First-Time Home Buyer? Cedarcrest Realty is Here to Help

You’ve been renting an apartment or house but now you’re thinking about buying your first home in North Jersey. There are many considerations for first-time home buyers—from determining your budget to locating your target neighborhoods.

Entering the real estate market can be exciting—and for first-time buyers, a bit daunting (we promise it gets easier after your first home purchase!). It’s no secret that we live in an expensive part of the country with high real estate taxes. But don’t let that deter you from finding a great starter home in Bergen, Essex, Morris, or Passaic counties (or beyond). There are many wonderful towns and homes in all price ranges.

Let’s break it down for you.

Considerations for first-time home buyers

  1. Budget – determining your home-buying budget will then determine many other factors involved in your decision—size of the house, neighborhood/town, type of mortgage, and more. The sale price of any home is not the only cost consideration—there will be approximate monthly mortgage payments, real estate taxes, and utility costs. In the case of a condominium or townhouse community, common area charges and/or homeowner association (HOA) fees must be included. Your real estate agent can go over all the typical expenses involved, and help you formulate a comfortable working budget.
  2. Settling on a budget will lead you to the next steps in the house hunt. Knowing what you can comfortably afford will help you zero in on certain towns or areas, and the type of house in your budget. Choosing the area and type of home are highly subjective decisions and many criteria play into it. For example:
    1. Do you prefer urban, suburban, or more rural communities?
    2. Do you need bus or rail availability, or access to highways?
    3. Is the public school system important to you if you plan to raise children there?
    4. What features are must-haves vs. want-to-have in the home?
    5. A fixer-upper in an urban location may be right for you—if you have the funds to invest in the needed renovations or can tackle those yourself.
    6. Perhaps a smaller house in a desirable town is a great starter home, with room to expand or move up in later years.
    7. Or maybe, despite renting all those years, you’ve socked away a hefty amount for a down payment and your income supports a jumbo mortgage on a big house on a large piece of land. Go for it!
  3. Our Cedarcrest Realty associates can provide valuable information about the towns in the counties we serve, with relevant tax rate figures, the town amenities (recreation facilities, programming for residents, shopping, and dining options) and what your local real estate taxes cover (such as garbage and recycling pickup). Your agent will also provide the comparative sales analyses that will help you arrive at a competitive offer price.

  4. Mortgage pre-approval – at CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty, we strongly recommend (especially in the crowded North Jersey real estate market) to get pre-approved for a mortgage (not just pre-qualified). A lender’s pre-approval letter, while not a guarantee of a loan, is a commitment by the lender to a certain amount (pending appraisal). This shows you are serious about making an offer, as it is a more rigorous process than pre-qualification.
  5. About that mortgage: Having a strong credit score will help you qualify for a favorable program, so it’s important to know your credit score and take steps to improve it if necessary. Review your finances to see how you can save as much as possible (while also meeting your existing financial obligations, of course), and assess where you can cut if necessary. The traditional down payment is 20% of the purchase price but there are programs available for home buyers who have less set aside for the down payment.

  6. The offer – once you find the right house, your real estate agent will help you negotiate an offer and guide you through the next steps once your offer is accepted. There are a lot of them! There will be certain disclosures to consider and items you may want repaired before the sale (or use as a bargaining tool if you agree to handle those once the sale is completed). There will be a home inspection, appraisal, title search, and mortgage approvals. Your Cedarcrest agent will also explain the closing costs associated with your transaction so you can be prepared for everything in that exciting home stretch.

Your real estate agent at CENTURY 21 Cedarcest Realty will walk you through the entire home buying process, and provide guidance at each step. Our team also has many in-office resources as well as trusted professionals in related fields such as mortgage lenders and home inspectors. The New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency has a helpful guide with lots of information about what to expect during your first-time home search, and our specialists in North Jersey real estate are here to help. Call our Caldwell office at 973-228-1050 or in Little Falls at 973-364-1111 to get started on your home-buying journey.

The Benefits of Real Estate Staging

The practice of real estate staging isn’t new—it was first introduced in the 1970s—but it has become an increasingly popular and important tool for real estate agents and homeowners selling a home. Staging a home enables potential buyers to really see the full view of the property and helps them envision how they would use it.

