Owning a Home: Tips for First Time Home Buyers

Buying your first home can be confusing and overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. Educating yourself about the real estate market and staying informed on the latest trends and tips for buying a home can make the process smooth and seamless.

Before you embark on your home search, remember that a little research can go a long way toward getting you in your new front door — and with minimal stress.

When you’re considering buying your first home, there are so many things you need to consider: mortgage rates, how to maximize tax benefits, hidden assessment fees and that’s before you even do a home inspection or deal with the hassle of moving. Even when you are working with a Chicagoland real estate broker, it helps to hear personal stories from friends, families, and neighbors who have experience buying and selling homes.

Your real estate broker will guide you through the process of searching for a home, help you place an offer that will stand out from the competition and propel you towards a successful close on the perfect home. Even so, there is much to learn from the personal anecdotes of others who have walked in your shoes already. Here are some important pieces of advice from @properties as well as Chicagoland home buyers who have already navigated the search for the perfect home — and want to help you succeed, too.

Have Your Finances and Credit in Order

Before you start searching for a home, check your credit score. Make sure the facts are correct and fix any problems you discover. Be sure to determine your budget — and take into consideration hidden fees like special assessments and any home repairs or renovations you need to make once you move in. Even when you’re eager to move toward a sale, shop around to make sure you’re getting the best deals on your loan/mortgage rates.

Almost every first-time homebuyer funds their purchase with a mortgage, and getting a mortgage requires credit. The better your credit, the lower the interest rate on your loan, and that can result in thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in savings over a number of years. To achieve a good credit score, it’s important to establish and use credit accounts, but it’s equally important to properly manage those accounts.

Pay bills on time and maintain a low balance on credit cards or pay them off in full each month. You can check your credit score online through the main credit reporting agencies. And if you run into a problem, fix it as soon as possible.

Seek Approval

Before you start looking for a home, it is essential to get pre-approved for a mortgage, especially in today’s competitive marketplace where there are more buyers than homes for sale. This will let you know exactly how much you can afford and make you a more attractive buyer to sellers who may be entertaining other offers. The lender performing the pre-approval will review your credit report and look at other documentation, such as paystubs, bank and brokerage statements, and tax returns. A pre-approval is not a full loan commitment.

Mary Kay H. from Gold Coast: “Get finance approval first. Find out how much of a loan you can secure, then don’t spend that much. I had great credit, so I was approved for twice the amount of my final purchase price.

I had a spreadsheet where I logged each place I looked at (51…yes I looked at 51 condos). It had built into it a multiplier that would calculate my monthly mortgage payment. I had columns to add in parking (because some were included in the purchase, but others were monthly), insurance, electric, cable, taxes, etc. to give me what everything home related would cost me monthly.

I was determined to not be house poor, but have what I needed in a neighborhood where I would be comfortable.”

Seek Help from a Real Estate Agent

Find an agent you can trust to help you throughout the whole home buying process, from searching for a home in the neighborhood you desire to placing an offer that will stand out and even navigating a successful close. You don’t want to make an offer in haste before you’ve thoroughly researched the market’s availability, and your real estate broker will know the market better than anyone.

Some of the most common mistakes homebuyers make occur because there’s little awareness of the common pitfalls. Your real estate broker already knows what is necessary to prevent potential negative situations, so utilize your resources. Buyers who think they’ll save money by not using an agent usually wind up costing themselves money, and missing out on the home they want, because they don’t have someone to advise them and negotiate on their behalf. With over 3,500 @properties Christie’s International Real Estate agents in the Chicagoland area, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, finding the right agent for you is a breeze.

Identify Needs vs. Wants

Make a list of the features that are most important to you such as location, type of home, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and amenities. Then separate them into must-haves and nice-to-haves. This will help you focus your search and make sure you’re looking at the right listings, especially if you’re sticking to a strict budget.

Save for those Unexpected Expenses

Kim H. from the Chicago Suburbs: “Don’t blow your budget on the house, because as soon as you move in, there’s a lot to furnish. More importantly, something expensive will always need to be repaired or replaced.

On our first day in our first house, there was a random leak where the water service from the village met up with our interior pipes. A year or two later we came home to a basement flood because our water heater had quit on us and leaked all over the floor.

