How to Make Home Buying Better, Without Being Rich

How to Make Home Buying Better, Without Being Rich
Photo: RebeccaPavlik, Shutterstock

Buying a home is always stressful. Whether it’s your first home and you spent the last decade eating wish sandwiches in order to cobble together the down payment or a dream retirement house, the process is a rollercoaster ride of surprise costs, stressful road bumps, and endless paperwork (somehow still involving the copious use of fax machines, for some reason).

But there are ways to make buying a home a better experience: Once you’ve figured out your budget, partnered with an experienced realtor, and chosen your desired location, keep the following tips in mind to make your real estate transaction as positive as possible.

View the house at different times — and on your own

Buying a house can be a hectic, rushed experience. Sometimes you only get to see the house relatively briefly during an open house or via a walkthrough. And even if you return to the house a few more times, it will generally be at a time chosen by the realtor, and they will supervise your walkthrough.

But it’s vital to check out the house at different times — and without your realtor there to explain away every little thing and insist that every problem can be solved with a minor renovation. Visit at night, in the early morning, and if possible, during or after weather events like snow and rainstorms. That’s how you’ll discover loud neighbours, drainage problems, and other issues that can be glossed over by carefully scheduled and managed visits.

Talk to your potential new neighbours

Something many homebuyers forget is that moving into a new house is also moving into a community. The folks on the same block as your potential new home have likely been there for a long time — and they have likely seen some shit. They probably know stuff about the house and the current owners that your realtor doesn’t — or simply doesn’t want you to know.

Knocking on a couple of doors and having some polite questions can either confirm that this house is your dream home — or that you’re about to make a terrible mistake. Neighbours can clue you in to recent disasters like floods, fires, or fallen trees, they can give you insight into how well the current owners maintained (or didn’t maintain) the house, and they can give you insight into the vibe of the community. If you’re buying into an out-of-control HOA that is making everybody miserable, the time to find out is before you drop an enormous amount of money.

Photograph the staging if you like it

Part of what a realtor does is create a vision. They often advise sellers to do minor fix-ups to make the house look its best, and they encourage them to remove anything too bespoke or personal in order to offer potential buyers a blank slate on which to project their domestic fantasies. If the owners have moved out and left an empty shell behind, they often bring in a staging company to show buyers the home’s potential. And sometimes you fall in love with the staging just as much as the house itself, resulting in profound disappointment when you show up after the closing and it’s back to being an empty shell.

If you’re touring a house and you love the decor — whether it’s staged or the owner’s own taste — take some photos as you go. This will help you re-create the look after you take possession. Your memory alone may not help much, because there can be a long gap between your last viewing and the closing date, so having documentation of the design will help tremendously.

Choose your wardrobe carefully

Buying a home is hard work. It’s also pretty good exercise because you find yourself walking through a lot of houses — and a lot of different environments. Dressing appropriately will make your home shopping experience a lot more pleasant. And it will also remove an excuse not to do all of your due diligence.

First of all, if possible, dress for a mess. If you’re serious about checking out a home, you’re going to want to get down into the basement or crawlspace, up into the attic, and out into the backyard or other outdoor space. Wearing clothes you don’t mind getting a little dirty, muddy, or cobwebbby removes any hesitation, and digging into these messier spaces can reveal a lot about the overall health of a house.

Second, be mindful of your footwear. Wearing shoes you can easily slip on and off is key, as you’ll often be asked to take off your shoes when touring a house (this also means wearing socks is key).

Know how to identify water intrusion and damage

A home inspection is crucial when buying a house — but home inspectors miss things all the time. And being able to spot the telltale signs of problems before you hire a home inspector saves you time, money, and frustration.

Many problems with homes are obvious — cracks in the walls, stains, and bad smells. But water can be insidious. The thing about water problems in a house is that it’s often nearly invisible when not actively happening. But there are signs you can keep an eye out for:

  • Stains on exterior walls are harder to get rid of than on interior walls, so any water marks outside are a big red flag.
  • Puddling near the home’s foundation a day or two after a storm indicates drainage problems.
  • A damp or moldy smell is a bad sign even if the house looks immaculate.
  • Warped or bulging flooring is usually a sign of water damage.
  • Look at the drywall in rooms directly under a roof — if you can see little hollows where the screws are located, there was a leak at some point.

Just noticing these details can spare you a nightmare — or at the very least, a wasted inspector’s fee.

Plan renovations before you move in

Buying a home is often a system of compromises. It’s certainly not uncommon to buy a house you know will need renovating to bring it up to your standards and style.

As much as humanly possible, get these renovations done before you move in. First, see if the owner will do them for you as a condition of the sale. If not, get contractors lined up and make plans to delay your move-in date until they’re finished, if you can. Getting messy, disruptive work done before you have to live in a hellhole of dust, noise, and unreliable plumbing will put years back on your life, save your relationship, and help you not immediately resent your new home.

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