Choosing a house can be exciting, terrifying, blissful and frustrating all at once. Some folks walk into the process with a clear mental picture of their dream home: “We need a four-bedroom, two-bath, one-story house with a big backyard! Oh, and granite countertops!” While others are a little less specific, “It needs to be close enough that I can commute to my job and the kids will attend [X] school district.” Either way, if you’re thinking about taking the plunge and buying a home, here are some questions to ask yourself while you’re shopping:
“Where are we?”
There is a reason that the old adage “Location, location, location!” is so prominent when discussing real estate. You may find a house that seems absolutely perfect for you and your family, but if it’s not in the right place, then you might be better off settling for something a little less than perfect. Geographic factors to take into account include:
- How close the house is to you and/or your spouse’s job(s).
- How far the house is from shopping and entertainment.
- What kind of amenities the neighborhood offers. (public pool, park, etc.)
- Whether or not the neighborhood seems “safe” and well-maintained.
If you and your spouse have children or are planning to start a family in the near future, you might want to also consider:
- Which public schools your children will attend based on your potential home’s residency zone—or, if you plan to send them to a private school, how far away the school is.
- The house’s proximity to large or busy roadways.
- Whether or not the streets have sidewalks or bicycle lanes.
“Who are we?”
No, you don’t need to have a full-blown existential crisis before you meet with a realtor. However, it is important to pick a house that’s compatible with your lifestyle, and that might require a little soul-searching. If both you and your spouse hate doing yard work, you probably don’t want to pick a house with an enormous yard—those require a lot of maintenance, and you two will either have to take care of it yourselves or hire someone else to do it. Conversely, if you are an avid gardener, own a large dog who needs space to run around or have kids who love to play outside, then a house with a tiny yard (and/or no fence) is probably a bad choice.
Here are some more examples:
- If you and your spouse don’t have kids because you genuinely don’t like children, don’t buy a house across the street from a playground or down the block from an elementary school. Also, if your realtor shows you a potential home’s backyard and you notice that both neighbors have jungle gyms, swing sets or playhouses on their property, then you might want to look elsewhere.
- Backyard pools can be tons of fun, but they are also expensive and time-consuming to maintain—remember, you can’t just stop taking care of it when the weather turns cold! If you can only see yourself using your pool a few days a month during summertime, then it’s probably not worth the investment.
- Do you want to have the freedom to do whatever you want with your home’s exterior, or are you willing to make concessions in the name of protecting your investment? Depending upon your answer, you may or may not want to buy a house in a neighborhood with a homeowner’s association (HOA). The primary purpose of an HOA is to maintain public areas in the community (like roads and parks), as well as enforce rules to keep houses in the neighborhood looking uniform and “tidy” (no foot-tall grass, no busted cars in the front yard, etc.). All of this is done with the intention of maintaining neighborhood property values. However, if your neighborhood has an HOA, you are generally required to ask for permission before you do any major landscaping or remolding on your home’s exterior, and the HOA has the authority to veto your prospective project—lest you be subject to fines or legal action. Bottom line: your homeowner’s association may prevent you from painting your front door red…but it will probably also prevent your neighbor from painting her house neon green!
“How much work do we want to put into the house?”
This an extremely important question to ask. Things like wall colors or floor styles are usually easy (and/or inexpensive) enough to change, so if the one thing you dislike about a house is the floral wallpaper in the bathroom or the shag carpet in the living room, it shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker. However, the more costly or complicated the project, the more wary you should be. Would you be willing to completely redo the kitchen countertops? Knock down a wall to turn two small rooms into one large room? Add an extension because the house is short a bathroom or a bedroom?
Some people have no problem buying a “fixer-upper” home and then spending their own time and money to improve it. Others prefer a house that may need some cosmetic changes but is otherwise fine. Only you can decide which option is best, but you will want to budget accordingly. And be careful to not spend too much on your new “construction zone”! If other houses in the neighborhood are selling for $200,000 or less, then it’s probably not worth it to plop down $190,000 for a house that needs $50,000 worth of work!
Here’s the bad news: if you walk into the house-hunting process with a very specific idea of what you want, you are probably going to be disappointed. Odds are, you’re not going to find a house that’s in the right place, fits you and your family like a tailored suit, and is within your price range. So know what you are willing to compromise on and what is truly important to you. Maybe the house with the great yard needs to have the kitchen redone, or maybe the one that will put your kids at a great school is a little farther away from your office than you would like. The house you pick doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect—in fact, it probably won’t be. But if you’re realistic with your expectations and put some serious thought into what you truly need in a home, then chances are, you will be happy with your purchase for years to come!