House hunting will put even the most seasoned shoppers to the test. It’s the only purchase you’ll make which doubles as a major financial investment and the setting for life’s most meaningful moments. Sound difficult?
Well yes, 56% of buyers of all generations believe picking a house is the most challenging step in the home buying process. House hunting is a marathon, not a sprint — the average buyer tours 10 homes in 10 weeks before they make a purchase.
To help you survive the journey, we’ve researched the top mistakes buyers make when shopping for a home and how to avoid them. Our prevention tips include insightful considerations, links to resources, and professional advice from top real estate agent Grace Henrikson, an expert house hunter with 12 years of experience helping clients find the perfect home in Seattle, WA, one of the country’s most competitive housing markets.
Mistake #1: You partnered with the wrong real estate agent.
Even with today’s digital house hunting tools, 52% of buyers say that help in finding the right home to purchase is what they want most from a real estate agent — that’s because the information you find on websites can’t hold a candle to the local knowledge and professional expertise an agent brings to the process.
Still, not all agents are equal. If you’re not getting the proper assistance or advice you need during your house hunt, it can hurt your chances of finding the right home. A top real estate agent should provide the following:
1. Deep local insights and knowledge of the area
Your real estate agent should act like your college tour guide who knows the caf’s top dishes and the best times to get a treadmill at the gym. If your target area isn’t their niche, you’ll miss out on some of the best insights a real estate agent can provide.
- They have to Google an area you asked about
- They send you homes outside of your established commute radius or desired area without explanation
- They can’t tell you about an area’s proximity to walking trails, local shops and restaurants, or traffic patterns
2. Objective advice, not sales pitches
A buyer’s agent should be a consultant — not a salesperson. Remember, buyer’s agents don’t get paid until your home deal closes so if an agent is pushing you towards a house that’s not a match, they might be more interested in their next paycheck than helping you find the best possible home.
- You start to feel pressured to just hurry up and buy already (that said, you should only be house hunting if you’re genuinely serious about buying)
- Your agent intentionally shows you homes in busy areas at the quietest time of the day (indicating they’re trying to hide a home’s bad location)
- When you voice concerns over home features, your agent seems like they’re waiting to respond instead of considering your perspective
3. Inventory obsession
You want an agent who’s got all the listing alerts set up and basically lives in the MLS. Even today when 50% of buyers find their house online, 28% still find their house through their agent. So if your agent isn’t paying attention to the inventory, you might miss out on the dream home.
- Your agent never sends you houses
- You often find listings that match your homebuying wish list before they do
When you see red flags left and right, you need to quickly decide if you want to respectfully cut ties with your agent. As we mentioned, buyer’s agents don’t get paid during the house hunt so you don’t want to string them along and waste both of your time. If you signed a buyer’s agency agreement you also need to consider the implications entailed since you probably won’t be able to switch agents without repercussion.
The best course of action is to hire the right agent from the start. Here’s how:
- Interview at least 3 real estate agents before you commit to one
- Compare your candidates based on performance stats including:
- How many transactions have they completed in your target neighborhoods?
- How much money do they save clients on average? What percent of the list price do their buyers end up paying, on average?
- Ask important questions, including:
- How well do you know the area?
- How many clients are you currently representing and how many will you work with at one time?
- What kind of properties do you help your clients buy—single family homes, condos, townhomes?
- How much experience do you have working with first time buyers (if you haven’t bought before)?
- What are the top three things that separate you from the competition?
- What kind of guarantees do you offer?
- If I pick you, what’s the first thing we do to get started?
- Hire an agent based on experience and personal connection. Your agent will be by your side from house hunting to closing — you’ll want to partner with someone who has expertise you trust and a personality you vibe with.
Get your agent search started on the right track with HomeLight’s Agent Finder. We’ll match you with agents with the most relevant experience to your needs based on their transaction volume on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, their average sale to list ratio for buy-side transactions, and specializations such as first time buyer experience or property type (single family home, condo, townhome, etc).
Mistake #2: You didn’t meet with a lender first.
You’ve calculated how much you can afford to spend on a home with online affordability estimators and come up with a rough monthly budget based on factors like your income and typical expenses. Great! You can—and should—do some budgeting legwork on your own headed into your house hunt.
However, before you start looking at homes (and ideally before you engage an agent in your search) go ahead and meet with a lender to get pre-approved for a mortgage.
To grant pre-approval, a lender will need to “look under the hood” of your financials, so to speak, to see whether you’d qualify for a mortgage and if so, how big of a loan you qualify for.
