Ten Things I Look For When I’m Helping You Buy a Home*

  1. In Austin: Are there any open permits for previous additions, swimming pool, HVAC updates, electrical updates? Why this matters: In the past couple of years, the City of Austin has gotten very strict about not issuing new building permits (including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc) until the old permits have been inspected and approved. There is no such thing as permitting in arrears. Pool built five years ago with no permit? Sorry- it has to go before the home gets another permit for anything. (This actually happened to someone!)
  2. What is the foundation? Why this matters: If pier-and-beam, I want you to use an inspector who understands these systems in this environment.  Because pier and beam has not been common in our area since the 1950’s, there are fewer of these homes, and they are not as well-understood by the average inspector as are the more common slab homes. Some inspectors really make a study of the pier-and-beam situations. And, we have two very different soil types in our area, each of which has an effect on the foundation.
  3. How are the neighboring properties zoned, or who or what owns them? Why this matters: You don’t control what you don’t own. For example, you can buy a home that is backed up to what looks like a beautiful greenbelt, but guess what? If it isn’t public land, the use can change and you can have a whole new subdivision just beyond your back fence. If you bought your home for peaceful privacy, you might not appreciate all the neighbors.
  4. Does the home have a septic system, and does it use well water? Why this matters: It is imperative that you have these systems thoroughly inspected by a specialist. There are lots of ways to mistreat a septic system, and you want to know what you are getting into before you buy. Same for the well water. You will want to get a well specialist in to check the system and you will want to assess the water quality and what it is going to take to upgrade a current treatment system, if necessary. Inadequately treated well water can ruin your dishwasher, your clothes washer, your house plumbing, your tubs, your toilets, your clothes, your dishes and drinking glasses. You get the idea. You need to be prepared; that’s why you have me by your side.
  5. What do you see on the survey and what does the title insurance commitment except? Why this matters: I am not a lawyer. Let me repeat that: I am not a lawyer. But, I have looked at a title commitment or two and a survey or two, and if you don’t already have your own lawyer looking everything over related to your home purchase, I will happily point out some things I see that you might want to get further professional help in understanding. Sometimes the survey is obviously not accurate. Sometimes there are puzzling aspects to easements on the property.
  6. Is the property in some category of flood zone? Why this matters: Even though flood zone maps change around here regularly, not everyone has had experience with a flooded home. I would like to help you understand what flood recovery entails, if you are thinking about buying in a flood zone. Also, a previously-flooded house can be harder to sell in the future, so that is something I would want to explore with you.
  7. If the home is in a condominium association, especially, but, also, just a property owners association, we want to look carefully at those documents. Why this matters: In both cases, the health of your purchase is closely tied to the health of the entity that oversees most aspects of the dwelling and the neighborhood. If it is a new condominium association, there is no history to look at, and so you want to ask lots of questions. If it does have a history, you want to examine it carefully, see what lawsuits or special assessments it might be facing; figure out if you want to be tied to the situation. Yes, we will make a point of being out and about to meet potential neighbors and ask them about the association. I am not shy about doing stuff like that to keep you in the know.
  8. What is surrounding the neighborhood you are interested in? What zoning is there? What businesses might be moving in? Why this matters: For example, if you are buying a lower-end home in a neighborhood that is about to welcome the new location of a huge source of employment, you could be in for some good luck ahead when you want to sell, due to demand. Or, if your new neighborhood is one that is about to be bordered by a new toll road, your property could be harder to sell in the future because of noise. Location matters.
  9. What is the sales history of the home? Why this matters: by looking at the dates of sales, as well as the buyers and sellers, we can guess at whether or not this home has been purchased in poor condition and fixed up for resale. Some “flippers” do a wonderful job and you will be glad to live in your remodeled gem. Some “flippers” do a minimal job, putting lipstick on a pig, so to speak, and you could run into foundation problems, water incursion problems, or other expensive problems down the road, even though the amenities look shiny right now. We want to do some research!
  10. What is the local school like? Why this matters: Of course, I will link you with the Great Schools website, but I can make contact with local principals and neighbors with children so that you can hear about school from the people who know. Even if you have no children, a home in a district with a reputation of one kind or another can take on that reputation, too, making it easier or harder to sell in the future.

