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House hunting can be super stressful, challenging, confusing, and frustrating, especially if you’re a first-time homebuyer. There are so many factors to consider and the general vibe of a home. Does it feel right? Can you see you and your family living there, settling there? Can you make it yours?
Don’t forget your personal finances, are they in order? Taking on a mortgage has serious implications so make sure you’re using one of many apps available to help you manage your finances. One of our favorites is the one offered by M1.
When I went through the process of buying a house, it took me a year. At that time, I changed what I was looking for multiple times because what I saw on the market made me realize that I had to change to get what I wanted. I learned a lot about what counts and what doesn’t.
This post will break down some of the things I learned, and hopefully, these house hunting tips will help you on your journey toward finding a forever home!
House Hunting: Getting Started
First things first, you need to figure out why you’re buying and your goals. You also need to make a list of must-haves, like to have and don’t want.
Are you buying for yourself for the long term or short term? In other words, do you anticipate having to leave your current town/city in less than 5-10 years? Do you plan on this being a starter home? Do you want to keep the property when you leave to rent it out? Do you plan to sell?
All of these details may affect how much you want to pay for the property and may make your choices for must-haves, etc., a bit more flexible as you know you won’t be there forever.
In addition, if you’re purchasing to rent out in the future, then from a real estate investing point of view, your choices will also be drastically different.
These are things you absolutely can’t live without. I’d also recommend you consider things that are difficult to change or are unchangeable, period.
For instance, during my house hunting, some of my must-haves included a good location in a great school district (can’t really move the house), an open concept (can be difficult to change layouts), and a walk-in master closet. I also didn’t want anything more than two stories. My last must-haves were the price point and the commute to work.
Try not to get bogged down by paint color or other cosmetic details. Yes, some cosmetic changes are more expensive than others. For instance, new flooring can cost you versus new chandeliers that you can shop for and find bargains. However, there ARE things that you can change quickly, even at a cost. So, if you find a home that has all the must-haves that, as above, you can’t change, cosmetic issues can be dealt with.
Real Estate Agents
Your agent should be on your side and willing to give you honest feedback. I had one who, when I asked about reasonable offer prices for townhomes, told me to give what they were asking. She had no interest in protecting me; she just wanted her commission. This is terrible advice for living in southern California, where everything is overpriced.
So shop around for agents if you need to. Get recommendations from friends, and if you don’t like one, don’t hesitate to make a switch.
I eventually found a great real estate agent who went the distance to help me out. She was someone who kept bugging my bank and the escrow people about paperwork and progress. She also had tons of experience in buying and flipping homes. So every “upgraded” home we saw, or every “builder upgrade” we heard about, she would take me aside and give me an honest rundown about the quality of items used and if the pricing was over-inflated.
It got to a point where I could look at a kitchen countertop and know that it was cheap; I could see “builder upgrades” and see that they were not high-end—having someone on your side truly can make a huge difference.
Get pre-approval from your bank before you start the home buying process. Doing so will give you a general idea of price points that you can afford, and it makes it easier for you to make an offer once you find something you like. Pre-approval allowed me to complete my loan application over the phone in 30 minutes once I started making offers.
The paperwork during escrow that you submit regarding financial statements, etc., is what eventually solidifies the loan passing.
As a side note, the amount of loan approval you receive depends on your current debt to income ratio. In other words, the more debt you already have, the lower the amount of pre-approval you will receive. So, for instance, if you still have to pay off student loans, you will be limited in the amount of house you can purchase.
What to Consider/Look For When House Hunting
When Analyzing the List Price
I did a couple of things that helped me stay objective during my house hunting.
Comparing Prices with Similar Homes
Look at the appraised value and compare that to the list price. How much of a difference is there? Is that difference in appraised vs. sale price the same across that neighborhood? What’s the difference in other areas?
Making this comparison can give you an idea of neighborhood trends. Of course, homes rarely sell at their appraised value. This is especially true in areas with inflated home costs or highly desirable neighborhoods. You want to make sure that if there is a difference, you are getting the same deal as your neighbors or other buyers.
