Lesser-known first steps to buying a home

No doubt you’ve already been online and have probably seen a house or two. But let’s fine-tune the process a bit.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
A US flag decorates a for-sale sign at a home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington.

Now that the initial paperwork has been done, it’s time to find your new home. No doubt you’ve already been online and have probably seen a house or two. You may even have a good idea of what your new address will be.

But let’s take a couple of minutes and fine-tune the process a bit. There might be an idea or two here that hasn’t yet occurred to you.

Ready, set, house hunt!

Once you obtain a preapproval letter, you’ll know exactly the price range in which you should be house hunting, and sellers will negotiate with confidence that you can close the deal. This makes a big difference, especially when you’re looking for a home in a hot market. Plus, real estate agents want to spend most of their time only with preapproved buyers.

Another benefit of having that green light in hand: Since you’ve provided a lot of the initial information to qualify for a loan, you have a head start in completing the underwriting process. That can speed the process along once you have a contract for a particular home. Depending on how long your house hunting has been going on, it’s likely you’ll have to update some, if not all, of the financial information that you initially provided to obtain the preapproval.

So we’ve laid out the reasons why a preapproval is so important, provided guidance for obtaining a preapproval letter and discussed the benefits of having that piece of paper in your hand. Now it’s time to do what you’ve been waiting for: hit the streets and find your new home.

Target your potential neighborhoods

You probably have a neighborhood in mind, or at least an idea of what it should look like, how it will feel and its general location: in the city or away from it all; convenient to shopping or next to nothing. Once you start seriously house hunting, you might be surprised how much you learn — and where you want to be.

Don’t just walk through the house—make sure you spend time in the neighborhood, too. What’s within easy walking distance? Do you like the vibe? Most people just walk through the open house, but getting a sense of the neighborhood, during the day and night, can be just as important.

If you’re new to an area, you’ll need all the guidance you can get. In some cities you might be advised to live “in the Mission,” “within the Loop,” “south of the river” or “uptown.” Everybody has an opinion. It’s a good idea to find a trusted real estate agent to guide you through your new city to help find the home that’s just right for you.

If you’re already familiar with what will be your long-term hometown, the questions can be even more specific. Single-family or condo? Ranch or Victorian? New construction, “gently used” or well-worn?

If you have children, deciding on the right school district will help narrow down your neighborhood. If not, you may be more interested in proximity to mass transit, coffee shops or food trucks.

House-hunting tools you can use

Armed with apps, you’re the mighty house hunter of the subdivision safari. Check out these online tools:

  • Trulia and Zillow: These co-owned websites and related apps offer detailed maps of neighborhoods with lot-level prices, heat maps of crime statistics, school profiles and more. Zillow’s “Zestimates” of home values and future price forecasts are an interesting home-comparison gauge.
  • Doorsteps Swipe: It’s kind of like the Tinder for real estate. You can “like” your favorite listings, which then can be organized by location and even shared with friends. The app promises to “learn” your preferences and track what’s important to you: number of bedrooms, baths, price or location.
  • HomeSnap: Drive by a home and want to know more? Snap a photo and this app will offer more information, such as price, interior photos, prevailing property taxes, public school info and more.
  • House Hunter: This app helps keep you organized with notes, pictures and a scoring tool that lets you identify houses that best match what you’re looking for. You can prioritize among 80 different home features and add custom features that are important to you.
  • Realtor.com: Promises to update listings of millions of homes every 15 minutes. You can search houses for sale by school and school district and even get alerts on price changes.

Sliding into home

Few homes are perfect, but you can realistically shoot for finding a great home — one that you can truly love. Just know that there will be some compromises along the way.

The National Association of Realtors says the average homebuyer takes about 10 weeks to find what he or she is looking for. That means you’ll be doing a lot of research, walk-throughs, drive-bys and comparisons over coffee. Take your time; don’t make a rash decision and don’t get desperate. Your new home is out there waiting for you. It may just take a little time to find it.

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