Because Keller Williams Realty is my brokerage, I have access to lots and lots of other people’s experiences in real estate transactions. I don’t just have to learn from my own experiences; there are about 900 other agents in my brokerage and I can find out what has happened in their experience, too. Not only do I see other agents at weekly meetings, classes, and coaching sessions, we have our own closed Facebook group from which I learn every single day. And, when I take continuing education classes, I don’t do it online. No; I go to the Austin Board of Realtors for my classes so that I am in a room and in discussions with 20-60 people from various brokerages, and I hear about their experiences. I have a buncha stuff filed away in this brain, and I have the purpose of helping to keep you safe in your transaction.

*Of course, there are more than ten, but this is a good start, and it illustrates some things a lot of people wouldn’t think to check.

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How buildings get built fascinates me. I can’t count the number of times I have participated in  building projects just over the border in Mexico. Here is the early stage of constructing a medical clinic.

(Almost) Every House is Unique

Cat video. You’re welcome.

Recently, I have found myself consulting with a number of different people about future moves that are not necessarily imminent. I think this time spent together with potential clients is rewarding! Every situation is different and every house is unique in that it is situated in a particular place in the city, in a neighborhood, of a certain age, amount of updating, and is experiencing street changes, or street stability, according to what’s happening in the market.

After asking lots of questions about goals, future desired location, amount of support- family, and otherwise- financial strengths and weaknesses, and determining which emotions are most at play, I put together a suggested plan for tackling all the issues, including prepping the house, for that future move.

Before our meeting, I drive the neighborhood carefully, even if I already know the area well, looking for signs of change, looking for clues to what’s happening. If I see on the MLS that an older home that is mostly in original condition has recently sold, I’ll check from the curb to see what it looks like now. If it is in an area where older houses are being torn down to make way for new ones, I want to know if this particular older home has met that fate, or if it is still being used as a home. Toys and playthings in the front yard six months after the sale are a pretty good indication that this home isn’t being replaced this year.

In advance of my neighborhood drive, I study the MLS and all the properties that have sold in the past six months, or year, depending on the area, searching for sold prices, condition of homes, location in neighborhood, etc. I study the photos that the listing agents put up on the MLS to see the condition of the interiors. I look for homes that might be comparable to the home I am scheduled to visit. I make graphs and charts of market activity in that neighborhood or that feeder district to a particular high school, depending on which parameters I think are most relevant to that house in that location.

When I show up at the door, I already know a lot about the situation, and I bring my graphs, information on comparable homes, a Seller’s Disclosure that the owner will have to fill out sooner or later, and other useful papers. After we sit down and talk about the personal situation, I walk through the house, taking snapshots and noting things that need to be repaired and/or updated.

Depending on the house and the micro-market it inhabits, I use one or more sets of these eyes to examine the property: the flipper-investor eyes, the buy-and-hold investor eyes, the move-up buyer eyes, the downsize buyer eyes, the coming-from-a-different-state eyes, the moving-out-of-the-city eyes, the second-home eyes. The recommendations I make to prepare the house for sale are usually based on the least amount of stuff the homeowner can do to make the house desirable. Of course, price of the home and price of updating and repair is a big factor, too.

Some homes merit new faucets, new flooring, new paint, etc., because through these improvements the homeowner is likely to make a quicker sale, or sell at the higher end of a reasonable price range. Some homes will be purchased by a flipper and price is the only thing that will matter to those folks. Even within my written recommendations, I make two tiers- one is “must do” and the other is “would be nice to do, if possible”.

Here are three short samples from some write-ups I’ve done recently:

The two most important points at which we must capture a buyer’s imagination are from the street and then again just outside and just inside the front door. Those are our ‘hooks’. People have no clue when looking at your neighborhood from the street that there is an amazing view behind the privacy fences, so we have to pull them up and in until they arrive where we want them to be.

The goal of any effort put into your home between now and putting it on the market is to transform it from your ‘home’ into a ