So you’re ready to finally buy a home of your own? Congratulations! You happen to have picked what one might euphemistically call a “challenging” time to go home shopping. Or as Gaye Reed, who won the 2016 REALTOR of the Year Award from the Greater Fort Worth Association of Realtors (GFWAR), puts it more plainly: “Our market is nuts right now.” Reed points out that a normal, stable, balanced market would have around six months of supply. But as of this March, the Fort Worth housing market had only 0.9 months of inventory, according to the GFWAR. Active listings are way down (55% less in March 2021 than a year prior), which means that demand far outstrips supply. And that means that home prices are rising fast — the median sales price of a Fort Worth home hit $275,000 in March, 17% higher than one year earlier. Good times (if you’re a seller). If you’re looking to buy, buckle up, buttercup. And read on to get the scoop on making an informed decision and finding a home you love.
So, what’s a first-time homebuyer to do?
If you’re ready to take the first steps toward home ownership, here are six suggestions for getting started:
Recalibrate your expectations. A decade ago, buyers looking for a starter home could start shopping in the $120K to $150K range, according to Bart Calahan, Realtor at Coldwell Banker Realty – Fort Worth. Now, he says that many first-time buyers are finding themselves looking more in the $250K to $350K range.
That being said, Calahan says buyers can start their hunt around $200K. “White Settlement and Watauga both have some nice neighborhoods in that price point,” he says. “On the east side of Fort Worth, Richland Hills and Meadowbrook have some great properties for first-time buyers.” On the south side of town, Calahan suggests that first-time buyers explore the Wedgwood area.
Mark Philpot, a Realtor with League Real Estate, says first-time buyers have some strong options for homes in the $250K to $275K range northwest of Fort Worth toward Saginaw and Eagle Mountain Lake. Both areas combine new-build communities with a strong independent school district. “West of Fort Worth, River Oaks and Burton Hills are part of a burgeoning area close to the Trinity River with strong elementary schools and close proximity to the city,” says Philpot. “In southwest Tarrant County, I’d say that Benbrook has some great pockets of affordability. To the east and northeast of Fort Worth, Haltom City and Sylvan Heights are appreciating neighborhoods where you can still find price points in the $200K to $250K range.”
Level up. Calahan notes that the profile of a typical first-time buyer has shifted over the years. Earlier generations might shop for homes while they were still in their mid-20s, but many first-time homebuyers in the millennial generation are in their early 30s. “They have had time to save money and accumulate a little more wealth,” Calahan says.
While previous generations might have bought their first home before they started a family, Calahan says contemporary first-time buyers may already have young children. For these types of buyers who may be looking to splash out on a brand-new home, he says there are great opportunities in communities such as Walsh and Morningstar. In Morningstar, prices currently range from the low $300Ks to over $500K. In Walsh, homes are currently available from the $300Ks to over $1.5 million.
Get good bones. It’s easy to get caught up in superficial qualities when home shopping. Paint colors, countertop finishes, and flooring choices all matter — but not as much as the most crucial items that form the backbone of a house and cost the most money to fix if something goes wrong.
“Homebuyers need to look at the bones of any house they’re considering,” Calahan says. “Make sure the home has a solid foundation and that the roof is in good shape. Those two items along with the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system are the most expensive items to repair and maintain. You don’t want to get into a house, have the HVAC system conk out four months later, and find yourself staring at a $10K repair.”
Philpot agrees wholeheartedly. “I love a good backsplash and exposed wood beams, but if the roof is uninsurable or the foundation is in terrible shape, the costs associated can be far more expensive than some paint or new countertops,” he says. “Part of homeownership should be about building financial stability and future wealth. You don’t want to be upside down from a house that had beautiful paint but failing systems.”
Generally, Calahan says a prepurchase home inspection should turn up any significant problems with the roof, foundation, or HVAC. If there are areas of concern, he suggests hiring a specialist who can dive deeper to provide a more comprehensive diagnosis and estimate repair or replacement costs.
Pace yourself. “Never look at more than three houses per day,” Calahan cautions. “By the time you start looking at your fifth or eighth house, you will have forgotten what you thought about the first two you saw. Give yourself time to consider and absorb what you liked or didn’t like in each house.”
Know your limits. There’s so much competition from fellow buyers right now that the house-hunting process can get a little (OK, more than a little) frustrating and disheartening. “Recognize that by the time you find the perfect starter home, 15 other buyers may have found it too,” Calahan says.
