Prospective home buyers should pay extra attention to the local economy and job market when thinking about purchasing a home. "You need to look at the long-term economic prospects for your area. Not even just the housing market—what does job growth look like projected out? What does the population growth look like?" says Tara-Nicholle Nelson, a consumer educator for Trulia.com.
In general, markets with a diverse and varied economy are more likely to see the job and population growth that fuels home-value appreciation over the long term. "Places where you see big companies moving and creating a lot of jobs, that's where you want to be. It maximizes the resale prospects for your home," she adds.
Do your homework. With so many resources available for house hunters, it's easy to get overwhelmed by an avalanche of information. Start by using online research tools such as Zillow, Realtor.com, and Trulia to get a broad sense of your market. Consider hiring a real estate agent with expert knowledge of the local community, but don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.
"People should get more assertive about the DIY research and preparation they want to do," Nelson says. "We're seeing regular home buyers with spreadsheets. It's not that they're not looking to their professionals for advice, they just want to make sure they feel comfortable with it on their own."
After looking at the big picture, drill down to more specific metrics by neighborhood, such as how long a home has been on the market, list-price to sell-price ratios of comparable properties, and the percentage of listings in a given market with price reductions.
Although it's advantageous to have a good feel for your housing market, the decision should correlate more with your personal goals than any national trends or local statistics. "You have to make your real estate decisions and decide on your strategy based on your personal life and family vision more than anything that's going on in the market," Nelson says.
Plan to stay put. During the housing boom, homeowners were virtually guaranteed to make money or at least break even on their homes, regardless of how long they owned the property. But the luxury of rapid price appreciation is another casualty of the financial crisis and housing market collapse. These days, would-be home buyers should avoid purchasing a home unless they plan to stick around for at least five years.
"People need to buy today because they're buying the family home," says Helfant-Browning. "This is not buying an investment you're going to live in for a year and flip. People need to be in five, seven, or eight years to break even."
That length of time could be even longer in particularly hard-hit markets, Nelson says. "It used to be you could count on whenever you bought [a home], you'd be able to turn it around at, or more than, what you paid for it," she says. "Now, the more hard-hit your market has been by the real estate recession, the longer you should be comfortable staying put. The most powerful thing you can do to avoid locking in losses on your home is to plan to stay in it a long time."
Home prices are expected to appreciate slower than they have in the past, so the direction of your career—and the location you think you'll ultimately end up—are important factors in deciding whether to buy. "We've seen a lot of people struggling with mobility concerns around careers right now," Nelson says. "You really want to know what your career path and trajectory is going to look like for the next five, seven, 10 years, and if you're feeling like you need to be able to move around the country for work, then buying now is not the right idea."
While the housing market might look gloomy 10,000 feet up, experts say the financial advantages of home ownership still remain. "If you're going to pay to live in something every month, why not own it?" Helfant-Browning says. "By getting a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, 10 years from now when the rents in the community are usually going to be substantially higher, the only thing that will change for you is your home owner's insurance and your real estate tax."