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Buy, Build or Fix: What’s Best for First-Time Home Buyers?

Move-in-ready homes are convenient but create competition. New construction can be quick but may be costlier. Renovating is tough but could land you in your ideal neighborhood.
March 6, 2020
Home Search, Mortgages
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With a limited supply of entry-level housing for sale, getting your foot in the door you want could be a challenge if you’re looking to buy your first home soon.

Nearly a third of Americans who’ve never previously bought a home say they plan to in the next five years, according to a survey commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted online by The Harris Poll among 2,007 U.S. adults in January 2020.

Before you join the house hunt, decide which type of property best fits your goals. Here are the pros and cons of buying a turnkey home, building a new house or renovating a fixer-upper.

Buy if you can roll with the punches

What could be the downside to a move-in-ready house? All you need to do is move. But in today’s market, competition is fierce. According to data from the National Association of Realtors, in December 2019 the inventory of homes for sale in the U.S. reached its lowest level in over 20 years.

When you’re feeling frustrated, remember your ‘why’ — the reason you’re house hunting in the first place.

Simone Plush, real estate agent

“You have to be ready to go yesterday,” says Simone Plush, a real estate agent with Washington, D.C.-area Century 21 New Millennium. Especially for first-time home buyers, the process can be “an emotional roller coaster,” Plush says. She encourages buyers to be strategic and swift when making an offer on a turnkey home. For example, looking at homes priced slightly below your budget lets you afford a competitive bid that’s over the asking price.

When you’re feeling frustrated, Plush says, remember your “why” — the reason you’re house hunting in the first place. Reconnecting to your desire to have a backyard for your kids, for example, can help you maintain momentum.

Build if you want to call the shots

New construction might sound intimidating and time-consuming, but unless you’re starting from scratch with an architect and a piece of land, it can be surprisingly straightforward and speedy.

“In many of our communities, home buyers have the option to purchase a quick move-in home,” one that will be ready within 30 to 90 days, commented Jessica Hansen, vice president of communications for Arlington, Texas-based homebuilders D.R. Horton, via email.

New-home builders often offer home warranties, which can protect buyers against the cost of major repairs.

Time frames can vary by builder and demand. Jeff Mezger, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based builder KB Home, says his company averages three to four months from breaking ground to move-in day. The average home search takes about 10 weeks, according to a 2019 NAR survey, followed by several more weeks to close and get the keys.

In the same survey, the most-cited reason home buyers gave for purchasing new construction was to avoid renovations or problems with mechanical systems. Both these builders, like many others, offer home warranties, protection that buyers of existing homes may have to purchase for themselves.

“When you close on a used home, you’re on your own if something goes wrong,” Mezger says. “With a new home, you still have that relationship with us.”

But these conveniences come at a cost: In the NAR survey, those who bought new construction paid a median price $85,000 more than those who purchased a previously owned property. Feasibility may also depend on where you live. In an urban area or well-established suburb, building new may be difficult without paying to tear down an existing structure. In rural areas, there’s plenty of land, but starting from the ground up outside a development may mean extra costs for securing access to water, electricity and more.

Fix if location’s a must

Renovating a fixer-upper is tougher than it looks on TV, but if the house has good bones, you could snag an affordable home in your ideal neighborhood. The NAR survey shows 26% of first-time home buyers said they compromised on condition in order to buy a home. Condition issues are unsurprising as the nation’s housing stock ages. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, as of 2019 nearly 80% of American homes were at least 20 years old, and 40% were at least 50.

A quarter of first-time home buyers said they compromised on condition in order to buy a home.

National Association of Realtors

“First-time home buyers should not be shy about houses that have good mechanical and structural components that are just ugly,” says David Pekel, a former contractor who’s now CEO of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “You can fix ugly.”

Pekel recommends working with an experienced home inspector to determine what needs to be addressed. A contractor can delineate the scope of work and potential cost. Pekel says most will charge a consultation fee that’s refunded if they’re hired.

» MORE: Expand your home search options with a renovation loan

Finding your financing

Whether you choose to buy, build or fix, there are various financing options. In addition to conventional mortgages and standard government-backed loans, there are construction loans and renovation loans suited for borrowers financing new construction or remodeling. A lender that offers loan products for the kind of property you want can guide you through your choices.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

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