You Can Land a Starter Home

In the East Bay, it’s difficult by not impossible to find a starter home.


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Photo courtesy Klugmann Media

Amanda Isbell never thought she would be able to own a house in the Bay Area, but after nine years of saving for a down payment and months of looking, she and her husband, Ryan, finally found their “starter home” in San Pablo in August.

And the Isbells are not alone. Starter homes — low-cost, modest houses or condos, possibly in need of repair, that enable a first-time buyer to purchase a house — are hard to come by in the East Bay. But with a lot of persistence and a little luck, agents and home buyers say such homes can be found.

“We feel incredibly lucky,” Amanda Isbell said. “It’s been a long journey.” To get into their starter home, the couple made a tradeoff, buying in San Pablo and accepting a longer commute. They are moving from Alameda, where they rented for nine years. Amanda commutes to San Francisco and Ryan drives to Hayward, Oakland, and Alameda for work, so his trips will now be considerably longer.

Like the Isbells, home buyers who wish to land a starter home in the East Bay must be prepared to make compromises. The Isbells snagged a three-bedroom home, but generally, smaller homes cost less. Another approach is to purchase a condo; typically, condos cost about $10,000 less than detached homes, according to the National Association of Realtors.

“A condo can be a good choice for a starter home, especially for young couples who are focused on their careers and not ready to have kids,” said Keith Maddock of Red Oak Realty. Such couples don’t need a yard for the kids to play in and probably don’t have time for the maintenance tasks that are taken care of by the staff at condominiums.

Another approach: homes with deferred maintenance sell for less, though Maddock acknowledged that most people fix up their homes to get top dollar. An exception might be when parents die and their children don’t choose to fix up the home for sale.

“I sold a house at 3110 Nevin Avenue in Richmond for $435,000 in August,” Maddock said. It could have fetched up to $100,000 more if the children had painted the home and performed cosmetic repairs, Maddock said. But the heirs wanted to sell quickly, and the house was paid off.

The agent noted that there’s a difference between a starter home with deferred maintenance and a true fixer-upper, which might need a new roof, extensive termite work, and a plumbing overhaul.

The objective of those who purchase a starter home is to move up to a bigger place, closer to job centers or in an area with better amenities and schools. As the homeowners pay off more of the mortgage and home prices increase, owners stand an excellent chance of moving up.

While price appreciation is slowing at present, overall prices have been increasing in the Bay Area. In July 2016, the median sale price for a home in the Oakland metro area was $650,000. In July 2019, it was $745,000 — a 14.6 percent increase over the three years. 

For now, though, that’s not so much on the Isbells’ minds. While “this was the first step” toward building equity, Amanda said, “we will be here for at least 10 years. We’re overjoyed over just the simple fact that we were able to buy a home.”

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