House hunting is a creative part of the house buying process. It comes with plenty of imagination, hope, and excitement. You get to spend time looking at neighborhoods, mooning over wood work, marveling about counter space, and dreaming of days spent on porches. The thrill of the hunt can also be nerve-wracking, disappointing, and take way longer than feels fair. If you let your emotions lead, you can waste time and energy looking at places that won’t work for your lifestyle, budget, or family size.
Follow the tips below to set yourself up for the most enjoyable, focused, and satisfying house hunt possible. With this guide in your pocket, you’ll avoid the stress of under-budgeting and over-promising, learn how not to lie to anyone (including yourself), and follow an easy path along the way to your perfect home.
Tip 1: Get pre-approved for a mortgage first
The best way to know for certain what you can afford is to get pre-approved for a mortgage. This means your process doesn’t even start with a visit to an agent — it starts with a visit to a loan originator’s office.
Begin by knowing the difference between pre-approval and pre-qualification, and look at your loan options.
If you start looking at houses without a pre-approved mortgage, and thus a clear idea of your budget, it’s likely you will either fall in love with something you really can’t afford, or you’ll low ball yourself and not even consider dream homes that are actually within your reach.
It’s far more exciting to begin house hunting by ogling online properties or talking with an agent, but starting the process by getting pre-approved for your mortgage will, in the end, save you time and make sure your house search stays within your budget.
Tip 2: Find an amazing real estate agent
Finding an amazing real estate agent may seem like an obvious tip (no one goes out looking for a non-amazing agent), but knowing how to spot an amazing agent is less simple than you might think.
Start by reviewing a potential agent’s history. Do they have a strong record of helping buyers close on houses? How long have they been selling in your city?
In conversation with the agent, ask about neighborhoods you’re interested in. Do they have an understanding of amenities, walkability and neighborhood feel?
If an agent doesn’t have a strong selling record or isn’t well versed in neighborhoods that interest you, then they might not be a good fit. Prioritize finding one who is.
Tip 3: Get your (community) priorities straight
Buyers sometimes think the most important part of house hunting is just that — the house. But imagine yourself living over a span of time, and you can begin to see how important the neighborhood context of your home will become.
Instead of considering a collection of neighborhoods solely based on proximity to friends or an easy commute, stop to consider what else you would like to have close to your home.
Make a list of lifestyle do’s and don’ts that you want from your neighborhood. This can include obvious things, like distance to the gym or the quality of schools, but try to think more broadly and really imagine yourself living here in all aspects of your life.
How close to grocery stores do you need to be, and what type of food shopping do you want to do (corner stores are great — but do you want easy access to produce or good wine?). If you have a dog or like to run, are there parks in the neighborhood that will suit those needs? What about your other interests, like swimming or tango? Are there community spaces or businesses close by that serve those needs?
Keep a working list and be open to adding to it. A lot like Christmas as a kid, you might not get everything you ask for, but it will give Santa — ahem, your agent — a feeling for who you are and what will satisfy you in the long run.
Tip 4: Think long-term
Think about your relationship to your new home over a span of years. There is a big difference between the search for a starter home, where you can grow and nest for a couple years but ultimately want to expand beyond, and a long-term family home that might need to accommodate future pets, partners, or even children.
Try to envision yourself three to five years down the line. If the life you envision features new additions to your home population (or you see yourself leaning into a space-demanding hobby), then it’s likely that a larger home with room to grow will be right for you.
Tip 5: Don’t shop at the very top of your budget — wiggle room is key
While it can be tempting to look at the very limit of what you can afford, and the empowerment of a pre-approved mortgage is real, it’s important to keep your search focused below your max price.
One good reason to stay low is because unexpected costs can come up at closing and elsewhere in the homebuying process. Additionally, if you’re buying in a competitive market, your real estate agent might advise you to bid higher than the asking price so as to have a better chance of beating out the competition.
If you are only looking at houses listed at the very top of your budget, you deny yourself the wiggle room to remain competitive, and you leave nothing on the table to cover unforeseen expenses.
Tip 6: Understand the thrill of the hunt
How hot is the market you’re looking at? How fast are homes flying off the shelves once they come up for sale? A great way to get acquainted with the speed of the market in your area is by doing some online research and talking to your agent.
In the case of real estate agent Brenda Sheets, who works out of Fort Myers, Florida, the market in 2022 is red hot and not showing any sign of slowing. “We have a saying: if you have to sleep on it, you won’t sleep in it!”.
As a buyer, you want a working understanding of how fast or slow to move so that you can pace yourself once you do find a home you think has potential. If you act too slow, especially in a hot market, the house could be whisked out from under you by a quicker (or more competitive) buyer.
Overcompensating in the direction of speed and rushing into something you’re not sure about can also have pitfalls. If you’re in a market where houses tend to linger, you can lean into a sense of slowness — but don’t forget that you don’t have all the time in the world.
