The goal in house hunting in a pandemic is to see as few houses as possible. While it is always a good idea to do your research beforehand, in a pandemic the less you expose yourself, the less likely you are to be a victim.
The easier way to house hunt
There is an easy way and a harder way to find the right house and many people elect to take the harder way. The easier way is to get a real estate agent involved early in the process and let them do a lot of the work for you. The harder way, which actually seems to be the way that most buyers under 40 take, is too do all the research yourself and then once you’ve identified a house call the listing agent rather than getting your own agent.
For buyers, having an agent represent them is usually free, since the sales commission for both brokers is paid by the seller. The one exception is when the seller hasn’t listed the property with their own agent, such as a for sale by owner or an owner who hadn’t planned on selling and that owner refuses to pay a commission. If a buyer doesn’t want to pay a commission, they can simply tell their agent don’t show me any off-market properties where I would have to pay a commission. This is not a big a hardship as it sounds, as the huge majority of house that are available for sale are publicly listed.
The ideal way to do things is to do your own research and work jointly with your agent. He or she can send you some good options and guide you as to what areas may be best suited for you and your family. You personally can look at a variety of things that the agent might not know you want in a particular house or neighborhood.
How to do an efficient house search
But, what can you do to determine what should you look at and more importantly what shouldn’t waste your time on? I always think of the catch phrase; location location, location, however each of these locations are different and require different approaches. The first location is what town or neighborhood do I want to live in. You shouldn’t be looking at random houses that you like in three different states in the New York metro area. Figure out what towns you like and concentrate on those towns. The second location is what part of town and what street do you want to live on. The third location is the house itself do you like how it is located on the lot and the street.
The Greenwich Association of Realtors just debuted their new website for buyers and sellers at http://www.greenwichrealtors.com. It has a buyer’s guide and a seller’s guide and an overview of each neighborhood in Greenwich and the listings in that neighborhood. It’s worth checking out if you haven’t been there before. (NB: I was on the GAR advisory committee on the design of the site. It is much more useful than the old site.)
Another good way to narrow your choices is to figure out what you can actually afford. If you need a mortgage now is a great time to go out and talk to your banker or mortgage broker to determine just how much you can afford. Before the Great Recession, many buyers would try to get the maximum loan, with lowest downpayment and the biggest house on the largest lot that they could afford. The idea was that real estate always goes up so that this was a great way to leverage an investment.
In these uncertain times, that isn’t necessarily the best idea. Keeping something in reserve is a good idea.
On the good side, uncertain times can lead to lower interest rates as they do now, when low mortgage rates are making purchases more affordable. Also find out from the bank what it would cost and how long it would take to get underwritten pre-approved. This means the bank has gone through all the steps necessary to give you the loan, except for the house appraisal. Being underwritten pre-approved gives you significant negotiating advantages, because the mortgage approval period goes from 45 – 60 days to a couple of weeks.
Finding the right neighborhood
Once you have your loan amount, see what houses have sold for in the neighborhoods that you are thinking about. Hopefully, the sales prices and your financial capabilities match-up. Online pictures are good, but take a drive through those neighborhoods you are thinking of living in and look at the sold houses and the active houses to make sure that neighborhood works for you based on what you can afford. Traditionally, the best time was a weekend when lots of folks were home. Now you can go just about any day as lots of folks are home.
Look not only at houses but take a drive to the train station or highway you would commute on. Drive to the local shopping area where you would do most of your shopping. When looking for shopping don’t be bound by state or town boundaries. The nearest shopping center may be in the next town or even the next state.
If schools are an important part of your house hunting, you need to determine which school districts work for you. If, however, you’re looking at private schools you need to check and see what kind of admission requirements, tuition fees and waiting list there may be for any particular school that you’re interested in. With private schools you generally can live anywhere.
So now that you have picked the neighborhood(s), the number of houses you need to sift through is much smaller. Many people like Zillow, I personally prefer Realtor.com. Particularly in a busy market it is the major site that gets the listings the quickest.
Finding the right house
Your agent can forward you the listings right from the GMLS, where you know the information will be accurate, particularly as to public schools and you can now find them at greenwichrealtors.com. Also have your agent set up an alert with your particular parameters, so you know when anything comes on and equally important any time a house is sold, so you can see today’s sales price.
When you’re looking at the listings, focus on those aspects of house that are important to you. Do they have enough bedrooms? Do you like the floor plan? Is the lot relatively flat with nice yards ? Also look at the history of the house how long has it been on for. (NB: Most histories involve how long it’s been on that particular site and they may not match up with the days on market that the GMLS has.) What’s been the pattern of price reductions if any? This is a good time to rely on your agent to send you stuff since here she or he knows the market better than you do.
Try not to obsess too much over one factor. Realtors have an expression that “Buyers are liars.” We don’t actually mean that, but it rhymes and is easier to say than, “Buyers often can’t articulate everything they want and occasionally see a house that is outside their stated parameters and really like it.” Don’t however use this as excuse to go look at a bunch of possibilities, do keep an open mind. A really ugly paint job can be fixed.
Ideally, you can narrow down your options to only a few houses. Today, this is where things get interesting. In the old days, everybody would jump in their cars and go over and see the houses. Nowadays the first thing you may want to do is just drive by the house.
Multiple ways to see a house
Surveys say that half of buyers have decided on whether they like a house or not by the time they get to the front door. This is a problem in Greenwich. One of the many aspects of Greenwich politeness in the pre-Covid days is that the listing agent, the buyer’s agent, and the buyers will all take a tour of the entire house, when everyone already knows it is not the house for that buyer. A quick drive-by can save you a fair amount of time by eliminating the houses that don’t appeal to you.
After the drive-by, or alternatively, you can talk to your agent about a FaceTime or Zoom tour of the house. That can be done either by your agent, the owner’s agent, the owner or even the tenant depending on what the situation is. The tours work pretty well for a first cut to narrow the houses you want to see. Once again saving you time and maintaining social distance.
You can also go window peeping. The window peeping tour is where the buyers and the agent can walk the property and look in the windows. I’ve actually had a fair amount of luck with this process. My buyers have been eliminating two out of three houses this way.
If you do this type of tour you need to be prepared. You will likely be walking through gardens and certainly lawns. So, wear shoes that are no problem if you get them wet or a little dirty. Also, it helps to pull up the listings on your phone and scroll through the pictures. This way when you get to the house you can look at the cached picture on the phone even if the area has poor cell reception. Since you are out in public, don’t forget your mask and gloves. Your agent probably has some, but it’s nice to have the ones that you like.
If you’ve now found the house that you like it’s time for the inside tour. Some houses are bought without the buyer going inside. We just had one contract where the owner’s first visit to the house was the day, they signed the contract. Having said that, even in the Covid era, it’s not very common. Once again you need your mask and gloves and some places like you to have booties.
Lastly, this is a good time to be flexible. I’ve always told people that if you’re looking to buy in Greenwich given that we only have several hundred house listings you’re very likely not going to find 5 out of the 5 of the things that you want. Now that our inventory is down 25%, this is a particularly good time to be flexible. You can always do renovations to make the house more like what you want. Getting the right house, at the right time, is key in this day and age.
Enjoy your house hunting, it’s a great way to get out of the house and go for a drive. If you do it right, you will have minimal social distancing issues and make good use of your time out.
[You can check out my 1.0 Guide here, House Hunting in a Pandemic It was posted on March 29th.]