A House-Hunting How-To

Author: Alecia Pirulis  

front door

Looking for the right house can be an overwhelming process. Driving through unfamiliar neighborhoods, walking through house after house, trying to determine if it is the right space/fit/community for you – after a while, you’re lucky if you remember one particular house at all, let alone specific details. Then there’s the house you dismissed immediately. Was it actually a diamond in the rough but you just couldn’t see it due to dated fixtures and wallpaper your grandmother would have called old-fashioned? And what about the great house that was out in the middle of nowhere? Will the area eventually build up, and should you risk it?

Looking for property is never easy – especially if you are a first-time home buyer. But if you keep a few things in mind as you look, take lots of pictures, and keep a checklist handy, you can find a great house that you will be happy in for a long time – and will be able to sell when you’re ready to move on.

First, it’s about the bones – not the finery. Ignore how the current owners have “dressed” the house – paint, wallpaper, light fixtures, and flooring can all be changed. Ignore the furniture and the clutter– it won’t cost much or take a lot of time to give your home a makeover – as long as the basic layout works.

Look at the kitchen first because a kitchen renovation is one of the most expensive projects in a house. Stay in the kitchen for a while and ask yourself: Is it large enough? Does the space work? Am I happy with the view from the kitchen? Are the appliances in good shape? What about the cabinets and countertops? Is there enough storage space? While you may eventually decide to change the countertops, update the cabinets, or buy new appliances, if the kitchen is too small or it isn’t functional it will take a major renovation to fix that.

Bathroom renovations are also expensive, so look at the bathrooms carefully, as well: Is the shower in the master large enough? Does it have the features you are looking for (dual sinks, a separate tub)? Are there enough bathrooms for your family? Is there a bathroom on the main level? Overlook the pink fixtures and ugly tile for now – that can be fixed. But the fact that the bathroom is so small you can barely turn around? That is an issue not easily solved.

Next, look for subtle signs of problems. (You will need to have an inspection for the house you decide to buy, but looking for potential problems during the house-hunting phase could help you narrow down your choices and avoid expensive headaches later on). Stains or bulges on walls or ceilings could indicate water leaks. When you enter a room, look up and down. Does the ceiling have stains? What about along the baseboards? Also, use your nose – if the basement smells musty, there could be a water issue. Examine the heating and air conditioning systems, and ask about the water heater. If these are old and outdated, replacing them could be very costly.

Check the little things. Are there enough electrical outlets? What about storage space? Don’t just look at the master closet – check them all: bedroom closets, coat closets, linen closet, pantry closet, etc. Check the windows. Are there enough, are they a decent size, and are the windows in good shape? Feel for a draft, look for fog between the panes, and check for broken seals. Also, what about the placement of the windows? If the house is dark, perhaps the windows aren’t arranged to let in the natural light. Windows are expensive to replace, so be sure to check them over carefully.

Check the yard around the outside of the house. If it slopes toward the house, has a major drop-off, or has a large depression that will need filled, those are all issues that will have to be addressed. Look at the condition of the yard, sidewalks, driveway, and deck (or patio). Keep an eye out for major cracks or indentations – while some cracking is normal with age and normal settling, serious indentations and cracks could signal erosion. Also, check the property lines and ask about zoning (to be sure a high-rise or a shopping plaza won’t be going in next door).

As you walk around the yard, be sure to check the roof for signs of wear and tear. Look for cracks in the stucco, peeling paint, or warped aluminum siding. It can be very expensive to redo the exterior, especially if siding needs to be repaired or replaced. While outside, look at the space – if you did decide to expand, would you have enough space? How close are the neighbors?

Take a checklist and a digital camera with you to every house. The checklist should include a list of your must-haves (a laundry room on the main floor, four bedrooms, a pool, a fireplace, a large kitchen, a dual vanity in the master, etc.) and an outline of the main rooms (living room, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms). As you enter each room, write your impressions down! You may think you will remember this house and every detail, but you won’t – especially if you look at several different houses or even multiple houses in a day. Take note of the things you like and the things you don’t like (make separate columns if it helps). Take a few photos to help jog your memory as you review your notes.

Go to the house at different times of the day and night. If you can, schedule another walk-through at a different time of the day – things you didn’t notice in the morning will be very obvious in the evening (and vice-versa). Be sure to drive around the neighborhood and check out all of the streets leading to your neighborhood – especially during rush hour.

Searching for a new home can be an overwhelming experience. You may walk into the perfect house and fall instantly in love – or not. Your perfect home may not look that way at first. Don’t judge a house by its (wall, floor) coverings. Instead, try to picture the house in its fixed-up, freshly-painted splendor – especially if the house has all of the features on your wish-list.