For some, the size and appearance of a house are the most important things. For others, location is everything. What you want may not be what you can afford. In the end, your choice of a house will involve a trade-off among price, features, and location.
Before you start to look at houses, you should have an idea of what you want. Make a wish list for your ideal home. Then have a preliminary look around to see whether or not what you want is available in your price range. You may have to make changes to your wish list to reflect what you can actually afford.
A home is both the house itself and where it is located. You may start with an idea of the house you want or an idea of its location, but wherever you start, before you buy, you have to think about both.
When we talk about location, we don’t mean where in the world you want to live. We assume that you already know both the state and the general area. Within that general area, you still have a wide choice: would you prefer to live right in the city, in a suburb, in a smaller town, or in the country? You should also think about the kind of community you want to live in, how close to your family and friends and place of work you want to be, and the services you want nearby.
When we talk about features, we mean the size and appearance of the house. How large is the lot? How many bedrooms are there? Are there new bathrooms and kitchen? Is the house in move-in condition or is it a handyman’s special? When you list the features you want in a home, don’t just think about whether a house meets your present needs – think about your future needs as well.
The Wish List
To help you identify your wishes and needs for your new home, make a detailed checklist like the one below this article. Distinguish between the things that you absolutely must have in a home and the things you would merely like to have if you could.
Have a Preliminary Look Around
Once you have some idea of the kind of home and location you’d like, you should have a look around to see whether what you want is available in your price range. Do this by looking at real estate ads, by driving around to see what houses are listed for sale, and by going to open houses. You can call the agent named in the ad or on the sign (or you can call any real estate agent) for more information about any house that catches your interest.
Fine-Tune Your Wish List
After some preliminary looking around, you should have a realistic idea of what’s out there. It’s unlikely that you will have found an affordable house that fully satisfies your wish list.
You will have discovered that similar houses have different price tags depending on their location. Since what you can afford is fixed, you will probably find that you have to compromise either on the features of the house or its location. Have another look at your wish list and change it if necessary. At this stage you should have a good idea of what kind of house and what location you can get for the price you can afford. You’ve narrowed your choice of location and choice of features and are ready to start hunting.
GO HOUSE-HUNTING WITH A REAL ESTATE AGENT
Once you’ve got some idea of what you’d like to buy, then you are ready to start your serious house-hunting. Unless you are only interested in a house to be built in a new development, the best way to find houses is to look with the help of an experienced real estate agent. Here’s what a real estate agent can do for you:
- help you fine-tune your wish list
- get special access to information about the many houses listed for sale
- screen those houses to choose the ones most likely to be of interest
- arrange appointments for you to view the selected houses
- get information about neighborhoods ¥ help you evaluate the condition of houses you view
- help you decide how much you should pay for a particular house
- help you make up an offer to purchase and negotiate with the vendor
- put you in contact with building inspectors, mortgage lenders, contractors, movers, and other useful people.
You may think that you don’t need a real estate agent to find and look at houses that are for sale. But you’re wrong. For one thing, real estate agents are hard to avoid. Most vendors use a real estate agent, and if you want to view a house that is listed with an agent, you’ll either have to deal with that agent or some other agent. For another thing, using a real estate agent will get you access to a lot more information than you could find on your own and will also save you a lot of time.
If you were to look for houses on your own, you would only know about the ones you happen to see with “For Sale” signs, or which are advertised for sale in the newspaper or through the Internet. Most houses that are up for sale are put on a multiple listing service or MLS. Only real estate agents have full access to the information on the multiple listing service, which includes details about the price, location, and features of each house. So a real estate agent will know more about the houses that are on the market than you could ever find out on your own.
A real estate agent will review all the MLS information, zero in on the houses most likely to be of interest to you, and take you to see only those houses. That way, you won’t waste your time looking at the wrong houses.
How to Work with a Real Estate Agent
You want your agent to do all the things that we told you a real estate agent can do, and to do those things really well. Tell your agent what you want and let him or her do the work of finding houses. As you look at different houses, explain what you like or don’t like about each house so that the agent will be able to focus the search on houses that should appeal to you. Focusing the search works best if you work with just one agent at a time.
When you view a house, you have to examine its condition very carefully. Your real estate agent has seen many houses and may be able to spot problems that you miss. If you have specific questions about repairs that have been made or the cost of maintaining the house, ask your agent to get the answers from the vendor.
When you find a house that interests you, make use of your agent’s expertise in getting information about the neighborhood and the neighbors. A good real estate agent should be able to give you information about such things as the local schools, property taxes, and even the names of people living on the street.
If you want to try to buy one of the houses you’ve looked at, your agent should check sale prices of similar houses in the area to help you decide how much you should be willing to offer. The agent will help you draft the actual offer to purchase the house and may suggest that you include special clauses for your protection. The agent will write up the offer for you to sign. Once the offer has been signed, your real estate agent will act as a go-between, taking the offer to the vendor and bringing you back the vendor’s answer. During the negotiations, you won’t usually meet with the vendor face-to-face.
