House Hunting Advice from a Former Real Estate Assistant

Approximate reading time:7 minutes

Two weeks ago Science Guy decided to take a postdoc in a college town 3.5 hours away. I have spent most of the intervening time pinning unsustainable packing, cleaning, and organization plans on Pinterest, but we did manage to pull off 2 visits in 2 weeks. The first was for me to see the town and be assured that we weren’t leaving civilization completely, and the second was a whirlwind 24-hour house hunting trip to look at rental homes. It was hectic but we managed to look at approximately 12 properties in less than 12 hours and narrow our choices down to about 2 or 3. Hey, I didn’t spend two years working in real estate for nothing! Here are some tips for finding a home quickly and somewhat sanely.

  1. Make a list of must-haves and wanna-haves. We sat down and hashed out what we needed and wanted in our living space, bearing in mind that this wouldn’t be our forever home. I wanted a laundry room I didn’t have to go outside to access, and space for an office that wasn’t a dark corner in our bedroom. Science Guy wanted a man cave (or at least a place to put the TV and gaming systems that wouldn’t disturb the most important tiny member of our household) and a yard. We both wanted three bedrooms so we could actually host guests without feeling embarrassed, and more separation between the baby’s room and the kitchen than we have now, which isn’t hard because we currently have approximately eight feet so doing anything in the kitchen is essentially impossible when Fire Monkey is sleeping. Science Guy wanted a short commute (we discovered this is basically guaranteed since 15 minutes in any direction will pretty much take us out of town) and I was vehement about not living near undergrads. We would also like to be close to other families, grocery stores, parks and libraries, and stay within $1500 for monthly rent (preferably lower).
  2. Do your homework. Based on these criteria, we (by which I mean me) searched and the local MLS for suitable properties. Hubby helped by punching things into Google Earth to try and scope out each house before we saw it in person. We ended up with two lists for the two trips we took. The first list was smaller and we used it on our first trip for drive-bys as a way to scout out the town and different neighborhoods. We didn’t have enough time before or during our first trip to arrange walkthroughs, but the driving tour gave us a feel for where things were relative to the university, main shopping areas and major thoroughfares in town. The second list was our actual want-to-see list for the second trip we made. (This ended up needing to be frantically revised the day before our trip, but that’s another story.) We then made an enormous spreadsheet (because of course) listing our important criteria and whether a house met those criteria or not, along with numerical ratings from me and Science Guy.
  3. Connect with a realtor. To be honest, I actually probably didn’t need to do this because I’ve worked in the real estate industry, but it’s helpful to have someone contact listing agents and schedule showings on your behalf. I asked my former employer for a referral to a local agent in our destination, which is a good way to go if you know an agent in your current town. (Most brokerages will pay a referral fee so that’s the motivation for agents to give and take referrals.) Be aware if you’re renting, though, because rental commissions are typically very low and as a result you may get passed around from agent to agent within a brokerage before you land on someone willing to help you. We ended up with a hodgepodge of agents, owners, and property managers meeting us at the properties we saw.
  4. Give yourself enough time between showings. When I worked in real estate, there were clients who requested to see five or six properties an hour. The shotgun approach *might* work if the houses are right next to each other and you’re super picky discerning and have very firm criteria about your home so that you can just walk right out of a house if it doesn’t have, say, a putting green in the basement or something, but otherwise what ends up happening is that you run behind and your agent’s beleaguered assistant has to call *every single listing* to reschedule the showing. Please. Don’t do this. We scheduled showings every half hour and managed to keep up, but just barely. Give yourself at least 15 minutes in a home and factor in drive time between neighborhoods.
  5. Take videos. If you’re doing a showings blitzkrieg like we did, take video walk-throughs of every home, because I guarantee you will not remember the layout of each one after you’ve seen half a dozen. Those videos have proven invaluable in the two weeks since our trip every time we’ve asked, “Where’s the bathroom in House #2 again?” and “Does house #4 have any overhead lighting?” I did discover, though, that when I’m taking a video I tend to not really register what I’m seeing properly, so I would recommend walking through first without the video, and then making another pass with the camera so you know what to capture.
