How to Maintain your Lawn

At the end of the hot summer months, everyone’s lawn starts to die. It can be a depressing time of the year, especially for people who love nothing more than the scent of fresh cut grass wafting through the neighborhood. Of course, you can’t get that delightful scent all year round. However, if you make sure that your lawn is properly nourished, you can have it return in full force for the next year.
When caring for your lawn, be sure to look at any and all bylaw restrictions in your municipality (i.e. length, pesticide use, fertilizer use, etc.) If there are any restrictions on what you can and cannot use on your lawn, be sure to abide by them before taking any action on your property.
When the colder months arrive, allow your lawn to die as it naturally would. If you want to see it grow in nice and lush, be sure to fertilize it in the early spring before it has started its growth (a natural fertilizer is always preferable to something synthetic or full of chemicals).
Also, it’s important to know what kind of lawn you are maintaining. If your grass thrives in the warmer months (such as Bermuda grass), begin fertilizing in the late spring to early summer. Kentucky blue grass and other colder temperature grasses can afford to be fertilized in the cooler fall or spring.
Once your lawn begins to grow, be sure to water it regularly (especially during the dryer months) and fertilize it during its active growth phase every six to eight weeks. Follow these rules for a healthy lawn and you’ll be smelling that fresh cut grass scent in no time!

Tricks realtors use to sell homes

Imagine buying your first home at the height of the Canadian housing market. That’s the position Judy Winters found herself in a few years ago after a tumultuous break-up. With a strong desire for a fresh start, this web editor became determined to buy a dog-friendly condo in a sought-after building in Toronto’s west-end High Park area. Unfortunately, units in the building rarely went on the market and were snapped up in a matter of days when they did, usually for well over asking. Yet Winters (we’ve changed her name to protect her privacy) not only got one—despite multiple competing offers—but her winning bid was $11,000 less than the next offer. Her secret weapon? A realtor who understood the power of persuasion.

As Winters discovered, hiring a realtor who knows how to use the psychology of sales can really pay off. But how do you find an agent who understands how to use the art of negotiation, who can salvage a potentially sour deal, apply pressure and use other successful strategies to increase your sale price? Because let’s face it: that commission is big, and you want to make sure it gets you the best advice when buying or selling your most valuable asset.

By talking to realtors, experienced home buyers, and veteran sellers we’ve compiled a list of the psychological tips and tricks realtors use to get deals done. While these methods can save (or make) you money, some are dodgy, and a few are downright illegal. The key is to find a realtor who can effectively use psychology without crossing ethical lines. Read on to learn how to identify a winning agent who will have your back.

When you’re a buyer

Don’t ask, don’t tell. Shortly after Navia Gordon was hired permanently at Alberta’s Ministry of Justice, the Calgary criminal lawyer took the plunge and bought her first condo (we changed her name to protect her privacy). Within days she found the perfect place. The list price was $384,000, and the unit seemed to have it all: a spacious bedroom, separate den, a modern kitchen with a workable island. It was close to transit in a neighbourhood popular with the urban crowd. But right beneath the unit’s living room window was a scar of train tracks. Concerned, she asked her realtor if the passing train traffic was loud. Without missing a beat the realtor replied: “Just don’t open the windows.”

While caveat emptor—buyer beware—applies to every real estate sale, it shouldn’t be used to justify unethical or even illegal behaviour. Unfortunately, in a survey conducted by Inman, a U.S.-based trade magazine for realtors, 60% of respondents felt that withholding critical information is a common occurrence.

Eileen Laswell prides herself on providing her clients full disclosure, even if that means actively convincing buyers to walk away from a deal. Just last year, the north Toronto realtor talked a client out of buying a family home listed at just under $1 million. From the third-storey bedroom she could see the neighbouring home’s roof. “I was struck by how many vents there were,” says Laswell, “and not professionally installed vents, but hacked-out holes with pipes stuffed through.” Concerned, she called the listing realtor. “I was told the neighbours were renovating, but I’ve never seen a renovation that required tinfoil on the windows.”

Laswell immediately told her client to walk away. “He was heartbroken because he loved the home, but the impact of living beside an active grow-op would be negative on both his family and the home’s future appreciation.”

