by George Herrera, Realtor & Co-Owner of the Queens Home Team at Keller Williams Realty.
My wife & I recently closed on the our very first home and boy was it an experience, especially considering the fact that we are both Realtors ourselves. Even though we’ve sold over 150 homes in our career, the entire home buying process was a huge eye opener for us. From the initial consultation, to the property searching online, to finding the best websites, to viewing homes, putting in offers, negotiating, inspection, title, mortgage, etc. Of course we already knew all of the steps involved, but going through it personally was a huge learning experience that I’m sure will make us much better real estate agents moving forward. This process was so enlightening to us that I decided to write about it. Keep in mind that we made a conscious effort to get the full experience of buying in Queens so I think our learning lessons and Aha’s can help anyone that is looking to buy a home in Queens, whether that is now, or in the future. With that said, I hope you can learn something here that will help you in your own current or future house hunt!
DECIDING TO BUY
We actually decided to buy a while ago, but about 2 or 3 years ago, we really put the plans in motion after having our rent raised significantly each year. Just to give you a little background on our situation, we started out renting a 1 BR apt at the Pistilli Grand Manor in Astoria Ditmars back in April, 2008. Our first lease was signed at a rent rate of $1,380/mo, and by the end of it all, we were paying $1,925/mo. In 2013 we decided that we had to make this happen so we met with one of our in-house lenders for some guidance. After meeting with him, he told us that we had one problem, I had just joined my wife as a real estate agent, and we also just formed our corporation that year. So, what that meant was that we would need to be in business for two full years before we could actually get out and start looking at properties. During those two years, we focused on saving, paying debts down, keeping our credit strong, and showing good income on our tax returns. In 2015, our corporation officially turned 2 years old, and this is where our journey began…
My Aha: If you want to own a home one day, make the decision that it WILL happen, and meet with a good lender to find out where you stand and what you need to do in order to buy one day. They will be able to tell you exactly what you need to do in terms of your credit, income, savings, debts, etc. This is the first step, and if followed, I truly believe that anyone can get on the path to home ownership. We actually meet a lot of buyers with moderate income and average credit who are determined to buy, and they do find a way eventually.
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Once we were ready to start house hunting, we first wanted to get pre-approved because we as Realtors, know that this is the first step. Being Realtors ourselves, we know the importance of being pre-approved so that Sellers & Agents take you serious, and more importantly, so that if you find the right place at the right price, you are ready to move on it quickly. We’re IN the market on a day to day basis so we know just how fast properties can move when they’re priced right. So, our first objective was to make sure that we were pre-approved by a credible lender. This started with us selecting 4 lenders and having them all give us a pre-approval. We were up front with each loan officer and let them know that we weren’t looking for the cheapest or best deal, we were looking for the best programs based on our goals, and we also wanted to have good service and guidance along the way… So, we received quotes and pre-approvals from all four lenders and then started out on our house hunt…
My Aha: You definitely need to shop at least 3-4 lenders when you’re getting pre-approved. For one, you can immediately tell who is more responsive, who is more thorough, and what their communication style is like. The first impression you get when you’re shopping around will tell you a lot about what you can expect from that lender moving forward. Out of the 4 lenders we shopped, a couple were more email based and a couple were more phone based. One of them even came to our office to meet with us and talk about our future goals, this was very impressive and beneficial. Another one was more thorough than the rest and that was also impressive because it showed me that they knew what they were doing. All 4 of them are great lenders, but we ended up going with the one that gave us the best program. So, you also want to learn about all the programs available from different lenders because much to my surprise, they all had different programs to choose from.
