If you have to relocate for work, have decided to move somewhere less expensive, or are looking for a change of scenery, you may be faced with buying a home in a city that is not only unfamiliar, but is difficult to access. If you are a real estate investor or frequent vacationer who has thrived in spite of the Great Recession, you might also be looking to buy property far from home. Of course, buying real estate anywhere other than your current city presents a unique set of challenges. Here are some tips for managing them. (For more on buying a home 5 Tips For Recession House Hunters.)
TUTORIAL: Buying A Home
Decide What You Want
Any time you move, you have a chance to take advantage of what you've learned in your current housing situation and try to find something better. For example, maybe you've realized that having a large lawn is expensive and time consuming to maintain and that you'd prefer a smaller lot that requires less upkeep.
On the other hand, maybe you've decided that small lots don't provide enough privacy and you want more land.
Maybe you're tired of the homeowners association (HOA) telling you what you can and can't do with your property and you want to live in a neighborhood with fewer rules and no HOA fees. Perhaps you've decided that the trade-off of having a less expensive property in exchange for living on a busy street isn't worth the noise and safety issues. Decide what you want before you start looking.
Learn about Local Quirks
Moving to a new city means an opportunity to start over and get a property that really suits your wants and needs. However, every city has its own real estate quirks. To avoid trading one set of dislikes for another, you'll need to learn about these anomalies before you buy. For example, old city homes in Philadelphia can have basement kitchens that are dark and inconvenient. Older homes in many cities have no garages, meaning that you have to park on the street, and some use boilers instead of furnaces for heat. Many areas of the country are prone to flooding, which can make it difficult to come and go as you please during stormy weather and can even threaten to destroy your home, but even in these cities, some neighborhoods are usually more elevated and less at risk than others.
New suburban neighborhoods often have HOAs that provide amenities and try to keep property values high, but they also limit your freedom to modify and use your home as you wish. Air conditioning and/or heating bills might be significantly higher or lower than you're used to, meaning you'll need to adjust the purchase price of your new home accordingly to pay those bills. Once you've learned about the real estate quirks in the city you're moving to, you can come up with a plan for managing them or avoiding them. (For more on find the home you want, see Top 4 Things That Determine A Home's Value.)
Get a Real Estate Agent
Look for an experienced real estate agent in your intended city. Because of your unfamiliarity with the area and the other unique challenges of not buying locally, you want to work with a professional who really knows what they're doing. You may even be able to find an agent who specializes in helping people who are relocating, and who will be extra aware of both your unique needs and their need to educate you about the local market.
You want a professional who can steer you toward good neighborhoods and away from bad ones.
Make sure you fully inform the agent about your situation. For example, what is your timeframe for the move? When will you be able to visit the city? Can the agent set aside a day to show you numerous properties while you're in town? Unlike a local buyer, you won't be able to randomly look at a property one Tuesday after work. You'll have limited time to view properties in person, and you'll need someone who can help you maximize that time. (For more help, read Finding A Good Real Estate Agent.)
Get Familiar with the Local Real Estate Market
It may not be apparent to you, as an outsider, which areas are on the decline or on the rise. Is a cluster of nice homes in an otherwise run-down area a sign of urban renewal or the last group of holdouts in a no-longer-desirable area? Take advantage of all the resources available to you, including your real estate agent, in-person visits, chats with local residents and online research to learn about your new city.
What areas are seeing growth in jobs and investment? Where should you live if you want to be close to the hottest bars, restaurants and cultural attractions? What are the top schools and where are they located? Is that neighborhood that seems so nice on the internet actually located near an industrial site that emits noxious fumes? Does a builder of new homes in the area have a bad reputation for quality?
Don't take anything for granted. Maybe everyone sends their kids to public school where you currently live, but a good education can only be obtained at a private school where you've moving to. Also, how do the weather and climate affect housing? For example, will you be freezing if you don't buy a house with new, energy-efficient windows? Will you be miserable in the summer without air conditioning? Ask lots of questions. (For more tips, check out Top Tips For First-Time Home Buyers.)
Zone in on Possible Neighborhoods
The specific neighborhood you choose in your new city will probably affect your quality of life more than anything else.
For example, let's say you have been asked to relocate from a job in a moderately-sized Midwestern city to a job in New York City. If you want to retain some semblance of the quiet Midwestern lifestyle you're used to, you can look for a suburban home in neighboring New Jersey instead of an apartment in the city.
All the usual criteria will also apply when searching for the right neighborhood - affordability, school quality, crime rates, proximity to work, manageable property taxes and reasonable local laws and regulations.
Don't Skip an In-Person Visit
Finally, once you've decided what you want, done all your research and found some potential properties, you're ready to get serious about placing an offer. But make sure you visit the homes in person. Buying a home sight unseen is a stupid idea. It's impossible to get a true feel for a neighborhood or a property unless you've actually been there. No matter how much you trust your real estate agent's judgment, the only person who really knows if you will like a particular property is you.
(For what to avoid when buying a house, see 10 Worst First-Time Homebuyer Mistakes.)