete in today’s seller’s market? Their best bet is to make the most attractive, compelling offer possible. If you can offer the right price, move-in date and other perks, you’ll increase your odds of beating out other buyers for that home of your dreams.

The Challenge

A look at the latest numbers from the National Association of REALTORS® shows why sellers have the advantage today. A total of 1.96 million existing homes were being sold at the end of May, according to the Association. That sounds like a lot, but that figure is down 8.4% from May of last year, when 2.14 million homes were for sale. The number of homes on the market has fallen year-over-year for 24 consecutive months.

This might explain why housing prices keep rising. To beat their competitors, buyers are making offers closer to asking price. The Association said that the median existing home price for all housing types in May was $252,800. That is up 5.8% from May of 2016 and represents an all-time high.

How do you win over other potential buyers of that house you desperately want? The surest way is by offering the highest possible price you can afford. If you outbid your fellow buyers, the odds are good that you’ll nab that house.

But what if you don’t want to make an offer above asking price? Are there any ways you can sweeten your offer to gain an edge? We talked to some real estate agents to get some suggestions.

Get Preapproved for a Mortgage

Marc Carver, principal at Carver Property Group in Alpharetta, Georgia, said that aside from price, getting preapproved for a mortgage loan is the best way to strengthen your offer.

To get preapproved for a mortgage, you’ll have to provide a mortgage lender with documentation to prove your income – things like your paycheck stubs, W-2s and bank account statements. You’ll also have to give this lender permission to pull your credit. Then, the lender determines how much mortgage money you’re eligible to borrow. If you’re preapproved, the lender issues you a preapproval letter stating the size of the loan you are approved for.

Sellers prefer offers from buyers who are preapproved (as opposed to buyers who have not put their finances in order) because there’s a smaller chance the mortgage financing will fall through at the last minute and scuttle the sale.

“This is really a must rather than an advantage,” Carver said. “Most sellers will not seriously consider an offer without a letter of preapproval.”

Drop the Contingencies

Joe Lopez, an agent with San Antonio, Texas-based SellSmart Elite Realty, knows how difficult the low-inventory market has been for buyers. He has seen plenty of homes in what he calls the “sweet spot of pricing” ($150,000 – $250,000) sell within a week of hitting the market.

“When my buyers find a house they want, I ask them one question: ‘Do you want to buy the house or do you need to own it?’” Lopez said.

If the buyer(s) need the house, Lopez advises them to make an offer with as few contingencies as possible. A contingency gives buyers a loophole to walk away from a real estate sale. For instance, most buyers will include a home inspection contingency in their offer, meaning that if the home inspection turns up serious problems, they can walk away from the home sale without losing their earnest money deposit.

Many contingencies, such as the home inspection one, should never be left off of an offer; the protection they provide is too valuable. But, buyers can sweeten their offer by eliminating other contingencies.

A big one to eliminate? Making the sale contingent on selling your current home first. You might want to close the sale of your existing home before you take on the financial burden of making mortgage payments on a second. This is reasonable, but know that sellers will almost always choose an offer that doesn’t come with this contingency, if they have that choice. If you can’t swing two mortgage payments at once, be sure to include this contingency. But if there is any way to avoid it, doing so will make your offer stronger.

The Escalation Clause

Brett Maternowski, an agent with Dalton Wade Real Estate Group in St. Petersburg, Florida, recommends that buyers who want the strongest bid possible include an escalation clause in their offers. Such a clause allows buyers to make an offer under asking price but also gives them the chance to boost that offer if other buyers bid higher.

Maternowski gives this example: You make an offer of $280,000 on a home listed for $300,000. This offer includes an escalation clause saying that you are willing to raise your bid to $1,000 more than any other higher bid that comes in from other buyers. You can put a limit on the clause saying that you are willing to keep escalating until hitting the listing price of $300,000.

“This clause takes out all the guesswork by allowing the buyer to feel comfortable in getting the best price,” Maternowski said.

Move-In Dates Matter

Kathryn Bishop, an agent with Keller Williams Realty in Studio City, California, said that buyers who give the cleanest, easiest offers for sellers often win out.

As an example, Bishop points to move-in dates. If your sellers want a specific move-in date, even if that date isn’t ideal for you, agree to it in your offer. You might have to sacrifice a bit – such as renting an apartment to live in temporarily until you can get into your new home – but by being flexible with move-in dates, you’ll give yourself the best chance to nab the house you want.

Don’t Get Greedy, Even If Your Wallet Is Hurting

You might want the sellers of your home to help cover the closing costs you need to buy your home. In a seller’s market, though, asking for this – something that could cost your sellers thousands of dollars – could thwart your chances of submitting a winning bid.

Roman Ludwing, an agent with Pro Agents Realty in Coral Springs, Florida, said that sellers aren’t as likely to agree to pay for even a portion of the buyer’s closing costs in a seller’s market.

“In a seller’s market, they will most likely move to an offer that is not requesting closing costs,” Ludwing said.

Get Specific – And a Little Personal

Sarah Ward, head REALTOR at San Diego’s College Area Realty, said that the agent working with you should call the agent representing the seller before you make your offer. Your agent should ask exactly what the sellers want to see in an offer. Your sellers might prefer that you work with a specific title insurance provider. They might want to move in a specific number of days.

The more you know about what your sellers want, the more likely you are to craft an offer that they will want. Ward recommends, too, that buyers write a personal letter explaining why they want to buy the home and what it will mean to them and their family. She also recommends that they include a photo of themselves and their family with the offer.

That might sound corny, but Ward said such a move can make a “big impact on the seller’s emotions.”

Check out the Zing Blog’s additional tips on how to win a bidding war.

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