The home-ownership pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, said Elisa Jo Eagen.

All the things your mom, dad and grandpa told you about buying a home - save your money and buy only what you can afford - are the new norm in today's real estate market, said Eagan, an agent with Balsley Losco Real Estate in Northfield.

"I think (lenders) are overcompensating for the years when they were so lax," said Brenda Lawn, with Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors of Northfield.

While the housing market has seen significant drops in listing prices, more stringent standards create obstacles for those purchasing homes on single incomes.

Each year, couples make up the largest portion of homebuyers, and according to the 2012 National Association of Realtors Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, the percentage of these buyers has been increasing. Married couples or dual-income households accounted for 65 percent of all recent homebuyers.

Lawn recently helped Logan Melder, 26, buy a home "by the skin of her teeth," Lawn said.

"I don't know if it was because she was a first-time homebuyer or because she was single, but by the end it seemed like she was jumping through hoops" - dealing with last-minute and repetitive background checks and questioning, Lawn said.

Her home in Mays Landing is near her family, including parents, grandparents and siblings.

"I could have waited," Melder said. "I wanted to live near them, and when this house went on sale, I knew I wanted to buy it."

Melder said her father's help was a big reason why she was able to complete the process. Between her hours at work and commute home, there was no time for her to get in touch with banks during their hours of operation.

Now that the process is complete and the house is hers, "it's less terrifying," she said. "It's easier to handle now that I've signed my life away for the next 30 years."

John McHale, who currently lives with his family in the Sewell section of Washington Township, was not immediately as lucky.

He was searching for just the right home, on a single income and with a smaller salary than he had in the past. Having previously worked as a union plumber, earning about $80,000 per year, and until recently owning a home on two incomes, the availability of a home in his new price range was slim.

McHale said he was also advised by his real estate agent to stay away from short sales, since it could take as long as four months to close, time which he didn't want to spend. Although he was in no rush, he said, it was a long commute to his new job in Galloway Township.

"Just because the prices are lower, it doesn't mean that it's low enough and there are many options," McHale said. "Taking short sales out shrinks the market choice."

He noticed that many homes he has looking at needed a lot of work. Even if he could get the price down to within his budget, McHale saw a loss in the deal if he had to invest a significant amount into maintaining or refurbishing, he said.

It is significantly different than when he had been buying based on two incomes, and when the market was better, he said. "I had never gone longer than two months without putting down a bid on a house."

But after four and a half months of searching, McHale signed for a house on New Year's Eve. He said he was happy that it was not a short sale, so he can move in by the beginning of February.

But single-income buyers are not the only ones struggling.

"I don't think it's discriminatory," said Larry DePalma, with DePalma Realty in Millville.

He said he believes higher credit-score requirements are affecting all would-be homebuyers.

But many real estate agents agree it is still an ideal buyers' market, with first-timers benefiting the most from the current conditions.

With interest rates on 30-year fixed mortgages at about 3.25 percent, borrowing is the best it has ever been, Eagan said.

"In 1987, it was 19 percent, and now to have it in the single digits ... the cost of money has never been more affordable," she said.

The only drawback is the more stringent borrower requirements, including higher credit scores for approval, a two-year work history and clean credit history.

"There are no more no-income, no-assets loans," Eagan said. "But the old-school methods are back. You have to save money. You have to live within your means."

Lenders are looking at income and debt, ensuring that no more than 41 percent of total gross income is spent on house payments, she said.

There are programs available to help individuals who are trying to purchase a home on a single income. One is the Atlantic County Improvement Authority Home Buyer's Program, which distributes funds to those who qualify, Eagan said.

DePalma works with rent-to-own programs, which are especially beneficial to single homebuyers who may be coming out of foreclosure or short-sale situations. Because there is a time limit placed on their histories, they can be approved to buy within three years, but rent the home until then, he said.

In addition, there are some 100 percent financed options, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for rural areas such as in Egg Harbor, Galloway and Upper townships, Eagan said.

One thing she has noticed is that single buyers are able to find help staying with family until sales close, and are very prepared with research before making a move, she said.

Just two years ago, married couples made up 58 percent of homebuyers. Meanwhile, the percentage of single buyers decreased over the same period - from 32 percent two years ago to 25 percent today, according to the National Association of Realtors. Research shows total home sales would be 10 percent to 15 percent higher with a return to normal lending standards.

DePalma said single first-time buyers have the best chance, since sellers are willing to help them by making certain concessions.

Contact Anjalee Khemlani:

609-272-7247

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