Questions People Should (But Often Don’t) Ask Before Buying a House
Every potential homebuyer has heard the mantra: “Location, location, location.” Often, what that really addresses are the questions: “Are the schools good?” and “Is the neighborhood safe?”
But what else should potential homebuyers be asking? While where you live — and what will make you happy — is a deeply personal decision, there are certain questions home buyers should but often don’t ask about the neighborhood and town they’re looking to buy in.
We reached out to Realtors and real estate professionals for the other questions you should ask about the property — and of yourself. Here’s what they told us.
Are There Sidewalks?
Monica S. Betancourt, a Realtor with EWM Realty International in Miami, said a neighborhood without sidewalks doesn’t seem like a big deal until you move into it. Then you find everything from walking the dog to riding bikes to the park with your kids becomes significantly riskier.
“So much so that, without them, people often end up giving up these pleasant activities altogether,” Betancourt said.
What’s the Local Tax Rate?
A lot of buyers overlook local tax rates which can put them in a budget crunch when taxes increase. You’ll want to look and see what the tax rate has been for the past several years. Also ask, does the local government consistently raise taxes? Taxes will also increase as your property value increases. But declining tax rates can also mean declining local services.
Try to compare the tax rates to other nearby towns to get a feel of what bang your getting for your buck from your local government.
Are There Any Hidden Costs?
Pay attention to other hidden costs: Do you have to pay a garbage collection fee? User fees for school sports and activities? Is there a homeowner’s association you will be required to join? These seemingly small costs can add up.
How Long Has the Property Been on the Market?
The number of days a property has been for sale is a standard feature in online real estate listings. It’s also an objective measure of a market’s demand, said Earl White, Co-Founder of House Heroes LLC in Florida.
“If properties are sitting around for long periods of time at a certain list price, market values will fall below that price. When houses are flying off the shelf, it’s a good sign values will be stable or even appreciate,” White said.
What Will My Commute Be Like?
Adrian Wilson, a data scientist with Realty Hop, said sites like the one maintained by his company can give would-be buyers the objective numbers on a neighborhood, including the average commute times.
You should also try out your potential commute on a couple different weekdays, both the outgoing and incoming journeys. You’ll get ground-level knowledge of things like long lights and intersections that are prone to gridlock, which could greatly increase the amount of time you spend in your car.
What More Should I Know About Local Schools?
A surprising number of buyers rely on a school district’s reputation without asking more probing questions about the school experience for their kids. Alison Bernstein, the founder and president of Suburban Jungle, a real estate and lifestyle advisory firm, offered a few other school specific questions to get answered before you make an offer.
Does the Town Have Busing to and From School?
“The answer to this question can determine levels of childcare needed, logistics, and whether or not you need a second car,” Bernstein said.
Do the Kids in the Neighborhood All Go to the Same School?
“In certain towns, there are magnet schools or other ways to determine where kids go, so you might not be in the same school as your neighbors making it more difficult to have that local neighborhood feel,” Bernstein said.
What Are the Cut Off Dates for School?
Will your kid be a full year younger than everyone else because of where his or her birthday falls? Or will he or she be one of the older kids? And what’s the best timing for your child?
“Towns vary based on this… and it makes a large impact — from sports to academics to socialization,” Bernstein said.
Have You Made More Than One Visit to the Neighborhood?
Before placing an offer on a home, Kevin Lawton of Coldwell Banker Schiavone & Associates in Bordentown, New Jersey, suggests clients make several visits to the neighborhood at different times of the day.
You want to “to see if it is an active neighborhood, quiet neighborhood or maybe there is a train that runs every night at 11 p.m. that you can hear," Lawton said.
Have You Walked the Neighborhood?
It’s not enough to just drive through a neighborhood at different times of the day. You need to walk the neighborhood and get a street-level feel of where you will be living, said Ben Mizes, founder and CEO of Clever Real Estate, a nationwide brokerage firm.
