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TALES from the TRENCHES

Tales From the Home-Buying Trenches: First of Two Parts; Next Sunday: More "Tales From the Home-Buying Trenches."

May 04, 1997

Editor's note: A few weeks ago we asked first-time home buyers to share their successes and their stumbles along the path to homeownership. The advice was excellent-- educational and inspirational. With thanks to all who wrote, here's our annual "Tales From the Home-Buying Trenches."

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'It's Been a Dream Come True'

I've made it! One year down, 29 to go and that's just on the mortgage. As of February 1997, I have been a homeowner for one year. This has been quite an experience.

Actually, it's been a dream come true, especially since I am a 31-year-old single African American woman doing all of this on a teacher's salary.

The biggest piece of advice that I would give any potential homeowner is to read, read and read. Homeownership begins years before you sign on the dotted line.

Second, start saving immediately. I mean with your first job, first paycheck. It is harder to cut back after you've become accustomed to a certain lifestyle.

Here are some hints:

* Take advantage of savings plans offered through your employer. If you start investing early, you may be able to use some of what you've accumulated toward your down payment.

* Cut your debt ratio. Start paying off your credit card balances. The interest is killing you anyway.

* Make a "wish list." Divide a sheet of paper in half. On one side write what you would ideally want in a house and on the other write what you would settle for.

* Attend a homeownership seminar. I attended one put on by Operation Hope in Los Angeles. The organization is dedicated to bringing empowerment to minorities through homeownership.

* Check your credit report. This will put you way ahead of the game.

* Attend open houses. This will give you the opportunity to see different floor plans. I suggest this even though I purchased the first home I looked at.

Although the road has been tough, I must say that it's been the most rewarding venture I've ever embarked upon.

LA KECIA SMITH

Los Angeles

'We Learned Plenty Along the Way'

With one failed escrow and three years of house-hunting behind us, my husband and I finally found our dream house in a neighborhood we had never thought we could afford. We learned plenty along the way:

* Look, look, look, look, look, look and then go look some more. Some experts suggest looking at a minimum of five to 15. We trudged through at least a hundred. Although that may be too many, and although you may not have the time or the desire to see that many homes, for us it was invaluable.

* Be imaginative. When you're looking, look beyond paint, window coverings, carpet and things you know you can afford to change. Don't ignore traffic noise, an unacceptable location or anything incurable, but approach every house with an open, creative eye.

* Spend time in the neighborhood(s). You live not only in a home but in a neighborhood. If you don't yet know for certain where you want to live, there's nothing like spending time in the neighborhood(s) you're considering. Park your car and walk around. Go for coffee at a restaurant. Shop at a nearby market. Spend time in the area(s) at different times of day.

* Talk to the neighbors. While you're out and about, talk to people. Ask them what they like and don't like about the neighborhood. Call the police station and ask for the latest crime statistics.

If there's a specific house you're considering, knock on the neighbors' doors and introduce yourself. If nothing else, you'll get a glimmer of who might be living next door. You might even get some valuable information about the house (such as how long it's been on the market, why the seller is selling, how the house was cared for over the years).

* Live as if you're a homeowner. While you're house-hunting, start saving money. Start putting away more than your estimated monthly mortgage, taxes and insurance. Feel what it's like to be "house poor" to prove to yourself that not only can you do it, you want to do it.

* Hire experts. Don't rely on the advice of Uncle Harry or the friend of a friend. It is a time to interview lots of people (mortgage brokers, lenders, real estate brokers, physical inspectors) and ask lots of questions.

These people are going to guide you through a process you have never experienced. Decisions you make now are going to have long-lasting consequences. The people you hire should be not only expert and professional but generous with their knowledge. Hire professionals who are the very best in their fields and who will be available to share their very best.

* Become your own expert. Learn all you can about loans, appraisals, termites, geological problems and escrow. Don't take things for granted, don't rely on verbal statements, and don't sign anything you haven't read and thoroughly understood. Ask every question you can think of and then ask the questions that come from the answers you receive. Don't be intimidated or shy.

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