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100 questions every first-time home buyer should ask

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need. — Rolling Stones

The difference between being a wanna-be and a successful home buyer may boil down to nothing more than knowing the difference between what you want in a home, and what you can’t live without. It sounds simple, but that difference requires an ability to recognize what’s really important to you and compromise on the rest. Unfortunately, the ability to compromise is often lost between two spouses or partners who forget that they can’t afford to satisfy their every whim.

Should I make a wish list? What about a reality check?
First, let’s talk about what constitutes a wish list. A wish list is nothing more than a list of everything you’ve ever dreamed of having in your house: granite or slate kitchen countertops (or perhaps inlaid, stained concrete), a wood-burning fireplace, a three-car garage, a four-person whirlpool, the best school district in your state, a five — minute walk to work, four bedrooms, a master suite with his and her closets, and vaulted ceilings. You get the picture.

The best real estate agents and brokers will ask their first-time buyers to create a detailed wish list of everything they’d love to have in a home, grouped in these four categories:

  1. Location.Think about where you like to shop, where your children will attend school, where you work, where you worship, and where your friends and family live.
  2. Size.Think about the number of bedrooms you want, the size of the garden, the extra room you may need for expansion or family flexibility, where you’ll do the laundry, and what kind of storage space you need.
  3. Amenities.Think about the garage, the kitchen and bathroom appliances, a swimming pool, a fireplace, air-conditioning, electrical wiring, a heating system, and hardwood floors.
  4. Condition. Do you want a home in move-in condition? Or are you willing to contribute some “sweat equity,” to borrow a This Old House phrase, to build in value?

At first glance, many of these items may seem to conflict with others on the list. You want to be close to a transportation network so it’s easy to get around, and yet you want a quiet and peaceful neighborhood. You might want to walk to work, but when you come home, you want your neighborhood to be silent and secure. You want a wide variety of shopping, and yet you need to be close enough to your health club to use it on a regular basis. You want to take advantage of the city, and yet live in the suburbs.

That’s what a wish list is all about. If you’re honest about what you want, the inconsistencies and conflicts will be easy to spot. Most first-time buyers get confused by all their choices and take on a “kid in a candy store” mentality.

Choosing between different styles of homes is difficult. One broker has, each year, a few first-time buyers who need to see at least one of everything in the area: a California ranch, an old Victorian, an in-town condo, and several new subdivisions. It takes a tremendous amount of time, which is wasted if the buyer decides ultimately to go with a loft.

To help their clients define their needs as well as their wants, some agents and brokers also use a tool called a reality check.

Joanne, a real estate sales associate in New Jersey, asks her first-time buyers very specific questions about what they need for survival in their first home. “I just know their pocketbook will not allow them to have everything they want. I tell them they’ll begin to get what they want with their second home, not the first.”

Here are some of the questions Joanne might ask:

  • How many bedrooms do you need?
  • How many children do you have, or do you plan to have others while you are living in this home?
  • Is a garage absolutely necessary?
  • Why do you need a home with a basement or attic?
  • Do you use public transportation on a daily basis?
  • How close to work do you need to be?
  • Does driving on a major expressway, or in traffic, make you crazy?
  • Do you want to care for a garden, or would you prefer a maintenance-free home?
    By asking specific questions about your daily lifestyle, brokers can center in on the best location, home size, and amenities for your budget. They can read between the lines on your wish list.

    Wish lists and reality checks have another use. By prioritizing the items on your list, a good real estate agent can tell which items you might be willing to trade off. For example, if the first wish on your list is to have a four-bedroom, two-bath house, and the thirty-eighth item is a wood-burning fireplace, then the broker knows you’d probably prefer a four-bedroom, two-bath house without a fireplace to a three-bedroom, two-bath house with a fireplace.

    The bottom line: Unless you win the lottery or are independently wealthy, you’re probably going to have to make some trade-offs when buying, your first home.

    And, sometimes, you’re going to make a mistake.

    Ilyce and Sam’s Story
    When Sam and I bought our first place together (a vintage Chicago coop built in the 1920s), we didn’t own a car. We lived in the city, overlooking Lake Michigan, and had easy access to public transportation, so we couldn’t even envision that one day we might change our minds and purchase a car. Our wish list included a parking place, but it was low on the list, maybe around the twentieth item.

