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Sunday, April 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Real-estate agents ease way for ethnic buyers

The Arizona Republic

As the country's minority communities grow, their impact on home building and the real-estate industry is creating a new dynamic in home selling.

In the not-too-distant future, it may even change the way some houses are designed as builders take note of the needs of young families and extended families.

Nationally, Hispanics, Asians and African Americans made up more than one-third of all first-time homebuyers in 2003, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

"Just by surnames alone, I can tell you home ownership by Hispanics has soared and is a significant part of the current activity," said RL Brown, a Phoenix housing analyst whose research includes looking at home-sales data at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.

In the past, the philosophy of selling to various ethnic groups was not any different from selling to the general market, said Scott Abel, vice president of sales for Meritage Homes, which has headquarters in Texas and Arizona. But that approach has changed as agents and others have recognized the importance of making sure buyers are comfortable in their home-buying decisions.

At Meritage Homes, for example, Spanish-speaking sales agents and mortgage lenders are found at subdivisions with a significant number of Hispanic home-buying prospects.

"Buying a house is stressful," Abel said. "So if you can have somebody that can speak their language, it makes them a lot more comfortable to buy."

Another signal that minority home buying is ramping up is the number of real-estate professionals taking the time to learn more about the customs and cultural nuances of various ethnic groups.

Margie O'Campo de Castillo, who owns her own realty firm in Phoenix and is a member of the board of directors for the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, periodically teaches classes on cultural sensitivity when dealing with Hispanic buyers. Those classes are often filled with Anglo real-estate agents.

"At one point the attitude was, 'These Mexicans don't have checking or banking accounts, and we don't want to do business with them,' " she said. "Now there's a realization that they have money, and there's an effort to accommodate the market and their needs."

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Helping the boom are relaxed lending requirements, such as low or no down payments, a willingness to consider income generated from side jobs and a willingness to consider cash holdings.

"Mattress money and revenue from side jobs used to rule them out from home ownership," O'Campo de Castillo said.

It's having a noticeable impact. Nationally, homeownership rates for Hispanics rose from 48 percent two years ago to 50 percent last year, a big jump, considering there are 40 million Hispanics in the United States.

While the interest in selling homes to Hispanics is welcome, O'Campo de Castillo is concerned that some Hispanics may get into loan programs they aren't suited for. Of particular concern are loans with variable interest rates and interest-only payments. Homeowner education is necessary to get many up to speed on the intricacies of home buying.

"It may be fine for a college graduate making $40,000 a year and expecting to make more, but blue-collar folks who only get cost-of-living raises may not be the best candidates for these loans," she said.

Overall, homebuilders are well aware of the growth of minority homebuyers and are making efforts to cultivate those sales, which may include designing homes with their preferences in mind.

For example, with larger families or extended family, some homes could be built with larger family rooms and dining rooms, or second master suites.

"We're trying to figure out what they are looking for and design houses accordingly," Meritage's Abel said. "We want to accommodate niches and still appeal to as broad a market as we can."

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