  6. Nickname the houses. This was Science Guy’s doing. Having spent two years working in real estate, I developed a preternatural ability to remember house addresses (although I did have a disconcerting and sometimes dangerous tendency to swap numbers…no one is happy when a $369,000 offer becomes a $639,000, except maybe the sellers). I would get blank stares, though, from my other half whenever I asked what he thought of certain addresses. So we started calling them “New House with Hill Backyard,” and “Vacuum Windows House,” and who could forget, “Dungeons and Dragons House.”
  7. Play with stuff. We didn’t do as good a job with this as we should have. When walking through a house, turn on sinks and showers (turn them off again quickly, of course), switch the lights on and off, flush the toilets, open and close doors and cabinets. Don’t mess with the inhabitants’ stuff, but try out the mechanisms you’ll be using on a day-to-day basis. People tend to ask about big mechanicals like the air conditioner and furnace, which are all important, but don’t overlook the little things because you’ll have to live with them every day. I once rented an apartment where the shower head was aimed squarely at my boobs and couldn’t be adjusted. (Fortunately this broke down quickly and was replaced by a more practical shower head.) I also lived in a condo for two years where the water pressure was so bad that if my roommate ran the laundry there was no water in the sinks in the rest of the house. And I’ve spent the last 3.5 years hauling the laundry in and out of the condo, up and down a flight of stairs, in rain, snow, cold, and heat. All of these are first world problems, to be sure, but if you don’t have to live with them, why should you?
  8. Factor in miscellaneous costs and savings. Whether you’re renting or buying, look closely at your monthly payment, which is more than your rent or mortgage. Don’t forget about property taxes, homeowner or renter insurance, HOA or condo fees, utilities, the cost of equipment for home and lawn maintenance, or the unicorn tears needed to clean a fancy finish in the home itself. Since we are renting, most major maintenance is covered by the landlord, but some places will mow the grass and others won’t. While Science Guy enjoys gardening, he has no desire to spend 5 hours a month maintaining a lawn containing only one species of monocot, so he wanted mowing to be included in the monthly rent. Utilities are handled differently everywhere, so make sure you knows who covers water, sewer, trash pickup, gas, electricity. Older heating/cooling systems and appliances may be less energy efficient, resulting in a higher utilities bill (and environmental impact, boo!), so keep that in mind when choosing a home. If there are any window treatments or furniture items included (that you want to use), factor in not just the monetary value but the time you won’t have to spend finding, buying, and moving furniture on your own.
  9. Think about your lifestyle and bad habits. We will basically double the amount of square footage that we have currently, and while Science Guy is excited about having more room, I’m a little nervous that we will just clutter up whatever space we do have. Walk through the property following the sequence of your day. Are the closets easy to access? Is there enough storage in the bathroom, hallways, and kitchen? Is there room for a drop zone for shoes and bags by every entrance? Are any of the bedrooms right above noisy places like the kitchen or garage door? (This is super important if you have a tiny human you don’t want to wake up!)
  10. Pay attention to environmental hazards. I worked in a real estate office that sold a lot of properties that were old (think early 20th century) but renovated, so a lead-based paint disclosure was standard in most of our listing and purchase contracts. What I failed to realize during my tenure there was that all that form discloses is that the seller doesn’t know of any lead-based paint hazards, not that there aren’t any risk factors. It’s especially important to know about the presence of lead if you have young children or plan to remodel an older home and kick up a lot of paint dust. In most areas of the Midwest, radon is also a common issue, so ask for a radon test if a home has a basement or crawl space. Look outside for hazardous or annoying plants, not just poison ivy but trees like the honey locust that have lots of thorns or cottonwoods that produce fuzz in the spring. (I grew up with a honey locust in my backyard and our current neighborhood has cottonwoods so for a few weeks in May it always looks like a stuffed animal factory exploded.)

We actually almost decided to go with one property and then found out some more information that made it seem less of a bargain than we initially thought. It’s better to find these sorts of things out before signing a lease (or purchase contract!) rather than after, so ask lots of questions and don’t settle for a runaround answer. One of the biggest factors nudging us toward one property over the other is the responsiveness of the landlord and his willingness to accommodate our needs/wants in order to secure us as tenants. (Apparently in a college town, married couples with small children are hot commodities as renters, who knew?) I’ve had inattentive landlords and absentee landlords in the past, and it’s kind of a pain when you need something fixed or addressed, so a responsive landlord is not a small deal. We’re hoping to finalize our decision this week and pack up the wagons in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

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