He’s seen buyers make offers on seven or eight homes and get outbid on all of them. Even so, Calahan urges buyers to calculate how much they can realistically afford and not get tempted to overbid. “If the most you can afford is $250K, then that’s where we should look,” Calahan says. “We’re not going to up your limit to $300K if that’s going to be financially detrimental. I don’t want any of my buyers to become house poor. You still need to buy groceries, make car repairs, and take a vacation sometimes.”
Sweeten the bid. While Calahan doesn’t recommend bidding sky high, there are still ways he says you can make your offer stand out in a crowded market by putting down more earnest money, proposing a shorter option period, and offering to pay for survey and title fees. “You don’t want to break your budget, but you can make your offer more competitive by going the extra mile to help the seller net as much money as possible,” Calahan says.
Gary Linville, vice president and senior loan officer at Legacy Mutual Mortgage, gave us the lowdown on some of the financial ins and outs of buying a home.
Cash is king. “You have to be a diligent saver to buy real estate — especially with your first house, when you don’t have equity from an existing home,” Linville says. While you can get an FHA (Federal Housing Administration) loan with as little as 3.5% down, Linville says that it can be advantageous to put more money down — up to 20% of the purchase price — if you are financing the purchase through a conventional lender.
Get your ducks in a row. Buyers need to make sure they have all the documentation necessary to get preapproved for a loan. Linville says that typically means W2 forms, pay stubs, bank statements, and government IDs. Be prepared to explain any large non-payroll deposits you might have recently made to your bank account. And get ready to read and sign a lot of paperwork. “The application and disclosure forms used to be about 10 or 12 pages — now it’s around 80-pages long,” Linville says.
Don’t get lost in the internet. “The main thing is to get with someone you trust — both in terms of your real estate agent and your financing,” Linville says. “It’s important to have someone who is willing to sit down and explain the whole process from A to Z.”
Keep rates in perspective. Yes, interest rates have crept up a little bit recently from all-time lows, but they are still very low relative to historical standards. When Linville bought a house almost 30 years ago, his mortgage carried an 8.5% interest rate. “Now you can lock down a rate that never changes for 30 years at around 3.25%!” he exclaims. “That’s practically nothing — and you can deduct the interest.”
Mixing It Up for Good
Fort Worth has been growing rapidly for years. This growth has pushed up land values and housing prices, which may benefit some sellers and homeowners but can pose problems for people on the lower rungs of the property ladder or those trying to take their first steps toward home ownership.
“Residents in many low-to-moderate income neighborhoods are concerned about whether they can afford to keep living in their communities as areas gentrify and property values rise,” says Victor Turner, director of the Neighborhood Services Department for the City of Fort Worth. “In many cases, both newcomers moving to Fort Worth and existing residents need affordable housing options.”
There’s not much that individual buyers can do to prevent gentrification that displaces long-term residents and changes the long-term character of a neighborhood. Turner says that municipalities and developers are the ones with a responsibility to include affordable housing units in development plans. “Mixed-income housing increases diversity and ensures the continued existence of affordable housing options in thriving neighborhoods,” he says.
Turner says the City of Fort Worth has provided partial financing for several successful mixed-income developments in the metro area including Mistletoe Station, Enclave at Westport, and Three77 Park.
Dreaming of Home
So you’re ready to splurge and trade up to your dream home? Not even the high-end of the market is immune from the supply-demand imbalance that’s pushing up prices and forcing buyers to compete in a battle royale.
That said, Susanna Gorski Bartolomei, an associate broker at Williams Trew, says buyers should know that dream home inventory is out there. “You just have to be creative and patient,” she says.
Bartolomei says many high net worth individuals looking for newer homes are drawn to suburbs like Westlake and Southlake. Just west of town, she points to a new development for estate homes that has opened at Montrachet, where lots alone have been listed as high as $2 million.
Meanwhile, Philpot notes that some homebuyers with deep pockets are opting to build on rural land further west in Aledo, Willow Park, Annetta, Weatherford, Godley, or Cresson and make the 30- to 60-minute commute into Fort Worth.
For buyers who would rather stick closer to the urban core, Bartolomei is partial to neighborhoods in the heart of Fort Worth and on the west and southwest sides of town. “If we are talking about dreamy, old-fashioned neighborhoods with mature trees, I would recommend areas including Rivercrest, Colonial, and Westover Hills,” she says. “In terms of newer, central core developments, the Edwards family has done a great job in Riverhills combining new construction with an old, established neighborhood feel.”
If views are important, Bartolomei is partial to the bluff lots on Alta Drive and Crestline Road. “There are multiple homes currently available on the bluff with historical flair, gorgeous sunset views, and acreage,” she says.
