Buying a condo is not the same as buying a home

Stringent lending policies and the escalating costs of home ownership have led many prospective home buyers to consider condominiums instead of single-family homes. Condos are typically less expensive than single-family homes, which makes lenders and borrowers alike feel more comfortable. Lenders feel better because the loans aren’t as large, while borrowers are more comfortable because such loans allow them to improve their standing with lenders, potentially setting the table for a low-interest home loan down the road.

But the differences between buying a condo and buying a single-family home go beyond the bottom line. The following are a few things prospective buyers should know about condos before they view any properties.

 Condos come with fees. Unlike single-family homes, condos come with homeowners association fees. These fees cover the cost of maintenance and repairs to the property. This includes landscaping and garbage collection, as well as general repairs throughout the condominium complex. Fees vary significantly from community to community, and the best deal is not always the one with the lowest homeowners association fees. Low fees tend to provide less bang for the buck, generally covering only the most basic services. Higher fees often mean the community offers more amenities, such as a private pool and gym for residents. Some people prefer such amenities, while others would rather find better deals on their own. But prospective condo buyers must include fees in their monthly budgets when determining how much they can afford to spend.

 Condos come with rules. Owners of single-family homes can create their own rules for their households, while condo owners must agree to follow rules established by the homeowners association or the property management firm responsible for maintaining the community and enforcing the rules. Rules may not allow pets or only allow pets of a certain size. Other rules may restrict how owners can decorate their condos during the holiday season or how they can furnish the exterior of their properties, limiting patio furniture to a set number of chairs or tables. Some condo owners are glad such rules are in place, while others might find such stipulations intrusive. Each community has different rules, and prospective buyers should familiarize themselves with a community’s rules before buying any properties within that community.

 Condos often have management firms. Property management firms can be great to deal with, but they can be troublesome as well. A good property management firm produces satisfied community members who speak glowingly of their communities, while a poorly run management firm can frustrate homeowners who feel they are not getting what they’re paying for. Some property management firms fail to collect homeowners association fees for months at a time, only to send letters demanding back dues down the road. Others simply don’t live up to expectations, failing to make repairs in a timely manner while letting the property fall into disrepair. If possible, speak to current community residents about how the property is managed. If residents are not available, potential buyers should attempt to attend a homeowners association meeting, which can shed light on what it’s like to live within a given community and how accessible the management firm is to community members and how well it tends to those members’ needs.

 Condos are not as private as single-family homes. Much like apartment dwellers, condo owners often share walls with neighbors. That means condo owners will have to sacrifice some privacy. Prospective buyers who consider privacy a top priority may want to continue living in an apartment until they can afford to buy a single-family home. Though condo owners rarely have someone living above or below them, sharing walls with neighbors is still not as private as owning a single-family home.

Condominiums are great options for people who want to own their homes but don’t have enough money or credit history to buy a single-family home. But buyers must educate themselves about condominium life before signing on the dotted line.

What to expect in 2016

By Carley Lintz
CTW Features

 Moderate gains in prices and sales to help drive ‘normal but healthy’ housing market Moderate gains in prices and sales to help drive ‘normal but healthy’ housing market Is buying a new home one of your New Year’s resolutions? Well, you’re not alone. The forecast for the 2016 housing market is one of solid growth and a strong desire to buy, according to two new reports on real estate trends from The National Association of Realtors and Realtor.com, respectively.

Total home sales are expected to reach 6 million, the highest level since 2006, according to Realtor.com’s 2016 housing forecast. New housing construction is a driving force behind this growth, increasing 12 percent year over year and new home sales rising 16 percent. Existing home sales are slower at 3 percent year over year.

“Next year’s moderate gains in existing prices and sales, versus the accelerated growth we’ve seen in previous years, indicate that we are entering a normal but healthy housing market,” Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, said in statement. “The improvements we’ve seen over the last few years have enabled a recovery in the existing home market, but we still need to make up ground in new construction, which we could begin to see in 2016.”

