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House hunting requires a lot of decision making. How many bedrooms and bathrooms do you need? Which neighborhoods do you want to look in? Should you hire a real estate agent? And most importantly, how much house can you afford?
As you undertake one of the biggest financial transactions of your life, you might find that you need to bend a little. If you can’t find a home that’s absolutely perfect in every way — and you almost certainly won’t — you then have another big question to answer: Where are you willing to compromise?
Some of your “must-haves” might become “nice-to-haves” as you weigh the available homes in your area against your budget, and that’s OK. But there are some things you shouldn’t budge on. Read on for the most important things to be on the lookout for, and mistakes to avoid, when buying a house.
Look out for these things when buying a house
To a large extent, what to look for depends on each house-hunter’s unique circumstances: whether or not you have kids, how far you’re willing to commute, what you want out of your neighbors and neighborhood — the list goes on.
“Once you start going into houses, you’ll see what your priorities are,” says Andi DeFelice, a broker with Exclusive Buyer’s Realty in Savannah, Georgia, and former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents. “It ends up being more of a process of elimination than selection.” Here are two big categories to keep a careful eye on.
Location is a huge driver in real estate for a reason. With enough money and time, you can change just about any feature of your house — except where it sits. To make sure you’re going to be happy there, be choosy about its address. Get to know the neighborhoods you’re considering. Visit them at different times of day, noting traffic patterns, noise and other things that would be out of your control. Think about travel distances, not just to your job but to schools, parks, public transportation, airports and retail essentials, like pharmacies and grocery stores. Look online for crime statistics — would you feel safe there? And don’t forget less obvious details, such as whether it’s in a flood zone and whether the area is at risk for wildfires or other natural disasters. Finally, find out whether the neighborhood is governed by a homeowners association. If it is, there will be rules to follow and fees to pay that will factor into your decision.
When you go into contract on a home, you’ll have it checked out by a professional home inspector. But before you even make an offer, use your eyes and ears to make some common-sense observations on the home’s overall condition. Does everything seem to be in good repair? Do you notice any faucets dripping, signs of water damage, pests or mold? Any obvious cracks or mysterious smells? Ask about the age of the HVAC system and roof, too — unless you’re specifically looking for a fixer-upper, you don’t want to fall in love with a place that’s going to need major upgrades soon.
Buying a home comes with plenty of costs as it is — there’s no need to make it even more expensive with costly mistakes. Here are some things to avoid while looking for and buying a home:
- Not shopping around: Even if you love the very first place you see, keep looking! You won’t know what else is out there if you don’t look. Avoid homebuyer’s remorse by making sure you know all your housing options before choosing one.
- Ignoring your budget: It’s tempting to go a little over your budget for a house you really like. But if getting the keys would mean zeroing out your bank accounts, don’t do it. Homeownership requires a good cushion of money for general upkeep, like repairs and maintenance, not to mention ongoing bills like property taxes and homeowners insurance premiums. Don’t let yourself be house poor!
- Missing the forest for the trees: You might be smitten with the cosmetic elements of a house. Don’t forget to look under the surface, though: That beautifully renovated kitchen isn’t worth it if the house’s foundation is crumbling. Think about the big picture rather than getting hung up on individual details.
- Forgetting about storage: Closets and cabinets might not be the most exciting part of a house, but don’t overlook them. Having enough space to hold all of your stuff plays a big role in your happiness in the home, and storage units are expensive.
- Skipping the inspection: When you’re ready to buy, the number-one way to avoid unexpected, budget-busting repairs is to get a professional home inspection. Licensed inspectors know how to spot potential problems now, so they don’t come back to bite you later. And any issues they find can be used as negotiating points with the seller before you close the deal.
This part’s easy: Find an experienced local real estate agent. A knowledgeable agent can be your ally, guide and advocate throughout the homebuying process, helping you hone in on what to look for based on your needs and budget. Take the time to research and interview a few candidates to find one who you click with — then, listen to their advice.
How can you know if you’re ready to buy a house? The answer depends largely on two things: your finances and the local housing market where you want to buy. A real estate agent can help you parse the local market to see what you might be able to afford in your area, and getting preapproved for a mortgage will let you know how much a lender might be willing to approve you for. But if you have a lot of outstanding debt, an unstable job situation or bad credit, it might be smart to wait.
Crunch your financial numbers with Bankrate’s new-house calculator to see how much you can comfortably afford. Don’t forget to factor in a down payment and closing costs, as well as your monthly mortgage payment. When in doubt, err on the side of caution: Getting a little less house is well worth buying yourself some financial breathing room.
You can’t predict the future — but you can limit your risk by getting a professional home inspection before you close on your home purchase. Inspectors are licensed, objective pros who can spot a minor problem before it becomes a major one. Homeowners insurance and home warranties can also help protect your investment.