Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How To Buy In a Sellers' Market

A couple in their 40s -- an electrical engineer married to a school teacher -- had rented an apartment for nearly two decades before deciding to launch a home-buying search in the Silicon Valley area. It took more than a year for them to find a home that met their key screening criteria.

"Out of impatience, they put offers on two mediocre properties and then backed out of those offers before ultimately finding the right house," says Barbara Delantoni, the veteran real estate broker who worked with the couple.

Delantoni urges buyers in sellers' markets to resist the urge to settle for a property that fails to meet their top objectives.

What was wrong with the two houses that Delantoni's clients didn't buy? Neither was located in the walkable neighborhood where they wanted to live and neither was served by well-ranked schools. After their full-year search, the couple finally snagged a house in their neighborhood of choice.

"Location is probably the No. 1 factor that buyers should avoid trading off if they can possibly avoid it," Delantoni says.

Here are a few pointers for buyers:

-- Start with an early visit to a mortgage lender's office.

Richard Courtney is a seasoned real estate broker who works in the Nashville area, a music industry mecca. Through the years, he's occasionally encountered wannabe buyers, buoyed by dreams of a big record contract, with exaggerated ideas of their future income.

Real estate pros are quick to identify unrealistic buyers who believe they're candidates for a mansion yet can't even afford a small starter home. In many cases they'll decline to take such prospects on a property tour.

Courtney says most need to see a mortgage lender for help in establishing a ceiling on their financial capacities. They don't want to squander time looking at properties above their reach.

-- Think through your priorities in a deliberate way.

Once you know how much you can afford, it's time to reflect on your true wants and needs for housing.

Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "Home Buying For Dummies," suggests you retreat to a quiet place, shut off your devices and discuss your priorities in a focused way.

Would you rather have a fourth bedroom or an oversized family room? Is it more important that you get a two-car garage or a big yard? It's a good idea to grapple with these questions before you waste a lot of time checking out random properties.

-- Give your real estate agent genuine feedback.

Tyson says some buyers are so fearful of hurting their agent's feelings that they avoid sharing their negative reactions to the properties the agent shows them.

But to avoid veering off track in the home selection process, your agent needs to hear any negative reactions you have to the properties you see.

"The only way that your agent can be fully responsive to you as purchasers is to get honest feedback. Agents need to hear your real thoughts. They're not mind readers," Tyson says.

-- Give a trusted agent some latitude to pre-screen properties for you.

Although you want your agent to be guided by your preferences, it's also wise to allow the agent some leeway to occasionally add in a "wild card." This is a home that your agent thinks you might like, even though it doesn't meet all your search criteria.

Agents who are in sync with their clients' reactions can sometimes guess when they'll cotton to a particular property -- even one that doesn't sound right on paper.

"I'm not surprised anymore when people buy a place that bears little resemblance to what they first said they wanted. They didn't lie. They just changed their minds," Courtney says.

-- Let go of an agent who is oblivious to your reactions.

Realtors generally pick up quickly on "buying signals," indications that prospects are seriously interested in a property they're shown. Beyond facial expressions and other body language, couples who like a home soon start talking about where they'd place their furniture or how they'd use particular rooms.

But in rare instances, real estate agents repeatedly fail to pick up on either the implicit or explicit messages conveyed by their clients. If that's the case with your present agent, Tyson suggests you consider hiring a different one.

"If your agent isn't tuned in to your wants and needs -- and keeps showing you the wrong properties -- you'll do well to find a replacement who's more attuned to your wants and needs," Tyson says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at