Continued job creation and a 2.5 increase in gross domestic product also point toward a healthier housing market, although only half of the respondents to the NAR’s Housing Opportunities and Market Experience survey said they believed the economy is on the mend. Another 44 percent think it’s actually in a recession. “The promising stretch of job creation in several parts of the country in recent years has the housing market in 2015 on track for its best year of sales since the downturn,” Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist, said in a statement. “However, that only half of surveyed households believe the economy is improving can be attributed to the fact that some areas have been slow to recover and wages have yet to grow in a meaningful way for far too many families.”

Potential homebuyers are mostly tempered by higher mortgage rates and mounting home prices. Fifty-three percent of renters surveyed by the NAR said that they don’t own a home because they can’t afford it.

As mortgage rates are expected to rise to 4.35 percent for a 30-year fixed loan by the end of 2016, it makes sense that about two-thirds of renters think it would be very or somewhat difficult to obtain a mortgage.

Overall, though, the outlook according to both reports is positive.

Realtor.com expects sales to be propelled mainly by three groups: older millennials looking for their first homes, young Gen Xers with families, and retirees looking to downsize.

Renters looking to become homeowners also are expected to boost sales — 83 percent of renters said they want to own a home in the future and 77 percent said that homeownership remains a part of their American dream.

Both current homeowners (82 percent) and renters (68 percent) said they feel positively about the market and that it’s a good time to buy a home. Many current owners (53 percent) also felt strongly that it is a good time to sell your home.

The markets that will see the biggest growth in 2016 have a growing housing formation, a prosperous job market and low unemployment rates as well as large populations of the aforementioned groups likely to buy.

Realtor.com’s Top 10 hottest markets for 2016 are:

1. Providence, R.I., and Warwick, Mass.
2. St. Louis
3. San Diego/Carlsbad, Calif.
4. Sacramento/Roseville/Arden/Arcade, Calif.
5. Atlanta/Sandy Springs/Roswell, Ga.
6. New Orleans/Metairie, La.
7. Memphis, Tenn.
8. Charlotte/Concord/Gastonia, N.C.
9. Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Newport News, Va.
10. Boston/Cambridge/Newton, Mass.

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BUSINESS BRIEFS

Kathy Lo Bue, managing director at Glen Eagle Advisors, Freehold, will host Walter O’Brien, CPA, from 7-9 p.m. Jan. 13 at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish Center, 61 Georgia Road, Freehold Township. “How to Become Financially, Physically and Spiritually Fit in All Areas of Your Life” is a free and non-sectarian event open to the community. Details: 732-866-6660.

Megan E. Galla of Manalapan has been named the banking center manager at Provident Bank, 3514 Route 9 South, Freehold Township. Galla will lead and manage a team of sales and service professionals and oversee daily branch operations. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and is a certified notary public.

Russell Brokstein, a Freehold chiropractor, will participate in the Association of New Jersey Chiropractors “Baby It’s Cold Outside” annual food and winter coat drive. From now through Jan. 4, nonperishable food items, coats, hats, gloves and scarves can be dropped off at Hometown Family Wellness Center, 9 Broadway, Freehold. Items will be donated to the Open Door Food Pantry and St. Peter’s Thrift Shop, both in Freehold. Details: 732-780- 0044.

LeTip of Manalapan meets at 7 a.m. every Thursday at the Battleground Country Club, 1 Covenhoven Road, Manalapan. Several positions for local businesses are still open. Details: Jeff Weiss, 732-536- 8800, or Brian Wong, 908-581-6288.

Firm advice: Consider both agent and brokerage

If you’re thinking of buying or selling, chances are you’ll select your real estate agent based upon a name referred from a friend, neighbor or relative.

Referrals are the No. 1 way both first-time and repeat buyers and sellers settle on an agent, according to surveys from the National Association of Realtors.

But when a specific agent is recommended, should the name of the realty firm he’s affiliated with also matter?

Probably, say many agents.

The agent who worked out well for a trusted friend or relative may likely be associated with a new firm now. In a 2015 survey of its members, the NAR found that 30 percent were with their present firm for one year or less, compared to 18 percent in 2014.

Some newly affiliated are brand new to the profession, but doubtless many have switched firms, acknowledges Maggie Kasperski, a spokeswoman for the NAR.

“One thing sellers should ask about is whether the brokerage has a strong web presence so that their home is easy to find,” advises Angie Lotz, of RE/MAX All Pro in Bloomingdale, Ill., noting that many buyers shop the Internet vigorously.

