Finding the house of your dreams is a cinch if you have the money. You can buy where you want, the size and style you want, you can even tear it all down and remodel how you want. "I've taken out pristine, custom-built $100,000 kitchens to replace them with pristine, custom-built $150,000 kitchens that looked a little different," said John C., a building contractor from Marina del Rey, California. "Not that they seemed like the kind of people who spent much time in a kitchen anyway."
Staying within your means
For the rest of us, buying a home is a knotty process of checks and balances. Ironically, at a time when we most need our wits about us, facing such an onslaught of big decisions can get emotional. The key is to define the logic in every choice. If you live anywhere near a major metropolitan market, you already know that $100,000 or even $200,000 doesn't buy much, and certainly no dream house. According to figures released this week by Data-Quick Information Systems, Inc., it is the sales of modest homes in lower-priced neighborhoods that are driving overall median price increases. In Los Angeles County, for example, home values jumped by 17 percent in July, which amounted to a gain of $33,000 over last year according to Data-Quick. Most of the activity was in low-end sales. High-end prices everywhere are said to be more dependent on a strong stock market.
Clearly everybody's got to start somewhere, but no matter which end of the market you're entering, the objective is to stay within a payment you can afford on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. This is why an agent should show you only houses in or below your price range. Otherwise, you may tease yourself into an unmanageable financial burden.
Looking for a bargain?
Some experts recommend you time your search to fit the seasonal changes of the market if resources are low and you really need a bargain. If you're truly motivated to get more house for your money, timing and hard work do make a difference. The sale of homes from January to December follows a traditional bell pattern. Sales are slow at the start and at the end. Sellers know their homes don't look good in the dark of winter, plus no one really wants upheaval during the holidays. Often houses on the market off-season must be sold because of divorce or family loss, otherwise the seller would wait for a better time. The peak of home buying occurs around May or June, an ideal time to move for those with children in school, but it can often be the worst time to buy. Other buyers are highly motivated and are usually working to a schedule.
If a house is advertised for sale "as-is" or as a foreclosure, it can sometimes turn out to be a bargain. Usually this type of home is sold directly by the lender. You can even call local lenders and ask whether they handle foreclosed properties. All foreclosure notices are posted in the county courthouse. It is imperative to do a title search on a foreclosure to rule out the presence of liens against the property or a debt in back taxes because these obligations will transfer to the buyer. Foreclosed properties may not have been well maintained so a careful preinspection is crucial to ensure costly repairs are not required.
How to search
If you'd rather avoid the hassle and uncertainty of bargain-basement hunting, the search for a house is fairly straightforward. Driving through appealing neighborhoods is a great start. Pick up the flyers from the "For Sale" posts. Your real estate agent can then deliver more thorough information from the MLS service. Each property listed there shows information about the age of the house, the square footage, size of rooms, property taxes, utility bills, and so on. While you can expect much advice and background information from your agent, do your own homework to learn what people have been paying for the various types/qualities/sizes of houses in the neighborhoods you're searching. In a tight market you may have to work fast, but make sure you look at a lot of properties to gain perspective.