Homebuyers: Look for ways to break decision deadlock



On the house hunt trail for more than two months, a Millersville couple can't decide between two houses with the same price tag -- both in the Olde Mill High School district they favor. Should they buy the bigger house on the lesser lot or the smaller house on the premium lot?

"It's amazing how many buyers out there can't make up their minds," says Sharon Matthews, the Century 21 agent working with the Millersville couple -- a secretary and an air-conditioning specialist.

Given the still rocky U.S. economy, many communities have more homes on the market than ready buyers. And a wider choice makes it harder than ever to reach a conclusion.

"Decision deadlock is a genuine experience for some homebuyers," says Peter G. Miller of Silver Spring, the author of several real estate books. Given the gravity of the home buying decision -- and the fact that people buy few homes in a lifetime -- it's understandable that buyers would be vexed with doubts, he says.

"There's a lot on the line when you buy a house. You're not just buying a roof over your head. A home is also an index to your status and accomplishments," Mr. Miller notes.

Nearly all buyers enter the market with a price ceiling and certain nonnegotiable requirements -- such as a minimum of three bedrooms. But it's important to remember that even wealthy buyers face frustrating trade-offs in their quest for the perfect property.

"There is no perfect situation. No matter how much money you have to spend, you have to prioritize," counsels Beverly Margolis, an agent with Prudential Preferred Properties in Pikesville.

She tells the story of a business executive who agonized over his decision to buy a $1.5 million colonial in Lutherville. He liked the house, but considered it somewhat short on space. Finally, he decided to buy it on the basis that he would add on.


If decision deadlock is a reality for you, these suggestions may be of help:

* Make your way through the real estate market with a priority list in hand.

You may be like the Millersville couple -- anxious to satisfy both your desire for a premium yard and a large house -- all for less than $150,000. But what's truly more important to you, the half-acre yard or the fourth bedroom?

If your daughter is becoming a soccer star, you may place the highest priority on the yard for her to practice. On the other hand, your plan to remarry and blend families could make the fourth bedroom A-1.

"Make a list of the things you like best in each house and then star the ones that are most important," suggests Ms. Margolis, the Pikesville agent.

* Look to your future, not just your current needs.

Ideally, this should be a buy-to-hold period for housing acquisitions. If you think only of your immediate needs and then decide to liquidate in a few years, you could become a very sorry seller. That's because the costs of selling could more than wipe out any equity you've gained in a time of slow appreciation.

Keep in mind, too, that Americans are finding new ways to use their housing space. Currently, 12 million people work out of their homes full time and 40 million do so part time, Mr. Miller reports.

Could some sort of cottage industry be in your future? Do you anticipate creating an exercise center in your home -- complete with a treadmill and rowing machine? Then maybe you should reconsider the number of bedrooms you'll need.

* Factor resale potential into your decision.

You may intend to inhabit your next house for two decades hence. Even so, don't be oblivious to factors that could influence the market should you need to sell sooner than expected, says Irene Waltemeyer, sales manager for Prudential's Harford County office.

You and your husband may be at ease with the "whoosh" sound of traffic passing near the site of the forest green frame house you're considering. But if others seem offended by the noise, you can't afford to ignore their reactions.

The value of your asset is not only important when you sell. It can also influence your destiny when you try to take value out of your house through a home equity loan or second mortgage -- whether your intent is to add a sun room or to help finance your child's college education.

* Break the deadlock of indecision by gathering more information.

One reason you may be stumped on which property to buy could be because you're short on facts, says Sharon Matthews, an agent with Century 21 Volke real estate in Pasadena.

Do you honestly prefer the green house but have doubts about the elementary school that serves the neighborhood? Then a tour of the school could prove decisive.

On the other hand, would you certainly purchase the yellow house if only it had a garage? In that case, an estimate on the cost of a two-car garage could break the deadlock.

Often, a nagging conflict between two properties can be broken by a few pieces of crucial information, Ms. Matthews asserts.

* Take a break from home-shopping to reflect.

Searching for the right house can become an obsession. If you feel that the stress of the exercise is causing you to lose perspective, then taking time out could help clear your head, Mr. Miller believes.

After your rest -- but before you resume your home search -- take an hour or so to redo your priority list. Buyers are often surprised to see how the house-hunting process can change their priorities. "Over time, people become more pragmatic," Mr. Miller observes.

* Don't expect your agent to break your housing deadlock.

A good agent is an attentive listener, skilled in the art of presenting a buyer with housing possibilities within his price range. But an agent can't resolve his buyer's conflicts over taste or lifestyle preferences, cautions Ms. Matthews, the Pasadena agent.

"After all," she reminds, "it won't be your agent who lives in your house and makes all those payments."

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

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