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What to look for when buying a house: Setting your top priorities

By Liz Keuler

June 2018
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The perfect home in the perfect location at the perfect price – that’s every homebuyer’s dream. And once you start the search, you realize almost immediately it’s more like a pipe dream, and you might have to settle for slightly less than perfection.

So how do you know what to look for in a house? How do you prioritize your needs and wants, and how do you know what’s worth a compromise? My advice? Winnow your list of desires down to 3-5 top priorities, and don’t waste time looking at homes that don’t meet those requirements.  

Seriously, TOP priorities, no turrets

When I was 10, I didn’t think I would ever buy a home that didn’t include a turret (for a writing room, obviously). At 28, when I actually started looking for a home with my husband, our requirements were more practical. Our first home had to:

  • Be reasonably move-in ready (we’re not handy)
  • Be located in our much-loved, walkable neighborhood
  • Include off-street parking

We hoped we might find a house with a whole wish list of other features, of course. And we did end up finding a house with some of those (central air conditioning, an updated kitchen, a patio), but we compromised on others (2 bedrooms instead of 3, 1.5 bathrooms instead of 2). The Rolling Stones were right: “You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you might just find what you need.” 

 

When deciding what to look for when buying a house, focus on factors that can’t be easily changed

Curious to see how others approached this big decision, I polled the Readynest team on their homebuying experiences. It turns out that my priorities were pretty common. The team’s most important requirements were based on aspects of a home or property that can’t be easily changed, like:

  • Location
  • Off-street parking or garage 
  • Backyard
  • Porch or other outdoor living space
  • Solid foundation
  • Condition of major home systems like electrical and plumbing
 

Location, location, location

Theoretically, you could build a garage, add a porch, or completely overhaul the house—but one thing you absolutely cannot change is the location of the property. That’s why “location” will end up on almost everyone’s priority list. But it can mean different things to different people:
  • Writer Robin didn’t want to live on a busy street or in a neighborhood with a poor safety record
  • Designer John was hoping to live near a park but settled for a cemetery: “It’s like a park, but with more tombstones.”
  • Writer Laura and her husband Andy wanted to cut Andy’s commute by moving closer to his workplace
  • Web producer Rebecca was looking for a neighborhood that was great for dog walks and had easy access to the freeway – and ended up ruling out a community with strict fencing rules

The ultimate deal breaker: Price

This didn’t come up at all in my unofficial poll, probably because it seems so basic that it doesn’t merit discussion. If you’ve gotten prequalified or used an online calculator, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you can afford. And if your budget tops out at $200,000, it makes no sense to tour a million-dollar home (unless you’re just going to gawk, in which case, gawk away). 

3 steps to help you narrow down your top priorities

You could break this down very scientifically, with a spreadsheet and math and footnotes (shout-out to Rebecca), but a pencil, napkin and some honest conversation will do.

  1. Make a list of everything you’re looking for in a home, big and small. If there are multiple people involved in the decision, have each person make their own list independently.
  2. Compare your lists and look for overlap. Combine the common requirements into a new, narrower list.
  3. For each requirement on the list, ask yourself “If I found a house that was amazing in almost every other way, would I compromise on this requirement?” If so, it’s a nice-to-have, not a top priority.

Once you have your list of top priorities, you can use these to set clear parameters with your real estate agent, narrow your search and avoid wasting time touring listings that would come up short. And to track and compare all the details that go into house-hunting decision-making, large or small, use our home comparison chart.

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Liz Keuler is the editor of Readynest. She spent a decade meandering through radio, nonprofits and the corporate world before convincing MGIC to hire her based on her staunch grammatical convictions. She lives in a charming 100-year-old bungalow on Milwaukee’s East Side. Her interests include old Ernst Lubitsch films, new action movies, 60s girl pop, Regency romance novels, word games, sewing and shallots.