It sounds like a great listing – in your price range – in a good neighborhood – with features you’re looking for. First impressions mean a lot – but you find the bushes are overgrown, the front hallway is covered with tacky foil wallpaper, the kitchen cabinets are painted dark brown, the living room rug smells musty, and the hardwood floors have black water marks on them.
Should you head back out the door? Maybe. But to fully determine whether you should cross this house off of your list you’ll need to gather more information, and perhaps look past the blemishes to get a full picture of this house’s potential. How do you do that? Follow these 10 steps.
Keep them straight
Looking at a bunch of houses? With digital photography making it easy and inexpensive to record images, be sure to take a digital camera along, first taking a picture of the listing sheet so you can remember which pictures go with which home, and then key elements of each home.
Also, make a checklist before you visit the first house so that you can keep each of them straight. Here is a list of items you’ll want to include (rank each as either excellent, good, fair, needs repair soon, needs repair now).
- Air conditioning
- Floors (rate by each level of home)
- Closet/storage space
- Electrical (does it have 60, 100 or 200 amp service?)
- Master bedroom
Then customize the list with your own “must haves,” for example, fireplace, master bath, walk-in closet, two (or three) car garage, dining room, open floor plan, eat-in kitchen, screened-in porch, large (or small) yard.
When narrowing down your home search, consider the following:
- Start with emotion, but end with facts. Buying a home is an emotional process. You often find yourself trying to determine if this is where you want to spend the next 10, 20, or 30 years of your life (and perhaps raise a family). It’s OK if your initial impression is an emotional one. But because the purchase can be the largest you’ll ever make, it is essential that you gather all of the facts necessary to make an educated decision.
- Look for good bones. Don’t get hooked on the decorating. The town or towns you are targeting for your home search likely have a handful of builders who have built a majority of the homes. Get to know the reputation of these builders. Then, before going to look at a home, find out who the builder was. You’ll want to be careful when looking at homes built by those with less than stellar reputations. Then, you need to learn to look past the furniture, wall colors, window treatments, and other decorating, and just look at the home layout and flow. New cherry cabinets and granite counters matter little if they are in the galley kitchen and you have a family of five. At the same time a family room with black walls featuring a mural of the moon on one side also matters little if it is big enough for your needs. Aesthetics are relatively inexpensive to fix – major construction is another matter.
- When looking at room layout, corners are key. Rooms with doorways in the middle of walls flow better than rooms that open in a corner. Remember that when looking for your dream home.
- Make sure the most expensive stuff works. The two most expensive rooms in a home to renovate are kitchens and bathrooms. If you’re stretching to be able to afford a home and still eat, make sure these two rooms don’t need renovating anytime soon.
- Take an inventory of what needs fixing. Good news: With more houses on the market than in the past several years, you’ll likely be able to look at more houses before making a decision to put in a bid. Bad news: That means it can get quite confusing to remember the details of each. Develop a list of things you like in the house as you walk through each, and also make a list of things that might need fixing (see "Keep Them Straight", right).
- Is there room for expansion? You might not be concerned with adding onto the home you’re viewing today, but what about tomorrow? Don’t necessarily exclude those that don’t have the room and a logical place to expand, but do understand that you will be limited in your options down the road.
- Does the basement leak? If you’ve been lucky enough to live in a house with a dry basement (or perhaps without a basement) it’s hard to imagine the havoc a wet basement can bring to your life. If you’ve ever lived in a house with a leaky basement or hate the thought of a foot of water surrounding your furnace, you’ll likely be sure to check that the basement doesn’t leak, or has a system that automatically removes water from it.
- What’s the condition of the home’s exterior? Does it need painting, or is it sided? Does it have painted brick that’s peeling? Is the aluminum siding chalking? Improving the exterior can be costly. Check the exterior walls carefully before putting in a bid.
- Landscaping: Does it look like a park or a landfill? Landscaping not only includes the grass, bushes and any gardens, but also the hardscape – the sidewalk, deck and/or patio. People are spending more time than ever outdoors and you’re likely no different. Landscaping improvements can be costly, but is one area in which homeowners often tackle projects themselves. If you have the time, energy, and expertise you can save money by doing some landscaping improvements. But costs can add up here – be sure to factor that into your decision and/or bid.
- Check the zoning, nobody likes surprises. Too often homeowners are horrified to learn that their tranquil neighborhood is being invaded by multi-family housing, a big commercial business, or a 24-hour convenience store. Before you put a bid on a house, go to the town hall, city hall, or county register of records and find out the zoning of all contiguous properties.