So you’ve found a house on an online real estate site that seems to check all the boxes. Could this be the one? You get a little excited, but how do you go from seeing a listing on a webpage to determining this home is the rightful you now and into the future? Most homebuyers zoom in on the house with laser focus. But beyond all the legalities and the financing, after all the paperwork, mortgages, and insurance is done, lawyers and appraisers have finished their jobs and bid farewell, you'll be left with a house in a yard in a neighborhood in a town. Each one of those things is as important to the puzzle as the other and must be researched and investigated separately and carefully. If any one of these pieces doesn’t work it may not be the right home for you and your family. No matter how high the high ceilings are or how beautiful the backyard is, external factors can ruin your quality of life.
So how do you figure this out? How many times should you go see this house before putting a bid in? Should you make unscheduled visits without your realtor specifically to check out the neighbors and neighborhood? If so, when and what do you look for? Unfortunately, there's no perfect formula for what it will take for you to be 100% comfortable and confident in what will be one of the biggest decisions of your life. However, there's no reason you should consider the scheduled thirty-minute home visit accompanied by your realtor as the only time you explore all the things that come with purchasing that home. On the contrary; you should concentrate as much time and effort on this moment as you can. There shouldn’t be any stone unturned or surprises. While online home listing sites may be a good starting point you need to verify every single claim the seller makes in regard to the house: the neighbors, the neighborhood, the taxes, the schools, the utilities, and every other aspect that may affect your life while living there. Become a hardcore cynic. Don't put all your faith in anyone that will make money from you buying that property. Of course, you should consider their advice as part of the process. However, you're the one who has to live there. You don't want to be left saying, "why didn't they tell us about this problem?" because once you sign on the dotted line all the good things and bad things that come with that house are now yours. All the people helped you will have vanished into the night. If you think the seller or the seller's agent are going to tell you about the next-door neighbor who leaves his dogs outside to bark all night you're sadly mistaken. It would seriously devalue the house for the seller and, consequently, the agent's commission. Just because a seller says something doesn’t make it true. Just because the seller says it’s a quiet neighborhood you won't know until you hear it for yourself.
So let's take a look at what you need to look out for, ways to confirm the truth, and why it's okay to be heartbroken but accepting of the reality of the house and ready to take a measured and reasonable approach to that reality. You may need two visits or five before you're ready to make an offer. That's up to you. The most important thing is you feel good and confident about your decision.
The Scheduled Visits
1. The Drive-by
2. Scheduled Visit #1
3. Scheduled Visit #2
4. Scheduled Visit #3
5. House Inspection
6. Final Walkthrough
7. Quality Of Life Visits (External obsolescence)
1. The Drive-By
If you've seen a listing online your agent may ask you to drive by the house and take a look first to see if it's something you're actually interested in. Fair enough. The house online is the seller's commercial and is most likely accentuating the good points and downplaying the negative aspects. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. It lives in a perfect little online bubble where it can be hard to get a feel of what's going on. A drive-by is the first real-life contact you have with the house and can be a deal-breaker or confirm some initial thoughts about what you liked about it. Maybe it's not the house you won’t like but the drive is too long. It could be anything. In the end it saves the agent the trouble of making an appointment to see the house and driving across town to be there, and the seller getting the house ready to show just to find out you weren't crazy about something you could have found out on your own.
Tip: If the housing market is a seller's market you may have only days from the time that house is listed to the time it's sold so you may want to skip this drive-by step and schedule a visit as soon as you like something. By the time you get up there, decide whether you like it or not, and tell your agent to schedule a viewing it may be gone before you can even see it. Seeing something online and not liking it in person isn't bad, liking it and getting outbid is disappointing, but sitting on the sidelines because you didn’t act fast enough can cause exquisite psychic pain.
