Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Buying Your First Home in the Post-Pandemic Era

The pandemic has motivated those who own starter homes to trade up to still larger properties with oversized kitchens, home gyms, dual home offices and yards big enough for a custom fire pit. But even more eager to move are young renters who fantasize about escaping apartment living to buy their first house.

What’s propelling this present push for first-time homeownership? Much of the momentum is coming from the younger adults now forming households and having kids.

“The demographic tailwind has arrived, as Generation X and millennials drive housing demand,” says Frank Nothaft, chief economist at CoreLogic (corelogic.com), which tracks housing trends.

It’s understandable that as the nation emerges from the pandemic, first-time buyers who’ve been living in cramped quarters for months will want to move hurriedly toward their goal. But veteran real estate specialists urge novice buyers to exercise caution as they think through their priorities.

“Any house in the burbs seems like utopia to people burned out on living the limited apartment life. But it’s very unwise to jump for the first affordable place you encounter because your choice of a house has so many implications,” says Michael Crowley, who’s represented buyers in Spokane, Washington, since 1997.

One factor is that most detached houses are more spacious than apartments.

“Anything bigger can seem thrillingly large to long-time apartment dwellers -- tempting them to decide quickly. A swift purchase is especially likely if they’re in a hot area where houses are flying off the market,” Crowley says.

Just because a house gives you plenty of space for the money doesn’t mean it’s a good choice. He encourages novice purchasers to shop thoughtfully before making a decision. That means being selective about both their target neighborhood and the target house within that neighborhood.

“On occasion, first-time buyers do locate the perfect property at the front end of their search. But even then, it’s important they view alternative options before solidifying your choice,” Crowley says.

Here are a few pointers for first-timers:

-- Look for a place that would work for your future lifestyle.

First-timers sometimes make the mistake of expecting to keep their property for just a few years before moving on.

But Tom Early, a longtime real estate broker who specializes in helping buyers, strongly advises clients to buy with a time horizon of at least five years, due to the high transaction costs associated with selling one house and moving to another.

“These days, you can’t necessarily count on tons of appreciation in home values to bail you out if you wind up selling in just a couple of years,” he says.

Young buyers should also consider their personal plans when selecting a house.

“If you’re thinking of having kids in the near future, for instance, it’s a good idea to pick a house with extra bedrooms and play areas for young children,” says Early, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

-- Avoid buying an offbeat property.

“You don’t want to buy a contemporary in a neighborhood full of colonials,” says Mark Nash, author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.”

The problem with what Nash calls “the odd man out house” is that one day it could be hard to sell.

“We live in a society where housing is increasingly homogenized. Most people feel safer about their investment if the place they buy looks like all their neighbors’ homes,” he says.

-- Put your priorities in writing.

“Nearly everybody has to make trade-offs when they buy a home,” Early says.

Before you go home shopping, Early encourages you to compose two lists. One should itemize “must have” home features and the other -- a “wish list” -- should include features you could live without if trade-offs must be made.

-- Seek out a place with appeal for multi-generational buyers.

Assuming you can afford it, one excellent investment is a house with an extra bedroom that has its own “en suite” bathroom, meaning a private bath. The reason is that more homebuyers want a space suitable for elder family members, according to recent research on resale trends from Zillow, the national real estate company.

“People are increasingly looking for ways to add space and make homes more comfortable -- and safe -- for multigenerational living,” says Haley Johnson, a Zillow spokeswoman.

-- Don’t buy the biggest house in the neighborhood.

Though extra bedrooms are a valued feature, it’s usually a bad idea to choose one of the biggest houses in a neighborhood. Early explains that the so-called “king on the hill” house is unlikely to gain as much value as an average-sized place in the same area.

Granted the biggest house will likely appreciate --assuming it’s located in a popular area. Still, its owners will get less of a boost in value on a per-square-foot basis than will the owners of a smaller house. That’s because the median home will set the standard for the area.

“Sometimes it’s smarter to be in the middle of the pack rather than an outlier,” Early says.

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