If you’re a fan of HGTV’s “House Hunters,” you know the drill. Make a list of your wants and needs, talk it out with your home-buying partner and jump into your car to find a house to buy. But, as we all know, real life isn’t quite as simple as reality TV.
“Neighborhoods change quickly and can vary a lot within a few miles, so it’s important to start with a review of each buyer’s wants and needs,” said Bill Boswell, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. “A lot of first-time buyers have trouble with this because what they identify as a ‘need’ such as a specific neighborhood sometimes disappears if we find a house that’s perfect in every other way.”
Some of the considerations that most buyers include on their list, once they’ve gone beyond the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, include commute times and schools.
“When you start with the maximum commute time, you can come up with a radius around someone’s job location,” said Lindsay Dreyer, chief executive and broker of City Chic Real Estate. “In the case of a couple, it’s more like a Venn diagram of locations that allow each partner to get to work in 30 minutes or less.”
Even the number of bedrooms can be a point of flexibility for some people, Dreyer said.
“When I ask why someone wants two bedrooms, sometimes it’s because they want a home office, so they could be fine with a one-bedroom and den condo or even one with an office nook,” she said.
Neighborhood amenities are another priority for most buyers, although some prefer a suburban area with a community pool and parks, while others want a more urban setting.
Examine property taxes: Your loan preapproval can help you establish your price range, an essential element in narrowing your choice of neighborhood and home.
“Don’t forget to compare property taxes in different areas when you’re looking at homes,” said Jennifer Jacobson, a real estate agent with Matthews Elite Properties.
“If you’re focused on your monthly payment, you need to estimate your property taxes, too,” she said. Instead of buying a $300,000 home in a neighborhood with a 3.5 percent tax rate, you could make the same monthly payment on a $350,000 home in an area with a 2.5 percent tax rate.
It helps to work with a real estate agent who knows lots of neighborhoods in your region, Dreyer said. That way, you may be able to match your lifestyle choices with a more affordable neighborhood that wasn’t on your radar.
“Buyers naturally want what’s in the next price range above theirs,” Boswell said. “When that happens, we need to go back to their list of priorities and reevaluate.”
Buyers should focus on things they can’t change such as a location in a flood zone or a bad school system vs. things they can, such as the condition of the home, Boswell said.
“Finding the right neighborhood and the right house is a moving target for buyers,” Boswell said. “Sometimes the location is essential and they’re okay with something smaller, but in other cases size is the most important thing.”
Schools, walkability and crime: When you compare your list of priorities and your price range, Jacobson suggests initially expanding your list of possible neighborhoods.
“Look at the homes and the amenities, like a community pool and the schools, in several neighborhoods to get a sense of possibilities,” Jacobson said. “Find out if there’s shopping nearby or access to major thoroughfares that could get you to work faster than you think.”
Dreyer suggests “going on dates with an area” to see it at brunch, during commuting hours and at dinner to see if it appeals to you.
Because federal Fair Housing laws prohibit professionals from steering buyers for racial reasons, real estate agents can’t tell you whether a school is good or bad or describe a community in those terms. However, buyers can find information online about school ratings, demographic, crime and home values from a variety of sites.
For school information, Dreyer recommends schooldigger.com , which ranks schools. Boswell recommends greatschools.org for rankings and reviews by parents. Buyers can dig deeper on local jurisdiction sites.
For safety issues, Dreyer suggests using a crime-mapper tool from the police department.
“You can even put in an address where you feel comfortable and safe and then compare it to a neighborhood where you’re looking at a home to see how much crime there is,” Dreyer said.
If you want to find a walkable neighborhood, try walkscore.com , which provides a score and a list of nearby amenities.
Resale value: Buyers should always look ahead to see what could impact their future resale value, Jacobson said.
“If you’re buying in a new development that has five years of construction left, you may have trouble selling in three years because buyers will be looking at the newly built homes,” Jacobson said. “If you’re buying in an established neighborhood, you can look at the past few years of sales and only buy where homes have held their value or increased in value.”
Local government sites have information about planned commercial development that could enhance or detract from your home’s value.
Another factor to keep in mind is that most homeowners stay in their property 10 years before selling, according to the National Association of Realtors. That means what you’re buying at age 32 should be a place you’ll like in your 40s.
“You need to ask yourself where you think you’ll be in five years,” Jacobson said. “If you think you might grow out of your property, then you need to buy something that you can expect to be marketable in five years.”
Finding the balance between price, location and amenities can take time, Dreyer said, but waiting to buy until you’re comfortable with your choice is essential for long-term contentment as a homeowner.