Setting priorities when house-hunting?
March 19, 2021 8:07 PM   Subscribe

Do you have any advice or resources for setting priorities, figuring out druthers and making trade-offs when house-hunting? Such as deciding between must-haves and nice-to-haves, and making individual choices and choices as a couple. I am open to comments such as “X is good because of Y,” but especially interested in any framework to help figure out what’s most or less important to us. We have already narrowed down the general price range and area of town.
posted by NotLost to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Look at lots of houses. It will help you realize what you each want and and where you will make compromises, etc. I think seeing so many homes helped us have conversations we didn't even realize we'd need to have.
posted by beccaj at 8:15 PM on March 19, 2021 [21 favorites]

Prioritize flaws that you can fix yourself or live with over flaws that will require a paid professional.
posted by aniola at 8:25 PM on March 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

Location is important to me. Location is less important to my partner.
Lots of space is important to my partner. I could live in a shoebox.
posted by aniola at 8:26 PM on March 19, 2021

I'm a fan of the classic ranked list: make a list of every house feature you can think of, assign each a number. I will say that when I was last house shopping, I wound up de-prioritizing things I thought were high on my list after coming across a place with a really good location.
posted by medusa at 8:33 PM on March 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

Keep a notebook and a spreadsheet because they all start to blur together. If you are going to own the place, don’t worry too much about things you can change easily, focus on things you can’t. Seconding looking at lots of options.

On nice to haves vs must haves I am a big fan of the thing I learned on here which is asking each other what your 100 percent would look like.

For example, my husband and I are looking right now. We agreed on the basic nice to haves but looking at lots of places for us clarified that for him, his 100 percent was lots of modern amenities especially around security while my 100 percent was that the place and location felt homey (we are renting for now so slightly different considerations). So we are now prioritizing security features and homeyness as we rank order and search for new places.

Some questions to ask to draw out those:

1) what makes a place feel good to you?
2) what are your location priorities within the area, if any?
3) what is your budget for improvements?
4) more space or better location?
5) do both of you need a home office? What would that look like?
6) open floor plan or more doors you can close?
7) how do you feel about closet space?
8) how is the water pressure?

Lastly, remember that something that annoys you mildly now is likely to grate more over time if it isn’t something you can fix.

Hope that helps.
posted by eleanna at 8:33 PM on March 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Have a long talk with your housemate about all the places you’ve lived before, even as kids, and include things you liked and hated about each one, lessons you’ve learned from these places and so-on. This can be a series of shorter conversations of course. But just the deliberate act of communicating these things to each other will help you both sort priorities and make your cumulative knowledge shared, which will make you both more confident going forward.

Like for example growing up I lived in a house with a terrifying giant jumping hell cricket problem in the finished basement. I learned that wherever I lived later, if i had the choice I would find somewhere that any bug problem could be much more readily controlled. That’s pretty important to me and seems obvious but wouldn’t be to someone who, say, prioritizes having a big shaded backyard right up against the house. Or, I used to rent a place with tall ceilings and doors, which I found cold and unwelcoming as a short person but my roommate at the time was six foot three and probably has gone on to live in only places that fit him without bonking his head on the doorways. My mother loved her old house because her knees are bad and the stairs were shallow with a nice big landing in the middle.

You can also talk about things you’re confident you can change and things you aren’t. Like, people wave off kitchen renovations but they are huge pains in the butt. Maybe you are comfortable hiring an electrician to improve the lighting in your office or whatever, but maybe you aren’t. Maybe you can handle installing laminate flooring or maybe it’s an unwanted additional expense. People are different and talking this through will help you realize what’s important and what isn’t, what you can help each other with and what will be a big challenge.
posted by Mizu at 8:47 PM on March 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I used freewriting to investigate my own feelings about houses and house-hunting. I started with asking myself why I wanted a house, then free wrote a paragraph about it. Reading the paragraph, I came up with another 'why' question to ask myself; the ensuing paragraph led to another 'why' question. I answered four 'whys' before moving on.

