What First-Time Buyers Should Look for in a Starter Home

Young homebuyers must learn to compromise because most won't get everything they want.

U.S. News & World Report

First-Time Buyers, Starter Home Advice

A young couple searching for a new home.

A National Association of Realtors survey between July 2013 and June 2014 found the median age of a first-time buyer was 31.(Getty Images)

You’ve dreamed for years of buying your first home, and now it’s time. You’ve created Pinterest boards dotted with photos of beautiful home decor, watched all the episodes of HGTV’s “House Hunters” and spent hours trolling listings online. You know exactly what you want.

But have you done the math?

When it’s time to search for a starter home, many young – and not so young – people quickly discover that their budget won’t cover their dream home. That means making tough choices and doing some serious thinking about what matters: Will granite countertops make you happier than living 15 minutes closer to work? Is a third bedroom worth giving up a second car? Is living in your dream neighborhood more important than having a yard?

“It’s not all about the house,” says Karen Carr, a certified financial planner at the Society of Grownups, a Boston group that holds seminars on homebuying in its effort to provide financial advice to young adults. “We talk a lot about buying for your life now and then the life you want in the next few years.”

Carr quizzes her clients about why they want what they want in a home, helping them drill down to what’s most important in their lives. The hope is they will realize some features, like commute time and having enough room to start a family, should be weighed more heavily than others, like the countertop material or the wall color, which might look nice but don’t really affect how they will live.

“We try to match their expectations with their budget,” Carr says. That’s a challenge in a city like Boston, where the median price of homes sold in December was $490,000, according to multiple listing service data analyzed by Signal Real Estate. Plus, Carr says, it’s such a strong seller’s market that many properties draw multiple offers.

One of the more important questions for first-time buyers is how much they are willing to compromise on location. In many large cities, for example, homes closer to town are more expensive than homes in the suburbs. That means buyers have to decide how far out they’re willing to move to get more space.

Most experts agree that if you buy a home, you need to make sure you can live in it for at least five years, and maybe longer. The needs and desires of young singles or couples without children are often different from the needs and desires of families, where schools and space matter more.

PulteGroup, which builds new single-family homes and townhomes throughout the U.S., sees two main types of first-time buyers. These newbie homebuyers want different things in starter homes, says James Zeumer, vice president of corporate communications.

Younger buyers, who may not have children, typically want to be closer to urban areas and are willing to live in attached homes, such as a townhouse community. Families, who are a little older, are more interested in a single-family home with a yard and are willing to move farther into the suburbs to get that, he says.

A National Association of Realtors survey of first-time buyers between July 2013 and June 2014 found that the median age of these buyers was 31 and that the median home size purchased was 1,570 square feet. Of those buyers, 75 percent chose a single-family home, 10 percent chose a townhouse and 10 percent chose a condo or co-op. More than half, 54 percent, were married, and 15 percent were unmarried couples. Unmarried women made up 18 percent of first-time buyers, and single men accounted for 11 percent.

More important, 75 percent of first-time buyers said they had compromised on their home purchase, most commonly on the size and price.

Lindsay Grandquest, a sales agent at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Generations in Mobile, Alabama, says many of her buyers want to keep costs low and are realistic about what they can afford. “After the economic crash, I think we’ve learned to be very frugal,” says Grandquest, 28, noting that many peers saw their parents struggle with mortgages during the real estate bust. “We watched how they suffered and how it declined so quickly.”

In Mobile, first-time homebuyers can get a three-bedroom, two-bath home – the size most are seeking – for $90,000 to $125,000, and the seller traditionally pays closing costs, which is practically unheard of in Boston.

Grandquest says her clients want modern appliances, fenced yards for pets and a home that requires little renovation. “They live such busy lives that the last thing they’re wanting to do is rip up carpet on the weekends,” she says.

First-time buyers also like open floor plans, flexible spaces and plenty of storage, with everything wired for technology, Zeumer says. Families like spaces off the kitchen where kids can do homework and still be seen by parents, as well as entryways with cubbyholes, hooks and cabinets. At Pulte, buyers choose their own options for the entry-level brand, and Zeumer says these buyers are very cost-conscious.

“They’re going to be very thoughtful with regard to the price point,” he says. Most buyers want three bedrooms and two baths and choose homes of 1,000 to 1,400 square feet, he says. Popular upgrades include wood or tile flooring and improvements in the master bath and kitchen.

Here are five things to consider as you prepare to buy a starter home:

Is buying now really a good idea? Take a look at your lifestyle, your job, your family situation and your budget to determine if this is the right time to lock yourself into a home for five to seven years.

Do you have enough money? Looking just at the mortgage payment gives you an incomplete picture, Carr says. “A lot of people just go straight to the mortgage payment,” she says, figuring that they can afford a payment equal to or slightly more than their rent. “That’s a gross oversimplification.” Be sure to add up the additional cost of property taxes, homeowners insurance, condo or homeowner association fees, utilities and maintenance. Every home, even a new home, will need repairs and preventive maintenance.

Drill down and separate what you need from what you want. Before you even look at homes, figure out what compromises you are willing to make. Location for space? A second bathroom for modern finishes? A great neighborhood for your own yard?

Get a good home inspection. If you’re buying an existing home, as 88 percent of the buyers in the Realtors’ survey did, accompany your home inspector and take notes. He or she will give you an excellent overview of how long the major components or your home will likely last, making it easier for you to plan for replacements during your ownership.

Know what’s easy to change and what isn’t. First-time homebuyers often have no experience renovating homes, so they don’t realize what features and finishes are easy and inexpensive to change and what is likely to become a major project. Real estate agents and home inspectors can provide insight on these topics, and you can also do your own research. Changing all the carpet before you move in, for example, is normally not difficult and is not nearly as expensive as adding wood floors. New kitchen counters are much less expensive than new cabinets. Rewiring a house is expensive, but changing a light fixture is not.

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