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Look homeward, Gen X

Sure they're settling down like their parents, but how they buy houses is radically different

Deyano Manco and his wife, Nicole, handled most of their house hunt online. Deyano Manco and his wife, Nicole, handled most of their house hunt online. (Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kate M. Jackson
Globe Correspondent / March 2, 2008

Somewhere along the way, Generation X acquired a reputation for being antiestablishment. But as these post-boomers settle into middle age and family life, their priorities for house and home sound an awful lot like those of their parents' generation.

"We knew exactly what we wanted - a nice area to raise a family, more space, a big backyard," said 35-year-old Deyano Manco, who with his wife bought a four-bedroom Cape on a cul-de-sac in Ashland last year.

Manco's house-hunting technique, however, was a textbook example of the tech-savvy and independent-minded generation: He conducted nearly all of the transaction, from initial research to negotiation - online. After finding the home online, he researched what the previous owners paid for it and conducted meticulous data analysis using elaborate spreadsheets. He further scoped out the property and neighborhood using satellite images from Google Earth and made his offer through Web brokerage Redfin.

"I did most of the work myself instead of using a traditional realtor because I felt I could do just as good a job finding what we wanted," he said. "Also, I wanted to do it on my own time and not worry about tracking down an agent whose cellphone was out of range when I needed to touch base."

Then there was the matter of unloading the condo Manco and his wife, Nicole, own in Salem. Unable to sell, they opted to rent it out.

"I posted the condo on Craigslist and had it rented within a day," Manco said.

Autonomous, Web-wise, and tenacious, the generation born between 1965 and 1980 is diving into the real estate market as if it were a mosh pit awash in flannel. No slackers these, real estate specialists say Gen Xers have become some of the savviest home buyers around.

"Gen X buyers have a real advantage in the current market," said Eric Berman of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. "Many are first-time home buyers who don't have a home to sell; others may already own property but are planning on keeping it as an investment. It's a generation that knows what it wants."

And Gen Y is right on their heels. The Massachusetts real estate organization's recently published profile of the 2007 sales year showed the median age of home buyers to be 39 years old. But of first-time home buyers, nearly half - 49 percent - were between the ages of 25 and 34.

And it appears that Gen Yers - loosely, those born during the last two decades of the 20th century - are taking a cue from their predecessors and becoming homeowners at even younger ages.

In fact, Gen Yers may be buying the old lofts and converted condos Gen Xers are selling as they decamp to the suburbs, said Kathy Sheehan, senior vice president for GfK Roper Reports, a consumer survey company in New York.

"Gen Yers are not worried about accommodating children yet so they're looking to buy places that serve as a social hub, places that are about entertainment and fun, similar to the places Gen Xers are starting to outgrow," said Sheehan.

In addition to being more open to less-traditional housing spaces, such as converted lofts, these young buyers crave luxuries such as whirlpool baths, sauna or steam rooms, and entertainment centers. And, added Bob Fortin, owner of Charles River Residential Brokerage, their homes must be convenient to public transportation and be near restaurants and other amenities.

Indeed, though they have tried to shed the image of a cohort of cafe-loungers, these younger buyers still want to know the location of the nearest Starbucks.

"I absolutely had to live somewhere where I could walk to coffee shops, restaurants, and bars," said 31-year-old Adam von Reyn, who recently closed on his first condo in Ball Square in Somerville.

Meanwhile, as more Gen Xers become parents, their housing needs evolve: Proximity is less important than play space.

"It's not that Gen X no longer wants to have fun, it's just family-focused fun, much like their baby boomer parents," said Sheehan. "They want organization and spaces where the family can congregate. Big, open plan kitchens and large walk-in closets."

But they do use those traditional interior spaces differently than their parents. Living rooms, for example, may be used for a home office, home theater, or even a game room with a pool table, she said.

Urban or suburban, Gen X and Gen Y also overlap in another crucial area: They barely know a world without remote control, PCs, and video games, so their homes have to be fully wired, said Alex Coon, 32, a Boston agent for Redfin.

"We love our CAT 5 wiring and HDTV and have to have it," he said "We are by far the most tech- and media-savvy generation in history."

Up against such demographics, the real estate industry is recruiting more agents in their 20s and 30s who can speak to these buyers in IM.

"The younger buyers don't like relationship selling or to be pushed or sold to in any way. They want to do their own searching and prefer one-stop shopping and quick transactions so they can get on with their lives," Coon said. "They expect to do everything online, through text or instant messaging or through social-networking sites like Facebook or MySpace."

Shino Ito, 35, of Dorchester loves her spreadsheets. When she and her husband decided to buy their first house, the first thing they did was to use Google's online word processor and document management system for prioritizing their wants and needs.

"We wanted to be close to public transportation, have more space, maybe a yard," she said. "We also wanted to look for a house on our own time so we did most of our searching ourselves," she said.

And having already organized their house-hunting plan online, Ito and her husband decided against hiring a buyer's agent as originally planned.

"To me, having a middle person just to schedule a showing was very unnecessary," said Ito. "Also, this was the biggest purchase of our life, and we already knew what we wanted. We didn't feel we needed someone to hold our hands all the way, just part of the way."

The couple recently bought a home on Ashmont Hill in Dorchester that offered more space, a small yard, and a short walk to the Red Line.

Von Reyn also went solo. Like most of his generation, he consulted with friends who had already bought homes and conducted much of his search online. He, too, decided against using a broker because he wanted to search on his own timeline.

"If my search had been more complex, maybe I'd have used an agent, but it was straightforward," von Reyn said. "I knew the area well, as I'd been renting here. Also, I felt any agent I brought in would want a transaction completed as quickly as possible. I wasn't in any rush. If it took six months to find the right place, that was OK with me."

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the original version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of the Redfin real estate company.

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