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Realities of Real Estate: Hunting guide for tracking down house

Once you’ve made the decision to buy a new home, part of the excitement is in the thrill of the hunt. Somewhere out there is the home of your dreams. It’s a basic instinct to be motivated by the discovery of something special and the hope that you’ll score big with a great buy.

It used to be that house hunting involved a lot of driving around, looking for your hidden jewel. Much of that has now been replaced with the click of a mouse. Nevertheless, some things associated with house hunting haven’t and probably never will change. There are some tips and tricks that will help you efficiently and effectively find a new home. In this column, we’ll give you the benefit of what we’ve learned during many years of showing literally thousands of homes.

You probably wouldn’t be surprised that our first suggestion would be that you find a real estate agent. Still, we can take a step back and recognize the desire for people to hold off on an agent and initially do a little poking around on their own. We can’t deny that there’s some fun in flying solo for a while.

Actually, there can be some benefit to the “go it alone” part of the process. This is often an opportunity for buyers to clarify what they’re looking for. That brings us to our first tip: Don’t be too quick to rule something in or out.

We all have preconceived notions about where we want to live and what kind of house we’d enjoy. Sometimes, those instincts are right; sometimes, they’re wrong.

Chris Coile, a legend in Annapolis real estate, has often told the story of how he had a client who said: “Don’t even show me a split foyer; I wouldn’t ever want to live in one.” Finally, after showing his client nearly every house that wasn’t a split foyer, Chris convinced her to take a look at one. She went inside and said: “Gee, these places have a lot of room; I think I like this house.” She ended up buying a split foyer. The lesson is that we don’t always know what we think we know, and past prejudices can change over time.

Another consideration when beginning your search is the extent to which you rely on the Internet. These days, too many people are beginning to think that just about anything can be accomplished with a keyboard and a mouse. Well, the Internet is great when you’re buying the latest gadget for two easy payments of $19.95 (plus shipping and handling). But when you’re ready to drop half a million on a house, a personal visit is probably in order.

Our next suggestion for house hunting is to make sure you know how much you can afford. This might seem pretty basic, but you’d be surprised at how many people want to look at all sorts of houses before they’ve taken the time to talk with a mortgage banker. Frequently, folks just want to get an idea of what’s out there before they launch headlong into buying a new house.

So, we’re not necessarily opposed to showing some homes before all the financial details get completely worked out. Nevertheless, you’ll want to get a handle on your buying power pretty early in the process. These days, mortgage rates are so low that you might be able to buy more house than you think. Plus, once you decide how much you want to spend, remember to include homes in your search that are priced at least 15 percent above your top end. Just because a house is priced at $500,000 doesn’t mean it’s worth that. You might get that $500,000 house for $425,000. And if your search only went up to $450,000, you could miss a nice buy.

Tip No. 4 is to make a list of “must have” vs. “like to have” for your new home. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who have a “money’s no object” kind of budget, there will be some compromises in selecting a new house. Most people start out by defining the geographic boundaries of where they want to live. Beyond that, size, style and special features (such as garage or fireplace) can fill out your list of priorities.

Also, revisit your list from time to time. As you see different homes, specific needs and wants might evolve in a new direction. Initially, you might think you can’t live without granite countertops, but remember, that’s the kind of thing you can add down the road. It might be better to opt for the bigger yard you wanted, since this a feature that can’t be changed later on. Your new home probably won’t be perfect right out of the box, so make sure to separate what’s fixable from what’s not.

Finally, don’t light up a whole bunch of agents in the process. Every time you call an agent, that agent is going to try to cultivate you as a client. A couple of common misconceptions about how real estate works that can sometimes contribute to why so many agents are unnecessarily launched into action. First, regardless of what company the agents work for, they can sell the homes listed by every other company. Second, going through the listing agent on the purchase of a house will normally not reduce the cost of selling for the owner and in turn help you get a better deal. Third, most agents don’t make more money by selling properties listed by their own company. In some cases they do, but again, it doesn’t change the cost to the seller. So, calling a whole bunch of agents isn’t really going to be of any benefit.

As you can see, there are a number of approaches to buying a house. Each of the buyers we represent tends to take a different tack. We help guide them, but we also allow for everyone to interject his or her individual style. After all, there is no absolute right way or wrong way to go about buying a house, and bringing some of your own ideas to house hunting can make it an even more fun and exciting adventure.

Bob and Donna McWilliams are practicing real estate agents in Maryland with more than 25 years of combined experience. Their email address is McWilliams@BobDonna.com.