- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2001

Home shopping can be a daunting experience. There are a lot of details to handle and decisions to make. How much can you afford? Where do you want to live? What kind of mortgage is right for you? Even if you know the answer to all of these questions, there are so many different homes on the market, each with a unique set of pluses and minuses. For example, in May there were 14,000 homes for sale in the Washington area. That's a lot of properties to choose from especially if you aren't sure what you want.

On top of these factors, today's buyers have to contend with the Washington area's extremely strong seller's market. The level of competitiveness among home shoppers today means that buyers often have to make a decision on a home in a day or less. If they don't bid quickly on a home they like, it probably will be lost to the next buyer in line.

"In today's market, you often have only five or six hours to make a buying decision," says Dale Mattison of Long & Foster's Chevy Chase Circle office. "Sometimes, you only get one quick walk through, which might not be enough to make a careful buying decision. But if you prepare properly, you truly can make a decision in a few hours that you'll feel comfortable with."

What it comes down to is establishing your priorities. If you know what really matters to you things you cannot do without then you will be able to disqualify homes that lack them. Other items are nice to have, but you won't base your decision on them.

Mr. Mattison has his clients complete a list of "needs, wants and wishes." Needs are things they must have, wants would be nice to have and wishes are the unexpected niceties that make an average home exceptional.

"Usually, when a buyer regrets their purchase, it's because they didn't think it through beforehand," Mr. Mattison says. "Making a checklist helps a buyer understand what really matters to them, so they can evaluate properties accordingly."

One word of warning: Don't expect that the home you eventually buy will match your checklist perfectly.

"After 27 years in the business, I've never had a client find 'the perfect house.' You always have to compromise something," Mr. Mattison says.

This fact that you usually have to give up something you really wanted makes the process of establishing your priorities somewhat elusive. It is the necessary starting point, yet you shouldn't be overly rigid with your list once home shopping begins.

"You have to get very specific, but people also change their minds," says Susan Morcone of the Randall H. Hagner Co. in the District.

"And nothing will change their minds more than falling in love with a home when they walk in for the first time. Home shopping is a very emotional experience, it is expensive, and it is very, very personal."

What are the issues that really matter to today's shoppers? Location is the traditional answer, and it remains the most important factor for most buyers. This is likely true because location determines so many other factors: commute time, schools, purchase price and home style.

"Location remains the No. 1 issue among my clients," Ms. Morcone says. "That's assuming they can afford any location they choose. This makes price nearly as important as location."

Fortunately, many neighborhoods feature a variety of homes in different price ranges. Even Georgetown, where Ms. Morcone does a lot of her work, has many options.

If you are determined to live in a particular neighborhood, be prepared to change your mind about the type of home you buy. You may have your heart set on a single-family home with a white picket fence, but your budget might dictate a town home instead.

"That's why we encourage our clients to cast as wide of a net as possible," says Stephen Israel, president of the Buyer's Edge. "Don't even begin by saying, 'I must have four bedrooms.' If you do, your search criteria will exclude some great three-bedroom homes with nice dens. Or maybe a home wasn't listed properly."

Of course, if you need four bedrooms, a two-bedroom condo obviously won't work. What's important is striking that balance between too few criteria and too many.

"If you say you only want to buy a traditional two-level Colonial, you could miss out on some really classy, beautiful stone ramblers," Mr. Israel says. "You suffer very little from reviewing all the available listings. How long does it take to open an e-mail from your agent and look over five new listings that might match your criteria?"

"You don't have to go see them all," Mr. Israel says. "But if it sounds awesome and it's a little outside your chosen market, are you sure you don't want to go see it?"

When you give your Realtor your search criteria, be sure to include ZIP codes that border your chosen neighborhoods. You never know what might turn up.

"I recently had a buyer who wanted a 10-to-15 minute commute to Ballston," Mr. Israel says. "Unfortunately, there just isn't much there for sale. He said he wouldn't even consider Vienna, because the commute would be 30 minutes in rush hour. But when we looked there, we found a wonderful house at a nice price. And you know what? It was right next to the bike trail, only eight miles from Ballston. Now he rides his bike to work, and he loves it."

Stories like that are one of the best arguments for working with a buyer's agent. A trained Realtor who is dedicated to finding you the best home at the best price is a crucial asset especially in today's competitive seller's market.

Is it a need, a want or a wish?

Before you start home shopping, you need to know what matters most to you and your family. Dale Mattison of Long & Foster's Chevy Chase Circle office recommends that you think through everything that matters to your family and rank them on three lists: Needs, wants and wishes. The outline below will help you think through the various factors you need to weigh. Make a list of every item that affects your buying decision. Then decide if each one is a need, want or wish and make a list for each.

1. Financial priorities

a. How much can you afford?

b. Do your prefer a large home or a small mortgage?

c. Do you prefer a low monthly payment or low closing costs?

d. 30-year or 15-year mortgage? (based on how soon you will be moving)

2. Family priorities

a. Do you have a specific community in mind?

b. More storage space?

c. Number of bedrooms and bathrooms?

d. Public or private schools?

e. Large yard?

f. Shopping nearby?

g. Long commute?

h. Parks or bike trails nearby?

i. Community sports teams?

3. Unique or specific priorities

a. New vs. resale property?

b. Type of housing: detached, town house, condo?

c. Style of housing: Colonial, rambler, Cape Cod?

d. Fixer-upper?

e. Are you an empty nester?

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