Even after you reach an agreement to buy a house, your agent can still be useful to you by helping you find mortgage money, building inspectors, renovators, and so on. Your agent will also be the one who arranges any inspections of the house before the sale closes.
Cost of an Agent
The general rule is that there will be no cost to you as the purchaser for using a real estate agent’s services. The real estate agent involved in a purchase of a home is usually paid a commission by the vendor.
Houses for Sale by the Vendor
What if you find a house that is being sold by a vendor who doesn’t have a real estate agent? There could be an advantage to you in buying privately, which is that the price may be lower. The vendor will not have to pay a real estate agent’s commission and may be willing to share the saving with you. It is just as likely, however, that the vendor wants to keep that saving, in which case the price will not be any lower than if a real estate agent were involved. In fact, you may find that a vendor who wants to sell privately has an unrealistic idea about the value of the house and may want more than its fair market value.
There can be other disadvantages to buying privately. For example, the vendor may hover over you as you view the house (when you view houses being sold through an agent, the vendor has usually been persuaded not to be home). If you make an offer on the house, you may have to negotiate with the vendor face-to-face. If you decide to buy privately, be sure to research the house and neighborhood thoroughly. If you’re not sure that the price of the house is fair, you can pay a fee to have a real estate agent give you an estimate of the house’s market value.
Now that you know how to find houses to view, let’s look at how to evaluate them so that you can decide which one you actually want to buy.
FEATURES OF THE HOUSE
House-hunting can be a bit of a chore, but it is also an adventure. It gives you a chance to see how other people live (and whether their furniture matches). Even if you decide that a particular house is not for you, you may get decorating or renovation ideas you will be able to use in the house you do buy. Now’s the time that your wish list will be useful. Check how many of your “must haves” and “would likes” each house has. But don’t just focus on features. When you go through a house, try to picture how you would feel living there. Is there enough room for all of your family and possessions? Will you feel comfortable there? Will the house suit your needs five years from now?
CONDITION OF THE HOUSE
Once you’ve found a house that has the features you’re looking for, go over it carefully to make sure that it doesn’t also have problems you’d like to avoid. It’s not enough just to look at the house; you also have to ask questions of both the owner and the owner’s real estate agent. And don’t just ask questions about specific things you may notice: look the owner straight in the eye and ask if he or she is aware of any problems with the house.
The vendor and the vendor’s real estate agent have a legal obligation to tell you about any problems they know about, whether or not you ask. There are some vendors who might not tell you if you don’t ask – in spite of this obligation. But there are fewer vendors who can look you straight in the eye and lie in answer to a direct question. In fact, if the vendor does not tell you about a defect that he or she knows about (whether or not you ask about it) you may be able to sue the vendor later.
You may be thinking that you will have any home you buy professionally inspected, so why should you ask questions about it and go over it like a detective? While a professional home inspection should uncover any defects that the vendor is trying to hide, it is too expensive to do on every house you look at. You should only have one done on a house you are serious about buying. We recommend that you ask questions and do an inspection yourself to eliminate houses that are in poor condition, so that you don’t waste your time on them.
You can get a sense of the general condition of a house just by casually looking around. You’ll notice right away if the house smells or if every room needs painting. But try to get a better idea of the potential repair and maintenance costs by focusing on the things in the checklist “Evaluating the House” (below).
In order to keep track of the houses you’re seriously considering, use one or more of the following methods:
- Make and fill out a copy of the “House Features Wish List” and the “Evaluation Checklist” for each house.
- Photograph or videotape the house, if the vendor will let you.
- Keep a copy of any “Feature Sheet” giving details about the house.
House Features Wish List
|Number of storeys
|Exterior (brick, wood, siding)
|Backyard with fence
|Trees and landscaping
|Deck or patio
|One- or two-car garage
|Number of bedrooms
|Number of bathrooms
|Master ensuite bathroom
|Lots of closet space
|Type of heating
|New electrical system
|Municipal water and sewers
Checklist: Evaluating the House
Are shingles missing, crooked, or curled?
How old is the roof? Even heavy-duty grade shingles only last 20 years.
Is it straight?
Is the brick crumbling?
Eavestroughs and downspouts
Are they rusted or corroded? Do they overflow?
Are there visible cracks or crumbling mortar?
Is there soil erosion around downspouts?
Do decks, patios, or the yard slope toward the house? If they do, you can expect water to run into the basement.
Are there cracked or loose bricks? This may be caused by settlement in the foundation.
Is the mortar crumbling?
Are the bricks flaking (spalling)? The underlying cause may be poor-quality bricks and poor construction.
Is there white powder (efflorescence) on the bricks? This is an indication that moisture has penetrated the brick either from outside or inside the house.