2. Scheduled Visit #1
The official home visit is the one we all know about from TV shows or realtor ads. Everyone's smiling. Birds are chirping. It's all so easy. However, back in the real world, if you have a real estate agent and you're seriously out there looking to make a purchase you’ve experienced them firsthand. Once you've done the drive-by, your agent, the buyer's agent, makes an appointment to see the house on a specific date and time based on when the seller is showing the house. At that point, you usually have thirty minutes to an hour to go through the house. There are too many scenarios to go through but you can download our Home Buyer's Checklist to make sure you see everything you need to. Not want; need. Pull down that attic and go up and look. Get under that sink. Go into that crawl space. Is this house for real? If you think it might be you're going to spend a great deal of time and emotional energy over the next several months making it yours so don’t be shy. Bring a measuring tape, wear clothes you can get dirty and take lots and lots of pictures. The realtor or homeowner may tell you there's no need to because there are pictures online in listing but those are usually retouched, staged, or don’t include aspects that are important. Like the boiler, burner, and roof so don't depend on them alone.
3. Scheduled Visit #2
Ok. You liked it. A lot. You have all your financial ducks in a row. You can afford the down payment and closing costs and know you can secure financing for the mortgage. But was one 30 minute viewing enough to decide it has everything you want and need to happily live there for the rest of your life?! You may have been measuring and too busy playing house detective to see if there was anything clearly wrong like an obviously cracked foundation. Every sense was on high alert looking for danger. Every room was a new experience. Could you really take it all in with clarity and get a feel for what it might be like to actually live there? Probably not, and that's totally reasonable and pretty much totally expected. That's why if the situation allows, you should always ask for a second visit at a bare minimum before you make an offer. Hopefully, you've done plenty of homework and gone to 25-30 open houses in preparation for knowing what you want and can expect for a house in this price range. ( Insert open house article link. ) Is this house comparable to what you think it should be worth? Have you seen houses for less so you can negotiate the price lower? Are you getting what seems like a great deal? Maybe there's a reason it’s a great deal, or maybe not. Maybe it's just a great deal. Now's the time to start thinking of an offer.
4. Scheduled Visit #3
You've been to the house twice before. You can navigate it on your own. You want to check a few last things. It's time to just soak it all in. Ask your agent if it’s ok if you spend time in the house by yourself. Is it totally comfortable? Brass tax. Do you want to live here? If every pore in your body screams yes, it's go time. It's time to put in your offer and wait for a response.
5. House Inspection
You get the response and the owners have accepted your offer! The excitement is kicking into overdrive but don't start packing those boxes just yet. This is far from a done deal. There can easily be any number of problems that are discovered in the inspection and you may need to withdraw your offer or try to renegotiate. The more you are emotionally prepared for this possibility the more likely you can keep your head if it comes down to it and effectively navigate through the problems with the seller. Don't let yourself be taken advantage of because you had your hopes up and now the house isn't what you thought. The seller and their agent could easily be counting on that to get you to do something that's not in your best interest. Like buy a house that has termites. Regardless of how it turns out, you'll be there when they do the inspection so it's an opportunity to spend another couple of hours there albeit walking around with an inspector pointing out every last detail both good and bad. Also, they should be pointing out the maintenance you'll need to take care of so note-taking is a quality idea.
6. Final Walkthrough
Ok. This is it. If you sign off now these walls, floors and ceilings are yours. The purpose of this visit is to make sure the seller made any agreed-upon repairs and to check that no new issues have cropped up since the home inspection. This isn't a time to make new demands or try to renegotiate unless something has changed in the house since the inspection. The house should be empty so you can see if any damage was done while the sellers were moving out. It can be major to minor damage. From a scuff in the paint in the living room, a dropped box putting a dent in the hardwood floor to an 800-pound dresser tipping over and taking out an entire wall along with any electric or water pipes within. In other words, this is no time to coast through on cloud 9. Major problems can arise between the inspection and the seller moving out. Be vigilant.
