Buying a house is the single most expensive and time consuming purchase you will ever make in your lifetime. Also, next to deciding who to marry and having children, it's the largest single commitment of your lifetime. Sure if the marriage doesn't work out you can get a divorce. Children will eventually grow up and move out. In the perfect market if you decide a year or so down the road that you aren't exactly in love with the house you purchased, you can always sell it. However, these days the perfect market really doesn't exist so in today's world, it's far easier to get rid of a bad marriage than a bad house purchase - and probably far cheaper.
House hunting is a lot like dating. You go on that first date with someone and they just seem so perfect in every way. Then you go on the second date, maybe they're still pretty perfect. But by the third date, cracks are beginning to show through the veneer of perfection and by the fourth date, you can't wait for dinner to be over so you can just go home, lock the door and block his (or her) number from your phone.
Looking at properties should be given the same time and multiple looks as deciding who you're going to date long term. After all, if you commit to dating a person and 6 months down the road you don't want to anymore, you can always break up. But once you sign on the dotted lines for a house - you're committed to that property for usually the next 30 years.
Stage One: Narrowing down the list of properties.
I always recommend that anyone looking to purchase a property begin with some intensive online research before contacting an agent. You need to be informed as to what's available in your price range and in your preferred location(s). You need to be aware of what people are listing properties for with the amenities you require.
Now let's imagine you've been looking online at the usual websites (www.realtor.com or maybe www.trulia.com ) and you've found 2 or 3 houses within your price range that you are really excited about. You've looked at all the pictures posted on these properties. You've gone to Google street view and "wandered" about the street where the properties are located to get an idea of the neighborhood. Things like how many vacant houses are on that block, are the neighboring lawns well maintained, are there commercial buildings within a few blocks of the property. If you have children, you've researched the school districts in that neighborhood. Everything seems to check out. What to do now?
Now you go into what I call investigator mode. You take your top 2 or 3 properties and you stake them out. You drive by them early in the mornings (weekend and work day - this will let you know how busy the street is and also how your commute to work or taking the kids to school will change) and then you drive by them late at night making sure to do it late enough that normally you would be in bed sleeping. By all means do this both during a work night and on both a Friday and a Saturday night (some folks don't party on Friday nights but always party on Saturday and vice versa). I strongly recommend doing all of the above no fewer than 3 times per week (every Friday and Saturday night and then an alternating work week night) for a minimum of 2 weeks. The reason for this? Simple. Some noisy neighbors are a little noisy all the time and some neighbors are extremely noisy only half of the time. By doing the above stakeouts you will know if your potential house is next door to someone who will make you crazy. By doing your stakeout on both weekends and during the normal work week, you will be able to tell if the neighbor next door works weekends - but not during the week - or if they work at all. Neighbors who aren't elderly and don't work at all usually make for bad neighbors. They don't have to worry about staying up late at night - any night.
In this phase make a point to park as close to the proposed property as possible, turn your engine off, roll down your window and listen. Do you hear bass coming from a stereo? Do you hear dogs barking incessantly? Do you hear folks sitting on the porch talking/laughing when you'd normally be trying to sleep? Do you see a lot of foot traffic when maybe there shouldn't be? If so, scratch this house off your list and move on - I don't care how perfect it looks and how well it's priced - move on. There is always - always - a reason that a property that looks perfect is priced lower than it probably should be. Nothing brings the price of a perfect house down like an imperfect neighborhood or neighbor. Further down I have posted pictures of a perfect house in an imperfect neighborhood.
Tip: Make sure to have printouts from whatever website you found the house on with you just in case a vigilant neighbor notices you and calls the police - which is a good thing - vigilant neighbors are a neighborhood's best friend. If the police approach you, show them the printout and simply tell them what you're doing. As long as you aren't trespassing or parking illegally, the police will simply tell you to move on. BUT while he/she's there, take advantage of the situation and ask him/her what he/she knows about the neighborhood. The police know more about a particular block than a real estate agent will ever know.
Which brings me to my next suggestion. Visit the local precinct where the property is located. In many large cities, the police keep a database of their calls and can look the address up and tell you if that block is a trouble block or not. In smaller towns, they won't have such a database but they will be able to tell you from their professional experience whether or not they get a lot of calls from that block. Either way, it's good information to know.
