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SMART MOVES

The House-Hunting Tour: Planning Is Everything

March 22, 1998|ELLEN JAMES MARTIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They were a couple of college professors searching for a mid-sized house that wouldn't take up much of their free time to keep up.

They could have afforded more space, but they picked one of the smallest houses they visited: a cozy house with 1,700 square feet of living space.

For lack of planning, their choice proved mistaken. They had visited the house when it was vacant and hadn't foreseen how crowded it would look with their furnishings in place. They owned a huge entertainment center, several tall bookshelves and a mammoth country-style bed with a tall headboard.

"Once they moved in, they realized they bought too small. They were extremely disappointed," says Dorcas Helfant, a realty executive and former president of the National Assn. of Realtors.

If you're moving from a distant place, chances are your agent has never seen your furniture. It's up to you to do the measurements--both horizontal and vertical--and then take a measuring tape along on your house hunt to see how your things will fit.

Planning is crucial to the well-executed housing tour.

"If your instincts say, 'This house is the right one,' take a close look at the details," advised Helfant, who runs her own Coldwell Banker real estate office.

All too often, buyers are unsystematic in looking for a home, making the outcome more chancy, said Bart Hope, a broker-associate for the Re/Max Realty chain.

"People waste months driving around on weekends with their kids and their dog and everything else in tow," Hope said. "They're not focused. They don't even remember what they've seen."

Hope says you should carefully hone a strategy even before you step into your agent's car and go on a house-hunting trip.

Here are six pointers on making the most of your home search.

No. 1: Use the Internet primarily as a pre-screening device.

"A home is still a product you want to walk through and look around. I can't imagine buying real estate any other way," said Jon R. Crunkleton, a professor of real estate studies.

Property listings now abound on the Internet and, increasingly, it's becoming possible to see how a home looks through interactive sites. But Crunkleton still views the new technology as solely a means of pre-screening properties.

Just as you want to gain a sensory feel for a new car you might buy, Crunkleton sees no substitute for the same direct experience in a home purchase. (He recently drove eight new cars before choosing one he found comfortable.)

Helfant, of Coldwell Banker, said seeing a home firsthand is still a matter of choice for virtually every home buyer.

"Half the joy of a good Italian meal or a good steak is the aromas that help build your appetite," she said. "The same is true when you buy a house. People want to experience the discovery of the house, to see and touch and feel it."

No. 2: Ask your agent for a questionnaire to help set priorities.

Hope recommends you spend a minimum of two hours in your agent's office narrowly defining your housing priorities before you start to look.

"Most good agents will have a detailed questionnaire for you to fill out before you get in their car," said the Re/Max broker-associate.

Hope always uses a questionnaire to help people gain focus and, if a couple is buying, gives separate copies to husband and wife. Often he's stunned at how "diametrically opposed" are the priorities of the two spouses, he said.

For instance, the husband might imagine a home on three acres while his wife hates the idea. Her priority might be a spacious kitchen with lots of cupboard space. Such differences should be reconciled before house hunting begins, Hope said.

No. 3: Carve out weekday time to make your forays.

Granted, it's typical for people to try to squeeze a house search into their weekend hours, perhaps between their kids' soccer games or before a movie. "But that's not prudent," Hope said.

"I find people are much more focused if they take a couple of days off work and approach the process in a businesslike manner, during a time when there are few distractions. After all, buying a house is the biggest purchase you'll ever make."

No. 4: Search for the right neighborhood first and then the right home.

An unsystematic search among many neighborhoods is a time waster. That's why Crunkleton suggests that home buyers consider no more than two communities at a time.

After deciding that their top priorities were good schools for their son and a short commuting distance to their jobs, Crunkleton and his wife, a reading specialist, quickly zeroed in on two areas that met their criteria. All it took was a map and a few phone calls to local school officials for test-score information to narrow their selection.

No. 5: Have your agent take photos of the homes you like best.

Hope, of Re/Max, uses a digital camera in an unusual way to help his clients remember what they've seen on a home-buying tour.

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