- Before shopping for homes, make two lists: things you can’t live without, and things that would be nice to have.
- Some of the most important factors to consider when buying a house are price, size, and location.
- Knowing your priorities ahead of time can help you act fast in a hot real estate market.
Though conditions appear to be cooling slightly, the housing market is still hot. In March 2022, it took a median of just 9 days for homes listed on Zillow to go from “for sale” to “pending.”
Because the market is still moving so quickly, it’s vital that buyers know what they want before they start shopping, so they can be prepared to make an offer when they find a home they like. But knowing what you want can be tricky, especially if you’re a first-time homebuyer. If you’re just starting this process for the first time, be prepared to do some soul searching.
Figure out your needs vs. wants in a house
“I encourage home buyers to go through the pros and cons of their current living arrangement,” says Haley Cutter, Realtor and founder of Cutter Luxe Living in Boston. “What works about your current home? What do you dislike about your current living arrangement?”
Think about the features in a home you absolutely can’t live without. Need multiple bedrooms? A condo that doesn’t require you to climb stairs to access it? Close enough to work that your commute doesn’t drive you bonkers?
Once you have your list of necessities, you can do a little daydreaming. What features would be nice to have, but aren’t necessary to your being able to live in the home? Maybe you’d like a big backyard for your dog, ample closet space, or a finished basement.
Your list of needs and wants will help guide you and your real estate agent as you search for homes. But as you shop, stay realistic and be open to compromise. If a home doesn’t meet all the criteria on your list, that doesn’t always mean it’s not a good fit for you.
“My suggestion to clients is always to put things you don’t like into one of two categories: Things we can change and things we can never change,” says Shawn Kunkler, real estate agent and founder of Homeward Associates, a real estate brokerage in San Francisco.
If you’re not crazy about a home’s kitchen, for example, you can – budget permitting – make updates to it. But you can’t change the size of the lot your home sits on or its proximity to your city’s downtown area. When you create your must-have list, your biggest priorities should be the things you know you’ll be stuck with for as long as you live in the home.
What to look for when buying a house
As you start your home search, these are the main things you should be thinking about.
Figure out how much house you can afford before you start looking for homes. You don’t want to get attached to a home that is ultimately too expensive for you.
One popular rule of thumb is to spend no more than 28% of your gross monthly income on housing. Play around with a mortgage calculator to see how much you might pay each month at different price points.
Location is something you’re stuck with until you move, so be sure you’re choosing a city, school district, and neighborhood that suits your needs.
“Focus on buying in the perfect location and then make the house perfect over time,” says Glen Pizzolorusso, associate real estate broker at Glen Christopher Luxury Collection in Connecticut.
Figure out what you need out of a neighborhood. Do you want it to be close to your office? Is it important to live near certain attractions? Maybe you want to live in an area with low crime rate statistics. Think about what’s most important to you and the rest of your household.
3. School district
If you have kids — or plan to have kids while living in the house — check which school they would attend should you live there. With younger kids, you should think about the middle or high schools they would go to in the future, even if that’s a few years away.
4. House size
How many bedrooms do you need? Maybe you also need an office or playroom. If you have several kids, you might need a large living room. Square footage is really expensive and sometimes impossible to add, so be honest about how much space you really need.
5. House condition
Make sure to schedule an inspection before closing on a home. Every inspection will show some faults in a home, but think about which issues you can accept and which are deal-breakers. For example, you might decide to not buy a home if you’ll need to replace the roof in a year or two.
6. Nearby amenities
How close is the nearest grocery store? The nearest hospital? If you’re someone who likes to go out shopping and dining every weekend, you might not be happy if you have to drive a long distance to do so. Remember that you’re not just living in the house, you’re living in the town it’s located in, too.
7. Future needs
Experts typically recommend that homebuyers plan to stay in their homes for at least five years to minimize the risk that they’ll lose money when they sell. Are the homes you’re looking at compatible with your plans for the future?
“Think slightly longer-term, meaning ‘How will I enjoy this home, neighborhood, or city five to 10 years from now?'” Kunkler says. “How will your life evolve? Kids, pets, retirement?”
8. Resale value
Speaking of the future, if you’re not buying your forever home, it’s also a good idea to consider how easily you’ll be able to sell it when the time comes.
“While a property may appeal to you for its style or price, also consider how that home will look to future buyers and whether it has broad appeal, as this can impact not only how quickly it can be resold, but also at what price,” says Ben Creamer, managing broker at Downtown Realty Company in Chicago.
Other things to consider when buying a home
The above are some of the most important factors you should consider when buying a home, but they aren’t the only things you should think about. Even if something seems small, if it’s important to you, it can make or break your experience in your new home.
- Parking. Is it important to you to have a closed garage or a parking lot? Maybe you’re fine with street parking.
- Number of stories. You might not care how many stories the house has, as long as there are enough square feet and rooms. Or maybe you really want an office that’s on a different floor than your kids’ rooms so you can focus when you work from home.
- Yard. You probably want a backyard if you have dogs or kids who enjoy the outdoors.
- Porch or deck. Do you want a front porch or back deck so you can enjoy nice weather? Maybe you want a screened-in deck. You can also discuss whether you’re open to building a deck onto the house later.
- Homeowners association. HOAs can be expensive, but they often make a neighborhood nicer. You may have strong feelings about living in an area with an HOA. You should also consider how much you’d be willing to pay in HOA dues.
- Other. You’ll probably have other things you’re looking for in a home. Add them to your priority list and decide how crucial each item is.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to finding the right house for you. Your must-haves and nice-to-haves lists will help guide you there, but they aren’t written in stone. When the market is hot, it’s important to be flexible and open to what’s available.
Cutter says that sometimes you just need to trust your instincts.
“I often see buyers walk into the home they ultimately purchase and see their faces light up,” she says. “Sometimes a home doesn’t appear to check the boxes but the buyer’s response to it is visceral and they are ready to compromise on what they may initially have thought were must-have items.”
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