House Hunters

By Simone Slykhous

April 17, 2013 5 min read

It probably will be the most expensive investment you ever make, but it does not always have to be the most stressful. Buying your first home is an incredible journey, and with a few tips, it can be less of a hassle.

1) Before you start your house hunt, you first need to decide what you value most about your new home. Square footage, storage space and big backyards are all important concerns about the house itself, but they don't address a lot of lifestyle needs. Do you want to be within walking distance of the nearest grocery? Do you want a lot of kids around for your children to play with? Would you like to be miles away from your nearest neighbor? Do some soul-searching before you start going out in the field.

2) Find an agent who understands your needs. According to Tara-Nicholle Nelson of the real estate search website Trulia, "working with a great agent is like a hybrid experience of working with an expert salesperson who intimately knows their inventory and the ins and outs of how to make a deal and working with an expert adviser, like a CPA or an attorney, who you pay specifically for their advice, insight and expertise at complex topics that you know little or nothing about."

Agents are a great way to make your homebuying process easier. And with online tools such as Zillow and Trulia, it is easier than ever to find an agent; each site has lists of agents for each listing, and the website Zillow has the latest sale prices of the places at which you are looking. However, be mindful that many consumer-based websites could be out-of-date. Only agents have access to a universal real-time real estate software called a multiple listings service, which allows real estate professionals to share the most recent and comprehensive data on listings. With the knowledge and services that come with a real estate agent, an agent is invaluable, especially to first-time buyers. You need to trust your agent, and "if you don't trust your agent, you're just working with the wrong one," says Nelson.

3) Be both firm and flexible. After you have established that trusting relationship with your agent, allow him or her to facilitate your house hunt, with you leading the way. You should have a firm grasp on the price you are willing to spend -- including taxes, homeowners association assessments and utilities -- and the area in which you wish to live. With these pieces of information and your list of values from step one, your real estate agent and you should be ready to venture onward. If the houses you are looking at don't seem to fit your needs, take a step back and determine what it is that is out of place. If your agent is showing you "dumps," maybe you need to re-evaluate your price range. "If property pickings seem slim, tweak the price range you're using to search for homes -- in both directions," says Nelson. But remember that the higher your price range the more real estate agents tend to venture outside of your range -- to more expensive listings. If your range is relatively low, they tend to stay within a place you'll feel comfortable. If you find yourself hating the places because of orange shag carpets, Hello Kitty wallpaper or scary Gothic chandeliers, that issue is addressed next.

4) Your dream home does not have to be the property in its present condition. Wishing for hardwood floors in the kitchen, the perfect shade of seafoam green in the bathroom and a perfectly manicured yard is normal. But don't allow atrocious aesthetics to hinder your hunt. According to interior designer Christine Brun, "paint is one of the least expensive materials available to a homeowner and something that you can actually execute on your own." Look beyond the yellow and brown walls from '74 to the great view and the large master bath. If you're having trouble envisioning the possibilities, look to your agent. Some firms have been around for more than 150 years; they have experience with looking outside the box.

5) Always keep repair costs and safety in mind. Look for wet spots, rust, loose wires, loose floorboards, anything and everything. Though slapping on a fresh coat of paint is easy, treating a home for asbestos can be difficult. You have no desire to reach a deal, be weeks away from closing and have an inspector tell you there's tens of thousands of dollars' worth of damage that the seller won't pay for. "On the safety end of it, I would just add to drive by in the morning, after dark and also on a weekend. Neighborhoods can often have a different feel on different days or times, and I find it helpful to know these changes in advance," says real estate consultant Jamie Walzer.

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