Next, I described my ideal life in whatever house I wanted to buy. You could also certainly ask 'why' about things that come up in this part, as well, although I'd already written a wall of text by this point and skipped it. After making an offer on a house that wasn't accepted, I also wrote about why I wanted that house in particular, and what I learned from it.

Finally, I wrote down what feelings I wanted from buying, owning and living in my own house. Then I wrote down some other ways I could give myself those things now or in the short-term, and started acting on some of them, to improve my life and happiness right now. Where we are, it's a seller's market, so I knew it could be a long time before we found something we really liked, and longer perhaps still until any of our offers were accepted. If I got caught up in feeling like my own house was the only thing that could fulfill my needs, I would be more likely to make an emotional, desperate decision that wasn't right for me.

We also used the Dream List framework from Nolo's Essential Guide To Buying Your First Home for a less touchy-feely approach. You can get this for free from their Home Buying Kit. Making it into a spreadsheet I shared with my husband helped us be sure we were on the same page.
posted by shirobara at 8:49 PM on March 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

For me and my partner, part of the decision-making process was whether to buy a house anywhere at all after we sold the one we built. In the end, we decided that it was not the right decision for us. Buyer's remorse is real.
posted by aniola at 9:21 PM on March 19, 2021

Go to open houses, covid permitting. When you go, pretend you have an agent or the showing agent will hound you. The act of looking will help you narrow down things like the area and type of neighbourhood you want and will also tell you what houses have or don't have that you might not even have thought of.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 9:28 PM on March 19, 2021

Best answer: For me it was is this a fundamental problem or just a money problem. Not that I have endless money, but there are plenty of problems that are fixable and plenty that are not.

Location, exterior shape of the house, number of bathrooms, can I park on the lot, size of the kitchen, is there a basement, etc. Those are not really fixable problems on a scale I could ever approach.

Does it lack curb appeal, are the appliances old, are the lights weird, is there fugly panelling, does it need a new roof or ac or water heater, etc. Those are just money problems. Maybe you can't fix them today, but they are fixable.

I mean honestly I'm not picky, but I passed on a recent built house that had nice finishings, everything I could possibly want, and was in my price range just because it was an exact cookie cutter of ten other houses on the block. I thought my agent was going to have a stroke. But an electrical upgrade or interior remodel or fancy stove are all money problems. I can't buy character.
posted by phunniemee at 9:40 PM on March 19, 2021 [18 favorites]

I lost the thread of where I was going with that comment but in short my point was don't make a money problem into an emotional problem.
posted by phunniemee at 9:50 PM on March 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

A few things that I learned over time are very important to me and/or my partner are (a) a big kitchen because we like to have friends over and cook together, and lots of counter space really helps with not only food prep but also with cleanup, (b) at least 2 bathrooms, and (c) when entering through the front door, it makes a world of difference to have a little tiny foyer or hallway or something, and not just open right into the living room. In the house we're in now, when you walk in the door, you see all of the living room seating and folks are looking right at you. Somehow it just feels crowded and icky, only when someone's at the door and someone else is sitting in the living room. We did find a workaround, but if I ever move again, that will be way up on my list.

Good luck on your search!
posted by happy_cat at 12:54 AM on March 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: "Worst house in the best street" is a principle worth paying attention to.

A faulty house is something you can fix up over time. A faulty neighbourhood, less so. Poor access to schools and employers and shops and facilities, much less so. Even if you're after a flipper rather than somewhere to live long term, the worst house in the best street is going to appreciate in resale value much faster than the best house in the worst street.
posted by flabdablet at 1:17 AM on March 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

Oh man, my partner was all over the place when we were looking. I thought I was going to lose my mind. One minute he was "I hate commuting, I LOVE living in a neighborhood where we can walk to everything we need," and the next he was, "I'm sick of living in a shoebox, we're moving to an acreage out in the deepest burbs."