For instance, take a home with an appraised value of $800k listed at $950k. The difference is $150k. If the $150k difference is how the other houses are listed or sold, you know that you’re getting the same deal as everyone else. However, if other homes are selling at a difference of 100k, then you know you’re being overpriced.
The idea of this comparison is to give yourself an objective starting point. When you make these comparisons, you should compare the most similar homes in square footage and amenities. Also, to be aware, this comparison doesn’t account for the emotional factor of loving the house or seeing its potential and being willing to pay for it.
Your real estate agent can help you sort through these differences; however, it’s good to keep an eye on the numbers yourself. You have to protect your own interests!
The Price Per Square Foot
When house hunting, you often see a cheaper home in a nice area, and you get excited that you’re getting a good deal. However, rather than just looking at the list price, look at the price per square foot. Often cheaper homes in nicer areas are either smaller or need upgrading.
Smaller homes at a lower price may mean a higher price per square foot. In which case, that’s not a great deal.
Location, Location, Location
Location really does matter in real estate. Even if you plan to live in your home forever, a good location, or a desirable one, is what helps your home retain value, gain value, and contribute nicely to your net worth.
Of course, depending on where you live and what you can afford, your location can vary drastically. You have to consider this and try to get the best possible location for what you can afford. I’ll also point out that frugal living, while beneficial, has limits, especially in high cost of living areas. It’s important to remember that living in your own home should not debilitate you financially.
Other location-related items to consider are if the home is near good schools or in a good school district, proximity to shopping and restaurants, the views, and noise from the road or highway. For instance, if looking for apartments in Houston, Texas, then view all the neighborhoods on a map to see where you would be settling and what’s close by. Location can make all the difference!
See As Many Homes As You Can
The more you see, the more you realize what you want and what works for you. I had no desire to see some homes and ended up liking them; there were others that I thought I would love, and I was completely underwhelmed when I saw them.
Attending open houses is a great way to get a sense of what’s available in your city. It allows you to look around without an agent. I also liked doing this because I could take my time canvassing a neighborhood.
The more you see, the more you’ll get a sense of the norm in your city. In San Diego, for instance, some of the layouts of homes were completely different than what I was used to from growing up in the midwest. Plus, I don’t think I saw a single house in San Diego with a basement, whereas a basement was the norm where I grew up.
Look at Property History
How long a property has been on the market can be very telling. Either there’s something wrong with the home, it is overpriced, or something else is going on.
There are often issues with buyers getting clearance on a loan, and sometimes sellers change their minds. You can ask the appropriate questions by checking out the property history and arming yourself with that information.
Another thing to notice is the MLS (multiple listing service) numbers. MLS is the number that real estate agents use to identify homes. You can think of it as a reference number. Often, a home will be taken off the market and re-listed with a different MLS. So then, it looks like it’s been on the market for a short period or is a “new” listing. However, the property history, as you will be able to see on sites like Redfin or Zillow, will tell you a different story.
Check Out The Upgrades
Some older homes will claim to have upgrades, and all this money spent. They’ll use that reason to jack up the resale price. Go back into the property history and look at the original listing photos. You can compare the before and after pictures and get a real sense of the changes made.
You can also request pictures from before the upgrades. Your real estate agent may also be able to give you a general monetary estimate of how much they think was spent.
Common House Hunting Mistakes To Avoid
There is no right or wrong answer for what you need for yourself or your family. This choice to buy, and which one works, is purely personal. These house hunting tips are meant to help you stay objective and hopefully ensure that you don’t overspend or get a raw deal.
On the other end, there are some common house hunting mistakes to try and avoid and be aware of so that you don’t fall into a trap. These include:
Don’t Get Too Emotional
Easier said than done. And anyone you talk to will likely tell you that buying a home is an emotional decision. I agree. However, my meaning here is not to let emotions take over common sense. Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment or silence your instincts about something.
For many people, all they want to do is make a sale. The longer the house is on the market, the less likely it’ll either sell or get the desired sale price. Competitive markets can also throw you for a loop because there’s pressure not to let any other buyer outbid you or beat you to the punch.