“Rough landscaping, un-mowed lawns, holes in soffits, old windows, window AC units, are all signs of signs of neglect,” Mizes said. If you see these things in “many of the homes, buildings or businesses, it may be best to reconsider, or at the very least consult with your agent.”
Are There Signs of House Flippers?
Don’t shy away from building permits in windows, scaffolding and dumpsters parked in front of houses, Mizes said.
“These are signs of house flippers. Flippers are the first indication of rising property values in an area,” he said. “Even if an area looks a little rough around the edges, if flippers think they can cash out by fixing up these buildings, the area can turn around — fast.”
Where in a Neighborhood’s Lifecycle Are You Buying?
John Myers, the owner and broker for Myers & Myers Real Estate in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says most neighborhoods can be placed into one of four stages of a lifecycle: growth, stability, decline and renewal. Ideally, buyers should look to purchase homes when a neighborhood is in its stability phase.
“This is where the neighborhood is in good condition and home owners are satisfied with their home and the neighborhood,” Myers said. “Some neighborhoods will move from the stability phase to the decline phase. Some neighborhoods will continue in the declining phase for a long time. We have all seen these neighborhoods. People live in these neighborhoods because the have to, not because they want to. These are the neighborhoods to avoid if you can afford to buy in the other phases.”
What’s in the Area’s Future?
What hasn’t happened yet can impact the value of your home.
“Today, the probability of staying in your first home or even your second home for many years is unlikely because people change jobs more often,” said Jonathan Faccone of Halo Homebuyers LLC. “That is why when purchasing a home it is not only important to look at the considerations that will impact immediate well-being, but the ability to be flexible — meaning easy to sell — during a job or life change.”
Faccone urges clients to look at new businesses coming into a neighborhood, proposals for major economic development plans and the political culture. "It's usually the people at the helm and their policies that can either produce either an incline or decline in neighborhood growth," he said.
Pay a visit to the town’s planning office and see what is proposed for the area. Is a big, proposed shopping mall going to increase traffic in the neighborhood? Is the town approving lots of condos and apartments, which can increase in-town traffic? On the flip side, is the town planning to approve a revitalization of a nearby area that could lift your property value?
Even if you don’t directly abut the development, a big project can impact the entire atmosphere in a town. Make sure you understand what has been proposed and what residents think about the proposal.
What’s the Inventory Turnover Rate?
One of the best ways to assess the livability of a neighborhood is how often people move away, Lawton said.
“Do people stay there for a long time before selling or do homes turnover in just a couple years?” he said. “That can be telling of whether it is an enjoyable neighborhood or not.”
Jeremy Browne of TTR Sotheby's International Realty offers his clients the same advice. If you're not a dog person, make sure there's not a dog that's left outside all day barking away. If you want a family-friendly neighborhood, look for kids playing outside in the evenings and weekends.
“Everyone has a different idea of what ‘their’ neighborhood should be and what their potential annoyances may be, so it is important [for me] to listen to the client to discern what they should be looking for during their visits,” Browne said.
What’s the Crime Rate?
Crime doesn’t pay. And it doesn’t help property values, either. There are lots of websites that will help you figure out what kind of crimes are reported in a neighborhood, and your real estate agent will also have a good feel of whether or not a neighborhood is safe. Don’t just go on the data, though. If you research raises red flags, talk to the local police department before you walk away, as it may just be a small area within the zip code causing the spike.
What Are My Priorities?
Tristan Roberts is a Realtor in Tahoe City, California, where he deals with a lot of buyers from San Francisco looking for a vacation home. In fact, about 80 percent of his listings are second or vacation homes. But Roberts says he has to help buyers understand what they saw as a priority when they bought their first home in San Francisco is not necessarily a priority in Lake Tahoe.
“Second homeowners have different needs and concerns than those that choose to move to Lake Tahoe permanently. For both types of buyers, often what they think is important turns out to not apply when finding a home in our area,” Roberts said. “In their Bay Area communities they often place a high value on school districts and realize that proximity to the outdoor activities is more important in our area. We also have caretakers for the homes so interviewing and matching personalities is key.”