Before you put your home up for sale, use the right comparable sales to find the perfect price.
Knowing how much homes similar to yours, called comparable sales (or in real estate lingo, comps), sold for gives you the best idea of the current estimated value of your home. The trick is finding sales that closely match yours.
What makes a good comparable sale?
Your best comparable sale is the same model as your house in the same subdivision—and it closed escrow last week. If you can’t find that, here are other factors that count:
Location: The closer to your house the better, but don’t just use any comparable sale within a mile radius. A good comparable sale is a house in your neighborhood, your subdivision, on the same type of street as your house, and in your school district.
Home type: Try to find comparable sales that are like your home in style, construction material, square footage, number of bedrooms and baths, basement (having one and whether it’s finished), finishes, and yard size.
Amenities and upgrades: Is the kitchen new? Does the comparable sale house have full A/C? Is there crown molding, a deck, or a pool? Does your community have the same amenities (pool, workout room, walking trails, etc.) and homeowners association fees?
Date of sale: You may want to use a comparable sale from two years ago when the market was high, but that won’t fly. Most buyers use government-guaranteed mortgages, and those lending programs say comparable sales can be no older than 90 days.
Sales sweeteners: Did the comparable-sale sellers give the buyers downpayment assistance, closing costs, or a free television? You have to reduce the value of any comparable sale to account for any deal sweeteners.
Agents can help adjust price based on insider insights
Even if you live in a subdivision, your home will always be different from your neighbors'. Evaluating those differences—like the fact that your home has one more bedroom than the comparables or a basement office—is one of the ways real estate agents add value.
An active agent has been inside a lot of homes in your neighborhood and knows all sorts of details about comparable sales. She has read the comments the selling agent put into the MLS, seen the ugly wallpaper, and heard what other REALTORS®, lenders, closing agents, and appraisers said about the comparable sale.
More ways to pick a home listing price
If you’re still having trouble picking out a listing price for your home, look at the current competition. Ask your real estate agent to be honest about your home and the other homes on the market (and then listen to her without taking the criticism personally).
Next, put your comparable sales into two piles: more expensive and less expensive. What makes your home more valuable than the cheaper comparable sales and less valuable than the pricier comparable sales?
Are foreclosures and short sales comparables?
If one or more of your comparable sales was a foreclosed home or a short sale (a home that sold for less money than the owners owed on the mortgage), ask your real estate agent how to treat those comps.
A foreclosed home is usually in poor condition because owners who can’t pay their mortgage can’t afford to pay for upkeep. Your home is in great shape, so the foreclosure should be priced lower than your home.
Short sales are typically in good condition, although they are still distressed sales. The owners usually have to sell because they’re divorcing, or their employer is moving them to Kansas.
How much short sales are discounted from their market value varies among local markets. The average short-sale home in Omaha in recent years was discounted by 8.5%, according to a University of Nebraska at Omaha study. In suburban Washington, D.C., sellers typically discount short-sale homes by 3% to 5% to get them quickly sold, real estate agents report. In other markets, sellers price short sales the same as other homes in the neighborhood.
So you have to rely on your REALTOR’s® knowledge of the local market to use a short sale as a comparable sale.
Carl Vogel, a freelance writer and former editor of The Neighborhood Works magazine, lives in a home in Chicago that is not typical of those nearby, so he appreciates a savvy comp.
Deducting mortgage interest, as well as interest on home equity loans and HELOCs, can save money on taxes.
Know your loan limits
A good place to check out what you can deduct before you borrow is the chart on page 3 of IRS Publication 936. It'll walk you through the requirements you must meet to deduct all of your home loan interest. It's an hour well spent.
The first hurdle you'll run into is the total amount of your loan or loans. In general, individuals and couples filing jointly can deduct the interest on up to $1 million ($500,000 if you're married and filing separately) in combined home loans, as long as the money was used for acquisition costs, that is the cost to buy, build, or substantially improve a home, explains Scott O'Sullivan, a certified public accountant with Margolin, Winer & Evens in Garden City, N.Y. Any interest paid on loan amounts above the $1 million threshold isn't deductible.
The same $1 million limit applies whether you have one home or two. Buying a vacation home doesn't double your loan limits. And two homes is the max; you can't deduct a mortgage for a third home. If you have a mortgage you took out before Oct. 13, 1987, you have fewer restrictions on claiming a full deduction. The calculations for "grandfathered debt" can get complex, so get help from a tax professional or refer to IRS Publication 936.
Whatever you do, don't forget that you can also deduct the points and fees associated with a first or second mortgage when you initially buy your home, says Jeff Rattiner, a CPA with JR Financial Group in Centennial, Colo. If you refinance the same house, you have to deduct those costs over the entire term of the loan. If you refinance again, you can deduct all the costs from the earlier refi in the year you take out the new loan.
Spend loan proceeds wisely
The other limitation on how much you can borrow and still get your deduction comes into play when you take out a home equity loan or HELOC that you don't use to buy, build, or improve your home. In that case, you can deduct the interest you pay only on the first $100,000 ($50,000 if married filing separately). This loan limit also applies in a so-called cash-out refi, in which you refinance and take out part of the equity you've built up as cash, says John R. Lieberman, a CPA with Perelson Weiner in New York City.
That means if you decide to take out a $115,000 home equity loan to buy that Porsche, you can deduct the interest on the first $100,000 but not on the $15,000 that exceeds the limit. Use the same $115,000 to add a new bedroom, however, and the full amount is allowable under the $1 million cap. Keep in mind, though, that the $115,000 gets added into the pot of whatever else you owe on your other home loans. In many cases, points and loan origination costs for HELOCs are deductible.
Consider this simplified scenario: You borrow $250,000 against your home at 8% interest. That means you'll pay $20,000 in interest the first year. Spend the $250,000 on home improvements, and all of the interest is deductible. Spend $150,000 on improvements and $100,000 on your kids' college tuition, and all the interest is still deductible.
But spend $100,000 on improvements and $150,000 on tuition, and the improvement outlays are deductible, though $50,000 of the tuition expense isn't. That'll cost you $4,000 in interest deductions. Preserve the $4,000 deduction by coming up with the extra money for tuition from another source, perhaps a low-interest student loan or by borrowing from a retirement plan. For someone in a 25% bracket, a $4,000 deduction lowers taxes by $1,000, plus applicable state income taxes.
Beware the dreaded AMT
Even if you've followed all the loan limit rules, you can still get stuck paying tax on mortgage interest. How come? It's all thanks to the Alternative Minimum Tax. Congress created the AMT, which limits or eliminates many deductions, as a way to keep the wealthy from dodging their fair share of taxes.
Calculating the AMT can be complex, but if you make more than $75,000 and have several kids or other deductions, you might well be subject to it. Problem is, if you fall into the AMT group, you may not be able to deduct interest on a home equity loan, even if the loan falls within the $1 million/$100,000 limit. If you're subject to the AMT and borrow money against the value of your home, you'll have to use it to buy, build, or improve your place, or you may not have a chance to deduct the interest, says Rattiner, the Colorado CPA.
This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice.