The basics of homebuying with Nicole Hudson Andrews

Andrews, the manager of Penn Home Ownership Services, chats about helping Penn employees purchase homes.

It’s late March, and the spring home-buying frenzy is just about to erupt. A group of staffers from Penn, its hospital, and its affiliates fill a suite at the Learning and Education offices at 3624 Market St. 

They snag a free Jimmy John’s sandwich and a soda, and take a seat. At 12:30 p.m., Penn Home Ownership Services’ “First-Time Homebuyers 101” session kicks off—with a warm welcome from the always-enthusiastic Nicole Hudson Andrews.

Andrews, manager of Penn Home Ownership Services (PHOS), knows full well the anxiety buying a house for the first time can cause. It’s exciting—and terrifying—all at the same time.

That’s why she’s committed to making the process for Penn employees as smooth as possible. A staffer at PHOS for 11 years, and a realtor for 15 years, one of Andrews’ main passions is to help people “realize their dream of home ownership,” she says, as well as their potential.

Since the 1960s, PHOS has served, in some capacity, as a beneficial resource to Penn’s full-time employees who are buying homes. Today, it maintains two prominent programs, offering a closing cost reduction and a forgivable loan, making home ownership all the more feasible.

Andrews sat down with Penn Today at her office to chat about PHOS, its educational workshops, why its resources are so important, some advice for first-time homebuyers, and much, much more.

I know you’ve been at Penn for quite a while. Tell me about how you ended up here.

I actually started my Penn career as a temporary employee, first in Human Resources and then on an extended assignment position at Penn Home Ownership Services. I was then hired as a full-time employee as a coordinator for the program. Over time I was able to be in a position to run the department.

What did you do before you came to Penn?

I was an insurance adjuster with State Farm, and while I was full time there I obtained my real estate license. I’ve been a realtor in Pennsylvania for 15 years. I also have my New Jersey real estate license. Having the real estate background gave me the knowledge base and experience, which I could then use as I began working in Penn Home Ownership Services. 

So you still do real estate today?

Yes, I do it personally in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I think part of my success in the department here at Penn is that I have a handle on how the process works. I can help employees along in their process, not necessarily advising them, but as a listening ear when they need information, and then help them resolve any issues that they have. Then there are agreements with lenders as well, so with a background in real estate, I’m able to better manage those relationships.

Are you from Philadelphia?

Yes, I was born and raised in West Oak Lane. My father was in the Navy and worked as a photographer and a barber. My mother owned a personal care home for the elderly for over 40 years. I think my entrepreneurial spirit comes from them. 

What does your role as manager of PHOS entail?

I am a one-person department, so I manage all aspects of the program, including education, qualification, and communication. I also spend a great deal of time streamlining the processes. It keeps me quite busy as the amount of loans we have granted has grown over the years.

What are your everyday duties?

Every day I am answering questions of employees about the program, how to apply, the different aspects of the program, and how they can qualify. We also have an educational piece that I’ve reformatted and repackaged over the years. During the semester, I go through a curriculum of workshops that employees, whether they are looking to purchase within our area, or outside of our area, can learn about all aspects of buying a home. There’s “Home Ownership 101,” or “Identifying a Lender,” or “The Homebuying Process: Step by Step.” There are at least 10 to 15 workshops a year and one fair. Typically, a lender will be right there at the educational sessions to give all the information and answer any questions. It’s a way to relax for an hour, get lunch of course, and sit down to talk about home ownership. My hope is that employees looking to purchase a home can feel comfortable with Penn being their resource. 

I understand Penn works with several lenders.

You have to receive your mortgage through one of our lenders to get the benefits of our programs. I vet them, I have quarterly meetings with them, and they sign a memorandum of understanding every year ensuring that they’ll do whatever they can to make participating in the program as smooth and easy as possible. The current lenders are listed on our website. Then we have specific loan officers, in each of the organizations that we work with. They’re the ones who come to our educational workshops, so they have visibility on campus. 

Do you work with realtors?

No, there are no realtors that our office works with directly. The employees are free to use whichever realtor that they feel meet their needs.

Penn Home Ownership Services’ programs serves a specifically defined area within West Philadelphia. The PHOS website offers an interactive map for users to see if their home location qualifies.

 

What resources does PHOS specifically offer?

