Home Buying 101: Starting to Shop

In the second post of the series, we look at what buyers can do once they’ve secured financing and can begin to shop around for homes. Our best advice? Don’t fall in love with a home too quickly!

In the first post of the series, we explored what steps first time home buyers can take to seek financing and make sure they are ready to begin home hunting.

After obtaining a mortgage approval and figuring out how much they can afford to pay, it’s time for buyers to start house hunting in earnest.

One decision they may face is whether or not to employ a real estate agent. Unfamiliar with the way sales work, many buyers assume that any realtor they work with is acting in their best interest. However, many times these agents are paid by and work for the sellers, so their jobs may be to maximize the selling price.

A buyer’s agent can do more than just make sure clients don’t overpay for homes: They offer advice on local school systems and neighborhood conditions, match clients to the right homes, and make sure buyers know when new listings are coming onto the market.

The Rassis decided they needed a representative and hired Coldwell Banker Patterson Properties agent Benjamin Beaver to guide them. The couple had a mortgage pre-approval for $120,000. He told them they should look at homes listing for $129,000 and less.

One of the principle jobs of an agent, said Beaver, “Is to help them make an appropriate offer.”

That means neither overbidding nor underbidding a property. Underbidding can turn sellers off and make them harder to negotiate with, ultimately costing buyers the home. Overbidding, of course, can mean they spend more than they have to.

In some cases, as with Beaver, agents can represent both buyers and sellers. That worked out well for the Rassis: They got to see some properties that were new to the market, giving them a jump on other buyers.

Handling both sides of a transaction can be tricky. Agents, ethically, can’t give an advantage to either party.

“If I know, for instance, that the seller will take less, I can’t tell the buyer that,” said Beaver.

Guiding the novice

Agents can also provide guidance for first-time home buyers who come into the house hunt with too many wants and needs, according to Budge Huskey, Coldwell Banker Real Estate’s CEO. Those dreams can be difficult to fulfill.

“Young buyers may have different beliefs about what constitutes a starter home,” he said. “They may have to temper their expectations. For [older Americans] getting into a house was the first step to building equity.”

Agents often have to bring buyers back to reality and show them what kinds of compromises they may have to make to stay within their budget.

Mercedez had a very short wish list — all she really wanted was three bedrooms and two baths. Beaver showed her his first three homes. She loved them all.

“My first reaction was always, ‘This is perfect,'” she said. “My husband made fun of me.”

That demonstrates another potential pitfall for buyers: falling too quickly for a home.

With her husband acting as a brake on her enthusiasm, the couple rejected the first three. One had small rooms, one was a little old and rundown, and the third a little overpriced.

Beaver then really earned his commission.

“He was very helpful,” said Rassi. “He was able to tell us about a home that was coming on the market. He let us in the day before.”

Bingo! It had the requisite number of bedrooms and baths, was across the street from a park, and had plenty of space. The seller accepted their bid of $129,000.

Hitting your limits

For Anna Bischoff, an attorney in St. Louis, the search was, shall we say, more extensive. She started out online, scrutinizing online real estate sites for any house in her price range.

“I probably looked at 500 houses online and I went to 40 or 50 open houses on my own, and saw 20 to 25 houses with my Coldwell Banker Premier Group agent, Monica Brewer” Bischoff said. “I had no free time.”

Good agents can help focus the search by showing clients the most suitable homes.

Bischoff’s criteria changed during the search in that she started out looking for a starter home but found out she could afford one that would work later on if she marries and starts a family. She also waffled on whether to buy a fixer-upper or a house that needed little work. She finally settled on a three bed, two bath turn-key house with big rooms and a fenced yard for Mojo, her Rhodesian Ridgeback.

“I walked in and thought, ‘This could be a forever house,'” she said.

In the next and final post of the series, we’ll explore the final step in the process: closing. Stay tuned!

Les is a Real Estate Market Specialist for Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

Born and raised in Whitestone, N.Y., and never having lived outside of NYC, Les is a graduate of City College of New York in Manhattan. Les switched careers in his late 30s, studying writing at New School and Brooklyn Polytechnic, now the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering. Les has written for several magazines and copyedited books on early childhood education prior to joining CNNMoney as a personal finance writer, where his main beat was real estate. His wife and partner of 42 years is a retired magazine editor who spent her career at the New York Zoological Society (Bronx Zoo). They are residents of the Upper West Side.

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