First-Time Home Buyers Who Did It on Their Own

First-Time Home Buyers Who Did It on Their Own

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When the Time Is Right

Sometimes, life pushes you to buy. In the summer of 2015, Nikki Switzer, 38, an actress and finance manager at a boutique gym, was looking for an apartment to rent with her boyfriend, Sean Smith, 34. They were living with a roommate in a run-down, $2,000-a-month three-bedroom in Astoria, Queens. Any two-bedroom in the area would cost them more money for less space.

So Ms. Switzer attended a workshop for first-time home buyers hosted by Bridget Harvey, an agent with Douglas Elliman. A mortgage lender and broker sat on a panel and walked the attendees through the process. For Ms. Switzer, it was eye-opening. “Why would we spend $600 more a month when we could just go find a place that could be our home, where we could start our family?” she said. “Honestly, I think it was just numbers.”

Numbers can have the reverse effect, too, as they did on another couple who attended one of Ms. Harvey’s workshops. After listening to the speakers, “They were like, ‘Oh no, we’re not going to buy in New York,’” said Ms. Harvey, whose next workshop is scheduled for May 4. That couple bought a condo in Connecticut instead.

Ms. Switzer and Mr. Smith, however, were in a good position to buy in New York. Ms. Switzer had built up a $40,000 nest egg over the past four years. (She did this after paying off $30,000 in student loans and credit card debt, all while earning $35,000 a year.) Mr. Smith, who works in internet security, also had been putting away money for years, after putting himself through college, and had substantial savings.

Finding Your Corner of the City

New York is 304 square miles spread out over five boroughs. But you can’t exactly throw a dart at the map and hope for the best. Usually price, space and distance from your job determine where you look.

Nikki Switzer and Sean Smith in the living room of their two-bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Credit
Yeong-Ung Yang for The New York Times

Ms. Switzer and Mr. Smith plugged their wish list — a two- or three-bedroom, within an hour of Manhattan, for under $600,000 — into StreetEasy. Their criteria led them to Jackson Heights, Queens, a neighborhood they did not know. They spent weekends visiting the area, and warmed to it.

As for Ms. Wyler of the Upper East Side, it was Manhattan or bust. She had no desire to move back to Brooklyn, where she grew up, and where prices had soared. “On principle, I wasn’t going to pay that kind of money to move back to Brooklyn,” she said.

So she focused on Harlem and Washington Heights. One afternoon, while out with her broker, Kirstin Allen of Douglas Elliman, she came upon Bennett Avenue near Fort Tryon Park. “I heard birds chirping,” Ms. Wyler said. “I loved that there was nature. It wasn’t all just concrete streets and skyscrapers.”

She honed in on the street, eying a co-op on the corner of Broadway. After she passed on two units in the building, a two-bedroom on the sixth floor came on the market in the spring. In July, she bought it for $570,000 and now pays about $3,000 a month in maintenance and mortgage costs.

Brace for Heartbreak

Shopping for an apartment in New York is a lot like dating. Just because you fall in love does not mean the apartment will love you back. And just like first love, the pain of unrequited love can be particularly acute for first-time buyers. Such buyers are often hunting in a sector of the market (the lower end) where apartments are in high demand, and move fast.

An exterior view of the building where Ms. Switzer and Mr. Smith live.

Credit
Yeong-Ung Yang for The New York Times

“First-time buyers, for the most part, tend to be buying in the most competitive market,” said Ms. Lurie of Compass. They “tend to be up against the bidding wars and up against the highest and best competition, and they often don’t have all cash.”

Sellers often favor buyers who can pay cash because the sale will not be contingent on a buyer getting a mortgage, which takes time and does not always work out.

Rejection, even by an inanimate object, hurts. “I definitely cried. I definitely hung up the phone and threw it across my office,” Ms. Switzer said of the second apartment she lost in a bidding war. She and Mr. Smith ultimately prevailed, buying a two-bedroom in Jackson Heights last August for $495,000, putting 40 percent down. They now pay only $18 more each month than what they used to pay in rent, internet and utilities. “This was just the place where we’re supposed to be,” she said.

Rejection, of course, is not the sole province of the seller. If you want to buy in a co-op, you also have to get approved by a co-op board, which can turn down an applicant for any reason or no reason at all, so long as it does not discriminate against the buyer. The co-op board application can be an onerous one, full of reference letters and exhaustive information about your financial holdings and history. A rejection can feel like a punch. “A board package is like running for office. You have to present it in the right light,” said Elizabeth Ann Stribling-Kivlan, the president of Stribling.

In May 2015, Mr. Reddy and Mr. Dacquel were rejected by a co-op board in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, after the couple won a bidding war. The board did not like that Mr. Dacquel had worked as a freelancer. “We were shocked, we were furious,” Mr. Reddy said.

“After that, we learned not to tell anybody anything until we closed,” Mr. Dacquel said.

Love at First Sight

Some love stories, however, do work out.

Mr. Novin of the Upper West Side knew he had found his home the moment he walked in the door of a one-bedroom on West 72nd Street and West End Avenue, just blocks from his beloved rent-stabilized apartment. “My heart skipped a beat,” he said of the corner unit with high ceilings, and windows on two sides. “It’s just perfect. It’s just absolutely perfect.” He bought it in June for $790,000.

And in September 2015, Mr. Dacquel and Mr. Reddy walked into an apartment in a converted shoe factory. They found a large open one-bedroom that needed work but had high ceilings, natural light and a wraparound balcony. “Our eyes lit up,” Mr. Reddy said.

After factoring in the $60,000 they would need to spend on renovations, the couple offered the asking price, $659,000, with 23 percent down to qualify for an adjustable-rate mortgage, since their debt-to-income ratio was too high to qualify for a traditional 30-year loan. With no other bids, their offer was accepted.

“They say, when you find a home, it’s like finding a dog — you know it,” Mr. Dacquel said. “When we walked into this apartment, it was a done deal. If we had lost it, I would have been destroyed.”

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