First-time homebuyers might well wonder: Where are all the starter houses?
They're right to ask because starter homes are becoming increasingly scarce in many housing markets, including in and around Philadelphia. Housing inventory is low and home prices are soaring.
What's a first-time buyer to do?
Here are five tips for finding a starter home:
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're searching for your first home, be realistic about what you can afford and what amenities come with that budget. (Hint: You may have to forgo top-of-the-line appliances and shiny quartz countertops.)
A starter home isn't necessarily your forever home. Be prepared to make some compromises to get your foot in the homeownership door.
Buyers shopping for their first home need to be open-minded about the location, size, and condition of the home they want to buy, says 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're 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 says.
Another strategy: Look for an older home in a well-established neighborhood. Resales typically cost less than brand-new homes, says Bradley Hunter, chief economist for HomeAdvisor.com, a home-improvement matching service based in Golden, Colo.
Older homes typically need more maintenance and repairs, which offsets some of the cost savings. However, Hunter says, buyers who opt for a used home might be able to do repairs and renovations over time, pacing themselves to make the cost manageable.
When you're 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're 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.
Ask friends and relatives to recommend agents they have personally used and were happy with. Also, interview two or three different agents. Find out how they prefer to communicate with clients and how often you'll get updates. Finally, research the agents you're considering online to see what past clients have said about their work.
If you're 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 says. 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 says. "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.
Sometimes that trade-off makes sense, but not always, says Cathy Coneway, a broker for Stanberry & Associates Realtors in Austin, Texas.
"You have to look at how much you make and how much you can afford to spend for gas," Coneway says. "You might actually be better off buying a house that's closer to town so you have more cash flow for property taxes, insurance and living expenses."
When a well-priced starter house comes on the market, the quest to buy it can be "super competitive," Deihl says.
One way to strengthen an offer is to present a loan preapproval that includes everything but a title search, appraisal and hazard insurance, says 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 says. "That makes the offer stronger."