What You’ll Learn
How to prepare for your home search ahead of time
How to determine your wants and needs lists and narrow down location
What aspects and features to consider when touring a home
House hunting is hands-down the most exciting stage of the homebuying process, but it can also be one of the most nerve-wracking. You probably have some idea of the things you need in a home, the things you want in a home, and things you absolutely don’t want in a home. But when you tour a home in person, it’s easy to lose focus or pay attention to the wrong details.
There are typically two ways to see a home that’s on the market: attend an open house or schedule a private tour. In some instances, you may also have the opportunity to do a virtual tour of the home—which can be a useful alternative if you're unable to attend in person.
As the name suggests, an open house is an open invitation for anyone to show up and inspect a home during set hours. A listing agent will be there to field questions and give interested parties more information on the home. Private tours are usually set up with the listing agent or your own real estate agent. When a home really catches your eye, it’s typically better to schedule a private tour so you can take your time asking questions and take any measurements and photos.
This guide will help you focus your thoughts and stay organized as you prepare for home tours, so you can make informed decisions and place an offer with confidence.
How to prepare for a home tour
First things first: Find out how much home you can afford
Before you start browsing listings, let alone touring homes, you should have an idea of what you can afford. To avoid getting your heart set on a home that’s out of your financial reach, spend a little time with a mortgage affordability calculator. These kinds of tools can help you confirm hypothetical home loan amounts, purchase prices, monthly mortgage payments, and whether you have enough in down payment savings.
Pro tip: Come prepared with a pre-approval letter
Confirm your eligibility for a home loan by going through the pre-approval process. (FYI: it takes as little as 3 minutes with Better Mortgage, and it doesn’t require a hard credit check.) A pre-approval letter will provide you with a more accurate estimate of how much you’ll be able to borrow once you meet your lender’s conditions. Pre-approval letters can also add leverage to any home purchase offers, because they show agents and sellers that your offer is serious and you’ve already done the legwork to secure future financing.
Make a list of your “needs” vs. your “wants”
Once you have an idea of what you can afford, it’s time to think about what your ideal home looks like. Start by making a concrete list of the things you absolutely need.
Perhaps you require a certain number of rooms to accommodate your family, work, or lifestyle. For example, you know you’ll need three bedrooms for your growing family, or an extra room to serve as a home office because your company’s going remote. Understanding your must-haves will help you narrow down your home search so you won’t waste time touring houses that aren’t quite right.
Next, make a list of your wants—the features and things that may be nice to have but you could live without. These might include things like yard space, new appliances, or a fireplace. In other words, they’re things you picture in your dream home, but you could live without them. These will come in handy to weigh the pros and cons of similar properties.
If you’re having trouble determining a need vs. a want, think about whether the feature would be easy and affordable to change once you move in, or whether it would be impractical or prohibitively expensive. For example, adding a dishwasher is a relatively small and inexpensive project compared to adding a garage. So, if your heart is set on a garage, you might consider that a need.
If you’re looking at home listings online, they’ll likely have different criteria you can use to filter listings. If you’re working with a real estate agent, talking to them about your needs and wants will help them find properties that may work for you.
Location, location, location
There’s a reason why “location, location, location” is such a common refrain in real estate. The address of your home can play a significant role in its appreciation as an investment. And if you plan on living in the home for even a short period of time, you want to make sure it’s somewhere you’re comfortable spending time. Before deciding on a location, it’s worth considering:
- Lifestyle and preferences: Are you looking for a home in a quiet suburb or a condo in a walkable downtown area? Do you want an acre of land, or do you want to avoid lawn maintenance altogether? Are you comfortable with a house on a main road, or would you prefer something more tucked away? Having some basic lifestyle criteria will help narrow your search.
- School district: If you have kids or plan to have a family in the future, school districts might be a major factor in your home search. Not only can schools affect your kids’ education experience, but they can also affect property values.
- Property taxes: Take a look at the last decade of property taxes for the counties where you’re thinking about touring homes to get an idea of how your property taxes may change over time. Increases in property taxes may not be a bad thing—often, it’s a sign of growth, improvement, and more services and resources for residents. Just be sure to consider the costs in your budget.
- Neighborhood and surrounding areas: Do your research to learn about overall livability ratings for categories like crime, amenities, and walkability. Consider driving around any areas you’re considering to see how well-kept homes, streets, and local parks are.
- Future zoning and infrastructure: Ask your real estate agent and/or the listing agent what they can tell you about any major changes planned for the area. Are there major development or infrastructure projects planned? New developments can mean increased traffic, but they might also mean increased property values.
Considering these location factors can help give you a clearer picture of where you’ll want to live.
Tips for touring a home
Now that you have nailed down some important criteria for finding the perfect home, it’s time to start seeing some properties.
A home tour is your best chance to ask questions and see if the property fits your needs. Here are some important things to think about as you’re touring homes:
What to consider during the home tour
Structural condition, utilities, and HVAC
As you walk through a house, keep an eye out for any major cracks in the walls, floors, and ceilings. Structural damage, roofing, and HVAC systems are expensive fixes, so don’t be afraid to ask about any significant issues or renovations that may have occurred.
Water damage and smells
Look out for signs of water damage or mold, which may indicate a moisture problem. Water damage can lead to significant structural problems and can be very difficult (and expensive) to fix. You’ll also want to take notice of any strong odors from smoke or pet urine, which can be persistent and difficult to remove entirely.
You’ll likely notice if there are plenty of closets, cabinets, and other storage areas, but it can be easy to overlook their absence. If you’ll need to add dressers or other storage, they can take up significant space in a room, so it’s good to keep in mind when you’re visualizing how you’ll use a space.
Homes in a city or downtown area may not always come with designated parking spots. If you commute or otherwise use your car often, you’ll want to find out what the parking situation is like and if there’s street parking or other parking options available. Parking can get competitive quickly in more densely populated areas. On the other hand, neighborhoods with ample parking may have regulations about street parking which is something to consider if you like to entertain.
Don’t get caught up on the small things
It’s easy to get distracted by dated appliances, paint or wallpaper that doesn’t match your taste, and other cosmetic details. Keep in mind that many of the things that will catch your eye during a home tour are fairly simple and relatively inexpensive to change. The bones of the house and utility systems are far more important to consider for the long term than the shag carpeting that can be easily removed.
Update your must-haves
As you visit more homes, you might find new things you’re willing to compromise. Don't be afraid to update your wants and needs as you go. You may decide that you can’t deal with a small kitchen afterall, and that’s okay. Touring homes is a learning experience.
What happens next?
Whether it takes one house tour or dozens, there’s no doubt that finding “the one” is an exciting experience.
Before you jump into an offer, take time to review your wants and needs list. If you can, walk the area during different times of day to get a sense of traffic, lighting, and noise. If you have the opportunity, talk to your potential neighbors to introduce yourself and ask questions about the area.
You’ll also want to make sure “the one” works with your budget. While the asking price might fit into your pre-approved limit, there are other factors that can affect affordability like homeowners association fees, homeowners insurance, taxes, and utilities.
When you’re ready to put in an offer, talk to your real estate agent to see if there are other contenders and what those offers might look like. Asking about recent sales of comparable homes (comps, for short) can give you an idea of how competitive the market is in that area. Your real estate agent can help you answer any questions and submit a competitive offer.
Ready to start your home-touring journey? Get pre-approved for a mortgage today, so you’ll be ready to put in an offer when the perfect house comes along.