5 tools to make you a smarter house hunter in Reno's crazy market
House hunting season will start as soon as the weather stops being terrible (so, any minute now).
Reno is a "seller's market," with few properties for sale relative to the number of potential buyers. Some Reno Realtors estimate the current inventory of about 800 listings will more than double by the summer. Still, local buyers will continue facing competition from Californians and others relocating to the region for new jobs.
How can a local house hunter turn the odds in their favor? By putting on their investigative journalist hat.
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As a journalist, I use public documents all day to inform my reporting on Reno development, property owners, sale prices and renovations. As a house hunter, I've used those public documents to inform my decision to schedule showings and make offers.
These documents are all tools that anyone can access and use, too, if they know where to look. They are definitely no replacement for a qualified Realtor, agent or lender, but they can help you see through the marketing double-speak and learn more than the listings reveal.
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1. Zillow, Redfin, RGJ Homes and MLS
So, everyone probably starts on Zillow.com with its instant listings and infamous Zestimates. Zillow provides basic information about the house's features and age, with seller-provided pictures. It also gives a history of the list prices, failed sales and annual taxes.
Failed sales and price changes can give you a sense of how motivated the seller is and if other buyers have run into issues.
Both Redfin.com and Zillow tell users how long the house has been listed. Knowing how long the home has been on the market can help people decide how much to offer, especially if a house has been listed for weeks, months or longer. The multiple listing service does not provide this information in the public search results.
The RGJ also has its own listing product, RGJ.com/homes, that helps users understand the Reno neighborhoods from a local's perspective. It also adds nearby businesses to help people decide which coffee shop they want to walk to every morning.
Finally, the Northern Nevada Regional MLS gives the most basic information about the house. Buyers can see a basic outline, but Realtors can see private seller notes and other data only available during showings. Be sure to ask about those.
Checking out the sold listings on the MLS helps gauge a neighborhood. For example, many listings in Midtown are selling for over list price, while many listings in other parts of town are selling at or below list price.
2. How to spot a flipper and check the house's past
Once you've picked out a house you want to look at, go to the Washoe County Assessor Records online (all counties have some form of property records, and Washoe's are pretty comprehensive).
Search the address to find the property. Don't let all the data freak you out, there's a ton of great information here. Most important are the owner and the sales/transfer/doc history of a property.
Flippers are house buyers, investors or real estate agents who buy houses for a low price, usually with cash or investor money, and resell the property quickly to make a profit. Sometimes this is bad, because the flipper won't make any improvements and it inflates the market. Sometimes it's good because the flipper will make necessary repairs and upgrades to the house to make it better and improve the neighborhood.
The easiest way to spot a flipper is to look for the most recent purchase. If it was made in the last 90-120 days for a price significantly lower than the current list price, you may be buying from a flipper.
Sometimes the listed owner is a real estate company and not an individual seller.
For example, I've spotted houses that sold for less than $170,000, when the list price had dropped and several sales failed. The house was then re-listed for $230,000 90 days later without any significant remodeling.
Or, a really nice house was sold in the winter for $600,000 then got resold for $800,000 in the summer without anyone moving in or doing any work (true story). This house was a victim of seasonal house hunting.
Not all flippers just resell property for higher prices, though. Sometimes they do actual work and increase the value of the home in the process, or that work is required for it to appraise at the new value.
We'll look at ways to find that work next. But nothing beats a showing and an inspection or four.
3. What work has been done on the house?
You can search building permits for a house in the city's database, but it's incredibly tedious. Instead, BuildZoom.com has compiled all of the city's permits into one interactive map.
Search the address and click on the map dot on that house to see what work has been done, if any.
In urban Reno, many houses were built in the last 100 years. Some houses need new roofs, some don't. Some houses have highly dangerous knob and tube wiring and others don't. Sometimes people do half the work, sometimes they do less.
It's a real mess. These permits will help you understand what kind of mess you might be walking into.
Keep in mind not all repair work needs a permit. But major structural repairs do. I looked at a house with permits referencing fire damage repairs. The house looked perfect walking in, so I asked about it and found out what happened. The repair work was certified and actually improved the house, so it was a win. But other times, damage may be covered up or hidden with new paint.
Don't expect an exhaustive list of every paint job, repair or upgrade. Any large projects performed by contractors or by the homeowner should be permitted, such as a kitchen or bathroom remodels, wiring, roofing or plumbing renovations.
If there are remodels in the listing but no permits (other than cosmetic changes) beware of the work quality or level of upgrade.
4. Is the house going to flood?
Since the major flooding this year, many homes in Lemmon Valley and other flood-prone parts of Reno and Sparks have started listing for low prices.
It's easy to type in the address and see if any of the shaded areas overlap the house you're looking at (be sure to find out what the shaded colors mean). This can help you decide whether the house is worth buying, or, at the least, tell you whether or not to get a flood insurance quote.
In some areas, such as near Swan Lake in Lemmon Valley, flood insurance is required. In other areas, FEMA lists the likelihood of flooding in the next 500 years in the form of percents or not at all.
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This doesn't mean a crawl space or basement won't flood from poor irrigation or water soaking through the concrete, it just determines whether or not a river or reservoir is likely to overflow in the next 100 to 500 years.
5. How's the crime?
Download the MyRPD (Reno Police Department) app onto your phone. While visiting the house, use the app's "Area Incidents" and "Sex Offenders" buttons to check out crime and offenders in the vicinity.
Use the information to decide if you're comfortable raising children, walking at night, parking expensive cars or living in the area.
What to do with all this info?
Property lines, previous sale prices, crime rates, flood maps and permits may not ultimately get you into the home of your dreams, but it might help you avoid a money pit.
Your research is no substitution for agents, inspections and appraisals, but it will help you build the narrative of the house, ask smart questions and look out for red flags.
Happy house hunting.
Mike Higdon is the city life reporter at the RGJ and can be found on Instagram @MillennialMike and on Facebook at Mike Higdon, Reno Life.