Monday, January 18, 2010

Notes from the trenches

I'm now midstream on the buying-real-estate process. Almost every email I've sent in the past week begins with "EEK!"

The status: We made an offer. We haggled. The seller counter-offered not just a different dollar figure but an entirely different apartment. (It's a big building, about 250 units, of which a bit more than half are sold.) We liked the new (cheaper!) apartment much better and asked why we hadn't been shown it before. Answer: Because the asking price was vastly higher than the one on our original target. But since the square footage is a tad lower, the developer will take a lower price on it -- despite it having various other advantages that made it, to us at least, more attractive.

NYC real estate is insane.

Someday I will have a proper blow-by-blow, but here's what I've learned so far:

-NYC real estate is insane but the closing costs are off the planet. My whole real-estate quest started because I got envious of my friend's story of buying a Baltimore townhouse with an FHA loan and total cash costs of $4,500. My cash costs? We will be damn lucky to get out for $40,000. That includes 3.5% down and -- the really ouchie part -- NYC's smorgasboard of closing costs. Corcoran has a breakdown that seems accurate in my limited experience so far.

-If you're buying NYC real estate, do anything you can to get a CEMA (Consolidation, Extension and Modification) from the seller. I'm told they're more work for the banks and the lawyers, but they also save you vastly on the tax costs. Originating a new mortgage costs you almost 2% of the sale price in New York taxes. A CEMA transfers the seller's existing mortgage to you -- you only own taxes on the difference between their mortgage and your new one. We got a CEMA, and it's saving us a five-digit sum.

-On other hand, even with a CEMA you'll still get hit in New York with property transfer taxes. In our case, that also equals just under 2%, which has to be paid at close. Did I mention how much NYC real estate bites?

-If you're planning to tap investment or retirement accounts, start setting things up as early as you can. I'm pulling money from my IRA (Fidelity) and David's IRA (Vanguard).

When we went to transfer funds to cash in his IRA, we found that Vanguard didn't have proof of his taxpayer ID. That required sending in a W9. We're now waiting for it to process.

In my IRA, direct deposit of funds you're withdrawing requires activating a connection with your checking account. Fidelity claims that takes seven days, but I activated last Wednesday and my account says it won't be ready for transferring until this Friday. Then the actual transfer can take up to five days to process. I imagine I'll be paying the $15 fee to wire cash, which I could have saved if I'd set up the electronic account connection sooner.

Selling investments to move the money to cash also takes time. I did that too last Wednesday and am still waiting for my VWO trade to settle.

-If you can avoid an FHA loan, do it. It's pricey, costing 1.75% of the loan amount upfront (you can fold the cost into your loan, but you still have to pay it) and a monthly premium of up to 0.55% of the loan amount (calculated annually, paid monthly). It takes the place of PMI, which you don't pay on FHA loans. In our case, the premium adds $260 a month to our payments. If you have the money for a more substantial downpayment (we don't), you can avoid all this.