What helped me... ahem, *us*, was solidifying how we actually want to live. Pre-covid, we had friends over and hosted gatherings all the time. We had dinner with my parents once a week. Sure, we could have a gigantic house with a massive yard if we moved way out of the city... and what would we do with it? We'd have a big, empty house that our friends would never visit. We'd lose 10-15 hours every week to commuting and have less time to be with each other, spend a fortune on fuel and car insurance, and probably have our weekends sucked up by incessant cleaning and yard maintenance. Not the life either of us envisioned. My partner was getting way too attached to the homes themselves, falling in love with the biggest, most beautiful houses, without considering what kind of life we would have in them.

Once we established that location (specifically proximity to friends, family, and work) is key, that drastically narrowed down the neighborhoods and allowed us to focus our search. I had to keep reminding my partner to stop looking at listings for big houses because it was not productive at all, it was only preventing him from focusing on the homes that we could realistically consider. At one point he was even looking up houses in other countries and cabins situated on islands with no running water or electricity. Infuriating. I definitely recommend putting the kibosh on fantasy home shopping, it leads nowhere good.

The next step after that was deciding on the budget - if we were to move away, we could've spent less because we'd be getting more bang for our buck. But because location was non-negotiable for us, we had to be realistic about aligning our wants with the price of admission for those neighborhoods. So we crunched the numbers to find out what we could afford without restricting our current lifestyle too much, and resigned to spending more in order to get a fairly turn-key home of a certain size.

Once the budget and location were nailed down, then we could have a useful discussion of must-haves, nice-to-haves, and dealbreakers. Obviously within the constraints of the neighborhoods we were looking in and the budget we set, there were certain things that would be off the table. And from that perspective, many previous nice-to-haves became nope-not-happening, and some must-haves became nice-to-haves. We were able to set a bar for minimum square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and available storage and parking spaces, and the rest was feel and preference.

Then it was a matter of keeping our eye on new listings and going to view all the homes we liked on paper. It's easy to spend a lot of time just looking and comparing on paper, but at some point you've gotta go in person. I was sure one place was The One, but the living room was too small to even fit a three-seater sofa (those wide angle lenses realtors use to shoot photos for listings are deceiving). There was a beautiful new townhouse where the floorplans showed a closet in each bedroom, come to find that the builders deviated from the plans and built one single miniscule closet for the entire house.

Often we spent a weekend morning or afternoon just cruising around the neighborhoods of listings that caught our eye before making an appointment for a viewing. There was one house that we loved in the listing, but as soon as we got within a few blocks we could hear the trains screeching. There was a cool loft in a century-old factory that looked awesome, but the building had no parking lot and all the streets nearby had parking restrictions. One house looked great but then there was a big utility pole practically blocking the garage entrance in the alley. If we didn't hear or see any obvious red flags, we got out of the car and walked around on foot. We learned that we especially like neighborhoods with lots of people out walking their dogs.

Also consider the resale value. We bent ourselves into pretzels trying to justify purchasing a house that had been sitting unsold for 2 years, just because we thought we could get a deal. I mean, as soon as we saw it in person, we understood why it hadn't sold. It was so awkwardly designed and proportioned. We almost did justify it ourselves, only to realize that this is not likely to be our forever home, and it would be a nightmare to resell it in the future. Whereas the house we ended up choosing doesn't have any polarizing features, and it has stuff going for it that we wouldn't benefit from, but a young family in the future would love that it's walking distance from several schools, and also around the corner from a huge park and playground.

Good luck! The sooner you can narrow your focus, the less frustration and going in circles you will suffer (as I did).
posted by keep it under cover at 3:11 AM on March 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

We bought a house last year and did exactly this sort of ranking exercise. We'd been to see a dozen or more places and had wildly different reactions to them, but neither of us could figure out the reasoning/emotional basis for those reactions, because houses are big, complicated things! Massively affected by their context and your own biases and preferences!

