This excerpt from “Home Buying 101,” by longtime Globe freelancer Jon Gorey, is reprinted with permission of the publisher. The book, slated for publication in February but available online for pre-order, offers expert advice on navigating this seller’s market, in Boston and beyond.
As you find promising listings, it’s time to start touring them with your buyer’s agent. Find your most comfortable shoes, because this may take a while.
Watching a show like “House Hunters” on HGTV — in which buyers tour just three homes for sale, one of which is almost always over budget, and then choose one to purchase — you may think the home search process could be tidily wrapped up in a weekend. But that’s not usually how it works in real life. (And by some accounts, it’s not how it works for TV buyers, either.) The average American home buyer reported touring nine homes over the course of an eight-week home search in 2020, according to the National Association of Realtors.
When it comes to home tours, more is better. Touring homes for sale isn’t just about finding a home to buy — it’s one of the most important parts of your home buying education.
Every home you enter, every yard you walk through, every countertop you run your hand over — whether it makes your eyes bulge with envy or your nose crinkle in disapproval — provides you with more information about what features you value the most and what it costs to get them within the reality of your local housing market.
Some buyers do fall in love with the first or second home they see and are lucky enough to get an offer accepted right away. Most others, though, will spend weeks or even months homing in on the right choice. That’s time well spent: Each home you see will make you a more informed buyer. But still … 50 homes? Really? Well, yes — and no.
How to tour homes
There may not even be 50 homes for sale in the community you’re targeting. However, if you accept that a “home tour” doesn’t have to be a formal real estate showing with your real estate agent present, and if you start early, you can tour a lot more homes than you think.
Once you’ve decided that you’d like to buy a home, even if you’re not yet financially prepared, start popping into open houses. They don’t have to be homes that you would consider buying, or even homes you can afford — at this point, it’s just field research. Take note of the price, size, location, and condition of the home, and whether that combination has resulted in a big, eager crowd of hopeful buyers … or a quiet, nearly empty house.
Every home you step foot in from now on should be considered a “home tour.” Visiting your in-laws or stopping by a friend’s party? Time to tune your senses into things you might have overlooked in the past: Pay closer attention to details like the floor plan and finishes, and make mental notes of qualities you like or don’t.
Ask these homeowners where they got the fixtures you like or how well their new flooring has held up. Find out whether they like living with the features you admire or if there are actually frustrating downsides to them. For example, rustic, rolling barn doors can be a stylish and space-saving way to close off a closet or powder room, but some homeowners find that they jam easily or fall off their tracks, making them less glamorous in everyday life.
Increasingly, home sellers are relying on virtual showings. Wherever possible, this is something you should take advantage of.
An online 3-D tour is a great way to explore a home from afar, and it can tell you a lot about its layout, light, and functionality. It can help you rule out homes that look appealing in well-staged photos but fail the “flow test” on a virtual walk-through — once you discover, for example, that the glamorously updated bathroom pictured in the listing is actually down a steep basement stairway, not off the upstairs bedrooms as you had imagined.
However, a virtual visit is usually a poor substitute for the full-sensory experience of visiting a home in person. You won’t hear the squeak of loose floorboards in a virtual tour, for example, or the rumble of trucks passing by on a busy road. You probably won’t notice the crumbling grout in the corner of the bathroom or be able to tell the difference between laminate and hardwood flooring. It’s impossible to detect a lingering odor of tobacco or musty mildew. And you won’t be able to get a literal feel for the texture of the countertops, cabinets, and other surfaces, or the tug of a sticky closet door that’s a struggle to open.
So the best use of virtual tours is as a way to screen new listings — to determine which ones are worth the effort of an in-person visit and which ones you can skip.
Send your agent
Another way to make your home search more efficient is to let your real estate agent filter listings for you. Real estate agents often get a first look at new homes as they hit the market. If you’ve been working together for a while and communicating your tastes and preferences, your agent will be able to tell you whether a new listing is worth your time or one you can safely ignore, and why.
And if you can’t see a home in person — if you’re relocating from another area, for example, or simply crunched for time — your real estate agent may be able to tour the place for you using FaceTime or another video-calling service. In addition to getting your agent’s expert opinion, that will allow you to ask questions in real time and zoom in on things you’d like a closer look at.
Have someone take a tour
If you make an offer remotely, make sure your agent has toured the property on your behalf and that you trust their judgment. You can (and should) also try to see the home in person before you finalize the sale — during the home inspection, for example.
Beware of buyer’s blur
All that said, touring too many homes in short succession can create a whirlwind sensation — before long, you can’t remember which house had the creepy basement and which one had the creepy neighbor.
Once you’re in the heat of your home search, use the aforementioned strategies to try to limit the number of homes you formally tour to two or three serious contenders per week. Take lots of photos with your cellphone to remind yourself later of little details or issues that catch your eye. It can even be helpful to jot down some quick thoughts or record your first impressions in a short voice memo to yourself once you’re back in the car.
