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    Housing Solutions Lab
    Friday, March 01, 2024

    A Navy family’s story: Interest-rate hikes undercut buying power

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    Lauren Pifer and her family were preparing to pull off a feat — a cross-country move from Washington State to southeast Connecticut. Pifer’s husband is a Navy officer now stationed at the submarine base in Groton.

    Their family was accustomed to the logistics of a long-distance relocation, moving four prior times on orders from the U.S. Navy.

    This time, they had the benefit of having her husband’s eyes on the ground in Connecticut. He’d come early to take a three-month training course and got the lay of the land, which helped them decide where they might like to buy a home and settle in.

    From her remote location in Washington state, his wife found a local real estate agent to help them navigate the market — Tony Walstra, a Realtor with William Pitt Sotheby’s in Old Lyme.

    “We were excited to buy again and to be homeowners,” she recalled

    “We weren’t sure how long the process was going to take. We knew the market was kind of crazy. We were seeing it in Washington, but we didn’t really have a sense for how crazy,” she said.

    Walstra forewarned the couple that homes in New London County weren’t staying on the market for long, sometimes listing and going under contract in a weekend, or even in a single day.

    “We had to think fast about exactly what we were looking for, because if we found it, we wanted to be able to jump on it,” Pifer said.

    They had a budget in mind and planned to leverage a VA loan, but the market conditions, the local property tax rates, and rising interest rates caused them to re-calibrate. The couple also knew they’d have to bid high, maybe even tens of thousands of dollars above an asking price to earn a seller’s nod.

    It was the nature of the 2022 market.

    “We couldn’t look within our original budget. We had to look $50,000 to $100,000 below it,” she said.

    In 2022, the Federal Reserve first increased interest rates in March and subsequently raised them two additional times by late summer. Another increase came in September, and each time, it had a real and measurable impact on buyers who were in the throes of looking for a home.

    “We started out with a certain amount of buying power based on what the rates were, and then every two or three weeks, starting in February, we saw our buying power go away,” Pifer said. “We had to change our expectations. We had to change what we were willing to accept.”

    They’d hoped for a four-bedroom single-family home in a neighborhood setting, with about 2,400 square feet of living space.

    “And then suddenly, it was OK, we’re looking for a 1,500-square-foot home with three bedrooms. It drastically affected what we were able to buy, because the interest rates were going up, but also because houses were so much more expensive than they were two years ago,” Pifer explained.

    Comparing the first half of 2021 to same time period in 2022, the average sales price for single-family homes in New London County increased by a remarkable +15.5%, according to SmartMLS data.

    Though they were cognizant that orders would likely take their family to another post in a matter of years, they had to think longer-term and strategically about this property.

    “Because of the market, and because we bought at the top of it, we knew there was no way we’re selling this in 10 years,” she said. “We’re going to have to hold onto this and rent it.”

    That narrowed their options further, because they knew a home closer to the base would be easier to rent, so they targeted Ledyard and Gales Ferry.

    "We were having a hard time finding something that was worth the money,” she said. Many of the homes needed major work, which discounted them because of the VA loan considerations. Still, they resolved themselves to a house that needed a little work but otherwise had “good bones.”

    They locked in their interest rate and made three unsuccessful bids — a familiar experience to so many buyers who've been trying to find an affordable home in the past year.

    Though Pifer can’t say for sure why those bids didn’t resonate with the sellers, she felt it may have been their VA loan that put them at a disadvantage, because they weren’t able to make concessions that other buyers could make — waiving their right to a home inspection, for example.

    “Every rejection we got, we couldn’t help but feel like it was the VA loan—that they were worried about the home not appraising or what might be found as a result of the home inspection, so they just went with the easier route,” Pifer said. “And even though that may not have been the case, we’ll never know. It was just really hard not feeling that way.”

    There were periods when the couple feared they might not find a home to buy at all and considered renting, but the rental market was even more prohibitive.

    “There was nothing. It came down to not having a choice but to buy,” she said.

    The fourth time they bid on a home, they landed it—a four-bedroom house in Gales Ferry, close to the base and in a neighborhood, among other families. They had to bid high, and they offered the seller the assurances of an appraisal gap clause, which says that the buyer will “make up the difference” between the appraiser’s valuation and what the buyer agreed to pay for the home.

    They also picked up all the closing costs. In past home buying experiences, the seller had picked up at least half of the closing costs.

    “We were told, it’s not even a question in this market,” she said.

    The house wasn’t turnkey. It needed some work, including a new septic system, which they replaced within a month of moving in.

    For the Pifers, it was a happy ending. Their tenacity, combined with their Realtor’s counsel, helped them navigate the market's challenges.

    “We love our neighborhood,” Pifer said. “We love Gales Ferry. We’re really happy to be here. It was a roller coaster getting here, but it all ended up working out well for us,” she said.

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