Get the most for your money

BARGAINS CAN BE FOUND: Nancy Braam, above, says a buyer can take definite steps to find desirable, yet affordable homes. 
PHOTO BY DON CLARK

Find best value with some effort and research

By Stacee Sledge, for The Bellingham Herald

Everyone loves a bargain. But in these days of the tight local real estate market, a good deal can be increasingly difficult to come by.

It's not uncommon for a house to go on the market and receive several offers in the first few hours.

So how can you get the most for your money?

Bellingham RE/MAX Realtor Nancy Braam says there are many ways to cut costs, but there are three points that are particularly important for first-time homebuyers.

Roll up sleeves

First, save a little dough by paying with sweat. "Be ready to do some work," said Braam. "Be able to overlook shag carpet, old wallpaper, or a yard that has turned into a jungle."

Commit to doing much of work yourself and make improvements over time. You'll be surprised how much you can accomplish with a library card and a set of basic tools.

It's important for first-time buyers to remember that they aren't buying their dream home the first time around; they're buying an entry into the housing market.

"This first home is a stepping stone," said Braam. "The main factor to keep in mind is resale."

Buyers wants a home that will help them build an investment base into something nicer in a few years.

There are a number of imperative rules for smart home buying from an investment standpoint.

The most important? Location, location, location. It's every Realtor's adage - and for good reason.

Location has the greatest effect on your house-buying investment - it's important to the resale value of your home and your family's security.

"Buying the worst house in a good neighborhood is a time-tested investment strategy," said Braam.

You should also look for a house with a workable floor plan that will be an asset when it comes time to sell. If a two-story home has only one bathroom located on the first floor, off the kitchen, future potential occupants aren't going to be interested in lengthy moonlight treks for bathroom breaks.

Buy a house that is structurally sound. A full, professional inspection is the best $300 you can spend when investing in your first home. "And they shouldn't necessarily shy away from a house where the inspection brings a big ticket item to light," said Braam. "Many times the whole or a sizeable amount of repair or replacement can be negotiated. If they can negotiate half the cost of a new roof - that might be as good as money in their pocket."

Look past cosmetic fixes and you might just find yourself the owner of a perfect starter home purchased at a pocketbook-pleasing price.

But Braam cautions that you can't buy only for investment. "They should actually like the house," she said. "We don't want them hating to come home for the next three years."

Learn the market

A second way to stretch your house-buying dollar is to learn what's out there and what kind of prices properties bring.

"First-time homebuyers should take the time to educate themselves on the market," said Braam.

Currently, in our relatively fast market, buyers likely have little time to make a decision. There's often a line forming behind them of other bidders.

Don't put yourself in the position to take someone else's word on the value of a house. Know what's available in the community and what the prices are.

Braam recommends a "marathon" day, where a buyer looks at as many properties as possible that fall in their general price range. "These don't have to be ideal homes," she said. "This is a fact-finding mission."

Don't be overwhelmed by the thought of never-ending homework that harkens back to school days. There's no need to spend months on research. "It really is amazing how much information can be gathered in a day or two of intensive home-looking," Braam reassured.

Once you've got a little experience under your belt, you'll know if the price is right when you see the house you want. Do the background work so that you can trust your intuition when it kicks in.

Timing

And finally, timing is key for getting the most for your money.

With interest rates at their lowest levels in decades, first-time homebuyers can borrow more money than ever and buy more house than they could before.

Worried about credit problems or no down payment? First-time homebuyer programs abound.

"I've had a number of first-time homebuyers who have come to the closing table with under $1,800 total cash," said Braam. " And they can even borrow that. The timing has never been better to buy a home."

Braam suggests calling lenders to see how much of a loan you can qualify for. You might just be surprised. Many people decide, for whatever reason, that they can't buy a home. But more often than not there are ways to make it happen. And the monetary advantages of being a homeowner - namely tax breaks and investment potential - almost always vastly outweigh those of renting.

There has truly never been a better time to ditch the landlord and become a homeowner. By using a little elbow grease, learning the ins and outs of our local real estate market, and taking advantage of fantastically low interest rates, you'll be able to stretch your home buying dollar far enough to find yourself living the American dream of homeownership.

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