Home buying is one of life’s most stressful events. I can still remember the panic as my wife and I, with newly born twin boys, looked to relocate to a more family-friendly house. We were searching unfamiliar neighborhoods and foreign houses; house-hunting to visualize a bright future in these alien settings.
Looking back, it is easier to see our various mistakes and good choices, but at the time, it was difficult to determine the “best decision.” Complicating matters is the reality that that are no perfect choices or perfect houses; you are searching for the solution to a problem that is largely out of your control. You cannot dictate the timing of when you get into the market or what is available at that time and your personal situation will dictate other limits: what you can afford, your ability to update or renovate a house and how much time you have to work on your house will all define your house search.
Whatever your situation I want to provide some guidance for house hunting from the point of view of a home inspector. In my experience, home inspections go much better when my clients have realistic expectations for what they are buying before the home inspection.
From this standpoint, the key to efficient and confident house shopping is quickly getting your expectations in alignment with the reality of the type and condition of the house you are buying. Here are 5 tips for efficient house hunting, taken from, The Confident House Hunter, which will help all homebuyers but especially first-time home buyers narrow the home search more quickly and reduce the likelihood of mismatched or unrealistic expectations.
- Rooflines Matter. There is arguably no more important or defining characteristic of a house than its roofline. Attractive houses have attractive rooflines. Dysfunctional houses have dysfunctional rooflines. Simple houses have simple rooflines. Learning to look at the roofline is a trick to help you understand the overall logic of the house. One simple example is: does the house seem to conform to the original roofline? Or have a series of additions been scabbed onto the house? Houses with random looking additions and rooflines are likely to be quirky, where houses with the original roofline are likely to be more predictable. You often don’t have to get out of the car to learn a lot about a house by simply being aware of the roofline.
- The 20-Year Rule. If you move into a brand-new home and do no updating for 20 years, you will be surprised by the length of the accumulated maintenance list. A lot of the systems in our houses have useful service lives of roughly 15 to 20 years. In the book, The Confident House Hunter, these are referred to as “disposable systems” and these disposable systems include many types of roof coverings, exposed exterior decks, appliances, water heaters, heating and cooling equipment, finish flooring, paint, and kitchens and bathrooms. These are important considerations for the first-time home buyer so before you even set out, look to see when the house was built. If it was built or remodeled extensively roughly 20 years ago, I would expect that the house may be due for some updating of the disposable systems. Your real estate agent and home inspector can answer questions on all these maintenance issues.
- Simplicity is Your Friend. Comparing houses to cars can be helpful: some people drive a Honda Accord and others drive a classic Jaguar. Which type are you? Most of us want the maintenance associated with the Honda, but we all really want the classic Jaguar. The same is true with houses. Before you even start your search, ask yourself how tolerant you are of maintenance risk. Expensive houses tend to come with complicated systems and designs that can dramatically increase maintenance costs. Simple houses are not as flashy but will result in lower maintenance costs. A few complicated deigns to watch for are: roof decks, houses with lots of exposure to the weather, houses with stucco siding that is exposed to the weather, houses with complicated rooflines and houses with a lot of built-in systems like spas, pools, generators and fancy kitchens and bathrooms: I once inspected a house with 17 electric panels!
- Know Your Local History. The housing stock in any given region reflects the economy in which the houses were built. If you are looking for a Victorian home in New England, there is a good chance that house was built by rich people who were thriving during the boom years of whaling, textiles, and shipping. The resulting construction reflects the wealth and quality building materials available at the time. Other areas may have been developed as cabin-like summer homes and the houses will likely reflect those humble beginnings. Some neighborhoods may have sprung up after World War II and could have a stock of simple war-era homes. Research the history of the community where you are looking to buy and you will start to see that the houses reflect these historical trends. See if you can pick out an age or style of house that works for your lifestyle and your budget; it will allow you to target specific ages of construction and neighborhoods.
- Know Local Building Trends. Following the history concept a step further, you should start to see patterns in the diverse types of construction available in a community. Break houses down by decade and you will begin to see distinguishable architectural trends, such as Tudors, bungalows, cape cods, mid-century modern, split levels. Identify styles you like in your price range and learn about the various advantages and drawbacks of these types of houses. For example, I love 1950’s and 1960’s houses in my area because they are frequently built from solid old-growth lumber and have simple rooflines and roof overhangs that protect the house from sun, wind, and rain. Some of these homes, if they have not been updated, may require updates to aging wiring and piping systems; a reality I understand before I even get out of my car on a home inspection.
Conclusion: First time home buyers have a lot to learn and even more to think about as you search for your “perfect house”. In addition to thinking about the present, you are looking at the future and need to consider future needs for family life as well as inevitable maintenance needs. I hope these tips help make your house buying experience less intimidating and more enjoyable and rewarding. Happy house hunting!
Dylan Chalk is the author of The Confident House Hunter – a book to teach home buyers how to look at and understand houses: Cedar Fort Press www.dylanchalk.com. In June of 2017, Dylan’s book The Confident House Hunter won the Silver Award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors. He is also the founder of ScribeWare inspection report software offering innovative and simple report-writing solutions – www.getscribeware.com and he is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC. In early 2017 Dylan became the Vice-President of Western Washington chapter of (ASHI) American Society of Home Inspectors. www.orcainspect.com.