Practical strategy and imperturbability are ideally the watchwords of most buyers, although they often elude even the most veteran purchasers, and for very good reason. Let’s admit it once and for all: Buying a house is different from any other purchase you will ever make because it involves lots of money and emotion and includes a very human element that can quickly force the transaction to go awry.
So, unfortunately, for everyone armed with a pre-approval letter, the road to finding the right house is laced with sneaky pitfalls and unsuspecting twists. If you are not prepared for the challenges, you may quickly find yourself getting discouraged or making bad decisions. Thankfully, there are many tactics you can use to avoid getting lost or discouraged. Here are a few:
• Do your research. Be the weekend warrior cruising open houses around town, or be the person doing the regular evening Internet sweep of your local listings, paying special attention to the details. Do this stuff before involving a real estate professional.
Earlier on in my career, I would find myself driving with clients from Fairfax to downtown Washington, or Frederick from Bethesda looking at a spectrum of houses they would rule out from the car in the driveway, wasting five consecutive weekends looking at duds. So, not for the agent’s sake but your own, do your research. This will save your time and sanity, plus make you a well-informed purchaser and prepared to make a strong offer when you find “the one.”
• Write down your real estate goals. No, really: Get out the old notepad and write them down — each and every one of them. Start by focusing on three major categories: location, description and price.
Using those three categories, compile a wish list of what you want out of each. For example, some of my clients are avid cooks and absolutely want gas appliances. In the District, Maryland and Virginia, there is an equal amount of gas and electric properties, largely dependent on whether natural gas is supplied by the ground below, so I would make sure this ends up in the description category and search for it accordingly.
Also, location can make a huge difference to a buyer’s quality of life. That’s because our roads, bridges and mass transit haven’t kept pace with the Washington area’s growing population for the past 20 years, making our infrastructure completely inadequate on the best of days to handle the daily load of commuters.
Make sure you identify where you want to live, ranking each neighborhood from first to last, and avoid looking in areas that don’t make the cut. If you have successfully done your research, you should have an easy time with this part, which will simplify your search.
• Focus on the budget. As for the price, most people I encounter are working with a budget limit based on the terms they’ve discussed with the lender. I won’t get into the finance/lender nitty-gritty, but I will say that feeling solid and secure with the financial end of your transaction will make a huge difference in your search. That said, I will give you a quick tip about affordability, which can help you maximize your opportunities.
Play around with the ratios (down payment) and rates to see how that affects your monthly payment. There are a lot of great loan products in the financial world, which, if used properly, can give you a huge advantage. The 30-year fixed mortgage remains the benchmark of stability but performs terribly for those who plan on staying in their new house for less than 10 years. If you need proof, just look at the 30-year fixed-loan amortization chart and focus on years 1 to 10. That should give you a clear sense of what I’m talking about.
• Make trade-offs. Take your list and pick two of the three major categories that you feel strongest about, based on the facts you compiled and the subsequent rankings. Realize now that the third major category is going to be your variable. Think of this as a triangle, where you get to pick two of the three points. If you decide it’s important to live in Dupont Circle and absolutely need three bedrooms, a rooftop terrace and chef’s quality gourmet kitchen, the budget must be flexible, because that costs no less than a certain amount (hint: bring your wallet).
Or maybe the budget is set in stone at a maximum of $460,000 and you want to live in Montgomery County near a Metro, meaning you’ve decided price and location are your two priorities over description. Well, that might mean you need to forget about those three bedrooms and chef’s gourmet kitchen and settle for an older post-World War II Cape Cod in Twinbrook.
In my 10 years in D.C. real estate, I’ve been a part of a lot of home searches and have witnessed people succeed and struggle. I can assure you that following this formula will allow you to find the home you really want while ensuring that you are making a purchase based on your exact preferences, without running yourself ragged in the process.
Remember: This is supposed to be fun and exciting, so relax and enjoy the ride!
Catch up with Fox’s previous columns: