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So you’re ready to go house hunting? Here’s your guide (hint: It won’t be easy).

High demand and low supply make this a “brutal market,” but more affordable options are out there.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New housing construction at The Ridge in North Salt Lake, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

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Going house hunting in northern Utah this year? Steel yourself. You’re entering a brave new world.

In this market, buyers have to act quickly and decisively to snag what they want. Demand is high — and prices keep rocketing ever higher. At the same time, supply is comparatively low — and could fall even lower.

In fact, demand for freshly built and existing single-family homes, condominiums and town houses has surpassed supply along the Wasatch Front for at least the past five years. But the current chasm has reached historic proportions, and the soaring sticker prices remind one of the uber-markets in urban California.

One real estate agent even used the term “biblical” to describe just how historically tight northern Utah’s housing market is these days.

Rather than dampen sales, it turns out, the coronavirus pandemic amounted to a mere two-month hiccup last spring, followed by a breathtaking real estate rebound that catapulted housing sales to new records.

On the buying end, COVID-19 brought not only rock-bottom interest rates but also new cravings for more space, suburban locales and home offices. Remote work allowed employees to consider home listings they once thought too far away. All the while, well-heeled buyers and relocating executives, newly untethered from the office, headed to Utah from out of state, bringing added spending power with them.

As for sellers, they’re out there but in far smaller numbers than usual. Some are delaying putting that for-sale sign in the yard. They’re waiting for the virus to ease and more masses to be vaccinated before opening up their properties to strangers. Others would love to move out, but they can’t find an affordable place to move into, further tightening the housing stock.

The health crisis also transformed how people shop for homes. There are more virtual showings and offers made without stepping foot inside a property. Most homes aren’t on the market for long and draw multiple offers.

So if you’re interested in buying or selling or both in 2021, here are some tips:

Low interest rates are driving home sales

The 30-year fixed mortgage rate is hovering below 3%, its lowest level since 1968 and set that way to promote an economic recovery from COVID-19.

Buyers, some of whom have built their savings toward a down payment during the pandemic, are eager to lock in those rates. Those shopper-friendly rates are a driving force in the five-county region along the Wasatch Front, where 43,281 homes of all types sold last year, 7% higher than an already robust 2019.

Consensus forecasts among many of the nation’s top lenders is that interest rates will tick up only modestly in 2021.

Should I even try to buy a home?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New housing construction at The Ridge in North Salt Lake on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

Well, rents aren’t going down, that’s for sure. Those low interest rates have prompted millions of tenants and people doubled up in households with family or friends to leap off the sidelines into homebuying.

Yes, those prices are steep but don’t bank on them declining anytime soon. The median price on a single-family home in Salt Lake County is forecast to rise by at least 6% in 2021 and up to 10% for condos and town homes.

Longer term, Utah’s population growth isn’t slowing, either. With its economy and labor markets bouncing back from the pandemic much faster than the nation as a whole, housing demand is expected to remain relatively high.

So now might be time to jump in, but beware: Backed-up demand is deep in this market and homes may be hard to find. By one ballpark measure last week, Salt Lake County had roughly 500 homes listed, for a population of 1.1 million people.

Listings anywhere below $500,000 are typically drawing multiple offers.

“I tell buyers the truth: It’s pretty brutal out there,” said Scott Robbins, a Draper-based agent with Summit Sotheby’s International Realty. “It’s a little scary. It’s definitely unhealthy.”

Robbins and others say buyers need to prequalify for a mortgage before they even start looking. They should also be prepared to write offers quickly and at top dollar; agents report initial listings leaping by $20,000 to $40,000 overnight.

Even then, you may be outbid or trumped by a cash buyer at least three or four times before landing a home.

“Especially for first-time homebuyers at lower price points, it’s not uncommon for you to have to bid even six, seven times,” said Matt Ulrich, president of the Salt Lake Board of Realtors and owner of Ulrich Realtors in Cottonwood Heights.

“We’re definitely getting frustrated buyers,” Ulrich said, “who end up stopping even looking because it’s so hard to get a home under contract.”

Added Dave Robison, an agent with goBe Realty in South Jordan: “You’re going to have to be decisive very fast. You don’t have a lot of time to wait.”

People who study housing in Utah say the state had a shortage of at least 50,000 homes well before the pandemic after years of construction lagging behind the formation of new families and new arrivals. COVID-19 accelerated that. In December alone, Salt Lake City saw the biggest decline in home inventories of any U.S. metropolitan area, down 57%, according to the website Redfin.

“It’s going to be very rough,” said Realtor Babs DeLay, with Salt Lake City-based Urban Utah Homes and Estates, particularly for first-time buyers. “And, unfortunately, there’s going to be a lot of tears involved.”

Why aren’t there more new homes on the market?

Utah’s homebuilders have hardly been sitting on their hands. Residential construction topped $6.3 billion last year, 9.1% higher than 2019. Builders have added between 10,000 and 15,000 new single-family homes to the state’s inventory each year since 2016, so there are places out there.

There also has been a shift toward more construction of town homes and condos, which tend to be more affordable.

But even several boom years of home construction along the Wasatch Front have still left a sizable supply gap.

Are there homes for sale within my budget?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A new subdivision takes shape in West Jordan in January 2021.

Sad to say, if you depend on an income that is close to the state’s median wage, it’ll probably be a stretch, depending on your savings and other financial circumstances.

A new single-family home on the Wasatch Front carried a median sales price of $430,000 in 2020, up 74% from 2012, according to Metrostudy.

Existing homes sold for a median of $393,498, up 11% from 2019, while existing condos went for a median between $252,000 and $326,000, depending on where they are located, the Salt Lake Board of Realtors reports.

You can calculate a future mortgage payment under those options online. As an example, a 30-year mortgage on a $430,000 home — locked in at 3% interest and with a 5% down payment of $21,500 — would land you a monthly payment of $2,016.

To avoid being cost burdened, your payment should represent no more than a third of your total household income.

A recent survey of some of Utah’s top builders found they’ve been intent in recent years to deliver more homes below $350,000, in hopes of meeting Utah’s affordability gap. But that isn’t easy, given that construction costs are high right now.

Where should I look for an affordable home?

For one thing, if you are able to work from home long after the pandemic eases, that may open up new areas to search. Agents note the increase in telecommuting as another big driver in housing demand.

“It feels like the entire country is moving right now,” Robbins said.

Data shows home sales in 2020 definitely skewed toward the suburbs of Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as Tooele County. Agents say that reflects both bargain hunting and a quest for larger backyards and proximity to open spaces.

Real estate agents cannot, by law, steer their clients toward specific neighborhoods, but many say some of the best deals are farther out from Salt Lake City’s urban core. Agents point to South Salt Lake, West Valley City, Sandy, Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs.

Based on late 2020 sales data, neighborhoods in the five-county region with homes priced below the Wasatch Front median of $393,498 were shrinking.

In Salt Lake County, they are concentrated on the west side, places like Kearns, Magna, West Valley City, Taylorsville and parts of West Jordan, along with west-side neighborhoods of the capital city.

Prices also ended 2020 below that median in Davis County’s Clearfield and Layton, while in Tooele County, lower-priced homes were largely being sold in the cities of Tooele and Grantsville.

Most of Weber County homes were in the same range late last year, with the exception of higher-priced Hooper, Huntsville and Eden.

In Utah County, homes below the median price were in Payson, Spanish Fork, Springville, Santaquin and some western and southern neighborhoods of Provo and Orem.

[Check the home sales and prices in your ZIP code.]

In terms of homes below $350,000, the trend seems to be toward the west side of Salt Lake County and portions of northern Utah County, where much of the Wasatch Front’s population growth has been concentrated since 2010. Much of Weber County had homes within this price range, too.

Major homebuilders say their more affordable Salt Lake County offerings of late — if you consider under $350,000 affordable — have gone up in Bluffdale, Herriman, South Jordan and West Valley City. In Utah County, try Vineyard, Lehi, Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain, builders say. In Weber County, look at West Haven.

After months of being cooped up by the pandemic, longtime renter Leah Langan, 37, said she and her wife were eager to escape their duplex in the Avenues for somewhere with more space, “four walls we own” and a small backyard. Low interest rates were a catalyst, too.

But the couple quickly found themselves priced out of Salt Lake City. So, freed from a daily commute, they focused on the Ogden area instead and sought homes below their price range, so they could offer more and stay within budget. More than a month, eight home viewings and one failed offer later, the two now have a home under contract in South Ogden — below the area’s median price.

“We feel really lucky, compared to people who have just been looking and looking and looking,” Langan said. “It’s crazy. It really is.”

[Where you can find affordable homes in Salt Lake City itself.]

Sounds like a sellers’ market. Should I sell my home now?

Lots of sellers are staying on the sidelines, due to COVID-19 worries, job losses and other financial uncertainties, so jumping in now could give you an edge. The market is desperate for new listings, and prices are in your favor.

But where will you go?

“Yes, they’re going to be able to sell their house for top dollar, but what else are they going to be able to afford?” asked Steve Perry, regional director of Presidio Real Estate, based in Pleasant Grove.

“If they can afford the bigger home, then it works out,” said Perry, also a former mayor of the Kearns Metro Township. “But if they’re looking for a lateral move or even to downsize, they’re going to struggle because there’s just not enough inventory.”

Some studies indicate most Wasatch Front residents couldn’t afford to buy the home they’re in now — at current prices and incomes.

If you do sell, agents recommend that you finish your home sale first, get that cash in the bank and then negotiate a rent-back deal with your buyer to lease your home for two months while you look for somewhere new. Otherwise you could get stuck.

And while you might expect real estate agents to say this, many experts also will tell you: Don’t try to sell your own home. Hire an agent instead, despite their commission, to help you keep the process orderly.

“I’m just seeing weird stuff, just the creativity, if you will, as buyers get more and more desperate,” said Alicia Holdaway, a Draper-based agent with Summit Sotheby’s International Realty. “If ever there was a time for true professionalism and proper representation, this is it.”

What else should I consider when buying a home?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amber Visra home in North Salt Lake on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

It might help to think beyond traditional single-family homes in more typical subdivisions.

One way northern Utah markets are reacting to the mushrooming demand is by building new housing options, such as homes with smaller floor plans and units customized for older occupants, in light of a crunch in senior housing.

More condos, duplexes and especially town homes — typically multistory units in a row-house style with shared walls — are also going up, particularly in the suburbs, a reflection of soaring land prices and shifting preferences on yards. These may suit your needs, particularly if you’re downsizing.

Condo sales swelled by 25.6% in Salt Lake County last quarter and there were even larger spikes in those sales in pockets of Salt Lake City, Riverton, Sandy and North Salt Lake as well as Springville, Saratoga Springs, Marriott-Slaterville and Eden.

Daybreak, the 4,000-acre master-planned community in South Jordan, offering a denser approach to housing amid ample green spaces, also saw its home sales shoot up last year by nearly 40%. Homes there also tend to be newly built.

Should I just refinance?

Lots of Utahns are taking that option. Mortgage brokers are doing business like never before — when you combine lending for home purchases and a dramatic surge in refinancing due to the record-low rates.

“We’ve been swamped,” said Debbie Rindlisbacher, with Integrity First Lending in South Jordan, who dubs herself the “Utah Loan Lady.”

If you’re a homeowner who has ruled out refinancing your loan to bring down your payment or draw out equity for home improvements or to consolidate other debts, she said, you might want to reconsider.

Don’t assume your credit score is too low for the deal to pencil out to savings; that score may have improved since you last checked.

Borrowers may also be able to improve their loan-to-home value ratio by refinancing, with the option of eliminating other costs such as paying mortgage insurance each month. She said, mortgage holders could better their bottom line, too, by renegotiating from a 30-year to 15-mortgage and pushing down their rate that way.

“Some people have held out, for whatever reason,” Rindlisbacher said, “when they could be saving hundreds of dollars every month by just lowering the rate.”

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