It's good to start your home-search on your own, particularly if you haven't yet chosen an agent. Just going to open houses for a week or two or surfing the Internet will help you get a sense of the local market. Such research can also refine your sense of how much house you can afford, potentially expand your horizons regarding livable neighborhoods, and wise you up to what all the advertising hype really means -- or disguises.
If you haven't already chosen the area where you want to live, see Researching the Best Places to Live.
How to Access Listings of Houses for Sale
Somewhere out there is a seller who wants to sell a home as badly as you want to buy one. This means you can count on homes being advertised in at least a few places. Here are the best ways to get up-to-date information:
- View online listings. The vast majority of home buyers now use the Web as part of their search. Many websites draw from a central database known as the multiple listing service (MLS). Each site's presentation and ease of use is different though, so check around for the ones you like best; try www.realtor.com (by the National Association of Realtors) and www.homes.com (by a network of Realtors). Or you can use one run by the realtors' association in your home state or region or check the websites of major real estate companies such as RE/MAX, Coldwell Banker, and Prudential. Although they may have fewer listings (sometimes only those listings held by their own company), they may do a more thorough job of describing the house, complete with exterior and interior photos.
If you're looking for a newly built home, check out www.move.com, www.newhomesource.com, or www.americanhomeguides.com.
- Read the local newspaper classifieds, especially the Sunday edition. If you're focused on a particular neighborhood, find out whether that neighborhood has a community newspaper with real estate listings. Many newspapers also post their classified sections online.
- Drive through neighborhoods that interest you. You may spot for sale signs of homes whose listings you overlooked. Some may be "FSBOs" -- that is, homes for sale by owner, without the help of a real estate agent. FSBOs are not always advertised widely. Another way to make sure you don't miss any FSBOs is to check websites dedicated to them, such as www.owners.com.
When you see a home that interests you, either make an appointment to see it or check whether an open house has been scheduled.
Decide What You Want Most in a House
After you've begun surveying the territory, and perhaps experienced a reality check regarding what you can afford, create your personalized "ideal house profile." Simply write down:
- Features that you can't live without, such as a good school district, no difficult stairs to climb, or space to grow vegetables.
- Features that you hope for, but that aren't crucial, such as a fireplace, a separate laundry room, and walking distance to a coffee shop.
- Features that are "absolute no ways," meaning you know you'll forever be sorry if you buy a house that has them. These tend to be location problems (which can't be fixed), such as location at the top of a hill, in a flood zone, in a lousy school district, or in a high-crime or noise area.
There's nothing like seeing what's actually out there to help you refine your idea of what you want and help you come to terms with how much your desires will cost! Carry your ideal house profile with you whenever you visit a house. To be even more organized, turn your profile into a checklist, and fill one out every time you visit a house. For a preprinted house profile and checklist, see Nolo's eGuide Find and Finance Your Dream House or, if you're buying in the golden state, Nolo's How to Buy a House in California, by Ralph Warner, Ira Serkes, and George Devine.
Of course, this process can't be entirely scientific. It's okay to fall in love with a house. You should feel good living there, and it will be an expression of you and your lifestyle. Just watch out that you don't make an impulsive purchase -- always keep the important categories from your checklist in mind.
Working With an Agent
Having taken these preliminary steps, you'll find that, if and when you do hire an agent, you'll be able to focus the agent's energies on the most productive, final phases of your home search. You may also find that, even after hiring an agent, you prefer to visit some homes on your own, for convenience or even to escape the agent's influence. For information on deciding whether to work with an agent, see Should I Hire a Real Estate Agent or Lawyer to Buy a House?
For more information on deciding what you want in a house, as well as how you're going to afford it, how to work with an agent, and how to negotiate and close the deal, read Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home , by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart.