Andrew Wetzel's Musings

May 22, 2021

My Buyer’s Offer Did Not Get Accepted; What Can They Do? Part 3 of 4: The Offer

Whether you are starting the process of buying your first or your “next” home, actively engaged in house hunting or you have already been denied a house you really wanted to own, I want to share some time-tested advice.  I am going to cover this from four perspectives.  This is part 3 of 4.  This is a broad topic with no “one size fits all” answers.  My advice comes with two disclaimers:  this is not intended as legal advice and it is not meant to interfere if you have an existing business relationship.

Let me start with the premise that a buyer or you made an offer and it was rejected.  If a buyer makes what they think is a reasonable offer and the seller does not accept it, they should have no regrets.  Easy for me to say.  If yours was the only offer, I would assume that you had a chance to negotiate with the owner but could not reach a mutually beneficial solution.  If you were competing with other buyers, only one offer could win.  Did the buyer have the right expectations about the process and how it might go?  Could or should their agent or the listing agent or the seller have done anything differently?  If the seller was given an opportunity to review all offers and was properly informed of any possible interest that existed and they accepted what they thought was the best offer, there may be no valid  reason to complain about the outcome.  Every signed agreement does not close so you may get another chance, if you want one, but do not assume you will.  In fact, depending on the type of Real Estate market, you may want to assume that you have competition and that you will not have a chance to change your initial offer.

I provide my buyer-clients with knowledge that I have gained through my years of experience, training and education.  I have also learned a lot from conducting mediations between buyers and sellers and listening to ethics complaints about agents.  Fundamentally, I believe that the process of buying or selling Real Estate is best looked at as a business decision, not a personal one.  It is also not a retail transaction.

Looking for a house can become a full-time job but it is worth it.  Your life will get back to normal after you succeed.  Bad purchase decisions can be costly and their effects can last a long time.  Real Estate is typically our biggest asset and requires our largest investment so buying or selling it requires planning and preparation.  It deserves our full attention.

As I discussed in part two, The Search, once a buyer starts to identify possible houses to consider looking at and buying, there is a process to narrowing the list down to the best and getting in to see and evaluate them as quickly as possible.  I remind buyers that proper planning and preparation will position them to compete better and that they are not the only buyer seeing the search results they receive.  It all comes down to making an offer that will appeal to the seller or, at the very least, maximize the chance that the seller will offer a counter-proposal.  The purpose of negotiating is to keep talking.  While that can wear someone down, it is better than silence.  That being said, buying Real Estate can be very competitive so a buyer might want to assume that they have competition and may not get a second chance to negotiate after making an offer.  In some cases, you may want to make your “highest and best” offer from the beginning.  Unless you are concerned about over-paying, if your offer does not get accepted, you should have no regrets.  Inspections and a mortgage appraisal will provide some guidance about the property condition and the market value in any case.

When a buyer decides to make an offer on a house, only they know what they are thinking and hoping.  Did they make their best offer or are they expecting a counter-offer?  Whether they are suddenly inspired when they see a house or the decision comes after giving it some thought, if they have approached the process in a practical way, regardless of whether their offer gets accepted or not, they will at least know that they did their best.  That may be a small consolation but a buyer can only do so much.  Of course, if the search was haphazard or the buyer wasn’t completely convinced that a specific house was the best one for them but they decided to make an offer anyway, they may not know how to react even if they succeed.  Buyer remorse, meaning feeling that there may be a better option now or later or, even worse, if they come to believe that they made a bad decision after settlement, can be a problem.  There may be opportunities for either party to terminate a sale.  What will they to do?  Having remorse or doubts after closing is too late!

Some buyers will go “all-in”, perhaps to excess, with an offer.  This could include any or all of the following:  making an offer “sight unseen”, going above the asking price, keeping the contingencies to a minimum or waiving some or all of them.  Buyers have a lot of options when they really like a house, especially if they think or know there is competition.  What they do can be done to maximize their chances for success or it can be done to get a house under contract while they really take the time and effort to decide whether they picked the best house.  It is not for me to judge these things but there is a seller involved and one or two agents.  They can be impacted by a buyer’s motivation especially if the buyer is really unsure if they want to own the house.

