“Love Buying a Home” Series
My step-by-step series will take you through the entire home-buying process — from finding a buyer’s agent to settlement day, and even to maintaining your home after you’re all moved in. Every buyer will find this information-packed series easy to follow and understand. Make sure to tune in for the next few weeks!
House hunting can be overwhelming, time consuming, and yes, even exhausting some days. But there’s no reason it has to be that way if you follow some simple strategies that will streamline your search and make you “shop” productively.
But before you can even start looking at homes, you need to go through several steps in the buying process. You’ll need to carefully consider your budget, location ideas, and the criteria (number of bedrooms, etc.) of your future home.
This article will take you through all this prep work first – that way your house hunting experience can be fun once you get started!
These search strategies also will help you make house hunting less stressful overall. And better yet, you’ll have the confidence and the ability to put in an offer and, ultimately, have a successful closing.
You’ll then get a list of simple house hunting tips that every would-be buyer should keep in mind.
First, Understand the Process
Your first step is to become educated about the process of buying a home in this market. I want to hear from you a few months (or more!) before you are ready to start looking at homes. During this meeting, we’ll talk about what you want to do and what you’re thinking and planning for, as well as what you should be prepared for. I’ll also educate you on what’s happening in today’s market that you should be aware of. It’s better not to rush the home buying process, so reach out around the time you find yourself being on the apps a few times a week. 😉
All that said – believe it or not, I might not be the best agent for you and what you’re looking to do. If not, I’ll be the first to tell you!
But in having that conversation, I can give you an idea who you should be talking to, the right questions to ask when you meet that right person, and can likely even connect you with someone. In the meantime, check out How to Find the Very Best Buyer’s Agent from my Love Buying a Home series for more details on working with an agent.
Next, Know Your Three “Buckets”
You want to house hunt with a plan and a purpose, and that’s where these three “buckets” play a key role – budget, location, and criteria.
This analogy of three buckets refers to where each and every factor you need to consider when house hunting fits into one of these three buckets. Each bucket doesn’t have to be equal in “weight” but the total weight combined of the three buckets must balance the scale they sit on. That’s your ultimate goal.
It’s also important for you to understand the following two requirements before you start viewing homes:
- Know where you are with the specifics for each one of the three – budget, location, and criteria; and
- Know how each one can affect or influence the others in your search for a home.
Undertaking this step and seeing how each is linked is essential! If you “pour” too much in one bucket, you’ll need to adjust another bucket, and so on.
For example, if you need to lower your budget, then you might need to change the location if homes are more expensive in your first choice of location OR you might have to consider getting a smaller home if you want the location to stay the same with that new budget. As you can see, one adjustment leads to another adjustment!
Looking at budget, location, and criteria in this way can help you find the alignment you are seeking, which can lead you to a home that is affordable, in a location that meets your needs, and that satisfies most of your wants.
Let’s do a review of the three buckets:
1. Budget — How Much Can You Really Afford?
One of the first steps before you house hunt is to get pre-approved for a mortgage by a lender. Being “pre-approved” carries more weight with sellers than being “pre-qualified”.
Going through this process requires you to know your monthly budget and what you can afford to pay toward a mortgage. I always prioritize monthly mortgage payments, first and foremost, before you move on to a price range.
Once you’re pre-approved, you’ll have narrowed down a price range you can afford. Then you can search for homes within your approved amount. (But remember, even if you are approved for more by a lender, stick to your own monthly budget requirements!)
You can review this budget process in two previous articles from this series: Do the Math – A Mortgage You Can Afford and 5 Steps to Obtaining a Mortgage.
2. Location – What Lifestyle Are You Looking For?
Once you’ve got your budget done, it’s time to move on to location, location, location.
Remember that the location of your home will affect everything about your lifestyle and day-to-day life – from whether it has urban conveniences or will mean a longer commute to work. So always keep that in mind.
First – figure out WHERE you want to live in the Chicago area. Is it in the Northwest Suburbs? The Southwest? The North Shore? Which specific neighborhood or similar neighborhoods do you picture yourself living in?
Think about the characteristics of a neighborhood and ask yourself why it’s important to you, since it could be replicated in a similar, less expensive neighborhood. Don’t be hesitant to even look at another similar neighborhood that wasn’t originally on your radar. It could meet your wants and needs too!
