Why lower-priced homes may require extra attention and research

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Prospective home buyers concerned about affordability, particularly first-timers, may feel the need to get creative in their searches. With the price tag looming as the overriding factor, exploring untapped or underpublicized markets can seem like a practical way to even the playing field.

But if your search leads you off the beaten path, be sure to heed a few important points. For one, underpriced homes may indeed be too good to be true. That low-ball asking price may be the result of some deal-breaking structural issue that's revealed only during a thorough home inspection. Perhaps the neighborhood, even one offering newer homes and low crime rates, simply does not offer convenient access to much. If you have to drive for a half an hour to get to the nearest expressway or public transportation route - not to mention the grocery store - that may be a sign that the cons are outweighing the pros.

The give and take of distressed homes 
Another factor in reducing prices, as detailed in a recent Zillow report, is that of low equity. Based on data from the real estate listing site's first quarter negative equity report, the most affordable homes in the country are also those carrying underwater mortgages. In other words, homeowners who are under the proverbial water line, or possessing negative equity, are the ones whose properties are most affordable.

This can manifest itself in a couple of different ways. On one hand, homeowners with negative equity frequently have difficulty listing and selling their properties, meaning these homes that would otherwise present affordable options for first-time buyers are not available. However, when homeowners underwater on their loans can manage a transaction, it's often through alternative means such as a short sale, or by making other concessions that appeal to buyers. Certainly, there are important contingencies of which buyers should be aware, such as whether liens on the home are present or if maintenance and upkeep has lagged while the previous owners fell on hard financial times. But if you know what you're getting into and do your homework, these properties - should they become available - can be appealing.

Such options are important to consider given the other ripple effect of underwater mortgages: By diminishing the level of available inventory on a given market, these homes also serve to indirectly drive up prices for the properties that are for sale. That compounds the affordability concerns for many buyers, causing them to seek out the alternatives. And ultimately, whether those alternative avenues entail a move to a new community or the purchase of a serious fixer-upper, gaining a clear understanding of the building's state is essential.