If you buy an older house with original windows, it’s smart to replace them with energy efficient ones, especially if the previous owner left a sock in one to block air leaks.”

Watch Out for Hidden Fees

There are many costs associated with buying a home beyond the purchase price. You’ll need to budget for things like closing costs, property taxes, home insurance and, if you’re buying a condominium or townhome, assessments/HOA fees. You’ll also want to furnish that home and budget for maintenance and repairs. Be sure to factor these items in when determining how much you can afford.

Anne C. from West Lakeview: “Find a good real estate attorney who can break down all of the condo association history, budgets and meeting minutes for you. Knowing your monthly assessment amount is one thing, but you may need to be prepared for a special assessment or a big increase depending on what that information reveals about the state of the building’s structure and finances.”

Get a Home Inspection

Faults in your home may not catch your attention at first glance. When deciding to not invest in a home inspection, you’re risking incurring extra expenses and discovering hidden defects in your house. Being educated about the current condition of your home is worth the low up-front fees and will lessen the likelihood of incurring pricy home repairs when you move in.

Be careful when examining homes that need to be fixed up. You might end up pouring more money and time into it in the long run than you think.

Look for “What’s Behind the Walls”

Nora S. from East Lakeview: We bought a condo in 2009 that we knew would take a lot of work. You could just see it: ugly paint colors, battered trim, unfortunately, placed walls and even missing doors.

The important part is that the shoddy and haphazard state of what you could see foreshadowed what you couldn’t. We learned the hard way that a ‘fixer upper’ means fixing the unsexy things you can’t see.

Since then, we’ve gut renovated three rooms and have had to rebuild floors, reconstruct and add studs, rewire, replumb, re-drywall, and on and on.

The real expense is in what you can’t see because that’s the stuff that requires expertise to fix, and you just can’t do yourself. And some things you just never know until you open up walls. So from our first project on, I made sure our Boring But Important Structural Things to Pretty Visible Things budget ratio was about 2:1.

Now that the memory of how hard the renovations were is starting to fade, it feels like it was all worth it – our home is perfect.”

If You Live in the City, Consider Walkability

Make sure you carefully research neighborhoods as well. Consider things like schools, nearby amenities, and access to transportation. It can be helpful to visit neighborhoods at different times of the day to get a better sense of the area. Don’t forget to consider what you’ll want in a location over time as your lifestyle evolves.

Lisa G. from North Center: “When we were ready to leave our beloved 3-BR condo in Roscoe Village (baby #2 was on the way), my husband had us do this exercise where he and I took seven or so home qualities (size, location, walkability, school district, price, etc.) and we ranked them independently, then compared our answers.

Both of us ranked home size over walkability. I think we were wooed by the home we fell in love with (lot and a half, super roomy and open, 5+ bedrooms. We took walkability for granted, having lived in Roscoe Village for 10 years.

Our new home is only 1 mile away, in North Center, and while we do love the home, we hate that it’s not really near anything. To walk to the very southern border of Lincoln Square takes a solid 20 minutes with the kids in a stroller, or (literally) forever with them walking.”

Slow It Down

Buying your first home is a big decision, and it’s important to take your time. Don’t feel pressured to make an offer on a home before you’re ready, and don’t hesitate to walk away if it doesn’t feel like the right fit.

Lizz P. from Oak Park: “Homes are like partners. Make sure you can live with exactly what you see and don’t assume you can change everything you want to.”

Make Closing Time Easy

Once you’ve found a home and your offer has been accepted, you’ll need to navigate the escrow process. This can typically involve significant paperwork and deadlines, but at @properties Christie’s International Real Estate we’ve eliminated much of the hassle with Closing Milestones, our proprietary client-facing portal. The technology guides buyers (and sellers) through the critical steps from contract to close, helping you keep track of key tasks and dates for items like the home inspection, attorney approval and mortgage approval.

For more information on the market & your particular neighborhood, reach out to me!


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A portion of this post originally appeared on @home, an @properties blog

How Home Buyers Can Navigate Inventory Challenges


Whether you’re in the process of buying or selling a home, or just keep up with real estate news, you’ve probably heard about the lack of inventory in housing markets throughout the country.

