Real talk: buying a house can be intimidating. So we created the first-time homebuyer series to take the mystery and anxiety out of the house-hunting process. Dive into our complete guide which covers every step of the process: why you should buy a house, how to get pre-approved for a loan, how to find an agent, how to search for a home, how to make an offer (and negotiate!), how an inspection works and how to close once you find the dream home. Don’t worry we spell it all out for you so that if this is your first time (or third) you’ll have all of the information you need for a successful purchase right at your fingertips. Read the entire series here.
Now that you’ve found a real estate agent and been pre-approved for a home loan, it’s time for the fun part of buying a house: the search for your perfect home! Despite what you see on HGTV, it’s a little more complicated than walking through three homes and commenting on the paint color and style of tile in the bathroom. House hunting is an emotional process that can take quite a few months. You’ll be working closely with your real estate agent to find a house that best suits your needs, budget and wants. You’ll also be competing with other buyers who are looking at the same homes.
You may be wondering how to search for a home when you’ve never bought one before. We’ll cover everything you need to know:
- 7 things to know before you start house hunting
- The tools you can use to find the right house
- What to look for in a house and questions to ask
- A handy cheat sheet you can use to evaluate houses
- What your agent legally can’t tell you
- What happens when you finally find the dream home
If you’d like to jump to a certain section of the guide, just click the links above.
Let’s get into it!
Insight from Real Homebuyers
Brian and Taylor Decker
This young couple recently worked with a real estate agent to buy their first home after years of apartment living.
She and her husband have bought and sold several houses and know how helpful an experienced real estate agent can be.
7 Things to Know Before You Start House Hunting
House hunting is exhausting, emotional and can sometimes take longer than you’d like it to. But it can also be really exciting (we promise)! During your first meeting with your agent, they’ll prepare you for what the house-hunting process is going to look like. These are seven key things you should know before you start looking:
1. You might look at a lot of houses.
House hunting is not as easy as falling in love with the very first house you look at and buying it. It usually won’t work out like that! Your agent will counsel you that you will most likely look at least 8-10 houses before finding “the one.” Maybe even more! As you visit each house, give your agent plenty of honest feedback so they can refine their searches.
2. You might fall in love with a house and it won’t work out.
“We found a home and put in an offer and then had two or three days of negotiations. It was very tense,” said Taylor Decker. “They finally accepted our offer but then the inspection found some things that needed to be changed. Negotiations re-opened and we ended up withdrawing our offer. We were pretty bummed out.”
This can happen to anyone! You’ll find a house you love and maybe even go so far as to put an offer in on it. Then something will happen- the inspection turns up something really bad, the seller accepts someone else’s offer, the seller takes the house off the market, just to name a few possibilities.
This happened to Mollie Boers as well. “We made offers on two or three places that fell through and in my mind that was a lot of failure and heartbreak,” she said. “Just navigating through that process and playing the multiple offer game is the worst part. So having someone to do that for us and to tell us what to do was helpful.”
It’s not a good feeling to lose a house you started picturing yourself in. But you’ll have to be ready to roll with the punches and work with your agent to find a new house to fall in love with. To paraphrase Brian Buffini: don’t fall in love until they hand you the keys to the house.
3. You should be flexible and open to new ideas.
Are you dead-set on living in a Tudor-style house with no less than four bedrooms? Stay open to new ideas! Your agent will do their very best to find a house that matches all of your needs and wants, but sometimes you’ll have to compromise. Decide what your must-haves are, what your deal breakers are and what you’re willing to be flexible about. You may just end up falling in love with a house you never would have initially considered.
“Once we got started with the process, our agent was able to recognize where our tastes were at and pulled houses off the listing service that we didn’t necessarily look at,” said Brian Decker. “But she picked them based on what we told her. Those ended up being some of our favorite homes.”
4. Don’t get stuck on the superficial details.
Paint color is an easy fix, hardware can be changed out and carpet can be ripped up. Don’t miss the forest for the trees when it comes to evaluating a house. The superficial details can be distracting, but if something about a house is easily changed, don’t let it affect your overall opinion.
5. Be ready to act quickly.
“We met with our agent and looked at different styles of houses and talked about what we thought we would like and what she thought we might like better for our lifestyle,” said Taylor. “Then she set up five or six visits the next day. It got started really fast and we started looking at houses right away.”
