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Q&A for Buyers

I’m a first-time buyer. Where should I start?

Talk to a real estate agent. We can explain the process, give you referrals for a mortgage broker or banker, and explain what to expect. The inevitable follow-up question usually goes something like this:

But do I really need one? It’s the age of Google, after all. Can’t I look up everything on my own?

There’s a simple answer to that. It’s the same answer a carpenter might give you if you tried to build a house using how-to guides and Home Construction for Dummies.

All the education in the world does not replace experience. Real estate agents have previewed hundreds of homes, written hundreds of contracts, and attended hundreds of inspections.

The only way to really understand a particular home’s value is by seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of other homes. The only way to make sure an offer stands above the crowd is to know what all the other offers look like. The only way to get the best lenders, inspectors, and builders on your side is to have developed relationships with them, and relationships take years. And in Seattle’s extremely competitive market, experience matters all the more.


What should I consider when choosing a home?

Price, of course, but neighborhood, style, and condition are all factors, too.

I sit down early on and evaluate what is possible with my buyers. What remodeling skills do you have? Do you have family members or friends who might help fix something up? What are your resources after closing? I like to coach my clients so the property they choose lines up with their expectations, lifestyle, financial resources, and future investment goals. The last thing I want is a client who buys something he or she is not well suited for.

Price will dictate where you buy, as well as whether you’re looking for a house, townhome, condo, or co-op. Many buyers want to buy homes that are done to the nines and have trouble with vision.

My focus is always on the investment. I love homes that need carpet removed to expose wood floors, houses that just need new paint, or place only a kitchen or bath remodel away from perfection. Unfinished basement space is great, too, because it gives you the option of adding extra finished space down the road.


How do I know if a listing has a fair price?

How can I answer that right off the cuff? Because I have sold or previewed hundreds of homes, and when I walk in a house’s front door, I can’t help but automatically estimate its value. After decades working in real estate, it’s become second nature.

Now, If my client has serious interest, I back up my opinion with a market analysis. I’ll sit down with my client and we’ll talk about the current price and, because Seattle has such a competitive market, we’ll talk about how high that price could escalate.

That usually leads to another question: What is the maximum I should pay?

To answer that one, I analyze the house in question as an investment, based on what I know about my client’s abilities, wants, needs, and the amount of time they expect to live in the property. It’s an important question, and I take the answer very seriously.


Can’t I just use price per square footage to determine value?

The answer is a resounding no.

Price per square footage is an aid. That’s all. Seattle varies far too much in location, condition, age, style, and layout—not to mention the degree of what I like to call “Seattle funk.” Also, many older homes have had modifications over the years. Others were built well and haven’t needed many upgrades. Still others were constructed with little thought to style or flow. It all matters.


Do I need a sewer inspection on a new home?

As professionals, we have to recommend sewer inspections. Failing sewer lines are unfortunately common. Our housing stock’s sewer lines are way older than their materials were designed for, and as you can guess, that leads to some serious problems. If something breaks, it’s a huge expense for a buyer to take on. It’s common practice in Seattle for brokers to recommend that buyers get a sewer inspection and a structural inspection before buying—but let’s dig into that recommendation a little deeper.

When you NEED a sewer inspection: We’ve seen many new homes that still have old sewer lines. An owner will often knock down an older home and build a new one in its place, but the owner builds that new house on the old, damaged sewer line. In cases like this, always get a sewer inspection.

When you SHOULD get a sewer inspection: Other times, a house is new through and through. These brand-new sewer lines a buyers later default on their loan, the banks gets the property back, and they will want to be able to recover what they loaned out for it. The buyer pays for the appraisal.


Can we talk to a different lender and try to get a better deal?

We hear this question often. Buyers want to get the best loan program possible, after all!

It’s best to shop around before making an offer on a house. Once buyers are in contract with a seller, they already have a preapproval letter from one lender. To switch to a new lender, the buyer would need to ask and get the seller’s permission, and then obtain a new preapproval letter. Switching lenders like that can throw off closing timelines—plus, it’s a significant hassle. It’s better to figure out up front which lender you’re going to use.


What is earnest money?

Earnest money is a deposit that accompanies your offer on a house. It’s a good-faith measure to prove that your offer is—get ready for it—earnest. Written offers not accompanied by a cash deposit make sellers suspicious, and understandably so. Earnest money convinces sellers you aren’t going to back out.

Escrow professionals usually hold the deposit as a neutral third party between buyers and sellers. The amount varies from community to community, and it becomes part of your down payment.


Should we consider a short sale?

Short answer: Maybe.

Long answer: In a short sale, the property sells for less than the amount of the outstanding mortgage. Short sales typically have a 3-6 month closing timeline.

Pros: For the buyer, a short sale means “more house for the money,” which is a very good thing. Also, the long 3-6 month closing timeline isn’t an issue for buyers with flexible living situations, such as month-to-month leases, an option to move twice, or the ablity to live in their current home for an indefinite time,

Cons: The long closing time in a short sale deters for people. The uncertainty of when you’ll be able to move can be tough on those with kids, and the idea of possibly needing to move twice is even more unpalatable. Rising interest rates can make waiting several months unappealing, too.

Note: Some sellers simply list their property as a “short sale” without consulting their bank/lender, which is bad bad bad. A seller’s financial situation must meet the lender’s specific criteria for a short sale, and if the lender doesn’t give consent, the short sale can’t happen. Even if the buyer and seller settle on a price, without the bank’s permission, the deal stays dead in the water. So when a home is advertised as a short sale, ask if the lender has agreed to let the house sell for less than the outstanding mortgage amount.


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