In 2011, I founded a real estate blog that required me to pour through listings like those on Zillow, Trulia and various Realtor websites for hours a day. But it wasn’t until I got a real estate license in 2014 that I really learned how to search for good homes and investments, not pretty pictures. If you’re just starting a home search, here’s my best advice for being smart with your time, because losing endless hours to those pretty photos is all too easy.
Figure out the neighborhoods you want to live in. If you are new to the area, drive around awhile to get an idea of where you really want to spend your time and what your commute and neighbors would be like. It’s super important to know if you want to be a in quieter area with big backyards, or closer to where you can walk to coffee shops and restaurants. No Realtor can decide that for you, and if you’re looking at every type of neighborhood, you’re probably going to get overwhelmed with how big the metro area is and the steady flood of options. Taste is also entirely subjective! What you think is a charming area is going to be different from someone else’s idea, so look at the character of your desired neighborhoods and be honest with yourself if you hate bungalows and want a brick colonial.
Get recommendations from friends, coworkers and acquaintances to find a real estate agent. Even in the modern world we live in, finding an agent online is just not the best way to go. It’s a personal relationship that can’t be condensed to a Yelp review. Word of mouth is important, so see if someone you know had a good experience, and be skeptical of the friend who urges you to use her cousin who just got a real estate license (everyone has one of those cousins!) Additionally, even the guys with big billboards marketing to drivers on I-75 have areas of specialty. If you want a house in Detroit, work with an agent whose office is in the city. If you want a house in Grosse Pointe, work with an agent who knows that locality really well. You’ll get much more specialized advice.
Expect to lose your first bid on a house. I hope you won’t, and it will be a nice surprise if you don’t, but I often find that first-time bidders are timid and get outbid on the first try. No worries, you’ll do better the second time, but it is a learning process. And what your agent can’t tell you is what someone else is going to bid for the same house, so even with the best research and advice, there is always going to be an element of guess work.
Learn what a “comp” is, but don’t trust it as the final word. A comparable sale, aka “a comp,” shows what a similar home in a similar area sold for. It’s typical to take that and make a cost-per-square-foot estimate out of that number to see if the home you are bidding on is in line with the same cost per square foot. But keep in mind, a bungalow and a colonial are not the same thing, so this comparison is loose. It often also won’t tell you if one home has a new roof and the other doesn’t, so the condition and character are something you need to eyeball. What the comps will tell you is if an asking price is wildly out of line with the area, in which case you’ll likely want to avoid this listing.
If you’ve never renovated before, don’t take on a giant project as a first house. I learned from experience that a dilapidated home can take years to fix up. Do you just want a place to live now? You don’t have to live out the dreams of HGTV stars — those people have big budgets and big crews. Certainly, you’ll want to put your own aesthetic stamp on things, but re-doing HVAC won’t be the rewarding and fun part. So, if you are ready to start living in your home sooner rather than later, remember that time is money and big projects tend to drag out.
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