Author Chat: Michele Lerner Spells it out for First-Time Buyers

By Erica Christoffer, Contributing Editor, REALTOR® Magazine

homebuying book coverMichele Lerner took 20 years of experience writing about the real estate industry and compiled a gem of a book, ideal for people buying their first home or plunging back into the market today. Homebuying — Tough Times, First Time, Any Time: Smart Ways to Make a Sound Investment (Capital Books, 2009) takes extremely complex issues and makes them understandable with the backing of solid advice from real estate pros throughout the country.


Here’s what Lerner had to say about writing a book that a practitioner can hand to any potential first-time buyer:

Your writing style is very clear and readable. Were you conscious of that when writing this book?

Lerner: My background writing for The Washington Times real estate section helped me become conscious of first-time buyers and people who didn’t know a lot about real estate. I’ve always tried hard to take complicated ideas and terminology and make them understandable for the average person reading the newspaper. If you’re not a REALTOR® or lender, you may not be as familiar with the language or process. I was striving to make this book understandable for all people.

What audience were you envisioning when you writing?

Lerner: At first, I had first-time home buyers in mind. But as I was writing it I realized there are a lot of people who purchased their home 20 or 30 years ago re-entering the market. A lot has changed in 20 years and this book will hopefully help them, too, get their feet wet in terms of buying today.

How might real estate practitioners benefit from this book?

Lerner: When you hand someone a book that backs up your good practices and the advice you’re giving, it really becomes a way to build trust. Many buyers are weary of being “sold.” They want a real estate practitioner who is willing to work with them on the big picture – someone who will consider their long-term goals and their future. By handing them this book, a REALTOR® is letting a client know they understand how important that relationship is through the home buying experience.

This book will help educate the home buyer. So many people have told me that they wish they had a resource like this when they bought their home. My whole goal in writing this, after 20 years of writing about real estate and finance, is to communicate to people what they need to know and put as many resources together as possible in one spot so that everyone is as educated as they can be.

What would you say are the three biggest mistakes first-time buyers make in their search? How can your book clarify things for them?

Lerner: First, it is important to know how much financing you qualify for. It’s important to do this before you fall in love with something you can’t afford, which can depress the home buying process.

Some first-time home buyers will hit-up open houses and they don’t know that the REALTOR® is representing the seller. People need to take very seriously the choice of a REALTOR® and spend a bit of time researching a practitioner who knows the neighborhood you are interested in – find someone who has the experience in the market you’re looking at.

It is also important to find a good lender. Tell them where your comfort level is in your monthly payments. Really get a good picture of what your monthly budget will be.

What about buyers who are fearful to dive into the market right now? What advice would you give them?

Lerner: Look at two things – their personal finances and their job. As a home owner, you are making a commitment to stay somewhere for at least five years. Ask yourself, is my job going to be here? No one knows the future for sure, but if your job is stable and if you have savings and are comfortable paying your bills, there is nothing to fear. Fear comes from the big national numbers. But each city is different, each neighborhood is different, even streets can be different.

In D.C., we’ve had a couple suburbs with horrible foreclosure rates – but there are neighborhoods in the city with very few foreclosures. My biggest piece of advice is to go and talk with your local REALTOR® about the local market.

I like the questions you list that detail what to ask a potential REALTOR®. Did you take any of this from personal experience?

Lerner: I have bought and sold two houses, but most of the book comes from extensive interviews I did with buyers and REALTORS® throughout the country. A lot of good information did come from the practitioners themselves. I interviewed one practitioner based in Pennsylvania who was extremely helpful in suggesting questions buyers should ask a REALTOR® during their first meeting.

Is there any advice in your book that surprised you during your research?

Lerner: The chapter I wrote about least-to-own agreements. Some practitioners thought it was a great path to homeownership. Others said they’d never recommend that to their clients because the financial arrangement might not be considered as down payment money by some lenders.

For this book I was interviewing people from all over the country, from big cities to rural communities, and there was actually a lot of agreement across the board on most subjects. I was surprised by how much agreement there was among REALTORS®.

What chapters of the book should reader not miss?

Lerner: The first chapter is a do-not-miss: “Am I Ready to Buy a Home?” It talks frankly about what is needed to be prepared for when buying. Another crucial chapter is the fourth: “Finding the Right, Reputable REALTOR®.” If you have a practitioner who knows what they are doing, they will help you through all the steps of purchasing a home that can be daunting.

An excerpt from Michele Lerner’s “Homebuying — Tough Times, First Time, Any Time” available at and


Questions for Buyers to Ask Your Potential Realtor:

  • Are you a REALTOR®? (A member of the National Association of REALTORS®)
  • Do you work full-time as a REALTOR®?
  • Are you an Accredited Buyers’ Representative (ABR)?
  • Are you experienced working with first-time home buyers?
  • Can you tell me about state, local, and federal programs for first-time home buyers?
  • Can you help me qualify for a mortgage or direct me to a lender who can help me?
  • What neighborhoods do you specialize in?
  • What price range do you usually work in?
  • Can you provide me with a list of references I can contact?
  • What is the fastest way for me to reach you if I have a question or think I have found a place to buy?
  • How often should I expect to hear from you while I am looking for a home?
  • Will you be able to give me advice about future home maintenance or improvement projects that will help my house retain its value?

Blog Contributor

This post was contributed exclusively for REALTOR® Magazine.

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  1. I’m looking forward to Michele’s book signing event at the Gallery Neptune tonight in Bethesda, Md.

  2. Michele, Recently you interviewed me for the Washington Times regarding “what kind of home you can get for $350,000 in the Northern Virginia area. I just wanted to say a big THANK YOU for giving me that opportunity and would love to be interviewed in the future about Real estate issues in Northern Virgina. All the very best to you and I hope we get the opportunity to chat again sometime.