House Calls: Finding the Bargains
Dear Edith: We are just starting out, and we can afford to buy a home if we can find a bargain. But we don't want to make a mistake and end up with problems. We'd appreciate any advice. -- R. J.
Answer: Yes, perfectly good bargain houses are out there. Let's start with housekeeping: As you park across the street, the agent says: "Now, I want to warn you: There are a lot of kids in this house, and school's out. It doesn't show well." From the car you can see an old pickup in the driveway, rusted toys on the front walk, flyers mouldering under the shrubs and a muddy screen door.
A disaster? Well, maybe it's an opportunity.
If the house has had decent maintenance (as opposed to housekeeping), you may have stumbled on a bargain. Houses that have been rented out sometimes fall in this category. Many buyers cannot see past the sloppiness. The house "just doesn't have good vibes." The place may stay on the market for months and eventually go for substantially under true market value.
When it comes to decorating and housekeeping, ignore the sizzle and concentrate on the steak. What counts is location, layout and basic condition. Disregard the blaring TV; instead, find out how old the roof is.
Other places to find bargains include the following:
For starters, sellers under pressure. Their agent won't -- or shouldn't -- reveal that the place is threatened with foreclosure. But you can sometimes see for yourselves that it is a divorce situation, or that one spouse is already out of town with a new job. They may be ready to trade a price concession for a quick sale.
Second, if a homeowner has died, an executor is sometimes eager for any reasonable offer in return for a prompt, trouble-free winding up of the estate.
And then there's the most luxurious house on the street. It won't ever repay the owners for the money they've invested. No matter how elegant it may be, buyers with money to spend will aim for a fancier neighborhood. People are just like that. If you like the area, you may be able to pick up a great deal for your money.
On the other hand, there's the modest house on a prestigious street. That, perhaps, is not so much a bargain as it is a classic good investment.