How many buyers make offers “sight unseen” and cancel a sale using a contingency like a property inspection once they see inside?  The cost of inspections is minor compared to completing a bad purchase.  How many buyers make great offers and then ask for repairs or credits later to recover some of what they offered?  What about so-called “love letters” to the seller?  How many buyers just decide not to move forward and are willing to risk losing their deposit?  As I like to say, buying and selling Real Estate are business decisions justified with logic.  It is never over until the seller has the buyer’s money and the buyer has the seller’s keys.  So, what can prevent a buyer’s offer from being accepted?

  1. Their offered price is not the highest.  For some sellers, the price is their primary motivation.  Oddly enough, in some cases sellers refuse the highest offers if they don’t think their house will appraise;
  2. The buyer’s contingencies are not the best for the seller.  Perhaps the seller wants a “clean” sale, meaning few hurdles, or the buyer has a house to sell so they can buy their “next home”;
  3. Something else within the contract is not the best for the seller.  This could include the settlement date, the amount of deposit money or anything that offers the buyer an option and the seller a choice.  Some agents and buyers use an “escalation clause” in the hopes of learning what it will take to make their offer better than the competition.  Many listing agents and sellers refuse to share details while expecting the offer to be improved.  Suppose there are multiple offers with these same clauses?  However you view them, they are not perfect and may not be enough to overcome stronger offers.  I view these clauses as showing that a buyer may have made a low offer and will raise it if they have to;
  4. The offer does not include buyer financial information such as proof of funds for a cash offer.  Many PA agents use a “BFI” or “Buyer’s Financial Information” form, which I liken to a Seller’s Property Disclosure Statement.  Buyers and sellers basically want to know that the other person is serious and able to complete the sale.  The BFI provides an overview of the buyer’s financial information for a seller and their listing agent to review when comparing offers.  It complements a lender’s pre-qualification letter but, in my opinion, carries more weight as the buyer prepares it and the seller has legal remedies if the buyer misstates something whereas there may be no remedy for what a careless lender does.  Sad to say but I have seen some lenders provide letters that were meaningless.  I have heard of situations where a BFI negated a lender’s letter resulting in a declined offer.  Some buyers are reluctant to provide their financial information; some buyer agents and listing agents do not ask for it.  In a competitive situation this can be a problem.  Give a seller a good offer and convince them that it will settle and your chances should improve dramatically.  Most sellers want to minimize their own risk.

When a seller only receives one offer, they are more likely to negotiate if the offer is not exactly what they were looking for.  However, in a competitive or multi-offer situation, a buyer may not get a second chance to improve their “first impression”.  I remind buyers that, regardless of the type of market, there is no guarantee that they will get a second chance.  While many buyers are reluctant to make their “highest and best offer”, they need to understand the risk.  Wondering what happened later is uncomfortable.

For example, when I give a blank BFI to buyers, some will ask me how much they should reveal.  Obviously, they need to accurately disclose income and debt information and show at least enough assets to cover their closing costs.  However, some buyers are reluctant to show more than they need to justify their offer, typically saying that a seller may ask them for more money.  The same occurs with the pre-qualification letter.  Let me address both at the same time using a hypothetical scenario.

Suppose a buyer wants to offer $285,000 on a $300,000 house and they are financially able to go as high as $350,000.  Do they show enough to cover their offer?  The asking price?  Or do they show everything?  I say show EVERYTHING!  Again, if there is no competition, which you may not know, they will likely get a “second chance” if the seller wants more than $285,000.  However, if there is competition, a seller may just go with what “appears” to be a “stronger” offer or at least have a discussion with those agents who “appear” to be representing stronger buyers.  They may assume they have seen your best offer and move on.

So what if a seller wants you to raise your offer because they know you can?  Do you expect them to lower their price when you learn they have no mortgage?  Even if they ask, as I said earlier, the point of any negotiation is to keep talking to see if they can reach a mutually-beneficial agreement.  Most sellers will be happy to know that a buyer is not maxed out with their offer which could mean there is a greater chance of their loan being denied.  Even if they ask and you say no, you had a chance.  You may come to regret what happens but you had a chance.  It beats the alternative!

Ironically, when a buyer decides to raise their offer, it is likely that their expectations for the property inspection(s) also rises.  On the other hand, a seller who accepts less than they really wanted may be less enthusiastic when asked to make repairs or issue credits for repairs.  Either way, the goal is to keep the conversation going although one or both parties may tire if the process drags on and on and on.  While you continue talking, the house remains on the market allowing other buyers the opportunity to make an offer!