    On the other hand, a wood-burning fireplace was pretty high — about number five — on our list. You can guess what happened. When we were given a car a few years later, and began hunting and pecking for parking spaces on the street, we were sorry (particularly on cold, snowy, below-zero Chicago nights) that we didn’t have a space in which to park the car. But not as sorry as when we wanted to sell our unit and discovered that most home buyers in that area wouldn’t even consider a building that had no parking. Fewer people cared about the fireplace, although we loved it. You can bet that a two-car garage was near the top of our list for the next home we purchased.

    Brokers say the best wish list should include everything you want in a home. If your initial list says “nice house, four bedrooms,” try asking yourself these questions to stimulate your true desires:

  • How often do I go to the city? Suburbs? Country? Where would I rather be?
  • How much time do I want to spend driving to work each day?
  • Do I have frequent guests? Do I need a separate guest room? A separate bath?
  • Do I work from home? Does my spouse or partner? Do we need separate office space?
  • Do I want a special play area for my children?
  • Will my children take a bus to school, or walk, or will I have to drive them?
  • Now far away is my house of worship?
  • Do I want a garden? Will I raise vegetables? Flowers? Or are trees and decorative shrubs enough?
  • Must I have a garage? For two cars? Three cars? Do I need a dedicated parking space? Will a covered outdoor space suffice?
  • How far away is the airport? Grocery store? Dry cleaner? Gym? Fire and police stations?
  • What is my favorite form of recreation and how far away is it?
  • Where does my extended family live? Where do my close friends live? How far away from them do I want to be?
  • Do I want a home that is in mint condition (also called “blue ribbon” condition in some parts of the country)? Or, do I want to buy a small house on a large lot and fix it up, or add onto it, over time?
    Questions involving lifestyle are crucial components of a wish list. Do you and your spouse like to stay in on Saturday nights? Or do you prefer to be “close to the action”? Will that preference change over the years? Are you a single person or married with children? Are you a single parent? A gay couple? Do you travel frequently? Do you own a car? Do you own a boat, or are you contemplating purchasing one in the near future? Will you want to be within fifteen minutes of a marina?

    You can see how personal preferences feed into the list. Each spouse or partner has to create his or her own wish list. Then, together, you negotiate the wishes via a reality check. Use the worksheets that follow.

    When you have all your information down on paper, try to organize it into one comprehensive sentence. For example: “I want a four-bedroom, three-bath home with a large garden, a fairly new kitchen, loads of closet space, a wood-burning fireplace, and a two-car garage, located within a fifteen-minute commute to the office and church, a short walk from the high school, in such-and-such area.”

    That’s a start. Next, prioritize the items in your wish list and identify any items you’d trade off for others. For example, would you give up a wood-burning fireplace if it meant having a two-car garage? Could you get by with a smaller house if it meant you’d be in a better school district? Would you prefer to be closer to work even though it means giving up a large garden? What if you had to live in a condo but could walk to work?

    If a wish list is everything you want in a home, a reality check is everything you can’t live without. For example, you may want a four-bedroom home, but you absolutely need three bedrooms. You may want a large garden, but you really need an outdoor area where you can hang out and grill “dogs” and burgers for your friends. Your reality check may repeat many of the items on your wish list, but in pared down versions. Be completely honest about the minimum YOU will need, to be comfortable in your home.

    From your reality check list, create a single sentence that represents your basic needs for a home. If you’re a single woman, your reality check sentence might be: “I need two bedrooms [mostly for resale purposes], two bathrooms, a dedicated parking space or attached garage, some sort of outdoor living space, twenty-four-hour security in the building, and a twenty-minute (or shorter) drive to work.”

    These details give your broker something to work with. He or she can take your wish list and begin to match it to homes listed in the local multiple-listing service. Are the wish list and reality check worth the time and effort? Brokers say they are. Even though a good broker will spend an hour or two divining the same information, having a written wish list and reality check will help you to focus on what you really want and what you can’t live without.

    An honest and complete wish list is a road map to eventually finding the house of your dreams.

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