There are many things to consider when buying a house—price, location, condition, size, schools, and more. We’ll walk through the trade-offs.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What lifestyle do you want?
- Imagine your ideal yard
- What matters most in a neighborhood?
- Be realistic about home repairs
- Separate needs from wants
1. What lifestyle do you want?
First, identify the core values and lifestyle most important to you. Perhaps you want a walkable, hyperlocal and eco-friendly urban lifestyle. Maybe you want a quiet, rural country life. Or perhaps you’re striving for a low-maintenance setup that’s conducive to frequent travel.
Imagine your ideal lifestyle, both today and a decade into the future, and use this as the basis for choosing the features you’d like in your home. Think about your ideal day-to-day life with regard to commuting and running errands, and also imagine how you want to spend your weekends and holidays.
- Would you like to stay home, or travel?
- Do you plan to host parties or large gatherings?
- How often will guests stay over?
- Would you and your spouse own one vehicle or two?
- Do you use public transit?
- Does one of you work from home?
The answers to questions like these will impact your home preferences. Here are several qualities in a new home you should consider.
- BedroomConsider the number of bedrooms that you may need within the next decade. Do you plan to add to your family, or do you expect an empty nest? Might an older relative need in-home care?Any room that contains a closet and a form of ingress and egress for fire safety, such as a window, meets the definition of a bedroom. You may also want to buy a house with bedrooms that you use for purposes other than sleeping. For example, you may also want space for an office, gym, or hobby room.
- Bathrooms Additional beds and baths can boost the value of a home, too. The increase depends on the market where the home is located, as well as the home’s existing value. For example, according to data from our home improvement value calculator, wood floors and a pool tend to have a bigger increase on the value of more expensive homes, while bathroom and kitchen remodels tend to add more value for lower to mid-priced homes.
- Storage Consider how much space you need. Do you need a two-car garage, or might a car-port suffice? Do you have an accessible basement, attic, garage or tool shed? Does your dream home include space for hobbies? Home repairs and maintenance require tools and storage too, especially if you plan on tackling bigger projects yourself.
- Stairs If anyone in your family has mobility issues, or you plan to age in your home, consider whether you want a house with stairs. If an entryway includes stairs, you may not be able to accommodate guests with physical limitations. You may want a home that features at least one bedroom on the ground floor for similar reasons.
- Privacy and noise Toddler parents might want to sleep close to their children’s rooms, while teen parents might enjoy the idea of kids and their stereo speakers in the basement. Furthermore, if the home is located near a busy street, highway, college campus, or nightlife district, how much noise will seep into the space?Consider the home layout with regard to both noise and privacy: Would noise from the living room or the busy streets leak into the bedrooms? Can neighbors peer into the bathroom?
- Efficiency Consider how much monthly budget you can allocate for utilities. Your real estate agent can ask the seller for copies of utility bills from the past 12 months. Many sellers can access these records online. These bills should offer an idea of the costs of heating and cooling the home.Features such as low ceilings, new windows and a smaller footprint tend to keep heating and cooling bills low. High vaulted ceilings, while luxurious, and a larger footprint can cost significantly more in utilities.
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2. Imagine your ideal yard
- Size Would you prefer to maximize your space or minimize your maintenance? A large, fenced lot could give you enough space to play with children, let your dogs run off-leash, or install a toolshed or swimming pool in the future. A smaller lot, however, is less expensive and easier to manage.
- Grade A flat yard can make a great soccer pitch, or swing set pad. You might install a pool. Others would rather embrace a stellar view or a shorter commute and don’t mind a shrunken or hilly yard.
- Shade Do you want a yard that’s forested and shady, or would you prefer more sun? If you plan on gardening or landscaping, make sure the yard’s light conditions are compatible with your plans. Some plants, like tomatoes, require abundant sunlight, while others, like mint, thrive in shade and part-sun conditions, so your decision could depend on what you hope to grow.
- Features Would you like a deck, patio, swimming pool, jacuzzi, built-in cooktop or grill, or other outdoor features? These features can make a home life more enjoyable, but they also require significant upkeep. Pools and hot tubs need regular cleaning and maintenance. Decks and patios need to be re-sealed. Are you going to use these features often enough to justify the additional expense and commitment?
- Setback How much privacy and space from the road would you like? You may enjoy the privacy of a deeper setback, but being close to the street means you’ll be closer to your neighbors, your children may be able to play on the sidewalk, and you won’t need to worry about shoveling or plowing a long private driveway in winter. But then, you may be closer to your neighbors.
3. What matters most in a neighborhood
- Schools Consider your school district needs for the next ten years. The elementary school may be great, but the high school could rank subpar. Nonprofits such as GreatSchools provide rankings on both public and private school quality.
- Amenities What libraries, parks, pools, grocers and retailers are nearby? If you want to shop at a specific farmers market or specialty store, for example, then consider the travel time. If you’re a frequent business traveler, think about travel time commuting to the airport.
- Pet-friendlinessDo you need sidewalk space to walk your dogs? If you want to keep chickens or other uncommon pets, check neighborhood restrictions. If you buy in a neighborhood that’s governed by a homeowners association, the HOA may have additional restrictions, beyond town rules.
- Walkability Some buyers love their vehicles, and want a large garage and easy access to freeways. Others want higher walking potential. You might take stock of a neighborhood’s sidewalks, walking paths or bicycle paths, and if those connect from the house to other locations you’d visit frequently. You can find the answer by checking the WalkScore of the home, which ranks both the walkability and bike-ability of the area on a scale from 0 to 100.
4. Be realistic about home repairs
How much repair and maintenance work would you like to handle? Everyone’s answer will be different. One person’s cute fixer-upper is another’s worst nightmare.
Here are a few aspects of the structure and mechanicals of a property to consider:
- Fascia, soffits and gutters: Fascia are the long boards that run along a roof’s lower edge. Gutters are typically attached to the fascia. The soffits are tucked underneath. These are prime places to check for rot or signs of water damage.
- Roof: How old is the roof, and what’s the average life expectancy of the roofing material? If the roof tends toward the end of an expected lifespan, you may have to replace sections soon after moving in. You can ask for a credit to cover repairs when you buy the home. You may qualify for a lower homeowners’ insurance rate if the roof is newer, according to Esurance.
- Electrical: Older homes may have older electrical features, such as open junction boxes or a lack of high-amp outlets that can handle newer appliances, says This Old House. Some issues are grandfathered into modern codes and aren’t a big deal, but some can pose safety hazards. If you aren’t experienced with updating a home’s electric or don’t have a potentially large budget for a fix, you may want to consider if you can handle an older house with potential electric issues.
5. Separate needs from wants
You’ll need to weigh many different factors, including the home’s location, age, condition, size, features and price, when you’re buying a home. In order to weigh all these factors, first imagine what your ideal lifestyle would look like, both today and a decade into the future.
Choose a few must-haves that represent the most important aspects of that lifestyle, such as commute time. Be prepared to stay flexible and accept trade-offs, but don’t compromise on your core criteria.
It’s difficult to find a property that meets every desirable criterion on your list. Hopefully, if you’re budget and your desires are reasonable, you’ll find something that fits your most important must-haves.
By Paula Pant