Firms will differ in their offerings of search technology, too. For instance, buyers glued to their smartphone should put a priority on whether an app is available giving “real-time information,” says Cindy Soderstrom of RE/MAX Signature Homes in Hinsdale, Ill. Also, the commission charged a seller can be influenced by a brokerage’s policy, adds Erika Villegas, broker associate with ERA Mi Casa in Chicago.

Judge independent and national Realty firms equally, advises Marina Krakovsky, author of “The Middleman Economy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), noting that what’s important is the firm’s local reputation.

— Marilyn Kennedy Melia
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Automakers accelerating on auto-braking

By Jim Gorzelany
CTW Features

 Your next car could apply the brakes on its own to help avoid a collision Your next car could apply the brakes on its own to help avoid a collision Perhaps as the first step toward driverless cars, expect advanced safety systems that can help drivers avoid, or at least lessen the effects of a crash to become widespread in the not-too-distant future.

Ten automakers recently committed to making the potentially life saving systems standard in all their vehicles sold in the U.S., presumably over the next few model years. They include Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mercedes- Benz, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. Together, these companies were responsible for 57 percent of U.S. light-duty vehicle sales in 2014.

Other automakers could follow suit, and has been the case with important safety features like antilock brakes and electronic stability control, there’s a possibility frontal crash protection could one day be mandated for use in all cars by the federal government.

Until recently limited to the luxury car segment, frontal crashavoidance systems are fast becoming prevalent among more affordable cars and crossovers, though they’re usually offered only on costlier versions within a given car line, and are often bundled with other features in expensive options packages.

A forward collision warning/prevention system uses radar, cameras or lasers to monitor the distance between a vehicle and the traffic or other obstructions in its path. The same hardware is also used in a vehicle’s adaptive cruise control system that maintains both a set speed and distance from the traffic ahead. Basic systems will engage visual and audible alerts if it determines the car is closing in at a potentially hazardous rate of speed and pre-charge the brakes to maximize their stopping power. A full-blown collision avoidance system will go a step further and automatically apply the brakes at full force if the driver isn’t reacting quickly enough.

Most such systems operate at higher speeds with the intent of saving lives, though a few models, specifically those from Volvo and Mazda, are also selling separate auto-braking systems that operate at slower speeds to avoid fender benders in stop-and-go traffic. A few Infiniti models further offer lowspeed systems that will automatically apply the brakes while backing up to avoid hitting pedestrians and other vehicles.

According to a report conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va., autobraking technology can reduce insurance injury claims by as much as 35 percent. “The evidence is mounting that AEB is making a difference,” says IIHS’ president Adrian Lund. “Most crashes involve driver error. This technology can compensate for the mistakes every driver makes because the systems are always on alert, monitoring the road ahead and never getting tired or distracted.”

In order for a vehicle to earn IIHS’s highest Top Safety Pick+ designation, it must offer an automatic braking system in one or more of its versions. Vehicles earning a “superior” rating are able to successfully avoid a crash or substantially reduce a vehicle’s speed in tests conducted at 12 and 25 mph. To garner an “advanced” rating a vehicle must include an autobraking function and be able to avoid a crash or reduce speeds by at least 5 mph in either of the two tests. Forward collision warning systems that meet performance criteria set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and autobrake systems that provide only minimal speed reduction in IIHS tests earn a “basic” rating.

As of this writing, the IIHS has given a record number of models a “superior” rating for forward crash avoidance when properly equipped, including the 2016 Acura ILX, MDX, RDX and RLX; 2016 BMW X3; 2015 Chrysler 300 and its twin, the 2015 Dodge Charger; 2016 Honda Accord Coupe and Sedan, 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, CLA and E-Class; and the 2016 Mazda 6 and CX-5. The 2016 Volkswagen Golf, Golf SportWagen, Jetta and 2015 Volkswagen Touareg are deemed “advanced” for front crash prevention.

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Unequal DUI laws

Q&A with Sharon Peters

Q: My nephew has been picked up for driving impaired at least four times. Very little in the way of punishment ever happens. And still he drives. In my part of the country, he would have lost his license years ago, and probably would have done time. He lives in Pennsylvania. Is that known as a state that does nothing about DUI?

