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How to buy a home in the Seattle area: a survival guide

Mike Rosenberg, The Seattle Times on

Published in Home and Consumer News

What does it really take to buy a home in the Seattle area? There are the skyrocketing prices, of course.

But nowadays, to compete in this feverish market, buyers have to deal with so much more: Pay for damage the seller doesn't disclose. Decide whether to buy a house just a couple days after it hits the market. Have a six-figure cash nest egg saved up for a down payment and nonrefundable earnest money.

Will you let the old owners continue living in your new house for months after you buy it? Can you compete with a pool of buyers where 1 in 4 people are paying with all cash? Are you ready for heartbreak if you get outbid on your dream home even when stretching to make your highest possible offer?

Our reporting found the average buyer will tour dozens of houses, lose to higher bids about three to five times, and pursue a house for six months to a year before finally getting a home. Many buyers likened the process to a full-time job.

"It was just all-consuming," said Michael McDermott, who bought a house with his wife in North Seattle last year. "You have to always be on guard and always be ready. It's such a rabid market that it can get out of control really fast."

We talked to dozens of people who know the market best -- buyers, sellers, brokers and lenders from around the Puget Sound region -- to put together a complete homebuying survival guide.

Saving up

The first thing you need to do is have your finances lined up. The biggest obstacle is the down payment -- the cash you need to have saved up and ready to spend today. You can get a mortgage loan for the rest of the purchase.

Technically, there are programs that allow you to put as little as 3 percent down. But the market today is so competitive that sellers are looking for buyers to put as much down as possible, and people who don't put much down aren't winning bidding wars in competitive neighborhoods. The typical King County homebuyer is now putting 18 percent down (excluding cash buyers -- we'll get to them in a minute).

Here is the cold, hard math: The median down payment on all homes (single-family and condos) in King County just topped $100,000 for the first time, up from about $50,000 just five years ago, according to mortgage tracking company Attom Data Solutions.

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