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What every smart home buyer knows

You're not just buying a home. You're buying a lifestyle.

So, as you inspect the nuts, bolts and systems of your proposed purchase, also consider what kind of life you want while you're living there.

That was a major factor for Kevin and Kathleen O'Connor when they purchased their first home on Boston's North Shore.

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"The No. 1 thing that I have learned is that it is critical to think hard and understand how you live your life and separate that from the sometimes fiction of what you think you want in a house," says Kevin O'Connor, host of television's "This Old House" and "Ask This Old House."

The couple wanted a real neighborhood within walking distance of shops, parks and other amenities. They found their perfect home in an 1894 Victorian. "We paid a premium because of the location," says O'Connor. "But on the other hand, it doesn't have a garage or a driveway. It's a great house that suits our lifestyle very well. You forgo some amenities and get some benefits."

To make a smart buy, O'Connor says, you've got to "understand exactly how you live."

Focus on two things, says Robert Irwin, author of "Home Buyer's Checklist." First, how is the home going to fit your needs? And second, how easy will it be to resell?

"One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that they will live in a house forever," says Irwin.

"It sounds counterintuitive because you're buying. Why should you look at selling?" he says. "But it's also an investment, and from an investment perspective you have to be looking at selling."

Keep your cool
The most important advice for potential buyers? Don't get emotionally involved.

"A lot of people talk themselves into falling in love with something before they've really looked at it," says Stephen Gladstone, immediate past president of the American Society of Home Inspectors. "They really should be looking at quality as well as location."

So give that potential home the critical eye.

"I think that for the average person, curb appeal is very important," says Gladstone. "It's what says to them, 'Let's go inside and take a look.'"

For the professional, "It can give you a feeling for whether the home is well cared for or not," he says.

"When I look at a house, the first thing I do when I get out of the truck is look at the overall location of how it sits on the lot," says Tom Silva, general contractor for "This Old House" and "Ask This Old House."

Silva eyeballs the roof line (dipped or crooked could mean rot, rust or a structural problem with a joist or rafter). Ditto the line of the windows. "If the sills are straight -- that's a good thing," says Silva, also a professional contractor with Mass.-based Silva Brothers Construction.

Silva also looks at the roll of the land in relation to the house, which can be an important factor for drainage problems. "Does [the lot] pitch to the house? And even though it does, is there means for water to get disbursed before it enters the house?"

Does the exterior show signs of water damage?

Savvy buyers also look at the roof, which can be expensive to replace.

"Look for signs of deterioration or damage," says Gladstone, also the president of Stonehollow Fine Home Inspections & Testing in Stamford, Conn.

Some clues: Do the shingles look worn or warped? If wood, are they covered with mold or moss? Are they cracking or curling? If the roof is a flat membrane, is it ripped? Does it have an alligator skin-like appearance?

Check the siding too, Gladstone says. First check out the paint: "Is there peeling, bubbling or stain damage? Does it look worn or thin? Are there sections of the siding that look damaged? Are there holes or loose pieces?"

Do you see cracks in the exterior brick? "Ask why," says Don Strong, CGR (certified graduate remodeler), president of Brothers Strong Inc. in Houston. "What has settled that the brick should crack?" While it doesn't mean you should pass on the house, it is a sign that you need a qualified expert to examine the situation before you buy, he says.

Dream home or nightmare?
"Beware of a home that has a lot of awkward features like a bathroom off a kitchen or a bedroom off a living room. They can be expensive to change," Irwin says. "You might be willing to live with it, but it might make it difficult to sell later on."

Other features that can affect resale: small bathrooms or less than two bathrooms; less than three bedrooms (with some exceptions, like golf course condos); carports; one-car garages; homes that are atypical of the neighborhood, or a pool, which can be a plus or a minus.

When you tour the house, be nosy. Open closet doors. Walk through the attic, garage and basement. Note how well kept the yard is.

Those normally hidden spaces "are a barometer of how well it's been taken care of in the past." says James Katen, a home inspector and the owner of Benchmark Inspection Services in Gaston, Ore.

Check out the air filter and the ducts. If they're dirty, the house isn't being maintained properly, says Gladstone.

Walk corner to corner in large rooms and pace the length of long hallways or stairways. Feel any depressions or dips?

Check the condition of the floor, says Silva. "Is it bubbled?"

Inside, diagonal cracks above the interior door jams or windows and windows that don't open properly could signal a foundation problem, Strong says.

-- Posted: May 16, 2005
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'05 Real Estate Guide
30 yr fixed mtg 3.92%
15 yr fixed mtg 3.00%
5/1 jumbo ARM 3.66%
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