Chunks of homebuying wisdom from The Hive Mind
December 12, 2007 7:20 AM   Subscribe

What is the single most valuable piece of advice you received when you were in the process of buying your first home?

This advice may have been about any aspect of the process--realtors, loans, house hunting, detecting flaws in the house, prospects for resale, etc. I would like to hear the *one* thing you read or heard that proved to be most valuable to you in the short or long run.
posted by hecho de la basura to Home & Garden (67 answers total) 199 users marked this as a favorite
"Don't go into debt to furnish it. It's a 30 year mortgage."

I did not heed this advice and have the credit card debt to prove it.
posted by willmize at 7:23 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Get pre-qualified for the mortgage so you know how much you can work with before you even really look for a house. Then only spend 75% of what you've been pre-qualified for so your monthly payments are reasonable and within your budget.
posted by onhazier at 7:27 AM on December 12, 2007 [5 favorites]

Get a completely objective inspection, with someone who will walk through the house with you and answer all your questions about the home's condition.
posted by sugarfish at 7:28 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Spend less than you think you can afford.
posted by normy at 7:31 AM on December 12, 2007

You will not get the first house you look at. Don't get too attached to any one house and get involved in a bidding war.

Of course, this only applies in areas where multiple bids are the norm.
posted by GuyZero at 7:33 AM on December 12, 2007

Make sure you look at 10 homes at the very least. Too many times people buy the first house they see and regret it a year later.

Don't spend more than 2 1/2 times your combined annual salary on the home if at all possible.

Last, but not least, paint BEFORE you move in.
posted by jazzman at 7:37 AM on December 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

- Buy the worst house on the best street or neighborhood you can afford
- Use price per square foot to help compare properties.
- Look at asking price as percentage of assessed value. It's an interesting way to understand your investment.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:37 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't underestimate the post-purchase costs. Taxes, fees, furniture, paint, garden stuff, lawnmower, yearly taxes, water bills, and all the little things that must be done now (storm windows, new heater, new hot water tank, tiles, fill in the blank - always something). If possible, buy something that could conceivably be rented out if need be, for something close to your mortgage. If you need to leave for some reason, you won't be quite as screwed.
posted by barnone at 7:37 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Be sure to have someone on your side. I'm a Realtor so for me to say to make sure you have a buyer's agent sounds self-promoting, but really. I don't care if you have a buyer's agent but make sure someone is looking out for your best interests. An attorney would be better than nothing.

The person looking out for your best interests should question the mortgage product selected, the terms, the inspection method/report, the closing date, any contingencies or things to be completed before closing.

I hear so many stories how "this happened" and if you had your own representation (Realtor or whatever) it should not have happened. A real example is where a person used a seller's city inspection report as their own inspection. If I had been the buyer's agent I would have pushed for a independent inspector paid for by the buyer. Easy peasy. Use the seller's agent and good luck to you!
posted by thilmony at 7:38 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

The inspection is extremely important. Make sure the inspector is very experienced. Walk through with him/her during the inspection. It should take at least two hours and he/she should have a detailed checklist with them. The best inspector's reports I've seen include digital photos with specific problems highlighted (with arrows or circles). If there are questions about specialized systems, such as electrical, structural/foundation, etc. do not hesitate to get a 2nd inspection with an expert in that area (i.e. a structural engineer). Often, homeowners are ignorant (willfully or otherwise) or outright deceptive about serious problems in the house. The money you spend now could save you much more in the future.
posted by underwater at 7:39 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Some cities (such as mine, Columbia, SC) offer programs to purchase in the city, which include a mandatory first-time home buyer class that you attend before the purchase. My city also provides a smaller $50k loan with low interest rate and they help you secure a bank loan for the remainder of the house price.

Look around the public websites in your city and see if you can find a similar program.
posted by ijoyner at 7:45 AM on December 12, 2007

Oh wait, can I have two? Get the home warranty, if it's offered. If you can get the seller to pay for it, even better. I got a new water heater and new washing machine for a $100 deductible each time.
posted by sugarfish at 7:47 AM on December 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

When you get to the point at the closing where everything is going to happen and you're about to freak out, remind yourself, "no one at this table gets paid if this doesn't work out."
posted by advicepig at 7:54 AM on December 12, 2007

Ditto independent, licensed, experienced inspector. We used the guy our buyer's agent recommended, but you don't have to - make sure you are comfortable with them.

I didn't get this advice from anyone specifically, but we did it and it worked out very well: try to find a buyer's agent who works with first-time home buyers. No question will be too dumb for them.
posted by cabingirl at 7:56 AM on December 12, 2007

Yes the inspection is very important...don't be afraid to spend a few hundred dollars to get good objective review of the property. A few hundred is nothing when considering a 5 or 6 figure mortgage.

Unless you are in a very weird localized market, there will be other houses so don't jump into something just because you don't think you will ever find something else.