7. Quality of Life Visits
When you schedule visits you need to book them with the seller, so they not only know you're coming but can dictate the exact day and time they take place. They can make arrangements for everything to seem perfect. Homeowners are well known to go to their neighbors and ask them to turn their music down, put away nuisance pets, ask them to mow their lawn, clean their yard and even go so far as to offer to do it for them or pay someone else to professionally do it. These external factors deeply affect the valuations of their home. A clean, tidy, quiet neighborhood makes a house worth more. It's that simple. Just having a foreclosed house in an area can decrease the value of a home by 1.3% according to a Fannie Mae study, and a loud neighbor who has an untidy yard can decrease the value of a home by 5%-10%. There may not be a way for you to see the neighborhood before the owner put the house up for sale unless you're some sort of super sleuth or have a time machine. However, google street views can be a time machine of sorts. Google only changes the street view photos once a year in busy metropolitan areas and less in more rural areas. They can be the same for 2-10 years. Of course, the pictures can be so old they're not especially useful anymore but it's better than nothing. So if the owner can make arrangements to have things just so on the days of your visit what can you do to check out what the neighbors and neighborhood might really be like after you move in? You can drive over on days you're not expected at different times of the day. In the morning, midday and night. Both on weekdays and weekends. It's part of your due diligence because you want to find out if there's anything that could make living in this house less than ideal. Better to find out before you close on the house than as you’re unpacking the moving truck.
Here's a list of some major things you should be looking out for but, obviously, it could be anything. Maybe your neighbor is an apiary and you're allergic to bees. The point is you know what you can live with and what you can't. These are just some of the more common examples:
Find out what the streets are like at different times of the day. The street may be quiet and sleepy on the weekends and at 11a and 9:30p on weekdays but get busy during rush hour times of 6a-9a and 4p-7p. Maybe you're moving in with small children or just don't want to hear delivery trucks banging around down your road. This could be a serious concern.
Do you work from home and the area gardeners go from house to house with lawnmowers and, the bane of suburbia, leaf blowers Mon-Fri so you'll get no peace? Ever?!
Does every house around you have kids? Is your street the de facto home of stickball from sunup to sundown all summer and roller hockey all winter? This can be great if you have kids yourself. However, not so much if you don't.
Speaking of which, is the house close to the local recreation area that has tennis and basketball courts, soccer and baseball fields? Are you ready for the cheering of crowds and the squeaking of tennis shoes as you sit on your front porch?
Is there a factory a couple of miles away that makes cinnamon buns Monday through Friday so the whole town smells like a big, weird bakery during weekdays? If you only go at night or on weekends that will be an unwelcome surprise.
Is there a House of Worship with bells that ring out the hour nearby? Is there a firehouse a block away that will be blaring their sirens unexpectedly at any and every conceivable hour?
Maybe your house isn't on a main road but there's a highway nearby that gets crowded and busy with roaring motorcycles, cars and 18 wheeled vehicles that will shake your whole house from a half a mile away. If you just visit on the weekends maybe you don't hear it until it's too late.
Does the guy across the street keep to himself all week but on the weekends invites his friends over, cranks heavy metal, and works on his boat engine from morning till night?
Do the neighbors have a dog that barks when they put it out at 10p until they bring it in when they go to work at 8a? Or it barks after they go to work from 8a till they come home from work at 6p blissfully oblivious to the noise and mental havoc they're wreaking on everyone around them.
Do you take mass transportation? How close is it to your house? Can you walk it? Is it through safe neighborhoods? Do the trains stop running between certain hours making it unreliable? Will you need another car to solve that problem?
Do you live in a place that snows and the streets are steep and narrow? Do you have a car that can handle that? Will you need to purchase a 4 wheel drive vehicle?
Drive from your house to the schools your kids will go to. Is it close? Are there busses? Sounds crazy but some districts don't offer them. Can they walk after a certain age? Would you be way on the outskirts of town so you're never on any other parents' way? Asking another parent to pick your child up may not be practical or convenient.
Drive from the house to town where you'll be getting groceries or out to dinner. Is it close or is everything an adventure?
You can make all the best plans, responsibly save all your life, buy a beautiful house to have the whole thing ruined by an external factor. Can you predict every little thing? No. Can you predict who will sell their house and who will move in? No. However, you should spend time figuring out what kind of environment you'll be moving into initially. These things contribute to the quality of your life. A little work now may save you a lifetime of heartache later.
If you've ever been out on a date with someone you really liked at first but after a couple of dates it clearly wasn’t going to work out you have an apt metaphor for what a house is. You may love it at first and then slowly find something you don’t like about it until a couple of visits in you know it's not for you. Or vice versa you love it more and more every time you see it. Same thing with the area. Until you spend some time figuring it out it will be hard to tell if it's for you. There's only one way to know. And that means going more than once. However much extra effort you put in you put in before you buy the house you'll get back over a lifetime.