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Smart Moves

Busy Home Buyers Should 'Work Smart'

March 02, 1997|ELLEN JAMES MARTIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The wife was a department store clerk, the husband a construction worker. They'd been searching for a home for just two weeks when a breathless call came from their agent.

"I've found your house," she said through a cell phone from the home's driveway.

Indeed, the brand-new property, which the builder originally planned to occupy, was precisely what the couple desired. A well-priced traditional with a three-car garage, the dwelling was packed with upgrades, including a kitchen featuring solid maple cabinets and a genuine black granite island.

"I was scared to death that house was going to get away from us," recalled Patty Meier, a broker-associate for the Coldwell Banker chain.

Since the couple had a hectic schedule--with two jobs and three children--Meier previewed a number of homes for them. When she found the builder's place, she immediately set up a time for the couple to see it.

"Trust me; you really don't need to spend six months looking for a house unless your market has more buyers than sellers," Meier said.

"Working smart" as a home buyer often means asking your agent to check out properties before you get in the car for a chauffeured tour, Meier said.

Here are three other pointers that can reduce the time it takes to find the right home:

* Get professional assistance early.

Many buyers meander from one open house to another for as long as six months before they connect with a real estate professional who can guide them, said Roger D. Norbom, the broker-owner of American Homes Realty Inc., a small independent firm.

Why do so many launch their home-buying campaigns in an unguided, disorganized way? Because they fear the "exposed feeling" that comes with answering a real estate agent's questions on what they can afford.

But you needn't reveal the raw details of your finances to your agent, only to a mortgage lender. After finding an agent, your best first step is to ask the agent for the names of a few good lenders. Or ask a friend who has had a good experience with a lender for a recommendation.

Call one of the lenders and, in less than an hour, you can become pre-qualified for a mortgage, meaning you'll have a rough sense of what you can afford.

Pre-qualification is no substitute for pre-approval, a somewhat more time-consuming process that yields a statement from the lender that practically assures that you can get a mortgage of a set amount.

Still, doing a quick pre-qualification interview by phone is better than heading out to look at homes without any concept of your affordability range, said Joel Mathison, a loan officer for PNC Mortgage Co., a national lender.

Learning your financial limits early sometimes yields surprisingly good news.

Jim Knight, a Coldwell Banker agent, cites the case of a U.S. Army doctor and his homemaker wife, both in their early 30s and buying their first home. After a brief talk with a mortgage lender, the couple discovered they could spend $70,000 more than they had thought. That news changed the direction of their home search.

"Save a lot of time and get pre-qualified first," Knight advised.

* Sell your current home before you seek your next one.

Many people fret needlessly that "they'll be out on the street" if they sell before they buy, Meier said. But all too often they get the process reversed and decide on another home while they're still owners of the one they occupy, she said.

What's wrong with buying first? The biggest problem is that it can cost you your negotiating power, Meier said. Chances are you'll have to put a conditional offer on the new property, one that's contingent on selling the home you occupy.

Such a conditional offer is a weak one in the seller's eyes. Indeed, it's so weak you could be bumped by another offer with no conditions attached. Even if you aren't bumped, you'll be under pressure to sell your current home to obtain the next one. And that weakens your bargaining position.

The truth is that many contingent offers fall through, causing disappointment and wasted time, Meier pointed out.

She's not opposed to move-up buyers making a quick survey of the market to see what's available in their price range (perhaps one four- to six-hour home tour). But she says it's far more efficient to postpone serious house hunting until after you've sold your current home.

* Consider doing a series of drive-by home tours from your agent's lists.

Once you're ready for serious shopping, you can spare yourself a lot of wasted time through quick neighborhood tours that you conduct yourself with the help of your agent, said Kathryn Vinje, a broker-associate for the Century 21 chain.

To do a successful drive-by tour, Vinje suggests you ask your agent for a computer printout of some homes in your price range. The list should be limited to no more than eight for-sale properties in a single community of interest to you.

If one of the properties strikes your fancy, phone your agent right away to set up a time to view the interior, Vinje said.

Why do drive-by tours save time? Because they offer an easy way to narrow your search without the complexity of formal arrangements, according to Vinje.

She offers this cautionary note on drive-by searching, however. Not every book is fairly judged by its cover.

Vinje suggests keeping an open mind about any property strongly recommended by your agent, even though it appears unimpressive from the road.

*

Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

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