Legally speaking, realtors cannot be held responsible for undisclosed or unknown issues that may impact a home’s value, explains Laswell. As a result, an attitude of “don’t ask, don’t know, don’t tell” has developed within the profession.

Glossing over big costs. Another ploy is to casually minimize the impact of a higher-priced home. If a house is $30,000 over your budget, an agent might say, “It’s only an extra $100 per month.”

Others imply it’s a breeze to earn income from your home: “It would be so easy to put in a kitchen and rent it out.” Of course, it wouldn’t be easy at all: there’s the renovation costs, permits, and a host of potential pitfalls for homeowners who become landlords. If there’s already a rental unit in the home, the realtor may exaggerate what you can charge in rent: “You’ll easily get $1,500 a month,” she might say, even if it’s a barely finished basement apartment with seven-foot ceilings.

To protect yourself, do your own due diligence. Call the city to verify taxes, for example, and talk to the local police station to get an overview of the neighbourhood crime rates. If you expect to add a rental unit, check Kijiji.ca for rates in the neighbourhood.

The upsell. When newlyweds Doug and Tanya Anderson went looking for a place to call home, their budget was $450,000. “But we found the houses needed quite a lot of work,” recalls Doug (we’ve changed their names), who voiced his concern to their realtor. That’s when the homes started getting a lot nicer—and the list price jumped by $50,000 or more. “Our realtor was upfront about this,” recalls Doug, “but when we expressed concern over the price, she’d say, ‘Well, we’re here now, we might as well take a look.’”

Almost every realtor uses the upsell—but it’s not just about a bigger commission. “Buyers are often unrealistic about what their budget can buy,” explained one realtor, “so you have to show them what an extra $50,000 gets.” But what’s the consequence? For the realtor, that extra $50,000 is an additional $930 to $1,250 in commission. For you, it means an extra $180 or more per month towards your mortgage.

The only remedy? Refuse to step foot inside any house that’s listed above your maximum budget.

The pressure cooker. Realtors know emotions help get sales—and good realtors will use this to gain the advantage. It’s how Laswell was able to secure her client a sought-after townhome in Burlington, Ont., last year. Immediately after the property was publicly listed, Laswell’s client made an offer with a tight deadline. “I advised her to give the sellers a short, four-hour window to either accept or reject the offer,” says Laswell. “I wanted to crank up the urgency so the seller would feel compelled to make a decision.” It worked. Laswell’s client bought the townhome that day and—despite a number of scheduled viewings by other potential buyers—at a price just a bit below market value.

Be warned: this tactic can also be used against you. Buyers often preview 15 to 20 houses before they buy, and if this number starts to creep up some realtors will respond by turning up the pressure. Have you ever arrived at a house only to bump into another potential buyer? While this can occur by accident, unethical agents will collaborate with colleagues to intentionally double-book viewings to create a false sense of urgency. Some will even surreptitiously ask a friend or colleague to pretend to be interested in the property you happen to be viewing.

Worse yet is when realtors collaborate to create a false bidding war by notifying the listing brokerage of an impending offer, even though there is no buyer. The Ontario government took aim at this deceptive practice with a new law last year: it prevents unsavoury agents from trying to drive up a home’s selling price or motivating a buyer to pull the trigger on a purchase. Agents in any province should receive a written warning, a fine, or have their license revoked if they’re caught faking bids, but proof is hard to establish.

When you’re the seller

The bitter pill. There’s an iconic scene in the movie The Matrix where the lead character, Neo, must choose between the blue pill and the red pill. The blue represents the blissful ignorance of illusion, while the red represents the painful truth of reality. The price you think your home should sell for is the blue pill, but your realtor can use several strategies to make you swallow the red one.

For instance, an agent may agree to list your home at a higher price, but only if you agree to drop that price within a specified period (usually in 15-day increments). A realtor who uses this technique may actually be looking out for your best interest, explains Damian Lister, a realtor in Etobicoke, Ont. The alternative is to simply not work with a client who refuses to consider a price drop. “There’s no point wasting their time or mine.” Agreeing on a plan to reduce the price gradually helps build rapport and trust with clients who may be stuck on a number, Lister says.

