Anyone who has gone through the stress of house hunting knows that it can be a challenge of biblical proportions. Though no home buying experience is the same, Maureen Burns with @Properties in Chicago, Illinois, says the right preparation and mindset can help you find the best property with relatively little stress. From not getting hung up on easily-fixed cosmetic features to researching your desired neighborhoods ahead of time, this list of rules is a good guide for house hunters everywhere.
Let us begin:
During the mortgage pre-approval process, your preferred lender will determine how much they think you can afford. Thus, not only does having this number save you time when narrowing down your list of properties to view, but it will allow you to set a budget. "The benefit to having the knowledge of a client's pre-approval parameters is that I'm not wasting the buyer's time," Burns says. "If I'm showing you something in the $500,000 range but you turn out to only be approved for $350,000, then we were chasing something for nothing." That pre-approval letter also keeps the time between making an offer and closing much shorter.
While your pre-approval letter sets the maximum amount your lender will give you, lots of buyers set a self-imposed budget. "Most of the people I work with who are first-time buyers are very vigilant, cautious, and conservative about their budget," Burns says. While it might be tempting to max out your mortgage for that landscaped lawn or extra bathroom, know that following your own guidelines may save financial stress later. Your future self may thank you for forgoing those unneeded amenities when hidden fees like maintenance work, emergency repairs, or even pricey homeowner's association dues pop up.
Here's a common house hunting scenario: You walk into the perfect-sized condo that's under budget and in your ideal neighborhood, but there are a few glaring problems, namely the purple-flowered wallpaper and tacky brass chandelier. But don't let that stop you: "I always tell my clients to look past the old dingy, dirty carpet if they can," Burns says. "Nothing is ever perfect unless you build it or design it yourself." If the price of the property is right (read: under budget), remember you'll have enough money left over to fix up the property's features to your liking.
While it may be tempting to go with the first person listed on Google, it's critical to remember not all agents are the same. "The benefit of working with a reputable agent—one who really cares about their clients—is that they'll make sure that their client's time is spent wisely," Burns says. While you can luck out by a random pick, you also could end up working with an agent who prioritizes a quick paycheck over your happiness. Read online reviews and articles, ask friends and family for recommendations, and meet with a few different options before you commit to an agent.
Every good realtor should have suggestions on where to live based on your needs, but your own research will help make your search easier, too. You'll want to consider whether the neighborhood has a reliable commute and if there are well-ranked schools and parks and playgrounds nearby if you have kids. And even if your agent spends generous amounts of time driving you around potential locations, take a day or two to explore on your own. It's difficult to get the feeling of a place without experiencing it in person, especially if you're moving from out-of-town.
While you probably would like a view of the city skyline or a front porch to read on, it's important to differentiate between your wants or needs. Since needs—not wants—make or break whether a property works for you, it's important to make a "must have" list before you begin searching for homes. This may seem simple, but it's actually not something everyone does before they begin their search. "Only about 25 percent of buyers have thought about their must-haves," Burns says. Reputable agents will draw this list out of you, but you'll save everyone a lot of time by doing this on your own. Think beyond the number of bedrooms and bathrooms you need. If you loathe the idea of living on a busy street, add "quiet area" to your list. If you have a passion for cooking, jot down some of the kitchen features you need.
In the age of Zillow, Trulia, Redfin and other real estate apps, shopping for a house has never been easier. You can read descriptions of local listings, monitor housing prices in your preferred neighborhoods, and scroll through photos of properties for sale. It's not so much of the homes you're looking at as it is doing your preliminary market research. Browsing through online listings will give you a sense of what you can afford and where: Knowing that your budget might only buy a small home in your preferred neighborhood will help you be realistic by the time it's time to look at properties. Your agent will be happy to know that you have realistic expectations by the time you start working together.
In the past, it was often advised that you should snap lots of pictures and jot down notes while house hunting. The thinking was that, by the end of a long day, all those places you visited can start to meld into one another. Yet, times have changed. Because those images and descriptors will be online or in sellers' agents' property profile booklets, consider spending as much time as possible experiencing the property in an organic way—not from behind a camera lens. If you're on a tight schedule, trying to take pictures of every closet and hidden corner may also hinder how many places you can see. As Burns notes, "If you're trying to knock out, say, 10 different showings in one day, you really need to stay on the clock and get in and get out. Then you can go back later to those properties that really resonated." By keeping your personal notes short and sweet, and by limiting your pictures to just notable features, you'll likely have a more productive day.
A house is likely the most expensive purchase most homeowners will ever make, so it's worth going for a second visit before putting in an offer. While you may be rushing during your first go-see, a good agent will ensure that you have far more time to wander around the property on the second. Burns describes this follow-up walkthrough as a good time to "look underneath the hood, if you will." This means that potential buyers should use this visit to examine things they might have missed before. For instance, while you were busy admiring the refinished hardwood floors the first time around, you may have missed the blooming water stains on the ceiling. Depending on the condition of the property, you'll also want to take this time to think about the potential cost of repairs and renovations.
In the age of HGTV, it's no wonder that potential buyers everywhere love the idea of a renovated home. Many people now walk into a property expecting that idyllic shade of greige on the walls or a white subway tile backsplash in the kitchen. Yet, it's good to remember that expectations and reality don't often align. The home you end up buying may not have the brick fireplace or spiral staircase you were dreaming about, but, hopefully, it will still check off all your main "must-have" items. It's also good to keep this lesson in mind when you're putting in an offer on a house. While Burns notes that a good agent will "pull out all of the stops" to make sure you get the property you want, losing out to a better offer is unfortunately part of the house hunting game. Understanding that there's no one home that's perfect for you will lessen the heartbreak if you're out-bidded, as well as allow you to move on to the next amazing possibility.