4 vital tips for first-time homebuyers in New York City

Get your paperwork and team together before you even start hunting for a home.
Get your paperwork and team together before you even start hunting for a home. Photo Credit: Big Alice Brewing

For those looking to buy their first home in New York City, the process can seem daunting.

When you’re shuffling around bank statements, brokers’ phone numbers and printed-out listings from your mother-in-law, it’s easy to overlook key steps that could land you the perfect place. In many cases one document or phone call could make all the difference, especially in the heat of the summer market frenzy.

We asked New York City real estate experts as well as a recent homebuyer for insider tips to help those who are starting their search this season:

Be prepared

Before you begin the apartment-hunting process, get your team and documents together.

Start by getting pre-approved for a mortgage, suggested Jonathan Miller, CEO of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel Inc.

“It behooves you to know how much you can really spend, no matter what the market conditions are,” he said.

Plus, he added, you want to have some funds leftover for renovations: “What good is barely qualifying for a house – being house-rich and lifestyle-poor?”

Caroline Bass, a sales broker with Citi Habitats, advises her clients to find a real estate attorney as early as possible.

When you find your dream pad, “you want to submit an offer with an attorney,” she said. “It shows that you’re organized. It really shows that you’re serious and it really cuts down on time.”

And if you’re getting a monetary gift to help with the down-payment, move it into your bank account as early as possible as co-op boards will look at your last three months’ bank statements, she said.

Finally, “write an introduction letter, whether it’s a condo or a co-op, with a little bio and a little background information,” Bass said. “You really want to stand out and you never know what’s going to strike a chord with a seller.”

Do some legwork

Don’t just rely on your professional team to do all the homework, suggested Michael Durant, a 28-year-old CPA who learned by experience when he bought his first apartment in Highbridge in March 2010.

“Read up on the pros and cons of different ownership types, condos vs. co-ops,” he said, adding that he chose to buy a co-op because the board screens his potential new neighbors.

The best way to learn about a neighborhood is to go and see it for yourself, he said.

“Visit a local community board meeting, it is a good way to know what the city is trying to do and what your neighbors are frustrated with,” Durant recommended.

“I wish I had visited the community board beforehand,” he recalled. “I would’ve known the city was looking to make a number of investments in the neighborhood, including moving Yankee Stadium.”

Pick the right nabe for you

Every New York City neighborhood has unique aspects.

“You can find somewhere to start a family, somewhere to be a student, or somewhere to be an artist in a loft with other artists,” advised Shane Leese, a data scientist at the listings site RentHop.

“Beware of buying a place with a great view in a developing area, especially if you’re not too high up and there’s space between you and that park where another building could pop up,” he added.

However, on the flip side, “if you don’t mind some construction noise, grabbing a place where the seller has just decided they can’t take all the development around them can offer a good deal.”

Proof is in the pictures

Online listings’ photos can give as much information as their descriptions, especially for properties in the outer-boroughs.

When Miller and his wife were looking to buy their first house one summer, they were weary of listings that had snow in their photos, indicating that the properties had been on the market for months.

“It hadn’t snowed since January, so chances are they were priced too high to sell,” he said. “If the seller was disconnected on the price, they’d probably be disconnected on everything.”