Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Ultimate Spring 2011 Home Buyers' Guide

According to recent USnews article uncertainty remains in the market, but experts say purchasing a home is still a good long-term investment

Traditionally, spring is when prospective home buyers come out of hibernation and begin the hunt for their next residence. But with the economy still in flux, budget battles raging in Washington, and a housing market on shaky ground, many house hunters are wondering whether it's the right time to buy.

The wild card remains home prices, which are still down 31 percent from their pre-recession peak in July 2006, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index. While some experts see another wave of foreclosures further depressing home values regionally, others say the worst of the housing slump is over. "I'm hopeful the spring will be better because the job market is improving," says Celia Chen, senior director at Moody's Analytics, who expects housing prices to bottom nationally by the third quarter.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the housing market, experts say for Americans poised to plant roots, the market climate can't get much better. "Confidence is building, prices are down, interest rates are wonderful for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage. It's a good time to borrow money," says Dorcas Helfant-Browning, managing partner at Coldwell Banker Professional Realtors.

To help consumers sort through the pros and cons of buying this spring, U.S. News gathered house-hunting advice from the experts:
Get qualified and determine your budget. Interest rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages are at historic lows—about 4.69 percent, on average, nationally—but experts concede that qualifying for a mortgage this spring might be more challenging than it has been in the past. "The big constraint on [housing] demand this year is going to be the availability of mortgages," says Chen. "Lenders are still being very cautious."

Although there are signs that the credit markets may be loosening a bit, even some of the most credit-worthy consumers may still be unable to snag the best interest rates on mortgages. Consumers with lower credit scores could also face higher down payment requirements, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of mortgage information website HSH.com. "You'll need good credit to get the best pricing," he says. "We're talking about a FICO 740 or above for the best possible pricing."
Would-be home buyers must jump through additional hoops, as lenders are demanding more financial documentation from applicants. "You need to be able to fully document your income and all your assets," Gumbinger says. "Your debt loads relative to your income need to be pretty low. You can't have the leverage you used to be allowed several years ago."
Despite these obstacles, qualifying for a mortgage is an essential step, says Diann Patton, Coldwell Banker Real Estate consumer specialist. "Too many people put the cart before the horse," Patton says. "It's so important to know exactly what you qualify for and have that pre-approval letter in hand before you even look at houses."
Knowing how much you can borrow to finance a home purchase is important, but it shouldn't be the only consideration when looking at your budget. "Look at what you qualify for and then what you really want to have as excess capital," says Helfant-Browning. "Provide yourself a savings plan, an entertainment fund, and give yourself a little cushion. Don't buy at the top of what you qualify for, but what's comfortable, so you can do all the other things in life you wish to do."

Think local, not national. Don't let national headlines about plummeting home values or foreclosure trends spook you, says Patton. "Real estate is not global, it's local," she says. "I could sit and talk to people from Wisconsin or New York or Manhattan, [and] their market could be 180 degrees different from my own market."
Over the next year, experts say the trajectory of home prices will vary widely from region to region, state to state, and even city to city. For example, home values in Minneapolis are expected to increase 21 percent by 2018, while prices in Austin, Texas, are projected to rise only 8 percent, according to Moody's Economy.com.
Prospective home buyers should pay extra attention to the local economy and job market when thinking about purchasing a home. "You need to look at the long-term economic prospects for your area. Not even just the housing market—what does job growth look like projected out? What does the population growth look like?" says Tara-Nicholle Nelson, a consumer educator for Trulia.com.

In general, markets with a diverse and varied economy are more likely to see the job and population growth that fuels home-value appreciation over the long term. "Places where you see big companies moving and creating a lot of jobs, that's where you want to be. It maximizes the resale prospects for your home," she adds.
Do your homework. With so many resources available for house hunters, it's easy to get overwhelmed by an avalanche of information. Start by using online research tools such as Zillow, Realtor.com, and Trulia to get a broad sense of your market. Consider hiring a real estate agent with expert knowledge of the local community, but don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.
"People should get more assertive about the DIY research and preparation they want to do," Nelson says. "We're seeing regular home buyers with spreadsheets. It's not that they're not looking to their professionals for advice, they just want to make sure they feel comfortable with it on their own."
After looking at the big picture, drill down to more specific metrics by neighborhood, such as how long a home has been on the market, list-price to sell-price ratios of comparable properties, and the percentage of listings in a given market with price reductions.
Although it's advantageous to have a good feel for your housing market, the decision should correlate more with your personal goals than any national trends or local statistics. "You have to make your real estate decisions and decide on your strategy based on your personal life and family vision more than anything that's going on in the market," Nelson says.
Plan to stay put. During the housing boom, homeowners were virtually guaranteed to make money or at least break even on their homes, regardless of how long they owned the property. But the luxury of rapid price appreciation is another casualty of the financial crisis and housing market collapse. These days, would-be home buyers should avoid purchasing a home unless they plan to stick around for at least five years.

"People need to buy today because they're buying the family home," says Helfant-Browning. "This is not buying an investment you're going to live in for a year and flip. People need to be in five, seven, or eight years to break even."
That length of time could be even longer in particularly hard-hit markets, Nelson says. "It used to be you could count on whenever you bought [a home], you'd be able to turn it around at, or more than, what you paid for it," she says. "Now, the more hard-hit your market has been by the real estate recession, the longer you should be comfortable staying put. The most powerful thing you can do to avoid locking in losses on your home is to plan to stay in it a long time."

Home prices are expected to appreciate slower than they have in the past, so the direction of your career—and the location you think you'll ultimately end up—are important factors in deciding whether to buy. "We've seen a lot of people struggling with mobility concerns around careers right now," Nelson says. "You really want to know what your career path and trajectory is going to look like for the next five, seven, 10 years, and if you're feeling like you need to be able to move around the country for work, then buying now is not the right idea."

While the housing market might look gloomy 10,000 feet up, experts say the financial advantages of home ownership still remain. "If you're going to pay to live in something every month, why not own it?" Helfant-Browning says. "By getting a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, 10 years from now when the rents in the community are usually going to be substantially higher, the only thing that will change for you is your home owner's insurance and your real estate tax."

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