Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

TIPS FOR COUPLES COMMITTED TO BUYING A HOUSE

According to Dr. Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who specializes in marriage and family issues, Americans value marriage more highly than ever. They're just willing to wait until they have sufficient financial security to comfortably afford a property.

Obviously, there's more to making a good home-buying decision than a sufficient income stream. As Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "Home Buying for Dummies" says, it's also important for couples to make sure they're committed to each other.

"Remember that buying a home is going to add financial stress to your relationship," he says.

Tyson says couples should also be sure that they both intend to remain in the same area for at least three to five years before deciding to buy. That usually means both have completed their graduate or professional schooling and intend to keep working in the same metro area for at least that long.

Still, Tyson says many newly married couples with enough resources to buy a home still need a great deal of discussion before making a final property decision.

Couples can have very divergent views on the best setting for a home, and whether it should be in a city, suburban or rural location.

Couples of all ages need to bridge their differences before heading out for a home-shopping tour. Otherwise serious disputes could develop later.

"Pick a time to share thoughts about your individual priorities and make an actual appointment," Tyson says.

Here are a few other pointers:

-- Make your first move a meeting with a mortgage lender.

These days, mortgage lenders typically conduct nearly all their business through phone calls and email, with an occasional fax thrown into the mix. Technically, you never need to meet your lender.

But Ronald Phipps, a former president of the National Association of Realtors, (www.realtor.org) recommends that even before you go home-shopping, you arrange a face-to-face meeting with a lender to discuss your financing plans and gain mortgage pre-approval.

"Though it's uncommon for people to see their lender personally, it's highly advisable," he says.

As Phipps says, buyers who meet face-to-face are more likely to get extra time and faster processing for their mortgage application, as well as insights into the changing mortgage market, with its rigid standards.

"If your parents last bought a house many years ago, they probably can't give you much guidance on financing," he says.

-- Don't rule out purchase of a place with outdated decor.

To get the most for their money, Tyson says money-tight homebuyers may wish to consider a category of properties a notch above a classic "fixer-upper." These are typically well-maintained properties with solid electrical and plumbing systems. But their owners, though practical, have neglected them cosmetically.

"For instance, maybe the owners hung onto their old outdated-looking kitchen appliances because they're still functional. And the same with out-of-date bathroom tile colors and fixtures," Tyson says.

He says young buyers willing to overlook a dated kitchen or bathrooms can sometimes get a good deal on a home they're willing to improve themselves at a later date. But unless you're extremely handy, he cautions against taking on a home that needs major infrastructure improvements.

He recommends a thorough inspection to determine whether a home has fundamental problems -- such as a crumbling foundation. These are far more costly to fix than an unappealing decor.

-- Screen for homeowners eager to sell.

Tom Early, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org) says that when it comes to real estate, time is money. Sellers who have already moved and whose property has already gone vacant may be especially willing to negotiate favorable terms for buyers.

"Usually, you don't have to do anything sneaky or underhanded to find out what motivates the sellers. That's because owners sometimes broadcast their desire for a quick sale with ads that read: "Seller Motivated" or a similar message," Early says.

If the ads don't reveal the sellers' degree of urgency, a few casual inquiries placed by your real estate agent to the listing agent for the property might do so.

"Real estate people are gregarious. Word gets around and soon your agent can find out why a house is on the market. Maybe the owners are building a custom-built house and will be moving there in just a couple of weeks," Early says.

He says a dedicated buyer's agent can be especially helpful to those making a first home purchase.

"A couple who is flexible and has all their financing lined up can sometimes get a bargain price on a dream nest where they can start a family and live together for many years," Early says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)