Really think about your daily life. Love walking to work and don’t want that to change? Then, that becomes a “must” and your criteria needs to change (size, condition, etc.). Then you know you are willing to buy a smaller, more affordable home if you must live in a neighborhood you absolutely love near work.
There are certain factors in a location – both desirable and undesirable — that you should consider when you look at a home for yourself and for resale value. Does the neighborhood have good schools? Is the home on a busy corner lot?
Also, keep in mind that revitalizing neighborhoods can be on your list if “desirable” neighborhoods are out of your price range. An up-and-coming neighborhood could be a bargain if you time it right, but you do need to tread carefully.
Once you narrow down a location, your budget will determine what type of home you can afford in that particular neighborhood – such as a detached home, townhome, or condo unit.
Not happy with the results? Then you will need to adjust your “buckets”. Decide whether it makes sense to change neighborhoods, tweak your budget a bit, or maybe rethink your list of “must haves.”
3. Criteria – What Do You Want and Need in a Home?
Your criteria are things like how big of a home, how many bedrooms or bathroom, storage space, condition, etc – aspects about the home itself you require. It can include both needs and wants.
You should have written a list of your needs and wants in a home from when you first met with your agent. Now is the time to look over that list again carefully and REMEMBER these items!!
It’s very easy to get sidetracked once you start looking at homes and forget what your deal breakers are in a home.
This list will make your search much more efficient and keep you focused on what is important to you and your family in a home, in a location, or in a lifestyle that you picture yourself in every day.
You might never find the “perfect” home but you must decide what you need and also want in your first home.
Remember that your needs are different than your wants. You need two bathrooms but want a master bath and suite. You need three bedrooms but a fourth bedroom would be nice for guests. See the difference?
It definitely can be hard to choose what you prefer more (location or three bedrooms) or what you’re willing to do without (large backyard or updated, renovated kitchen). That’s why you need to keep referring to your list of must-haves and deal breakers to stay focused.
If you are having a hard time with this step, sometimes a good question to ask yourself is “how long do I plan on living in this home”. Sometimes that can help prioritize what you want in this home vs. what maybe can wait until a future move.
Go back and review How Your Needs and Desires Lead to “Home Sweet Home” to get more details.
Then, Put It All Together
Now that you understand the three buckets – budget, location, and criteria – it’s time to put them all together. I’ve shown you a little bit of how you have to adjust each bucket at times in order to find a home. Let’s now go into a bit more detail.
Depending on how long you plan to live in your new home, you should rank the three buckets from most to least important. Yes, they are all important, but what is YOUR #1?
Once you know your #1 bucket, you can start house hunting since you have a specific goal in mind. But, if you get frustrated or stuck, then you might just need to fine-tune or loosen ONE (not all) of those buckets. That’s why it’s important to be flexible on some things and know your deal breakers.
For example, if you want to live in a home for 5 years and location is your #1 bucket, you might have to make adjustments to your criteria in order to afford a home in a specific area. You might have to get a home that needs work so you don’t blow your budget. Or maybe you’ll need to buy a smaller home or condo in that area.
This above example shows how adjusting your criteria – going smaller or not move-in ready – enables you to stick with your location and budget. That one bucket was adjusted so that you could hold firm on the other two.
This give and take in balancing or aligning the three buckets helps make your home search more methodical and organized. Most buyers have to make these adjustments while house hunting so don’t be disappointed if you do too.
Do You Need to Adjust the Type of Home?
As you make adjustments to your buckets, you may have to change the type of home you initially thought you would buy. This is your criteria bucket and type of home – single detached home, townhome, condo.
Once you’ve narrowed down a location and hold firm to that, you’ll have a better idea of what type of home you can afford in that particular neighborhood. If you have your mind set on a different type of home, then you might have to rethink location (consider one with similar characteristics but with more affordable homes).
There are pros and cons to all types of home, and that is something you can discuss with your agent who can help you sort through the details of each.
For example, a condo unit in a building can provide homeownership for less cost since you don’t have a yard. You’ll also benefit from some onsite amenities such as a pool or gym, maybe a doorman … but remember you will have to pay HOA fees. So you’ll need to factor in all costs.
