For more than eight months, a government attorney in her early 50s has been methodically seeking the ideal move-up property for herself and her 14-year-old daughter. So far, she’s considered and rejected more than 20 houses she found online, including 10 she visited in person.
What’s the holdup? Like many buyers, the attorney has a long list of priorities. She wants a new or nearly new place near her daughter’s prep school as well as coffee shops, restaurants and public transit. She wants a large home office and a professional-style kitchen with an island.
Moreover, the daughter has her own “must haves.” She wants a bedroom with a private bath and a hangout space for friends -- preferably a loft. She also wants a fenced yard for her pet poodle. And all these features must come within the mom’s budget constraints.
Stacy Berman, the veteran real estate agent representing the attorney, doesn’t fault her for taking a lengthy time to find the best possible property -- a particularly challenging task during a period of tight inventory and rising prices.
“When deciding how and where to live, you have a tremendous amount at stake, not only financially but also in terms of lifestyle,” says Berman, who’s sold homes since 2002.
Although she never pushes clients to make a premature decision, Berman offers them helpful pointers on choosing among tough trade-offs.
“When picking a property, the three most important factors are location, price and condition. You have to place these three factors in rank order from the most to the least important to you,” she says.
Given that housing costs represent such a large percentage of family budgets, many buyers are attempting to slow down the selection process to avoid an error.
“These are wait-and-see buyers who know that every purchasing decision must be customized to their individual wants and needs. This is certainly not a time for impulsivity. Slowing down the buying process makes sense,” says Mark Nash, a real estate analyst and the author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.”
Here are a few pointers for buyers:
-- Try to avoid a potentially punishing commute.
Working from home during the pandemic has convinced many that remote work could be a viable long-term possibility. This recognition, and the easing of restraints on telework by their employers, has caused more buyers to consider a move to an outlying town or suburb.
But Merrill Ottwein, the broker-owner of a Coldwell Banker realty office, cautions buyers against moving to an area far removed from a major employment center.
“What if your supervisors change their mind and want you in the office at least a few days each week? Or what if you want to change jobs entirely?" The time to consider these issues is before you buy,” Ottwein says.
Would a long commute be worth it?
“Some people say they don’t care how far they have to drive to get all the bells and whistles they want. But then they call us back six months or a year later to say they can’t stomach that killer commute anymore,” he says.
“I would worry about any commute that’s over 50 minutes each way,” Ottwein says.
-- Think seriously before you commit to a “fixer-upper.”
Ottwein urges any buyers considering a property that needs rehab work to obtain reliable estimates on the cost of restoring the place. To get a sense of potential repair costs, your real estate agent should be willing to help you arrange with contractors for bids.
Are you convinced you could handle the renovation work yourself?
If so, Ottwein recommends you do a reality check by canvassing friends who know you well. Ask them if they think a big do-it-yourself project would be a good option for you, both in terms of your skill level and available free time.
“Your friends can help you gain perspective on the possible pitfalls,” he says.
-- Take your time when buying in a new subdivision.
If you’re planning to purchase a brand-new house, you’re likely to be faced with many trade-offs before your contract is written.
“For one package price, some builders give lump sum allowances for anything ranging from lighting fixtures to appliances to landscaping to kitchen cabinets. Anything not included in that package will cost you extra money,” Ottwein says.
These choices should be made before the sales contract is written, but not under pressure from a hurried homebuilder or salesperson.
“To make genuinely solid selections, you may need to take weekend time or a day or two off work to explore the options,” Ottwein says.
Those who are indecisive at the outset may find they have to pay a premium price for options they later decide they want -- for example, for solid wood cabinets in the kitchen.
“Once your contract is signed, you have little leverage left in negotiating with the builder. So you’d better pick the right kitchen cabinets at the beginning,” Ottwein says.
New-home buyers on a tight budget may wish to defer those items that can be installed later with relative ease, such as landscaping upgrades or window treatments.
“Lock in early those choices that are part of the infrastructure. The other options can wait until you have the funds to put them in yourself,” Ottwein says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)