How to Buy a House in Austin, TX

Austin, TX Feb 1, 2021

My goal with this guide is to basically enable you to be your own realtor for the ATX area.

Most realtors here don't know shit, and this is a crazy seller's market, and I've had to figure out everything on my own- and I want to share everything I'm learning with you. (And guess what? Realtors/Brokers are NOT legally required in Texas!)

This guide will enable you to think like an investor when it comes to buying your property. (Except, unless you're able to pay cash, the investors will almost always win in this market).

I'm publishing this guide before it's complete, and I'll be updating it regularly until I either a) have all the information I need or b) purchase a house.

If this is useful to you, you can thank me by grabbing tacos with me; I'm new to town and looking for friends! Tweet me and let's become friends. :D

See a section you know more about than me? Tweet me and I'll add it to this guide and credit you. :)

Note: I am not a realtor or any housing professional. I'm just a young woman looking to buy her first home with the intention of selling it at a higher price later on.


TOPICS

HOW TO AVOID A BIDDING WAR

  • Easily make your own direct mail postcards
  • Looking at older listings
  • Asking the right people what they know

GENERAL THINGS TO KNOW

  • Picking a Neighborhood
  • Central-TX related Issues
  • Lender/Realtor Recommendations
  • Austin Property Taxes
  • Loans
  • Zoning

Making an offer without a realtor?

  • How to find out who owns the house right now
  • TX Contract for an offer on a home

WANT TO BUILD ON YOUR LOT?

  • Lot Sizes and why they matter
  • Floor-to-Area ratio
  • Protected Trees
  • Impervious cover regulations

HOW TO AVOID A BIDDING WAR

If you're struggling to find a decent house that doesn't have a bidding war, try this: In 30 minutes, you can create and send out your own direct mailers to the neighborhood you wanna buy in!

If it helps Basic Bitch Chris avoid bidding wars, it can work for you. 😉

Here's a random example of a site you can use to make and ship your own real estate post cards. Just google it, I bet there are tons more!

Canva has real estate post card templates too!

So go do it, and if you do, let me know how it turned out!

Other tips to Avoid a Bidding War

  • Check out houses that have been on the market 14+ days. My friend Matt found his gorgeous home this way! Most people stop looking at these properties because they assume there's something wrong with them. Many times, there is (so be careful) but sometimes it's a perfectly good house that for some reason fell through the cracks.
  • Call realtors that sell in the neighborhood you want to buy in, and ask if there's anything unlisted for sale or coming soon. This is how I found my house! I called a realtor about a specific street, and he said there was an unlisted property that was going to list in the next month or so. I got there first, and I'm sitting in that house right now.

GENERAL THINGS TO KNOW

How do I pick a neighborhood?

Hoodmaps: a crowdsourced stereotype map of Austin to get you started

When I first moved back to Austin, I spent every weekend driving around different areas of Austin, even parts I would have never considered. This curiosity led me to finding a really cool spot where I bought my house! Question your assumptions and explore a bit- you may be rewarded.

Flood zones are one. Here's a flood zone map.

Termites are another- make sure this is part of your inspection before buying a home.

Hail damage: "it doesn’t happen often, but my sister just bought a house and got the seller to pay for a new roof via an old insurance claim!" -John Elam

Foundation issues East of I35: the soil East of I35 has a lot of clay in it, which shrinks and grows, and can cause foundation issues in homes.

Noise Levels: Here's a handy map of transportation-related noise. Put in your address to see noise levels there! Yellows are okay, but medium to dark reds become noticeable. (thanks for the tip, Matt!)

Soil for gardens: If you fancy yourself a gardener, it's good to know about different soils- because growing things in certain areas can be a challenge! Basically, west of I35 you have a lot of limestone, which makes planting large trees super difficult, but East of I35 you have clay-filled soils which also pose their own challenges. Learn about Austin area soil here.

Got any realtor/lender recommendations?

No. Hahahaha. But I have a title company recommendation! Title Butler was founded by my good friend Boris- who is a former machine-learning engineer who is always trying to make the world a better place and wants to revamp how title companies run. He's a solid guy and very knowledgeable.

Property taxes in Austin

Some sites can be misleading and you'll end up paying more than you think you will. There's the city taxes, then the school district taxes, then neighborhood taxes... they all add up and it can be brutal.

Ryan Jones recommends you go to TCAD (Texas Central Appraisal district) and look up the property you're interested in and see the taxes they paid recently. This will give you a good idea of what you'll pay if you buy that property.

He also says, "Also, assume 2.75% and call that good enough, and don’t believe everyone who tells you it is less because they have an interest in you buying"

Loans

(If you have more info on these loans, tweet me and I'll add it in and credit you.)

