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What to look for when buying a house

Couple pondering home renovation
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When you’re out on the open house circuit (either in person or virtually) or browsing homes online, there are dozens of factors to consider as you hunt for the right place.

You’ll want to start by making a list of the things that you need and want in a home. Everyone’s list will be different. Young families may be looking for a starter home they can grow into, while empty nesters might prefer smaller homes with less upkeep. Coronavirus has also shifted preferences for many buyers, so demand has risen for suburban homes with extra space both inside and out.

The reality is that you probably won’t get everything on your list. You’ll need to make some trade-offs to find a house that meets your needs and fits your budget.

“It ends up being more of a process of elimination than selection. Once you start going into houses, you’ll see what your priorities are,” says Andi DeFelice, an associate broker with Exclusive Buyer’s Realty in Savannah, Georgia, and a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents.

Still, knowing what to look for is key to making the most of your search. Here’s are some things to keep in mind when shopping for a home:

Deal-breakers to look out for when buying a house

More than you can afford

This is the top factor to consider when buying a house. There’s no reason to waste your time looking at properties you can’t afford. You can use Bankrate’s calculator to get a sense of how much house you can reasonably buy and estimate the mortgage amount that suits your budget. Be sure to factor in additional costs such as taxes, insurance and maintenance. The higher the price of the house you want to buy, the more you’ll pay on a monthly basis.

Poor location

There’s a reason that the Realtors joke that the three most important things in real estate are “location, location and location.” No amount of remodeling can change the where your house is.

A too-long commute or underperforming schools for your children could leave you with buyer’s remorse, even if the house has everything else you’re looking for. When thinking about where you want to live, pay attention to both the neighborhood and your potential neighbors.

“I suggest doing a drive-by at a few random times of the day to see what the neighborhood looks like then,” DeFelice says. “Is there something going on in that area that wouldn’t make you happy to walk out your door every day?”

Issues with the home inspection

The home inspection will give you an idea of potential problems with the structure or systems of the house. If the inspection turns up potentially expensive issues, you can ask the seller to fix them or negotiate a lower price to account for the problems. If the sellers aren’t interested in either option, you have the option to walk away from the deal, as long as you have a home inspection contingency in your contract.

How to create a realistic wish list for your home

While there are certain to be non-negotiable aspects of the home you want to buy, other features might be more nice-to-haves. Here’s what you should consider for your wish list, at minimum:

  • House and yard size
  • Number of bedrooms and bathrooms (and preferred sizes)
  • Kitchen features (such as an island or built-in eating area)
  • Neighborhood safety
  • Quality of local public schools
  • Proximity to shopping, grocery stores, restaurants, bars and cultural attractions
  • Walkability
  • Access to public transit

You’ll also want to narrow your list down to features that are realistically found in the homes within your budget, and ideally are useful, add value or otherwise enhance your everyday life.

There might be other factors important to you based on your lifestyle, as well, such as a pool or access to a dog park. If it’s a priority for you, include it on your wish list.

Consider, too, your current and future preferences. For instance, if you have children, the quality of the local public schools might rank higher on your list. If you’re in a multi-generational household and only have a certain number of vehicles, access to public transit could be a make-or-break preference.

Needs vs. wants

That said, think about what you really need versus just want. While you might prefer a house with a recently remodeled kitchen and bathrooms, that might not be a true need. A great room for entertaining or a waterfall shower might be nice-to-haves, but aren’t really must-haves. The most common home-buying mistakes include believing an amenity is non-negotiable, and looking for features that might not necessarily fit with your lifestyle.

Remember: No house is perfect

If only we could turn every single wish-list item and our loftiest visions for a home into reality. Because the house-hunt is largely based on cost parameters and what’s available on the market, it’s important to remember that the perfect house doesn’t exist (unless, of course, you build it). As you review listings online and start seeing homes in person, here’s a house-shopping tip: Remember you can repaint, replace fixtures and add your own flair, but you can’t change a home’s location. Choose wisely.

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Written by
Beth Braverman
Personal Finance Expert Contributor
Beth Braverman is an award-winning freelance journalist and content producer, writing mostly about personal finance, parenting and careers.
Edited by
Mortgage editor