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In the real estate industry we have something called a “Buyer Consultation” which is really just a planning session whereby your buyer agent will ask you a long set of questions in order to really understand your needs, financials,lifestyle, must haves, wish list, etc. This is very uncommon in Queens, but we know the value of having one, and we also know that a good buyer agent is very valuable in the process so we scheduled one immediately. We actually hired our own team’s Buyer Specialist (Chris Tomeo) to represent us in the process because we know that he is a Queens neighborhood expert, he is two family home owner himself, and he always looks out for his clients’ best interests. In other words, he has a good heart and always does the right thing regardless of how it affects him. He met with us in the office and took us through the entire consultation process. Much to our surprise, the consultation was extremely enlightening and helpful. We thought we knew exactly what we were looking for, but after the meeting, we realized that we didn’t. For example, before we met with him, I was already thinking of neighborhoods like Astoria, Jackson Heights, Forest Hills, Sunnyside, Woodside, East Elmhurst, Corona, Rego Park, etc. However, after he asked us for the must haves and lifestyle questions, we quickly realized that there were only two neighborhoods which actually offered us the lifestyle we were looking for. I’m sure this saved us so much time because without having that realization we may have been out looking at homes in neighborhoods we wouldn’t even enjoy living in. He also asked us all the questions individually so it was nice to hear what Abi wanted and what were the deal breakers for her. Ultimately what she wanted was most important, however, I did have a few must haves and wish list items as well:) After the consultation, we narrowed the search down to two neighborhoods, Astoria & Jackson Heights. Based on our pre-approval and buyer consultation, we were looking for a Two Family Home up to $950K, or a 1 BR Condo up to $550K. We then gave Chris our pre-approval and told him we were ready to see some houses!
My Aha: Have a buyer consultation with a knowledgeable buyer agent. You may be like us and think you know what you’re looking for, but until you start talking through all your ideas with your partner and(or) family, you really don’t know. The buyer consultation will get you all on the same page, narrow down the properties for you, and ultimately save you a lot of time and money. It’s important that your buyer agent is knowledgeable about the area(s) you’re looking in too because they will be able to guide you to some alternatives based on your needs & lifestyle. Another tip, if the area you’re looking in is in a seller’s market, do not look at properties over your pre-approval amount. Makes no sense because there are very few deals in a seller’s market.
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PROPERTY SEARCH AND SHOWINGS
I thought this part of the process was very interesting. We sell over 50 homes a year (Majority on the listing side) and most of our marketing is done online so I was extremely curious to experience this side for myself. With that said, I started out by signing myself up for the top real estate websites like Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, StreetEasy, and our own website http://www.exclusivequeenshomes.com. I created accounts and set up listing alerts immediately. In addition, our Buyer Agent signed us up for listing alerts directly through MLS and they were set up to come in hourly which was nice. So, at the beginning what I did was go online and look at properties, however, right away I noticed the overwhelming number of properties available. On Zillow, Realtor.com, and Trulia, I would find listings that didn’t match my criteria, and they would be mixed up with several advertisements and calls to action. I get it, but it doesn’t enhance the user experience for me. In addition, I started getting emails with listings that weren’t even close to what we wanted, and also started getting promo emails which were just annoying. In the end, I was just using StreetEasy and our own website (www.exclusivequeenshomes.com because they were the most user friendly sites in my opinion. When we would see a listing we liked, I would send it to our Buyer Agent who would then reach out to the listing agent directly and coordinate a showing for us. We were looking in our two neighborhoods, but ultimately we really wanted to be in Astoria Ditmars (11105) so that’s where most of our searching took place. I would say that we looked at a total of 7-8 houses total, and I think that was due in large part to our buyer consultation, our must haves, and our realistic expectations. For example, in 2015 two family homes in Astoria Ditmars were going for $950K – $1.3M. That means we were on the low end, and what it really meant was that we would need to be very realistic in terms of what we could get for our money. Therefore, we already set ourselves up for a house that was going to be small, and probably need some work. Our goal was to find a property in a good location, and then jump on it quickly to lock in the deal!
My Aha: Pictures are extremely important, but unfortunately most Agents have not caught on to that. The amount of bad pictures out there is unbelievable, and while you can still sell your house with bad photos in a seller’s market, it will not be so easy when it becomes a buyer’s market again. I also experienced something that I already knew was very common in Queens, Listing Agents who don’t cooperate with buyer agents. Our agent was able to get us in to see any property we liked because we knew we had the right to be represented, but for the most part, it’s just sad and unfortunate that listing agents act like this when there are serious buyers out there who just want an agent on their side. Another Aha was that property descriptions are actually very helpful when written properly. In addition, I would say find a few sites that you like and then use those as your main sources. Too many listing alerts will probably just end up confusing you.
