Buying a home is a great investment and a very big deal. But there’s no going back once you sign that purchase agreement.
For that reason, you should go out of your way to ask as many questions as possible before you commit to buying a property. What is the average commission rate in your state, and how can you find low-commission agents? Why is the seller moving after just one year in the house? Who are the cash buyers you may be competing against? You should get all the information you can to make an informed decision.
Read on for a comprehensive list of 20 things to look for before you buy a house that's caught your eye.
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1. The square footage
The right amount of space is subjective. A retired couple needs a lot less room than a growing young family. Make sure you'll have enough square footage to meet your needs.
A lot of people think the more house you have, the better. But keep in mind that larger houses require more upkeep, more maintenance, and cost more to heat and cool. You’ll also have to buy more furniture, unless you want your extra rooms to sit empty.
A general rule is to aim for 1,000 square feet per person. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, though, as your home’s layout and design can go a long way toward making your space seem open and welcoming or cramped and claustrophobic.
2. An attractive, manageable yard
If you have children or place a high value on privacy, you may want a large, fenced-in backyard. However, some people, especially if they live in dense (and expensive) urban markets, don’t need a yard at all. Yards require maintenance and, depending on where you live, irrigation. If you don’t do this work yourself, you’ll have to pay a landscaper.
3. A sturdy roof
Look for a sturdy roof in good condition. A leaky roof will destroy your home’s value fast, and replacing it can easily cost five figures. Ask how old the roof is and if there’s a history of leaks. Once you get serious about buying, have a professional inspect the roof.
4. A solid foundation
Foundation problems are one of the most serious flaws you can find in a house. Make sure the foundation in your prospective home doesn’t show any signs of damage.
First, inspect the interior of the home. Cracks in the walls can be signs of problems with the foundation, as well as doors and windows that stick. Next, look at the foundation itself. If there are cracks, keep in mind that some cracks are more serious than others.
Vertical cracks are the result of settling, and they are found even in new homes. They're often simple to fix. Diagonal cracks are the result of one side of the foundation settling more than the other. They can be more complicated to repair, depending on circumstances. Horizontal cracks are the most serious because they can mean the structural integrity of the home is compromised.
5. An exterior in good condition
A quick glance can tell you basic facts about a property: its approximate age, cosmetic condition, and how well the previous owners kept up on maintenance.
A closer look at the exterior can tell you even more. Look for signs of peeling paint, rotten wood, discoloration from animal or pest infestations, or hairline cracks as a result of foundation problems.
If you have any doubts about a prospective purchase, have a professional home inspector take a look.
6. The right number of bedrooms
The number of bedrooms you need will depend on how many people will live in the house as well as how often you’ll host guests. Although some rooms can be converted into a bedroom, they may lack amenities such as natural light and easy access to a bathroom.
If you have children, the layout of the bedrooms may also be important, as many parents like to have their children’s bedrooms nearby.
7. Functional, attractive bathrooms
Give each bathroom a close inspection by testing all faucets and toilets. Look for adequate water pressure and swift drainage, and make sure there are no leaks. Also test any fans and lights. Inspect around sinks, toilet bowls, and tubs for intact seals and caulking. Be sure to note if there are any mildew odors or visible mold, which can suggest inadequate ventilation or hidden leaks.
8. Heating and cooling systems in good working order
You’ll want to know exactly what kind of heating and cooling system is currently in use. Does the heating system use natural gas, electricity, heating oil, or something else? If it has a boiler and radiator system, when was it installed, how often are the radiators serviced, and is it in working order?
If there’s a cooling system, is it a central air-conditioning system, or does the home use window units? If you’re interested in installing a new central heating and cooling system, make sure the home’s infrastructure can accommodate it.
Ask the homeowner for the previous year’s utility bills so you can get a sense of how much you’ll pay each year.
9. A dry basement
Is the basement finished or unfinished? Some buyers prefer a finished basement because it provides added living space.
Inspect the basement for water damage, which could indicate leaks or susceptibility to flooding. Mildew or mold could also suggest excessive moisture. Examine the floors and walls for any cracks, which could be a sign of foundation problems.