Now a few years ago, I'd say time is of the essence and if you find a house you love - jump on it before someone else snatches it up from under you! However, these days houses sit on the market longer than they used to so you have the luxury of taking your time. Plus, if the house is still on the market when you've completed your stakeouts, maybe the owners will be willing to negotiate a bit on the price?
Below are some shots of a beautiful house on a stunning lot. This house is gorgeous with fully updated kitchen and baths, a fabulous outside entertaining area complete with a pool. Meticulously maintained property. The price seems fantastic! On paper - a perfect house. However, it sits on a narrow, curving and extremely busy street. The surrounding houses are marginal. Some of the surrounding houses are actually government subsidized rentals. The school district is poor at best. As nice as this house and lot is - unfortunately it's overpriced for the location and will either sit on the market for a very long time or sell at a greatly reduced price.
So you've done your investigation and there are 3 houses within your price range that you equally like. Now what?
Now you call a realtor. I never ever recommend using the same realtor as the sellers. Absolutely never. It's crazy to think that a person can represent two parties in the same transaction and do it equally. Remember, the agent that has the listing signed on to represent the sellers before you ever came along. That in itself tells me where their loyalty lies.
Some houses have excellent floor plans. Spacious rooms. Tons of storage. Kitchen and baths that won't require you to gut them. Then you step into the yard. Magic gone.
Other houses have beautiful yards. Well maintained. Wonderful flower beds. Healthy trees and shrubs. Thick healthy grass.
You want both if at all possible. However, unless you have the budget for remodels - go with the perfect house and worry about having a perfect yard down the road. It's far easier and cheaper to redo your landscaping than it is to remodel your house.
Below are some shots of a property for sale in a decent neighborhood. It boasts an acre of land and beautiful outdoor spaces. I can see falling in love with this property and the price - from the outside. Once you enter the house you quickly discover that every inch of it needs to be updated. From the outdated kitchen to the outdated bathrooms to the enormous amount of dark paneling....every surface would have to be "touched".
Stage Three - You've found "the one" - what now?
It's easy for a pretty house to look amazing in good weather and during the daytime. When you find that house that is perfect in every other way, view it multiple times. You want to view it during the day in nice weather so you can move about with ease inside and out. You want to see how much natural light it gets, you want to see if the fence is in good condition all the way around, if the grass is healthy - all things that you can't see at night. But you also want to view it at night when the neighbors are all home so you can see what kind of noise levels are inside the house. You will want to know how dark the interior is at night even with the lights on. At any time that you view a house, you always want to flip all the switches to see if all the fixtures work properly, all the ceiling fans work, the disposal works, the doorbell works, the sprayer on the kitchen sinks works, the toilet flushes properly. Run water in the tub and/or shower to make sure it drains property. Look for any mold in the grout or on the ceilings in the bathroom or under the sink in both the bath and kitchen.
If at all possible, you will want to view this house when it's raining, the morning after a big rain or after a snow when the snow is melting. This is the easiest way to find active leaks. Trust me when I tell you that even an active leak can go undetected by your inspector if it hasn't rained in a while since they use a gadget that detects moisture to determine if the leak is an old one or an active one. If it hasn't rained in a while - the meter won't pick up any moisture and the inspector will determine the leak to be an old inactive one. This has actually happened to me - it's not a cheap discovery and I was not amused. Also, in this type of weather, pull the curtains back and look at the windows. Are they fogging? Any cracked windows? Do they open easily? Foggy windows means windows that aren't insulated and windows that aren't insulated means high energy bills.
Take a lighter with you and when you are inside the house with the doors closed, light the lighter and move it slowly around the edges of the door. If the fire flickers - you have a breeze. That means the cold air from outside is coming in during the winter and the hot air is coming in during the summer. It also means outside noise will invade your home easier than it should. Good insulation drastically improves your sound barriers.
