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What first-time home buyers should know right now

It is an exciting yet strange time to be a first-time home buyer. Interest rates are rising, which is nerve-wracking, but are still relatively low, which is attractive. The market is competitive and, in many areas, favors sellers. There are, of course, some general home-buying dos and don’ts which change little over time (make sure you can afford the monthly mortgage payment, do an inspection, have your financing in place, carefully evaluate whether you should actually buy, not rent…).But if you want to buy a home now or now-ish, what should you know about navigating today’s market?To find out, we asked Steve Wydler, a broker who works in a market known as the DMV — Washington, DC, and nearby suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. It’s a competitive seller’s market, and as such it provides useful examples and guidance for navigating similar markets in other parts of the country. Here’s what we learned.

Don’t believe the hype

“A lot of people are hyper-focused on interest rates now, and there’s a lot of ‘I missed the window, I should’ve bought three months ago,’” says Wydler. “But Freddie Mac has a great website that shows interest rates going back 50 years, and if you look, we’re still near historical lows.”This means that if you have a nagging feeling that you should buy right now, or if you’re crippled by financial FOMO, you should probably tune it out and make your decision calmly, once you’ve checked your finances and really figured out what kind of home you want to buy, even if the rate rises a little during the process.“Buying something today at a rate you think is high is OK,” says Wydler. “If it goes up, you’ll feel like a genius. If it goes down you can refinance. In general, I don’t think the interest rate should impact the decision beyond making sure you can afford the monthly payment.”

An agent can help

You always need a good agent when buying a home, but in a competitive market, it’s particularly important: you may need to make big decisions quickly, so you need someone who can help you make good choices at speed.An agent who really knows your market is also well positioned to help you spot a good opportunity when it comes along. “Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is the first property a buyer sees is actually the best one, but they have to see another 10 to validate that,” says Wydler. “By the time they see them, that first one’s gone.”An agent who knows the market can help you avoid that situation by telling you when you have, in fact, stumbled on something good quickly. Just as important, he or she can also tell you when you just think the first place you saw is the deal of the century, but it actually isn’t. A good agent can also show you off-market properties, which is useful now that many people — regular folk as well as professionals — have access to the same listings online.

Consider your priorities

But before you start looking at properties, there’s some prep to do. “I like to establish a must-have and a nice-to-have list,” says Wydler. “Must-have should be as short as possible and nice-to-have as long as possible. And it’s encouraged for those lists to change as we go out and look at properties.” Because so many listings are online, it’s important to go through those lists in great detail, since a buyer is dealing with rigid search terms, not a human being who can interpret nuance.

For example, let’s say you tell your agent that you want five bedrooms, but in fact you want to use one of those rooms as an office: “The search criteria are hard,” says Wydler. “If you search ‘minimum five bedrooms’ you will not see properties with four bedrooms and an office,” so you should be as detailed as possible about your needs.

The same idea applies if you want a two-car garage in order to use one of those parking spots as a workshop or for storage: Search only for “two-car garage” and properties with a one-car garage and an additional workshop space won’t come up.

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