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What’s the magic number in home search?

How many homes should buyers look at before making a decision?

That’s a question every real estate agent worth his or her salt has heard, most more than a few times. And there is no right answer. Some folks fall in love with the first place they see, while others look for years and never find their dream home.

Generally, the ones who make what seem like “lightning decisions” have already done their homework online before venturing forth to take first-hand tours of their favorite offerings. Those who must see lots of homes usually don’t know exactly what they want, or fear that if they stop looking, the next house would have been even better than the last.

According to the latest National Association of Realtors’ Profile of Home Buyers, the typical home search takes 12 weeks – almost a full quarter-year from beginning to end. Buyers usually spend two weeks looking at houses for sale on the Web before contacting an agent, and then after doing so, they look at a median of 10 houses before making their choices.

A whopping 43 percent found the house they ultimately purchased on the Internet. Real estate agents are now the second most common source for finding houses, according to the profile.

Still, when you get down to it, the most difficult part of the homebuying process, for most people, is finding just the right house. And the question of how many houses to visit came up the other day on ActiveRain, an online real estate community.

As usual, the responses were all over the ballpark. But a post from Ann Wilkins of East Bay Sotheby’s International Realty in Oakland, California, summed it up.

“Most buyers have done extensive online research and open house research before even contacting an agent,” Wilkins wrote. “I have had clients buy a house the first time we have gone out looking. Doesn’t happen often, (but) they know what they want and have been watching the inventory (online) and stepped up to the plate the first time out.”

At the same time, the agent said she has been working with a few clients for a year who have yet to the pull the trigger and are “still looking.”

“It really depends on the client and how specific they are in their requirements,” she said.

Claude Labbe of Real Living in Washington, D.C., agreed. “Isn’t it like dating? You look until you find the one you know is ‘the one.’ Some people walk down the aisle at 19, some at 23 and some at 31.”

Several agents who joined the discussion said some buyers, typically first-timers, have been led astray by those reality shows in which people look at one house, then another and finally a third. After just three, they are ready to make an offer. Should it always be that easy?

“Only on TV,” commented Mark Robinson of America’s First Funding Group in Beachwood, New Jersey.

Then again, sometimes it really does work that way.

“I have had buyers who bought the first house we looked at, and I had one buyer who looked at more than 50 before he made the decision to buy,” said Maria Morton of BHG Real Estate in Kansas City, Missouri. “He actually would have bought the second house we looked at, but waited two months to tell me that was the one. By that time, the house was sold.”

Ritu Desai of Samson Properties in Ashburn, Virginia, said that clients of hers recently asked how many houses they should look at. “They loved one of the homes they previewed, but wanted to confirm they are ready to make a decision or (know if) they should see more homes,” Desai said.

But, as Norma Toering of Charlemagne International Properties in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, pointed out, “There’s no magical number. They have to shop until they find the ‘right one.’”

One of Eve Alexander’s clients certainly knew. They were scheduled to view eight houses, but after the third, they were finished. They had found that elusive “one.”

“I tried to encourage them to look at the rest, but nope, they were done,” said the agent, who works with Buyers Broker in Windermere, Florida. “Bought house No. 3.”

Agents tend to agree, though, that with all the information that’s available on the Internet, it doesn’t – or at least it shouldn’t – take as long to find the right house as it used to.

Rod Pierson of Coldwell Banker C&C Properties in Redding, California recommends looking at many houses on the Web, then narrowing your choices to a handful, then doing a few “drive-bys” to narrow your list even further. At that point, it’s time to start touring.

“I used to spend weekends showing many properties to one client,” he said. “By the time we were done, they didn’t remember the first property.”

Said El Silva of RE/MAX Professionals in Waterbury, Connecticut: “With the amount of information online … it doesn’t take long for many buyers to feel ‘at home' once they get inside.”

Once you’ve reached this point, your instincts should take over. In other words, trust your gut. And once you’ve found “the place,” act quickly, agents advise.

“You need to buy it, as it may not be available the next day or next week,” warns Ric Mills of Keller Williams Southern in Tucson, Arizona. “I have had many hesitate, thinking there might be a better (house) and lose their first choice.

“If it is the right home – even if it’s the first home you see – don’t wait, or you could miss out.”

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