Buying a Home: Find a Home
Even before you have an agent, there’s nothing to stop you from driving around neighborhoods you think you’d like to live in or poring over online listings. You can even do both simultaneously using your smartphone or tablet. In-person scouting gives you a true sense of a home’s curb appeal and neighborhood; looking online lets you take a commitment-free peek inside and over the fence. Websites can also provide details such as crime statistics and property tax rates. (See Zillow vs. Trulia and Zillow Estimates: Not as Accurate as You Think.)
When you’re looking for that ideal place to buy, here are some things to consider.
The Area and the Property
Note any amenities you’d like to live near, such as 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, well, that’s another important decision to make.
Also think about what’s most important to you in a home. Should it have one story or two? A small yard or a large one? An open concept or plenty of walls? How many bedrooms and bathrooms do you need? How new (or how recently upgraded) should it be?
Ideally, you’ll make a list (even if it’s just a mental one) of your must-haves, nice-to-haves and deal-breakers for both the neighborhood and the home itself before you begin shopping. This information will help you hone your search and will help you stay in line when you become tempted to make compromises later on: “I know I said I didn’t want to live near a railroad because of all the noise, but this kitchen is incredible!”
Once you have an agent, you’re ready to start shopping for a home in earnest. 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 properties that will never work. A printed list that your agent can keep never hurts.
Traditionally, agents did all the looking for their clients. Homebuyers would wait impatiently while agents put together a list of properties to show them.
With the prevalence of detailed online real estate listings, you no longer have to rely on an agent to bring properties to you. Most buyers take charge of the search process through the many websites that provide consumers with access to the Multiple Listing Services (MLS), including Zillow, Redfin and Truila. 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, photos and more. (Check out The 5 Best Alternatives to Zillow and Trulia and Zillow, Realtor, Redfin: Which Is the Best Real Estate Website?) 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. Agents may know about new listings before they even go on the market, so by the time you see your dream home online, it might already have an offer on it. At some point, you might find that your agent is the one with the hot scoop on the latest property and you’ll be the one to make the first offer.
Just because you’re ready to buy, however, doesn’t mean the right property will be available. Expect to engage in an ongoing process of searching and waiting. It might take several months or even longer.
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 or an online listing for your property. The lockbox system and the use of agents limits showings to serious buyers.
Once you’re viewing a home with your agent (or at an open house), 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 might they cost? Is there enough privacy from the neighbors? Are nearby properties well maintained? How does the roof look? Does the home need a paint job?
If you’re looking at a house, not a condo or townhome, what about the yard? Is it big enough to suit your needs? 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?
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). You can also assume that there are additional problems you can’t see.
The Learning Curve
Once you actually start looking at homes, you may start to change your mind about what you thought you wanted. A 1,000 square-foot house for two people might sound OK on paper, especially if you’re living in a 600-square-foot apartment, but once you see how small the bedrooms are, you might realize that you had something slightly larger in mind. Or you might think you’d like a double lot, but once you see how big the yard actually is, you realize that you have no interest in mowing all that grass. (Don’t let your emotions take over! Check out Top 8 House-Hunting Mistakes and 10 Worst First-Time Homebuyer Mistakes.)
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 which floor plans you like best.
In addition, 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 act quickly. The better idea you have of what you want, the more properties you look at and the faster you finalize your preferences, the better position you’ll be in to make 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 ownerBuying a Home: Write an Offer