House Hunting Do’s & Don’ts

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We are in the market to buy our first house and couldn’t be more excited! We moved to Austin almost a year ago and originally wanted to buy a house right when we moved. Luckily we realized we were a little ahead of ourselves since we weren’t even familiar with the Austin neighborhoods and had no idea where we might want to live. Now that we’ve lived here for almost a year, we feel ready to take the leap and make our first huge purchase.

This past weekend we spent the majority of our time looking at houses. We went to the first six houses with our realtor, and then spent a lot of time going to open houses by ourselves. We have a good idea of what we want in our first home: 3 or 4 bedrooms, 2 or 3 bathrooms, open floor plan in the living area (kitchen, dining, living room) and a big backyard. We love being outside and our dog, Lincoln, is 110 pounds so he’ll be in heaven if we have a backyard. We’ve only ever lived in apartments, so he doesn’t know what he’s missing!

A few ‘bonus’ perks that we would love to have in our future home (but are not necessary) are: a pool, a fireplace, a two-story home, three bathrooms (two full, one half), a garage, and a fun neighborhood. While these additions would be amazing to have, we won’t base our search off of these amenities. We’d be lucky to even get one or two of these bonus perks. But we certainly won’t complain if some of the houses we see have these additions!

We also want to be as close to downtown Austin as possible since we go downtown almost every weekend. Houses right outside downtown are way above our price range, so we had to go a few miles out to get the size of the house we want with the size lot we want. There are so many beautiful houses in Austin, but a lot of them seem super tight with separate living spaces right on top of each other. However during our search we found a few houses that are in good locations and check all of the must-haves on our list! While some houses were complete letdowns, we have been pleasantly surprised by a couple of houses we’ve looked at and have gotten super excited about picturing ourselves living there.

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We loved the exterior of this house! But the interior felt very small and the backyard wasn’t our favorite.

I will say house hunting has been much more mentally draining than I would’ve expected. Talk about an emotional roller coaster. We have both been so excited to find a house we love, but feel hesitant to put down an offer without looking at more houses, but then are nervous that if we wait someone else will put down an offer and then we’ll regret missing out because that’s our dream home. See what I mean?! We also go back and forth on the question, “Are we really ready to move further outside of the city? Are we ready to own a home and be more permanent? Are we ready to be further away from our friends, our favorite restaurants, our go-to spots?” Although 5-8 miles outside of the city doesn’t sound far at all, it certainly seems far when you’re in Austin. There’s some pockets that literally have nothing around them, certainly not in walking distance, and all of a sudden you go from being 5 minutes away from all the restaurants and entertainment to 20 minutes (which when you’re driving or ubering, is definitely a difference!).

Although we’ve only been walking through homes the past few days, we spent months looking at homes online to see what types of houses were available in our price range, where they were located, when they were built, the list goes on (shout out to our fave, zillow.com). In addition to searching for houses online, we – and when I say we, I mean Dom – researched everything we needed to do prior to seriously looking at houses in person. There are a lot of boxes you need to check before you should start going to open houses, and I was surprised at some of the items on the list. I’ve written up a list below of do’s and don’ts for house hunting that will hopefully be helpful to those who were clueless like me. 🙂

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This list is in no way the be-all and end-all of items you should or shouldn’t do when house hunting. I am not an expert! I am just an average person looking to buy a home for the first time, so I thought this could be helpful to those in the same boat.

