Spring can mean lots of things — blooming flowers, baseball and, for many, the start of the prime house hunting season.
Unfortunately, the task of looking for a new home can be a good deal less pleasant than colorful buds or afternoons at the ballpark. A recent survey in the United Kingdom found buying or selling a home to be more stressful than having a child, changing jobs or getting married. Only divorce was higher on the stress-out scale.
“Buying a home is stressful because you know you don't know as much as the other people involved,” said Scottsdale, Arizona, real estate agent John Wake. “The system is so complex, it's easy for people to take advantage of you whether it's the seller, the seller's real estate agent, or maybe you have some doubts about your own loan officer or your own real estate agent.”
A big reason for the uncertainty is buying a home for some is a once-in-a-lifetime event and for many it happens only every several years. So, even a little education can help ease the anxiety of venturing into what can be the largest financial transaction of your life.
“The best way to reduce the stress is to take the time to study the homebuying process before diving in,” said Wake. “The system is so complex it takes a lot of time to get up to speed, but if you do, you'll be able to take control of the process … and greatly reduce the odds of being taken advantage of.”
Knowing the basics
There are books that address homebuying. Additionally, check out local adult education programs for classes on homebuying. For instance, the Virginia Housing Development Authority has both in-person and online homebuying classes.
While not every buyer has the time or inclination to grasp every angle and nuance of real estate, there are a few essentials everyone can and should know.
A first step is having realistic expectations in what you want in a home. As Los Angeles Realtor Jose Tijam pointed out, understanding what is within your price range can head off the stress of submitting poorly thought-out offers that lead to disappointment and frustration.
“Look at the homes in the neighborhoods you're interested in and monitor the price, how quickly they sell and the amount they sell for,” he said. “In most markets, the real estate landscape is completely different and favors the sellers. If you submit a low offer or if your offer package is incomplete, your offer won’t be considered.”
To eliminate homes that are out of your price range, Tijam recommends meeting with a lender to become preapproved for a specific amount.
“This is especially important in competitive markets … where bidding wars are possible,” said Minneapolis real estate agent Mark Abdel. “Getting preapproved will not only help you set your budget, but it will also allow you to hit the ground running if and when you want to make an offer. If you have the approval of a reputable lender or mortgage company, you can show sellers that you are serious.”
Prioritize aspects of a home that are must-haves versus less-essential features. For instance, a spacious backyard might be an attractive feature for a large family, but less critical than ample bathroom space.
“Visit as many open houses as you can. This will help in your decision-making later,” said Tijam. “You can see what type of home appeals to you. Looking at a listing that mentions 1,500 square feet and actually being physically in the property is different. This will also help you narrow down your options.”
And don't let your imagination get carried away in what can be done to that prospective home. Kevin Vitali, a Tewksbury, Massachusetts, real estate broker, advises shoppers to steer clear of home shows and other events that can whet your appetite for features beyond your budget.
Location, location — problem
Just as knowing how much home you can afford helps narrow the field, the same holds true with location, from choosing between cities or neighborhoods.
“I encourage buyers to narrow down their search area to one or two cities,” said Abdel. “Too often, I see buyers stress themselves out by looking everywhere and anywhere.”
Technology can rescue even the least-focused shopper. After making a list of important factors such as school district, commute time and nearby amenities, Abdel recommends going online to identify which communities match those criteria and those that don't. For instance, websites like StreetAdvisor review specific neighborhoods on everything from demographics (are there families with young children?) to noise levels. From there, websites like Trulia offer information about homes for sale, rentals and ways to connect with a local real estate agent.
“You can figure out what’s currently available and what homes in your desired neighborhoods are selling for,” said Abdel. “You can take virtual tours without ever leaving the comfort of your home.”
While many stressful elements of looking for a home can’t be avoided, accepting what is realistically within reach can make the overall task a lot less nerve-wracking.
“I recently had a couple who wanted a new construction or a house no more than five years old in about 10 high-quality, high-priced towns and wanted to pay no more than $550,000 for no less than 2,200 square feet,” said Vitali. “They came to me completely frustrated after spending months and months searching. What they want doesn’t exist.”