A: You are correct in supposing that law enforcement/ courts can treat such individuals very differently from state to state. Pennsylvania is among the 10 most lenient states (ranking number 49 out of the 50 states and District of Columbia) when it comes to how strictly DUIs are approached, according to WalletHub, which did a recent analysis of DUI enforcement rules across the country. The group examined 15 metrics, including minimum jail sentences to ignition interlock devices (which are regarded by many as a highly effective deterrent to keeping drivers who have driven drunk or stoned in the past from repeating that behavior).

Any number of approaches could be used, of course, to assess how harsh or lenient the laws relating to DUI are written … and, especially, applied. This methodology may or may not lock in on all that contributes to whether a state is a crackdown state or a soft one.

MADD, using different methodology, also put together a list of the 14 most lenient states. Pennsylvania was on that group’s list, too.

All this seems to confirm your suspicions.

Readers comment: Several terrific readers got in touch with me after a recent column in which I answered a question about gas caps not consistently being on the same side of cars, and that can lead to confusion at the pumps when one is driving a rental car or the vehicle of a spouse or someone else. “I agree with all you wrote,” one reader commented, “that it would be easier if you could count on them being on one side or the other. You should have pointed out, though, as I remember you did several months ago, that in most vehicles there is a symbol on the gas gauge that indicates which side the gas cap is on.” Indeed I should have. I always appreciate the reminders!

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What’s your question? Sharon Peters would like to hear about what’s on your mind when it comes to caring for, driving and repairing your vehicle. Email Sharon@ctwfeatures.com.

Four presale projects every seller should do

By Alex Burnham
CTW Features

 Follow these pro tips to make your house more attractive to potential buyers Follow these pro tips to make your house more attractive to potential buyers One of the joys of buying and moving into a new home is just that — everything is new, and everything. But if a seller doesn’t have newness to offer but rather a bunch of faulty features, the buyers may be scarce.

“Most people want to move in [to a home] and have the work already done,” says Jann Seal, a sales associate with Exit Realty Premier in Wellington, Fla.

If you’re getting ready to sell, here are four pre-listing preparations to get your house ready for buyers

1. Touch-Ups

The easiest thing a homeowner can do to make his or her property more attractive is to touch up the little things. This includes restructuring anything with a functionality problem. Examples include fixing broken doors or cabinets or replacing failing windows. Replace any broken screens too, if more than the window frame is broken. And don’t forget the outside.

“The most common suggestion we make is for color to be added to the exterior either in the form of flowers or through painting,” says Scott Newman, of Newman Realty in Chicago. You should also depersonalize the property. “Remove all personal photographs. Take the magnets off the refrigerator,” Seal says. “Let the potential buyer imagine himself, his family and his belongings in the house.”

2.

Painting may not be the first thing on a seller’s mind; but it can completely change the look of a home. In addition to outside touch-ups, fresh coats on the interior can transform the way someone feels when walking into a room. Seal says neutral colors are the best. “Latte or dove gray gives the rooms a clean, modern feel,” she says. “Keep the trim white.”

Adds Todd Polinchock, a Realtor in Doylestown, Pa: “Paint is worth its weight in gold.”

3. Carpets and Flooring

Alongside paint, new flooring affords the homeowners the opportunity to change the look and feel of a property.

Both Newman and Polinchock suggest replacing old carpet, noting it’s a “relatively small” investment compared to other home repairs, and since stained or dated carpet can be an eyesore to potential buyers,

The same goes for hardwood flooring. Though it is more expensive per square foot than carpeting — the World Floor Covering Association says carpet can start at just $2 per square foot installed, with wood starting at $6 per square foot installed — a study using data from the National Association of Realtors found that buyers are willing to spend more than $2,000 more on a house with hardwood flooring than a house without. Both routes will make your house look much newer, but if replacement is not an option, try to find a cost-effective professional cleaning method to get flooring looking as fresh as possible

4. Updates

The largest project a seller needs to worry about is updating the house that’s for sale. Ask your agent about what items or systems in your home need to be upgraded to compete with comparable houses. It could be anything from kitchen upgrades (new countertops or appliances) or bathroom updates (new sinks, faucets and showerheads).

