House hunting can be super stressful, very difficult and confusing, and a downright frustrating process, especially if you’re a first time home buyer. There are so many factors to consider, and then also the general vibe of a home. Does it feel right? Can you make it yours? Can you see you and your family living there, settling there?
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 in order to get what I want. I learned a lot during the process about what counts and what doesn’t.
This post will break down some of the things I learned and hopefully, these house hunting tips help you on your own journey towards finding your forever home!
House Hunting: Getting Started
First things first you need to figure out why you’re buying and what your goals are. You also need to make a list of must haves, like to have, and definitely 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 out? Do you plan to sell? All of these details may affect how much you want to pay for the property, and also 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 for the purposes of renting out in the future, then from a real estate investing point of view your choices will also be drastically different.
Your Must Haves
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, some of my must-haves during my house hunting included a good location in a great school district (can’t really move the house), open concept (can be difficult to change layouts), and walk-in master closet. I also didn’t want anything more than two stories. My final 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 really cost you, versus new chandeliers which you can shop around for and find bargains. However, these ARE things that you can change easily, 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 someone who’s 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. Terrible advice living in southern California where everything is overpriced. She clearly had no interest in protecting me; she just wanted her commission.
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 were quoted, 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 know 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. This way you have 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. Once I started making offers, I was able to complete my loan application over the phone in 30 minutes. This was because they already my pre-approval as well.
The paperwork during escrow that you submit regarding finance statements, etc. is what eventually solidifies the loan passing.
As a side note, the amount of loan you will be approved for depends on your current debt to income ratio. In other words, the more you debt you already have, the less house you will be approved for. So, for instance, if you still have to pay off student loans, be aware that you may be limited during your house hunting because of them.
What to consider/look for When House Hunting
When Analyzing the List Price
There are a couple of things that I did 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?
This can give you an idea of neighborhood trends. Of course, homes almost never sell at their appraised value. This is especially true in areas with inflated home costs or highly desirable neighborhoods. What you want to make sure, is that if there is a difference, that you are getting the same deal as your neighbors, or other buyers.
For instance, take a home with an appraised value of $800k that’s listed at $950k. The difference is $150k. If the $150k difference is how the other homes are listed or sold, then you know that you’re getting the same kind of deal as everyone else. However, if other homes are selling at a differece of 100k, then you know you’re being overpriced.
Obviously, when you do these comparisons you should try to compare homes that are the most similar in square footage and amenities. Also to be aware of, this comparison doesn’t account for the emotional factor of loving the house or seeing the potential in it and being willing to pay for it. The idea of this comparison is to give yourself an objective starting point.
Your real estate agent can help you sort through these kinds of differences, however, it’s good to keep an eye on the numbers yourself too. You have to protect your own interests!
The Price Per Square Foot
Often when house hunting you 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 cheaper price may actually 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 very helpful especially in high cost of living areas, has limits. It’s important to remember that living in a home of your own should not debilitate you financially.
Other location-related items to consider is if the home is near good schools or in a good school district, proximity to shopping and restaurants, nice views, noise from the road, or highway.
See As Many Homes As You Can
The more you see, the more you realize what you want, and what works for you. There were homes I had no desire to see and ended up liking; there were others that I thought I would love and was completely underwhelmed when I saw them.
Attending open houses is a great way to get a sense of what’s out there. It allows you to look around without an agent. I liked doing this also because I could take my time canvassing a neighborhood as well to see what it was all about.
The more you see as well, the more you’ll get a sense of the norm in your city. For 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 home in San Diego that had a basement, whereas where I grew up a basement was the norm.
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’s overpriced, or something else is going on that we don’t know about. Many times there are issues with buyers getting clearance on the loan, and sometimes sellers change their minds. By checking out property history and arming yourself with that information, you can then ask the appropriate questions.
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 times 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 of time, 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 be upgraded and all this money spent. They’ll use that reason to jack up the resale price. A great way to see what changes were made is to go back on the property history and look at the original listings from past years.
You can also just request pictures from before the upgrades. This will give you a sense of how much work went into the home. 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 you 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 over spend or get a raw deal.
To 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 don’t disagree. However, my meaning here is to not 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 on the market, the less likely it’ll either sell or get the sale price that’s desired. Competitive markets can also throw you for a loop because there’s pressure to not 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. Often, to sweeten an offer, your real estate agent may ask that you shorten the contingency period during escrow. The contingency period is the time 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. This is a huge risk to take because you may miss major structural, plumbing, or electrical issues – all things you definitely 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 re-negotiate the price. You have the upper hand in this situation. The worst that can happen is they say no. In that situation, then, you have to decide if the issue you found is still worth paying for.
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 truly 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 completely 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 definitely 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 starting 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 so that you aren’t blindly led. 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 same note, 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 that 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 that had zero closing costs (so yes, it’s possible!). Of course, the options available to you depend on your credit score, your debt to income ratio, and your monthly income. However, even if your credit score is low, or you have other debt, it doesn’t mean you should settle on anything.
Look over the numbers carefully, ask questions from your mortgage loan officer about different options for you. Get the breakdown on everything. Your final loan type doesn’t have to be finalized 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’
This is not the kind of purchase to compare yourself with others. This is purely personal and is so 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 difficult and stressful 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 was quick to decide on a price, I was on top of the inspections and had all my paperwork ready to go.
When I compare 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 was able to spend less, my home now is already worth much more. Part of that is luck, part of it is timing and the rest is fate. As you know, I believe everything happens for a reason. All the experiences I had prior to my current home, I think, prepared me for making the leap and being confident in my decision when I did buy.
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, being vigilant, and being persistent, I think it’s possible to find the dream home that fits your needs.
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