What to Look for When Buying a House (Hint: Not the Granite Countertops)

What to Look for When Buying a House

Does it have “good bones”?

The first couple in my group of friends to venture into home ownership bought a poorly constructed modern house situated right off of a dangerous main street that was in a not-particularly-great school district.

You might wonder what they were thinking.

At the time, their decision seemed to make sense. They had fallen in love with the granite countertops in the kitchen, the spacious back porch, and the pocket doors to the enormous living room—which easily housed their big screen television and plenty of comfortable seating for their regular movie nights and parties.

But several years after moving in, they found that they had to worry about replacing their roof and some plumbing, as well as keep an eye on various other structural issues that were growing problems. By then, they also had two children, and the area wasn’t a safe or fun neighborhood to walk or play in. And of course, the issue of schooling was rapidly coming to the forefront of their minds.

The biggest problem was that the lifestyle they led when they bought the house—regularly hosting parties—had given way to a kid-centric life that was ill-served by their first home choice.

My friends’ housing issue seems to be a common problem among homebuyers. After all, there would be no reason to buy a “starter house” if you were purchasing your home for the long haul. But often, homebuyers will fall in love with either the trappings of a house (granite countertops) or how it fits their current life without really looking at how well it will serve them as a home.

Before you fall for the original hardwood floors and make an offer on that new house, make sure you take the time to really determine if the house will be a good fit for you. Here’s what to look for when buying a house.

Structural Issues

While the professional inspection you get for your prospective home will certainly ferret out any issues with the house, the problem with relying on the inspection for this information is that by then, you’ve already decided to put in an offer. That means you may have already started imagining yourself living in the house and are invested in making sure that you get the place. That can lead to you shrugging off major structural issues that should be a deal breaker.

Instead, it’s important to make sure your tour is not just looking at the best features of the house. You’ll certainly get to see the spacious rooms and casement windows during your tour, but you should instead be focusing on the home’s detractions. In particular, even a layperson can recognize some major warning signs such as cracks in the foundation and water stains on ceilings or walls.

It’s also a good idea to take a look for shoddy repair work (duct tape is generally a good indicator) and evidence of deferred maintenance. For instance, if there is exposed wood on a deck, does it look like it needs staining or sealing? Is there caulking that is coming undone in the bathroom? Are the gutters full? These can all indicate that the owners have not been taking great care of their home—even if it otherwise looks like a showplace for the tour.

One good way to make sure you don’t get dazzled by the home’s niceties is to bring along someone who knows about home repair. They can point out the issues that you’re missing because you’ve started drooling over the size of the closets.

Livability Issues

This can be a more difficult to figure out when you’re on tour, because you’ll again be thinking about how much fun it will be to live in the good parts of the house. For instance, if my husband and I had stayed in our first house, I would be cursing its single bathroom, located on the second floor, during every single day of potty training. But since we were years away from having children when we bought the house, that particular inconvenience never occurred to us. (Although we did have other reasons to be unhappy with the single bathroom.)

So while some of the issues of livability are next-to-impossible to predict while you’re touring the home, many are not. For example, as you’re walking through the home, imagine you have to clean it. That might make you rethink the beauty of the two-story entryway with the enormous chandelier, since that will certainly be a major pain to deal with.

In addition, think about maintaining the home. If the idea of painting your new home makes you depressed, it might be a good idea to move on to another one. Even if you never intend to wield a paintbrush yourself, difficult-to-paint (and maintain) homes are also going to be more expensive to contract out.

One final thought exercise to go through is to imagine what it will cost to heat or cool the home. In general, the larger the home, the more expensive it will be to heat. You can also keep an eye on the level of insulation in the attic (and yes, that should be part of your tour) and the age of the house and HVAC system should all give you an idea of what to expect on this front. All of that can help you have a better idea of just how much of a bite heating will take from your budget.

Tip: keep more of your down payment cash by using Unison HomeBuyer Program.

Neighborhood Issues

Even if you’ve found the world’s perfect house, if it’s right next to a superhighway, you’re not going to be happy living there.

While we all have an idea about what sorts of neighborhood questions to ask before moving into a new home, that doesn’t mean we always end up in places we’ll like. Sure, you may (unlike my friends) be restricting your home search to neighborhoods with great school systems, but there is a great deal more to neighborhood happiness than that.

So, after you’ve had a chance to tour the house, take a tour of the neighborhood. Go for a walk around the block. See how your prospective neighbors have decorated their homes. Check out the sidewalk maintenance, and look for evidence of neighborliness and friendliness. Some good indicators are things like kids’ sidewalk art, people out gardening or sitting on their front porches, dog-owners out on walks, etc.

Check the crime in your neighborhood by using SpotCrime.

Also, get a feel for the businesses of the neighborhood. Do they reflect the sorts of places you’d like to frequent? Will you be able to get your needs taken care of close to home?

All of these questions and indicators can help you to determine whether or not a neighborhood will be a good fit.

The Bottom Line on What to Look for When Buying a House

Buying a home is a big decision, but often homebuyers spend much more time researching mortgage rates than they spend touring the house they end up living in. By taking the time to really determine if a home will be a good fit now and in the future, you’ll protect yourself from the lure of shiny improvements that won’t improve your life one bit.

What’s your take? What do you look for when buying a house to live in?

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About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is an award-winning writer, author, money coach, and retirement expert. Her four books include The Five Years Before You Retire, Choose Your Retirement, Making Social Security Work For You, and End Financial Stress Now. Learn more about Emily at EmilyGuyBirken.com


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  1. SenseofCents says

    We are currently searching for our second house and it’s much harder than the first. We know what to look for and what we don’t want this time around. Great tips!