First-time homebuyers often start their house hunts with lengthy “must-have” lists that may or may not be influenced by all the HGTV shows they’ve been watching in preparation for becoming property owners.
But a few weeks into the search, and maybe after bidding on and losing a house or two, that list inevitably morphs to adjust to the reality of what they can actually afford and maybe to what they’ve come to realize they actually need in a home.
When Alissa Di Giacomo and her husband, Jake Stroker, started looking for a home in June 2017, their must-have list included new construction and a master bathroom suite with double sinks. “You watch all these people renovating and everyone wants a master suite,” Di Giacomo said, referring to television shows on home design. “If it didn’t have it, we were not even bothering to look at the house.”
Nearly two years and one baby later, they are still looking, but their priorities have changed as they look for a home in and around Montclair, New Jersey, where they currently rent. “There is baby stuff everywhere except the dining room table, so storage is important to us,” she said. That’s why they’re considering older homes with basements and garages, and they’ve also ditched the idea of a master suite, because it put many homes out of their price range.
The process of visiting property listings often gives buyers a quick reality check, whether it knocks something down from a “must-have” to a “would-like” or off the list entirely.
When Broadway and voice-over actor Leo Ash Evens started looking for a home in February, he wanted something bigger than his current Upper West Side studio apartment that had outdoor space. The goal was to keep up with two passions he inherited from his grandmother (along with her furniture and flatware), entertaining and gardening.
He also wanted to stay on the West Side because of his work, but he was willing to be flexible. “If she showed me the apartment of my dreams and it was on First Avenue, I would make it work,” he said, referring to his broker, Alexandra Gardella, with Compass.
But after looking at 15 apartments around the city, outdoor space became optional. Gardella said she had helped Evens “come to the realization that those ground floor and basement units have drawbacks with potential rodents and flooding.” They’ve also looked at top-floor apartments with private, outdoor terraces, even if they were not as large as Evens had initially hoped.
He has also pushed having a doorman and elevator onto the priority list. “That’s a really interesting part of the process. I think anyone who’s buying an apartment for the first time starts to doubt” him or herself, he said. But the structure of having a list has helped him keep track of what really matters, even as the list has changed.
First-time buyers often think that they only want a home that is in move-in condition. But unless you’re buying new construction and you’re willing to live with all the design choices made by the developer, chances are good that any home purchase will require some renovation work, even if it is just a new coat of paint.
Robi Kirsic, president of the board of directors of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and president of Timeline Renovations, recommends buyers get estimates for any potential renovation work before making an offer.
“It’s not just the purchase cost of the property but what is going to be the additional cost to renovate the space in order to make the property into what they want,” he said.
Keep in mind, too, that renovations don’t have to completely disrupt your timeline. Simple things like having walls repainted or floors refinished can be done fairly quickly and only slightly delay moving in. And sometimes buyers can live through a renovation, like a bathroom update, if the property has more than one bathroom.
But for extensive renovations, Kirsic said buyers should consider whether they’ll have to live somewhere else while the work gets done, and if they even have the tolerance for a big renovation. “Going into a renovation is financially and mentally challenging. It takes time for all of it to come together,” he said.
Most buyers, no matter what their budget, end up not getting exactly what they want, said Sandra Smith, a broker with R New York, especially if they’re shopping in a hot real estate market like Manhattan. “I have clients looking for $5 million, $10 million apartments, and they’re still compromising,” she said.
Smith has first-time homebuyers make both a wish list and a deal breaker list — and limits the deal breaker list to just three things. “If you just keep going, they’re not going to be able to find anything,” she said.
Sometimes she’ll show clients properties with a deal breaker too, to test how they really feel about it — especially if the troublesome thing can be changed without too much aggravation or cost. For example, if the apartment is perfect but “too noisy” is a deal breaker, she looks for a work around. “If we were to put in soundproof windows in this apartment, would it be perfect for you? That’s how I approach it,” she said.