Creating the Perfect House-Hunting Checklist in Four Parts

In the history of written language, has there ever been a symbol more satisfying than the checkmark? Picture the shape, the jaunty tick perched so proudly to the left of a list item, boasting the completion of a task. Equally enticing is the prompt for a “Y” or an “N,” and who hasn’t heard the siren’s song in the compelling austerity of the blank — and the deep satisfaction of filling it in?

Though you may not be as fanatically enchanted as we are with the idea of making and completing lists, if you’re in the market to buy a home, take heed: a house-hunting checklist can make the difference between information overload and an informed outcome.

This article will elevate the rank of the checklist from grocery-store companion to house-buying confidant. Wherever you are in the house-hunting process, we’ll provide a general checklist for each step and offer guidance for you to customize your own house-hunting checklist.

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Calling all listmakers!

Some people are natural list-makers. It’s in the DNA of certain types to refine, categorize, and streamline all of life’s projects and processes. Some of you may already have a pen and paper in hand, ready to pepper your current projects with to-dos from this article!

Even if you’re not a die-hard fan of the list, starting your search with a good one can give you an upper hand in the home buying process. Before we break it all down, let’s take a quick step back and consider the nature of the list.

Wait…what are lists for again?

Sad fact: we tend to forget information at pretty much the same rate we collect it. We’re all familiar with the concept of the learning curve, and the resulting X-Y graph line that moves steadily but tediously up and to the right, demonstrating it takes both time and effort to learn something new. But the concept of the “forgetting curve” is less well known.

A person creating a house hunting checklist.
Source: (NeONBRAND/Unsplash)

Write it down or say goodbye

In 2015, scientists repeated a study first conducted in 1880 by renowned German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who just happens to be the first person to describe the learning curve. But in his 1880 study, Ebbinghaus was focused on the shape of forgetting.

In his research, he found a steep, downward slope in our ability to remember things as time passes. Picture that X-Y graph line sliding down and to the right, plotting a slope that dips at one hour… nine hours… one day… two days… and finally buries itself deep in the lower right corner at 31 days.

Proven twice in experiments conducted 135 years apart, with matching empirical results that shocked absolutely nobody, the conclusion of the research was this: our brains hold on to information like a green light holds on to homebound traffic. In other words, we’re forgetful. If we want to remember something, we have to use tricks. Hello, lists!

A list is a place for everything

During the act of making a list, your thoughts become organized. The process of writing down what’s important to you helps you explore the details and features of your desires, and may also uncover things you would not have realized unless you put yourself in that mindset. Listmaking can also help you align yourself with the other people involved in your home-buying decision, or fine-tune your questions when you’re asking an agent for advice.

A person thinking about a house hunting checklist.
Source: (Jake Young/Unsplash)

Why is a house-hunting checklist essential?

Not only does a checklist-style list outsmart our weak memory, organize our thoughts, and streamline communication, when you have a checklist handy while you view a property, it makes the event more meaningful.

Imagine how much longer it would take you to get through the grocery store with dozens and dozens of items to buy, but no shopping list. When buying a house, the lighthouse effect of a good checklist can steer you clear of disastrous distractions and light the way, step-by-step, to what’s most critical in your home visit.

Showing up ready

Information overload is a very real phenomenon for house-hunters, especially if you’re viewing multiple properties over a short period of time. If you come prepared and already somewhat familiar with the property you’re viewing, then you will be more grounded and focused — and less likely to miss something while you’re touring homes.

Information overload

Some of us (a.k.a. most of us) have problems keeping up with everything going on in our lives. We lose our cars in parking lots, and sometimes, mid-stride, we can’t remember why we’ve just walked into a room.

If you’re in the process of buying a house, the maelstrom of “to-dos” swirling around you can be highly disorienting. Anchor yourself with a checklist. Streamline your process, remember where you parked, and know exactly why you walked into that room.

Post-game sessions

Another major benefit of a checklist is in the post-viewing stage of buying a home. After you’ve toured some properties and you begin the process of reviewing options, the benefits of working off your detailed lists will be obvious. Your eyes will have taken in more than your brain can process, but that list remembers what kind of countertops were in the kitchen of the third house you saw eight days ago. (Our template even has a space to note their condition.)

A person creating a house hunting checklist.
Source: (Kate Williams/Unsplash)

What’s included in a house-hunting checklist?

Quite simply: a lot. So to help refine and inform what we’ve included on our checklists (and support what you might incorporate in your own), we talked to an expert.

Top-selling agent Randall Nichols has led hundreds of buyers through this process, and he agrees that a good checklist is a must-have.

Everything under the sun

Nichols stresses while you should leave a lot of your worries to the home inspector, you must be prepared with your list — your eyes, ears, and even your nose — when you visit a property.

