First-time home buyers might well wonder: Where are all the starter houses?
They are right to ask because starter homes are becoming increasingly scarce in many housing markets. Housing inventory is low and house prices are soaring.
What’s a first-time buyer to do?
Here are five tips for finding a starter home:
1. Be realistic about today’s market
Sellers clearly have an advantage in the current market. Inventory is low, which keeps pushing home prices to record levels, according to the National Association of Realtors. Buyer competition is fierce as homes in the lower-end price ranges fly off the market.
Unfortunately, that leaves many first-time buyers — especially those with tight budgets — on the sidelines. If you are searching for your first home, be realistic about what you can afford and what amenities come with that budget.
A starter home isn’t necessarily your forever home. Be prepared to make some compromises to get your foot in the homeownership door.
2. Adjust your wish list
Buyers shopping for their first home need to be open-minded about the location, size and condition of the home they want to buy, said Tim Deihl, associate broker with Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty in Boston.
For many buyers, a classic starter home, which traditionally doesn’t have many amenities, is more achievable.
“If your first home is the place you are going to have your family, maybe build an addition and stay there forever; that’s one set of criteria. If your starter home will be a financial launchpad into a larger, better home, that’s a different approach,” Deihl said.
Another strategy: Look for an older home in a well-established neighborhood. They typically need more maintenance and repairs, which offsets some of the cost savings. However, buyers who opt for a used home might be able to do repairs and renovations over time to make the cost manageable.
3. Hire the right real estate agent
When you are up against stiff competition, working with an experienced real estate agent who knows the local market is key.
Look for an agent who specializes in the neighborhoods you are interested in. Savvy agents should be able to answer your questions about neighborhood amenities, local schools, crime and nearby home values.
A good buyer’s agent shines when it comes to negotiating the deal and writing a strong offer letter backed with solid data. Your agent can suggest certain strategies to win in a competitive market, such as limiting contingencies or writing a personal letter.
4. Rethink location
If you are thinking about starting a family in the future, don’t focus too much on your home’s location, size and school district just yet, Deihl said. Resetting those parameters can make it easier to buy a first home.
“Buyers may be in a position where schools won’t impact them for six or seven years,” Deihl said. “That’s a good opportunity to buy in the city, make some money and roll that into a community where they want to be longer term with the kids.”
Buyers who sacrifice location for affordability can find themselves in a neighborhood far from major job centers with a long daily commute and expensive transportation costs.
5. Make a strong offer
When a well-priced starter house comes on the market, the quest to buy it can be “super competitive,” Deihl said.
One way to strengthen an offer is to present a loan preapproval that includes everything but a title search, appraisal and hazard insurance, said Jay Dacey, a mortgage broker at Metropolitan Financial Mortgage Co. in Minneapolis.
A strategic phone call might help, too.
“We call the listing agent and say, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Jones submitted an offer on your property. Not only are they preapproved, but they’ve gone through the underwriting approval process with our bank,’ ” Dacey said. “That makes the offer stronger.”
Other ways to entice sellers: Offer above asking price (if you can afford to), keep repair requests to a minimum, make a larger down payment or give them more time to move after closing.