FHA Loans:

  • These tend to have worse rates than a normal loan
  • can put as little as 3.5% down with min credit score of 580

Conventional Loans:

  • must have a better credit score (620 or higher)
  • as little as 3% down

Jumbo Loans

What they are: if your home costs over a certain amount, you have to put down either 15 or 20%. The limit before you hit a jumbo loan amount varies by state and county.

Loan Limits before it becomes a Jumbo Loan (2020 data, Travis County):

  • $510K for a single family home (I also heard 400-something? Ask your lender)
  • $518K for a duplex
  • $626K for a triplex
  • $778K for a fourplex

Zoning

FYI, AUSTIN IS CONSIDERING TOTALLY RE-DOING THEIR ZONING. Check out a sneak peak here.

Here's a really intense chart showing what you can build on each zone. Here's a list zones and what they entail.

When you find a home or a lot you're interested in, go here to find the specific zone for any lot in ATX- I highly recommend this as there may be weird lot overlays like airport zone, NP (neighborhood plan), etc) that effect what you can build there.

Zone changes can change it all

If you're looking to buy in an up-and-coming neighborhood, always check out the zoning in that neighborhood and see if there's anything that is up for review with the Austin City Council. You can google 'zoning changes Austin City Council.' This legit made me change the neighborhood I was looking to buy in, so don't disregard it.

Zones

F-1 Single Family Residence - Large Lot

  • min 10,000 sqft
  • only allows single-family residential

SF-2 Single Family Residence - Standard Lot

  • min 5,750 sqft
  • only allows single-family residential use

SF-3 Family Residence

  • min 5750 sqft
  • single-family residential use and a duplex use
  • A duplex use that is designated as an SF-3 district is subject to development standards that maintain single-family neighborhood characteristics.

SF-4A Single Family Residence - Small Lot (min 10,000 sqft)

  • 3,600 sqft
  • single-family residential use

SF-4B Single Family Residence - Condominium

  • single-family residential use on a site surrounded by existing structures, most of which are single-family residences
  • An SF-4B district use is subject to development standards that maintain single family neighborhood characteristics.
  • SF-4B district designation may only be applied to a use at a proposed location if the existing use at the location is designated as an urban family (SF-5) or less restrictive district

SF-5 Urban Family Residence

  • single-family residential
  • 5,750 sqft
  • duplex, two-family, townhouse, or condominium residential use

SF-6 Townhouse & Condominium Residence

  • single family, duplex, two-family, townhouse, and condominium

MF Zoning: Goes from MF-1 Multi-Family Residence - Limited Density to MF-6 Multi-Family Residence - Highest Density


READY TO MAKE AN OFFER?

Going without a realtor?

My good friend says fuck realtors. I know, it's harsh, but really. You're going to do all of the work anyway. Take the 6% that a realtor would make on seller's closing costs, and use it to negotiate a lower price. It worked for her, but I would still be cautious and make sure you know what you're doing.

TX Residential Contracts (so you can do it yourself)

NOTE: Some of these forms can only be used by realtors. If you want to go without a realtor, I recommend chatting with Boris at Title Butler on what forms you can use.

One to Four Family Residential Contract (Resale): Here you go. You're welcome. :) There are certain forms that only realtors can use, so double check that you can use this one.

For all other TX residential contracts, go here.

How to find out who owns the house right now

It's easy! Go to your County Central Appraisal District (CAD) site and look up your property's address. Travis County CAD is here.

This search will tell you who owns the house, exactly what they're paying in taxes, when the house was built, any improvements they've made to the building and when, and if the house has changed hands since it was built. Super cool stuff!

Check to see if your house is an Airbnb

Just go to Airbnb, make sure it's set for any date range (this will show you all active listings) and zoom in on the area where your house is.

I found out that the house I want to buy is an Airbnb, and that gave me a leg up because there were over 50 people who reviewed the house I want to purchase! I learned about some potential expenses down the road and some issues I'd have to deal with when/if I bought the house.


Under Contract House Hacks (before Closing)

re-platting(?) your home while it's under contract

Split it into two lots if it's large enough, and put the loan on the one with the structures so you actually just outright own the second lot and can sell it at any time.


WANT TO TEAR DOWN AND REBUILD?

Lot Sizes

If you want to rebuild, stay over 5,750 ft²

If you want to tear down and rebuild, Austin has a minimum lot size 5,750sf.

Anything below that, and you'll have to fight the local govt. to be able to rebuild on that lot. Having talked to folks who have done this, it's a nightmare and you want to avoid this if you can. Major remodels also fall into this category (as far as I can tell from my research).

Some neighborhoods allow you to build on smaller lots

But wait! There's another option available called Small Lot Amnesty that will allow you to build on lots smaller than 5,750 ft². The minimum lot size varies (see permits section below). I'm seeing though, that "special site development standards would apply to ensure new homes are compatible with existing homes." (WHAT DOES THIS MEAN)

Which homes qualify?

