Tips our correspondent wishes she had going in
by Noël-Marie Taylor
e just bought a house. We're still unpacking, and still trying to figure out how everything works and where it goes. And I'm still at the point of "I am NEVER moving again!"
But if I were to buy a house and move again, there's a whole list of things I'd want to know going into the process. Rather than watch the rest of the world suffer through the stresses we had, I offer the following tips to potential homebuyers everywhere.
First, and most important, get an exclusive buyer's agent. This is the best decision we made in the whole process. Am exclusive buyer's agent is someone who works specifically for you; she doesn't sell houses, she just helps people buy them.
Our agent was wonderful. She culled listings for us, made all the necessary phone calls to set up inspections, and most importantly, followed up on EVERYTHING for us. Hardly a day went by between placing an initial offer and the final closing without a phone call and update.
It's important to be sure that the buyer's agent is the right one for you. If you don't think she's doing what you need, or listening to your requests, find someone else!
Once you have an agent (or even before), get a mortgage pre-approval, so you know how much house you could theoretically buy (see below for more details). Then make a list of home features you feel you must or must not have. The sidebar lists several features that are worth consideration, and which will quickly help cull out houses that are not to your needs.
Be prepared, however, to discover that your dream house may not have everything you desire--sometimes, it's just beyond your price range. (Sadly, I had to give up having a full-sized ballroom due to monetary constraints.) Also, you may be surprised; our initial "do not want" list included split-level homes, based on the various houses of that type which we'd seen in the past. But lo and behold, the dream house we found and ultimately bought is a--you guessed it!--split-level! Sometimes you just don't know.
The next useful thing I learned was the three-tiered house hunting technique. Rather than randomly drive around and look inside houses, finding more homes that are not to your needs than are suitable, sort in advance. Your agent will give you printouts of homes for sale in the area and price range you request. Look at these, and sort them into "possible" and "no way" piles.
Then, take an afternoon and drive past the "possible" houses. Just drive past, looking at the house and the neighborhood. Sort again into "possible" and "no way" houses.
Tell the agent about the "possible" houses, and ask her to set up house tours. Our agent suggested the "60 second impression" approach to house tours; do a reasonably quick look-through of the house, then walk outside. And ask yourself (or have someone ask you) "What do you think?"
That first impression is a great culling mechanism. We knocked several houses that theoretically met our requirements off the list, because the just didn't feel right initially. You will know when you find the right house; I was sure about this house from the moment we walked in the door.
After getting a first impression, go back 24 to 48 hours later, and look around more seriously. Then, if the house still feels right, prepare an offer. And spend the next 72 hours in a state of high stress waiting to see if the offer is accepted.
If it is, a closing date is set. Then the REAL fun begins!
o I found the house, and the accepted my offer--now what?
Next comes the inspection process: House inspection, radon testing, water check, ground survey, pest inspection. Depending on how those go, you may also need an electrical inspection, soil test, or any of a number of other tests. My personal opinion is that you can never have too many tests run.
When choosing an inspector, ask friends and co-workers for recommendations. A good inspector makes a great difference; if your inspector misses something, and you discover it after closing, you're pretty much stuck! If you have a buyer's agent, she may also be able to recommend inspectors, and sometimes your lender can too.
Be prepared for the fact that tests always take longer than expected. We had to postpone closing three times in order to get everything done; sometimes it was because a test took longer than expected (ten days for a soil test), other times it was simply a matter of scheduling.
Once the inspections and tests are done, look at the results. Are there any outstanding issues that need to be addressed? The house inspector will usually list items based on severity--safety issues, major structural issues, then cosmetic or minor issues. Decide which of these you want the seller to address before closing. If the seller refuses to fix these items, or (as an alternative) drop the asking price, it's probably a good time to walk away.
After any necessary repairs are done, have a second inspection done, preferably by the same inspector. Better safe than sorry!
So now we have a ready house, and an agreed price. But didn't we forget something?
Oh yes, financing your purchase. Unless you're lucky enough to have just won the lottery, or you have a major trust fund, you're going to need a mortgage.
In theory, you already have been "pre-approved" for an amount. This simply means that based on initial numbers that you gave the bank, they will probably allow a certain loan amount.
When working on loan approval, it's important to consider now just how much debt you are willing to take on, and the various factors which could affect your ability to pay - for instance, if both you and your spouse are currently working, do you really want to base your mortgage on both incomes? What happens if one of you is unemployed at some point?
It's also important to remember that the amount a bank will give you may officially be within your range, but would mean eating macaroni and cheese every night, and never going out to a movie. Is it worth doing that for a year or two?
Another important consideration is how much money you will have in the bank after closing. Will there be money for moving? New curtains? All those odds and ends that you discover you need once you're at the new house?
The worst part of the loan approval process, in my opinion, is the never-ending paperwork. Every time we thought we had submitted everything that was needed, the bank came back and asked for something else. A few times, even things that we'd already given them. So keep copies of everything.
You've signed the papers, you've put yourself in debt for the next 30 years...
And now it's time for the next adventure--moving!
Sit down with pen and paper before you start looking and answer these questions:
--Where do you want to be, geographically? This could be a specific city or county, or within a certain distance of a specific place such as your office.
--Do you want a house or a condominium?
--How many rooms do you want? Bedrooms? Bathrooms?
--Do you want natural gas service?
--What size lot?
--What type of heat? Water (well or city piped)?
--How about air conditioning?
--Do you want a garage? One car or two? (Or three!)
--What style home do you want? Ranch, split level, colonial...
--Any added amenities? Fireplace? Hot tub?
--Do you want a "fixer"? Are you interested in remodeling?
--Do you want to be in an area that has neighborhood covenants (that is, rules as to how you may or may not alter your property, and how you must keep it)?
Other questions you will want to address, but which your agent cannot answer:
--What are the crime rates in the area?
--How is the school system?
--What are the neighbors like? (It's good to try to visit the potential new home at different times of day, and try to meet people and see what noise levels are like.)
Noël-Marie Taylor is a freelance writer located in Columbia, Maryland. Her work has appeared in many magazines, including PC Magazine and The Mother Is Me. A stay-at-home mom to two children, she is also the designer of several cross-stitch kits for children.