A townhome can give you a bit more privacy and independence compared to a condo but may cost more to purchase. In this type of home, you may be able to enjoy your small bit of yard. Plus, there is usually lower maintenance and cost than a detached, single-family home with the same interior space.
A detached, single-family home will give you the most independence but can be costly since it can require more maintenance both inside and outside. Are you ready for that responsibility?
If you see yourself living in a home for 5 years but not much more than that, buying a condo or townhome can be a stepping stone to a detached, single-family home. Again, discuss this with your agent and understand the outlook for your local market.
Now You’re Ready — House Hunting Basics
Now that you’ve got your three buckets aligned (or know how to keep adjusting them), you are ready to actually go see homes. And, more importantly, will have the confidence to put in an offer when you see one!
Here are basic tips for this part of the process:
Stay Organized and Focused Each Time. Keep a record of all your research and handouts on the homes you visit. It’s very important to set up a system that works for you so you can easily refer back to homes that day or the next.
Write down comments of your likes, dislikes and any other helpful, more detailed observations. Use a system that you know works for you, whether it’s on paper, in your Notes app or whatever. Do it as soon as you’re done or during a viewing. Did you get a positive first reaction walking in there? Did you enjoy the brightly-lit rooms? Or are there smells present like pet odors or cigarette smoke that you don’t like?
Don’t forget to take lots of pictures or videos to help jolt your memory when a day of house hunting is done. You’ll be amazed how things blur together after just a few houses: beautiful hardwood floors, amazing fireplace… or a view of a dumpster. Yuck!
Take a picture of the front door/home number of each home first so you know the pictures/videos that follow belong to that home.
If you do this, then you can easily go through your notes and pictures to compare costs, neighborhoods, and home features. This also helps you stay focused on your needs and wants. And if you do need to make an offer quickly, you’ll have more confidence in your decision since you have your research right in front of you.
On the flip side, you’ll know what homes can be deleted from your list after you review your pictures and notes after a day of looking. Maybe a home was a “maybe” initially, but now that you have time to think again, you can move it to your “no” list. That way you’re all set for the next day of house hunting OR you’re ready to make an offer on a “yes” home.
Create a Schedule That Works for You. Make sure your agent is aware of your time schedule and expectations. Do you like to look at one or two homes in a session? Four? Eight? Weekends or certain weeknights?
Your agent can better serve you and any time constraints if you make these arrangements from the get-go. Your schedule will also be affected by your local market and if homes are moving quickly or not. You may need to up your pace so you don’t lose out on a potential home.
Don’t Forget to Ask for Drive-Bys. Don’t spend time driving around a neighborhood without a purpose! If you like driving around by yourself looking at homes, ask for a list of drive-bys or homes on the market you can consider from the outside (and at different times of the day and night).
If one appeals to you, then your agent can make an appointment to see the interior so you don’t just rely on Internet photos.
Many times, the outside, the street, the neighborhood is a deal breaker so just move on down the list.
Communicate With Your Agent (and Yourself). Honest communication is essential. Express your likes and dislikes after seeing a home. Don’t be afraid to tell your agent what you really think since they won’t take it personally … they don’t own the home!
If you are more open with your agent, then they will know your personality better and can identify homes that will appeal to you. They will get a better sense of what you are looking for after each visit when you are honest with them.
Never feel guilty or pressured! Even if you may see a home that is in pristine condition and move-in ready, don’t be afraid to say this isn’t the home for you if it doesn’t meet one of your “must-haves” for some reason.
Or, you may be interested in a home that’s a major “fixer upper” or is being sold “as is”, which means the seller has no intention to do any repairs or provide credits for repairs. Your agent can help you determine if you are ready to undertake such a project in order to become a homeowner.
By following these smart house hunting strategies and knowing your three “buckets”, you will find your new home in no time (and maybe have some fun along the way)!
Taking your house hunting seriously while having a lot of fun together is what it’s like to house hunt with me. Let’s work together to help you find the right home.
Email me when you are ready and I’ll be with you every step of the way to give you out of the box strategies, help you find the best possible home for your budget and we’ll have a lot of fun along the way.
I'm Mike and I love helping buyers discover what's really important in their forever home, then working to find that in Chicago's
Northwest Suburbs. I also have a soft spot in my heart for teachers and love giving back to them whenever I can. Let me know how I can help you make your real estate dreams come true.
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