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How to Successfully Buy a Home in a Tight Seller's Market

If you’ve decided to buy a home this fall, good luck to you. Your challenge will be not just finding a home you like, but also beating out all the other homebuyers who like it and want to make an offer on it, too.

By Teresa Mears, Contributor, U.S. News & Report

The number of homes for sale is low, particularly in the price ranges desired by first-time homebuyers. 

That means if you want to end up with a nice home, you need to be strategic. Expecting to find the home of your dreams by nonchalantly walking into a few open houses or perusing some online listings is not realistic in this seller’s market.

Here are nine tips to help you get the house you want.

Get your finances in order first. Before you intend to start looking, you should get copies of your credit reports to make sure you’re in a financial position to buy. Shop for mortgage financing before you start looking at houses and get a preapproval letter or proof of funds to show the seller.

Move quickly once you find the house you want. That often means making a decision to purchase new homes within hours of them being listed and writing up an offer immediately if you like the house.

Don’t make snap judgments based on listing photos. A house that doesn’t look appealing in photos could still be a great house. Homes being sold by an estate or homes with tenants inside often yield particularly poor photos. Plus, photos fail to convey the feeling of a home or the floor plan. Unfortunately, sometimes pictures don’t tell the true story, you have to be willing to look past them.

Be realistic about the inspection and repairs. The more competitive the market, the less likely a seller will be to make repairs, though some sellers may lower the price if the inspection reveals expensive defects. The purpose of the inspection isn’t to get the seller to repair every small problem but to find out for sure that the house is what you thought it was. 

Start with your best offer. A competitive market is not the right environment to negotiate a bargain. You may get only one chance to make an offer, and your offer may be one of several the seller will choose from. You need to come in with your highest and best. Remember that the offer includes not only the price, but also your financing package and other terms such as the closing date and contingencies.

Write a personal letter to the sellers. Some sellers are interested only in how much money their home sale will yield, but others love their home want it to go to a new family that will love it just as much. If you really like a house, include a personal letter and a family photo with your offer.

Make a big earnest money deposit. The expected size of the earnest money deposit, and the rules about when you get it back, vary by locality. But sellers often see a larger deposit as a sign that you’re serious about the deal.

Make a backup offer. Many prospective buyers don’t want to make an offer on a house that has a pending contract. But deals fall apart over inspections, financing and other terms. If you found the perfect house, you can make a backup offer that will put you in first place if the initial buyer walks away.

Consider waiving or shortening contingencies. Most offers are made contingent on the buyer getting a mortgage, the appraisal being equal to the purchase price and the buyer approving the inspection. Waiving any one of those contingencies can be risky, but may be the right move in some circumstances.