What if you want to start with a blank slate and customize a new-build from the ground up? “Land has gotten really expensive in the central core,” Bartolomei notes. The going rate for a good-sized lot is around $500K, although prices can range from $350K all the way up to over $1 million for a larger lot on a golf course or in Westover.
So what sort of amenities are dream homebuyers seeking these days if money is no object? Smart homes are popular. “People want to be able to control everything in their home from an app on their phone,” Bartolomei says. On the practical side, safety-minded buyers are looking for homes with built-in tornado shelters. Buyers are also placing a premium on privacy, home gyms and offices, plus gracious outdoor spaces.
In terms of home furnishings and fittings, custom woodwork and millwork can make a high-end home stand out. Stainless steel appliances are still de rigueur, but Bartolomei thinks buyers are going a little wild in the kitchen, moving past the all-white look that was all the rage a few years ago and splashing out with playful color and quartz or marble countertops. Custom cabinetry completes the pretty picture.
How about gut rehabs and teardowns? Philpot says that Tanglewood, Ridglea, and Overton Park are all popular spots for down-to-the-studs’ renovations or teardowns. He does note that buyers considering this option should check to make sure that historic overlays or HOAs won’t interfere with their plans.
Buyers also need to tally up the financial pros and cons of renovating versus tearing down and building from the ground up. “A good Realtor should be knowledgeable about remodeling costs,” Bartolomei says. “Right now, remodeling can cost just as much as building new — sometimes even more, depending on what lies beneath. I’ve had a lot of clients who were looking at buying a fixer-upper and decided that it made more sense financially to build new.”
One Day, That Creek Might Rise
Whatever kind of home you’re planning to buy, you can review flood maps from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to see if a property is in or near a known flood zone. Be sure to check when the FEMA map was updated since flood zones can and do change over time. Even if your prospective home does not appear to be in a FEMA flood zone on the most recent map, there’s still a chance that it might flood in an extreme deluge. But the FEMA maps give you one more layer of data that can help you make an informed decision whether to put in a bid or keep looking.
Stay Inside the Lines
Whether you’re starting with a blank slate on an undeveloped piece of property or planning to tear down an existing structure and start anew, Realtor Mark Philpot urges buyers to check the survey first to make sure there aren’t any easements, floodplains, or anything else that could limit what they are able to build on the site.
“A survey will also clearly delineate boundary lines,” Philpot says. “I’ve heard stories where buyers assumed a property’s boundaries were based on fences, but the survey showed the fence was actually outside their property and encroaching on someone else’s land.” It’s better to be safe by double-checking the survey to make sure you can do what you want before you close on the property.
Philpot says that title companies generally will determine if a survey is acceptable for title insurance purposes. That said, buyers can always purchase a new survey if they have concerns about the accuracy or completeness of the existing survey or its supporting documentation.
Are You Down With It?
So you’re thinking of the big “D” word? That’s “downsizing,” of course. Maybe your kids have finally flown the coop, and you find your voice echoing down cavernous halls. Or perhaps you’re tired of trudging up and down stairs all day and are looking for a simpler one-level home. Or maybe you’re a minimalist millennial who would rather spend time exploring your Fort Worth and your money on experiences rather than furnishing that umpteenth bedroom.
Whatever your circumstances, if you’re a small-is-beautiful kind of house hunter, rest assured that Fort Worth has plenty of options for you too. “I’d suggest buyers check out neighborhoods like Arlington Heights or Mistletoe Heights, Berkeley, and possible Fairmount,” Reed says. “All of those areas are inside the 820 Loop and near amenities that people want such as grocery stores, cleaners, pharmacies, and restaurants.”
Reed also recommends Oakhurst, which she calls an up-and-coming neighborhood near downtown, as well as the Bluebonnet Hills neighborhood near Tanglewood and Texas Christian University.
One thing for buyers to consider is that all of these are older neighborhoods where much of the housing stock was constructed in the 1920s and ’30s. “I’ve lived in an older home, so it would not bother me at all,” Reed says. “I know the issues, and I know who to call if a problem pops up, but for many homeowners who have only lived in a 1960s or more recent home, they may be hesitant to bid on a home that’s 90 or 100 years old.”
Buyers who are looking in areas with older housing stock should do their research to find out whether the neighborhood has an historic overlay. “Fairmount and Mistletoe are both historic overlay areas, but Oakhurst is not,” notes Reed. If the area does have an historic overlay, buyers may be limited in terms of what changes they can make to the home’s exterior. Reed suggests that buyers with questions on specific properties or areas contact the Historic Preservation office in the City of Fort Worth.
It’s hard to find a smaller newly built home, Reed says, because soaring land prices in the Fort Worth area have builders packing maximum square footage onto each lot. She does mention a 55-plus community being built southwest of Fort Worth called Ladera at Tavolo Park that has floor plans starting around 1,500 square feet.