According to the National Association of REALTORS® 2021 Profile of Home Staging, home staging is a significant part of home buying and selling. The report notes that:

  • Eighty-two percent of buyers’ agents said staging made it easier for a buyer to visualize the property as a future home.
  • Twenty-three percent of both buyers’ and seller’s agents said that home staging raised the dollar value offered between 1% and 5%, compared to similar homes on the market that hadn’t been staged.
    • Eighteen percent of sellers’ agents said home staging increased a residence’s dollar value by 6% to 10%.
    • Thirty-one percent said that home staging greatly decreased the amount of time a home spent on the market.

What is real estate staging
Staging originally meant decluttering rooms, arranging the furniture, and making basic or cosmetic repairs. Today—especially in competitive markets like northern New Jersey—home stagers may recommend steps that totally transform rooms. The idea is to show off the spaces to their best advantage by creating an updated, clean, appealing environment—the ultimate model home. That may entail:

  • Removing or replacing some furniture (to make the room look larger and to utilize the space more efficiently or to show off special features)
  • Accessorizing with pillows, plants, towels, new bed covers, and lifestyle accessories
  • Removing many personal family photos and knickknacks that can distract prospective buyers and add clutter to shelves and tables
  • Repainting rooms to be more neutral backdrops, replacing carpeting or flooring if necessary.
  • Update lighting
  • Add some artwork to walls or shelves for pops of color and interest
  • Include seasonal or location-specific décor or accessories

According to the NAR report, the living room is the most important and most common room to stage, followed by the master bedroom and kitchen. However, with more people working from home at least part of the time these days, staging a home office could be just as important.

The value of strong visuals
The expression “You never have a second chance to make a good first impression” certainly plays out when it comes to staging. As real estate professionals, we understand the value of having great photography and video to help show a home and give buyers a first look that entices them to see the home with their real estate agent. A professionally staged home photographs beautifully and shows better on video tours and walkthroughs as well.

Work staging into the budget
Staging an empty home may be easier than working with existing furnishings, and the costs will also depend on the size and condition of the home. Factor in the local market competition and estimated return on staging investment—which for luxury listings will be nominal. Even for homes in the mid-market range, sellers should consider the few thousand dollars it costs to be money very well spent. You’ll see good ROI when you sell your home in less time, getting asking price or above (avoiding a price reduction) for a beautifully staged home that attracts motivated buyers.

At CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty, we are experts in North Jersey real estate, and we know what it takes to market a home in our highly competitive area. Our goal is to provide superior customer service throughout every step of every transaction. Our real estate associates will walk through your home and make suggestions for decluttering areas, rearranging or removing furniture, making simple repairs, and painting where needed. If a larger-scale staging effort is needed, we can make recommendations for certified home stagers as well as professional organizers, cleanout experts, and other service providers that can help get your house in order, inside and out, before listing it for sale.

Contact our Caldwell office at 973-228-1050 or in Little Falls at 973-364-1111 if you’re putting your house on the market or if you’re shopping for a new house, condo, or townhouse. We’re here to help!

Agent Spotlight on . . . Jo Ann Restrepo

Jo Ann Restrepo - Century 21 Cedarcrest RealtyJo Ann Restrepo has worked in real estate since 1998 and joined CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty in May. You might say she grew up in the business—her mother and aunt were real estate agents for decades, which is how she met broker owner John Sass. Jo Ann used to visit her mother at another CENTURY 21 office where she worked and over time, mom and the other agents talked her into getting into the business.

A long-time Hawthorne resident, Jo Ann works mostly in Passaic and Bergen counties as well as Essex and Morris. Before coming to Cedarcrest Realty, she worked in several Passaic County brokerages. She enjoys working most with buyers and managing the buying process for them.

“Once they make an offer and it’s accepted by the seller, I work closely with all the related professionals—home inspectors, attorneys, mortgage brokers—throughout each step of the process, and make sure the deal goes through,” said Jo Ann.

Prior to becoming a real estate agent, Jo Ann was a payroll supervisor for construction companies, handling union payrolls and benefits for projects in New York City and New Jersey, some in the billions of dollars. She’d also been an executive secretary, so details, numbers, and integrity count strongly for her when it comes to real estate transactions.

As someone who manages each buyer’s journey with care, Jo Ann noted she’s also not afraid to express her opinion.

“I deal honestly with people and treat my customers like family. If something comes up during the inspection that concerns me, I will advise buyers about whether or not they should buy the house.”

Over the past 20+ years, Jo Ann has seen many changes in the way real estate is transacted. While she acknowledges that technology saves agents time and paper—no more multiple originals of all the paperwork—she prefers the personal touch when it comes to presenting offers to the sellers.

