First-time homebuyers

First-time home buyers Kelly Robinson and Chris Mawhinney at their home in Blossom Hill.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of closing the deal on your very first home. Countless emotions blanket the moment — excitement, apprehension, pride, a sense of accomplishment. The process leading to that event, however, has evolved significantly in the past decade.

Today's first-time homebuyers —typically single and in their mid-30s, according to Zillow, a real estate website — have done their homework even before attending their first open house.

The Internet, TV shows and insider information have put a new face on finding a forever home.

Kelly Alice Robinson and partner Chris Mawhinney moved to a Lancaster city rental a couple of years ago from Boston, Massachusetts.

Robinson began her research by reading the Nolo book "Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home." Then, she went online, perusing open houses to see what Lancaster was all about. She wanted to enter the process armed with as much knowledge as possible, which, she said, included polling Facebook friends about favorite neighborhoods.

The mid-30s, child-free and self-employed couple knew what they wanted in a home — neighborhood, layout, accoutrements and what they could and couldn't live without. And they made comparisons of these homes on Zillow and similar sites, before beginning visiting properties.

Zillow, up and running since 2006, with a database of more than 110 million U.S. homes, gave Robinson tax information, aerial neighborhood photos, mortgage estimates and past selling prices, all which helped narrow her decision-making process.

"We were prepared but open to possibilities," she says.

Changing face

"I don't remember the last time I met people at the office, and they hopped in my car to go see six, seven, eight properties," says Phil Rutt, associate broker with the Marian Rutt Team for Re/Max Associates of Lancaster. "Today's buyer is savvy in aligning what they want, making the agent more about the paperwork, the finances, inspections."

And, he says, about counseling on the final sale, asking the agent if it's a good property and which one he would pick.

"I'm still surprised when they call out of the blue, wanting to see this house or that house," he says, noting that they have already narrowed their choices, ready to make decisions. "They are used to Googling; it comes naturally."

Rutt, in real estate for 14 years, has been hearing of an overarching sense that millennials are jaded, no longer envisioning the American Dream, never seeing themselves as better off than their parents.

"But it's just not true," he says.

Because of the economic downturn just as they were coming of age, this generation stalled a bit, he said, but they've started to nest. "There is a pent-up demand to buy."

A Zillow study shows that today's buyer rents for an average of six years before choosing a first home, compared to the 1970s, when they rented for just 2.6 years.

And, Rutt says, "They are buying the houses their parents might have bought. … Almost all want a detached house," choosing a stand-alone fixer-upper over a move-right-in townhouse.

"They are very relational people," he says of those ages 15 through 35. "They want to have people over; they don't want to be a bother to someone next door."

Location, location, location

Before starting to search for a home, Robinson tried to remove emotion from the process, and looked at it more as a business decision. Then, she filled out the exercise in the Nolo book about the "must haves" of her future home. A yard, privacy, older, a fixer-upper, no shared wall, "woodsy or farmy … and Chris really wanted a fireplace and off-street parking," Robinson says, noting that this ruled out the city.

They "used Zillow heavily" and, then, picked a Realtor. Jerry Lehman with Coldwell Banker took them to just a handful of homes before they made their offer in the Blossom Hill area of Manheim Township.

The location, Robinson says, is what ultimately sold the property. "You can update things on a house but you can't change the location."

Laura Caufield, 27, says location was first on her "must-have" list as well. The school district was important because she and her husband, Joe, saw their first home as long-term, not just a starter.

She admits to dragging her feet when it came to buying. "I stuck with renting so I wouldn't have to deal with maintenance," she says. Joe, however, is "more of a handyman."

HGTV, a how-to TV channel that focuses on home improvement, gardening, crafts and remodeling, helped Caufield narrow the choices, she says.

"We wanted a single-family home rather than a townhouse. We knew we didn't want to share a wall or a yard." They also wanted three or four bedrooms.

Once they made up their minds to buy, the process moved quickly. "We talked about it in the fall of 2014, looked at Zillow, a lot, and then called a Realtor after the holiday.

"That's a big deal," Caufield says about hiring an agent. "Where do you start?"

In her case, she followed a personal referral. A coworker suggested Carolyn Colon with Kingsway Realty.

They had narrowed their list after researching Zillow and chose five properties of different styles for Colon to take them to see.

"Some of the places we didn't even go upstairs. They looked good on the outside, but … "

In the end, they decided on a Manheim Township single-family home built in 1997 that was "pretty much ready to go." They signed the papers in February.

Colon, a Realtor since 1990, is still a little surprised by the change in process. "It used to be you called a Realtor and they met you at the home with a printout in their hand," she says. "Now, buyers are more educated because of the Internet, Zillow, smartphones. They can see new listings within minutes and they know if they are getting a solid investment. It's also a lot more different to get a loan than it was years ago."

Lenders, she says, used to give out money left and right. Today, they are more particular. But, said Colon, buyers do their homework and come to her "prequalified."

"I don't even show homes outside of their price range," she says.

Thanks to the home-repair TV shows, buyers also are more savvy about inspections and hidden defects. "They know the questions to ask, and they don't mind putting some effort into a tired-looking home.

"They aren't afraid to pull up their sleeves and do the work to get what they want."