'Overshoppers' exasperating for many agents


April 11, 1993|By ELLEN JAMES MARTIN

They're worried about schools, property values, taxes, neighborhood safety, job security. In fact, this Baltimore couple, both 38, are so apprehensive about making a bad decision that, though they've been searching the Towson area for two years, they can't commit to buying a home.

"It pays to be cautious," explains the wife, a homemaker.

Like numerous Americans, this couple's fears are causing them to "overshop" the market.

Overshopping occurs when prospective buyers reject perfectly suitable properties on the basis of irrational fears. People who keep looking without buying are a source of exasperation for many agents.

"People today are much more inclined to wait it out rather than take that leap of faith that's always involved in buying a home," says Keith Bisogno, marketing manager for PHH Homequity, a relocation company whose parent firm is headquartered in Hunt Valley.

In most communities, the spring selling season -- coupled with low mortgage rates -- is bringing out many more buyers than at any point since 1990. While half the buyers are "go-getters" who are willing to seize the right opportunity, the other half are "overly cautious," observes Salma Siddique, who sells real estate through Coldwell Banker's Perry Hall office.

"Buyers need a lot of reassurance today. They're looking for the perfect house -- one that doesn't have any flaws. But that just doesn't exist," Ms. Siddique observes.

Of course, real estate agents have an interest in moving buyers to the closing table promptly. After all, the agent earns no commission until after a "sold" sign gets planted in the front yard. When it comes to a purchase as large as a home, no house-hunter should be prodded into buying before doing a careful, methodical search.

But "overshopping" has more to do with indecision than prudence and serves neither the buyer's nor the agent's interest, real estate specialists say.

"You can't sit on the fence forever. Eventually, the parade goes by," says Mr. Bisogno, of PHH Homequity.

Realty experts offer these pointers for those seeking to distinguish between rational caution and irrational fear:

* Look inward to decide whether you're an overshopper.

There's an axiom in real estate: "If you want the perfect house, you have to build it yourself."

Short of a custom-built property, you're unlikely to find any home that meets all your standards. Obviously, there are some features on which you shouldn't have to give in. If you truly need four bedrooms and a garage to store your vintage car, why compromise?

On the other hand, an unwillingness to compromise on details may be clues that the problem is really commitment phobia, says Monte Helme, a vice president with the Century 21 real estate chain.

"Some people are holding out for very, very petty things. They get hung up on the color of the house or carpet, or the landscaping -- things that a rational buyer wouldn't even blink at," Mr. Helme says.

* Don't wait for a gong to sound at the bottom of the market.

It's a fact of life that prices have settled -- or actually dropped -- in many neighborhoods during the past three years. Realty specialists believe prices are generally reaching their low points, with variations from community to community.

But determining exactly when the price of any given property will bottom out is a tricky proposition. No one will blow a whistle and tell you when to buy. If you try to outguess the market by waiting for prices to bottom, you could be the loser, Mr. Bisogno cautions.

* Don't expect a relative or friend to break your indecision.

Someone fearful of making a decision will often ask an associate to visit the place and render judgment, notes Carolyn Janik, author of several books on real estate.

But while it's perfectly appropriate to ask for another opinion, it's important to realize the psychological dynamic this sets up, Ms. Janik says. The relative or friend will feel obligated to find flaws regardless of how good the property is, she says, and this could slow rather than speed the decision-making.

* Look forward to holding your next home for at least a decade.

Many wait-it-out buyers have an intuitive grasp of what the experts are saying. Given the high transaction costs related to buying and selling a home and the uncertainty of future appreciation, they know they must keep a property for a longer period than was necessary in the 1980s, when it was often financially feasible to trade properties every three to five years.

While there's no point to wheel-spinning, there is every justification for thoughtful planning. A young couple with secure jobs and with plans to have their first child in five years is justified in shopping carefully with their future offspring in mind, for example.

Careful shopping is very different from overshopping, Mr. Bisogno says. "You don't want to buy a house today and regret it in six months."

(Ellen James Martin is a columnist for The Sun.)

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