When my husband and I bought our home—love at first sight—it felt like the end of a hard-won battle, a sensation familiar to many house-hunters. We’d toured over 100 properties over an enormous geographic area, politely traipsing through every room even at places we knew weren’t for us, making awkward conversations with homeowners and realtors all the while.
Needless to say, we learned a lot.
Naturally, if you’re house-hunting, you want to spend the least amount of time touring inappropriate homes and the maximum hours enjoying your new dream house. Here are some key tips on what to pay close attention to—and what you can quite literally ignore—on a house tour.
Where to Start
First off, know that there are all kinds of ways to tour homes, from the old school (often-awkward open houses with other potential buyers) to the new (touring yourself, even without a realtor, thanks to smartphone self-entry). If you’re proactively scouring the market, you’ll likely experience a little bit of everything.
No matter the format, however, the biggest challenge with house-hunting is keeping yourself focused on what ultimately matters most…to you. Know that any home on which you place an offer will have a professional building inspection—most mortgages are contingent upon it—so the touring stage of the house-hunting process has more to do with your personal checklist than behind-the-scenes elements such as working plumbing, roofing, and septic systems.
In other words, hone your definition of what makes a dream home with each tour, but conserve your precious energy. Don’t feel like you need to become a general contractor before you walk through that first front door.
What to Skip
Remember that your time is precious, and you’re on a mission. It may seem rude to not chat up the homeowner or partake of the crudité spread laid out by the realtor, but it’s really okay—you are all here to make a deal. Don’t feel awkward about getting down to business and briskly checking out every detail of the home.
In an ideal world, every for-sale home would be thoughtfully renovated and tastefully staged. But if you’re casting a wide net, you’ll come across all manner of design and renovation decisions. All pros agree that, yes, hideous decor can be off-putting, but it shouldn’t sour you on an otherwise solid home. Ugly paint jobs are easily and cheaply fixed, and the current owner’s living room set will be long gone before you move in. Focus instead on the underlying structure and layout of a home to see what glory may lie beneath.
Your home will likely be the biggest financial investment you’ll ever make, so don’t let anyone pressure you into a sale—not your family, your realtor, or your bestie who desperately wants you as a neighbor. If possible, ask the seller to let you visit the house on your own, without the distraction of other buyers or dealmakers; sit with the space and take it all in, quietly.
While you’re there, experts suggest that you do check that everyday fixtures and interior work are in proper working order: Open every tap, flick on every light switch, flush every toilet and take notes on anything that’s not up to snuff. (Little fixes can oftentimes add up to huge bucks, so be willing to move on if an initially dreamy property shows signs of being a money pit.)
Finally, even though your ideal market might be tight, decide before you even begin your house hunt what things are negotiable and what are deal-breakers. It’s good to be flexible, say, about adding an extra five minutes to your commute for the perfect place, but if you have kids (or are planning for them), being within a great school district is non-negotiable.
Most experts agree that the siting of a house and exposure to natural light is one of the most crucial factors in choosing a home. Abundant sunlight has been proven to boost our mood (not to mention making every interior much more Instagramable), and a home not hemmed in by hills or thick vegetation will “breathe” much more efficiently. Pay close attention to the landscape and trees surrounding every home you tour, and make sure there’s ample natural light in all of the rooms. For a house you truly love, it’s worth visiting at different times of the day to check out the exposure from sunup to sundown.
The powerful adage “how you do anything is how you do everything” also applies to homes. When you’re on a tour, take the time to look at the little things. Do the doors hang evenly in their frames? Is the tiling in the bathroom meticulously spaced and flush with the wall? Are the doorknobs and other fixtures fastened well and in good working order? Are any of the light bulbs burned out? If you see a bunch of small problems and things that seem “off,” it’s often a sign that the previous owners deferred maintenance.
And lastly, use your nose. Experienced real estate agents say that any potent masking scent—from candles, plug-in wax burners, even fresh-baked cookies—at a home tour is almost always a sure sign that the seller has something unsavory to hide. Don’t be shy: Poke around closets and under-sink cabinets and sniff for any indication of mold or decay.
The bottom line: the more houses you tour, the quicker you’ll learn to assess what makes for a great structure, and which ones you can skip walking into altogether. Don’t let yourself get rushed through a tour, stay true to your checklist, and feel free to revisit potential winners multiple times. With any luck, it’ll take you far fewer tours than our 100+ to find your very own home sweet home.