Home & Garden

Screening tools help narrow home search

Right now, there are more eager homebuyers than available properties in many neighborhoods. Even so, real estate experts advise buyers against lowering their standards in terms of the homes they consider visiting.

If you make a bad choice, “You’re stuck with that house and it’s a huge investment,” says Ashley Richardson, a long-time agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (www.crs.com).

Before she takes any of her home-buying clients to look at property, Richardson urges them to use the Internet, including mapping and street-view sites, to narrow the list of possibilities.

When Richardson entered the real estate field in 1993, her typical home-buying clients, with fewer screening tools at their command, visited about 50 homes before deciding what to buy. These days, they’ve ruled out all but a few properties before they get in her car for a tour.

“Most of my buyers look at just five or so houses before making a final selection. And, surprisingly, the property they buy is usually the top one on their short list,” she says.

Sid Davis, a veteran real estate broker and author of “A Survival Guide for Buying a Home,” agrees, saying buyers who make the best final decision save time by “doing a thoughtful review of what you really want and need in a house, and then shrinking the candidate houses to just a few,” Davis says:

Here are a few pointers for homebuyers:

Filter searches by square footage

Large houses, which lost some luster during the real estate downturn, are regaining popularity. As a result, square footage is once again a factor in housing selection for many purchasers.

“Face it … for almost everyone, bigger is better,” says John Rygiol, an independent real estate broker affiliated with the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents ( www.naeba.org).

Though many baby boomers aspire to move to a low-maintenance, single-level property, Rygiol says relatively few want to downsize in terms of living space. Meanwhile, their grown children typically also want as large a home as they can afford.

“Because lots of space is still so important to people, I recommend that buyers sort housing options by square footage. Price per square foot remains a very good measure,” he says.

Rygiol says it’s not unusual to find that a small home can cost significantly more per square foot than a mid-sized property in the same area. And over time, the mid-sized home should be worth more.

“If the square footage of space in a property isn’t shown on the listing you receive, ask your agent to take measurements for you,” he says.

Count the bathrooms

In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for several members of a family to share the same bathroom. The cultural norm was that people should be willing to wait their turn for their daily shower or bath.

The ideal today is for all family members to have their own bathrooms.

“These days, buyers are horrified at the thought that their children would have to share a bathroom,” Rygiol says.

Of course, homes in older communities are likely to have fewer bathrooms than those in new subdivisions. But whether you’re interested in an older community or a newer one, Rygiol recommends homes with more bathrooms.

“What’s wonderful, and now more common, in brand-new communities is for every bedroom to have its own bath. That gives you the ultimate in privacy and convenience,” he says.

Study proximity to shopping

Use an Internet mapping site such as Google Maps to quickly determine if a house you’re considering is on a street with heavy traffic or a dead-end lane. In addition, you can use this online tool to see how close a property is to shopping.

“You want to be close enough to a supermarket for convenience and reasonably close to big box retailers. But you don’t want to live right next to a Wal-Mart parking lot,” Davis says.

Take note of the direction

“Generally speaking, people prefer a place that faces south over one that faces north. Because of that, a south-facing house may be worth more over time,” he says.

Many people also drive by properties that interest them before making an appointment to go inside.

“This allows you to pre-screen for curb appeal, which is a huge factor in potential appreciation,” Davis says.

Use your head and your heart

Homebuying decisions involve both objective and subjective elements, Davis says. For example, objectively, a family with three young children probably needs at least four bedrooms. But subjectively, they also want a house that feels welcoming to both family and friends.

“A house should give you an instant feeling of quiet harmony, with everything in proportion,” Davis says.

Avoid focusing too much on certain features that may not gel with the property, Richardson says, including the crystal chandelier in the front foyer.

“Bells and whistles matter less than whether the house will really work for you on a day-to-day basis,” she says.

After creating a short list of finalist properties based on objective criteria such as test scores at the neighborhood schools, Richardson says it’s time to start focusing on your emotional reactions.

“It’s surprising but almost always true that people bond instantly with the right house the moment they walk through the front door,” she says.