Buying a home involves a tremendous amount of work, which makes sense, considering it’s the biggest investment most of us will ever make. This is especially true for first-time homebuyers, who often have a lot to learn about loan terms, property taxes, home inspections and dozens of other unfamiliar topics. Trying to find a lovely home in a great neighborhood can also be a bit daunting, especially if you’re relocating from another city or state.
By the time you reach the point in the process when you can actually look at homes, there’s even more to think about. What’s most important for you to have in a home? How can you compare two or more houses that you really love? Look for features that could save or cost you money on energy, renovations and other long-term expenses. Read on for tips on how to narrow down your search, and what to look for once you start considering specific houses.
Before you start shopping, there are some basic questions to answer:
Before you dive into shopping for your next home, know your credit score and how much you can afford to spend monthly on a mortgage. Get pre-approved by a mortgage lender to establish your spending limit when shopping for your new home. Doing your financial homework is the most important step in the house hunting process.
The mortgage payment is just one expense — you also must consider your down payment, closing costs, property taxes, homeowners insurance, renovations, repairs and other costs you never faced as a renter. Make a detailed budget to find out how much you can spend on housing, then work with a real estate professional or financial planner to figure out a responsible price range for your house hunt.
When looking for a new house, make a list of all the important features you want in a home: a spacious yard, an open floor plan, three bedrooms, etc. You may have to make a few compromises, so put the “must-haves” at the top of the list and the “would-like-to-haves” at the bottom.
Think about whether it is the house itself or the neighborhood that matters more to you. For some people, living in a particular neighborhood takes precedence over everything else. For others, the house itself (comfortable, affordable, in good condition, etc.) is more significant than its location or the surrounding community.
Do you want to grow a family? Need a short commute to work? Close proximity to the city? Plans to start a home-based business? Use the answers to these larger questions to guide your house hunting among the homes in your price range. Once you find a home that fits your life, even if you have to compromise on certain aspects of the building itself, you can always remodel it into your dream house in time.
Once you decide on the type of home you’d like, start researching neighborhoods that match your criteria. The internet is a good place to start, allowing you to preview properties online before you try to arrange a visit. A lot of online listing sites like Realtor.com and Trulia.com have virtual tours, video content and other features to help you screen properties and get a quick sense of specific areas, as well as see local housing prices.
Turning to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook is another good way to widen your circle and solicit the advice of your digital friends. You might be surprised to find that an old classmate went to college in the town you are moving to, or a former coworker has friends in the area you want to live in and can recommend an agent or provide information about specific neighborhoods.
If you are moving because of your job, your new company may provide resources to assist you with relocation needs. Perhaps your new supervisor or a coworker may be able to offer some insight on the surrounding communities.
Nevertheless, working with a real estate agent is one of the best ways to determine the options available to you in the area. The agent will be familiar with master-planned communities and other neighborhoods throughout the area, and they know about the prices and availability of the homes that you are interested in. They can help you set up appointments (if you are able to visit the area prior to your move), and offer advice about neighborhoods, schools, public transportation and other important quality-of-life details.
You may have to condense your house hunting into a few days if you are moving from another state, so make sure to mention this to real estate agents before you select one. Ask them if they have experience helping long-distance clients, and find out if they can handle the compressed pace of your housing search.
Your future home should be strategically located within easy reach of certain key places in the city you’ll be visiting on a regular basis (work, school, health care centers, entertainment). Try to familiarize yourself with the road infrastructure in the area, traffic peculiarities, parking issues, and available means of public transportation to be able to assess the accessibility of your new home. Research the social, demographic and ethnic characteristics of your neighborhood of interest to ensure that the living standards complement your lifestyle, and research the surrounding area to make sure it’s safe.
Among the neighborhood archetypes to consider:
As you start dropping in on open houses and poring over online listings, resist the urge to swoon over simple aesthetics like paint colors, light fixtures and decorative hardware. You can make those sorts of upgrades yourself, often at a low cost. Instead, put more emphasis on the features that will help you save real money — and the shortcomings that could really cost you.
Here are some of the most important criteria when sizing up your prospective first home:
Once you've narrowed down your choices, make sure you're not moving into a home that has unpleasant surprises.
When you first find a contender for your dream home, be sure to ask lots of questions and even ask to see documentation to verify things like the age of the HVAC system and appliances.
As you proceed, it’s vital that you eventually enlist the services of a reliable home inspector. Plan to tag along during the inspection so that the inspector can point out potential problems in detail. Try not to totally fall in love with a house before the inspection, as you could uncover serious issues that are prohibitively expensive to remedy, forcing you to walk away.
Finally, try to enjoy the journey. Buying a house can be stressful, with so much money on the line, and it’s not a process to take lightly. However, if you perform the proper diligence and zero in on a house that meets your needs and fits your budget, you can secure a home for your family for decades.