Spring is home buying season, so the common wisdom says. In the winter, fewer homes go on the market and fewer buyers trudge out in chilly temperatures to look. Summer is filled with vacations, keeping would-be buyers away. And the fall, well for families, is the start of school and not the time to make a big move. That makes spring the sweet spot for finding a home and closing on it before summer vacation or the new school year.
Hampered by two-plus years of falling home prices and ultra-tight mortgage lending, spring has begun to live up to its reputation as prime home buying season. While still in the shadow of pending foreclosure and short sales, home prices are still depressed, and, in some areas, have begun to stabilize. Mortgage rates remain near record lows. Altogether, these factors contributed to a rise in homes in-contract to be sold; the National Association of Realtor’s pending home sales index rising 2% in February and 5.1% in March.
But don’t let the warmer weather and those heightened senses of sight, smell and feel that come with spring cloud your judgment. In addition to the usual checklist items on your home buying list — like getting pre-qualified for a mortgage or observing the upkeep of homes and streets around the one you want to buy — keep these five less obvious items in mind when you house hunt.
The seller’s disclosure offers false comfort. These disclosures were meant to protect buyers from hidden problems and to protect sellers from lawsuits after a sale. But real estate experts say the biggest problem with the disclosure sheet is that a homeowner isn’t an architect or an engineer. A homeowner is unlikely to be able to answer questions about, say, cracks in the foundation. Disclosure forms also often ask about issues on or “affecting” their property, but most sellers won’t know if a pipe under a neighbor’s yard is corroding and about to cause thousands of dollars in damage to both properties. In some states, like New York, a loophole in the state law allows sellers to give a $500 credit at closing instead of handing over a disclosure sheet. Most sellers opt to hand over the cash, say agents. Bottom line: Order up — and be present for — a thorough inspection before signing a contract.
Sure, you can buy more house, but can you afford the heating bill? Soaring entryways, open floor plans and walls of windows might be visually appealing and pleasant to live with, but they come with bigger heating and cooling bills. “A home is a consumer of energy,” says Peter Miller, publisher of ourbroker.com. “If you buy a bigger house, you are also buying higher utility costs.”
Older, less energy-efficient appliances and outdated windows also contribute to the costs. Even careful observation won’t tell you everything you need to know about a home’s energy costs. Miller suggests asking for copies of recent gas, oil, water and electric bills from a seller — a year’s worth is best. In some areas, this information is publicly available from local utilities. If the seller agrees, just keep in mind differences in your use of the home. An owner with a big family or kids at home all day is bound to have a higher bill than a couple who both work all day.
Don’t let staging fool you — or your furniture. When a home is staged, it’s hard to judge the actual size of rooms. That’s because professional stagers will often use smaller-than-normal furniture to make a room look bigger or remove doors to add airiness to a room. It’s important to know the measurements of any furniture you plan to move and take stock of what you plan to bring and where you plan to put it in a home, says Brandon Green, president of Brandon Green Cos., an affiliate of Keller Williams in Washington, D.C. The key is to separate the allusion of how a home looks when you see it from how you’ll actually live in it. It can help to take photos from your current home or apartment and to keep a sheet with measurements and notes about how you need to use a space, experts say. And don’t forget to bring — and use — your measuring tape to size-up rooms the right way.
Beware of winter’s past. Winter and early spring were brutal in most areas of the country, with near-record snowfall, flooding and unusually cold temperatures. Look for signs of recent repairs to give you a clue about future troubles. Inspect gutters along the roofline to see if they are new, hastily hooked on or show signs of significant wear.
Look for fresh paint on upper-floor ceilings and evidence of water spots or damage there and on attic ceilings. These could be evidence of ice or snow pooling in spots; melting snow that then refreezes can cause what experts call and ice dam. An ice dam keeps newly-melted snow and water from running off the roof and that can cause water to back up under roof shingles and damage insulation and even the roof structure itself. Look for cracks in window sills and on outdoor decks that could be a sign of damage from freezing water.
Day and night, a snapshot in time. “When a buyer views a home, they view it in a very specific snapshot in time,” says Green. It could be cloudy or sunny, day time or early evening — and each time, the home might look and feel differently. Green and others say buyers should see the property at as many different times as possible, day, night, weekend, weekday, rush hour and mid-day.
“What you’re really trying to do is a get a sense of the character of the neighborhood and the surroundings,” says Green. “And you want to maximize your true perception.” Walk through a home at night and with less light, the home might seem smaller than you first thought. A visit in the afternoon might find schoolchildren pouring down the block with more rowdiness than you’d be comfortable with.
Also important: check the community or county master plan at the county courthouse or planning office to make sure your home isn’t, say, a few blocks away from a planned road or commercial development — even if it’s not going to happen for a number of years.