Stay as objective as you can during the home buying process.
Don’t Skimp On Inspections
This is especially true for older homes or homes you anticipate may need some work. To sweeten an offer, your real estate agent may often ask that you shorten the contingency period during escrow.
The contingency period is when you have to do your inspections and due diligence. You usually get a week for this. Shortening this period means you have less time and less opportunity to be thorough. As you can imagine, this is a considerable risk to take because you may miss major structural, plumbing, or electrical issues – all things you don’t want to miss.
Don’t Hesitate to Renegotiate Price If Called For
Speaking of inspections, if the home inspector does find something worrisome, don’t ignore it. Use it as an opportunity to try and renegotiate the price. The worst that can happen is they say no. In that case, you have to decide if the issue you found is still worth paying for. You have the upper hand in this situation.
Don’t Bid On a House You Can’t Afford
It’s not worth it. Current market conditions will largely dictate the pricing in your area. Sometimes it’s a seller’s market, and the affordability is just not there. Don’t follow through if you genuinely can’t afford it. Being house poor is the worst thing you can do for yourself, in my opinion.
On the same note, don’t get into a bidding war on a house you aren’t entirely in love with; parallel to that, don’t go above a set price that you decide for yourself.
Don’t Go In Unprepared
Before you officially start house hunting, you should have a general idea of what you like, dislike, want, or don’t want. Sometimes it’s hard to figure that out. In which case, do some research online on the properties available in different neighborhoods. Give yourself a starting point before you start seeing places in person; otherwise, you’ll end up more confused and off-track during the whole process.
On that note, don’t rely on your real estate agent for all the information. Look it up yourself. Arm yourself with some knowledge. Even if you don’t understand everything you read about the real estate market in your area, you’ll be able to give yourself the pathway to questions to ask.
Don’t Get Discouraged
Finding a home that works for you is tough. Competitive markets make it even harder. I encourage you to keep that in mind when you are looking. It’s not easy, but it is possible. So, don’t give up or get discouraged. Sometimes the right one is just the next open house away.
On the flip side, don’t settle for something you don’t want. I can’t imagine spending money on a home that you ultimately don’t care for. It’s better to keep looking and wait for something you’re happy with.
Do The Math
When the bank gives you a breakdown of costs, look over them carefully. Different loan types have different closing costs, interest rates, and ultimately different mortgages.
Closing costs can add up and be expensive. I chose a loan with zero closing costs (so yes, it’s possible!). Of course, the options available to you depend on your credit score, debt to income ratio, and monthly income. However, even if your credit score is low or you have other debt, it doesn’t mean you should settle on anything.
Get the breakdown on everything. Look over the numbers carefully and ask your mortgage loan officer questions about different options for you. You do not need to finalize your loan type until the end of the escrow period. So, you have plenty of time to do your due diligence and decide which option is right for you.
Don’t Keep Up With the Jones’
Do not compare yourself with others with this purchase. Home-buying is purely personal and is dependent on individual finances. Forget what people think and their opinions, and focus on your own needs.
House hunting, especially when buying your first home, is a stressful and challenging process, but when done thoughtfully can be super satisfying as well.
My own experience was long and drawn out, but when I saw the home I bought, I was ready for it. I quickly decided on a price; I was on top of the inspections and had all my paperwork ready to go.
When I compare the prices now of my home with those currently selling in my neighborhood, I know I got a good deal. I spent under 1 million while everyone around me is over that. Because I spent less, my home now is worth much more. Part of that is luck, part of it is timing, and the rest is fate.
My home is not my ultimate dream home; however, I think I have the best home for me at this time. By doing some research, being prepared, vigilant, and persistent, I think it’s possible to find the dream home that fits your needs.
Disclosure: The author is not a licensed or registered investment adviser or broker/dealer. They are not providing you with individual investment advice. Please consult with a licensed investment professional before you invest your money.
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Tim Thomas has investments in real estate.
Featured image credit: Unsplash.