Every major (and some minor) sub-systems in your house (roof, furnace, appliances, yard, foundation, air conditioner, trees, plumbing, security system etc.) will have some professional attached to them trying to get you buy lots of preventative maintenance. Blindly purchasing all of them is a good way to go broke.
posted by mmascolino at 7:58 AM on December 12, 2007

Look with your brain, not with your heart. It's easy to walk into a house and go "WOW OH MY GOD THIS IS INCREDIBLE LET'S MOVE IN TOMORROW" and not notice the floors that need replacing, the bathrooms that are too small, and the electrical system that meets 1945 code but doesn't even come close to meeting today's standards.

Look at a house from the perspective of "what's wrong with this place" instead of "well, I love it so much I can probably make it work", and you'll be happier in the long run, because you know what you're getting into - the bonus is, if you list out a bunch of things that aren't right and decide to buy anyway, that list just becomes your project list.
posted by pdb at 7:59 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

When a house has made the 'short list', visit at day and at night, during the week and the weekend. Ask the realtor if you can spend the night in it.
posted by allelopath at 7:59 AM on December 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Don’t buy a home for what it is, buy it for what you can turn it into.

Of course, after living in it for a couple of years we realized we couldn’t turn it into jack squat, so we tore it down. Still, the property was worth it.
posted by bondcliff at 8:04 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Drive around the neighborhood and surrounding area during the day and night. Also, if commuting will be an issue try to get an objective idea of how good or bad your commute will really be. 25 miles to the office can be 30 minutes coming from one direction and 90 minutes coming from another. Make sure you know what you are getting into. Also find the local paper online and skim the last few months to get a feel for what is going on.

A lot of your eventual happiness with the house will have nothing to do with actual physical structure. It'll be the neighborhood, traffic, etc. make sure you think about that stuff.
posted by COD at 8:08 AM on December 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

Make sure you really look at the floors, walls, ceilings, and trim. I was thrilled with the layout of the house and failed to see (even with numerous visits and a long inspection) that the ceilings are textured (I hate it, I can hardly stand to look at them), the walls in some rooms have a poorly done dry wall job over the the plaster and the trim is essentially plywood. If I had spend a few minutes actually looking at the walls and such I would have noticed all this and perhaps reconsidered.
posted by sulaine at 8:19 AM on December 12, 2007

We need to get most of our windows replaced in our basement as they are falling apart. Needless to say, we used their inspector and not ours. Make a list of everything you think you will need to fix or replace and bring it with you to the bargaining table.
posted by mecran01 at 8:25 AM on December 12, 2007

There isn't just one thing, though.

*Do NOT forgo the inspection. Under any circumstances, no matter what anyone says, do NOT skip out on the inspection. Be there when the inspector is there. Take copious notes. We have had occasion to refer back to our notes seven years after moving in.

*Find a realtor you can trust. Does s/he listen to to? Does s/he really understand what your requirements are? Interview several if you have to and remember: if at any point you don't like what your realtor is doing, you can simply walk away. Also: do you really know what you want and don't want in a house?

*Don't expect a house to be in move-in condition. You may have to see the potential of a house (look past the horrible wallpaper and curtains).

*If you have kids: look around the neighborhood. Are there bikes in the garages and playsets in the backyard? It may not seem important now, but it could be when your kids start making friends and asking for playdates.

*Take your digital camera with you to every single house you visit. They all start melding together in your head at some point and it's nice to have photos to refer back to (I never liked the realtor-provided photos of the houses. They either only showed the good parts or just didn't show the stuff that was important to me.).
posted by cooker girl at 8:26 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Pay attention to the character of neighborhoods, and talk to neighbors if you can. My street is full of families; a few blocks over things turn to shit.

Do the math and make sure it makes sense to buy. I'm a law student, and I rent out 2 bedrooms of my 3 bedroom house, and I have my mortgage and taxes paid for. However, if I would have bought a 2 bedroom house for the same price, I'd be paying as much on the mortgage as I could have rented for. Take those sorts of things into consideration.

Don't be afraid to shop around for realtors. I had a buyer's agent who knew exactly what I was looking for, and it made all of the difference.

Pay attention to cosmetic v. structural defects. My place had great mechanicals but needed a ton of cleaning. It was perfect for me, since a few friends and a week of work put about $15k of sweat equity into the place. If the floors were rotting out though, you're screwed.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:27 AM on December 12, 2007

The realtor is working for the seller, not for you. (Cf. thilmony's advice above.) Don't tell them anything you wouldn't tell the seller, and get a buyer's agent so there's someone representing your interests in the deal.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:34 AM on December 12, 2007

How walkable is the location?
posted by alms at 8:40 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thinking about how much money the bank will make on the lifetime of your mortgage will drive you crazy.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:42 AM on December 12, 2007

