Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Making the Right Home Purchase in Changing Times

Due in large measure to the pandemic, Americans’ preferences on where and how to live are clearly evolving, according to real estate specialists.

“We are at the dawn of a great reshuffling,” says Rich Barton, CEO of Zillow, which tracks housing markets throughout the country.

The living patterns that have taken hold as a result of COVID-19 are persuading millions of people -- those who can afford to buy in an uncertain economy -- to consider moves to larger and less urban spaces. With so much time now spent at home, many have recast their priorities.

“Home offices are in high demand. Backyards are more desirable than parks and gyms. Work-from-home policies are eliminating the commute for many. There’s an endless list of considerations,” Barton says.

Take the case of an engaged couple in their early 30s who work for New York-based finance firms. Last year, they intended to make their first purchase a city condo. But after discovering the delights of working remotely in an exurban location, they now expect their initial property to be a spacious suburban house with two home offices and property sizable enough for an in-ground pool.

Tom Early, a veteran real estate broker, doesn’t know the engaged couple in this true story. But he says they’re typical of many wannabe homeowners, whose priorities are now in flux after months working from home.

“A lot of these folks are even surprising themselves about their changes of heart. Last year they wanted city, city, city. But many months working remotely have altered their thinking on the best way to live,” says Early, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

Besides their enthusiasm for the freedom that comes with working remotely, many buyers are also excited by the chance to get a more spacious house for their money, due to near-record-low mortgage rates.

“People who didn’t imagine ever affording (a) 4,000-square-foot house with a gigantic kitchen can now picture that -- assuming they grab a low-cost mortgage and head miles outside the city,” Early says.

Stacy Berman, a longtime agent affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (crs.com), understands the zeal of young adults with solid jobs who are now considering a move to a less-populated town or outlying area. Like the engaged couple, many believe they’ll be allowed to continue working from home indefinitely.

But Berman urges such would-be buyers to project how their lives -- and priorities -- could well change after the pandemic and whether they will indeed always work from home full-time.

“If you’re thinking of moving amidst all the current upheaval, this shouldn’t be a one-year plan. You want to stay in the new house for a minimum of five years,” says Berman, noting that an outlying community that might seem appealing during the pandemic could have less allure once the lockdown era is over.

“People planning to move need to avoid making a rash decision about their future lifestyle. After COVID-19, ask yourself if you’d rather live where you can walk to a Starbucks or where everything is car-dependent and there’s no public transit,” she says.

Making a careless home-buying choice could also carry financial risks, particularly if you decide to move again in just a few years. Home prices are still ascending in many areas, but there are no guarantees on appreciation, says Robert Shiller, a Yale University economist and Nobel laureate well known for his housing valuation forecasts.

Shiller isn’t advising against a home purchase in the current market. Yet he cautions buyers against the assumption that “the boom times for housing will go on forever.”

Here are a couple of pointers for buyers:

-- Check out the economic trends for areas you’re considering.

National economic predictions are of less value to buyers than local information. To determine which areas have the best prospects for appreciation, start with a regional map. On this, pinpoint major employers, such as corporate headquarters and military bases, where jobs are expanding. Also locate communities with well-ranked public schools and popular public transit lines, including light rail systems.

“Meaningful local information, which you can find on the internet, helps you spot places where prices should rise in the years ahead,” says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and author of “Let’s Get Real About Money!”

-- Analyze neighborhood property values before you bid.

Researching relative property values before you put in an offer is always critically important.

“You and your agent should attempt to find nearby homes that have sold recently, ideally within the last six months,” Early says.

But data on comparable sales won’t give you the whole story. These days, you also need numbers to track the direction of the market -- whether prices are heading up, down or sideways.

Ask your agent to give you data on the median price of a home sold this past month versus the month prior. Also ask for median price comparisons on an annual and yearly basis. These statistics should give you a good feel for the trend.

“Taking advantage of wonderfully low mortgage rates is smart. But acting without a lot of forethought is not,” Early says.

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