Is vinyl siding buckling?
Is wood siding splitting, rotting, or buckling?
Is metal siding dented, pitted, corroded, or buckling?
Is stucco cracked, chipped, or loose?
Is paint peeling or flaking?
Concrete stairs and walkways
Are they uneven or cracked?
Wooden stairs, decks, and patios
Are they uneven, sagging, or rotting? Are boards loose or missing?
Pool and equipment
Is the water cloudy or still? The pump may not work.
Is the pump noisy?
Are tiles loose?
Trees and landscaping
Are trees and shrubs overgrown or dying?
Is the house exposed to the weather, or are there trees to form a windbreak?
Fences and retaining walls
Are they leaning or rafting?
Do they maintain their properties?
Is there space for your refrigerator, dishwasher, and stove? Measure.
What is the interior condition of cabinets?
Are there signs of leakage under the sink?
Is there mildew or mould in bathtubs and showers?
Is there adequate ventilation?
Are there cracked or missing tiles?
Are fixtures stained, cracked, or chipped?
Is paint blistering or peeling or is plaster soft?
Are there signs of leakage anywhere?
Check the water pressure by turning on the taps and flushing toilets.
Are walls straight?
Are there cracks or holes?
Is plaster bulging?
Is paint chipping, flaking, or peeling? Most homes built before the ’60s have lead paint on the walls, if not as the surface coat of paint then somewhere below. Lead paint isn’t a health hazard as long as it isn’t flaking or chipping off the walls or woodwork. If it is, there’s a danger of small children or pets eating paint flakes and suffering lead poisoning. (Removing lead paint should be done by professionals since the stripping process releases lead dust into the air.)
Is paint faded?
Is wallpaper peeling?
Are they stained, cracked, or warped? Is paint peeling? Any of these things may mean water leakage.
Floors and stairways
Are floors or stairs uneven? Do floorboards squeak?
Are there hardwood floors under the carpeting (ask, or check for yourself by lifting loose carpet)?
Are floor tiles chipped, missing, uneven, or discolored?
Is carpeting worn or stained?
Doors and windows
Are doors and windows unevenly hung?
Do doors and windows stick or scrape?
Are window panes broken or missing?
Are window frames rotting or stained?
Is caulking missing from window frames?
Are walls stained or damp? Are they crumbling or do they have white spots? These are signs of a damp basement.
Does the basement smell damp or musty?
Are there signs of drain backup?
How high are heating costs? Ask.
What kind of heating system is used and how old is it? Find out. Then check with the manufacturer or its service representative how long such a furnace is designed to last. If the furnace is not natural gas but you would like to convert to natural gas, call the gas company to find out whether this kind of furnace can be converted.
Has the furnace been professionally serviced on a regular basis? Ask.
Do all the chimneys have liners? Ask.
Are furnace and pipes corroded?
Is there oil spillage around an oil furnace? Is there a gas smell around a gas furnace? Are there leaks around hot water radiators?
If the weather is cold while you’re house-hunting, are there portable heaters around? Do you feel drafts in the house? Have doors and windows been left open to hide the fact that the house is cold even when the heat is on?
Is there central air-conditioning?
If not, is the heating system hot water? Not every hot-water heating system can accommodate a soft-duct cooling system.
What kind of wiring is in the house? Copper wiring is safer than the aluminum wiring that is found in many older houses.
Check inside the control panel to see whether there are circuit breakers or older style fuse boxes.
Has the attic been insulated and vented? Attic insulation is more important than exterior wall insulation. An attic vent will draw off moisture and will keep the house cooler in the summer.
What kind of insulation has been used? If urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) has been used, the resale value of the house will be affected, even though recent studies suggest that UFFI is not a health hazard.
Insects and other pests
Check for evidence of termites or carpenter ants: Is there sawdust around exposed wood? If so, tap the wood to see if it sounds hollow.
Check for evidence of insects or rodents by looking inside cupboards and closets for dead insects or mice droppings, or traps and poison bait.
Septic systems and wells
How old is the well?
When was the septic tank last inspected and cleaned?
When was the well water last tested for purity, and what was the result?
What is the capacity of the well, and is there a cistern?
How many gallons per hour can the well pump handle?
This article has been edited and excerpted from The Complete Guide to Buying, Owning and Selling a Home in Canada by Margaret Kerr and JoAnn Kurtz (John Wiley & Sons Canada). Written in everyday language, this complete guide covers everything you need to know about every stage of home ownership, including: shopping for a mortgage; negotiating your agreement of purchase and sale; signing contracts with renovators, movers, and others; dealing with problem neighbors; and much more. Useful checklists and great advice help you prevent or solve many common problems on your own, saving you money and headaches. Available at better bookstores, or order directly from: www.amazon.com in the USA or www.amazon.ca in Canada.