In a seller’s market, preparation’s key for Charlottesville homebuyers

The North Downtown neighborhood, says Realtor Erin Garcia, is never not a hot spot for desirable homes on the market. Photo: Matteus Frankovich/Skyclad Aerial The North Downtown neighborhood, says Realtor Erin Garcia, is never not a hot spot for desirable homes on the market. Photo: Matteus Frankovich/Skyclad Aerial

It’s not exactly a jungle out there. But if you’re buying a house, you do need to think like a tiger, and get ready to pounce.

Recent data about local real estate shows a market that’s heating up. The fourth-quarter report from the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors says that things are looking brisk both from the standpoint of inventory (it’s down 14.6 percent) and how quickly properties sell (they’re spending about 40 percent fewer days on the market, compared with this time last year). And though prices haven’t jumped, they have been on a steady rise. Detached homes in the last quarter of 2016 fetched a median price of $295,500, up from $270,000 two years earlier.

We’re not in the bubble zone, but at the moment, “It’s a seller’s market,” says Erin Garcia, Realtor with Loring Woodriff.

If you’re looking to buy, then, you need speed and agility. Garcia says she prepares her buyer clients for this reality: “You’ve got to be in the house within the first 24 hours. In particular, in the city, under $400,000, you’ve got to be ready to go.” This is not an entirely new situation, she says, but it’s recently gotten a little more acute. “We don’t have the ability to go back and look at the house three times” before making an offer, she says. Therefore, buyers have some serious homework to do upfront.

Number one, a pre-approval letter from your mortgage lender is a must. Number two, says Garcia, you’ll need to get familiar with a blank contract, ironing out any questions or concerns ahead of time and making sure you understand all the terms. When the time comes to make an offer, she explains, “We won’t have two hours to go over it.”

Those are the quantifiable things, but as we all know, homebuying is an emotional business. Garcia says buyers need to spend time thinking carefully about what they really want in a house—before the make-an-offer stage. “Setting up expectations helps dramatically in making the process go smoother,” she says.

What neighborhoods do you like? Answering this question, says Garcia, is a matter of “using the time more wisely”—since viewing properties before they get snatched up means a lot of last-minute jaunts to new listings. “We’re trying to make that a tighter sphere as far as what you’re looking at,” she says. “It’s an elimination game.”

What kinds of house qualities are must-haves for you, and which are more like wishes? Hash it out with your spouse, if you have one, sooner rather than later. “Being able to discuss needs versus wants is important,” says Garcia. “It’s purely intellectual as you’re figuring that out, but then that process can evolve into ‘This is more important than I realized.’”

So when the right place pops up, how do you come up with an appropriate offer? Sellers have been receiving, on average, 97.8 percent of their asking price for detached homes. Translation: You probably won’t talk ’em down too far.

“Sellers are pricing properties well,” says Garcia. “They are using informed and educated pricing analysis from the beginning.” And if you’ve found something good, chances are other buyers are finding it too.

What if, for some reason, that FOR SALE sign has been in the yard for a while? “There’s something to be said for how long a house has been on the market,” says Garcia, “but it’s seller perception as well.” Sellers, in other words, usually only feel they can come down so much without taking a bruising.

Consider not only how you can gently negotiate downward, but how far upward you yourself are willing to stretch. “If there are multiple offers, we might even bring full price and an escalation clause,” says Garcia. That’s one of those terms you want to get familiar with: It means that you’re promising to beat any other offer by a certain amount, up to a cap that you set.

The bottom line: Know thyself, and be ready to move. “You have to be decisive,” says Garcia, “in a way that holds true to what you know of value.”