Think resale value and ease of selling, as part of your buying process and as part of whatever improvements you make after you buy. Don't buy a house that has certain weird peculiarities but they're OK, or appropriate, for you. That creates a narrow resale market and will give you a problem. (Like, the bathtub is in the kitchen, or, there is no front door, strange location, etc.). When you improve, remodel, paint, etc., do so with a buyer in mind -- will this improvement appeal to a wide spectrum of buyers, or am I doing this just for me. If it's just for you, don't do it.
posted by beagle at 8:44 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I was buying my first home, my mom stepped in at just the right (tense) moment and said, "Why don't you two go to dinner and talk about how it feels to think of it as your home. Leave all talk of equity for daytime conversations."
posted by thinkpiece at 8:44 AM on December 12, 2007

If you're buying with a partner, such as a spouse, try to keep the monthly mortgage payments at a level that can be payed by one of the buyers, lest the other become unemployed or sick, etc.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:45 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you're not in a hurry, shop for a realtor first, then have the realtor help you shop for a house.

I've bought three homes. For two of them, the realtor was nothing more than someone who filed the paperwork. They were competent at that but really didn't go above and beyond in terms of home buying advice.

The other realter was brilliant- after going out with him once to look around, we would enter other homes in the neighborhood and he'd know right away whether or not we would like it. He also knew the neighborhoods we were shopping like the back of his hand, able to call how much home would sell for within a thousand dollars or so. He gave us very good advice on locations and values of homes, and when we sold, he had two offers on the table in two days at about $5k over what we thought we would get when we first spoke to him about selling. That was over ten years and 1500 miles back, and we still get a Christmas Card from the guy.

As a buyer, find a realtor you can connect with, that is shooting straight with you, that isn't just telling you want want to hear but what you need to know. Yeah he gets paid based on the seller's price and is basically the seller's agent, yet he should be motivated not by the exact dollar amount of his commission, but more by whether he is pleasing his customer (you, the buyer).
posted by Doohickie at 8:48 AM on December 12, 2007

Lot of good advice on this thread. I was under the impression that if you're getting any kind of a bank loan, you need to have an inspection. I would even consider having two inspectors, since any given inspector can miss something, and two inspectors may notice the same defect but disagree as to the cause.

I didn't get any one piece of advice that was critical—there are so many little things that all add up. One thing I would add: if you are moving within a town where you've already got established destinations (schools, workplaces, restaurants, friends' homes, hangouts), mark up a map with those destinations and figure out how travel to/from them would work at each prospective house.

Get a notebook at write up every house visit (taking pictures is a good idea too).
posted by adamrice at 8:48 AM on December 12, 2007

be patient. it'll take a long time.

i didn't believe them... I was wrong
posted by ascullion at 8:51 AM on December 12, 2007

"You will be surprised how quickly the process goes from a business transaction to being something very personal."

And I was.
posted by tkolar at 8:57 AM on December 12, 2007

Always remember who is actually paying (whether in cash or in networking, which is sometimes worth more) for the services of the people with whom you are dealing. Treat any advice accordingly.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:14 AM on December 12, 2007

The advice to check out the area at several times during the day/week/weekend is a good one.

That beautiful hedgerow at the back of the garden hides a middle school with screaming kids, loudspeaker announcements, coaches blowing whistles and soccer moms speeding through the neighborhood to drop off their precious snowflakes.

That quaint church on the corner turns into an all weekend traffic jam complete with loud music pouring out of the open doors (which is fine if its your church I suppose :).

That nice house next door turns out to be rented to a bunch of college students who aren't home during the day when you look at the place, but host loud parties with drinking and the wonderful odor of pot drifting into your bedroom.

Yes, my dream home turned into a nightmare...make sure yours doesn't.

Oh and the cops told me a dog is the best security system you can buy :) Doesn't have to be trained or an attack critter, just so long as he barks.
posted by legotech at 9:35 AM on December 12, 2007

Two things, especially since if I hadn't heeded them I would not be in my home today:

1. Make sure that you can afford the payments alone. You didn't state whether you are buying the house by yourself or with someone else; you want to be able to make the payment by yourself and have the total cost for MORTGAGE, INSURANCE AND TAXES be less than 1/3 of your income, if you can handle it (because let's face it... some people like me choose to avoid escrow and have two loans, and pay their taxes at the end of the year). Don't get anywhere near paying half your income for your home; it'll easily get foreclosed on if you suddenly lose your job, get very ill, or have a major life event (child, wedding, divorce, career change). When you speak to a realtor, they will tell you the cost of the house payment. Make sure you know what that includes; ask about balloon payments, interest rates, everything. You want a 15, 20 or 30-year fixed loan; we got suckered into a balloon payment and they didn't outline the closing costs for us. When all was said and done, I had to cough up 5 grand in closing costs and 3 grand to cover the windows the day I moved in. Bye-bye, savings!