Stage Four - The all important offer
For most people selling their home is an emotional matter. Maybe because they've lived there for years, raised their family there and have good memories of it. Or maybe because it belonged to their parents. Maybe because unfortunate circumstances such as a divorce or pending bankruptcy or foreclosure has caused them to sell it which has put them on edge about the whole process because they don't want to sell their house but are being forced to do so. Whatever the reason for listing their house for sale, very few sellers list their properties for what it's actually worth. They invariably list it for what they "feel" it should be worth. Or they list it at a price that will give them the amount of money they want or need to get out of it in mind rather than what it is actually worth in today's market.
What folks don't seem to understand is that sure you can list a house for whatever price floats your boat. I could list my house for a million dollars. But it will never ever sell for that amount so all I've accomplished (besides giving my realtor a great story to tell at her next dinner party) would be a sign in my front yard for years to come and then actually selling my house for a teeny tiny fraction of the list price - if at all.
The pictures of the first house above show homeowners who cared for their home, improved their home, put a lot of time and money into their home. While they have priced it about 20% too high - I have a feeling they will stick to their guns unless they're close to foreclosure. The reason for this opinion is the fact that when people put sweat, time and money into their homes - they are extremely resistant to anyone telling them that their house is not worth the listing price - or more. They take it as a personal affront. However, it's not. It's a business deal and emotions should never play into any part of it.
People who are trying to overprice their homes need to view selling their house in the same vein of having a garage sale. That expensive dress you bought ten years ago is just not going to sell at a garage sale for anywhere near the price you paid for it. After all, you've worn it for ten years. While this may seem to be an extreme example, you need to realize that while you have indeed put money, time and effort into your home, you have also enjoyed the benefits of any improvements you've made to your property over the years. In essence, you've gotten your money back already.
My last house had a beautiful yard. I spent upwards of $2,000 on bulbs & flowers for it over the 5 years that I lived there. Within a week of my moving - they had removed the multiple hydrangea's, pulled up the azalea's, cut down the fig tree and grape vines and dug up all the flower beds. Guess my definition of beautiful differed greatly from theirs?
I've made bad emotional choices in home buying myself. I once bought a house that didn't function for me at all because it sat on a lot I loved - bad decision. I then bought a house that was priced super cheap, functioned really well for me (and sat on a great lot) but was in a questionable neighborhood - bad decision.
Both bad decisions were made with emotions - not research and logic.
In my opinion the worst mistake that a buyer makes (next to a lack of proper research) is the ever popular lowball offer. Why do folks do that? It offends the owner, it annoys the realtor's and the buyer never gets the property for a ridiculous price. They never do. I don't care how many TV shows depict buyers offering half of the listing price - and getting the house - in real life, that simply doesn't happen. So what you end up doing is spending the next week or more tossing numbers back and forth. That's providing you didn't offend the sellers so badly that they end all negotiations with the first lowball offer.
After wasting all this time and effort trying to get the property at an extra (we'll say) $20,000 off list price, you still end up only getting it for maybe $2,000 under list price - if not the full list price. So what have you accomplished? Delay, hurt feelings and a mental promise from your realtor never to answer your call again - ever.
Another downside to lowball offers is the fact that even if they accept a number far below asking, you still have to go through the inspection process. As a sidenote here - don't skimp on this step. If you do you will surely live to regret it. I don't care how many houses your Uncle Joey has built before he retired in 1983, he is still not qualified to properly inspect a house for you - you will NOT save money this way. Eyeballing isn't considered inspecting either for that matter. As I stated earlier, just because you don't see any evidence of an active leak inside the house (such as water stains) doesn't mean there's not one there. You need a professional to check this stuff out properly.
But I digress. Bear in mind, if the sellers drop their price significantly don't expect them to do any necessary repairs that your inspector finds in his inspection. They've already given you all the money out of their pocket that you're ever going to get. So maybe the best way to approach an offer is to offer them a reasonable price for their property. Not a penny more than what the comparables in the neighborhood suggest. But maybe leave some wiggle room so that if problems crop up in the inspection, you can ask the sellers to take care of those things. Also, instead of lowballing the initial offer, ask for some (or all) of your closing costs to be paid by the seller. But for Pete's sake don't ask for all of the above or the chances are great that you'll be right back to house hunting.
I hope this was helpful. Happy house hunting!