February Buying Advice: See what homebuyers put on their ‘must-have’ lists — and which features they realized they didn’t need.

By Melinda Fulmer of MSN Real Estate

Just as most of us have a list of traits that are non-negotiable in a spouse, every house hunter has a list of things he or she wants in a house. Of course, these features and amenities won’t necessarily ensure a match that stands the test of time.

We asked our readers to tell us what they love most about their current home and what, in hindsight, was clearly just a passing fancy. In this month’s Buying Advice, we’ll look at the real-estate love letters they wrote and compare them with what buyers are
shopping for today.

We’ll also check in with the latest home-sales data that hint at a bottoming market
and answer a question that many first-time homebuyers have: “Where do I start?”

Finding the perfect house

It doesn’t take a mansion to satisfy most of our readers over the long haul. Indeed, for many of those responding to last month’s query, it was the small conveniences — a laundry area near the bedrooms or a spacious closet — that helped ensure long-term love.

However, the one thing that seemed to bring the most satisfaction was a bright open
space, no matter the square footage:

“Of all the houses that I have built/purchased/leased, the one issue that stands paramount is openness — large windows and an open-concept interior home plan,” said reader Alan Sadler via email. “There is nothing more depressing than walls, walls and more walls.”

Jane Curkendall agreed, putting at the top of her list for her next home an “open floor plan” where the kitchen and family room are together, “lots and lots of light” and “lots and lots of windows.” Maybe that’s because she wound up spending so much time in her current home’s sunroom addition. “This is where our office is, and where we hang
out,” she said in her email.

Large windows with a nice view can make up for a home’s shortcomings, readers said.

“Our home is flooded with warm light for most of the day,” said reader Ralph Banks from New York, via email. “We also still enjoy the water views out of some of the windows of our home after living here for 27 years.”

Carrie Douglas, a buyer, said she is looking for “pleasant outdoor vistas visible from the windows” in her next home, as long as it also includes an up-to-date kitchen and plenty of storage space.

Also high on our readers’ lists were comfort-adding features such as central air
conditioning and heat.

“Of all the improvements we have made to our house throughout the nine years in it,
this has been by FAR the best investment,” said Carmen Munoz, a reader from the New York area. “Our home is always at comfortable temperatures and there is so much less maintenance involved with this system than with our old … gas boiler/window A/C.”

Also high on our readers’ lists of must-haves were generous kitchen cabinet storage,
large closets, good-sized bedrooms and a level backyard that’s easily accessible for entertaining.

One thing Munoz said was a mistake in retrospect was the mother-in-law suite she was determined to have when she bought her home. “It has created strife within our family because people think it is OK to come stay there for extended periods of time,” she said. This rarely used space has raised her heating and cooling bill, she said.

Housing-market snapshot: Sales continue to rise; prices continue to dip. But is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Existing-home sales continued to rise in December, swelling 3.6% to 4.61 million, from a downwardly revised 4.39 million in December 2010, according to the National Association of Realtors. The median existing-home price dipped 2.5% from the previous year to $164,500.

While that may not sound that encouraging, economists see a glimmer of hope in the numbers. December marked the third straight month of sales increases and a 5% uptick from November.

“The pattern of home sales in recent months demonstrates a market in recovery,” said Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist. “Record low mortgage interest rates, job
growth and bargain home prices are giving more consumers the confidence they need to enter the market.”

The total housing inventory at the end of December dropped 9.2% from November to 2.38 million homes for sale — a 6.2-month supply at the current pace — down from a 7.2-month supply in November.

Economists such as Mark Fleming from CoreLogic are now saying that 2012 should be the year the housing market starts to turn the corner as the prices for nondistressed homes begin to stabilize.

Housing sales could see a further boost this year, analysts say, as homeownership begins to look better than renting. A recent report from Capital Economics shows that the median monthly mortgage payment of about $700 is close to even with the median monthly rent, making the move to homeownership much more attractive — especially in the face of rising rental rates.

However, at least one market watcher says talk of a recovery is still premature. Lance
Roberts, CEO of StreetTalk Advisors, said he doesn’t believe the market correction is over, given the high levels of debt that some consumers are still struggling with; the high number of owners who have negative equity in their homes and therefore have little ability to move; and the combination of unemployment and underemployment that is making it impossible for many to save for a down payment or qualify for a loan.

“The bottom line is that until we see a substantial REAL recovery in employment … there will be no recovery in housing,” Roberts said in his X-Factor Report.


How to choose the right house for the right reasons