All in all, talk to your agent and pace yourself. Find a speed that’s comfortable but won’t leave you in the dust: somewhere between the tortoise and the hare is probably the sweet spot. Even if the market is too fast for you to sleep on the decision, don’t get bullied out of other basic safety precautions: for example, try to never skip a home inspection in favor of speed.
Tip 7: Remember, you can make changes after you move in
A mantra for house hunting: “cosmetic changes are my friend.” The heaving, ugly drapes that obscure the south face windows? Easy to rip down. The hideous acid yellow in the guest bathroom? Nothing a little sandpaper and primer can’t fix!
When house hunting, keep your eye on realistic upgrades that could give your potential home a boost without breaking your budget. Your ability to imagine, within reason, what small changes could make a big difference might mean that you see real potential in homes other buyers dismiss at a glance.
This is especially true when you are shopping at a lower price point. Houses that haven’t had a makeover before going on the market will often sell for less because buyers don’t want to commit the time or money to cosmetic upgrades. If you’re willing to dedicate a little elbow grease after moving in, it’s likely you can save yourself a good chunk of money for seeing potential where others see… awful drapery.
Tip 8: But don’t overestimate what you can tackle, repair-wise
There’s a big difference between a few, key aesthetic updates and a full overhaul. The spectrum of rehab is large,;on one end, there’s painting a feature wall, and on the other end, there’s rebuilding a foundation. Knowing where you fall on that spectrum is key before you start looking longingly at crumbling palaces and water-logged mansions.
A good rule of thumb: if you don’t have the backing of a fabulous HGTV show, or have never worked on home repairs, don’t go down the debt creating rabbit hold of buying a fixer-upper. You don’t want to be the inspiration for rebooting The Money Pit.
Tip 9: Spend a night or two in several neighborhoods to get a feel for them
Reading statistics, researching schools, and analyzing over Google Maps will only get you so far. If you have time and a small vacation budget, spend a couple of nights in your prospective neighborhoods.
Sleeping over, walking around and interacting with local businesses and neighbors will give you an on-the-ground feel for the place you might call home.
If you don’t have the budget for a vacation, but do have friends in the neighborhoods, see if they would be willing to let you couch-surf for a night or two. The bonus here is both saving money and getting an insider’s view of year-round living in the area.
Maybe that well-rated school you want your kids to go to is having some serious administrative turnover, or that coffee shop with terrible Google reviews is actually a thriving community hub. Stay during a work week and test out your drive to the office — is it really 45 minutes door-to-door during peak commute hours?
You won’t know until you go, and even if you think you’ll be flexible to whatever community your dream home happens to be in, neighbors and neighborhoods play a big part in your quality of life post-move-in.
Tip 10: Ask for the options that matter
Lots of people have lots of different needs and concerns when looking at a home. We love your mom, but her sense of safety and concerns surrounding crime demographics might be different than your own. Your childhood friend is great, but do you really trust his take on the “dead” nightlife in the area when his idea of a good time is burgers and brews, and you’ve grown more into the “tapas and chill” phase of eating out?
There’s a balance to be struck here between listening to advice and letting it get too much inside your head. Thank the vocal contributors for their excitement and counsel, but don’t let it sway you away from things you know you want. Not quite an “in one ear and out the other” approach — but do stay grounded and prioritize your unique set of needs.
Make sure that you’re working with a quality agent that knows their stuff and understands your needs.
Tip 11: Pay close attention to the MLS
A good agent will set you up for success with automated emails from the MLS that match your search criteria. Chris Slinker is an agent out of Milwaukee with 14 years of experience matching buyers with homes; he works with 74% more single-family homes than the average agent in Milwaukee. A good chunk of that time has been spent fine-tuning his MLS criteria skills
He says that what he tries to do is create search parameters for his clients that are “so perfect that when they get my automated emails from my search on the MLS, they don’t want to look anywhere else — they feel like I’ve touched all their needs.”
While you can go rogue and look through the MLS or public listing sites on your own, Slinker doesn’t recommend it.
“What I try to do is to stop the buyers from just randomly flowing around on the internet…at 3 a.m., I’ll get an email from a client that says ‘look at the house!’ and then you’ll look it up and it was sold three years ago.
“The biggest problem we have as agents is: buyers will ask about houses that are actually not available, and then what happens is the buyer becomes confused and agitated,” he adds.
Avoid confusion and agitation and work with an agent who is guiding your housing search in a direction that suits your needs. An MLS search will contain the most accurate and up-to-date information available on homes in your area, and access to it is a huge benefit of using an agent to search for a home. Because the MLS is a shared database of all publicly available homes listed by agents, it is truly the biggest and best resource you have while looking for a home.
Slinker’s final word of MLS advice?
“Make sure that you’re working with a quality agent that knows their stuff and understands your needs.”
