This year may be the most difficult in a decade to buy a home, especially for a first-time homebuyer. Prices are soaring in most markets, and for affordable starter homes, the price is rising faster than larger homes.* Supplies are suffering from a three-year inventory drought that also is hitting starter homes hardest. The number of starter and trade-up homes fell 8.7 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively, during the past year, while the inventory of premium homes has fallen by just 1.7 percent, according to Ralph McLaughlin, Trulia’s chief economist.*
There’s little leeway for mistakes in today’s marketplace. Discipline is essential, and the learning curve is stepped. Buying a home is serious business, and in most markets today, it is the most difficult step in the process for move-up buyers, as well as first-timers.
Here are five tips on house-hunting in today’s marketplace that will put you ahead of the competition and may spell the difference between success and failure.
Hire a specialist. If you had a serious medical condition, you would seek advice and treatment from a medical specialist. Real estate is also a large and complex field. Many brokers and agents specialize in delivering better service to their clients and customers. If you’re serious about finding a home today, hire a REALTOR® who specializes in serving buyers. Look for one with the designation ABR after their name. It stands for Accredited Buyer’s Representative and means that they are REALTORS® who have received specialized training from the Real Estate Buyer’s Agent Council (REBAC) and have experience representing buyers. Even if you don’t hire a specialist, you should hire a REALTOR®. Not all agents are REALTORS®; REALTORS® are members of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) who are licensed and abide by NAR’s Code of Ethics. Hiring a REALTOR® with an ABR designation won’t cost you anything, and a professional’s assistance could make all the difference. Above all, don’t try to go it alone today. Last year nearly 90 percent of successful buyers used an agent.**
Don’t start your search until you are ready. It’s a good idea to spend some time online surfing real estate sites and learning about real estate and checking out what’s available; however, you aren’t a serious buyer until you have done all you can to improve your credit, raised the money you need for a down payment, been pre-approved for a mortgage from at least one lender and hired an agent
Make a budget and stick to it. The amount for which your lender pre-approves you is not your budget. Your pre-approved amount is conditional and can change when you apply for a mortgage. Moreover, it does not include many of the other costs of homeownership, like taxes, home insurance and maintenance. Sit down with your agent, make your budget and stick to it. As a rule of thumb, economists recommend you spend no more than 30 percent of your gross income on housing costs. Make a pledge to yourself to stick to your budget. There are few heartaches worse than falling in love with a house you can’t afford or stretching yourself so thin that you are “house poor” for years to come.
House hunt every day. Looking for a house in today’s market is like having a second job. Financially, finding the right home may be even more important to you than a second job. The outcome of your search will determine where you live and how much you spend on housing for years to come. Be proactive with your agent to learn as much as you can about the home-buying process and conditions in your market. Spend time every day reviewing listings and learning about neighborhoods. Drive the neighborhoods in which you are interested and go to open houses to get a feel for the market and to meet listing agents who may have a home that meets your criteria. Check out “coming soon” listings to get a head start on the competition.
Use a selection of sites. Most buyers start their house search on one of the major national real estate sites like realtor.com®, Zillow or Homes.com. These sites have great features, research and how-to material. As you get more serious about finding a house, increase your selection of sites to include your local multiple listing services, if yours has a consumer site with listings (not all do). Also, bookmark several of the leading local brokerages in your market. Listings may appear earlier on a local brokerage site than a national site, and often updated information like contracts or price changes are posted first on the site of the listing broker who represents the property. Sign up for email updates of listings that fit your criteria.
Be flexible. You may find that you cannot afford to live where you would like, or you can’t afford the size or amenities you want. If those are deal-breakers for you, you may not be ready to buy in your market today—or you might revisit your plans and decide to live a little farther out from the city, buying an older house that you can improve over time. Starting out in a condo might be an acceptable alternative. Chances are prices in your market are not going to decline, and by buying now, you will begin to accumulate equity. Though mortgage rates have risen over the past year, they are still very reasonable by historical standards, which means that the odds are they will continue to rise, rather than fall, in the future. Expand the geography and price ranges on the websites you are using and see what you find.
Sweeten your offer. When you find a house on which you want to make an offer, ask your agent for a comparative market analysis (CMA) to determine its value. Don’t rely on the estimated values provided by valuation tools on real estate sites. Knowing the value is important not just for deciding how much to offer, but also to anticipate how much the house will appraise for. CMAs are based on recent sales of comparable properties, similar to appraisals. Chances are you will be competing with other buyers, including investors who pay all cash. Sellers are not only looking for the best price; they also want an offer that will close on time from a buyer whose financing won’t fall through. Consider sweetening your offer by increasing your down payment and getting more than one pre-approval. Be flexible on considerations like renting back if the owner is a move-up buyer who may need time to find a new home. If you are a move-up buyer, sell your current home before you buy a new one. Most sellers react negatively to offers that are contingent upon a buyer first selling his current home.
Don’t lose your deal. About 23 percent of contracts on homes today have a delayed settlement, and 7 percent of contracts fail to close and are terminated. The leading causes for delayed settlements are issues related to obtaining financing and appraisal issues. Among contracts that were terminated, 25 percent faced issues related to home inspections, and 20 percent had issues related to the buyer’s ability to obtain financing.*** One way to improve your odds for financing is to get more than one pre-approval so that you are ready to talk to a second lender if your first application fails. Most appraisal issues result from appraisals that come in lower than the contract price and buyers must come up with more cash. One way to protect against a low appraisal is to know the value of the house before you make an offer and make a larger down payment than you have to.
Persistence pays off. Don’t despair if a seller selects another offer over yours. Learn from your experiences. A better home may come on the market tomorrow. Last year buyers searched for an average of 10 weeks and looked at a median of 10 homes**, but that’s just a national average for all buyers. If you are a first-time buyer in a hot market, expect your hunt to take longer. Don’t quit when the weather turns cold. Fall and winter can be good times to find a home. There are fewer listings than in the spring or summer, but there’s also less competition, and sellers are usually more motivated.