Things happen quickly in real estate! Your agent may not hear about a showing until a few hours beforehand, a house could come up for sale unexpectedly, you may get a call on a Saturday about an open house. Be ready to act quickly- houses can sell quickly and you don’t want to miss out on the right one by not acting quickly enough.
6. Stay in constant contact with your agent.
A good real estate agent will keep you updated about everything that’s happening. They’ll let you know when a house is available for viewing, open houses, any changes and houses that are coming up for sale. Be responsive and make sure you’ve told your agent what your preferred method of communication is (email, call, text). If you are house hunting with a partner, decide who can be the most flexible about communicating during the workday.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your agent with your questions or concerns as well. A good agent will listen to your worries and take the time to answer all of your questions thoroughly and quickly.
7. Stay positive!
Honestly, house hunting can be tiring. You’ll see a lot of houses and start to fall in love with some and hate others. You may put in offers on more than one that are rejected or fall through for some reason. Stay positive and don’t let the process deter you from finding your dream home.
Remember, Taylor and Brian had to withdraw their offer on the first house they loved. “We were pretty burned out. But our agent did a really good job of reaffirming us and saying this isn’t how things usually work,” said Brian. “She did a great job of keeping our spirits high.
“That same day we found our house we’re living in now!” added Taylor. “So it worked out for the best and we’re thrilled it happened.”
Like we said, things change quickly in real estate! Be flexible, stay optimistic and let your agent do the hard work. They’ll guide you through the entire process with expertise and care.
The Tools You’ll Use in Your Home Search
The search for your dream house is going to be a collaborative process between you and your real estate agent. You’ll both use several tools to make the home search as productive as possible.
1. Multiple Listing Service (MLS)
This is the most accurate and helpful tool you’ll use during the search for a house. A multiple listing service is an information-sharing platform real estate agents use to publish listings and look for buyers and sellers. It’s maintained by the local REALTOR® organization and has the most accurate and up-to-date information on a house. An MLS will even have houses listed that aren’t on Zillow, Realtor.com or other third-party sites.
“When you work with an agent, you see what’s being listed and you see it first because they send it to you right from the MLS,” explained Boers. “You’re seeing things on Realtor.com and you’re seeing things on Zillow and seeing the Zestimate, but it’s not accurate. I was constantly telling my husband to stop looking at that stuff because our agent would send us the real listings from the MLS.”
Once you’ve told your agent exactly what you’re looking for in a house, they’ll set up a search on the MLS to find houses that fit your criteria in specific areas so they’ll be notified as soon as something comes up. Some agents might even send you a link to the MLS so you can do your own searches and flag the houses that catch your eye for your agent to see.
2. Third-Party Sites
The MLS is the most accurate tool you can use, but it doesn’t mean you can’t use other sites to search for a house. These are some of the most well-known house hunting sites you can use:
- Other agency sites
We’ve mentioned before that some of these sites are not always accurate. Don’t take Zestimates and other hard numbers on these sites as fact. Only the MLS will have the most accurate information on price changes, renovations to the home and other updates. However, these sites are a good starting point for you to evaluate homes in specific areas and to see what’s out there.
What should you do if you see houses you like on these sites? Send them to your agent. They’ll know how to check and see if the house is even available and if it is, they’ll get in touch with the listing agent for you.
3. Your Agent
Your agent is one of the best resources you have for house hunting. Real estate agents work within a wide network of other agents so they find out about houses coming up for sale that haven’t shown up on Zillow yet. They can also talk to the other agents in their brokerage to find out if their peers are working with sellers who may have a home that would fit your needs.
“Just out of the gate if you’re working with an agent you have an upper hand because you’ve told them what you want and then they set up a search that’s doing the work for you,” said Boers. “People who don’t use agents are missing out on half of the experience, in my opinion, and making it harder on themselves.”
Drive by a house in a neighborhood you love with a ‘For Sale’ sign in the front yard? Tell your agent. Hear about an open house? Tell your agent and they’ll go with you or they’ll coach you on what to ask the agent holding the open house. Don’t be afraid to keep asking your agent questions and sending them the houses you find.
What to Look for in a House
Before your agent will even show you any houses, you’ll have to sit down and talk about everything you’re looking for in a house. They’ll need to know:
- What neighborhoods you want to live in
- What your budget is (and how flexible it is)
- If you want a fixer-upper or a move-in ready house
- Design style preferences and dislikes
- Number of bedrooms you’ll need
- Number of bathrooms you’ll need
- Preferred yard size
- Preferred garage size
- Deal breakers
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! As a first-time homebuyer, you might not even know what you need. That’s where your agent can step in. They have the experience and knowledge to make suggestions based on the preferences you’ve expressed.
