The five things I wish I knew before buying a house

Not all of my clients are first-time homebuyers. Many of them come to me looking for a second or third home, an income or vacation property, a condo to downsize into, or a larger home to accommodate their expanding family. But they all have one thing in common: lessons they’ve learned (and don’t want to repeat) from previous home purchases. I’ve heard more stories than you can imagine – ranging from mildly amusing inconveniences to outright nightmares. Here are five of the most common things people tell me they wish they had known before pulling the trigger (and some of the most important pieces of advice I give my first time buying clients.)

1. Buy a house you can grow into, but don’t buy more house than you need or can afford.
It used to be the norm for people to buy a “starter home” their first time around, but it really makes more sense to buy something you can potentially stay in for decades. A few bedrooms, a decent basement (even if it’s unfinished), and even room to build a possible addition … enough house that you don’t have to move if you decide to have a bigger family or your in-laws end up living with you. That being said, if you buy too much house, you will spend more on energy, taxes and upkeep to maintain rooms you never even go into. Think about what your life will be like in 10 or 20 years, and whether the house is poised to accommodate it.

2. Don’t be put off by aesthetics. Know what can be changed and what can’t.
Many people walk into a home with old shag carpet or hideous wallpaper and immediately write it off. But cosmetic changes are easy to make – rip up the carpet and there may be pristine hardwood underneath, and wallpaper can be taken down and replaced with a beautiful fresh coat of paint in a day or two. Some fixes are easy and others, like finishing the basement or updating the kitchen, are more costly and time consuming. But almost anything can be changed, except the most important thing: location. So focus on the neighbourhood, the views, the light inside the home and the outdoor space.

3. Pay attention to the details, and ask questions.
When you walk through a house – especially on second or third visits, if you are seriously considering the place – really look at stuff. Turn on taps and run the shower (how is the water pressure?), open and close doors (are the hinges and door jambs working properly?), take a flashlight down to the basement and inspect every corner (are their cracks anywhere?), knock on walls (do they sound hollow?), peer into closet shelves (see any mouse poop?), open the washer and dryer and the dishwasher (are they clean and odour-free?). And ask questions about everything. Everything.

4. Have it inspected
You can (and should) look at every nook and cranny of the house, and an inspector will do the same – but with a professional eye. He is trained to spot even seemingly insignificant problems, and can end up saving you headaches (and potentially a lot of money) down the road. During the inspection, pay attention and ask questions. Take notes as well, so you don’t forget anything and can follow up or research any trouble spots afterwards.
5. Find out about the neighbours and neighbourhood
Before you close the deal, get to know the neighbourhood a bit – drive by the house at different times of the day and night, and walk around and see how close shops, restaurants, the police station and fire department are. If you have (or are planning to have) kids, find out about your catchment schools – how close are they, and what kind of reputation do they have? In your travels, don’t be afraid to ask people about the area and the neighbours; you might find out about the crazy old guy two doors down that has six dogs who roam the street all day and howl and bark all night. (Or the lovely families with children the same age as yours, who happily play together while the parents sit on their porches and drink wine.) Good or bad, you’ll want to know before you buy the place.