The house hunt
Real estate and MLS research indicates that, on average, home buyers look at 9 houses before settling on one. Comparison shopping is an essential part of the home buying process. It's important to approach a home objectively.
Once you start looking at houses, it won't be long before they become a blur in your mind. For this reason, it is helpful to keep notes of all the houses you see. You will want to be able to compare features and prices of the various houses you have seen. Include observations about the interior and exterior of each house, including your first impressions. Make sure that you are judging the house itself, and not the furnishings. Take pictures, especially if you have a digital camera.
What to look for
Train yourself to look critically at every house. Rate houses based on your own needs. Don't be afraid to ask questions of the real estate sales professional and the owners. Expect satisfactory, straight-forward answers. If an answer doesn't seem to make sense, that's probably because it doesn't.
The amount you're willing to pay for a house may be affected by the nature of the community. Is it a designated historic district, and if so, will you be bound by any regulations? Are many homes for sale in the area? If so, why? Are there plans underway to change the zoning regulations? If so, how will this affect the neighborhood? Is it convenient to public transportation, shopping, recreational facilities, and schools?
Did you know?
One-bedroom homes and condos are more difficult sell than two-bedroom homes and condos, when it comes time for you to move.
2-bedroom/1-bath houses generally have less market appeal than 3-bed/2-bath houses, and therefore have less appreciation potential.
Start with what is visible from the outside, such as size and age of the house, its structural condition and outside maintenance, the size of the lot, and landscaping. All these are important. Inside, you might want to make a sketch of the floor plan. How many rooms and baths are on each floor? Is there adequate storage space? What appliances are there and will they be included in the sale of the house? Is there central or room air conditioning? If you are seriously considering a particular home, you may want to check to see if there are water stains in the attic, or if the roof leaks.
The quality of the building materials and the craftsmanship, as well as the condition of the house, are important considerations — whether the house is new or old. How well insulated is the house? Are the windows energy efficient? Can you "see through the walls?" Is the roof in good condition? Does the house appear to have been well maintained? Your real estate professional may be able to point out obvious "patch jobs" when he or she sees them. You don't want to wait until the home inspection is over to find these things out.
Is everything in good working order: the plumbing, heating and cooling, and electrical systems? Some older houses in Pinellas County have "knob and tube" wiring in the walls and ceilings, placed there before the days of circuit breakers: Will the house need to be rewired? What type of fuel, if any, is used for heating? What is the approximate cost per month of the utilities?
The MLS printout provided by a real estate sales professional will include the asking price and may also include the property tax amount. If relevant, the listing may also include how large a second mortgage the seller is willing to "take back." If assuming a low-interest rate mortgage is part of your house buying strategy, the seller's current financing will be an important consideration for you.
Narrowing the field
Plan to spend enough time looking at houses so you have a good idea what the market is like, as a whole. After you've looked at a number of houses, you will begin to get a feel for what's available in various neighborhoods, and determine which areas you prefer. Your real estate professional will know the fair market value of the house and whether the home is appropriately priced.
When you find a house that you like, and it's in your price range, you will still want to proceed carefully and calmly. No matter how perfect the house may seem, you shouldn't make a decision without going back at least once to take a closer, more critical look at it. Visit the neighborhood at different times on different days. Are weekday evenings as quiet as Sunday afternoons? Chat with your prospective neighbors. See what they have to say. But remember, a desirable home will be desirable to others. Make your decision carefully, but quickly.