Buying A Home: New Or Previously Owned?

Unless you have unlimited funds, buying a house always involves compromise. Maybe you trade a longer commute for more space, or accept outdated décor to live in a more established neighborhood with better schools. One major choice that homebuyers often have to consider is whether to buy a brand-new home (or build one) or move into a previously owned house.

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According to June data from the U.S. Census Bureau, new home sales are on the rise again (although still lower than in 2009). And, thanks to the now-defunct housing boom, there are plenty of new homes on the market; enough to last for nearly eight months at June's rate of sale. New homes have some distinct advantages and drawbacks. Here we'll cover the top benefits and drawbacks of being a home's first owner. Consider these advantages for new homes before you decide.

What often attracts buyers to a brand-new home is the option to customize. If you start from scratch, you can be involved in the planning and design of nearly every element of your new abode, but even if you buy a pre-planned house from a builder, you may still get input on minor elements of the layout and will be able to choose the colors and materials for your paint, flooring, bathrooms and kitchen.

If you buy a previously owned home, it comes as is. Sure, you'll still be able to customize it, but this may come at an additional cost, and you'll be on your own in terms of deciding what to do, dragging home the materials and finding a contractor. (For related reading, check out Cheap Home Renovations That Pay Off and Home Renovations That Don't Pay.)

Builders often provide a warranty on brand-new homes to cover any defects in the home's construction. In fact, many states have mandatory provisions for home warranties, some of which can last up to 10 years. This can provide real peace of mind for homeowners because they can count on not having to shell out for major repairs during the first few years they own their house.

The flipside to this is that there are many unknowns in a new home that an owner of an older home would not have to worry about. Is the construction sound? Is the foundation likely to shift? With a new home, only time will tell how well it will mature. With an older home, you'll have a pretty good idea of how well it's built based on how it's holding up. In addition, homeowners can run into problems with builder warranties if the builder goes out of business, or if the defect is not covered under the warranty.

Safety/Building Codes
By law, brand-new homes must conform to the most up-to-date building codes that apply to the area. This means that building codes that apply to the electrical system, plumbing, fire safety and natural disaster protection may be present in newer homes, while older homes will have been built under previous codes. A new home may also use better technology in heating, cooling and insulation. This doesn't necessarily mean that an older home is less safe, but it will certainly be less efficient and will cost more to bring up to date.

The tradeoff may be that newer homes tend to use less-expensive materials such as laminated wood products, plastic and vinyl which may not have the same lifespan as the hard woods, brick and aluminum that are more likely to be found in older homes. (For related reading, see Home Energy Savings Add Up.)

Contemporary Layout
If you are comparing new and old homes, you may often find that new homes have bigger kitchens, more open layouts and much more storage. This is because these are elements that appeal most to today's buyers. This hasn't always been the case. If you buy a house built in the 1940s or '50s, for example, it's likely to have a compact kitchen and a formal dining room, whereas a brand new home is more likely to sport a large, open-concept kitchen with an eating area. Larger closets are also a hallmark of newer designs.

That said, many newer homes tend to be farther from the core of a city. If you like suburban life, this might not be a problem for you. If you long for a short commute, you may need to open to choosing an older house. (For more on weighing this decision, see Extreme Commuting: Is It For You?)

Low Maintenance
What many people like about a brand-new home is the fact that they can just move right in, particularly if they've had a hand in the materials used to finish the house. Every element of a new home is, well, shiny and brand new, which means that owners can sit back and enjoy their new homes without having to get their hands dirty. That said, some people like digging into home renovation projects, and even in a new home might find themselves itching to make changes.

In addition, because everything on a new home was installed at the same time, homebuyers are likely to enjoy a bit of a honeymoon period, during which they won't have to make even basic repairs. If you don't like doing the dirty work (or can't stand a mess, for that matter), a new or newer home – or an old one that has already been fully updated - is likely to appeal to you.

The Bottom Line
When you're ready to start house-hunting, make a list of the elements of the home that are most important to you. Then, when you're weighing which house is right for you, you'll have a good sense of what you're willing to give up and what you can't live without. It's unlikely that you'll love every aspect of your home, but if you succeed in finding one (new or old) that meets your most important requirements for home sweet home, you should be able to settle in just fine.

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