2. Speak to your neighbors. How many AskMes have we seen about bastard neighbors? Or about a neighborhood group you have to pay exorbitant fees for, and end up with someone telling you twice a year what decorations you can have in your lawn? Don't make it so you can't see the forest for the trees. It's not JUST the house... it's the neighborhood. The person next door. The grocery store that's closest. Where is the hospital? Fire station? How far to the local police station? Look online at the neighborhood's crime statistics, registered sex offenders, all of that. Will you have to drive through 10 school zones to get to work? Is there public transportation nearby? Don't fall in love with one thing, like a yard, crown molding, or the gorgeous floors. Those things are wonderful, but aren't the things that will eventually drive you out of the neighborhood like one cranky neighbor who calls code enforcement on you once a week.

Finally, one more thing to consider: If you are buying an older home, you may need to spend money updating the wiring, heating, cooling... those things are incredibly expensive on top of everything else. Has the home been flooded? Is there a problem with the drainage on the lot? Do you know how to schedule things like changing the air filters, wrapping the pipes, watering the foundation, scheduling pest control for termites/fire ants/waterbugs? Depending on where you live, it might be better for you to build a home yourself. Everything's new, you typically get a 10-year warranty on everything, and you can customize as you build. That's what I did after a year of looking; I decided I couldn't deal with living in someone else's home and spend years working on it to make it "mine." With everything new, I got no surprises out of the deal and started out paying very low property taxes the first year. It helped me recoup some of my initial investment money quickly.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:36 AM on December 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

There is a lot of good advice here already. I have two items to contribute; 1. As pdb basically said above, don't buy out of emotion. This is a business transaction. The realtor may try to play on your emotions by talking of selling you a "home". You are buying a house. It is only a home after you move in. Like buying a car, be prepared to walk away if the deal isn't right. There are a lot of other homes for sale.

With regard to the inspection; while respecting the current homeowner's stuff, don't be afraid to look in cabinets, pull credenzas away from the wall, etc. You are looking for mold and structural defects. You don't want to find out after the deal is done that there is a problem that was hidden by a large piece of furniture.
posted by vignettist at 9:46 AM on December 12, 2007

Best advice I ever got, considering what's happened in the market:

"Ignore the people who are telling you to buy the maximum house you can afford, get an ARM, or go with the interest-only mortgage. Instead, find a house you like in the condition you need in an area you like and big enough for your current and near-term needs, and buy it on a 30-year fixed."

If I'd listened to the accountants(!) in the family telling me to go max/go ARM/go interest-only, I'd be fucked right now; instead, I have a house I love that's small for the area but big enough for a family of four, in great shape in a nice area, and we're a comfortable couple of hundred thou away from going underwater (even though I only put $14,000 down, AND I took out $100,000 in a home equity loan for improvements.)
posted by davejay at 9:58 AM on December 12, 2007

I was given a lot of advice, and since I took most of it to heart, I don't really know how much of it turned out to be useful. There is one piece of advice I would like to have been given. If you can't be present for the actual signing, and you have to give a power of attorney to someone, make sure every party involved has read and accepted the power of attorney ahead of time. We got called one day into our cross-country, car-towing, moving-truck road trip at 10am in Albuquerque and asked if we could be in Bloomington, Indiana the next day by 4pm because somebody (the title company, I think) had decided that they didn't like my power of attorney. (We made them wait until 6, if you're curious.) Also, keep a way to contact the previous owner. It's not likely that they'll give you their new address or phone number, but you should be able to get a message to them via their realtor or similar.
posted by ErWenn at 10:02 AM on December 12, 2007

Ooh, can I list the things I want to tell first-time home buyers? (IANAL, but I do New York State residential real estate closings).

1. At the closing, there will be what's called an "Abstract of Title". It's a document that lists out the chain of ownership of the land on which the property is built. KEEP TRACK OF WHERE THIS DOCUMENT ENDS UP. When you sell the house, you'll need to provide it to the buyers. It can cost several hundred dollars to replace. You can either ask the title company to hold onto it or you can have it returned to you (I recommend the latter; it's interesting reading).

2. We can't tell you exactly how much money you will need to bring to the closing until we get the figures from the bank you're using for your mortgage. Most of the time this happens the day before the closing. Don't call us every twenty minutes asking where the figures are.

3. Just because your purchase contract calls for a closing date of September 1 does not mean you will close on September 1. Don't schedule movers, break leases, or ANYTHING like that until your closing date has officially been scheduled. We will try our best to schedule it for September 1, but circumstances out of our control sometimes mean we have to push the date out.

(I remember one deal where the buyer assumed right away she would close on a certain date, and told her landlord right away she would be out of her apartment by that date. Well, she ended up living in a hotel room for a few days when we had to push the date out.)

4. Consider asking your attorney if you can get the corners of your property marked, when the surveyor does the survey (this is another document you should keep safe; your attorney should send you a copy after the closing). It costs about $50 (the survey is generally an expense the seller pays), but it shows you exactly where your property lines are, to avoid future potential run-ins with neighbors.

And, finally....

5. In the 8+ years I have been doing closings, I can think of only ONE that didn't close because of a last-minute, everyone's at the table thing that came up. And that one was rescheduled for a day or two later and closed fine.
posted by Lucinda at 10:04 AM on December 12, 2007 [5 favorites]

Very timely for me!

