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Home buying tips to avoid a costly mistake

Buying a home is often a highly emotional experience. It begins with the exciting prospect of finding your perfect home and the exhilarating idea of new beginnings. But as the hunt progresses, it can become an emotional roller coaster. After viewing many homes, you might fear you'll never find the right home. You may experience anxiety over whether you'll find a home within your budget – or, because you've fallen in love with a home that's outside your budget. When you find the perfect house, you'll be dealing with frustration if another buyer beats you to the punch. When you do make an offer, you may be worried you offered too little or too much. You'll also experience disappointment if your offer is rejected.

But once you've closed on your home and you're confident you made the right decision, you'll rejoice – and bask knowing it was worth every bit of the turbulent ride. Still, there's no greater stress than making the mistake of buying a home that, for any number of reasons, you come to regret. So follow these recommendations to get you started on the right foot and help you stay on course in finding your perfect (or near-perfect) home.

Before you begin shopping

The first thing to do is to make a list of your objectives. Are you trying to reduce your work commute? Is there a particular school district you'd like your kids to attend? What about proximity to shopping or recreation?

Also, think about the specific features you want in a home. Would you like a larger garage, finished basement, fenced yard, low-maintenance lawn, a certain number of bedrooms and bathrooms, a walk-in shower, an updated kitchen, ample closet space, or a home that's turn-key ready? Make your list as detailed as possible.

Now, go through the list again. Next to each item, mark if it's a must-have, prefer-to-have, or nice but not necessary.

The reason for creating this list and then breaking it down is two-fold. First, buying a home is a significant investment. The home you ultimately choose is going to affect your lifestyle. Since there's seldom a home with every feature a buyer wants, you should prioritize what's most important to you.

As you begin your search, you can always add to your list or amend it. But it serves as a blueprint to narrow your search and help keep you on track.

When you find a home that wows you, look at your criteria to make sure the house has all or most of your must-haves. If it doesn't, maybe you'll decide your criteria have changed, and this home is just what you want. On the other hand, it might also bring you back down to earth and encourage you to continue searching for a home that better suits your needs.

How much of a home can you afford?

Determining this is a two-step process.

First, prepare a budget and figure out how much you can comfortably spend each month on mortgage and interest payments, property taxes, and homeowner's insurance. Also, consider whether there'll be a substantial difference in your monthly utilities. Include an allowance for home repairs and maintenance as well.

Second, you need to get pre-qualified through your bank or a mortgage company. Despite what you think you can afford, a lender will ultimately determine the maximum you can afford. So don't risk getting your hopes up on a particular home until you know how much a lender will loan you.

Another reason to get pre-qualified is that some realtors won't show homes to prospective buyers until they've been pre-qualified.

Getting started in your search

Now you're ready to find a realtor. Working with a real estate agent has multiple advantages. First, realtors have access to the MLS system, the database in which all homes listed by real estate agencies appear. They're only able to access the MLS for listings within their own MLS region, however. If you're moving to a new area, choose a realtor in the area where you'll be relocating.

When you meet with an agent, make sure the agent feels like a good fit for you. The agent should ask plenty of questions to gain a solid understanding of what you're looking for in a home. Also, find out if the agent is available to show homes during your usual hours of availability. Finally, be cautious of high-pressure tactics to get you to sign an exclusive contract. Ultimately, you'll want to do this when you find the right agent. 

But if you're not comfortable with the agent, be prepared to say you need time to think about it and stand your ground.

The home inspection

Once you've made an offer, getting a home inspection is a crucial step. This will help ensure you're making a sound buying decision. Unfortunately, too many homebuyers learn the hard way that inspectors are not always required to be licensed or have any special skills or training in every province.

You can ask your agent for a recommendation. But unless you're confident your agent is someone you can trust, this may not be the best option. Unfortunately, a few agents favor less thorough inspectors to avoid the risk of too many uncovered issues during an inspection, which could cause a sale to fall through.

So do your homework before hiring an inspector. Ask about their qualifications and how long they've been in business. Also, check with the Better Business Bureau and online reviews.

A knowledgeable, skilled inspector will look at every aspect of the home, including windows, foundation, attic, roof, plumbing, electrical components, and much more. Your inspector should alert you to all defects, big and small. They should also note any aging features that could require repair or replacement in the not so distant future.

Tips to ensure you don't make a decision you regret

Regardless of what the bank says you can afford or if an agent pushes you to go higher, you're the best judge of what's really within your budget. Don't make a decision you're not confident you can afford. Remember, your financial well-being and lifestyle are on the line.

Don't get impatient. Sometimes it takes a while to find just the right home. Although you may never find a home with everything you've ever dreamed of, make sure it meets enough of the right criteria so you can live happily in your home for some time to come.

When you do find the perfect home, don't drag your feet. If it's a buyer's market in particular, or merely a desirable home, it might get snatched up before you act.

If you see flaws that'll require costly repair, weigh it out carefully before making your offer.

Finally, once you make an offer, try not to get your heart too set on the home until it's been inspected. That way, if the report comes back reflecting costly repairs, you'll be able to make a wise decision on whether to proceed or back out.

Kimberly is a freelance writer. She also owns an online store, Sage Rare & Collectible Books, specializing in out-of-print, scarce, signed, and first editions; fine bindings; ephemera and more at

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