“I like presenting my buyers and telling their story; this is especially helpful when you’re in a situation with multiple offers or a bidding war,” said Jo Ann. “Electronic filing has streamlined the logistics of the transaction and has changed the way we represent our clients, but for me, real estate is still a personal business and it always will be.”

John Sass agrees. “We’re delighted to have an agent with so much experience in our core areas join the CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty family,” said John. “Jo Ann shares our commitment to great customer service with that personal touch that makes such a difference in how we conduct our business.”

Planning to Sell Your Home Soon? Hold Off on Too Many Renovations
Certain Home Renovations Deliver ROI. Others, Not so Much.

Many homeowners who are tired of staring at their interiors through the pandemic are anxious to renovate and make some upgrades. However, it you plan to list your home for sale in the foreseeable future—say, within the next two years—you might want to resist renovation temptation. Many major home improvements are costly and you will never see the money back at time of sale.

Sure, it may help your home stand out from others in your local market, but the money you spend will not automatically come back to you in full when you close.

Remodeling magazine put out a 2021 Cost vs. Value Report that lists 22 popular projects and tracks their cost, resale value and ROI in terms of percentage recovered at resale. You can search by U.S. region (the report covers 150 different U.S. housing markets) for how prices stack up in your area and which projects will yield the best return or retain the most value at resale.

The top remodeling projects which did the best in terms of net cost vs. value (60% ROI or higher) are:
1 – Garage door replacement – highest at 94%
2 – Manufactured stone veneer
3 – Minor kitchen remodel – you will only recover 72% of the cost
4 – Siding replacement (fiber cement did slight better than vinyl)
5 – Window replacement (vinyl did slightly better than wood for this project)
6 – Deck addition (wood)
7 – Entry door replacement (steel)
8 – Deck addition (composite)
9 – Grand entrance (fiberglass)
10 – Asphalt shingle roof replacement
11 – Mid-range bathroom remodel

You can read the entire report here.

Repairs and renovations that make financial sense
Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that Americans’ total spend on home remodeling projects will rise to $337 billion in the second half of 2021, and increase of $5 billion from third quarter 2020. This, despite the fact that the average amount recouped for home remodeling projects. However, if you want to catch buyers’ attention, there are quite a few projects worth investing in:

1 – Expanding square footage is at the top of that list. In 2020, 44% of real estate agents cited the “need for more space” as the top motivator for moving. Creating a more open floor plan is also an attention-getter.

2 – Curb appeal is so important—it’s the first impression prospective buyers get of your home. A nicely landscaped home says “well maintained” and the landscaping costs will bring sales results.

3 – Finishing the basement ups the asking price to high-income home buyers in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Pacific Northwest according to the NAHB.

4 – Definitely in invest some money and time into touching up the paint (or repainting altogether) to make the house look fresh and well-cared-for. Light neutral colors are advised. Now is a great time to power wash the exterior and your patio or walkways.

5 – If you are tempted to redo the bathrooms or kitchen, make moderate upgrades that update the look without breaking the bank. For example, change out the cabinet and drawer fronts but keep the cabinet boxes in place. Replace fixtures or install a new floor if the current one is worn or outdated.

6 – If your home has hardwood floors, refinish them as needed or replace them with new wood flooring. The NAR’s 2019 Remodeling Impact Report states that refinishing hardwood floors recovers 100% of the cost at resale, while new wood flooring recoups 106% of costs.

7 – Handle big-ticket repair items such as replacing a roof or installing a new HVAC system. Also, buyers look for energy efficiency and savings on utility costs so consider putting in energy-efficient appliances (Energy Star), smart or programmable thermostats, energy-efficient windows, and low-flow toilets.

At CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty, our real estate agents can guide you on what will make the most sense to invest in before you list your home for sale. We know what buyers are looking for in the North Jersey real estate markets in which we specialize, and can connect you with other professionals who can bring new life to your home to help it sell more quickly to the right buyers. Contact us at 973-228-1050 to discuss how we’ll market your home or for help finding the home of your dreams.

Celebrating Two Years in Little Falls at Cedarcrest Realty

Wow – time really flies when you’re working hard in real estate! This month marks two years since we opened our second Cedarcrest Realty office in Little Falls. We are happy to say, things are going well there.

Broker owner John Sass, who is marking 37 years with the CENTURY 21 Real Estate system this year, said that a lot has changed over the years.