While fewer properties on the market means increased competition for buyers, there are still ways for home shoppers to navigate inventory challenges and have an edge in the marketplace. Here are a few tips :

Tap into Pre-Market Opportunities

Pre-market (or private market) listings are homes that are for sale (i.e., there is a signed listing agreement), but are not yet publicly listed on the MLS. As a result, buyers won’t find these listings on major search portals like Zillow, Trulia, or Realtor.com, or national brokerage sites such as Redfin.

This could be for a variety of reasons. For example, a seller may want to do some prep work to get their home ready for sale or may be waiting for spring market. In some cases, it’s the desire for more privacy.

Pre-market listings make up a growing segment of the market, and they are typically on networks only available to real estate agents. And when inventory is low and there is strong competition among buyers, it’s so important to work with an agent that can tap into these networks and keep you informed on new opportunities.

All of my clients have access to Zenlist, a home search app that includes both active listings from the MLS and pre-market listings, all in one collaborative platform. Meanwhile, @properties’ internal @agent app is another resource that helps match my buyers with homes for sale. Reach out to me to learn more about these networks.

Get Pre-Approved

An up-to-date mortgage pre-approval (or proof of funds if you’re a cash buyer) is essential if you’re looking to purchase a home nowadays. As a buyer, this not only lets you know what you can afford, but also lets the seller know that you’re a qualified buyer, which is especially important in today’s environment if in-person showings are involved.

Talk to your mortgage broker to make sure your pre-approval is current, and if you don’t have a mortgage broker, your agent can share recommendations.

Request a Digital CMA

Whether you’re just starting your home search or preparing to make an offer on a property, a Comparative Market Analysis (CMA) will give you insights into pricing and market activity in your specific area.

@properties’ proprietary Digital CMA takes the traditional CMA (think paper printouts and PDFs) to the next level by providing real-time MLS data in an interactive, digital platform that you can access on the fly. You can also add properties to the report and leave comments for me to review.

Ultimately the Digital CMA ensures you always have the most accurate data to make the most informed offer on a property.

Make Your Offer Stand Out

When inventory is low, multiple offer scenarios are more common. If you’re ready to make an offer on a home you love, work with your agent to do everything you can to make your offer stand out, especially if the seller has other offers.

Beyond being pre-approved, there are other ways to make your offer more appealing, but it’s case by case basis – reach out to me to learn more about my buyer strategy!

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A portion of this post originally appeared on @home, an @properties blog.

Search the Private Market & More with Zenlist!

Buyers in search of a new home this spring are benefitting from Zenlist, a new technology that offers access to the most complete and up-to-date database of homes in the Chicagoland marketplace. Zenlist is a gamechanger for how buyers and their agents work together to successfully conduct home searches, especially in today’s very competitive, low-inventory market. If you haven’t read my all encompassing post on home buying, be sure to read that next!

Here are 10 things you can do with Zenlist:

Check Out Thousands of Listings (even before they hit the market)

Zenlist gives homebuyers access to the greatest number of local listings by combining active listings from the MLS with pre-market (or private) listings that aren’t available on popular apps like Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, or Realtor.com. With today’s inventory being so low, this is an incredible tool to have as a buyer because it gives you the opportunity to see a growing segment of the market that is normally reserved for agents.

Collaborate With Ease

Homebuyers can only gain access to Zenlist through a licensed real estate agent. Once on the app, buyers and agents can save searches, share them back and forth, share and comment on listings, and send messages. Looking with a family member or partner? Zenlist allows you to collaborate with them too. See a home you like? Just make a note, and your co-buyer and agent can see it and respond.

Send Questions Directly to Your Real Estate Agent

Have questions or thoughts about a specific listing? Send them directly to your real estate agent through the app. Zenlist lets you ask questions and discuss listings with your agent in one convenient place, rather than jumping from email to text to calls.

Request Showings

Within the app, you can easily build tour folders of homes that you want to see in person, giving your agent everything they need to request a showing. This includes any of the notes or questions you’ve made on the home.