“Today’s buyer is increasingly interested in modern, sexy upgrades from a much more expensive home and are the kinds of things their friends will say ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ to when they come over,” Newman says. “People love an eye-catching backsplash in the kitchen and hotel-style bathroom upgrades that look like something out of a five-star spa.”

While pricey updates may make your home attractive to buyers, Seal recommends not going overboard. Though many projects can recoup a significant portion of their cost, rarely do they recoup their full cost, according to Remodeling magazine’s Cost vs. Value Report.

Instead of a full-on upgrade, Polinchock suggests picking one or two items to replace.

“It’s about making those changes [that] will give you the best chance to sell in the shortest period of time for the best price,” Polinchock says.

© CTW Features

Protecting your life that lives online

By Marilyn Kennedy Melia
CTW Features

 Cyber security is a growing add-on to home insurance policies Cyber security is a growing add-on to home insurance policies If burglars break in, steal valuables and do damage to your home, a homeowner or renter’s insurance policy usually will cover some or all of the loss.

Recently, some of the biggest thefts experienced by homeowners insured by Pure haven’t shown any visible signs of a break-in, says Mark Galante, spokesman for the White Plains, New York-based insurer that specializes in high-end homes.

“We had one homeowner whose computer was hacked. The criminals got into the owner’s emails and were able to imitate his correspondence,” Galante says.

The cyber thieves then sent email to the owner’s personal assistant asking to transfer funds, and a significant amount of money was fraudulently obtained, Galante explains.

Knowing that others could be similarly vulnerable, Pure decided to offer audits of home Internet networks by a third-party firm for an extra fee added on to policy premiums.

Audits to thwart cyber-intrusion aren’t commonly part of policies, says Chris Hackett, director of personal lines policy at the Property Casualty Insurers Association.

However, companies that insure many upper-bracket homes, often include “identity theft” protection in policies, says Hackett. Typically, such protection can cover expenses like attorneys’ fees or lost income from days spent working with law enforcement, says Hackett. Coverage also typically pays for the cost of certified mailing or notarizing documents disputing fraudulent activity.

In the mainstream, identity theft protection typically is an endorsement, or extra that a client can request added to homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policies, typically costing $25 to $50 annually, says Hackett.

“Only the very busy should consider it,” believes Robert Hunter, an insurance expert with the Consumer Federation of America. But anyone who does want the protection should “read the coverage carefully,” he adds, to ensure that the extra premium is worth the protection.

Perhaps the best protection is prevention. The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security offers tips at http://www.dhs.gov/StopThinkConnect.

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Master of the house

By Marilyn Melia Kennedy
CTW Features

 Single-family homes make up a significant portion of the rental market. But before investing in a property, be aware of what awaits in the land of landlords Single-family homes make up a significant portion of the rental market. But before investing in a property, be aware of what awaits in the land of landlords Looking into being a landlord? No longer can homebuyers count on purchasing now and selling for a profit later.

Instead, buyers wanting to wring cash out of a home are eyeing an immediate payoff: rental income. The foreclosure crisis has scared off or prevented thousands of families from owning a home. But the lure of a nice home and yard endures: According to the Urban Institute, there are nearly 15 million units of single family housing units in the U.S., making up about 35 percent of rental housing units.

More folks looking to rent prompts more people to consider becoming landlords. “Investors of all types approached us to ‘teach’ them on how to become a successful real estate investor,” says Jim McClelland, president of MACK Companies in Tinley Park, Ill., which purchases rentals for investors.

“Being a landlord is more like running a small business than it is like investing in stocks,” says G. Scott Haislet, a Lafayette, Calif., an accountant by trade who also owns rental properties. “With a stock, you spend some time before investing doing research, but then you don’t have to do much but watch it.

“Even if you use a management company, you’re going to spend time being a landlord … the management company will call to ask if you want to make certain repairs, for instance,” Haislet says.

Here, the rental basics a potential landlord should know:

It costs more to invest

Don’t dream about collecting rent unless you already have healthy cash reserves. Seeking a mortgage for a property you intend to rent typically requires a 25-percent down payment, explains Brian Siebert, past president of the Michigan Mortgage Professionals Association.

