OK, you have the prequalification and preapproval process behind you (whew!). Now is the time to start doing your homework and taking some field trips. The best advice I can give any buyer is do the research.
If you are changing cities, start reading the local news and classified ads to get a feel for different neighborhoods. However, using the Internet to find a home, a Realtor, a neighborhood and community resources is probably the fastest and easiest way to research your new town.
For local moves, you have the advantage of driving around neighborhoods that interest you and seeing which homes are for sale. Particularly on weekends, you will see "Open House" postings. Do not hesitate to visit open houses; this is an excellent way to get familiar with the market.
Your Wish List
Making sure you end up with the right home involves figuring out what features you need, want and do not want in a home. Before starting your search, make a "wish list" to decide which features are essential, which are nice "extras," if you happen to find them, as well as those that are completely undesirable. The more specific you can be in what you want, the more effective your home search will be. Keep in mind that in the end, every home purchase is a compromise. Create your own, personalized wish list, and when you are finished, share it with your Realtor.
Try These Tips
Make a list of activities. List movie theaters, health clubs, churches and stores, etc., that you visit regularly. See how far you would have to travel from each neighborhood you are considering to engage in your most common activities.
Check out the school district. This is especially important if you have children, but it also can affect resale value. If you have school-age children, visit schools in the neighborhoods you are considering.
Find out if the neighborhood is safe. Ask the police department for neighborhood crime statistics. Consider not only the number of crimes but also the type, such as burglaries or armed robberies, and the trend of increasing or decreasing crime.
Determine if the neighborhood is economically stable. Check with the city's economic development office to see if income and property values in the neighborhood are stable or rising. What is the percentage of homes to apartments? Apartments do not necessarily diminish value but do mean a more transient population. Do you see vacant businesses or homes that have been for sale for months?
See if you will make money. Ask your Realtor to supply information about price appreciation in the neighborhood. Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, this information may give you a sense of how good of an investment your home will be. Your Realtor also may be able to tell you about planned developments or other changes in the neighborhood such as a new school or highway—that might affect value.
Make personal observations. Once you have narrowed your focus to two or three neighborhoods, go there and walk around the area. Are homes tidy and well maintained? Are streets quiet? How does it feel? Pick a warm day if you can, and chat with people working or playing outside.
Buying a home can be one of life's most exciting experiences and one of the most challenging. The more prepared you are, the less overwhelming the buying process will be.