“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of change in the real estate industry, particularly in the way brokers, managers, and agents approach the business through the use of technology,” said John. “Our focus and challenge at Cedarcrest Realty has been to marry the effective use of real estate tech with the time-honored sales and people skills that successful agents need. At the core of our training and development is the mantra to be as professional as possible in our approach to our clients and sales. That high standard of professionalism is what’s gotten our team through the pandemic year and is propelling us into a greater 2021 and beyond.”

Nancy Scancarella, who joined us in Little Falls at the start in 2019, said, “We are moving along nicely and our office is very much ‘on the map’ thanks to everyone’s hard work and marketing efforts. Our agents are getting listings and closing transactions, including rentals. A lot of people are also walking in to inquire about the apartments in our building, which we’ve listed.”

She explained that many people are now selling their homes at high prices, and renting short term to wait out the market and look for a good deal. “That makes for a competitive rental market, similar to what we’re seeing with single-family homes in some areas.”

Nancy has worked in real estate for 28 years at offices in Passaic County and emphasizes the importance of continual marketing for success in the business. Part of her marketing includes sending out mailers to condo complexes in Little Falls and neighboring Woodland Park, letting homeowners know our office is here to help if they are looking to sell or rent their homes. She uses calendars, seed packages, and other small items with her business card attached and also sends emails to her client and prospect lists on a regular basis.

A long-time broker associate, she has been mentoring some of our newer real estate agents, including Adriana Umaña. “It’s great for our new agents to have a mentor right here to teach them how to handle certain situations. Even for experienced agents, there’s always something new you’ve never encountered and need guidance.”

Adriana, a native of Costa Rica, joined Cedarcrest Realty in late January after getting her real estate license.

“I spoke to Lynn De Luccia last summer and told her I was attending real estate school, which is something I’ve wanted to do for many years,” said Adriana. “She called me in December to ask if I wanted to join the group and I didn’t give it a second thought.”

A Woodland Park resident, she is happy to have our Little Falls location so close to home as her business base. She also attends training classes every Wednesday at our Caldwell office. She appreciates having a designated REALTOR as her mentor. “When you’re new, you have so many questions and you need someone to turn to.”

In Costa Rica, Adriana worked in marketing and logistics for Sony Ericsson, and in the U.S., she has had her own business. “I enjoy talking to people and selling—two important components of a real estate career,” she said. She is currently working on some rental listings and is looking forward to developing her book of business at CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty.

Our team is always looking for well-qualified, experienced real estate professionals to join our team, as well as newcomers with a passion for helping people find their perfect home—be it a house, townhouse, or condominium. We also welcome agents with experience in the commercial property sector, as our office is a Certified Commercial Specialist by CENTURY 21 Real Estate LLC. Contact broker owner John Sass at 973-228-1050 to discuss opportunities at our Caldwell or Little Falls office.

How to Make the Best Home Purchase Offer in Seller’s Market

Low Housing Inventory and High Demand Mean Buyers Must be Well-Prepared

Photo: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

As we noted in a previous post, the real estate market in New Jersey, especially northern NJ, is very tight, with low inventory and high demand—and bidding wars.

With the current inventory challenge being the number one concern on most real estate consumer’s minds, we counsel homebuyers we work with to come prepared and ready to make the best purchase offer possible. While this has always been the case, in today’s competitive market, it is especially important in order to make a purchase offer that is more likely to be accepted by sellers.

  • Don’t lowball home sellers—they have the advantage. Rather, offer your “best price” up front. Your CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty agent will have all the relevant comps and reports for you to go into the transaction with the pricing information you need.
  • Eliminate or reduce contingencies, which are the provisions or conditions that must be met to complete the transaction. Overuse of contingencies can sabotage a sale. The two most important contingencies for home buyers are inspection and financing contingencies.
    • A pre-offer inspection can help make the offer stronger because you will be able to negotiate your offer price based on needed repairs.
    • Other contingency reductions are minimization of the title, appraisal, and mortgage contingencies, although the latter two require a cash offer. Your Cedarcrest Realty agent can walk you through all the typical contingencies of a real estate transaction and guide you on how these may affect your purchase offer.
  • Get a lender’s pre-approval letter; this is not a guarantee of a loan but it is a commitment to a certain mortgage amount, pending appraisal. From the seller’s perspective, pre-approval shows that you are serious about making an offer on the home. It also shows that you underwent a more rigorous process than pre-qualification, and clarifies your home-buying budget.
  • Give a larger earnest money deposit (the amount you submit with your offer) than you were thinking—even double or triple the amount if you can swing it. This larger deposit could make you more attractive to a seller who has received multiple offers (as often happens in North Jersey). It goes toward your total down payment anyway and you’ll pay it at closing, so if you can do this at time of purchase offer, it’s a good tool in a competitive offer situation.