She also points to a couple of new pocket neighborhood developments of mini homes being built in Kennedale — Moderno with modern farmhouses as petite as 800 square feet — and a similar senior-designated development called The Cardinal.
What if you’d prefer a small home that’s closer to the center of town? Well, condos are an option — and they can have certain cost and maintenance advantages over a single-family home. “When you buy a condo, you are just buying from the walls inward,” Reed explains. “As a result, your insurance price is much lower, and any issues with the roof or foundation are taken care of by the condo association.”
For buyers looking for that low-maintenance, urban condo experience, Reed recommends Forest Park Tower, a classic 1925 building that Reed says was one of the first high-rise towers built in Fort Worth. “With only three or four units per floor, both the building itself and the condo units have been updated quite nicely,” Reed notes.
For buyers who who want to be in the heart of the action, The Tower, The Omni Residences, and the Texas & Pacific Lofts are all super central downtown options.
Reed highlights other appealing condo options in the West Seventh Street District, known for its wealth of shopping, dining, and entertainment options. For example, there’s Montgomery Plaza, a condo conversion of the Montgomery Ward store and catalog building, built in the Mission Revival style to be the largest building in Texas when it was completed in 1928.
In terms of more affordable options, Reed mentions the Royale Orleans (a 1960s complex near the Tanglewood area), Indian Creek (a circa-1970 complex located less than a mile from the entrance to the Shady Oaks Country Club), Villas on the Bluff (a late-1990s development on the Bryant Irvin connector street), and Riverbend Villas (a 2000s-era gated community that has both single-story and two-story units).
No matter whether you choose a mini home, a condo, or a historic single-family residence, there’s one thing all smaller homebuyers have in common if they are moving from a typical Texas-sized single-family home — and that’s the need to sort and discard lots of stuff.
Many of Reed’s clients are friends, and she has plenty of experience walking with them through their homes and helping them decide which items to discard, donate, or gift to someone else. Here she reveals one of her tricks of the trade — blue painter’s tape. “I have my clients walk through their homes and put a piece of the blue tape on pieces of furniture or décor they know they don’t want to take with them to their new residence,” she says. “Sometimes they don’t tag many items on the first walk-through, but in that case, I just leave the tape with them and ask them to keep walking through their home and adding tape to more items each time.”
For clients who feel overwhelmed with the downsizing process, Reed suggests focusing on one room at a time and doing a deep cleanout, including going through items that have been stuffed in the back of a drawer for goodness knows how long. She says it’s often helpful to have a friend or family member help with the process — someone you trust to help you make decisions in a gentle and conversational way.
Heading in the Right Direction
Most people shopping for homes are focused on where to buy or build, but for too many Fort Worth residents, “home” is a tenuous concept at best. In January 2021, a Point-in-Time count showed that there were 901 homeless people in the City of Fort Worth, according to the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.
Directions Home is a two-person unit within the City Manager’s Office that administers approximately $3 million in City general funds for homeless/housing services and collaborates with partner organizations to develop permanent supportive housing solutions.
In Fort Worth, permanent supportive housing is reserved for the chronically homeless — people with disabilities who have been homeless for more than a year and who typically need long-term support in the form of ongoing rental assistance and case management. “The chronically homeless account for only about 15% of the total homeless population, but often they are the ones who are most visible and vulnerable,” explains Tara Perez, manager at Directions Home.
In 2020, the City of Fort Worth used $9.3 million in Coronavirus Relief Funding to develop permanent supportive housing solutions for the people who were most vulnerable to COVID. With these funds, Fort Worth Housing Solutions and Ojala Holdings bought a studio hotel and led a huge community effort to transform it into efficiency apartments in less than 90 days. Tarrant County Homeless Coalition and partner organizations helped to identify and qualify people for residency in the building, which has been named Casa de Esperanza (“House of Hope”).
Today, Casa de Esperanza houses 119 COVID-vulnerable, chronically homeless people who were previously on the streets or in shelters. The building has five on-site case managers who help residents develop plans to increase their income, overcome mental health and substance abuse challenges, and navigate the medical system.
“Housing is the only solution to reducing homelessness,” Perez says. “Neighborhoods and businesses alike benefit when people who are experiencing homelessness no longer have to sleep or camp on the streets and can access high-quality, well-managed housing.”
If you own land or a building and would like to help Directions Home with another permanent supportive housing project — please contact [email protected]
If you would like to donate, volunteer, or advocate for efforts to end homelessness in Tarrant County, visit the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition website to see how you can help.