House Hunting Checklist: Baker's Dozen Things to Do When Touring a House

House hunting often starts out as fun, but quickly becomes hectic and confusing. As you walk through house after house, you may notice the obvious plusses and minuses, but are you looking at all the right details?

Remember, this may be the largest investment you ever make - and one you'll have to live with every single day. Don't let anyone make you feel rushed as you walk through a house. Take your time, and be systematic. The following are a dozen things that will help you assess what kind of shape a property is in:

  1. Take notes. At the end of a day of touring open houses, you may find it hard to keep all the details straight. You'll be better able to keep track and make comparisons after the fact if you take some notes. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development offers a useful checklist you can use to take notes on each property you see.
  2. Take pictures (or even a video). Photograph the good and not-so-good points of every place you might possibly buy. If you see something you can't live with, for example, a really dark room requiring windows or skylights, pics will help your builder estimate the costs to lighten things up, and you can adjust your offer accordingly.
  3. Run the water. Plumbing is a critical issue. Turn on a faucet when you visit the kitchen or a bathroom. Take note of whether the water pressure is adequate. See how warm the hot water gets. Also, take a sip to see if the water tastes good.
  4. Establish the age and condition of appliances. Appliances can be replaced, but doing so can be very costly. If it looks like there are big replacement costs ahead for the next homeowner, you may want to factor that into what you are willing to pay for the home, or negotiate to have the appliances updated before the house is sold.
  5. Consider the type and age of the HVAC system. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning will not only go a long way towards determining your comfort in the home, but a bad system can also cost you a fortune to run inefficiently or replace.
  6. Look at, not through, windows. Yes, a pretty view is a plus, but you should also inspect the windows themselves -- do they operate smoothly, and do they fit snugly? Are the panes effective in blocking out drafts?
  7. See how the doors fit. Make sure exterior doors fit securely, that their locks work smoothly, and that they have good weather-stripping in place. Check to see that interior doors close properly and don't rattle when you walk by.
  8. Ask for a copy of the utility bill. Steps involving checking appliances, the HVAC system, doors, and windows will help you spot potential energy drains, but ask for a copy of the utility bill to make sure you aren't missing something. If you live in a cold climate, ask to see a bill from one of the winter months; if you live in a hot climate, ask for a summertime bill.
  9. Look at the roof from both sides. From the outside of the house, step back so you can see the roofing shingles. Walk around the house to note whether they are in good condition (not cracked, chipped, or curling) and securely fastened. Then, from inside the house take a thorough look at the underside of the roof, with an eye out for signs of moisture or sagging. The National Association of Realtors points out that the cost of replacing a roof can approach $20,000, so this is an item worthy of special time and care.
  10. Look around the foundation. You should be checking the house from top to bottom, so after you've looked at the roof, walk around the foundation, inside or out. Hairline cracks are fairly normal, but larger breaks or signs of water damage could be red flags.
  11. Beware of moisture. From roof to foundation and all points in between, just remember that moisture is your enemy. Any sign of staining or mold deserves closer examination.
  12. Pay attention to traffic. While you are visiting a house, make a note of what kind of traffic goes by outside. Is the road too busy to be safe for children to play near? Will traffic noises keep you up at night? Traffic can become a big quality-of-life issue once you are living in the home.
  13. Take a walk around the yard. Now that you've given the house the once over, spend some time walking around the yard. Take a note of the size and whether it is something you can readily maintain. See if the ground shows signs of periodic flooding, and then look up to see if there are any large old trees that threaten to damage the house.

That's a lot to look at, so pick your spots. You won't want to go through this with every house you visit, but if a property interests you based on its superficial characteristics, these steps will help you go a little deeper.

Finally, none of this is a substitute for having a professional inspection done by a licensed inspector. You might need such an inspection in order to get a mortgage anyway, but you should look at it as a process that protects you from buying trouble. In fact, the New Jersey Housing & Mortgage Finance Agency suggests you expand the basic inspection to look for things that aren't routinely covered, such as termites, radon, lead paint and asbestos.

Even with all this detail work, house hunting can still be fun, but never forget that first and foremost it is serious business.

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