For safety, you may want to have a radon test performed in the basement, especially if you’ll be spending time down there. On a similar note, make sure the basement has adequate exits in case of a fire or other emergency.
10. A clean attic
Just as the basement can reveal problems with the foundation, the attic can indicate problems with the roof.
First, look for leaks and water damage. You’ll also want to check for insulation if you live in an area with cold winters. Make sure there’s adequate insulation and that it’s dry and undamaged. Soggy or stained insulation in the attic is a sign of hidden leaks.
Finally, look for any sign of animal presence such as droppings, claw marks, or nests.
11. Adequate storage space
Check closets, cupboards, and the basement to see how much storage space is available — and if it’s adequate for your needs. If the home is still occupied, look to see how crowded the storage spaces are. If every closet is stuffed, that can indicate the house doesn’t have enough storage space.
12. A garage and/or adequate street parking
If you own a car, you should investigate the parking situation. If there’s a garage, make sure it’s secure and the garage door is in good working order. If you’re not sure if your vehicles will fit, take measurements. If there’s no garage, talk to the seller and, possibly, neighbors about street parking.
13. A safe, welcoming neighborhood
Before you commit to a property, check local crime rates, and consider checking neighborhood forums or apps such as Nextdoor. Most locals will be happy to answer questions you have about the area. You should also visit the neighborhood at night, during the day, on weekends, and on weekdays to get a feel for the local rhythms.
14. Quality schools
If you have children, you’ll almost certainly want to know about the local schools. School quality is a good metric for how desirable a neighborhood is and how solid of an investment the property might be. Any neighborhood with good schools is likely a safe bet.
15. The right location
Consider the home's location within the neighborhood. How close are you to major traffic routes? Are you on a mixed or commercial block or a heavily residential area? Are there any dangerous intersections, traffic bottlenecks, or sources of noise nearby? Visit the block at different times of day to get a read on traffic patterns and neighborhood rhythms.
16. The reason the seller is leaving
Always ask the sellers why they’re moving. If it’s because of personal reasons such as a divorce, starting a new job or moving closer to family, you probably have nothing to worry about.
If it’s related to the house or neighborhood, you have a right to know. Problem neighbors, odors from nearby industrial areas, noise from traffic or commercial establishments, or other miscellaneous nuisances can easily drive people out of a home. It’s unethical, if not exactly illegal, for them to intentionally withhold that information.
17. Full disclosures
The federal government requires sellers to disclose the presence of lead paint, and each state has unique disclosure laws that require sellers to tell the buyer about certain hazards or nuisances.
For example, some states require the seller to tell the buyer about nearby shooting ranges or if the house has previously been a meth lab. Other states mandate that sellers tell buyers about noises or odors from nearby military installations.
Familiarize yourself with your state’s required disclosures. Your agent is a great resource and can ensure the seller tells you what you’re entitled to know.
Don’t be afraid to ask probing questions. If questioned directly, many sellers will tell you about nuisances they aren’t technically required to disclose.
18. The competition (or lack thereof)
How many other people are interested in the property? If it’s a desirable home in a hot market, you’ll likely be bidding against several other parties, so you should sweeten your initial offer. Submit an underwhelming offer, and you might be dismissed immediately.
On the other hand, if the home’s been on the market for weeks or months, you might have significant leverage. Sellers know that the longer a home is on the market, the lower its chances of selling. They could be motivated to sell fast. That’s especially true if they’re under external time pressures such as starting a new job in a different state.
Whatever the circumstances, always discuss your offer strategy with your agent.
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19. A second opinion
Once you’ve settled on a property, ask someone you trust what they think about your decision. It’s easy to get “tunnel vision” when you’re pursuing a home, especially in a hot market. If you’ve been outbid on several properties before, you may be desperate to snag a home, and it’s possible you’re rationalizing a decision that may leave you financially overextended and unhappy. It never hurts to take a step back and get an outside perspective.
20. A trusted realtor
A seasoned, savvy real estate agent can make your entire transaction less stressful, and their negotiating skills may save you thousands of dollars.
A good agent will understand your budget and your needs, will know about new properties the minute they hit the market, and will counsel you through the high-stakes bidding process, as well as closing.
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