Lenders also may want six months of mortgage payments in reserve when the purchase is closed.

Property insurers view rentals as riskier, so expect to pay about a 25 percent more for coverage than on a traditional homeowner’s policy, says Chris Hackett of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Profitability depends on the property

Selecting the right property isn’t as much a personal decision as a business analysis: What are the comparable rents? How about vacancy rates?

While would-be landlords may be drawn to the many attractively priced single-family homes, a house may not be the best choice, says Robert Boyer of the real estate investment site FinestExpert.com, which scores specific addresses for their investment potential. A duplex might rent each side for $700, while a single-family home of the same square footage of both duplexes could rent for just $1,200, he says. “It’s easier to rent multi-family units because the rent charges are cheaper.”

Don’t forget about taxes

If landlords didn’t realize they were getting into a business, they will when they file their income taxes. You’ll probably be filing Form 1040 Schedule E, Haislet says, whereby you can take a host of deductions to minimize taxable rental income.

Knowing all the possible deductions, such as depreciation on the building structure, and backing them up with records is something that “people who do it themselves get wrong a lot,” Haislet says.

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Home shopping 101

By Marilyn Kennedy Melia
CTW Features

 Buying a home is unlike any other purchase. Here’s how to stay focused while on the house hunt. Buying a home is unlike any other purchase. Here’s how to stay focused while on the house hunt. Home buying ranks as the biggest purchase most people make, not just measured by dollars, but by decisions.

When buyers reach the closing table, it’s the culmination of many carefully weighed choices to select the home that best suits their wants and needs. Or at least, that’s how it should be.

It’s not easy to be sure-footed through every step, especially for first-time buyers. But experts can provide guidance on navigating the twisting path, ending at the right new home for you:

Meet with a lender

This is not the fun part. Most real estate agents insist buyers get “pre-qualified” — meaning lenders estimate the amount of mortgage a buyer is eligible for — before visiting properties.

“There is no sense in looking … if you haven’t validated what price range you should be shopping in,” explains Cara Ameer, a broker-associate with Coldwell Banker Vanguard Realty in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Even a preliminary discussion of how much your down payment will be, your credit and debt picture and other financing factors involves a host of decisions.

Prioritize preferences

What do really want in a home? Probably lots, like being in a great school district, having a shorter commute to work, or huge closets.

Wish lists differ, with some putting a priority on items others don’t even rank, such as the quality of cell phone service in a condo, notes Jim D’Amico, owner of Century 21 North Shore in Boston.

Analyze your priorities carefully, advises Dr. Seung Hwan Lee, a professor at Colorado State University who has studied buyer’s remorse. If an item you’re ranking highly, for instance, is dependent on other future events, it could be a mistake to choose primarily on that priority. Lee illustrates: “If you buy a home that’s smaller than you want but choose it because of the school district, and then decide to send your son to a private school, you could regret [your choice].”

Scrutinize, scrutinize, scrutinize

In the its 2014 Profile of Buyers and Sellers, the National Association of Realtors noted that 43 percent of buyers said they first looked at properties online, a share that’s been steadily increasing.

When browsing online, buyers typically view a shot of the front exterior first, says Michael Seiler, a professor of real estate and finance at The College of William and Mary. “Only if they like it will they read the property description,” he adds.

But the photos can be misleading, warns Seiler. “Don’t fall in love with a home on the Internet. There’s no substitution for a personal visit.”

When you’re interested, go back at different times of the day, and on a weekend and weekday, advises Ameer. Then leave no door or drawer unturned, checking space in closets and cabinets. Then walk both the inside and outside, noting conditions down to any scuffs on moldings.

Pinpointing ‘the one’

It will be a mix of practical reasons and intangible, emotional factors that come together on a particular property, giving you the sense that a particular property is right for you, says Lee. Beware, though, that sometimes the most “practical” choice is not the best in the long term, warns Ran Kivetz, a Columbia University professor who has studied consumer satisfaction.

While he doesn’t advocate over-spending, Kivetz says that some consumers shy away from appealing features — anything from more square footage to a lavish landscaping — because they feel guilty about the indulgence.

Checking with a financial adviser on the expenditure might provide a clearer view of what’s practical and most appealing, Kivetz concludes.

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