Well, we have a lot of resources on our website, including a mortgage calculator, information on how to improve your credit score, and an interactive map that details the certain area you must buy in to participate in a particular PHOS program. We have two programs—the first is the Closing Cost Reduction Program that includes the entire boundary area and beyond. Think about it as the lenders discounting all their fees by 25 percent. And then what they’re also going to do is give you a lender credit, which is a quarter of a percent, or 0.25 percent, off the mortgaged amount. That amount is going to be different for everyone depending of the amount of the mortgage, and is going to show up as a lender credit on the closing disclosure, the final report when you are purchasing a home. 

Can you explain that again?

A lender will discount any fees that they charge—such as an origination fee—by 25 percent, and your mortgage amount—not purchase price—of, say, $100,000 will be a credit of 0.25 percent, which would be $250. So, at closing, buyers will see a credit of $250 that they will not need to bring closing.

That’s a nice perk.

And one thing about our lenders, even if you’re purchasing, say, in South Jersey, what they’ll do is give you the Closing Cost Reduction Program as a courtesy because you are a Penn employee. For more information about that incentive, employees can call our office directly.

And what’s the other program?

The Forgivable Loan Program. Those are funds that employees can use toward home improvements or closing costs. Qualified properties include single-family homes, duplexes, or condos within our boundaries. You will receive $7,500 toward your closing, which is a forgivable loan. To qualify, you have to be a full-time employee with the University, hospital, or its affiliates, and then to continue the forgiveness schedule, you just need to be in the home for five years as your primary residence. Every year, $1,500 of that $7,500 is forgiven. Even if you leave Penn. You can also use the funds toward home improvements after you purchase the home. Home improvements are considered anything that would enhance the value of the home, from carpeting, flooring, roofing, appliances, water heaters, whatever the case may be. You have one year from signing the legal documents to draw down that $7,500.

Why is it so important that an institution like Penn offers this type of assistance for employees?

Our program has been in existence in some form since 1965. We very much change with the market, but it really shows the commitment that the University has to the neighboring community. We were a part of President Rodin’s plan that included home ownership, public safety, and education, to name just a of few of the programs that worked in tangent to support the area adjacent to campus. Over the course of this effort you see development, outdoor cafes, supermarkets, lighting, walking programs. It looks different. Now, our program actually reaches out to 56th Street. And, after Pennovation Works was built, we expanded to include properties across from the complex. We want to service every employee who’s interested by including properties at a range of price points.

What’s your response in the gentrification debate, when people see these Penn programs as negative?

Most urban universities face issues around gentrification. It’s a complicated topic and as I said, homeownership is just one of many efforts by Penn to engage in the local community. But specific to my program, in the 11 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen employees who, without this program, wouldn’t have been able to buy their homes. We have had employees who have worked at Penn for 30 years and rented their homes all that time, and to be able to finally buy their house with the benefits of the program are significant. I truly believe that it is a great program because it serves employees at all levels of the University.

What are some tips you’d offer first-time homebuyers?

A lot of people are concerned about credit, as they should be, but they don’t necessarily know how to broach the subject. They worry about how their credit will affect their mortgage interest rates and how much they can afford. It’s important to understand how credit works and to make sure you’re in a good place to purchase. So we do regular credit workshops. I also would encourage first-time homebuyers to get a realtor. It’s worth it for you to have someone representing your interests. You want someone there to negotiate for you and manage the process.

Is right now a good time to buy in Philadelphia?

Generally, I think it’s a good time to buy. This is the time of year that everyone who needs to move is looking to move. The spring/summer market allows parents who are looking to get their children into school to establish residency before the school year starts. 

Even with interest rates rising?

Yes, remember they were just at an all-time low a year or so ago. Even though they have risen slightly, interest rates are still relatively at a good place. 

I’m assuming you own a home, right?

Yes, I bought my home some years ago before I started working at Penn, which was right around the corner from where I grew up. My husband and I now live in South Jersey, but we use my first property as an investment property. I always tell any single person not to wait until you get married to buy. Real estate is a great opportunity whenever.

What are your thoughts on the up-and-coming Grays Ferry area, surrounding the Pennovation Works campus?

There’s a lot of new spot construction that’s being built over there, and I think in the next five to 10 years that area is going to look very different.