When it comes to purchasing their first homes, young couples say affordable mortgage loans, prime neighborhoods, stellar school districts, and convenient commuting options are at the top of their wish lists – not to mention maintaining strict budgets – in an effort to make their dreams of becoming homeowners on Staten Island a reality.
With the cost of living on the rise and many families struggling to make ends meet, young couples say the first step to buying a new home is to prioritize and strategize – saving money and making lifestyle changes – years before actually starting the search for their dream home.
When Meramonnie and Joseph Mongelli began saving for their current home, affordability was their top priority. Secondarily, they wanted to find a single-family home on a cul de sac in a convenient family-friendly neighborhood with parks and playgrounds in walking distance, as well as top-notch schools and good public transportation options.
They budgeted like other families – and made every penny count, according to Ms. Mongelli, 30 who has recently launched her own event planning business with her sister in law.
The couple saved without help from family members – and even postponed plans for a formal wedding and reception. They were lucky to have some unwanted property they sold for cash.
“We were really frugal and cut where we could,” Ms. Mongelli, who is also a big advocate of DIY projects said. “If we were $50 over budget, we didn’t do it.”
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Little did they know that their goal of affording their own first home would become an even more challenging milestone when they learned they were expecting the birth of their first child in the same year.
They scaled back on, or avoided, many luxuries they previously enjoyed, such as going out to dinner, vacations, and holiday gift-giving, and Mr. Mongelli, 31, a supervisor for Con Ed, brought his own breakfast and lunch to work.
“We shopped around for sales on groceries, and when it came to the baby, I nursed her so that cut food costs,” Mrs. Mongelli explained. She even made her own baby food and juices to offset the additional expenses that come with owning a new home, such as increased utility bills.
When they moved into their new two-story home in Southeast Annadale last year from their small Brooklyn apartment, they knew all their sacrifices had paid off.
Meanwhile, Melissa and Daniel Hurtado also reaped the benefits of maintaining a disciplined savings routine – owning a semi-attached home with a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in Port Richmond that has all three of Mrs. Hurtado’s wish list items – three bedrooms, and a basement and backyard.
Depositing their income tax return for four consecutive years and sacrificing big family vacations and other activities, the couple was able to afford a home in Staten Island after their hopes of purchasing a home in New Jersey were crushed by the reality of exorbitant property taxes.
They searched for a year and were hoping to find a home through a short sale or a foreclosure as a way to avoid the $600,000 to $700,000 price tag of the average three-bedroom homes they were seeing on Staten Island.
“We did the math, and with all the bills and our social life, we decided we would lower our price range to the upper $300s,” said Mrs. Hurtado, 37, a retail store supervisor. Her husband, Daniel, 32, is a machine operator.
As they were eagerly awaiting the closing in February, she said the couple had been living in her mom’s two-family home in Bulls Head and paying rent as they continued to build a nest egg for their growing family, which includes three sons ranging in age from 5 to 14.
Couples like the Hurtado’s said Staten Island was the most affordable – both in terms of the cost of the homes and the property taxes. “We decided to buy on Staten Island because it’s the cheapest of all the boroughs that we could afford,” Ms. Mongelli agreed. She said they attempted to buy a home four years earlier, but didn’t have enough resources to make a full commitment.
This time, she said they stuck to a tight budget and decided to shop for a home below the amount they were pre-approved for – not at the top of their budget – so they could stay within their means.
They researched mortgage brokers, but Ms. Mongelli said they ultimately settled on a recommendation from a friend. He negotiated the terms of their mortgage, crunching numbers until the couple was content and under budget. “He was honest and we felt comfortable with him,” Mrs. Mongelli said.
Licensed real estate agent Dawn Eugenio of DiTommaso Real Estate in New Dorp said young couples share similar priorities and can become stressed when the market doesn’t cooperate. “Most young first-time home buyers are looking for three-bedroom, two-bath homes with a nice size yard for a possible growing family, and always a good location with a good school district,” she said.
Ms. Mongelli said they researched a neighborhood that would offer quality schools for their now 15-month-old daughter, and wanted a neighborhood that would hold or increase in value with the changing real estate market.
She suggested first-time buyers research schools before submitting a down payment on a home. “Just don’t think about elementary school – think about at least up to junior high school,” she said.
Mrs. Hurtado said the quality of schools in her new neighborhood was important, since one of her sons will need to switch schools. It was less of a concern, however, for her high schooler and other son who will remain in his current school.
Besides good schools, couples also look for homes in walking distance to public transportation, according to Mrs. Eugenio. “A lot of buyers work off the island,” she noted.
“Today’s market is very competitive,” Mrs. Eugenio added. “We are still at decent mortgage rates, but inventory on the island is very limited, which makes it very frustrating for anxious first-time buyers.”
Ms. Mongelli said they were felt they purchased their home in a buyer’s market, and were able to secure an attractive interest rate and a long-term real estate investment, although the high cost of a new roof wasn’t in their budget and almost cost her the home. However, after some negotiation, the seller lowered the price to cover the roof replacement and seal the deal.
Mrs. Hurtado said patience and will power are two traits that helped them land their home. “We were getting so disgusted because we just wanted a home and we just wanted to give up because we couldn’t afford what I wanted. She admitted finding the right home was a challenge, but said sacrificing and staying focused helped them finally discover the right home they cherish.
“Take your time and don’t settle for the first thing,” Mrs. Hurtado advised.
Ms. Mongelli, meanwhile, said she and Mr. Mongelli felt their strict budget, self-discipline, and well thought out planning process helped them find their desired home and achieve their top priorities, minimizing their anxiety and pressure in a challenging market.
“Timing is everything,” Mrs. Mongelli said. “You have to plan and have to do your homework.”
By Christine Albano, a Staten Island-based writer and mother of three who has owned her own home for 20 years.