“Being first-time homebuyers, we didn’t really know what we needed,” said Taylor. “So it was really nice to have our agent point things out. Like if we said ‘Oh a two-car garage is fine,’ she’d encourage us to look into a 3-car garage because it made a difference.
“So having her to point us in the right direction when we didn’t really know what the differences would be or if we needed something at all was really helpful.”
Questions to Ask While House Hunting
So what should you keep in mind while you’re looking at houses? These are some of the big questions you should ask and have answered when looking at houses:
- Where is it located? Is the house on a corner lot, cul-de-sac or a busy road? Will that impact your quality of life there?
- Is there room to grow? If you know there’s a possibility your family will expand in the next few years, plan ahead and account for the fact that you’ll need more space.
- Is there room to host guests? If you know you’ll have family over during the year or would like to be able to host friends, make sure you have space.
- What repairs need to be made? This is especially important if you’re looking at older houses that will most likely need more fixed. You and your agent will have to decide what repairs would be reasonable for you to make and which you could ask the seller to do.
- What aesthetic updates are you willing to make? If you’re willing to paint, change the flooring, install new cabinets or make other design changes, you’ll want to account for it in your budget.
- How close are your neighbors? If you’re house hunting in the suburbs or the city, chances are good you’ll have a few neighbors. How close are they and how much privacy do you have?
- Is there an HOA? A homeowner’s association can set extra rules and guidelines you’ll have to abide by- as well as requiring monthly dues. You’ll have to decide if the benefits outweigh the costs.
- What is included in the sale? Sometimes sellers are willing to leave behind big appliances like the washer, dryer, refrigerator and stove. You can’t assume that though- it’s always best to ask your agent.
- How old are the roof, furnace, A/C, plumbing, electrical and sewage systems? These are big things that can be very expensive to fix. Your agent should have all the information you need on these. If something is in dire need of repair, you can always ask the sellers to fix it during negotiations.
- What will it look like in a different season? Sure the backyard is full of big, beautiful trees in the summer but in the winter, when those trees are bare, will you be able to see right into a neighboring house?
- What does the attic/basement look like? Everyone loves a finished basement! But basements can also hide issues like mold and water damage. Don’t be afraid to go down there and poke around. You’ll also want to look at the attic if the house has one.
- How much storage space is there? Older houses can be short on closets but might make up for it with unique built-ins. Make sure the house has adequate space for storage.
- Does it suit your lifestyle? Is the house in a quiet neighborhood with little going on for young families? Or is it mostly families with kids? Are there neighborhood events or does everyone keep to themselves? These are things you’ll want to find out.
- How close are you to public transit, if needed? If you take public transit to work every day, you’ll need to know how close you are to the nearest bus or train stop. If you ride a bike, is it a safe area for bikers?
- What entertainment is nearby? Find out how close you are to the nearest shopping center, mall, movie theater, restaurants and parks.
- Are you close to necessities? On the flip side of entertainment, you’ll have to find out how close you are to the nearest grocery store, doctors’ offices and schools if you have kids.
- How long is your commute? You may be willing to trade off a longer commute for the neighborhood you want, but it’s still worthwhile to calculate exactly how much time you’ll spend traveling to and from work every day. How flexible do you want to be on that?
- How much yard maintenance is there? A verdant lawn full of beautiful landscaping sounds great- until you’re the one taking care of it. How important is it to you and how much work and time are you willing to put into it?
- Is there a deck? Does the house have a deck, patio or lanai? If so, you’ll need to find out how old it is and how sound it is. It will be a good idea to check it out during the home inspection.
- What school district are you in? If you have kids, or know you will at some point, plan ahead and check out the schools in the areas you’re house hunting in. How good are the schools? Are there buses the kids can take if so, where are the stops?
- How pet-friendly is it? If you have dogs, make sure you’re looking at houses in neighborhoods with sidewalks or quiet side streets you can use for walks. If you plan to have any animals like chickens, you’ll have to make sure your neighborhood and the city it’s in allows them.
What Does a Seller Have to Tell You?
Some of the questions listed above may be answered by the seller’s disclosure. A seller’s disclosure is an official document that lists all known issues, historical details and remodels that have happened in the house while the seller has owned it. Typically, you’ll receive the seller’s disclosure when you make an offer on the property. However, a good real estate agent will already know most of the issues and will share that with you while you view the house.
