Reporting from Washington — Kathleen O'Reilly of Re/Max Horizon in Elgin, Ill., should get a medal for showing houses.
A recent client looked at 45 houses before deciding on one. And you guessed it: The buyer settled on the first one O'Reilly had shown him. The place had everything the buyer wanted, the Illinois agent says, but he looked at 44 others before feeling confident that he was getting the best deal possible.
"Buyers have read a lot about foreclosures, short sales and how desperate sellers are," says Sarah Ritter, a Re/Max Properties agent in nearby Western Springs, Ill., who is working with a couple who have looked at more than 40 houses and have yet to make an offer.
"They feel there is this fabulous deal out there, a mansion with all the bells and whistles," Ritter says. "They are convinced the next house they look at will be a better deal, and with so much inventory now on the market, they keep looking and looking."
It's not just a northern Illinois phenomenon either. It's happening all across the country. Agents use words like "petrified" and "paralyzed" to describe "unsure" buyers. And who can blame them? After all, no one wants to buy a house now only to see it drop in value as soon as they move in, or maybe even before they take title.
At the same time, though, people are buying houses, and according to the latest figures from the National Assn. of Realtors, first-timers are leading the charge. Rookie buyers now account for a record 50% of all sales.
How can buyers find their way through a mountain of distressed properties and regular old houses for sale? Here are some suggestions:
•Be committed. If you want to be successful, says Roberta Baldwin, an agent with Keller Williams New Jersey Metro Group in Essex County, N.J., you need that same sense of urgency that buyers exhibited during the real-estate run-up.
Today's buyers "just aren't committed to the search in the same dogged ways buyers were in the high market, when they thought if they didn't catch the wave, they'd never see another one," Baldwin says. Her advice: Stop fitting in the house hunt only when you have some extra time. Rather, make it a priority.
•Be ready. With lenders making it difficult to obtain a mortgage, it's more important than ever to line up financing in advance. "It's not a buyer's market; it's an able buyer's market," points out Beverly Meaux of Towne Realty Group in Short Hills, N.J.
Besides, knowing in advance how large a loan you qualify for will prevent you from looking at houses you can't afford, even if you expect to be a hard negotiator.
•Do your homework. Smart buyers in today's market "have already studied the market and are ready to jump on a good deal when it comes along," says Juan Vazquez of RSVP Homes Realty in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
Meaux agrees. She has had clients who have purchased after seeing only two or three houses. But they were ready only because they "have been researching for about a year and going to open houses," the northern New Jersey agent says.
•Have a plan. Know what you want in advance. Identify the key features you need — the number of bedrooms, for example, or the number of bathrooms — and then refine your search. That way, you will be able to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer number of houses that are available, says Christina Holmes of Re/Max Real Estate Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.
When one of Kent Dover's clients becomes immobilized because of the sheer number of houses that seem to fill his bill, the Hot Springs, Ark., broker helps him create a list of "musts" and "wants." Such a wish list "has been very effective in keeping buyers on track," says Dover, of ERA Rushing McAdams Polychron.
•Get organized. Holmes in Tennessee points out that technology lets buyers preview properties online without ever leaving their living rooms. You can see pictures, videos, satellite views and then venture out to actually visit the three or four you like the most.
On the other hand, many agents say buyers can't look at too many houses. For example, Julie Holden of JB Goodwin Realtors in Austin, Texas, suggests that buyers take advantage of the buyer's market and "see everything."
If there are two dozen places that meet your criteria, Holden suggests you "drive by every single one of them, take notes, compare details, and make an informed choice. It's terrific that buyers have this luxury."
•Start the process. Be ready to begin the negotiations. Otherwise, you could miss out on a great opportunity.
O'Reilly, the Elgin, Ill., agent, encourages her clients to make an offer when they find a house they like, even if the first number is well below the asking price.
"At worst, the seller won't negotiate," she says. "But in this market, that is unlikely. Sellers don't want a viable buyer to walk away."
•Avoid distractions. Don't be diverted by media reports that prices are still falling. They may well be, but perhaps not where you want to buy. All real estate is local, so find out what's going on where you are looking.
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate Inc.