The bottom line is that a buyer needs to know what is in their best interest, understand the market they are in and make an informed series of decisions when making and perhaps negotiating an offer.  When an offer gets rejected or the parties cannot reach an agreement after going back and forth, a buyer needs to evaluate what happened to avoid repeating the same process over and over again.  I have worked with buyers who had several offers rejected.  For some, re-engaging in the process is tough.  Some give up for awhile while others jump right back in.  They may not know exactly what happened and they likely won’t find out what price the seller accepted for several weeks.  They may never know more than that.  A decision to buy or sell Real Estate is an emotional decision justified with logic.  Some are simply better prepared to put it all into perspective and continue moving forward.

There is no time for inexperience, empty promises or false expectations.

HIRE WISELY:  We are not all the same!

December 5, 2020

2020 Delaware County PA Tax Reassessment Results

The court-ordered Delaware County (PA) reassessment project is nearing its conclusion.  When  completed, the County will have a total value for all of its over 203,000 parcels of Real Estate.  Then they will determine the “millage rate” or tax due per thousand dollars of Real Estate owned needed to generate the tax revenue required to fund the different parts of government including school districts.

I served on 1 of 5 auxiliary tax reassessment appeal boards and have reported on various aspects of my experiences including the purpose of the process and suggestions on how to appeal your proposed assessment.  The purpose of this report is to provide an overview of my board’s results.  I have no way of knowing how these compare to the other boards nor do I know what happened after my board rendered its decisions.  Those whose appeals were rejected had a final opportunity to appeal our decision.  Some may have accepted our decision or decided to wait to see what happens to their taxes.  Perhaps some whose appeals were accepted decided to appeal further, seeking an additional reduction.

As far as my experience, our board remained intact for 26 days of hearings, we were scheduled to hear 1389 appeals, 329 appellants did not report for their hearing (23.7%), 59 appeals were withdrawn after being scheduled, 13 scheduled appeals were re-scheduled and we actually heard 988 appeals (71.1% of those scheduled).  493 (49.9%) of the appeals were done virtually, meaning over the phone.  18 of the appeals resulted in our not making a decision due to their complexity so we referred them to the Board of Assessment.  Few appellants used attorneys.  In a number of cases, both in-person and virtually, a school district sent an attorney to observe or listen.

In a number of our hearings it was a school district appealing the proposed assessed values, seeking to raise them which, while perhaps adversely affecting individual property owners, spread the school tax burden more uniformly.  Only a few property owners appeared to refute their school district’s argument and some of them were able to retain the County’s proposed assessment.

A significant number of appeals were accepted.  The people who came prepared, generally succeeded.  The best preparation consisted of one of two strategies:  appraisals, if based on the July 2019 time frame, substantiated the contention that the proposed assessed value overstated “market value” and pictures demonstrated that the County had an incorrect view of property condition, especially when the interior of the property was in “below average” condition since the process relied on exterior views.  Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, too many came to their hearing unprepared to document their case, with many assuming that the new assessment would proportionately increase their tax burden.

While a few questioned the “constitutionality” and/ or purpose of the project, many seemed unaware of the basic information that had been provided by the County.  Board members are County residents so we got the same information as the appellants.  The County and the media provided a lot of information about the process as well.  Admittedly, I realize that different people interpreted the information differently but I do not know why so many did not realize that they had the burden of proving the new value incorrect, coming to the hearing expecting us to make a change based solely on what they told us.  It did appear that some of the confusion lessened as the project progressed which suggests that people heard from others who had already had their appeal.  At the very least, there was one final appeal after our involvement.

I had an opportunity to discuss how one school district’s appraiser arrived at their value and proved something that I raised with several property owners.  As I have reported before, a number of property owners attempted to appeal their proposed assessment by using an argument based on “price per square foot” which we generally denied as not being an “apples to apples” comparison of supposedly similar properties.  The school district appraiser I mentioned used that as a method to complete his assignment.  He stated that he had not visited any of the properties in question, that he relied on public records for lot size and living space and that he reduced his comparables to a “price per square foot” to arrive at what he thought was a “fair market value” for the properties in dispute.  Please keep in mind that the property owners will get a chance to refute his argument and I am not sure why so many did not attend what they were apparently advised was a hearing to raise their assessed values and therefor their tax burden.