The amount of documentation a lender will ask for to issue a pre-approval can vary greatly from lender to lender.
Some lenders will do a deep dive upfront and ask you for documentation to show proof of income and your current savings, take a look at your credit score, and evaluate your existing debts (think: credit cards, student loans, and car payments) to provide you with a pre-approval letter that essentially lets a seller know that if you make an offer up to your pre-approved amount, your financing is very likely to come through.
Other lenders, however, may issue a quick and easy pre-approval by only evaluating your credit score with a soft credit pull and accepting the information you estimate without requiring any documentation to verify these numbers until much later in the process.
The more your lender verifies before you make an offer the stronger your offer will be. A fully-verified or underwritten pre-approval, like HomeLight Home Loans Conditional approval, will be particularly great for competitive markets. It’s a good idea to talk to a lender or even multiple lenders to see who can provide a pre-approval that will best suit your needs before you make that offer.
Without a preapproval you risk:
1. Making bids on homes out of your price range.
If you start house hunting by looking at homes above the price range you actually qualify for, you might be disappointed at what’s left when you have to reel the budget in towards a lower approved limit. (Keep in mind that your pre-approved limit may be out of your financial comfort zone and you’ll need to factor in extra monthly costs like taxes, maintenance, and insurance).
2. Losing out on your dream home because you don’t have proof of likely financing.
When you stumble upon a holy grail property, your casual online home browse instantly swaps into a hustle to make an offer. If the seller mandates offers include a mortgage pre-approval, you could face a delay while you wait for your pre-approval letter, potentially losing out to the more prepared competition.
Even if pre-approval isn’t a requirement, without one your offer is weaker; it’s risky for buyers to accept an offer not yet backed by a lender.
Apply for a mortgage pre-approval as soon as you’re serious about buying a home. Your lender will send you a pre-approval letter that lists an exact loan amount so you know the ceiling price for your house hunt. With the pre-approval letter at the ready, you’re ready to make a convincing offer as soon as you find that special home.
Note: A pre-qualification is not the same as pre-approval; to get pre-qualified, you provide the lender with an estimated overview of your financial picture, including your credit score, income, debts and assets and the lenders just take your word for it and estimate what they would offer you assuming everything you said was true.
Typically, you can do this online, and get a pre-qualification letter in just a few minutes. The catch with a pre-qualification is that the lender doesn’t verify much, if any, of your information so they can only estimate how much they might be willing to lend you, assuming the information you provided is true.
If you’re unable to later support the numbers you gave for to get that pre-qualification letter, or if your credit score is less than you estimated, the lender may not be able to loan you the full amount included on the pre-qualification letter. That said, a pre-qualification letter can be fast and easy to get, so if you need something quick, it could be a great option for you.
Go a step further with a full upfront financial underwrite
If you want to go a little further into the process and get a pre-approval, it’s good to remember what we mentioned above: all pre-approvals are not created equal.
For ultimate house hunting confidence, go above and beyond the traditional, partially verified pre-approval and obtain a pre-approval with a full, upfront financial underwrite. Underwriting is the process where a lender looks at your entire financial history and all the associated documents and makes a call on whether your loan should be approved.
While the majority of lenders hold off on underwriting until after your home offer is accepted and only verify simple things like your credit score, HomeLight Home Loans conducts a full underwrite for borrowers upfront. In other words, we look at every puzzle piece that makes up your financial picture within 24 hours of application.
We can tell you within a day exactly how much home you qualify for with our Conditional Approval, boosting your credibility as a buyer and protecting you from closing delays.
Mistake #3: You’re obsessed with cosmetics.
House hunting is as emotional as it is logical. It’s difficult envisioning yourself in a home with grandma’s furniture and a pink bathtub even if it ticks all of your “must-have” boxes.
On the flip side, you can easily fall in love with a home that’s professionally staged down to scent of soy candles in the air, forgiving its lack of storage and central heating.
- Attend viewings with your real estate agent for a layer of professional objectivity.
- Don’t get hung up on features like wall color, flooring, and hardware which are relatively easy and low-cost to replace.
- Envision the home transformed with your furniture and interior design style.
- Give the appropriate weight to damage of the roof, foundation, rotted beams, HVAC system, and pipes — these are some of the most expensive home repairs.
- Get quotes for any repairs and projects from a reliable contractor.
Mistake #4: Short-term thinking clouds your long-term vision.
As of 2018, homeowners live in their purchased abode for a median duration of 13.3 years before moving elsewhere — a lot can happen in that time. If you base your home evaluation criteria solely on your current lifestyle, you may prematurely outgrow the home and need to move for practical reasons sooner than anticipated (even if your heart is still attached).
