- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

Sherril Walsh spent two years searching for her dream house before giving up. She finally opted for demolition, razing a three-bedroom rancher in Bethesda to replace it with a four-bedroom contemporary with a wide front porch.

“It would have been easier to move to an existing house, but I couldn’t find one that I liked,” Mrs. Walsh says. “It was just personal for us. We needed more space, and I didn’t want to change school districts.”

It’s an age-old puzzle facing prospective home buyers: Go modern with a newly built house or choose an older home flush with character.

For some homeowners, the promise of a virtually maintenance-free home, built in an upscale planned subdivision served by 24-hour fitness centers, pools and jogging trails, is an appealing alternative to buying an existing home.

Others opt for shorter commutes and older homes in existing close-in communities with little or no amenities.

“I always tell people it’s wise, no matter where you are looking, to look at everything,” says Navona Hart, a Realtor with RE/MAX Gateway in Chantilly. “Then you choose the option that best fits your needs.”

Deciding between a new home and an existing home comes down to priorities. For those interested in amenities, builders offer options such as golf-club memberships or fitness facilities. To sweeten the deal, many also offer free upgrades such as kitchen counters and home theaters to homeowners who use their financing and title companies at settlement.

Home buyers drawn to established communities often prefer the architectural variety of existing homes available in the close-in suburbs and enjoy the lure of living near a town center. Many established communities are within walking distance of Metro stations, community markets or parks.

If price is a primary concern, be prepared to pay for the novelty of new construction.

A new home costs up to 40 percent more than an existing home, which averages about $352,400 in the metropolitan Washington area, according to existing-home-sales data. About 15 to 20 percent of all homes sold are new construction, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Newer homes in large subdivisions with services ranging from pools to golf courses also might charge hefty association fees that will raise monthly payments.

If time is an issue, new construction might not be option.

Houses built in planned subdivisions are often sold months before completion. Sometimes weather can complicate matters and hold up projects for weeks or months.

Construction of the Walshes’ new home was delayed for months because of Hurricane Isabel, which hit just as they were preparing to break ground last fall.

“It pushed us back two or three months, and it ended up taking 10 months,” Mrs. Walsh says.

Typically, a resale house is available within weeks of a contract offer, area Realtors say.

“If you are willing to wait, you can have a house built to your preferences, but you have to be patient,” says Michael Carliner, an economist for the National Association of Home Builders.

Like the Walsh family, most of today’s new-home buyers are married couples who own their own home and are in the market for a larger house. NAHB surveys show that new home buyers average about 40 years old with household incomes in the $70,000 range. Some 41 percent of them have children under 18.

Existing homes are predominantly purchased by younger buyers — younger than 35 — with incomes of about $59,000, according to the 2001 American Housing Survey.

Some 25 percent of them have children. Another 12 percent are single parents, the surveys show.

For home buyers on a tight budget, an existing home might be the only option.

But for the 40-and-up home buyer, the lure of new construction is the expectation of fewer maintenance issues.

Today’s heating and air-conditioning systems are more efficient than those found in older homes, for instance. And contemporary building materials are designed to cut down on maintenance. They are made from materials such as vinyl and plastics instead of wood, which requires regular painting.

“People who don’t want to do a lot of maintenance don’t want to buy an old home,” Mr. Carliner says. “There a lot of materials in a house that will only last 20 or 30 years, so for an existing home, a lot of things may need to be replaced.”

But homeowners have to be careful, Realtors say. Some new homes can have as many problems as an existing one. Realtors advise buyers to request home inspections for a new house to ensure electrical and plumbing systems are installed correctly.

Make sure repairs are covered during contract negotiations with the builder, and scrutinize every process.

Wrong tiles were laid in all three bathrooms of the Walsh house, and a plumbing problem was discovered when they were paving the new driveway, Mrs. Walsh says.

“You always run into problems. It always takes longer than they say,” she says.

Whether buying an older home or a new house, the best advice from Realtors is to do research.

Given the age of many older subdivisions, most homes will need refurbishing, and Realtors urge homeowners to get estimates on repairs and replacement costs. Work with contractors and your home inspector to find out the age and status of the roof of an older home. Check all the major systems of a home — especially the heating and electrical systems — to determine when they will need to be overhauled.

Buyers of a new home should also do homework on the builder, checking other homes built by the company, even asking other buyers about their satisfaction with the company.

Ms. Hart always advises clients to look at older homes built by the builder as a way to measure a builder’s abilities.

“Research your builder,” Ms. Hart says. “Look at previously owned homes so you can see how they have aged and worn, especially if they are more than 10 years old, so you can see how the house has stood up over time.”

If you do opt for a new home, make sure the contract is specific. Upgrades in a model home might not be standard in a new home. Everything has to be negotiated, from kitchen appliances to media rooms to in-home theaters.

Sometimes free upgrades are available if buyers opt to finance with the builder’s lender, but Realtors suggest checking the market.

Rates might be more competitive with another company, Ms. Hart says.

“I always tell people to check locally before making that decision,” she says.

The dazzling array of choices available to buyers can sometimes be overwhelming. Close-in suburbs are filled with homes dating to the 1950s, years behind modern options offered by today’s builders.

But for some, the appeal of an older home is the character and distinction of having homes with hardwood oak floors, curved arches and architectural features not found in many of today’s subdivisions.

“It all depends on your preferences,” Mr. Carliner says.

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