I asked the appraiser directly about using “price per square foot”, specifically suggesting that it did not account for different “property conditions” that might influence a prospective buyer.  He agreed that it (and therefore, he) did not factor property condition into his conclusion.  A lender’s appraiser or one hired by a homeowner would have entered and viewed the “subject property” although the current pandemic has apparently resulted in some “drive-by” appraisals.  As far as the reassessment project itself, it was physically impossible for the process to include in-person visits.

Overall, I found this an interesting process and came away with several thoughts to share.

  1. While using “market value” as a way to levy taxes makes sense, there is no perfect way to analyze and categorize over 203,000 parcels of Real Estate given their having different layouts,  locations and uses.  Even if in-person visits were used, we have different opinions and there would be too much subjectivity.  Numbers are objective and provable although predicting a future buyer’s behavior is impossible;
  2. The process used to arrive as a basic assessment makes sense and, given that the property owners were provided with information to dispute as far as what the County had on record for their property and their proposed assessment/ valuation, I am not sure what else could have been done.  Many owners never reported errors until the hearing and many did not show up or canceled their hearing for whatever reason.  Owners can appeal their taxes every year and many may decide to do that next year if they are not happy with their tax rates in 2021;
  3. The process relied on the last assessment and employed a variety of tools to compare the current property to what was “known” during the last assessment in 1999/ 2000.  I believe that many properties likely remain under-assessed for a variety of reasons and do not know how to remedy that.  Computer algorithms can only do so much.  If improvements are made without “permits”, errors will occur.  Vacant land presented issues.  We had about 50 lots whose assessments were questioned but the amount in question was usually significant.  The technology used “assumed” that most of the lots were “buildable” and considered them “primary” space, assessing them as such.  However, if it was proven or obvious that land was unbuildable, we reduced its assessment.

We also saw a number of interesting anomalies that defied the algorithm.  We saw instances where a property owner owned two adjoining parcels with one being a vacant lot.  In one case there was a house that sat partially on both parcels which the system picked up as two parcels with structures on both.  The owner said he received tax bills for both parcels but that he was not over-taxed.  The reassessment could have created an issue.  We also saw cases where a property owner essentially rendered their “extra lot” unsaleable and wanted the lot’s assessment lowered even though it was their action, unintentional as it was, that essentially rendered the lot unsaleable.  In one case an owner installed a driveway on an adjoining lot to access their residence which was situated on the adjoining parcel.  In another, a property owner installed a patio enclosure that ended at the boundary between the two parcels in conflict with a “set back” requirement that would have affected both properties had they been separately developed.  When an owner owns an adjoining lot, you have to ask why they bought it.  While it may be too small to build on or have some other defect that renders it unbuildable, it does add value to their residence, even if only for privacy, so the issue is not as clear cut as some might want to suggest.

All in all, while I found this process interesting, I have to admit that I was not prepared for many of the sad stories we heard, largely centered on whether property owners could afford to remain owners after their taxes were raised.  As I mentioned earlier, many assumed that their taxes would rise in proportion to the change in their assessed values.  It was very typical to see an assessed value double simply due to the change in “target dates” between reassessments.  Regardless, it is always sad whenever a property owner fears losing their home, especially when their concerns may be unfounded.

Reassessments are rare so I wonder how long it will be before the next one.  How many of the people we met will be asked to go through the process again?  Hopefully, we prepared them for a final appeal.  The purpose of reassessment boils down to fairness and uniformity:  property taxes should be objectively levied based on relative property value and not any subjectivity.  The County is not allowed to see a windfall as a result of the process but the tax burden will be reallocated with some seeing a reduction, some seeing an increase and some remaining consistent.  I wonder how many bought or are in the process of buying without having any idea what their taxes may be let alone knowing that the County has even been undergoing a reassessment.  My personal experience with prospective sellers and buyers proves this.

Regardless of how their hearings turned out, my board attempted to make sure that everyone understood the origin of the reassessment, meaning that it was court-ordered, that they knew that the goal was to assess everyone based on the July 2019 “fair market value” of what they owned to ensure that their tax burden was “fair and uniform” and that there was another appeal if they disagreed with our decision.  We also explained what we were looking for in terms of proof that the County number was incorrect.  While some were disappointed and blamed others for their not understanding the purpose of the process or their hearing, many did seem to appreciate our explanations and thanked us for taking the time to help them better understand the overall process.

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