Ben Klick, 23, joins the homeowning ranks despite a modest income

It's a modest house in an unassuming neighborhood, but the 50-year-old Gateway area dwelling is extraordinary in the eyes of Ben Klick.

Record low interest rates have prompted many to wade into the home-buying market, but Klick is not like most home buyers: His age sets him apart.

'When I was 19, I was half a percent away from qualifying for a house,' recalls Klick, now 23.

No stranger to hard work, Klick started mowing lawns for money when he was 12. He worked for the Portland Rockies and Thriftway as a teenager. These days he holds down two jobs for a combined workweek of around 60 hours.

With interest rates down and his income up, Klick decided last winter it was time to find out if he could move from the ranks of renter to mortgage-payment maker. After learning he could likely qualify for a loan of up to $130,000, the hunt was on.

Though he's considerably younger than the average homeowner, Klick doesn't consider himself a novelty. 'My mom bought her first house when she was 18,' he says.

Owning a house has made Klick the envy of his peers. 'A lot of people say, 'I wish I could do that,'' he says.

He tells others he's not so special. 'They can (buy a home) if they choose to, but it's all about priorities and choices.'

For instance, Klick says he'd love to be driving a new car, but knew the debt would have made qualifying for a home loan dubious. 'I'd rather have the equity now and have the other luxury later,' he reasons.

Klick also has heard his comrades say they'd rather rent and save up for a dream house than start small or with a fixer-upper. The psychology student takes a practical view on the subject: 'Either I'm paying my mortgage or paying somebody else's mortgage.'

On the lookout

Klick says the need to find 'something that was within my price range' drove his house hunting. After crunching numbers with Julee Felsman, a senior loan consultant in Equity Home Mortgage's Broadway office, Klick learned his upper threshold of payment pain was a loan amount of $130,000.

Though his preapproved loan amount fell at the modest end of the Portland area home market, Klick's stepfather, Mark Schaeffer, an associate broker in Re/Max Equity Group's Broadway office, managed to generate plenty of leads for Klick to investigate. 'He'd print off stuff and say, ''Drive by and see if you like them, and those that look good from the outside, we can take a look at.' Some (houses) were good, and some were like, 'Who the heck did this?' ' Klick says.

Over the course of a couple months, he says: 'I probably drove around to around 100 houses. After a while É I couldn't remember which house is what. I'd look at all my pieces of paper and think, 'Did I look at this one?' '

Sold on Hazelwood

Klick's search ended in Hazelwood, a Northeast Portland neighborhood south of Interstate 84 and just east of Interstate 205, an area more commonly known as Gateway.

After inspections, negotiations and acceptance, Klick received the keys to his residence, which he purchased for $115,000, on March 31.

'I probably bought the crappiest house on the block,' he says matter-of-factly. More tactfully, he describes the place as a former rental house, with deferred maintenance.

Klick has some big-ticket items to take care of right away, including installing a new roof and furnace. Beyond that, most of the other details are cosmetic.

'It's a situation where if I spend time working on it, with each (improvement), I get instant equity,' he says.

'I have help. I have an uncle who remodels houses, a friend who is an electrician, and my roommate works for Sherwin-Williams,' Klick says. 'I'm getting all their mismatched paint. Anyone who's been owing me favors for a long time, I'm calling them all in!'

Aesthetics aside, there's plenty to like about the house.

'It's the right size, about 1,050 square feet. It's big enough for what I want now and in five to six years if I want to have a family, it's got a big enough yard.' Klick says. 'It's got two bedrooms plus a bonus room. I could put a closet in it and (make) it a bedroom. That way, I can rent out two rooms if I want.'

Klick already has one renter-roommate, Jesse Kerr. 'We've been best friends since second grade. We've lived together since we were 18,' Klick says. Up until now, the two have moved every six months or so, when their apartment leases expired. This time, Klick is looking forward to putting down some roots.

Group effort

Klick says teamwork helped make the home-buying roller coaster ride a rewarding experience.

A knowledgeable lender can spell out all of the financing possibilities. 'Pretty much there's a (loan package) for anything you're after. It's just a matter of if the mortgage broker knows about it,' Klick says.

Says loan officer Felsman: 'There are a remarkable number of loan programs available for first-time home buyers. A lot of the challenge for first-time buyers today is coming up with the down payment. In Ben's instance, the loan we did doesn't require a down payment, and the seller pays a vast majority of the closing costs.'

Felsman says another option for first-time buyers with moderate incomes is the Oregon State Bond Loan program, which requires a 3 percent down payment and had an interest rate of 4.95 percent in early April. There are also 'true rehabilitation loans,' whereby buyers can finance improvements on fixer-uppers.

The right real estate agent is another key to home shopping success. Having an agent who knows you well takes a lot of the stress out of the process, says Klick, who was happy to have his stepdad in his corner during the negotiations.

Good communication throughout the process also is crucial. 'Between the two of them, they were constantly talking,' Klick says of Schaeffer and Felsman.

Felsman, Schaeffer and Klick all encourage buyers to get financing before they begin house hunting.

'Without getting preapproved, you could be out looking at $200,000 houses, find one and have the bank come back and laugh at you like, 'What the hell are you thinking?' ' Klick says.

Homes in some neighborhoods are selling so fast, 'you need to be able to convey to the seller as quickly as possible that you're approved and ready to go,' Felsman says.

Klick locked in a 30-year loan at a 5.78 percent rate. Schaeffer notes: 'The (interest) rates are so low that if you're renting for $800 a month, you can buy for $800 a month. There's 97 percent financing out there, (and) 100 percent financing. É This is one of those times you can almost buy cheaper than rent.'

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