THINGS YOU CAN CHANGE, AND THINGS YOU CAN’T
Learn to Recognize Possibility—and Its Limits
As you tour homes for sale, try to look beyond the surface. Don’t get distracted by the decor—none of it will be there when you move in. If you can approach the homes you tour with a bit of vision, you’ll have an edge over the many buyers who simply can’t mentally place themselves and their lives inside a drab or quirky home.
- Cosmetics: Realtors beg their buyers not to get hung up on outdated fixtures, tacky carpeting, or purple walls. As long as it still functions properly, virtually any cosmetic feature can be changed (or lived with until you have the money to upgrade). A simple coat of paint, in particular, is a cheap, transformational DIY project. So try to use your imagination and look beyond the seller’s style.
- Site grade: The way a home sits on its lot is an underappreciated trait. Ideally, you want the yard to slope gently away from the structure on all sides, so water drains away from the house, not into it. If that’s not the case, it’s usually easy enough for a landscaper to regrade the lot so you don’t risk ending up with a wet, moldy basement. If the home is on a hill, and no amount of regrading will help, remedies like a French drain can still protect your basement from water infiltration.
- Energy and efficiency: Don’t be afraid of a drafty old home. Adding insulation to the attic, basement, and walls can drastically improve energy efficiency, and many states offer rebates or no-interest loans to help pay for it. Many homes can accommodate rooftop solar panels to produce renewable energy; if yours can’t, it’s getting easier to sign up for a community solar plan or to select 100 percent renewable energy from your utility. If a home is heated with oil, it’s possible to install an electric heat pump to reduce oil use.
- Landscaping: Nature takes time, but you can create the yard of your dreams through thoughtful planting and pruning if there’s enough room to do so. Don’t let an overgrown or unkempt yard deter you.
- Layout: It’s typically possible to knock down walls during a renovation to improve a floor plan’s flow, but not always. If you have your heart set on opening up the kitchen to the living area, ask a contractor or structural engineer to verify whether that will be possible, or what your options are if it’s a load-bearing wall.
- Square footage: It’s rarely easy or cheap to do—you can’t just buy square footage at the hardware store, after all—but there’s often a way to squeeze some more living space out of a home if needed. That may mean finishing a basement, dormering an attic, or building an addition. Even adding a deck or patio can increase your usable space for a good portion of the year. Such solutions may not be an option in a condo, unless there’s potential for a loft space, for example. Even a single-family home may be maxed out if every nook and cranny has been updated and town zoning won’t allow you to expand the building’s footprint any closer to neighboring properties.
- Foundation issues: It’s not always a sign of a major problem, but a cracked or damaged foundation can definitely be a big concern for a buyer. But as any contractor will tell you, “Anything can be fixed with enough money.” That’s not to say that you want to be the one to fix a damaged foundation! It could cost tens of thousands of dollars—or more—to address, or could be a symptom of other costly problems. But even this most dreaded of home issues can generally be remedied if necessary.
- Location: It is everything in real estate. Where that home sits is where it will stay, and that will define your public school system, your tax rate, and even the air you breathe. Getting beyond the neighborhood into site specifics, a corner lot offers lots of light and views—but it also means having less privacy and two sidewalks to shovel. A hilltop location is always nice, but it may mean hiking uphill to get home or braving a slippery road in winter. And if it takes forty-five minutes to get downtown from your location, that’s probably not going to change.
- Acreage: You can add square footage by building an addition, but only if there’s room on your lot to do so. Unless your neighbor’s home goes up for sale (and you somehow can afford to buy it), the size of your lot is what you’ve got.
- Orientation: If you like waking up to morning light, then look for a home with east-facing bedrooms. Love an afternoon glow in the living room or kitchen? Look for windows that face the south or southwest. If the garage takes up the entire south side of the home, meanwhile, you’re going to miss out on a lot of sunlight.
- Elevation: While you can address your site grade to try to prevent a wet basement, there’s no changing the elevation of your lot. Low-lying areas may be prone to flooding (and may require flood insurance as a mortgage condition), and as sea levels rise, that risk will only intensify. It is possible, though costly, to elevate your home out of danger by raising the entire structure and all mechanical systems above the floodplain. But that won’t stop the road leading to your home from getting submerged during a storm surge, along with much of the surrounding neighborhood.
- Ceiling height: Homes built during frugal times, such as the 1700s or the 1940s, often have low ceilings that can feel a bit claustrophobic. Unless there’s a drop ceiling you can remove, you’re generally stuck with the ceiling height you see. (Sometimes, though, it’s possible to strip the drywall or plaster and expose the ceiling joists—as well as any wiring and plumbing— adding a few more inches and a rustic industrial look overhead.)
Excerpted from “Home Buying 101″ by Jon Gorey. Copyright © 2022 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.