If you make an offer on a house, and they accept, you have a pretty small window of time for inspections, so make sure, before you make an offer, that you have first vetted a number of inspectors and know who you are going to call during that 5 day period. If you are buying a condo, find someone who inspects condo buildings, if you are buying an older home, find an inspector who does older homes (and knows about things like old home foundations, etc). Line up your people before the offer goes in! Inspector, contractor, lawyer, and realtor.
posted by kristin at 10:04 AM on December 12, 2007

beagle hits on a good point. As an agent, I can often "see" why people are moving out. Lately, I'll be showing a townhome in a neighborhood that has both 2 and 3 bedroom units. We'll be looking at a 2 br, which is priced right and perfectly fine, but you can see the sellers now have 2 kids and need an extra bedroom. Had they bought a 3 bedroom, it would be better for resale, also they could have stayed in it longer.
posted by thilmony at 10:06 AM on December 12, 2007

Never throw away a nail or screw.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:20 AM on December 12, 2007

A bunch of stuff off the top of my head:
  • stick to buying no more expensive than 3x your combined annual income. It's worked for generations and even in a bubble, it keeps things in check. You will never get in over your head if you stick to this rule. Even if your friends and neighbors are buying 10x their income on interest only ARM loans, know that you'll be safe no matter what happens in the future if your home is within your means.
  • paint, re-carpet, and do any major renovation before you move in. Once your crap is there, you'll never find the time to move it all out of the way to do stuff like paint. It's way, way easier to do before you get there. Ditto to projects like sealing the garage floor with paint/protection. The day you move in will be the day your garage is never clean ever again.
  • Ask your realtor to suggest a list of three home inspectors. If she says "this one guy is a complete psycho and takes 3x as long as the others" you hire that guy.
  • If you are bidding for a house among other potential buyers, write a one-page letter stating why you would really like to buy the house. The seller of my current home said it swayed his decision (we wrote a cover letter about dreams of raising our daughter with a big backyard)
  • Get pre-approved for a loan before you start shopping
  • When comparing two houses of different sizes, know that the extra bedroom might only run you $100/month on the mortgage, but if you buy the smaller house you'll never save up the $20k to put that room addition on. Personally, I wished we bought a larger first house because we grew out of it way too quickly and were too concerned with the lowest price.
  • Buy the smallest, cheapest house in the best neighborhood possible. You NEVER want to own the most expensive house on the block, esp. if it's way nicer than anything in the neighborhood. It will be impossible to sell, while the smaller cheaper place will sell within a few days.
  • Be prepared for sticker shock after you buy the house. Know that anything requiring a dude or a few dudes to come out and build/fix something is going to cost AT LEAST $500 and more likely $2,000 or so. I had no idea how expensive a simple thing like a fence was until I bought a house. Those things are outrageous.
  • Getting that first downpayment together is the hardest thing you will ever do. I swear we went from zero savings and living paycheck to paycheck to having $14,000 in our savings account a couple years later from hardcore saving, frugality, and looking for every loophole imaginable. We barely squeaked through all the closing costs, we required written documentation on every check deposit for the previous six months, and on top of all that the home wasn't even expensive. BUT! Once you finally get a house and you can afford it and you keep up the good savings habit, you'll find that everything else in life falls like dominoes. I suddenly qualified for any car loan on earth at the best rates (though I personally never spend more than $20k on a car, ever) and our second home purchase was a piece of freaking cake (only required a phonecall and a handshake to get the loan). I suspect any future home purchase will be extremely easy compared to the hell the first one took.

posted by mathowie at 10:32 AM on December 12, 2007 [7 favorites]

"Ignore the people who are telling you to buy the maximum house you can afford, get an ARM, or go with the interest-only mortgage. Instead, find a house you like in the condition you need in an area you like and big enough for your current and near-term needs, and buy it on a 30-year fixed."

This is really great advice. There is a really big difference between feeling stretched every month when the mortgage is due, and feeling fine about the payment.

The old cliche of "location location location" is really true. You can change anything about a house's physical structure -- really, absolutely anything, to the point of bulldozing it and rebuilding it from scratch -- but you can't change the neighborhood, or how close it is to downtown, or where the freeway exit is. When looking at houses, it is really easy to miss the forest for the trees -- to focus on house layouts, to look at furnaces and roofs, to compare which have better details -- and not step back and think about the location in terms of the neighborhood, the traffic, the commute, access to services, school districts (even if you don't have kids) and so on. You can't change those things, whereas you can add a bathroom, relandscape the yard, or anything else that isn't perfect about the physical house.

