The New Reality: Housing

In Penn Hills, now is not the time for sellers to test the market to see if they can get a good price on a home


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In Penn Hills, where there have been more mortgage foreclosures this year than in any other community in Allegheny County, real estate agents have learned to sell homes by swimming with the tide.

"A good 99 percent of all buyers in the Penn Hills market are using FHA financing," and most of them will need the seller to help with closing costs, said Margie Churchel of Coldwell Banker real estate.

The Federal Housing Administration allows sellers to pay as much as 6 percent of the home's sales price toward the buyer's closing costs. "Sellers need to be open to that if they plan to sell their house in Penn Hills," she said.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Churchel recently sold a home in Churchill, a more affluent community nearby, in which the buyer asked the seller to pay 6 percent of the sales price toward closing costs. The seller refused, but the buyer went ahead with the purchase anyway.

She said that scenario was not as likely in Penn Hills.

The municipality is an aging community built around World War II. It conveniently hugs the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Parkway East, simplifying the commute to different corporate centers around the Pittsburgh area.

It is not only challenged with younger homeowners who have lost their homes due to job loss or bankruptcy but also seniors who bought or built their homes in the 1950s and are losing them now because Social Security payments and pensions have not kept up with the cost of living.

The 2011 median home price of $62,000 in the community is $7,230 lower than in 2001, according to RealSTATs, a local real estate information service.

Penn Hills had the county's highest number of foreclosures in 2001, but that year there were only 44.

Ten years later, the community still holds the No. 1 spot for home losses, but RealSTATs data shows the number of foreclosures in Penn Hills has more than doubled to 96.

And those foreclosed homes are competing with any other properties that homeowners are trying to sell, which can drag down values.

"I tell my sellers they have to price their home to sell," Mrs. Churchel said. "Now is not the time to test the market to see if they can get a good price on a home.

"The home for sale also must be spic and span clean. It must shine above the others. Sellers have to be flexible with any offers and be open to concessions for the buyers such as helping with closing costs."

Mrs. Churchel said another barrier to home sales often involves getting buyers qualified for a mortgage because of poor credit. The problem has gotten worse in recent years, but she has lenders who help buyers repair troubled credit.

One potential buyer who currently rents in Penn Hills and did not qualify for a mortgage last year now qualifies after fixing her credit; and Mrs. Churchel is helping her find a house to own in the community.

Other agents say they have learned more about terms that might have been less familiar a few years ago.

"I have had to familiarize myself with short sales when there's a mortgage underwater," said Staci Rullo, an associate broker with Northwood Realty Services who specializes in properties located in the east suburbs.

A short sale occurs when the seller will not receive enough money from the sale of a house to satisfy what is owed on the mortgage. It is typically an alternative to foreclosure.

"In Penn Hills and the surrounding areas, I often see a lot of seniors who can't afford to maintain their homes and are forced to sell at a discount," said Ms. Rullo.

As an agent who lives and works in Penn Hills, she said she had been gradually adapting to the changing market in the eastern suburbs, where sales prices range from the $20,000 vicinity to homes priced more than $300,000.

"It's difficult to get almost anyone qualified anymore," she said. "We have to bend over backwards to get buyers qualified."

Yet the real estate market continues to move properties, even if the contracts look different these days and the agents find themselves using different skills.

"We are still selling," said Ms. Rullo. "People are still buying. And we are selling at every price range."


Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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