"Eligible lots must have been legally platted to begin with. Such lots would most likely have been part of a larger viable land plan that met Austin’s code when created." (source)

So what does this mean? In 1946, Austin increased the minimum lot size to 5,750 (lots used to be a minimum of 3,00sf). Austin had already planned out some neighborhoods at that time, and this now required them to use two lots for one home. If you live in one of those pre-1946 neighborhoods, you can take those original lots (which are two lots in one) and split them back into their original, pre-1946 lots and then build on each of those lots. If you drive through the Bouldin Creek neighborhood, you can see tons of "A" and "B" addresses where the owner split a lot in half and built a new home on the unused lot and sold it.

source here

Which neighborhoods allow Small Lot Amnesty?

This map will show you which neighborhoods (the ones shaded in blue) allow you to build on lots smaller than 5,750 sqft.

Permits within Small Lot Amnesty

  • This changes w/ the neighborhood- go here to look up yours.

Some neighborhoods will allow for different types of housing, such as secondary Apartments, Urban Homes, Cottages, and more. They change and their design specifications change based on the neighborhood you want to buy in.

  • This document has a nice chart of which permits are allowed for each specific Austin neighborhood.

Substandard Lots?

"Substandard lots are exemptions from the minimum lot size requirement altogether. These lots are not required to have been legally platted."

Tbh I'm not sure what this means for a homebuyer and the information I can find makes it sound like there are a lot of regulations for building on this type of lot (though I may be wrong).

How far away from the property line can you build a house?

This depends on the neighborhood, but many neighborhoods have specific regulations that may force you to set your home back a good amount. This is important to know in case you're planning on expanding an existing house, or you want to build two homes on one lot (this will decrease the lot size you have to play with).

FAR, or Floor-to-Area Ratio

"This is the amount of building the city will let you have on a lot after all other setback and impervious restrictions are met." (source)

This changes based on the neighborhood, if you have any protected trees near a potential home, and other variables. An example: I called about a lot with 4500 square feet and the FAR was 1800 sqft (according to the realtor).

“FAR measures the square footage of a building relative to the amount of land on which it sits . The City of Austin defines FAR as the ratio of the gross floor area (total square footage of building on all floors with some exceptions naturally) to the gross site area (total square footage of lot). For example, if a home is 4,000 square feet in size and the size of the lot is 10,000 square feet, the FAR is 4,000 divided by 10,000, which is equal to 0.40.” Most residential zoning in Austin has an FAR of .4, this is determined by your lots zoning and any affecting overlays in the area. The city has an online calculator you can use here. (source)

What's with Impervious Cover?

If you've been driving around Austin and you keep noticing that the driveways to fancy homes are just two strips of paved parts with gravel or grass in-between, it's because they're trying to avoid having more impervious cover on their lots.

In ATX, we have these weird hippie impervious cover restrictions. You get charged by the amount of it you have, and it's called a 'drainage charge'.

"Impervious cover is any type of human-made surface that doesn’t absorb rainfall, including: rooftops, patios, driveways, paved and unpaved, sidewalks, roadways, parking lots, paved and unpaved, and some decks. Uncovered wooden decks and unpaved portions of driveways count as 50% impervious cover." (source)

"Your drainage charge is based upon the amount and percent of impervious cover at your address. The Watershed Protection Department gets this information through a combination of aerial photography, LIDAR data and development records. We review and update our data on an ongoing basis as more information becomes available."

"Dependent on zoning designation, a certain percentage of impervious cover is permitted on a property." (source) This is 45% of the total lot size in most neighborhoods. They recommend you talk to a reviewer about this, but they have a calculation spreadsheet to help you.

What about trees on the property?

If someone knows more about this subject, tweet me and I'll add it in, but basically BEWARE OF LARGE/MATURE OAK TREES ON YOUR PROPERTY IF YOU WANT TO BUILD NEAR THEM! They are extremely protected, if you cut one down I think you can go to jail for it, and it's actually enforced. You can't build anything that will destroy more than 25% of it's large-ass root system. There are also limits to how deep you can dig around a certain circumference of the tree. It's a pain in the ass.

What about the habitable attic loophole?

Here's some info: basically, there are two-story restrictions on some ADU (accessory dwelling units aka airbnb dwellings) and some other kinds of properties... but these DO allow a habitable attic. I know one person who has three bedrooms in his 'attic' to be able to have more square footage legally.


PS- If this was useful to you, you can thank me by grabbing tacos with me; I'm new to town and looking for friends! Tweet me and let's become friends. :D

PPS- See a blank area you know more about than me? Tweet me and I'll add it to this guide and credit you. :)

Madison Taskett

I'm a tech growth marketer and indie maker in Austin, TX 🌮. This blog is a daily look into my mind. It's raw, honest, and reflective, and I try to post daily.