Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Pointers for Home-Buyers Facing Tough Tradeoffs

This spring, there’s rising optimism among renters exhausted by COVID restrictions and yearning for liberation from tight apartments. At long last, they hope to actualize their homeownership aspirations.

Renters’ desire to buy intensifies when they crunch numbers on comparative housing costs, says George Ratiu, a senior economist at, the national home listing service.

“There’s a tilt against rentals in an increasing number of metro areas where the cost of owning is within 5% of the median rental cost,” Ratiu says.

All this is not to say buyers are free of challenges in the frenzied spring market. Prices are still rising, and the inventory of available homes is still dropping.

“Under the circumstances, you’d think many potential owners would get discouraged -- they’d cut and run. But that’s simply not the case,” says Michael Crowley, an independent real estate broker.

To persevere in the highly competitive sellers’ market, he says many buyers are facing tough tradeoffs on location and home features.

“For nearly all buyers, there’s a widening gap between their wish list and what they can afford. One big gulf relates to location. During COVID, they were willing to live way out in near-rural areas, but now they’re not so sure,” says Crowley, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (

Obviously, the pandemic has allowed many to live anywhere and telework. But there are now more employers expecting remote workers to come into the office at least one or two days per week.

“Do I really want to live a terrible commute away from my employer going forward? That’s what more people are now asking themselves,” says Crowley.

Besides locational compromises, many would-be buyers are compelled to set priorities on the home features they most favor, says Amanda Pendleton, a home trends expert for Zillow, the data-driven real estate firm.

“The life changes triggered by the pandemic have caused everyone to reconsider what’s most important about their homes,” Pendleton says.

Through its extensive surveys, Zillow has identified the home features current buyers most want in the post-COVID period. At the top of most buyers’ priority lists: extraordinary kitchens.

“Consumers are always looking for ways to make the kitchen more functional, more organized, easy to clean and, of course, more beautiful,” says Kerrie Kelly, a Zillow home design specialist.

Many buyers now hanker for a kitchen with professional-level appliances, including steam ovens, as well as quartz countertops, Kelly says. They also aspire to “a spa vibe” in the master bath with such luxury amenities as heated floors and a free-standing bathtub.

But given home price increases, many buyers must lower their expectations to compete in multiple bidding situations, according to Ashley Richardson, a veteran real estate agent affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (

“With inventory so tight, buyers will take what they can get if they are not in a position to wait for what they really want,” says Richardson, who sells property through the Long & Foster realty firm.

Here are a few pointers for buyers:

-- Take note of the commuting penalties often linked to a large property.

Alan Pisarski, author of the book “Commuting in America,” says the time people spend driving back and forth to their jobs will likely increase substantially in the near future.

“In high-cost housing areas, some people are moving farther out to afford any kind of house. But others are doing the same to get that ‘estate house’ surrounded by more land,” Pisarski says.

When analyzing the true costs of commuting from the hinterlands, Pisarski encourages prospective buyers to look beyond the dollars associated with gas and car maintenance expenses.

“To get a larger property or a lower mortgage payment, are you really willing to trade the time you’ll spend in traffic backups -- time you could spend with your family?” he asks.

-- Consider the labor costs for upkeep.

Those attracted to ownership of a large property in a bucolic setting often assume they could easily delegate their yardwork to a landscape or lawn service company.

“Delegating such work doesn’t always save as many hours as people assume. Finding people you can trust to do the work correctly without much supervision isn’t always easy,” Crowley says.

-- Take a realistic look at your children’s needs for a big yard.

Do you have memories of an idyllic childhood spent playing on a large lawn or in nearby wooded areas? Do you dream of owning a place where your children can enjoy the same freedom to frolic outdoors?

Such dreams are totally understandable. But you could be kidding yourself about the realities of your kids’ lives versus your own childhood years. Were there two working parents in the home where you grew up? Were you involved in as many organized athletic teams as are your children?

When they think through the issues, Crowley says, many buyers realize that the purchase of a home with a large yard is not warranted, given the limited time their children will play outside going forward.

“After COVID-19 goes into the history books, life will likely revert to a lot of the old patterns for your children as well as your work life,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at