Also, it is almost always far easier to get something like a MIL apartment grandfathered in than it is to get it approved from scratch. Even permissive places tend to put some barriers in front of building certain kinds of additions and changes; if you buy a place with those things you want in place already, you are much more likely to get what you want at a lower price than if you do it from the ground up. (As with everything, ymmv, and there are lots of stories about buyers being told after the purchase that their new house isn't actually legal, so proceed with caution.
posted by Forktine at 10:36 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

This only applies if you're building, not buying an existing house, but: don't scrimp on the little stuff. You might think $50 seems like a lot to add an extra outlet in a room, or put in an ethernet or cable drop, but that's peanuts to what you'll pay to do it after the walls are up, and the difference even a couple thousand dollars of those add-ons won't make a huge difference in your monthly payment. Put cable drop drops and ethernet on most walls, it's hard to predict how you'll end up arranging your furniture.

And don't forget about the outside either for faucets and electrical outlets. Sure, you can always buy a longer extension cord or hose, but it's easier if you don't have to.
posted by JohnYaYa at 10:40 AM on December 12, 2007

Check that the goddamned thermostat actually results in goddamned heat coming from the goddamned vents! If the property inspector is unable to check this for whatever reason, make it a contingency that this be resolved. Not that I'm currently bitter about this.
posted by jcruelty at 10:48 AM on December 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Also check that all the outlets work, cos some of them won't.
posted by jcruelty at 10:49 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

(I guess you can combine those two things into one piece of advice: create a thorough checklist of everything YOU might want to personally verify when attending the property inspection (which, as stated previously should be done by your own inspector, not the sellers') and then go through the checklist exhaustively. Everything you find wrong with the place is a bargaining chip.)
posted by jcruelty at 10:50 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is what I've told all of my friends who were house-shopping for the first time: Take your home inspector out for drinks afterward.

Seriously. When you are doing a walkthrough of the place you want to buy and the inspector is making notes and checking boxes and talking with you, you are in no state to take it all in. You're likely standing around in an empty basement or leaning against a wall or whatever, and your brain isn't really locked-in. You're trying to be all clinical and detached, but THIS MIGHT BE IT! YOUR FIRST HOME! OMG! and clinical detachment would require either meditation or medication. Get to a local bar or coffee shop or whatever. Somewhere you can sit down, loosen up, focus, and really understand the ramifications of what your home inspector is telling you. Get some off-the-cuff cost estimates from him/her. Make lots of notes. Basically don't just get a checklist of what's wrong, but come to an understanding of how serious any given item on the list is, how much it will cost to fix, and, should you buy the house, when you should fix it. Separate out which problems are worth bringing up with the sellers when negotiating and which aren't.

Your home inspector should be a wealth of knowledge -- take advantage of it. I didn't, and it's surprising the number of times a problem comes up and we think "oh, didn't the inspector say something about that? I guess we didn't really understand its importance."
posted by mumkin at 10:54 AM on December 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Just wanting to nth the suggestion to not buy more house than one of you can afford (if buying with a partner), and to choose a fixed rate.

When my husband and I bought our first home, we were both making good money, had no kids, and the horizon looked very bright. Six months after we moved in, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and between the surgery and recovery/rehabilitation, was out of work for almost a year. If we hadn't taken that advice, we would have gone under very quickly, considering that we had used all of our savings for the down payment. Added bonus: five years later, I was able to stay home with my first child for six months without financial worry. The peace of mind was well worth the smaller house that we settled on.
posted by Flakypastry at 11:40 AM on December 12, 2007

our second home purchase was a piece of freaking cake (only required a phonecall and a handshake to get the loan)

This could have been a timing issue. 1608-2002 was one set of rules wrt qualifications, 2003-2006 featured no-rules Crazy Eddie-style lending practices, now we're seeing the adults starting to dust off the rulebooks again. (not that I'm bitter, either)
posted by panamax at 12:58 PM on December 12, 2007

I was told (by a realtor friend) to make a ridiculously low offer, because you can never negotiate downwards, and I made the lowest offer I could bear to which saved us about 10% of the cost of the house.

Make a list before you start of must-haves (not would be really-nices) and stick to it.

Know if you're the renovating type or not. My brother spent 4 years in a teeny house that he was always going to do up, but never had the time or inclination.

If you live in a warm area, polished wood floors are a hell of a lot easier to clean than carpets.

You can change the paint colour. Don't let that influence you.

Keep a folder with your own forms in there, include address, features, notes etc. After looking at 10 houses a day, it's funny how they all start to blur together.
posted by b33j at 1:24 PM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

The one most important thing? After all the bullshit and frustration and worry, after bankers throwing around phrases like "give or take a thousand dollars" as you breathe into a bag, after stupid counteroffer haggling, after finding out there's a leaky gas station fuel tank 50 feet from the house you nearly bought but didn't, after your friends freaking you out by regaling you with tales of the six expensive things that immediately broke when they bought their houses, etc., etc. . . .

Right after the closing when you finally more or less, nominally own that property, do some goofy little ritual to make the place yours, to revel in your non-rentership. What I did was (and I planned this weeks ahead of time) is drive right over to the dear, dilapidated shack, open it up with My Key (!), and pound a big old nail smack into the archway between living and dining rooms, where I can see it every time I walk through. Why? Because I could, because there's no friggin' security deposit or "damage" fee where you're charged $X per nail or ding by some landlord. Sixteen years later, that nail remains in this even dearer, more dilapidated shack.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:41 PM on December 12, 2007 [11 favorites]

Go to the county courthouse and find out exactly who owns the property on all sides and if there are any projects on file with the county for those properties.

