What to Look for When Buying a House

Location, features and condition are key considerations when buying a house.
Kate Wood
Linda Bell
By Linda Bell and  Kate Wood 
Edited by Johanna Arnone Reviewed by Michelle Blackford

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Buying a home is the biggest purchase many people will ever make. And it's a major commitment — so how do you choose the one that's right for you?

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Your lifestyle and future plans play a big role in what to look for when buying a house. Here are three key areas to focus on that could help you make the right choice.

1. Location, location, location

Location is often a top priority for home buyers because it impacts aspects of daily life, including the commute to work and options for shopping and dining out.

Here are some important aspects to consider:

  • Safety: Crime mapping services can indicate when and where crimes were committed near your desired home, as well as the type of crime.

  • Schools: Even if you don’t have children, the quality of nearby schools is something to look at when buying a house. Homes in neighborhoods with better schools hold a stronger resale value.

  • Neighborhood: Visit the neighborhood at different times of the day to get a feel for activity in the area. Are the properties well-maintained? Is there excessive noise? Is it walkable, or bikeable? Try to talk to some of the locals about what it’s like living there.

  • Convenience: Is the home close to grocery stores, restaurants or other services you'll regularly need? Drive around to see what amenities are nearby. You might try to get there at your regular travel time to check out the potential commute.

It can help to have a buyer's agent who's well-established in the neighborhood or town where you're looking to buy, especially if you're less familiar with the area. They may know details like which seemingly quiet streets are popular cut-throughs or whether new businesses are coming to town. They'll also have a good grasp of home values in the area, which should come in handy when you're ready to make an offer.

2. Features that fit your life

There are various types of homes to choose from. Detached single-family homes are the most commonly purchased type, but depending on the location, a condominium or townhouse might be a more affordable option.

If you're just starting out, you might not need (or want) a house. Buying a condo gives you less privacy and space. But with some of the maintenance taken care of for you and potential amenities like a shared gym or playground, it can be a worthwhile tradeoff. You might even hang onto it as an investment property if you decide to upgrade.

» MORE: Compare single-family homes to other home types

Once you've decided what type of home you're looking for, there's plenty more to ponder:

  • Outdoor space: Got kids? A dog? Like to garden? A big backyard is probably in order, but make sure you're OK with maintaining it. If the land slopes, consider whether the grade could affect how you use the space.

  • Floor plan: An open floor plan often looks desirable, but if one or more members of your household work from home, you'll want to be sure they have some peace and quiet. Think about not just the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, but their locations, too. A bathroom on each floor is helpful. If you're looking for a home that accommodates aging in place, a first-floor bedroom would be a plus.

  • Storage: Are there enough closets? What about a pantry? If there's an attic or basement, is the space usable? Is there any outdoor storage?

  • Size: If you might be expanding your family — whether that means having children or having an adult family member move in — think about how much room you'll all need to be comfortable. If you're planning a major life change in a few years, don’t make the mistake of buying a house that can’t grow with you, advises Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors.

Think about what features are must-haves and what are nice-to-haves. Especially in a hot real estate market, you may need to compromise on your vision of a perfect home. Knowing what you really can't live without could keep you from making an offer on a home that's not going to be a great fit.

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3. Condition issues

No house is perfect, even new construction homes. Some problems may be cosmetic, but others could be unsafe. Make note of what needs repair inside and outside of the home. Nothing should be too small or too big to check.

  • Mechanical systems: Are all the light switches and plumbing fixtures working properly? Depending on the season, you may not be able to effectively test heating and cooling systems, but note their age since repairing or replacing these can be costly.

  • Appliances: Are the major appliances in good condition? If you aren't sure which appliances convey (in other words, come with the house), check the seller's disclosure or have your agent ask the listing agent.

  • Roofing: How old is the roof? Replacing a roof can be very expensive, and it might be more than you want to take on when you're already paying all the costs associated with buying a house.

  • Foundation: Do you see cracks in the foundation that could indicate a more severe structural issue? Are there large trees near the house that might be sending roots into the foundation?

  • Odors: Sometimes you can spot moisture damage, but other times you can smell it. Any house that's been closed up will have a strong scent, but smells that imply there could be moisture, mold or vermin might lead you to consider one of the more specialized types of home inspection.

Write down or take pictures of any issues you see with the house. Once your offer's accepted and you're gearing up to purchase the home, make sure to get a thorough standard home inspection.

“A home inspection would be one critical element for the buyer,” Yun says. Professional inspections will catch things that an ordinary person might overlook, he notes.

Don't get too discouraged by aesthetics. Paint colors, hardware and fixtures are all relatively simple and inexpensive to change. Truly minor issues, like a cracked switch plate, don't really merit asking the seller to repair. And remember, whatever furniture and decor you're seeing will leave with the current owners. Look past that and envision how you'll make the space yours.

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