Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips For Maintenance-Free Love

People age 35 and younger represent the single biggest share of the home-buying market. Spurred by near record-low interest rates and rising property prices, many in this age group are now eager to buy a place. But most remain highly resistant to the purchase of a "fixer-upper."

"Most (millennials) have little extra time or inclination to take on a lot of routine maintenance, let alone big home improvement projects," says Tom Early, a real estate broker who twice served as president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

Karen Rittenhouse, a real estate investor and author of "The Essential Handbook For Buying a Home," says many first-time buyers who face affordability challenges have no alternative but to choose a fixer-upper or retreat from the market altogether.

Rittenhouse's investment company is no longer doing much direct home improvement work itself, she says, "because rehabbing is exhausting."

Here are a few pointers for buyers who aspire to ownership of a low-upkeep home property:

-- Search for a single-level property for easy cleaning.

Sid Davis, a longtime real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide For Buying a Home," says the demand for single-story houses is increasing rapidly, especially among aging baby boomers who have trouble climbing stairs or expect to face that limitation in coming years.

Beyond their investment potential, single-level properties offer advantages in terms of routine upkeep.

"As anyone who has to clean a multi-level house can tell you, that takes a lot more energy and time," Davis says.

-- Research the possibility that a condo-apartment could meet your needs.

The quest for a low-upkeep home means more people are now considering condo communities, where exterior maintenance is done for them, says Early, who helps his clients grasp the pros and cons of condo living.

But Early says it's important to carefully research the financial aspects of a condo community before committing to buy a unit there.

"You'll want to know that the owners' association has put money into an escrow account to keep up with such improvements as painting ... along with the eventual replacement of the roof," Early says.

Prior to investing in any condo, he urges you to read through the minutes of the condo association's meetings for the last two years.

"The minutes could tip you off about repair problems and indicate if there are any lawsuits pending against a former management firm, for example," he says.

-- Purchase a place where perfectionists now reside.

Are you planning to buy a home where you expect to live for just three to five years? If so, buying a home from maintenance-minded owners could let you coast on their quality upkeep. Their place will probably be in good repair, including all of the appliances.

Those who baby their homes are usually also meticulous about pruning their trees and manicuring their flowerbeds. Still, Early warns against thinking you could get by with their good landscaping habits for very long.

"A well-kept yard needs near constant attention, either from you or the landscaping crew you hire," he says.

-- Include brand-new houses in your search.

Not all new subdivisions are created equal. Some new homes will give you years of maintenance-free living, while others could mean headaches from the outset.

A dedicated real estate agent should be familiar with both new home and resale options in the area where you're looking.

Early believes that builders who add custom features to the homes they construct usually give buyers a better product than do those who mass-produce houses cookie-cutter style.

How can you find a builder with a quality edge?

"One approach is to ask those already living there. Tell them you wish to know whether they're satisfied with the quality of construction in their subdivision and if not, why not," says Early.

Home inspectors could also provide you with a solid assessment of the builder's practices.

"A well-trained home inspector usually knows which local developments will give you problems and which (will) stand the test of time," he says.

-- Consider an "almost new" home if a brand-new one is unavailable.

As Early says, those who buy a brand-new home can sometimes enjoy nearly carefree living for up to 10 years. But if you've chosen a neighborhood where there are no brand-new homes available, you might consider a nearly new place, meaning it's under five years of age.

"There's no guarantees that any house will free you from upkeep worries or let you sleep well at night without worrying that your roof won't leak and your appliances won't break down. But your odds are better if you buy a youthful place," he says.

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