I had a friend who bought a beautiful, quiet, serene Victorian on 2 clear acres surrounded by woods 30 miles from the nearest city. 30 days after closing the guy who owned the property bordering on the north and east of my friend started clear-cutting 100 ACRES to start his development. It was all on file and approved 2+ years prior, but my friend never researched it.

That was 11 years ago. He has never known a day without construction noise.
posted by sandra_s at 1:58 PM on December 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

I don't think anyone has said this yet: make a careful checklist of the kinds of things you are looking for (big backyard? is a porch important? three bedrooms? room for an office? whatever it is for you) and carry it with you when you look at houses. It's really easy to fall in love with some charmer, and you forget you were really really committed to a master bedroom with its own bath, or you find yourself standing there going, "Well, I really wanted a separate office, but I'm sure it will be fine to have a desk in the corner of the living room instead." Six months later, you're remembering why having a separate office meant so much to you and it's too late! Having a list can help you keep track of what was at which house, and can also help you keep your eye on what is really important to you.
posted by not that girl at 2:32 PM on December 12, 2007

Ask what the typical monthly utility bills are. If the agent won't help you with that, you can probably phone the utility and find out typical costs.
posted by ysabella at 2:41 PM on December 12, 2007

Probably repeating a lot of what's been said before, and completely ignoring the "single most valuable" part of the question:

* Turn house inspections into a regular part of your weekends. I must have visited hundreds in my area, maybe every second saturday morning for about two to three years (partially, it was just a fun hobby, poking around in people's houses). There is really no better way of getting a feel for value.

* A professional inspection is mandatory for everybody who isn't a complete raving idiot.

* Don't be deceived by appearances. It's easy to make a place look nice with a half-assed renovation that only looks good for six months. Often these are just cosmetic, and can mask serious problems. It's far better to see a problem & know that it needs fixing than to live in a fool's paradise. For this reason, unrenovated houses have my vote above renovated ones.

* More in favour of unrenovated houses: it's better to set a place up to your own taste than to buy somebody else's taste.

* Find out how much it costs to fix or renovate certain kinds of things - eg a bathroom might be $10K, floorboards $700 per room, new hot water system $1K etc. That way, when you inspect an open house, you can do a simple mental tally of how much you would need to spend to make it liveable.

* Position is key. Can you walk to the shops? Is there public transport nearby? Parks? Schools? Swimming pools? Can you get onto major traffic arteries without fucking around forever in backstreets?

* Aspect is also key. North or NE facing in the southern hemisphere; S or SE facing in the northern (maximises natural light & sunshine, reduces heating & electricity bills).

* Things that are so nice to have that you'd really miss them if you didn't: a decent-sized garden, rear-lane access, plenty of storage space, no common walls shared with neighbouring houses. I can't stress that last one enough.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:32 PM on December 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

(if i had to give the *single* most important one, it would have to be the one about going for something unrenovated & not being deceived by appearances. as somebody else said upthread, learn to see the potential in a place, not how it looks today. if it's large, structurally sound & in a good location, that completely trumps the fact that it needs a coat of paint, a new bathroom & has a garden full of weeds)
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:40 PM on December 12, 2007

Do your homework.

By this I mean:
- work out what all the ancillary costs are: moving costs, closing costs, any taxes or duties, cost of lawyers, cost of inspections, insurance, the first quarter's bills, connection costs, everything. Add 20%. Have this available as cash, over and above your downpayment.
- work out what you can afford. Do it in three bands - minimum realistic; comfortable; maximum. Go for the lowest you can.
- get qualified for finance; shop around for a loan and get pre-approval.

Now, and only now, start shopping for a house, or land if that's what you want.

- check sockets; check major electrical appliances; check inclusions.
- consider breezways/heat retention. I live in a tropical climate; a house that has some natural cooling is Very Important. In a colder climate, I'd check for insulation in the ceilings and walls.
- consider layout. Is the kitchen shaped well? What about the living/dining areas? How's the flooring? How old does the carpet look? How old is the carpet? Ditto fixtures. How easy is it to replace the lights? Where are the lights - are they well-placed and provide adequate light? Ventilation from bathrooms/showers? How's the placing of the heating/cooling? Bedrooms with respect to one another? Don't be afraid to take out a tape measure and write down the precise dimensions and shape of every room; use these notes to work out if your stuff will actually fit into the space. Do this before making an offer. Also, take along a spirit level; check if floors are level and corners are square. Check the location of the fusebox. Check the location and condition of the hot water system.
- what's the roof made of?

