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How to search for a home

When house-hunting fever strikes, it can hit hard. You’ll probably download a home search app or two and jump into the car, ready to explore a new neighborhood. Before you do, here are answers to some questions that might pop up along the way.

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    A "For Sale" sign hangs in front of an existing home in Atlanta (Jan. 26, 2016).
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When house-hunting fever strikes, it can hit hard. You’ll probably download a home search app or two and jump into the car, ready to explore a new neighborhood. Before you do, here are answers to some questions that might pop up along the way.

What’s the difference between a real estate agent and a Realtor?

All real estate agents are licensed by the state in which they operate. The title “Realtor” is a trademark held by the National Association of Realtors; it refers to agents who are members of a local real estate association that is NAR-affiliated. These agents agree to comply with the association’s ethical standards. Of course, the sales practices of all licensed agents are guided by the laws of their state.

What is the MLS?

A multiple listing service, or MLS, compiles properties for sale by individual firms and sellers into one comprehensive database. It’s a generic term and not really one centralized service, but rather a cooperative effort among real estate professionals.

Before the Internet brought the same information to the masses, access to MLS information was one good reason to hire a real estate agent. Now, you can tap the latest listings from multiple sources on the web.

What about open houses?

Open houses don’t sell homes like they used to. The NAR reports that only 9% of buyers in 2014 discovered the home they eventually purchased via an open house.

Most people start their home buying process online these days, looking at slide shows and taking virtual tours. But wandering through an open house or two can still inspire new ideas or help you explore neighborhoods you hadn’t previously considered.

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What are some home search tips?

Here are some pointers for looking at properties, whether at open houses or private showings with an agent.

  • First, don’t look at homes over your budget. That’s just frustrating. Set your search parameters within your budget, and remember to leave some wiggle room if you’re in a hot market and might have to bump up your offer.
  • Take an extra set of eyes, someone with excellent attention to detail. But don’t bring a group of experts; one spare opinion is plenty.
  • Find out why the seller is leaving. The circumstances may provide useful insight, especially regarding how motivated the seller may be — such as when a job relocation or divorce is involved.
  • Walk through the home twice. You’ll be surprised by what you notice on the second go-round.
  • Open every door, even if you think it’s just a closet. Hey, it might be a closet! You know how important those are.
  • Take notes, keep a list of the things you like and don’t like, and compare them to your list of what you need and want in a home.
  • Snap a few photos (but ask permission first).
  • Bring a tape measure. That way you’ll know if your dining table, bed or sofa will fit in a room.
  • Pay attention to outside noise. If quiet enjoyment of your home is a priority, stick around long enough to get a sense of what you’ll hear in the neighborhood — whether it’s noisy neighbors or landing airplanes.
  • Use Google Maps to check the neighborhood view from above. (Yikes! There’s a landfill/railroad tracks/drainage ditch right there?) Google Earth has a “light meter” feature that shows sun exposure, too.
  • In older homes, pay close attention to the location and number of electrical outlets, storage and other modern conveniences that are sometimes in short supply.
  • Remember that do-it-yourself projects can be more hassle than you think. Don’t assume you can fix everything that’s wrong with a house.
  • If you use a real estate agent and he isn’t listening to you — by showing you houses, neighborhoods or price ranges you specifically said you aren’t interested in — change agents. It’s a waste of your time and the agent’s.

The home stretch

When you finally narrow down your list of homes to the top contenders, break the tie by driving your morning commute from each location, visiting the neighborhoods at night and on a weekend, and walking the streets. You’ll know when it’s right.

Hal Bundrick is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: hal@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @halmbundrick. This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

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