Asking for home-buying advice is a little like asking for parenting tips. You’ll probably get some really good (and some really bad) suggestions. But when you’re scoping out homes for sale in Austin, TX, or Fort Lauderdale, FL, how can you tell the difference? And when should you trust your own instincts instead? Here’s a peek at some of the best and worst advice homebuyers have received about real estate — and what the experts think of it.
1. Get the inside scoop
“Our real estate agent advised us to write letters to the residents on the blocks we loved, in hopes of finding someone who was thinking of selling,” says Christy Lejeune, a homeowner in Philadelphia, PA. “We got six or seven responses and found our house that way. Plus, we made a friend and saved some cash in the process.”
The takeaway: Supplementing your Trulia home search with targeted inquiries and in-person exploration can give you an edge as a homebuyer. This tactic could be even more helpful if you live in an area with low inventory or are in a rush to find a new home because your current home is under contract.
When you have time, scout out your favorite neighborhoods in person. This might even persuade you to schedule a showing for a home you overlooked during your online search because of less-than-stellar listing photos. Talk to friends who live in the neighborhoods you love. Maybe they have the inside scoop on a home that will hit the market soon. And don’t forget your social media network! “I just did a social media version of this,” says Lisa Sinn of Keller Williams in San Antonio, TX. “I had buyers who needed to be in a particular community with a very limited supply of homes. We were able to make a win-win situation for both the buyers and the sellers!”
2. Personalize your offer
“We were Federal Housing Administration, first-time buyers, and we kept getting rejected over traditional buyers when we would put in an offer,” says Lindsay Emeigh of Westland, MI. “Our real estate agent suggested on our next offer we actually write a letter to the seller. Our letter is what made the seller go with us; she even brought it up at the closing table.”
The takeaway: A heartfelt, personalized offer letter can help persuade a buyer to accept your offer — especially in a highly competitive market. “In a hot sellers’ market, sellers rarely consider a contingent offer, so taking the time to tell your story will go a long way in making your offer more than just another number,” says Michael Paull of RE/MAX Specialists PV in Ponte Vedra, FL.
3. Know your spending limit — and stick to it
“We moved to Florida in 2007, right before the financial bubble burst. I told our real estate agent he was showing us homes way too far out of our price range,” says Michelle Lassiter, who now lives in Waxhaw, NC. “He told us not to worry. If we couldn’t afford the house, we could just keep the equity we made from our prior sale in a shoe box under the bed to supplement our monthly payments! He was a young kid who made some money while the South Florida market was hot and had no idea what it was like to have the responsibilities of family. He thought we were ridiculous not to consider his plan.”
The takeaway: No one understands better what you’re looking for — and what you’re comfortable spending — than you do. “The purchase of a home is generally one of the biggest financial decisions that we make,” says Joan Kagan, sales manager at TripleMint Real Estate in New York, NY. “It is important to consider where this purchase fits into your greater financial plans. Purchase a home that you can afford and [that] allows you to save for retirement, college education, or your next home purchase. You never want to be ‘afraid’ of your mortgage. You also want to make sure that you have liquid assets available in case of a medical crisis or a job loss.”
4. Learn about the schools
“Our real estate agent suggested I call the schools in the area, and possibly take tours, to get a feel for which elementary school areas we’d like,” says Julie Hanahan, a mother and homeowner in Glenview, IL. “I think it’s a fantastic idea, but I didn’t have that kind of time. Plus, my oldest was 2 at the time, and I had no idea what to even ask or look for. Luckily, a friend teaches in the area and gave me the lowdown on a few districts. We were considering a house that feeds to the school where she student-taught, and she told me to jump on it. It was super-lucky advice, because I really do love my kids’ school.”
The takeaway: “When you purchase a home, think about what your life is going to be like in five or 10 or 30 years, if you plan on still living there,” says Kagan. “If children are in your future, the local schools are important. To learn about schools, you can ask friends with children or do research online.”
5. Don’t assume you’re ready for a fixer-upper
“As for the worst advice I’ve ever personally received, it was probably to buy properties that need substantial renovations,” says Brian Davis of Baltimore, MD. “An old colleague of mine gave me that advice: to buy properties in bad shape that needed renovations. He was involved in both wholesaling and flipping, and at the time it seemed that he was extremely knowledgeable about real estate investing. As a 24-year-old, I ignored the larger context. First, he was in the business of selling properties that needed renovations, so I should have taken his word with a proverbial grain of salt. I ended up taking his advice.” Davis’ decision led to difficulties with the city permit office and the big expense of hiring licensed contractors. “A newbie like me had no business tackling such a large project,” he says. “Cosmetic updates are one thing, but anything that requires a permit means all kinds of additional expenses and headaches. Leave full renovations to people with experience and stick to properties that are either move-in ready or just need cosmetic work.”
The takeaway: “Large-scale renovations are not for the faint of heart,” agrees Kagan. “While renovating a property can be a great way to get your dream home at a reduced price, it can also be a nightmare for someone who is not knowledgeable about renovations. Have a serious conversation with yourself about your ability to handle the stress of a renovation.” Kagan learned this lesson firsthand. “When my three children were young,” she says, “I began a major renovation of our home. We arranged to stay at a vacation home for the summer but needed to return to our unfinished apartment when the school year started. I thought that living in the midst of a construction project would be an ‘adventure,’ but I underestimated my ability to cope with the dust and the chaos.”
6. Chat up the neighbors
“My mom suggested that we seriously consider bidding on a cheap foreclosure during the recession in Michigan and suggested we talk to people in the neighborhood,” says Ben Fremer of Montague, MI. He did and learned enough about the neighborhood to help him decide to buy.
The takeaway: Speaking with neighbors — and then investigating their insights with tools like Trulia Maps — can help you get a better sense of a property or neighborhood. “I will often ask neighbors in the elevator or lobby what they can tell my buyers about their apartment building,” says Kagan. “I don’t want to ‘sell’ my buyers on their new home — I want them to hear the truth from an unbiased and impartial observer. Most of the time, people love their apartment buildings. However, one time I asked an older gentleman what he thought about his building, he answered, ‘It’s great. I love living here. Except for the mice. The landlord won’t do anything about it.’ Needless to say, my clients chose an apartment in a different building!”.
7. Trust your gut
“The worst advice I ever received was listening to a real estate agent who insisted your ‘gut’ feeling on a property should be ignored,” says Taylor Shirkey of Pineville, NC. “We almost purchased a home with major foundation damage three years ago. Our gut said no, but the agent insisted it would be fine. We trusted our gut and later found out the person who ended up buying the house had to spend multiple thousands in repairs on the foundation.”
The takeaway: “Trusting your instinct is not necessarily bad advice,” says Kagan. “For example, in selecting a home, you can certainly fall in love with the property that just ‘feels like home.’ However, once you have identified the potential home, you should use logic and reason in addition to your gut. Hire a home inspector and then make an intelligent decision about moving forward.”
8. Go low, not high
“The worst advice I ever received: Buy the most expensive home on the block,” says Michelle Wolf, who has owned homes in Portland, OR, Charleston, SC, and St. Simons Island, GA.
The takeaway: “Whenever possible, you want to avoid owning the most expensive home on the block, because property values tend to gravitate toward the middle,” explains Michael Paull. “So if your home is the lowest priced in the neighborhood, your value could be pulled up by higher-priced homes. The opposite is the case if your home is the highest-priced home.”
What’s the best (or worst!) real estate advice you’ve received? Share your tips and experiences in the comments below!
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