By Amy Fontinelle
Even before you have an agent, there's nothing to stop you from driving around neighborhoods you think you'd like to live in. Look for "for sale" signs and note the addresses so you can look them up online and get a sense of the going price for properties in the neighborhoods you're looking at (but remember that home prices can vary substantially even within a single neighborhood).
Note any amenities you'd like to live near, like a bike path or park, or things you'd prefer not to live near, like car dealerships or railroad tracks. Also note if there are certain streets you think are particularly nice or that you'd prefer to avoid. Neighborhoods aren't always consistent - sometimes one street might be nicer than the next. And if you don't want to live in a neighborhood like that, that's another important decision to make.
Once you have an agent, you're ready to start shopping for a home. First, you need to discuss with your agent what kind of home you're looking for. Make sure he or she is clear on what things you must have and what things are deal breakers so you don't waste time looking at things that will never work. A printed list that your agent can keep never hurts.
Traditionally, your agent will do all the looking for you. You just sit back and relax while your agent puts together a list of properties to show you. Once you've viewed all the properties already on the market when you first get started, if none of them suits you, your agent will do the work of continually bringing new properties to your attention until you do find one you like. (For the basics of housing market cycles, check out Why Housing Market Bubbles Pop.)
With the prevalence of detailed real estate listings on the internet these days, you no longer have to rely completely on an agent. If you want, you can take charge of the search process yourself through websites that provide consumers with access to the multiple listing services (MLS). You won't have access to some key information that is only available to other agents, but you'll have access to the basic information - the neighborhood, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, lot size, any photos that are available and the like.
If you're working with a discount agent, you may be expected to do some of the work yourself. And if you're not sure your agent is quite on top of things, you may want to make sure you stay on top of new listings yourself (and see about finding a new agent).Many people these days do a combination of the two - have the agent do a lot of the work, but examine the listings online every day, too.
When you go to view properties, you'll need to have your agent with you. Vacant homes will be locked and the agent will need to obtain the lockbox code to get the key and let you in. For homes that are occupied, consider the situation from the seller's point of view - you wouldn't want random strangers walking up and asking to come into your home just because there's a "for sale" sign in your yard. The lockbox system limits the viewing to serious buyers and that credibility is what having an agent signifies.
Once you're inside a home, think about how, and if, it could work for you. Where would you put your furniture? Which bedrooms would be used for what purpose? Are there any obvious repairs that need to be made or changes that you'd want to make and how much would they cost? What about the yard (if you're looking at a house)? Is it big enough to suit your needs? If you want a pool, does it have one (or the space to put one in)? Is there enough privacy from the neighbors? Is there room for a garden or a swing set? Would the existing landscaping need a lot of work, or is it already in good shape? Also examine the exterior structure of the home. How does the roof look? Does the house need a paint job?
The breadth and depth of issues with a home won't be revealed solely by your untrained eye - you'll need a home inspection for that. But if there are problems you can see yourself, you can tack those on to how much you'll be paying for the home (unless you can coax the seller to make the repairs), and assume that there are probably additional problems that you can't see. (To learn how to get the most for your house when it is time to sell, check out Fix It And Flip It: The Value Of Remodeling.)
The Learning Curve
Once you actually start looking at homes, you may start to change your mind about what you thought you wanted. A
You might also learn that you need to spend more or less than you originally planned in order to get what you want. You're going into the search with an idea of how much you can afford to spend and how much the bank is willing to lend you. Once you've seen a few properties, you'll get a sense of how much bang you can get for your buck. You'll also start figuring out what floor plans you like best.
Also, once you start looking and getting more familiar with the neighborhoods that interest you, you might change your mind about what streets you're interested in living on and what neighborhoods suit your taste.
In a tight market, be prepared to move quickly. The better idea you have of what you want, the more properties you look at and the faster you finalize your idea of what you actually want, the better position you'll be in to put in an offer when you find a property you like. That being said, don't get too attached to a home you like; you may not get it. There are lots of hoops to jump through between finding a house you like and ending up as its owner. In the next few sections, we'll explain what happens once you've found the right home.
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