Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Buying a Home, on a Serious Tip

Housing specialists say the homebuying market -- which slowed down in recent weeks due to political and economic volatility -- should regain some velocity by this spring.

In December -- the latest month for which numbers are available, home sales took a steep 6.4 percent fall. But Cheryl Young, a senior economist for Trulia, a real estate data company, predicts that more of the potential purchasers now on the sidelines should return to the trail within a few months.

“There will be a little bit of a pop come spring, the traditional buying season, but not a complete comeback,” Young says.

Through to the end of 2018, there was a significant shortage of starter-level properties available in many popular neighborhoods. That led to extreme frustration for numerous would-be homeowners who dropped out temporarily rather than deal with intense competitive pressure from rival bidders.

But as Young notes, inventory levels are gradually rising once again, and that means more potential purchasers are expected to resume their property searches.

“There’s still a lot of pent-up demand for homebuying, especially among young people under 35 who’ve been waiting to get their foot in the door, so to speak,” she says.

With more properties available for sale, springtime buyers should have more time to research their choices before committing to any given home. That way they stand a better chance of making a solid decision.

Home staging -- the art of making properties appear enticing to buyers -- is on the rise in many neighborhoods. But Young urges buyers to look beyond the superficial to discover the “bones” of the property, with the aim of determining if it’s structurally strong and in good repair.

In particular, she urges buyers to retain the right to hire a professional home inspector prior to finalizing a deal rather than waiving that right in an attempt to strengthen their bid.

“A house is a massive purchase, and you don’t want to go into it blindly,” Young says.

Here are a few other pointers for buyers:

-- Look beyond the obvious even during your first visit to a place.

Obviously, a buyer can learn much more from visiting a home than simply seeing it on the internet. And resourceful purchasers take full advantage of the opportunity.

Reid Guthrie, an inspector affiliated with the American Society of Home Inspectors (, urges buyers to investigate when they see furniture or carpets positioned in unusual ways.

“Sometimes, the seller will use throw rugs or pieces of furniture to try to conceal problems or defects,” Guthrie says.

-- Carry your own measuring devices to check room sizes.

Sid Davis, a longtime real estate broker and author of “A Survival Guide for Buying a Home,” says that to make a property look spacious, stagers sometimes clear away all but a few key pieces of furniture per room. And when creating a model home for a builder, they may even bring in scaled-down furniture to give the illusion of enhanced size. To guard against such practices, he encourages buyers to bring along measuring devices when touring properties.

“For a fairly nominal price, you can buy high-tech laser sensors that make it easy to measure anything around a house,” he says.

He also suggests you bring to your house tour the measurements of your largest pieces of furniture. This will provide you with a further sense of the scale of a home relative to your belongings.

-- Don’t get carried away with flowering glitz.

During the warmer seasons of the year, home sellers have an easy time showing off the colorful annuals they’ve planted outside. But all year long they can place impressive potted plants near the front door or throughout a home’s interior.

Color is a natural magnet for buyer interest, and many are swayed by blooming plants. Even so, Davis says would-be buyers should recognize that many of the plants displayed by home sellers will be short-lived.

“It’s almost a cliche in real estate that people buy a house for the garden in the spring. Then within a year, the flowerbeds have gone to pot -- all because the buyers didn’t replace the annuals that were planted for show,” he says.

-- Choose a highly qualified home inspector.

Guthrie, a veteran of the home inspection business, allows that some in his field are more interested in packing many inspections into a day than doing in-depth checks.

“You’ve got to wonder about any inspector who doesn’t want his clients there when he’s going through the house because it will slow him down,” Guthrie says.

According to Davis, a top-notch home inspector is enthusiastic about discovering the inner workings of a home and can prove invaluable to the savvy buyer.

“You’re looking for an inspector who can translate the fluff into reality,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at