How to Find Your Dream Home – WithoutLosing your Mind

By Cathie Ericson – 10/10/2018

Finding your dream home is an exciting adventure that, at times, can also feel all-consuming. On a good day, it’s fun to swipe through listings and whiz through every open house in your area, but after umpteen hours of it—and perhaps a lost bidding war or two—it can almost drive you mad.

If you sometimes feel like you’re spinning your wheels and wandering aimlessly from property to property, we get it. House hunt burnout is real. Yet there are also plenty of smart ways to keep your stress levels and sanity on even keel.

Get pre-approved for a mortgage before you even start

Do not pass Go, do not even look at online listings until you have your mortgage pre-approval lined up.

“Not only will a pre-approval make it easier to eventually make an offer as a serious buyer, but it will also help you narrow down your property search criteria so you can focus better,” notes Jackie Hinton, a real estate broker for Center Coast Realty in Chicago.

Make a must-have list and stick to it

This is not as easy as it sounds, says Hinton. “Before you start looking, write down the non-negotiable features your new home needs. Then if a place doesn’t have everything on the list, don’t go see it, no matter how curious you are,” she advises.

And the more specific the criteria, the better, contends Kate Herzig, an agent with Golston Real Estate in Arlington, VA. “For example, where I live, garages are really hard to come by, so if a garage is an absolute must-have, that is an easy way to narrow down your list of potential homes,” she says.

Focusing your list has a complementary benefit, in addition to saving time: It can help prevent “list creep,” which typically occurs when you see shiny objects in each new house. If you’re not careful, all of a sudden you might find your “must-have” list has grown from “3BR/2BA and a decent commute” to a new lust for a chef’s kitchen when you barely cook.

Home in on the neighborhood

Find an area that meets your criteria for amenities, commute, school district, etc., and then spend a weekend exploring before you commit, suggests Hinton.

“You might find that you don’t like an area as much as you thought you would because it’s impossible to find parking,” she says. Or, you might discover another hidden pocket that you love and didn’t realize was nearby.

Once you’ve taken a test drive and selected a neighborhood that you know is The One, home in on listings in that specific ZIP code. This allows you to shut out a lot of the noise that can make you crazy with options.

Pick a house style and forget about the others

Use a similar strategy with types and styles of properties. Once you’ve picked your neighborhood, resist the urge to visit everything that’s available, from condos to townhousesbungalows, and beyond.

“Every type of house has its own unique style, so you can eliminate homes that won’t suit your needs,” says Nick Woodward, a real estate agent at Keller Williams in West Hartford, CT.

For example, if you have several younger kids and don’t want your bedroom on a different level, steer clear of Cape Cod–style homes, which typically feature two or more bedrooms on the upper level and the master on the main.

Document your visits

It’s inevitable that by the fourth or fifth property, everything is going to start to blur together during a marathon day of showings. Brian Wasson, an agent with eXp Realty in Chicago, advocates keeping your smartphone handy and snapping photos from the minute you roll up to the driveway.

“Taking a picture of the ‘For Sale’ sign or front of the property first makes it easy to later distinguish between sets of photos,” notes Wasson.

Then, as you walk through the home, capture photos of everything you like, such as a killer view or to-die-for chef’s kitchen, as well as anything that feels awkward or out of place, from scary shag carpet to a funky layout. Take notes on the listing sheet so you can easily remember what features you were trying to capture in the photos, and you’ll have a great play-by-play of the house to relive later.

Remember only the top three contenders

“I tell my buyers that a home is either a contender or not,” says Brian Adams, real estate agent with StarPointe Realty in Killeen, TX. In other words, either it’s one of your current top three properties or you should forget about it. This simple trick means you have to keep only three homes in mind at a time.

Stop looking at listings already!

At some point, you have to just stop looking for additional options, says agent Zoe Kellerhals Madussi, a real estate agent at Triplemint in New York City.

“Some clients keep looking even after we have an accepted offer on a great place, still believing something better might come along,” she says. Eventually, you have to be satisfied with the choices at hand and make a decision. Just remember: The grass is rarely greener.

Cathie Ericson is a journalist who writes about real estate, finance, and health. She lives in Portland, OR. Follow @CathieEricson

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