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New Home vs. Resale: Which is Right for You?

WB Homes - Telford, PA

Maroon and white accents contrast with gray clapboard. The Stanwyck model by WB Homes. Telford, PA.

Is a newly built home right for you? Do you want a home that you’ve helped design and that offers the latest in energy efficiency and design? Or a previously owned home that may need fix-ups, paint jobs, and walls moved around to create the types of open spaces that make sense today?

These are baseline questions that confront many home shoppers early in the process. Your own answers are likely to depend on your lifestyle preferences, financing needs, and the priorities you put on features like high energy efficiency, functional arrangements of interior living spaces, and your desire, budget and aptitude when it comes to repairs and capital improvements.

There are a number of reasons you might prefer a resale house, even if it needs work. For instance, you may have your heart set on moving to a specific neighborhood in the city or a close-in suburb, where newly-constructed houses are rare or not available unless you buy an existing home, tear it down, and build a new home on the lot. Or you may be a do-it-yourself aficionado and relish the opportunity to take an old house and transform it, even if that takes considerable time and money.

So it’s understandable that some buyers prefer an existing house in an older neighborhood. But have you seriously considered the potential advantages of buying new? Here’s a quick overview of some of the important pluses of new homes to think about:

Energy Consumption/Green Building: If you care about “green” — whether that means the money you spend on energy bills every month or your concern about the environment — a newly constructed home is virtually always the better option. Homes built today must meet far tougher national code standards for energy efficiency than just a few years back. Most newly-built homes, in fact, come with energy certifications covering walls, roofs, windows, doors and even appliance packages. Virtually no resale homes offer certifications because they were built to much lower standards — often decades ago, when energy usage was an afterthought.

You can retrofit many elements of an existing house to improve its energy efficiency, but it’s costly. Even then, because of design shortcomings, you may not be able to achieve the level of efficiency that is now routine with a newly-constructed home. In addition, new homes typically offer better air filtration which increases indoor air quality, reducing symptoms from those who have asthma or allergies.

Flexibility for Space and Wiring Customization: When you buy a resale house, you get what’s already there. That may include room layouts, ceiling heights and lighting that may have made sense in the1950s or earlier — formal dining rooms, small kitchens, fewer bathrooms and windows, and the like. With a new home, by comparison, you can often participate in the design of interior spaces with the builder, in advance of actual construction. Plus many new homes come with the sophisticated wiring that’s needed for high-speed electronics and communication equipment, entertainment centers and security systems. With an older home, you may have to spend substantial sums of money to take down walls where that’s possible — some are so-called load-bearing walls that are not easily moved — to enlarge rooms in order to create the flowing, more open living space that is preferred today.

Replacement Costs: By definition, with a new house everything is new, including costly components — such as the furnace, water heater, air conditioning unit, kitchen appliances and roof, — and doors, windows, and more. In a new home, most of these components come with a warranty, sometimes for up to 10 years. With a resale house, the equipment and structural features you buy have been in use for awhile, and may be close to needing replacement. There may or may not be warranties, but if there are they probably have significant limitations.

Consider some of these typical capital improvements that may be part of the true cost to you over the early years of a purchase of an existing house:

• Heating and Air Conditioning: The typical furnace has a 20 year life expectancy; the typical central air system 15 years. Replacing them could cost you $5,000 (air conditioning unit) and $4,000 and up for the furnace, depending upon the system you choose.

• Flooring/Carpeting/Tile/Hardwood Floor refinish: You’re virtually guaranteed to replace some carpeting in a resale home and you may need to upgrade other flooring or finishes. Costs can run anywhere from a few thousand dollars to well over $15,000, depending on your choices.

• Roof: the average shingled roof lasts about 25 years. Replacement costs can be anywhere from $5,000 up.

• Exterior Painting. With a new house, you get to select the color. With an existing house, there’s a good possibility you’ll want to repaint. Typical cost: $5,000 and up.

• Interior Painting: Again, with a new house, you choose the wall colors of the rooms as part of the package. With an existing house, you’re probably going to want to repaint some of the interior. Even if you do it yourself, it will cost money and time.

• Kitchen Remodel: think anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000.

• Master Bath Remodel: $15,000 and up.

Bottom Line Here: Although you — and your budgetary resources — control what you improve and when, it’s highly likely that you’re going to spend money on at least several of these capital improvements in the early years following purchase of a resale house. They are the unadvertised costs of not buying new.

Safety Features (Especially from Fires): Newly-built homes come with modern fire retardants in materials such as carpeting and insulation, unlike most existing houses. Builders also hard-wire smoke and carbon monoxide detectors into their homes, making it unnecessary for new owners to install less-dependable battery-powered detectors. Many builders also back up their hard-wired detectors with battery power to handle electrical outages.

Mortgage Financing: Builders often have mortgage subsidiaries or affiliates, and are able to custom-tailor financing — down payments, “points,” other loan fees and even interest rates — to your specific situation. Many are also willing to work with you to help defray closing costs at settlement. Sellers of resale homes may be willing to offer contributions to settlement charges, but you can be certain they don’t own a mortgage company and thus have the leeway to come up with the loan you need. When you finance a resale purchase, you are basically on your own.

Resale Value: You may plan to live in your next home many years, but at some point, most people sell a given home for any of a myriad of reasons — moving to a bigger home to accommodate a growing family, moving down to smaller digs when children are gone, moving across town or across the country for another job, etc. While the home you sell will (by definition) no longer be new, a 5-year old home will often be more desirable — given all the features above — than a 25-year old home at resale.

The decision to buy a newly built or used home is ultimately best made by each home buyer. Now you know the questions to ask, and the relative costs involved, in order to make the best decision for you.

In addition to his articles for NewHomeSource, Ken Harney writes an award-winning, nationally syndicated column on real estate for The Washington Post Writers Group that appears in 90 newspapers.
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