Tip 12: Walk through the house in person
Buying remotely is certainly a route buyers can take, but it has some large downsides. Viewing the home only through the lens of a camera often won’t give you a feel for non-obvious or non-visual issues. Smells — big ones, like smoke, and less obvious ones, like damp carpets or mildew — won’t come through on a video. Neither will sloping floors, wonky doors, or evidence of other tricks sellers use to sell their homes.
If possible, try to prioritize walking through and getting an in person feel for the property before moving forward.
As a buyer, you need to remain aware (even in the early stages of house hunting) that your eyes and intuition won’t tell you everything. Even if the house looks fine through video or in person, make sure to get a thorough, professional home inspection during the closing process.
Tip 13: Be honest
Maybe you’re poking around the open home of another agent and don’t want to get into a long conversation, or you’re simply looking around a house that is way outside your budget. Whatever your reason for lying at an open home, Slinker urges you: Please stop.
If you lie to an agent showing a home, and you don’t disclose through the sign in sheet or in conversation that you’re already working with another agent, you could end up being legally bound to working with the agent showing the property! This law (called the Procuring Cause Law) is state-dependent and complex — but a great way to avoid even thinking about its consequences is just to tell the dang truth: “I already have an agent.”
The more likely scenario of lying at an open home is that you’re simply curious — looking around a home that is well outside of your budget, and you want to be left alone to moon over the walk-in closets and view. Instead of putting a fake name down on the sign-in sheet or getting the agent engaged in conversation because you say you’re in the market, simply tell the truth; you just want to look around, and the house is out of your range. There’s nothing illegal about simply wanting to look, and being upfront with the agent about your intentions will mean they will know to leave you alone and pursue viewers who have a real interest in buying the property.
Tip 14: Manage your expectations
Buying a house is a long and arduous process! It is likely to take a few false turns and heartbreaks to seal the deal, so make sure your expectations match the pace.
It’s important to talk to your agent and get a sense for what closing times look like in your area, as well as what type of housing stock is readily available (and within your price range). You should also talk to your agent about how to make a competitive offer once you do find a house that fits.
Tip 15: Keep the faith
Don’t give up! Don’t throw your house-hunting checklist out the window! If finding the right house takes time (and it probably will), just know that it is part of the process.
As with other difficult parts in your house hunting process — talk to your agent! They can give you some helpful context about how your list of needs fits the area in which you’re looking, or offer stories of other clients who kept the faith and ended up with the house of their dreams.
Sheets tells clients who find themselves submitting multiple offers before finally closing on a home: “You don’t quit, I don’t quit. It’s a numbers game. You keep identifying properties, you keep submitting offers.”
It’s good to remain flexible to the idea that you may need to save more to increase your budget, or look in areas you haven’t yet considered, but don’t forget that your needs should drive this process. Don’t settle for less out of despair — that’s a recipe for buyer’s remorse! Keep the faith and keep on hunting; your dream home is out there waiting for your perfect offer.
Tip 16: Keep up on up-keep
Most of us can be realistic when it comes to our remodeling capabilities, but home upkeep has its own set of impracticalities.
That house with a meandering walkway surrounded by a garden bursting with life is enchanting upon viewing. But are you really ready for the demands of a front yard that’s bursting with life … and weeds (do you even garden, bro)?
The large towering oaks on either side of the house are glorious in the summer, but are you ready to leaf blow, gather, and dispose of their foliage come fall? The white linoleum of the kitchen is fulfilling all your culinary dreams, but are you ready to commit to the sweeping and mopping regime needed to keep that flawless shine?
Use a maintenance calculator, be honest, and think about “future you.” If you are more of a singular plant home owner, or a messy kitchen diva, match the care your house will need to the reality of your own comfortable habits.
Tip 17: Costs hiding in plain sight
Remember not to get so focused on the listing price that you lose sight of all the other costs that come along with owning a particular house.
Ask about utility bills and figure out what kind of insurance would be required for the home. Flaws that are less obvious on a walkthrough, like poor insulation or fire danger, can be clarified by insurance needs and sky-high heating bills (that, or the former tenants loved to live inside a hothouse).
Be sure to also check on HOA fees to round out an idea of the yearly costs you could be looking at as the home’s new owner.
Tip 18: Renting? Talk to your landlord
Finally, think outside the box by having a conversation with your landlord. If you’re renting a single-family home from an individual — or even if you’re in an apartment and know your landlord has other properties — ask if there’s anything they’re willing to sell.
It’s possible that they have avoided listing due to the headache of dealing with the market, or they simply haven’t been sure they’re ready to sell before your well-timed question arrived. Especially if you’re a great tenant or have a personal relationship with your landlord, asking can’t hurt!
In summary, there are plenty of ways to do house hunting right. From working with a stellar professional you trust, to not putting your cart before your horse (get that pre-approval!), follow these easy steps and save yourself some of the confusion, time, and heartache during the house buying process. Bottom line: Have fun, and stay open!
Header Image Source: (Erik Mclean / Unsplash)