But some agents will tread into unethical territory by using a staggered bids strategy. This is how it works: after the first few viewings your realtor calls to say a potential buyer has made an offer, but it’s $100,000 lower than your list price. You reject it without hesitation. A few days later, the realtor calls again: another buyer wants to put in an offer for $75,000 less than your asking price. It’s still a low-ball offer, but this time you take a little longer to reject it. Wait a few more days and your realtor will phone one last time. This time he’s holding a formal bid. Even though it’s $50,000 below your list price, it doesn’t sting because you were already psychologically massaged into lowering your expectations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice—if the first two bids were real. But realtors have been known to fabricate staggered bids to convince you that a bad offer is actually a good deal.

Always ask to see an offer in writing. Just be aware that some buyers won’t spend an hour or two filling out formal paperwork if there’s a good chance their offer will be rejected. If nothing is in writing, ask your agent for more details: What type of closing is the buyer looking for? Are there any conditions? Any information that can verify whether or not a buyer actually exists will help you assess whether the offer is legitimate. Keep in mind that if legitimate buyers keep suggesting your home is worth less, you may have to swallow that red pill.

The pick-up. Unethical agents may have other motives for listing your home, even if they know it’s overpriced. They may just be looking to pick up unrepresented buyers—people who come to your home without a realtor. To do this, the agent will set up one or more open houses and charge you a “marketing fee.” Typically ranging from $50 to $500, this fee will cover any out-of-pocket expenses associated with listing your home. While these costs are legitimate, the vast majority of realtors don’t pass them on to their clients because they’re considered the cost of doing business. However, if your realtor isn’t convinced your overpriced home will sell, she may ask you to pay the expenses up front while she uses your home to pick up new business from active buyers.

Twice as nice. Michael Drukarsh knew Sarah was the one shortly after meeting her—and Sarah knew they needed to move from Michael’s two-bedroom condo in Toronto’s Flemingdon Park. The couple were thrilled when their realtor, Debra Edwards, soon called to say there was an offer, which they accepted.

But before the paperwork was finalized, another viewing request came in. Michael and Sarah didn’t know what to do, so they called Edwards for advice. She advised them to agree to the new viewing request. A few hours later, the couple was curled up on the couch, excitedly talking about the future, when the phone rang. “The deal’s fallen through,” explained Edwards. It was 11 p.m. and the buyers had just pulled out because they couldn’t get financing. “We went numb,” says Michael. But Edwards didn’t. She got on the phone to the buyer who had arranged the last-minute viewing and convinced him to put in an offer. “Within 24 hours, she’d turned it around,” recalls Michael, who signed the final sale documents the very next day.

Many realtors on both the buying and selling side will reject viewing requests once they have a registered offer in hand. But that’s a rookie mistake, says Lister. An offer is a signal that a buyer is seriously interested, but until all conditions have been met or waived the sale isn’t complete. That means your realtor should continue to actively promote your listing until the deal is finalized. Just make sure that any would-be latecomers know there’s a conditional offer already in play.

The double-dip. When Michael first listed his North Toronto condo, he couldn’t understand why the realtor appeared to do everything in her power not to sell the condo. “She refused to do open houses because she said they were useless,” he recalls. There were multiple spelling mistakes in the listing she wrote, and she refused to re-take the photos to exclude the cat. “That one picture alone shut down 80% of the market who are either allergic or don’t like the smell of cats.” After six painful months, Michael terminated the relationship and hired another realtor who easily sold his condo in less than a week.

So why would a realtor work at not selling a home? Because it’s one of the simplest ways to double-dip in the commission pool. A double-dipper’s goal is to postpone any interest from the general population—the 92% of house hunters who use the Internet to look for listings—so he can find his own buyer. That way the agent represents both the seller and the buyer, and effectively doubles his commission. This tactic is primarily used by agents who dominate a particular neighbourhood or condo-building, and who think there’s a good chance of attracting a buyer on his own without MLS. On the sale of a $350,000 condo, double-dipping could be the difference between a commission of $8,750 and $17,500.

Another way unethical agents try to double-dip is by ignoring viewing requests. If your realtor can’t seem to book a viewing for a particular house, or the appointment is always cancelled at the last minute, you may have come across a double-dipper. The listing realtor may be thwarting your agent in the hope you’ll get frustrated and contact them directly, without your agent. They’ll then try and represent you in the deal and collect both commissions.