As always, the real estate professionals at CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty have the knowledge and insights about the dozens of municipalities in which they work throughout Essex and Passaic counties and beyond. Contact our offices in Caldwell or Little Falls to list your home or to start your home buyer’s journey with our award-winning team. Caldwell: 973-228-1050 or Little Falls: 973-364-1111.

Thinking of Listing Your Property? Now is the Best Time to Do It.

Sure, it’s cold out and we’re dealing with snow in North Jersey. It might not be a great time to climb up on the roof to fix loose shingles or get that patio project started; but if you’re thinking of putting your house on the market, it’s actually the perfect time to do so.

There are a few factors that make early 2021 prime time for residential real estate in our area: low inventory, low mortgage interest rates, and the pandemic-fueled desire for more space.

  • North Jersey has been dealing with tight residential housing inventory for a few years, making this a seller’s market.
  • The real estate market has only gotten tighter as urban dwellers are seeking out the suburbs, or homeowners are looking to “size up” due to remote working and remote schooling that make their current environments too small.
  • Historically low interest rates on mortgages are making home ownership more affordable than ever—and first-time buyers are discovering that the traditional 20% down payment is no longer a necessity.

When there’s less inventory on the market there is more competition among buyers and that typically means your home, if it is showing at its best, is likely to sell faster and at a higher price. There are highly motivated buyers waiting for their dream home and homeowners should contemplate listing their property at this time if it aligns favorably with their personal financial situation.

Although it is a seller’s market, pricing strategy is still crucial. Many homes in the northern New Jersey towns we work in often end up in a bidding war or sell over asking price—especially in Essex and Passaic counties—but a house must be priced right to attract buyers and generate offers. Having the home staged by a professional real estate stager will also help potential buyers envision themselves living there, so be sure to clear out the clutter, organize the space, and have the stager direct you regarding furnishings and accessories. Be sure to always keep walkways shoveled and de-iced.

Another reason this quarter is a great time to list your home is to get ahead of the usual spring listing rush. There’s less competition now and winter buyers who are braving the cold and snow (rather than sitting by the fire) are likely to be highly motivated.

If you’re thinking of selling your home and want some guidance, or you’re ready to list right away, the real estate professionals at CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty are here to help. We are specialists in North Jersey real estate, and our Fine Homes & Estates division offers specialty marketing services for the area’s most upscale properties. For superior service in any season, contact us at 973-228-1050 to discuss your needs, as a home buyer or seller.

Spotlight on . . . Carol Berry

After 30 years of working as a legal secretary and real estate paralegal, Carol Berry—who joined CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest in November 2020—is ready to negotiate on behalf of her customers, review contracts, and help home buyers and sellers enjoy a smooth transaction from start to finish. With many years of direct selling experience as well, she said that the skills she acquired in both fields will help her deliver exceptional service.

“Through my paralegal work, I have experience with the flow of real estate transactions and can help customers understand all the elements of a home buying contract,” said Carol.

She said she was always interested in real estate—actually, houses and people—and programs on HGTV about home improvement, buying and selling, and house flipping fueled her interest in becoming a real estate professional. She decided to attend real estate school, passed the exam last October and joined Cedarcrest Realty shortly after that.

“John McKenna, the attorney I worked with at the law firm, put me in touch with a former colleague of Susan Mazzetta at Cedarcrest Realty, who connected me to Susan. I interviewed with her and we stayed in touch for a year. I was delighted that she invited me to come back when I was ready and I did! I interviewed with John Sass last fall; I didn’t even think about interviewing anywhere else.”

Carol is glad she followed her gut instinct to join CENTURY 21 Cedarcrest Realty, noting how well everything fell into place as she starts her new career.

“The mentoring and training are excellent; I have a wealth of knowledge about real estate at my disposal and the classes cover everything you need to know to be a good real estate agent. The camaraderie here is so nice. Everyone is on the same team and other agents have been so generous about sharing their expertise. Everything about being here has made this midlife transition so much easier.”

The mom of a special-needs daughter, Carol knows that patience and empathy are needed to overcome the challenges that arise in life. She also relies on her faith to guide her. As she advances in her real estate career, she will apply those attributes to her work.

“I like to see people achieve their dreams, whether buying a house or a condo. Right now, I’m helping first-time home buyers match desired locations with their budget. Finding the home that makes them happy and meets their needs will take some time and patience. I’m ready with both.”