 Immediately Receive Notifications

In a market where inventory is low and demand is high, it’s important to be the first to know when a home fitting your criteria hits the market. Zenlist is on it, and instantly notifies you of new listings – including pre-market listings – the minute they hit the app. Zenlist usually posts new listings faster than Redfin or Zillow.

Filter Searches Easily and Intuitively

Whether you are looking for a home within a particular school district or you need a three-car garage, Zenlist lets you filter searches with greater specificity than other apps. You can even draw asymmetrical search boundaries, and easily hide listings that don’t fit your criteria, giving your agent even more insights into your preferences to help with your search.

Explore Virtually

Google Street View is integrated into Zenlist, making it easy to check out an area virtually. You can explore a neighborhood and its shops, restaurants, and amenities before making an in-person visit.

Keep Track of Homes

Zenlist keeps track of all the homes you’ve toured as well as upcoming showings.

View Home Layouts

In the age of virtual showings, getting an idea of a home’s layout is crucial to your search. Zenlist provides a list of rooms and dimensions per floor level for every listing so that you can really envision the home (even if it doesn’t have a floorplan) before scheduling an in-person showing.

View Tax and Assessor Information

Zenlist makes listing information extremely transparent. You can view property tax information, as well as the past sales history of every home.

For more information on Zenlist and to gain access to the platform, reach out to me!


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A portion of this post originally appeared on @home, an @properties blog.

New Loan Limits for Homebuyers in the New Year

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) recently announced that it will raise loan limits for mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, giving many homebuyers greater purchasing power. Starting in 2021, the maximum conforming loan limit for single-unit properties will increase to $548,250 – a 7.4% increase from the current limit of $510,400.

The announcement is positive news for homebuyers, who will have the opportunity to borrow more money under conforming loan guidelines in addition to taking advantage of record low mortgage rates. Any loan amount above the conforming limit is considered a jumbo loan. Jumbo loans generally have more stringent requirements and tends to carry higher interest rates.

The exact conforming loan limit varies geographically, and while it will increase to $548,250 throughout most of the country including Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, it will be higher in more expensive markets such as areas in California and New York. Raised limits reflect rising home prices throughout the U.S. including Chicagoland, where prices are appreciating after remaining relatively flat over the last few years.

How does this affect you?

Connect with a lender to find out! But as a general rule, most experts say that your housing expenses should not exceed 28 percent of your gross monthly income, but a variety of factors – from your credit score to other debt – can open this ratio up to a pretty wide range. Remember that there are other costs involved in buying a home outside of the down payment, such as closing costs, moving, decorating, and remodeling expenses. You should also consult with your accountant or financial advisor to talk about how real estate affects your financial goals. While these new loan limits greatly help buyers, knowing the bottom line is essential. Some lenders I HIGHLY recommend:

Jon Altizer & CJ Paloucek – Guaranteed Rate

Eric Martin – Draper & Kramer

Tammy Hajjar Miller – Federal Savings Bank

If you are thinking of making a move in 2021 – Let me partner with you & guide you home.

Let’s connect on social!

A portion of this post originally appeared on @home, an @properties blog.

Outperforming the Market

One of the biggest trends to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is the focus on housing & what people need from their home. Gone are the days where home was just a place you laid your head, now it is your workplace, your school, your gym, & more. As people seek more space and look to take advantage of low interest rates, the local real estate market has seen a strong recovery.

In fact, the number of homes that have gone under contract in the Chicagoland area since COVID-19 hit in the middle of March is up 8.6% compared to the mid-March through mid-September period last year. Meanwhile, @properties is outperforming the market, with new contracts up 20.3% during this timeframe.

New listings are another important performance metric. And while they are down market-wide since the start of the pandemic, @properties’ new listings are up over 5% year over year which is showing strong recovery.

As the region’s largest and most dynamic marketplace for homebuyers and sellers, @properties puts you in the best position to achieve your real estate goals. With our best-in-class marketing, leader status, & fully integrated programs; @properties is an industry leader year after year & the best brokerage to work with whether selling or purchasing your home.

If you are thinking of making a move in 2021 – Let me partner with you & guide you home.

Let’s connect on social!

A portion of this post originally appeared on @home, an @properties blog.