So what we did first was just make an enormous list of everything both of us could ever want in a house, from the 'yes, probably achievable with our budget right now' to the 'maybe in twenty years'. That included physical layout, location, appliances, amenities, number of rooms, specific things we wanted. Just absolutely everything we could think of.

Then, we went through that list and each of us scored every attribute on a scale. The scale was 'Essential' (I cannot live in a house without this) 'Very High' (I really want to live in a house with this) 'High' (I'd like a house with this) 'Meh' (I'm not that bothered) 'Don't care at all' (literally not a factor at all for me) and 'Hell No' (This is a thing I absolutely don't want).

What was really interesting was how quickly it gave us a relatively small list of joint Essential/Very High factors. Thankfully we had no instances where one of us was 'Essential' and the other was 'Hell No', but we had a few where one was 'Very High' or 'High' and the other was 'Hell No' and that helped us figure out some real house dealbreakers very effectively together.

We then ran every house we were thinking of viewing through the list, which cut our 30-40 house list down to about five actual candidates without any real effort. It was almost magically effective.

And when we came to actually buy a house, it meant we were both able to accept the compromises each of made with much more of a clear eye about what we were giving up and what the other person was, plus what we both gained. We're very, very happy with where we've ended up, even though if you'd shown us a picture of it a year before we'd probably both have said it's not what we want.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:25 AM on March 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

My partner and I separately made our own lists, with things ranked as:

Must have
Nice to have
Prefer not to have
Must not have

We found a fair bit of overlap and thankfully nothing in one person’s “must have” that was in the others “must not have”.

The house we ended up finding hit most of the wants. It missed on one of the location based “must haves”, but we still ended up buying it. Unless you have unlimited resources, the perfect house is really hard to find. Prepare to compromise a little, and expect to have to put a little more money toward adding renovating to make it a little closer to perfect once you move in.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:15 AM on March 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oooh I’ve got this one! We created a spreadsheet. Had a spitballing session where we put all the things that could be priorities/values to have (or not have). Then, independently, we ranked each of the things on how important it is to us (e.g. more than 1/3 mile from a highway - I marked it as a 7 and my husband marked it as a 10) then averaged the results.

It was surprisingly helpful and helped us avoid wasting time looking at houses that wouldn’t meet our needs (e.g. the homes that are right by the freeway).

Happy to send you our spreadsheet that we used if you’d like something to throw darts at...
posted by arnicae at 8:39 AM on March 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

We each had our top 3 things, a hard budget and only looked at apartments that met all of our top things. This helped narrow our options quite a bit and then we honestly got out-offered on the first three places in our preferred neighborhood, so that also drove our decision. We did get an apartment with all 6 things though! Just took a hefty amount of looking.

(For me: maintenance under a certain amount, between 2 subway lines and private outdoor space, for him, good light, near park or water, and good water pressure)
posted by larthegreat at 1:38 PM on March 20, 2021

Such as deciding between must-haves and nice-to-haves, and making individual choices and choices as a couple.

Sometimes it's really worth looking at a whole bunch of nonsense homes on Zillow (out of your price range, not the right neighborhood, vampire neighbors, whatever) so that you learn stuff together in a way you might not if you're just looking at mostly right-for-you houses.

Some of this is basic like "Huh neither of us care about jacuzzis but all the houses with jacuzzis have the price jacked up by like 5K," sometimes it will help you figure out if there are features that you really like that are not normative for your area but you'd jump on if you saw them (oooo laundry chute or whatever) and sometimes it gives you an idea of what would be an easy renovation and what would be a mess. Trying to determine what is a "checkbook problem" (and then discuss what is in your checkbook to handle these things and how you feel about that) and what is really an emotional issue are good dividing lines to find. And some of this is in the "know yourself" category.