A seller is legally required to disclose certain things (this varies by state) but doesn’t necessarily have to tell you everything. Iowa requires sellers to fill out this document that covers almost everything essential: the condition of the roof, sewage, HVAC, pest, plumbing and electrical; the presence of asbestos; if the house has lead-based paint; if the house is in a flood plain and more.
What are sellers not legally required to disclose? In Iowa, sellers do not have to disclose if anyone has died in the house, they do not have to share information about any appliances they leave behind, they do not have to disclose the presence of mold, if anyone has been buried on the property or if there are any big issues with the neighborhood that might affect your desire to move there.
It’s up to you and your agent to find out this information and decide if any of them are deal breakers for you.
Your House Hunting Cheat Sheet
Finding a good real estate agent to work with all but guarantees you’ll find the perfect home within your budget. An agent’s experience, knowledge and support can be invaluable during an exciting (and stressful!) time.
When you’re looking at so many houses, it can be hard to keep all of them straight at the end of the day. Zillow, Realtor.com and the other sites have apps you can use to save the houses you’re interested in so you can always go back and look at the photos.
However, it might help you to rank houses as you see them to help you keep track of them. You can use this house hunting ranking form. Simply list out the houses you look at and rank each house in each category on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best. Tally up the points for each house and then rank them. It’ll make it easier for you to winnow out your favorite houses!
What Your Agent Can’t Legally Tell You
Your agent is your best resource and advocate during the house-hunting process. However, there are a few questions you may ask that your agent cannot legally answer. Agents have to adhere to the Fair Housing Act, which was enacted in 1968 to prevent discrimination in housing against anyone based on gender, race, origin, religion, disability or family status.
Here are the topics your real estate agent cannot address with you:
Quality of the Schools
This may be a surprising one but real estate agents cannot share much information about the school district with you beyond which one you’d be in. Any information about the quality of the school has to be researched by you. Your agent can recommend research tools for you to use to find this out. You can also use a site like GreatSchools.org, which is the third-party site that Zillow uses to show local school information on their listings.
Crimes Rates and Quality of the Neighborhood
This is a hard one for agents to work with because it’s usually the first question you’ll ask them when you’re looking at a house. Crime rates are public record but agents can’t allude to a neighborhood being “good” or “bad” since it might be interpreted as a reflection of the neighborhood’s demographics. Once again, you’ll have to do your own research using public records or sites like Homes.com.
Who Lives in the Neighborhood
Even a question as innocent as “Do a lot of families live around here?” is a loaded one for agents. They can’t profile the “type” of people who live in the neighborhood since it could steer you against the house. The best way to find out this information is just to drive through the neighborhood on a weekend when people are likely to be out and about.
Neighbors on the Sex Offender Registry
An agent will not be able to tell you which, if any, of your neighbors are on the sex offender registry. That’s something you will definitely have to find on your own, using the National Registry and your state’s registry.
You’ll also want to do your own research into whether or not the house is on a floodplain. An agent will have some information on that but it’s ultimately up to the buyer to verify it and look into insurance.
Your agent can tell if there is an HOA or covenants in place in your neighborhood but they’re not required to provide you with the HOA paperwork before you buy. If your neighborhood does have an HOA, it’s up to you to find and fill out the necessary paperwork.
What Happens When You Find The Dream Home?
The big moment will come! You’ll walk into the house, your agent will share everything they know about it and you’ll think ‘I can see myself here. This is my house.’ That moment might happen as soon as you walk in the front door or it could take time (and maybe some tears) to get there.
Remember Taylor and Brian found their real dream house after the negotiations broke down on the first house they offered on. But they found their real house the same day!
Mollie shared her experience after she and her husband initially rejected a house that was run-down and didn’t stand out to them at first.
“I was kind of thinking about it in the back of my mind and so was my husband. Then we got another email saying the price had been reduced,” she said. “So we thought we should go look at it again. We went and looked at it again with our contractor and then put in an offer.”
Stay open-minded when you’re looking at houses and you never know which one could end up being “the one.” We’ll cover the nitty-gritty of the offer and negotiation process in the next installment of the first-time homebuyers series.
The house-hunting process is not always an easy one. There can be a lot of ups and downs, but your agent will be there every step of the way. Your agent is your best resource and advocate during the search for a house. Take advantage of their knowledge and expertise and you’ll find your dream home in no time!