Envision your dream house.
A white and blue Colonial with shutters, fireplace, and two-car garage. You know your budget: It can't cost more than $175,000.
But it's easier to picture than to find it.
Arthur and Christine Kotsifas looked for three months and lost a number of deals before they found the right house in the Boston area.
"We looked at a lot of dumps," says Mr. Kotsifas, "And we looked at a lot of expensive dumps."
So when they finally found their house, they made an offer on it that night.
It needed plenty of updating, but after a month or two, it became the cozy, sunny, home of their dreams.
The house is in walking distance to shopping, church, and a bus stop. A freeway on-ramp is two blocks away.
Mr. Kotsifas says the research they did on the neighborhood in Arlington, Mass., paid off.
Focus on price
Much of that research focused on value, the factors that would affect the future price of the home.
Attention to price appreciation, says Bruce Hahn, president of the American Homeowners Foundation, is more important than ever. "It's no longer a given that homes will increase in value."
The process isn't difficult. "In most cases it's just a matter of whether it's in a declining industrial area or a more residential or enterprise town," he says.
If you have kids, you'll want an area with the best possible schools. Call the local school district office for state rankings and test scores, and check with town or city hall to find out spending per school child. Generally, the higher the number, the better the school.
If you're worried about crime, check with local police about the neighborhood.
But the No.1 factor in where you buy is the price you can afford, says Lou Hrono, a broker at Re/Max in Medford, Mass.
He recommends looking at the other houses on the street for pride of ownership. If they're in disrepair or need repainting, it will drag your property value down, even if you keep your house nice.
Beyond that, "it's like buying a used car," he says. "You want to find that one-owner, meticulously maintained home."
Most two-income couples today don't have the time to make repairs.
If you're not handy or are unsure of the home's condition, hire a home inspector to detail its strengths and weaknesses.
Above all, be patient.
"You need to go out and see those dumps and tho.se properties that are overpriced," Mr. Hrono says. As a first time home buyer "if I show you the perfect house the first time out, you won't buy it."
When you get to the real estate office, ask to see a computer list of homes for sale in your price range. The list will include their specifications and often pictures. This gives you a "short list" of homes worth visiting.
Make a list
But visit at least 10 or 20 properties, Hrono says. Get a feel for the market.
And take heart. If nothing feels like home at first, that's normal. Some buyers reject hundreds of homes.
Obviously, a critical consideration is how much you can afford. And a visit with a mortgage banker will give a number.
Then make a list of your needs and and wishes.
Large families might want multiple bedrooms and bathrooms. Dogs need yards; commuters need easy access to transportation routes.
Maybe you want a fireplace, an attached garage, or a modern kitchen.
Your wishes may include a view, a swimming pool, or a whirlpool tub. You may be surprised how many of these wishes you get. But it helps to have a list before you start and the flexibility to change it.
"Every house you reject gives the broker more insight about what you like and don't like," says Jasperson.
So besides looking at houses with your broker, check out open houses on your own. They're usually listed in the real estate classifieds of your local newspaper on Sunday.
You could turn up something terrific that the broker didn't know about or didn't think you would like. And you could find ways to improve your list.
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