House-Hunting Tips for Educators

Educators have some unique concerns when house-hunting, but a few key decisions you make upfront can help you find the right place for you.

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by NEA Member Benefits

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When Jill Meade and her wife bought their first home—a condo in Boston—several years ago, there was a hiccup with the financing. Although Meade was steadily employed as a teacher, her school paid her 10 months out of the year instead of all 12, raising a red flag during the mortgage approval process.

“We were eventually approved,” Meade says. “It was just a speed bump.”

But the incident illustrates how purchasing a home can be a different for educators. From deciding whether to live close to your school to figuring out what you can afford, doing some carefully planning before you start house-hunting can help you land your perfect home.

1. Find the right agent for you

If you’ve never bought a home before, you may not know that you can usually receive help from a buyer’s agent — for free! That’s because they’re typically paid from the selling agent’s commission.

If you want a real estate agent who has experience working with educators and understands their unique concerns, try asking other educators who’ve recently bought a home for their recommendations.

“Our Realtor had sold a lot of homes to a lot of teachers in our district,” says Kristy Volesky, who teaches in the suburbs near Des Moines, Iowa. “A great agent will listen and be patient.”

Knowledge of the local market is also important. When Meade and her wife later sold their condo and looked to buy a house in a Boston suburb, they found that their previous agent wasn’t as knowledgeable about the suburban market.

“He had a better sense of the market in the city,” Meade says. “I think we were sort of dragging him out to the suburbs.” As a result, Meade and her wife kept getting outbid on homes. They finally switched to an agent with expertise in the town where they wanted to buy and were able to quickly make a successful offer.

2. Set a realistic budget

A Google search will produce lots of “rules of thumb” about what you can afford: 28% of your gross income; 25% of your take-home pay; 36% of your gross, minus any other debt payments.

But you’re the one who has to pay the mortgage every month, so you need to feel comfortable with it.

“We talked about a budget of 35% of take-home pay for housing, including upkeep and insurance,” says Volesky, who teaches high-school business classes. “That seemed too high for us. We had two children in daycare full-time, and money was really tight.”

Kelsey McChane, a teacher in Boston, decided to move out of the city because of high housing prices. “The amount of money I would have spent in Boston wouldn’t have made sense for the space I was getting,” she says.

Renting out extra rooms in your new house may be an option to help meet the mortgage, especially for single educators. But Alexandra Van Buren, an agent with the online real estate brokerage Triplemint (and a former teacher), says ideally you should find a home you can afford on your own.

“You don’t want to have to rely on having a roommate to afford your monthly payments, and you need to be prepared if that person leaves and you can't find a replacement,” she says. “You don’t want to be forced to have someone move into your home just for the sake of paying your bills.”

3. Choose a neighborhood that suits your needs

To live in-district or to live out-of-district: That is the question. Living in the same town where you teach may mean running into students and parents while you’re wearing gym clothes — and could even mean working at the same school your own children attend.

“Living close to where you work is a personal choice,” says Atlanta real estate agent Bruce Ailion. “Some people like to go grocery shopping or out to a local restaurant without being recognized. Others are quite comfortable being approached during their off time. This is a consideration when selecting a home.”

“Many teachers I work with are absolutely fine living in the neighborhood they where they teach,” says Eric Sztanyo, a real estate agent who works in Ohio and Kentucky. “Just know ahead of time that your current and former students may stop by. My 8-year-old son loves knocking on his first grade teacher’s door every time we go for a walk.”

Volesky chose to buy in a small town about 15 minutes from her school for two reasons: The homes there were more affordable, and she’d rather not run into her high-school students in social situations. But her husband teaches elementary art in their town, which helps to reduce commute-related chaos. “It’s nice to have a ‘home base,’ and he really likes having our kids in class,” she says.

4. Iron out the details

You may find what you think is the perfect house for you, and then a bidding war drives it out of your price range, or the home inspection turns up signs of mold or termites. Or, you may learn that your desire for a large backyard and your spouse’s dream of a swimming pool are incompatible on your budget. Still, even if you have to make some compromises, you should finish the process feeling satisfied that you found the right fit.  

“My wife really wanted a garage, and I wanted a fireplace, but those were ‘extra’ things,” Meade says. “Initially, we wanted a first-floor bedroom for when our parents visit, but that was just so difficult to find in a house that had everything else, so we gave it up.”

“Don’t settle for the first or second home you visit just because you think that your agent is starting to feel annoyed with you, or because you get tired of house visits,” says Daniela Andreevska, marketing director for Mashvisor, a real estate analytics software company. “See as many homes as it takes for you to know that you are making the right choice.”

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