This is definitely bad behaviour and realtors caught poaching clients could end up before their ethics board, where punishment can include a written warning, a fine, or in extreme cases even a revoked license. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should automatically be suspicious of “dual-agency”—the term used to describe when a realtor or brokerage represents both the seller and the buyer. You just want to be sure that what prompted the situation wasn’t a realtor actively dissuading interested buyers in order to double-dip.

When you list your home, ask your realtor to specifically describe their marketing plan, and press them on details. Who will take the photos that will be used on MLS.ca, and how will viewing requests be handled? Remember, you’re in charge, so you should have the ultimate say in how your home will be promoted and when buyers can view the property.

Stacking the deck. Chester Karass, one of the most famous business negotiation experts in North America, once stated: “In business, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.”

Some listing agents will add phrases like “make an offer,” or “no showings without a buyer’s offer” to their listings. They understand that even a low-ball bid starts a dialogue that can get everyone closer to a done deal. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is when unethical realtors use this strategy to “stack the deck,” or create an easy sell for the highest bid so it benefits them or someone they know.

Laswell was faced with this situation when she and her client chose to bid on a home in Toronto’s west-end Humewood area. Laswell knew the seller anticipated a bidding war: the home was underpriced and the phrase “motivated seller” dominated the listing’s comment section. Still, Laswell did her due diligence. She analyzed the neighbourhood and priced out similar homes. From this information she and her client agreed to go in with an offer that was $250,000 over the asking price. So Laswell was more than a bit surprised to learn that out of seven offers, they didn’t win—that is until she found out that the winning bid was from the listing agent’s sister. Laswell believes the listing agent acted unethically by trying to keep offers artificially low with the “motivated seller” phrase. The agent may have even acted illegally by disclosing confidential bid information to her sister. “How coincidental that her winning offer was only $3,000 more than ours?”

Sadly, realtors across the country are frequently convicted of licensing infractions. Remember that survey of realtors by the U.S. trade magazine? Well, 70% of those realtors say that home buyers and sellers are “kept in the dark” when it comes to ethical infractions, licensing violations and ongoing investigations. In Canada, real estate boards have tried to make this process more transparent with timely updates of charges and convictions on their websites. Still, it’s doubtful that all but the most serious offences are being thwarted.

Fortunately, many great real estate deals have nothing to do with unethical or illegal conduct. Remember Judy Winters? She won a bidding war with a lower-priced offer because her realtor understood the power of psychology. As soon as the condo went on the market, Winters’ agent called her to explain his plan. “He wanted me to be physically present for the offer presentation,” she recalls. Turns out the sellers had just had a baby and empathized with Winters’ post-breakup plight. Because of the personal touch—all orchestrated by the realtor—Winters won the deal and got the fresh start she needed.

Mortgage

It is likely you will need the services of a lender when purchasing your home. Once your agent understands you and your home purchase requirements they will recommend that you talk to a lender to determine your price range. Your lender will begin the process to pre-approve you for a mortgage, which will include verification of income and down payment (among other details).
Searching to find the right home is a process you should undertake thoroughly and carefully, and you should be just as diligent in sourcing the best loan for you.
The past few years have seen historically low mortgage interest rates — the lowest in decades — leading some to call them “once-in-a-lifetime rates.”
Consider, for example, that in the late 1980s, five-year, fixed rate mortgages were more than 12%, and even in the late 1990s, they were almost 7%. In 2009, you could get the same mortgage for about 4.5%, a five-year variable rate mortgage at 2.25%, and a five-year fixed rate at 3.99%.
Perhaps these rates really are opportunities of a lifetime.
This, of course, raises an important question for home buyers: should they lock in at these rates, or is a

variable rate the better option?
This is an excellent question, but it is not easily answered. It depends on your comfort level with rate fluctuations.
If the bank rates decrease, then it’s in your favour. If the bank rates increase, your cash flow will be restricted.

The importance of pre-approval
Taking the important step of getting pre-approved affords you knowledge and confidence: you’ll know in advance exactly how much financing you qualify for, and you’ll be confident during your search knowing where you stand.
This is also likely the time when you will first be introduced to the often intimidating and complex world of mortgages. It’s critical you understand your options so you can make an informed decision that suits your personal circumstances.
When you meet with your financial representative, if there’s anything you don’t understand, ask. Ask lots of questions. If you still don’t get it, ask again. This is not an area to take chances or to be shy, since how you structure your mortgage could amount to tens of thousands of dollars over the term of your loan.
If during this process you sense your lender representative isn’t patient in answering your questions, move on. The financial services industry is very competitive and, assuming you qualify for a mortgage, if one company doesn’t want your business, someone else will.