No matter which demographic you belong to, consider how the home will suit your future needs. Here’s some considerations if your plans entail:
Growing a family:
- Factor expected costs of raising kids into your home budget
- Choose a home with more bedrooms and bathrooms than you currently require
- Look for home safety features such as walls enclosing the backyard or fencing around the pool
Investing in assets:
- Location is a top priority — focus on homes in areas with rising home values. Compare how home values in your prospective markets are rising compared to the national average.
- Check out Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies’ map to see the percentage home values have increased or decreased in metro areas over the past decade. When you’re ready to commit to a market, your real estate agent will provide you with local insight on which up and coming neighborhoods are worthy investments.
- Look for homes with the opportunity to add value and marketability through high return on investment improvements.
Closing in on retirement:
- Consider how accessible the home is for decreased mobility and look for features that would allow you to age in place.
- Opt for low maintenance features (no pool or lawn = less stress and more money).
- Target areas nearby to quality hospitals, family members, and activities you enjoy.
Mistake #5: You turn a blind eye to code violations just to get the house.
The newly added bathroom looks amazing, but was the plumbing installed correctly? If it wasn’t, you need to know because once you purchase the home, you’re liable for any unpermitted construction.
Homeowners policies typically won’t cover damage caused by unpermitted work, nor will they cover damage to unpermitted extensions. There’s also the risk a city inspector discovers the work-around and forces you to bring the project up to code or tear it out.
Start by asking the listing agent if a permit was required/granted for any additions or major remodels. The sellers legally must inform you of any known unpermitted work in the disclosure. If you’re still skeptical, you can find a record of the permits pulled for the home’s address through the city’s building department or respective webpage.
Mistake #6: You put location on the backburner.
You can remodel your home, but you can’t extend the renovations to the neighborhood. If your new area makes you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or even just uninspired, you’ll have to live with it or house hunt all over again.
Spend as much time researching the neighborhood as you do the property — you won’t regret it. The best location is one which flows with your everyday life, that is one that’s close to where you spend most of your time outside the house. You might love the latest borough for the multitude of trendy cafes, but if it’s a 45 minute commute to work and 20 minutes to the gym in the opposite direction, your daily drive leaves little time to enjoy the local lifestyle.
Once you’ve narrowed down your options, dig deeper to evaluate neighborhoods for safety, community, and development activity (crucial factors for resale).
- If you have children or plan to, look into school rankings, after school programs, and transportation options.
- Gather qualitative information on the area from people who live there with online community platforms like NextDoor and Niche.
- View upcoming local development plans on the city website.
- Look up crime rates and how they compare to neighboring areas with websites like AreaVibes and NeighborhoodScout.
“Crime rates are important — buyers should be doing their due diligence in that area,” Henrikson weighs in. “If they have kids, they should be looking up registered sex offenders just to see if there’s any nearby. Sometimes an area as a whole might seem like a match and buyers are so excited about the homebuying process that they fail to do that search.”
Explore the area in person:
- Drive through the neighborhood during the day, after business hours, late at night, and on the weekend.
- Assess the curb appeal of other homes on the street and in the neighborhood.
- Notice community interaction, pedestrian activity, and neighborhood demographics
- Listen to the sounds of the neighborhood—is there noise from a highway or train track nearby? Is there a flight path over head?
Mistake #7: You lack the confidence to make an offer and overthink every little ‘what if.’
Research and attention to detail are key to avoiding most house hunting mistakes. Just don’t obsess over a home for too long before placing an offer or you could lose out to a faster competitor (especially if you’re in one of the nation’s fastest markets).
- Discuss local market time trends with your real estate agent so you understand the speed of your market. If it’s a hot seller’s market (e.g. low housing inventory), prepare to submit your best offer quickly, even within the first 24 hours after your viewing.
- Call, don’t message regarding any questions you have for your agent or for the sellers to avoid unnecessary delays. In some situations, your agent can reach out to the listing broker to gauge how much interest the property has received so you know if you have time to twiddle your thumbs debating if you should offer or not.
- Safeguard your offer with contingencies so you have an exit route if the home inspection reveals significant damage or if your own home doesn’t sell in time. Contingencies can add a layer of protection, but may also weaken your offer in a multiple bid scenario so attach them with caution.
Avoid these common house hunting mistakes and find that dream home
As with most things in life, the more you prepare, the less likely your house hunt will be hindered by mistakes. Bring a balance of professional guidance, research, and objectivity to your search and you’ll find a house you can settle down in and call home.
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