When I bought my first house, it was a fixer and it was mostly fixes that I could do and a few I had to pay for. Turns out the location meant that fixit people were difficult for various reasons and I just didn't feel like doing the fixit things that were in my wheelhouse. And this was mostly fine, but people would come over and be like "Why haven't you painted that wall yet?" and I didn't care but other people might, so talking to each other about small things where you might be like "Oh yeah we can do that" but then also talking about your lives and motivations and whether you actually would. A really tough couple-thing can be if both people appear "up for it" in terms of working on a house but only one of them actually is.
posted by jessamyn at 3:45 PM on March 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you. These answers give us a lot of food for thought. I have already downloaded the Nolo buyer's kit and made a good start to our spreadsheet.
posted by NotLost at 9:35 PM on March 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Our must haves were --
3 bed/2 bath/2 car garage brick with backyard access. The backyard access with a vehicle became important when we purchased a small fifth-wheel and needed off-street parking behind the six-foot sight-proof fence.
We picked the school district (we didn't have children at that time) and only looked in that area. It was within walking distance of my job and easy access to a major street that went straight to my husband's job in 30 minutes.
Bonus points -- near a college/university (internet access, especially in rural areas), near a library, near sports-related activities (biking, walking, playgrounds, etc.) Not near a major street that could be dangerous for children and pets.
The nice thing about working in that neighborhood was that my coworkers could give details about the pluses and minuses of the area.

With all that in mind, we took several years and we already had 20 percent saved for the mortgage down payment. We were picky. We still joke about all the houses we toured -- the swimming pool within a couple of steps of the back door, the finished basement with high water lines from flooding, the gorgeous house directly under the airport flight path (a large plane flew over as we were doing a walk-through).

Do not go back into a house again without the realtor until the paperwork is all signed and the money is exchanged. Do not take possession until you are fully able to make legal decisions.
Get an appraisal. The bank lender wants it, and you want to make sure that you know what you are getting.
Get the property lines surveyed and find the property markers.
Get the title updated as part of the purchase. You will need this when selling later.
If you don't ask, realtors will not tell you. Even then, there is a lot of plausible deniability in the business. Ask neighbors.

Amortization schedule. My husband went to the mortgage company each month and wrote two checks to the same person -- one for the current full payment (principal and interest) with the amortization schedule payment number on the check, and one for several months of interest specified by payment numbers on the check. Make sure that the funds are not put into an account and added at the end of the loan, rather than taken off the loan each month.
We paid off a 30-year loan in just over seven years. It was nice to be out of debt (lots of cheap home meals and very little splurging).

Have an emergency fund for things that go wrong. They always do at the most ridiculous times.
Put a hard break on your impulse to spend, spend, spend now that you have a house. Replacing the broken furnace is important. Tracking down a roof leak is important (50 year metal roofs with Energy Star rebates for the win!)
If you can live with someone else's taste in wallpaper and carpeting, give yourself a financial break until you have most of the mortgage paid off. Buy some nice sheets, not a designer bedroom suite.
posted by TrishaU at 12:26 AM on March 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Get an appraisal. The bank lender wants it, and you want to make sure that you know what you are getting.

Check with your lender first on this. After the meltdown of 2008 many banks started getting a lot more strict about the source of appraisals. In my recent refinance adventures the appraisal company was chosen by the bank and we couldn't contact the company at all. This avoids any biasing of the valuation. So don't pay for one just to find out the lender won't accept it.

Note that an appraisal is different than a home inspection, which you definitely want and you want to pick the inspector. Don't let the realtor or bank choose that one for you.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:07 AM on March 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Re: a previous poster, interest rates on mortgages are so low right now that it might not make sense to pay them off any faster than necessary or make a larger down payment than necessary.

I found driving by houses to be very illuminating in terms of what to check out before visiting / doing a walk through - mostly location-related things. Also, develop a sense for what the listing photos are intentionally avoiding / covering up.
posted by momus_window at 8:28 AM on March 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

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