Fixed or variable
A fixed mortgage involves a fixed rate of interest over a specified period of time, known as the term. This provides a certain level of peace of mind, since you’ll know exactly what your monthly payments will be, which allows you to budget accordingly.
A variable mortgage, on the other hand, is just like it sounds: the interest rate fluctuates based on the market rates. This can be a good arrangement if rates are on the way down, but it also tests one’s nerves if rates begin to rise.
With rates being as low as they have been over the last couple of years, more and more home buyers are locking into fixed mortgages to take advantage of the low rates.

Long versus short term
The term of the mortgage refers to the life of the mortgage contract, typically anywhere from one to five years. At the end of the term, the mortgage becomes due and payable. In most cases, however, the lender and borrower negotiate a renewal for a new term, which also provides you the opportunity to change the terms of the mortgage if your circumstances change.
So, long versus short term is pretty self-explanatory. Generally speaking, if rates are low it might be a good idea to lock in for a long term. If rates are high, it may be advisable to choose a shorter term until you know how the rates are trending. If they begin to rise, you can consider locking in for a longer term.

Open versus closed
This refers to how much flexibility you have to repay the mortgage, in full or with large lump-sum payments, at any time over the term without penalties.
However, you do pay for the flexibility. For example, open mortgages are usually available only for short terms, and the interest rate is often higher. The benefit is you have the freedom to make a large payment when you can.
Closed mortgages, on the other hand, often have lower rates, but you don’t offer the flexibility to make large one-time payments.

Amortization
This is the period over which your mortgage is paid in installments. In June 2012, the Canadian government outlined new rules limiting the maximum amortization period at 25 years. For many first-time buyers, the period is usually 25 years. Generally speaking, the shorter your amortization, the less interest you have to pay, but the larger your monthly payments will be. Most first-timers go for a long amortization to keep payments as low as possible, since it’s their first experience with a mortgage.
With all of the above mortgage considerations, what you choose really depends on your own personal circumstances, preferences, and comfort level. Your mortgage specialist can walk you through a number of different scenarios with these variables, so you can see exactly what each change will cost you.
There are many products and services available in the industry today, so be sure to take your time and explore all your options.

Costs of Home Ownership

From deposits to moving expenses, and everything in between, buying your first home involves more than just saving for a down payment. That may be the largest cost, but there are other things you’ll need to plan and budget for.

Deposit

This is the step you take when you’re ready to make an offer to purchase. Let’s say you’ve viewed a selection of properties with your agent, found one you like, and are ready to get serious about purchasing the property. At this point, you might need to put down a deposit; the amount depends on your area, the purchase price of the home, and your situation. If a deposit is required, it will be held in trust and will be deducted from your total purchase price and is considered part of your down payment.

Down payment

Generally speaking, the larger a down payment you’re able to make, the better, because that means you’ll have to borrow less. But you also don’t want to leave yourself so cash-poor you can’t cover all of the other costs that come with closing a sale.

The minimum amount you can put down is 5% of the purchase price, assuming that you have made an offer to purchase and all conditions have been met. For example, a $300,000 property would require a minimum down payment of 5%: $15,000; however, if your down payment is less than 20%, which is the case for many first-time homebuyers, you will also need mortgage loan insurance.

Mortgage loan insurance

If your down payment is less than 20% of the purchase price of your home, you are required to have mortgage loan insurance, also known as high-ratio mortgage insurance. It protects your lender — not you — in case you default on your mortgage. Premiums are calculated as a percentage of the amount you put down, changing at the 5%, 10% and 15% thresholds but there is no break for anything in between. Premiums range from 0.5% to 3% and increase if you are self-employed.

