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House hunting checklist

Wide shot of family looking at home for sale with real estate agent
thomas barwick/getty images
Wide shot of family looking at home for sale with real estate agent
thomas barwick/getty images

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Congratulations! If you’re embarking on a house hunting adventure, you’re about to make a major transition. The goal, of course, is to come out better than you started. That all depends on the house you choose and its suitability for your specific wants and needs.

Because shopping for a new home can be a daunting process with a lot to consider, it’s helpful to go in prepared. There are online house hunting apps that can help. Still, though, it’s not enough to just find a listing that catches your eye and put in an offer. If there was ever a place to do your due diligence, this is it.

With that in mind, we developed this house hunting checklist. Here are six things you should have if you’re shopping for a home.

1. A price range from a mortgage preapproval letter

As with any type of shopping, knowing how much you can pay goes a long way. It’s only going to set you up for heartbreak to fall in love with a property only to find out later that it’s not realistic for your budget.

The best way to get an accurate idea of how much house you can afford is to get a mortgage preapproval letter. This goes one step beyond prequalification, essentially getting you started down the road to actually securing your mortgage. This way, your lender has seen your key financial details. The mortgage for which they preapprove you is a realistic amount based on your income, spending and more.

Armed with that preapproval letter, you get more than just a budget. You also get something you can show to sellers to prove that you’re serious about buying their home — and able to actually make an offer.

2. Separate wants and needs

Many house hunters have been derailed by not knowing their wants from their needs. Without a clear idea of what you must have and what you’d like to have in a home, you may be doomed to forever view homes that would be great, if only they had this or that feature. It’s best to make a list of what you need and stick to it, and if there are any nice to haves, all the better.

3. Find a trusted real estate agent

Your agent is your ally, the person in your corner who has your back (i.e., negotiates on your behalf) and can steer you clear of potential problems. At least, that’s the case if you choose a good real estate professional.

To do that, interview at least a few agents. See if you feel heard. Note how hard or easy it is to set up that initial meeting. You can learn a lot from this first contact.

Also, read their online reviews and ask if they have any references you could talk to or testimonials they can share.  The buyer’s agent shares in the commission paid by the seller, so there’s really no downside to having a pro on your side when buying and plenty of upside in that they will know the market and negotiating tactics.

4. Get an understanding of the neighborhood

You’ve probably heard it before: when it comes to real estate, the top three priorities are location, location and location. You can change a lot about a house — except for its location. That makes the surrounding area just as important as the property itself.

Get to know the neighborhood. Eat at some of the local restaurants and patronize the local shops to get a feel for what living there would be like. If you have or plan to have kids, also take the time to research schools in the area.

Your real estate agent should be able to give you a good overview of the neighborhood, but it’s important to do your own research, too. This could be your future, after all.

5. A list of things to check at your showing

When you tour a listing, you’re going to be looking at its interior and exterior, of course. But you should also use this opportunity to get into some of the finer details. Are there leaks under any of the sinks? Do all of the light switches and faucets work? What’s the state of the landscaping — and how much work will it be for you to maintain? Does the HVAC and other systems work?

Ask the seller’s agent about whether the house has any improvements or additions. If so, ask if permits were pulled or if you need to be ready to buy the house as-is.

Clearly, there’s a lot to think through while you’re at the showing. To make sure you don’t forget anything, create a section of your house hunting checklist dedicated to things you want to look into while you’re at the property

6. Home inspection options

You can glean a lot from just looking around a property. But there could be issues hiding behind the walls. To find out about any potential deal-breakers, be ready to get a home inspection.

Your real estate agent can likely recommend a home inspection company. Because this is such an important part of the homebuying process, though, you should vet them yourself. Do research into at least a few companies to make sure you pick an inspector who has the competency necessary to really give the house a thorough once-over.

For further help here, you might want to add a home inspection checklist portion to your house hunting checklist.

A list of important questions to ask

Finally, you can gain a lot of clarity about your potential future home by asking the right questions. Those include:

Why are they selling?

If it’s something straightforward like moving for a job or downsizing for retirement, no sweat. But if the seller can’t provide a clear answer, be suspicious. It’s possible that the neighborhood has gone downhill or the house has maintenance woes they haven’t disclosed to you.

What are the taxes/HOA fees/insurance?

You should do your own research here, too. Specifically, you can get a home insurance quote and look up property taxes with the local tax assessor.

The current homeowner (usually through the listing agent) should be able to give you an idea of the costs of owning the house beyond the mortgage itself.

Is the home in a flood zone?

Some states require sellers to disclose if the property is in a flood zone, but there’s no federal requirement here. The best way to find out if the house you’re considering has a risk of flooding is to ask. FEMA has flood zone maps for the whole country here.

What issues need to be addressed?

If you’re seriously considering a house, you’ll eventually reach a point where the seller is legally required to disclose certain things to you. Again, different states have different disclosure requirements. Ultimately, these are designed to protect you so make sure you look carefully at any disclosure documentation.

Talk it through with your real estate agent to see if there are any areas of potential concern. If there are problems that need to be addressed, ask the seller how they want to handle it. They may drop the price or put a contingency in the contract saying they will handle the work themselves, for example.

At the end of the day, buying a home is a huge decision. Armed with this house hunting checklist, you’ll be in a better position to consider all the key elements so you can rest easy — and love life in your new house.

Written by
Kacie Goff
Personal Finance Contributor
Kacie Goff is a personal finance and insurance writer with over seven years of experience covering personal and commercial coverage options. She writes for Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, NextAdvisor, Varo Money, Coverage, Best Credit Cards and more. She's covered a broad range of policy types — including less-talked-about coverages like wrap insurance and E&O — and she specializes in auto, homeowners and life insurance.
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