Home sweet home-ownership. The white picket fence, the persimmon-walled dining room, the tax write-off—the American dream realized. With the dive in home prices over the last two years, more and more first-time home buyers are making that dream come true, many of them with entry-level residences.
The pride of home ownership begins when the escrow officer hands you that thick packet of closing documents, but the reality of owning a house often doesn’t sink in until a broken coil in that kitschy refrigerator you loved leaks water over your now-buckled FCS-certified Brazilian walnut floor.
As many of Marin’s newest home owners can attest, an entry-level home, despite its million-dollar price tag, can also mean creaky appliances, rotting decks and leaky roofs.
Bill McKeon, an agent with Alain Pinel and president of the Marin Association of Realtors, holds a monthly meeting with other brokers called “The Buy/Sell” that analyzes the market. He’s been doing this for 14 years. At a recent meeting he asked, “Are first-time buyers accounting for at least half of recent purchases?” The group’s consensus was yes—more than 50 percent of their clients were first-time buyers.
The next question: “Does the buyer of an entry-level home in Marin need to know his or her way around a toolbox?” The answer: that depends where the house is. In Novato, for instance, a buyer can get a turnkey three-bedroom, three-bath for $500,000. In southern Marin, though, a similar home priced at $700,000 will usually need some TLC.
Chelsea Hardesty, an agent with Frank Howard Allen, understands the responsibility of home ownership both personally and professionally. She was able to buy a house in Corte Madera when the market dipped. Once she moved in she immediately created a spreadsheet of home maintenance priorities. Going through that exercise has made her a better agent, Hardesty says.
“Being aware of the life span of a roof or appliance or even an electrical system can save home owners thousands of dollars in future unforeseen costs,” she says, “and the fact is here, in Marin County, since many of the homes on the market were built 30 or more years ago, buyers can often expect to pay for a certain amount of deferred maintenance with a new property.”
With so many older homes on the market in Marin, says McKeon, buyers and sellers are better prepped with information. “Typically sellers will have the property inspected prior to its listing,” he says, “while buyers walk into our real estate offices armed with information they have found on their own or online.”
Megan and Todd Duplanty are good examples. While living in the Presidio in 2008, Todd landed a job in Novato just as their lease expired. Buying a home in Marin seemed a natural step. Friends referred them to Hardesty and in no time they were driving through various neighborhoods looking at houses.
“We wanted to find a centrally located neighborhood so we could walk or ride bikes to restaurants and shopping,” says Megan. “Also important was finding a place with a good yard for the king of our castle: Hutch (a chocolate Lab). Todd is from Hawaii and having an indoor/outdoor lifestyle is important to him. Beyond that, we were really looking for a house with the right feel: something warm and inviting with lots of sunshine, and we wanted space to entertain; all for under a million dollars.” One rainy, soggy day, they found it.
“It was perfect,” says Megan. The home on San Anselmo Avenue is walking distance to both downtown San Anselmo and downtown Fairfax. It has an open floor plan, a great room and high ceilings with tons of light for Todd’s plants. The French doors lead to a wraparound deck and a nice big grassy area in the front. “We were lucky to find a place with so many updates—granite countertops in the kitchen, natural stone in the bathrooms, stainless steel appliances,” she says. “The house was perfect for both indoor and outdoor entertaining and it was in our price range.”
Unfortunately, when they read the inspector’s report on the house, their excitement waned.
“The report was overwhelming, but we did not want to back out of the offer,” says Megan. “Chelsea eased our concerns regarding the run -of-the-mill issues (the deck and roof) and gave us plenty of referrals. She helped us get a credit for a drainage issue, as well as made sure the issue of a non-permitted bathroom was remedied prior to the close of escrow and then shared the advantage of purchasing a home warranty plan to cover any future surprises.”
Hardesty says the Duplantys were in a good position to negotiate these issues because the seller was cooperative and the market was slow.
“Their timing was good, as it would have been difficult to find a home in the million-dollar range because inventory was so low even a year earlier.”
Since purchasing their home, Megan and Todd have gotten engaged, then married in Mexico, added another dog to the yard and chipped away at their to-do list on the house—in the process refining their American dream little by little.
Home Warranties: What do they cover?
Most agents recommend a one-year home warranty. Plans vary, but typically cover air conditioning, major appliances, ductwork and electrical systems. They cost $240 to $450 a year and are not limited to new home owners.