Take it from the top

Diligent list-maker that you are, you know the year in which the house you’re viewing was built. Though you may not be a certified expert, according to Nichols, most people can eyeball whether a home’s age matches the approximate age of its roof.

If you decide to move forward with the buying process, a home inspector will give you the nitty-gritty on the roof (and everything else), but this quick check is a great checklist item.

What’s that smell?

Nichols notes that dank or musty smells can be a bad sign that sometimes foretell water leaks, but a discerning nose (trust your agent on this one) can determine the difference between a water-logged money pit and an odor that is benign.

He says you can expect a stale smell if you’re touring a home that has been on the market and unoccupied for some time, or a property that only occupied during summer or winter months. Still, if you’re sensitive to smell, make sure to leave a space to note this on your checklist.

Peace and quiet?

When you visit, take a moment to notice the ambient noise around you. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles may be a flawless classic of mid-’80s American cinema, but the noise pollution caused by living near a freeway, train tracks, or in the flight path of an airport can seriously limit the enjoyment you’ll get from your outdoor space. And for anyone who’s ever lived near train tracks, recall that “YOU GET USED TO IT!” is the euphemism you shout across the dinner table to your guests as their silverware vibrates to the floor.

There’s no such thing as a dumb question

Nichols says it’s critical to ask all the questions you can think of. He says to open doors and windows and turn on the taps. Flush the toilets and kick the tires (or whatever the home buying equivalent to that is) — but no matter what, don’t trust your memory. Come prepared with a list that is thoughtful, thorough, and well organized. And if you have questions or concerns, your agent is the frontline, go-to expert.

A inside of a room viewed while house hunting.
Source: (Vidar Nordli-Mathisen/Unsplash)

House-hunting checklist: Four parts

So you’re sold on the idea of creating a house-hunting checklist, but so far the only thing on your outline is the phrase “benign odor.” No problem! We’ll walk you through each step of the HomeLight House-Hunting Checklist, explaining as we go what we’ve included and offering tips to customize your own.

Section one: The BIG picture

This is the house-hunting equivalent to a 30-thousand-foot view. Tedious and research-intensive though it may be, putting in time from this distance, you can snap the big picture into focus from the comfort of your own pajamas.

This portion covers basics like list price, square feet, lot size, HVAC, and interior systems. Most of that information will be included in the listing sheet, but you’ll have to work a little harder to find neighborhood-specific demographics and community data. Only you know what is really important to you (Schools? Crime rates? Access to hospitals and bowling alleys?), so it’s important to identify, research, and customize your list with your neighborhood and community must-haves.

Section two: Exterior details

Picture the scene: your car door closes behind you and your eyes sweep the yard and fall upon the house you may one day call home. What do you see?

Of course, you’ve got a clipboard and you’ve printed your home-buying checklist, so you casually take note of the condition of the siding, and the trees that need trimming. You recall the advice of your old friend Randall Nichols and note that the roof looks new-ish.

This section of the checklist can be summed as “curb appeal” for most, but for some, like those with severe allergies or mobility issues, these exterior details can be deal-breakers.

Section three: Interior details

This critical section will help you stay focused while you’re getting a general feel for the interior of the house. Note material and condition of the walls, ceilings, and floors. Get a feel for the general layout of the home. Does it feel airy and spacious? Cozy and warm? Check out the light fixtures and prevailing fit and finish of the house. Our list offers space for specifics, as well as room for “overall vibe.”

Section four: Room-by-room

This is the nitty-gritty, zoomed-in view in which you note specific attributes of each room. This section covers everything from the stovetop quality and condition to the presence of 220v outlets in the garage. This is where the skills of the born-listmakers will really shine! Our list includes general must-haves, but your hobbies and lifestyle will really personalize this section.

… And the kitchen sink

This house-hunting checklist covers a lot. Technically, it does cover the kitchen sink, but whether you’re using it as-is or you plan to customize your own, take note of these odds and ends.

Sands through the hourglass

It’s very important to make time right after you’ve seen a property to jot down any strong impressions. The longer you wait to do this, the more you’ll forget. Remember, our brains aren’t sponges; they are stone tablets in a rock tumbler.

Pet names

Give each property a nickname to help differentiate them. “Big Blue” or “CLOSETS. FOR. DAYS”  will stand out in your mind more clearly than “123 Maple Street.” Plus, it can be useful shorthand when discussing your choices with other decision-makers, or with friends and family (or your pets or social media) you’ve enlisted as a sounding board.

Multimedia experience

When you visit a property, take pictures and videos. It can be really difficult to piece together the layout of a house you’ve only been in once, so a video can help you recall how all the rooms fit together.

You are not alone

Remember, it is not your job to test for asbestos in the crawlspace or divine the meaning of the cracks in the foundation. Your home inspector will do this for you, so your only job when you’re viewing the property is to check, check, check your house-hunting checklist.

Header Image Source: (Aaron Burden/Unsplash)