Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Don't Rush Into Buying

After her father gave her $20,000 toward a down payment, a professional writer of 28 was emboldened to buy her first home. Seizing the opportunity before prices rose further, she called a real estate agent and hastily arranged to tour property in a popular area.

Within hours, she’d signed a contract to buy a small one-level contemporary on a wooded cul-de-sac. But the property was a mismatch for the lifestyle of a single woman seeking an active social life. As it turned out, nearly all her neighbors were young families.

“It was crazy for this young lady to pick such a child-friendly neighborhood when her top priority was really to date and hang out with friends her age,” says Merrill Ottwein, a longtime real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

“Far too many buyers see a house in isolation from the rest of their lives,” he says.

Skylar Olsen, a senior economist for Zillow, the real estate data firm, sees signs that an increasing number of buyers in their 20s and early 30s are delaying a purchase until they can afford a place they’d keep for 10 years or longer.

“More millennials are saving up longer and skipping the starter home until they can get a property to meet their needs for years to come,” says Olsen, noting that many buyers in all age groups are now more cautious.

Doro Kiley, a certified life coach who helps clients craft their plans, says that before launching a home search buyers should first imagine their ideal home. That way, they’re more likely to get close to the best possible match.

Here are a few pointers for buyers:

-- Envision your future on paper.

Partners often differ on ideal housing choices. That’s why Kiley says it’s helpful for both to write down their respective visions and then seek to shape them into a single statement.

Written statements help people clarify their thinking and refine the details of their plans, as they move through successive drafts. They’re also a way to help reconcile differing views.

“In my work, all the time I come across husbands and wives who start with different visions,” Kiley says.

-- Carefully ponder the issues around commuting time.

As Ottwein says, one of the most wrenching tradeoffs many families face is between a larger, newer house with a longer commute and a smaller, older place that’s closer to the city center and the workplace of one or both partners.

Homebuyers who consider an outer-tier suburb are often driven by the desire for a larger property or what they perceive to be better schools.

But before you opt for a distant suburb, Ottwein strongly recommends you do morning and afternoon rush-hour test drives. This way, you’ll know more precisely what sort of traffic to expect if you buy there.

Ottwein says buyers should disabuse themselves of the notion that the current level of traffic congestion on their path will remain static. The odds are that the traffic will worsen as the years go on.

-- Don’t automatically assume a large yard is essential for kids.

Many people with young children hang on tightly to the hope that their offspring will have a large backyard where they can frolic, just as they did as youngsters. This aspiration can influence them to pick an outlying suburb at the expense of their convenience and commuting time.

But are the tradeoffs necessary to acquire a large piece of land worth it? Not necessary, says Ottwein, noting that today’s children often spend much more time in organized athletic and recreational activities than did their parents.

“These days many kids ... have little time for the sort of free backyard play their folks remember so nostalgically from childhood,” he says.

-- Give yourself the comfort of a deliberative home search.

These days, those seeking to own a home in a popular neighborhood can face fierce competition. They feel pressured to act quickly, lest they lose out to a rival. Because of that, many buyers take regrettable shortcuts --often rushing into a purchase without analyzing whether the property they’ve picked truly matches their lifestyle.

But because so much is at stake, Ottwein urges buyers to slow the process down or face the prospect of a taking a wrong turn.

“Some buyers get hyped by a hot market. These are people who want to win at any cost. But you don’t want to look back one day to realize that you’ve won the battle but lost the war,” he says.

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