So, to buy a $250,000 condo with a 5% down payment of $12,500, a premium of 2.75% on the borrowed amount of $237,500 would total about $6,500. You can pay this in one lump sum or, as many first-time buyers choose to do, you can add it to your mortgage loan amount. This type of insurance is mandatory for high-ratio mortgages, and is only offered through two carriers: CMHC and Genworth Financial.
One important note is that in Ontario and Quebec, the premiums are subject to provincial sales tax, which cannot be added to the loan amount. So, to buy that $250,000 condo in Ontario, it is your responsibility to pay the 8% sales tax on the $6,500 premium, or about $520.

Land transfer tax

Most provinces have such a tax, though it may have a slightly different name (such as property purchases tax), and the rates vary. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and parts of Nova Scotia do not have Land Transfer Tax (LTT) at all, while other provinces use a tiered system. In the tiered systems, the rate varies depending on the purchase price of the house. Your agent or your lawyer can advise what the rate would be for the area you’re considering buying in.

Appraisal fee

Your mortgage lender will likely require an appraisal to ensure the property is worth what you are offering. The reason is two-fold: it prevents you from borrowing more than a property is actually worth, which might apply in cases where multiple would-be buyers enter into a bidding war; and it protects the lender from lending out more than the home’s value, which becomes critical should you default on the mortgage. If a lender has to foreclose, they want to be able to recoup the entire loan amount, as well as the costs of foreclosing. The fee for such an appraisal is typically between $250 and $350.

Home inspection

You wouldn’t buy a used car without having a trusted mechanic perform an inspection for you, and a house is no different. Don’t even think about buying a home without first having a proper inspection done. In fact, your lender may insist on one to verify the condition of the home.

It’s an excellent way to learn as much as you can about the various systems in the home, from the furnace and plumbing to the electrical and roofing. The inspection may identify some repairs that are essential, which you and your agent can either negotiate into the purchase price or insist be completed before you proceed with the deal.

The cost of an inspection starts from $350.00 and depends on the size, condition, and age of the property. But this is money well spent, and is an expense that you simply cannot, and should not, avoid.

Property insurance

Your mortgage lender will require you to have property insurance in place on closing day. Since the property is actually the security against the loan amount, the lender wants to make sure insurance is in place to cover the cost of replacing the home, and its contents, should something happen.

The fees for insurance vary widely, since they depend on the value of the property. Insurance has become a very competitive business in recent years, with new companies entering the market, offering different products and options. Consider using the services of a broker, whose job is to find customers the best deal possible among the companies they represent. You may also be able to get a discount if you use the same company you have your other insurance policies with.

Mortgage life insurance

Mortgage loan insurance should not be confused with mortgage life insurance, which protects you in the event something happens to you. This type of insurance might be suitable for a young couple or family where there is only one breadwinner, for example. Costs are usually much cheaper than loan insurance. Obtaining life insurance instead of mortgage life insurance is the best bet.

Legal fees

Legal fees for buying real estate range in price, depend on your situation, and must be paid upon closing. When purchasing brand new condos, since such deals can involve more paperwork, the cost might be higher. Your agent can provide you a local lawyer if you don’t already have a relationship with one.

Title Insurance

Title insurance is yet another type of insurance you will require. Your lawyer will advise you of this type of protection, which insures you against any defects of title to the property. For example, if the previous owners undertook major renovations of the property without proper permitting, you would be protected against any costs required to bring the house up to code.

Typically, this one-time premium costs less than $500.

Moving expenses and services connections

When you’re totaling up all the costs of buying your first home, don’t forget to include moving expenses and connection fees or deposits for services, such as phone, electricity, and other utilities.

Moving expenses vary widely, depending on your personal circumstances and possessions. As a first-time homebuyer, perhaps you’re moving from an apartment, or even your parents’ home. If this is the case, you may not need the services of a moving company. You could choose the do-it-yourself route and enlist the help of family and friends. If so, ask them or your agent for a referral for a truck rental company they trust, as this is an area of your move that you want to go smoothly. Don’t be fooled by the price! Reliability is key.

If, however, you do contract a moving company, do your homework well in advance; get referrals from your agent and friends and do your own research. Rates and levels of service can vary widely among moving companies, as can insurance coverage, so give yourself lots of time to look into these matters.

Often overlooked are the costs of making sure your services and utilities — such as your phone, electricity, cable TV, and other connections — are up and running for move-in date. Make sure you call well in advance to make these arrangements, and ask about all associated fees. For example, some utility companies require deposits, or charge other fees for new customers with whom they have no billing history.