My Best Advice to Start Your Home Search

Question: We are looking forward to buying a home next year. Do you have any recommendations on how we should start the home buying process?

Answer: If you Google “home buyer tips” or “what to know before buying a home” and you’ll find plenty of advice on the topic, so I’ll include some suggestions I don’t usually see online and put my own spin on some of the more common advice. 

Weighted Criteria

It’s easy to come up with 3-5 things that are most important to you, so challenge yourself early to come up with a list of 10-15 must-haves and wants. Then, starting with 100 points, allocate points to each criteria based on how important it is to you and you’ll end up with a weighted criteria list to help you focus your search and objectively compare properties.

I encourage couples to complete this exercise individually first, then work together on a combined list. This will put even the best relationships to the test!

If you want to take it to the next level, bring your weighted criteria list with you on showings and score each house based on the points you allocated to it and score each home on a 100-point scale. I often find that buyers who have taken this exercise seriously and are working within a budget are hitting scores in the 70s-80s on their top choice homes.

Length of Ownership

How long you expect to live in your home is one of the most important factors in defining what you prioritize and how you use your budget. You should focus on the following:

  1. Likely length of ownership
  2. Difference in criteria for a 3-5 year house vs a 10-12+ year house
  3. Difference in budget requirements for a 3-5 year house vs a 10-12+ year house

Appreciation is not guaranteed and difficult to predict, but the value of longer ownership periods is undisputed. One way longer ownership adds value is the potential for eliminating one or more real estate transactions over your lifetime, thus the associated costs (fees, taxes, moving expenses, new furniture, etc) and stress that comes with moving.

If you have an opportunity to significantly increase your length of ownership by stretching your budget, you generally should. On the other hand, if your budget or future (e.g. job will move you in a few years) restrict you to housing that’s likely to be suitable for just 3-4 years, it’s generally better to stay under budget.

Influencers (not the Instagram ones)

Family, friends, colleagues…they’re all happy to offer opinions and contribute to your home buying process, but the input can be overwhelming and unproductive if you don’t set boundaries. Try to determine up-front who you want involved in the process and how you’d like them to be involved.

Think about how you’ve made other major decisions in life – what college to attend, what car to buy, where to get married, whether to change jobs – and if you’re the type of person who likes input from your friends and family, you’ll likely do the same when buying a house. Plan ahead with those influencers so their input is productive and comes at the right time (e.g. not when you’re already two weeks into a contract).

Does Your House Exist?

Before jumping too far into the search process, spend a little bit of time searching For Sale and Sold homes on your favorite real estate search website/app to see if the homes selling in the area(s) you want to live in and that are within 10% of your budget are at least close to what you’re looking for. If not, spend some time adjusting price, location, and non-critical criteria to figure out what compromises you’ll need to make and then compare those compromises to your current living situation and/or alternatives like renting.

Know Your Market

We’re transitioning from the most intense housing market ever into a much more moderate environment, but what you see and read about the housing market may not be accurate in the sub-market you’re looking in.

Each sub-market behaves a bit differently and comes with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities, so take time early on to understand the sub-market(s) you’ll be involved in and what you’re likely to experience. This is something your agent should be able to assist with.

Pre-Approval & Budget

There is a lot of value in working with a lender early in the search process. For starters, you’ll have somebody who can provide real rates and advice based on your specific financial situation/needs. A lender can only do this if they’ve reviewed your financial documents and credit. The more you put in, the more you get out.

You’ll need to have a lender pre-approval to submit an offer (the seller has to know you qualify for the purchase you’re offering to make) so if you have to do it anyway, do it early on so you get the most value out of your lender. It also means that you’ll be prepared to make an offer if you find the right home earlier than you expect.

Despite the market slowing down, the quality of your pre-approval can make a big difference when you make an offer. Quality means a lender who has taken the time to fully review your documents and credit, will speak on your behalf to the listing agent, and is a bank/mortgage broker with a good local reputation.

You should strongly consider having a pre-approval from a reputable local lender to give yourself an advantage when making an offer. Pre-approval letters from big banks and online lenders don’t go over as well in our market. If you’re looking for a recommendation, consider Jake Ryon of First Home Mortgage (JRyon@firsthome.com).

Find an Agent

Agents come in many different forms and finding somebody who suits your personality and goals is important. Ask friends, colleagues, and family for referrals or spend time talking with different agents at Open Houses until you find somebody you like.

The worst thing you can do is choose your agent based on whoever responds to an online showing request faster. A good agent can provide a lot of value getting involved in your buying process 2-4+ months before you’re ready to buy.

If you’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

If you’d like a question answered in my weekly column or to discuss buying, selling, renting, or investing, please send an email to Eli@EliResidential.com. To read any of my older posts, visit the blog section of my website at EliResidential.com. Call me directly at (703) 539-2529.

Video summaries of some articles can be found on YouTube on the Ask Eli, Live With Jean playlist.

Eli Tucker is a licensed Realtor in Virginia, Washington DC, and Maryland with RLAH @properties, 4040 N Fairfax Dr #10C Arlington VA 22203. (703) 390-9460.

2020 Housing Market Review: Condos

Question: How did Arlington’s condo market perform in 2020?

Answer: I ended up writing a lot about the condo market during the second half of 2020 because of the historically high numbers of units listed for sale from July to November, falling demand, and falling market values (compared to the first half of the year). However, there were slightly positive signs in the last month of 2020 and early weeks of 2021 that the negative trends are reversing. Despite a 2nd half that looked very different from the previous three years, 2020 overall was still a strong market for condos in Arlington. Let’s take a look at how things played out…

Prices Up, Volume Down, Pace Mostly Unchanged…

The average and median price of condos increased by 4.2% and 6.3%, respectively, a strong performance but a bit short of the nearly 8% growth in 2019. I wouldn’t be surprised to see no appreciation or slightly negative appreciation in 2021 as a result of changing housing priorities from COVID.

Despite the late surge of condos listed for sale, the number of condos actually sold in 2020 dropped 8.3% from 2019 and 19.3% compared to 2018.

The speed of the market remained relatively unchanged, with average days on market staying put at 7 days and median days on market decreasing slightly from 19 days to 18.4 days. However, my preferred “speed” metric, the percentage of units selling within one week, dropped to 48% in 2020 from 52% in 2019, but still well above 2018’s 29%.

Six Interesting Charts

Below, I put together a series of charts to visualize how the Arlington condo market performed in 2020 and how that performance compares to the 2015-2019 markets.

If you’d like to discuss buying or selling strategies, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.