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NEGOTIATIONS & INSPECTION
After seeing about 7-8 houses, we were starting to realize that what we wanted was going to be tough. We had already put in about 3-4 offers, but all were lost in the mist of multiple offer situations. In any case, we charged on and kept looking. Just FYI: I was the one doing all the searching, then I would tell Abi we had a potential and take her to see it:) So, one day I was looking online and I came across a brand new listing, two family attached, asking $950K, and just one block from where we live now! I showed it to Abi and she jumped out of her seat. She saw the pictures and immediately started saying “this is the one, I think this is the one”. I wasn’t as excited because I wanted to be within a half mile of the train, and it didn’t have a basement. However, I was running by the must haves and the numbers so I had no problem compromising. We sent it to Chris who scheduled a viewing immediately. We actually had some hope this time because the property was not a public MLS listing, it was actually a private listing (or Office Exclusive). What that means is less competition when you go in for the deal. Unfortunately this doesn’t benefit the Seller, but it did work in our favor. So, we saw the house on a Wednesday, and right after the viewing, we wrote up an offer. I wasn’t sure myself, but Abi gave me the “I want this house” look so we asked if we could make an offer. Our agent had a Binder on hand and we had three pre-approvals with us, so we wrote up the offer and submitted it that night. Now, going into the negotiations, we already knew that we had practically no leverage because of our terms and market conditions so we were not going to be picky with the price. Ultimately, there was a little back and forth, but we were able to get an accepted offer at a really great price, below asking price which is almost unheard of in Astoria. After getting news of the acceptance, we immediately scheduled the inspection because we did not want to waste any time. We had the inspection done, and within a day or two we had the full report on hand. Luckily there were no major damages or big ticket items flagged in the inspection so we did not make a big deal about anything. We simply told the agent and our Attorney that we were ready to sign!
My Aha: My big Aha here is not that much of an Aha because I do all of the negotiating for our Seller clients, and at the end of the day negotiations are all about leverage. So, I guess the aha is to understand how much leverage you have at the negotiating table. For example, if the area you are looking is in a buyer’s market, or if the property has been on the market for a while, then you probably have more leverage. However, if you’re looking in neighborhoods with low inventory and high demand, you have to come to the realization that you pretty much have no leverage. Either way, your agent can help you determine how much leverage you have with each specific property. So, know what leverage you have, and be realistic about it, otherwise you may end up losing out on a property that could have been the right one for you.
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MORTGAGE & CONTRACT-TO-CLOSE PROCESS
If I went on from this point, I’m afraid this post would become much too long. However, I will say that the mortgage process was very straight forward and transparent, especially due to the new truth in lending act. The new loan estimates and excessive disclosures were very effective in helping me understand what was happening, what we were getting, and what we were paying for. It was definitely a long and drawn out process, but we expected that since we’ve seen it time and time again. As for our real estate attorney, we would not be happier! Our real estate attorney was the same firm who we refer all of our clients to because they are so effective at communicating, educating, and guiding people through the process. We had blind faith in our attorney because they are like family to us, and fortunately, we received the same high level service that our clients get. We always knew what was happening, and when issues did arise, our attorney helped us resolve them quickly in order to keep the deal moving forward. Our loan officer was also very responsive and anytime I sounded anxious in an email or text, he called me personally to assure me that everything would be fine.
My Aha: If you find a good lender who is honest, knowledgeable, and responsive, you will be surprised at how smooth the mortgage application process can be. Don’t get me wrong, it was super nerve racking, but our loan officer was always there to calm us down and prepare us for potential issues. On a similar note, if you find a really good real estate attorney who is also honest, knowledgeable, and responsive, you will have very little hassle with the contract, appraisal, and title process. Your attorney is the person that should be looking out for your best interest, legally, so make sure you find someone good. Lastly, if you find a good real estate agent who cares about your goals and listens to your needs, you will have a someone who is always on your side, and constantly pushing people to make sure nobody is dropping the ball. We’ve seen it a lot in the past, and sometimes, the buyer agent is actually the one that gets everyone to the closing table.
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This will be a future blog post because we are currently in the process of renovating the house before we move in and I can’t begin to tell you how much we are learning in the process. At this moment, my wife and I are tired, worried, and extremely anxious about the renovation work. We’re curious to see what this thing looks like after all the work is done. It’s alot, but it will all be worth it when I can kick my feet up on watch tv on my new couch, in our brand new house! Stay tuned, Ahas will come shortly…
Blog & site courtesy of George & Abigail Herrera, Realtors and Owners of the Queens Home Team at Keller Williams Realty Landmark II.
BUY: www.exclusivequeenshomes.com | SELL: www.queenshomeselling.com
GEORGE: 718-869-0270 | ABI: 718-968-5538