Do’s

  • Figure out exactly what you’re looking for in your future home. How many bedrooms? How many bathrooms? How big of a kitchen do you need? Do you like a specific layout (open floor plan, ranch style, two-story)? The structure of the house, the lot and the location are the three most important aspects when looking for your future home. This will help you narrow down your search so you don’t waste time looking at houses that you realize you didn’t like to begin with. Finishings can always be changed, renovations can always be made. But the ‘bones’ of your house will likely stay the same, and the location and lot will never change.
  • Set a budget. Your budget will dictate where you can live, how much house you’ll get for your money, and of course your future mortgage. Setting a budget is one of the first things that should be done as another way to narrow down your search. Depending on where you want to live, setting a budget can be somewhat easy or a little stressful! We quickly realized that our dream location (right outside downtown Austin) was unachievable with our budget. Once we let that realization set it, we were able to change our mindset to be a bit more realistic on where we could live while still getting the size house and lot we wanted.
  • Find an agent you trust to help. One of the first questions that you’ll get asked when visiting open houses is, “Do you have a realtor/agent?” You want the answer to be yes, because that means that you have already done your research and you have an expert helping you make decisions on location, neighborhoods, and whether or not the house you’re looking at is fairly priced. They can also take you to look at homes that do not have an open house. Finding an agent to help you is completely free, so there’s no reason not to do it! Your realtor will end up getting a percentage of the full price you pay for your home, but you’ll have to pay that money regardless. Might as well hire an expert to help narrow down your search, provide you with inside intel, and help with the overall buying process.
  • Get pre-approved for a mortgage. Going house hunting without being pre-approved for a mortgage will be a waste of your time. If you find a house you really like and make an offer without a pre-approval, a seller is unlikely to give your offer a second glance. This is because although you make an “offer,” there is no proof that you even have the resources to afford the house or pay for it. And in a hot market, that means that your dream home could vanish right before your eyes. Houses tend to go very quickly in a hot market – in Austin the houses tend to stay on Zillow for only a matter of days! – so you don’t want to start your search without completing this step. In addition, getting pre-approved will also inform you exactly how much a bank will provide you for a loan, thus giving you a better idea of your budget. Our pre-approval was good enough that we were able to set our loan amount as the very top of our budget – we determined we would only spend that much if we found our dream home in the perfect location… which is very unlikely to happen considering all of the houses in our ‘dream location’ are over a million dollars. Ha!
  • Research the neighborhoods. Found a home you absolutely love? Great! Do you know anything about the neighborhood? You should before you even consider making an offer. Knowing the neighborhood doesn’t exactly mean knowing every neighbor, but it’s super helpful to look up the following in a neighborhood you’re interested in: nearest grocery store, drug store, restaurants, medical practices, gym – whatever you feel is important to have near your future home, you should map how far away it is. Map how long your commute to and from work will be. Take a look around at your neighbors – are they mostly families? Single people? Elderly? Do they spend time outside? Do they keep to themselves? These small factors can help determine if a particular neighborhood is right for you.
  • Take your time deciding what you want. Our idea of our first home has greatly evolved over the past year. Before we moved to Austin, we thought maybe we would first buy a condo or townhouse. Now we solely want to buy a house, on it’s own lot, with it’s own backyard. We started discussing our first home way before we felt ready to actually purchase one. I think this was incredibly helpful because we bounced ideas off of each other, had time to let our preferences change, and were able to compare (literally) hundreds of different options and the benefits of owning a home vs. a condo, renting vs. buying, etc.
  • Take your time choosing your home. Don’t feel pressured to put down an offer unless you are 100% sure this is your home. Dom and I found a house that we both really loved, could definitely see ourselves living in now and in the years to come, and determined we would be really sad if someone else bought it. Although we both absolutely loved the house and liked it even more when we went back a second time, we still had reservations. Was this really the best we could find? What if there was an even better house out there? Would we end up liking this neighborhood? Would we make any friends here? While I think we would have been incredibly happy in that house, I’m so happy we waited a couple of days because we ended up finding a house that we loved even more than that one. Unless you are hands down completely sure that you found the house for you, it’s okay to wait! There will always be more houses.

Don’ts

  • Wait too long to visit a house you love. If you’ve found a house you absolutely love online and would be devastated to see that it has been taken off the market, go look at it as soon as possible! We ‘favorited’ dozens of homes on Zillow over the past several months and some of the best houses went off the market in a day or two. Once you find a home you love, take action asap!
  • Fall in love with the finishes and decor. If you love the finishes and decor of a home, that’s great! But if you like the house mainly because of the finishes and decor, then you should take a step back and assess the entire house. It’s the home stager’s job to make you swoon when you walk through the door. I found myself liking homes that were newly renovated or updated because they looked nicer and newer – who wouldn’t?! But then when I would compare those homes to our overall favorites, I would realize they didn’t compare in sizing, layout, etc. Nice finishes are great, but they can always be changed. Houses that have beautiful decor when you walk through seem amazing at the time, but it’s important to realize that you most likely won’t get to keep that decor and can make another home look similar by mirroring the same decorating style. Think more about the overall house, layout and lot rather than finishes, furniture and decorations.
  • Expect complete perfection. It’s best to expect you’ll never find your dream home exactly the way you want it. You might find the house with the exact layout you want – but you don’t love the kitchen cabinets or countertop. Maybe you found the style of the home you’ve always dreamed of, but the porch you want is missing. Unfortunately the reality is it’s unlikely you’ll find your perfect house in the perfect neighborhood for the perfect price in the best school district with the giant backyard. If you do find this, jump for joy and make an offer immediately! But it’s likely you’ll have to settle in one way or another and sacrifice something that is less important to you to gain something most important.
  • Walk through a house quickly. This can get you in trouble because you won’t notice the little things throughout the house. I might be too thorough, but if I’m going to put my money into something as big as a house (or even renting an apartment for that matter), I’m going to take a good long look at the quality of the house, how it’s built, even take a look inside the cabinets to see what the storage space is like. A new paint job and some nice decor can make a house look better than it is. Ask yourself: How old do the appliances look? Are the toilets in good condition? Are there cracks in any of the sinks, floors, tile, etc.? Take note of little details like this because it can provide a better idea of the quality of the house.

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All in all, house hunting can be an incredible experience, especially if you’re prepared with the above list of do’s and don’ts. This weekend was so much fun getting to look at a bunch of houses and try to picture ourselves in our future home. We now have a better idea of what we want, where we want to live, what type of neighborhood we like, and what we are willing to sacrifice in order to get one of our must-haves or bonuses. Stay tuned to see if we find our future home!

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