- stand outside and think about a couple of things. What's the climate like? If it rains, where's the water going to go? If it's hot, are you going to get a breeze? Where's the top of the hill? How are the stormdrains? Which way does the house face? How will the position of the sun change throughout the year, and how will this affect light and heat in the home?
- what's traffic like? In the morning? Evening?
- where are the nearest facilities? Sporting? Events? Cultural? Worship? Schools? Shops? Recreation? Public Transport? Hospitals/Medical? Are they walking or driving distance?
- what's around you? Renters, families, students, motoring enthusiasts?
- how much maintence do the grounds need? How much are you willing to do?
- How's the fencing?
- Car parking: is there any?
- How steep is the block? Is this a problem? (steep blocks make extensions hard)
- (only valid in some countries) what internet/tv/phone services are available? does this matter?
- what's the local greenery? is it a possible/known allergen?

This is my (short, quick) list of stuff to look for. There are many more things you should consider when buying a home. I do not yet own a house; I am picky about where and what I buy. However, I participated in helping my parents choose a home several years ago.
posted by ysabet at 4:06 PM on December 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Don't buy the best house on the block!
posted by macinchik at 6:31 PM on December 12, 2007

Make sure you look at little things, since it's the little things that will drive you nuts. F'example... My partner bought a condo earlier this year, and we found out that while it was renovated recently, not everything was done well. One of the drawers in the kitchen sticks when you open it(the top of the drawer rubs against the bottom of the counter), and the drawers in the kitchen, rather than being most of the width of the drawer face, are more like 1/3 to 1/2. Not dealbreakers, at all, but just little things to keep an eye out for.
posted by daveqat at 8:34 PM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have printed out the entire thread and will be going over it in exquisite detail this evening with my spouse-esque partner. ALL of these answers have and will continue to help us in our house hunt so I honestly, sincerely and deeply thank everyone who took the time to answer my question. I have had this question in mind for a month now and I can't believe I took so long to ask it! I have to say that what cocoagirl/mathowie say about buying the smallest/cheapest house in the best neighborhood almost instantly caused a profound paradigm shift for me. Thank you so much!!
posted by hecho de la basura at 12:04 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

If can your mortgage company does it and you can afford it, pay half your mortgage every two weeks, as opposed to one full payment every month. It knocks about 8 years off a 30 year loan.

Hire your own inspector. We got local guy, known for being solid and honest and he was worth the $300, plus some.

Buy less than you can afford.

Be prepared to learn how to fix things yourself. It's cheaper and you'll do a better job usually because you care more.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:37 AM on December 14, 2007 [4 favorites]

In my own case, I went with "location location location" and I'm glad I did. We also bought one of the less appealing houses in the neighborhood. But as you may have discerned, there's considerable tension between those advising to settle for the cheapest house on the block/seeing the potential/etc. and those urging you to look for a house that's in the state you want it to be in. Based on my own experience, I would take very seriously the need to anticipate the likely hassle and expense of renovation. For me, a 50K difference loomed very large at the time of purchase; now, a 40K price for a renovated kitchen looms larger, and financing is a little trickier. (Don't even get me started on what an extra bedroom would cost.) So think seriously about whether you are mentally discounting future headaches if you go smaller/shabbier.

I am not sure about the old adage of not buying the most expensive house on the block. In many urban areas, what is the most expensive house is often rapidly overtaken by a comprehensive renovation/demolition. I think the most expensive house in our neighborhood has changed dozens of times since we moved in.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 12:11 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Look beyond staging, paint color and other decoration. I'm saving serious money on a house because the owner couldn't be bothered to clean it up, fix it up and get rid of crap. Look behind furniture, under rugs, behind the fridge, etc. I can paint and carpet, and I'll get the colors and quality I want.

Ask your real estate agent who inspected her house before she bought it. Then ask 2 more.

Buy the radon inspection, the septic inspection, and any other inspections useful in your area.

Do the numbers. No matter how much you think the house is charming, make sure it appraises for the full value. My sister bought a house because she liked the lifestyle of the sellers. They took the lifestyle with them, and she just gets the old wallpaper.

You get to renegotiate after the inspection. It's okay; there are more houses. You are in the best buyer's market in years.
posted by theora55 at 12:29 PM on December 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

I've tried to summarize the redundant practical advice of this thread

consider post-purchasing costs

pre-qualify for a mortgage, but consider that you may qualify much more than you can really afford, so DON'T GET YOURSELF IN TOO MUCH DEBT!!!

get an unbaised detailed inspection. inspect for condition.

get an energy audit

keep level-headed: don't become too attached to a home (especially in a bidding war), at the very least look at 10 homes

of course the house won't be in move-in condition, bring a list of repairs to the bargaining table

consider: neighborhood, schools, local government, commute,closest grocery and convenience stores

talk to the neighbors

visit the potential home during different times of the day during the week, and also on weekends

keep track of the "abstract of title" after purchasing property (search the thread to find out what it is)

check out the county courthouse for property records of any projects on file for the surrounding area of the house

don't by the best house on the block
posted by metacort at 3:30 PM on March 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

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