With the limited number of homes for sale in many cities, prospective homebuyers are having trouble finding a home that meets all the criteria on their wish lists. That means compromise, a word that some buyers don't want to hear.
"What people fail to realize is there has to be a sacrifice at every price point," says Alison Bernstein, president and founder of Suburban Jungle Realty Group in New York. "There's no such thing as a perfect house."
If you've been looking for your dream house for a year or more and still haven't found it, you may want to take another look at your wish list. Are you being too picky?
"Buying a property is a lot like a relationship. It's a long-term commitment," says Michelle Leader, a Redfin agent in Oklahoma City. "It's OK to have a list of wants and needs that you have to have for your life."
As part of her job, Leader helps her clients set priorities and understand which features they should insist on and which they can live without. She also explains which home renovations would be costly and which would be cheap and easy. She uses home visualization apps on her tablet to give them an idea of what the house would look like with different colored walls or another type of flooring, plus she shows them the cost of various materials.
"Sometimes people don't have that much insight into what things cost," she says.
People will focus on worn carpet, for example, which is simple and relatively inexpensive to replace. Structural defects, on the other hand, can be costly. "Most of the time they understand there are going to be things that they have to give and take on," Leader says.
Richard Harty, broker-owner at Harty Realty Group in Highland Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, says he is sometimes pickier than his buyers. He, too, finds education a key part of his job, pointing out the difference between normal wear and tear and a crumbling heating and cooling system that could be expensive to replace.
He reminds clients to look beyond the cosmetics, such as wood floors and granite countertops, to the structural and mechanical systems of a home, including the furnace, air conditioner, plumbing system and roof.
"It's one of the most important investments they're ever going to make," Harty says.
What's important, Bernstein says, is for homebuyers to set priorities and analyze which home features will actually matter to them in day-to-day life and which ones will not.
"People don't often think about the things that are important," she says. For example, everyone wants a big, open kitchen, dining and family room space. But older homes don't have those spaces, though they can sometimes be created. She encourages buyers to think about how they live their lives and whether not having a large common area will really have much of an impact.
Her company focuses on what she sees as the most important factor: location. Suburban Jungle specializes in helping families relocating from New York City to the surrounding suburbs find the best town and neighborhood for them. Someone who needs child care, for example, may not want to live in an area where everyone else has live-in nannies and good day care options are limited. "The location can't be changed," Bernstein says.
She encourages clients to look at older homes that may have dated decor but have been well maintained. Like Harty, she helps them sort through home features that can be easily changed, such as kitchen cabinets and carpets, and others, like the lack of a garage, that pose more of a problem.
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"When people look at any project at all, they get overwhelmed," Bernstein says. "People pay huge premiums for a project that's ready."
But sometimes the only cure for a giant wish list is looking at a lot of houses and realizing what really is available in their desired location for their budget.
"Before they go out, they have this wish list," Bernstein says. "As they go out, their expectations are adjusted."
Here are five signs you may be too picky in your home search:
You have looked at dozens of homes and don't like any of them. We all like the beautifully decorated homes we see on TV, but the truth is few homes come that way. Part of home shopping is learning how to judge the "bones" of a house -- the floor plan, the natural light, the way the rooms flow together -- and ignore the decor.
You focus on small things. Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are the new buzzwords for homebuyers. They're also cosmetic features that can be changed without much work. Light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, window treatments, paint and carpet also can be easily replaced, and focusing on those minor issues can hinder your home search.
You expect too much. After you've looked at a dozen or so homes, you'll have an idea of what's available in your area for your budget. If you don't like the houses in your price range, your only option may be to change locations or wait until you have saved more money and can buy a more expensive house.
You want something that's unusual for your area. You're unlikely to find a brick house in Miami or a house with all the latest features in a neighborhood of 1920s homes in Kansas City. If you really want a ranch house, for example, you will need to look in the neighborhoods where those homes are common.
You have a long wish list and reject any home that doesn't meet all your criteria. No matter what your budget, you will always want more than you can afford. A wish list is a good place to start, but you also have to winnow down your wishes to determine which features you can't live without and which ones aren't essential.
Teresa Mears writes about personal finance, real estate and retirement for U.S. News and other publications. She's also written for MSN Money, The Miami Herald, The New York Times and The Boston Globe. She publishes Living on the Cheap and Miami on the Cheap. Follow her on Twitter @TeresaMears.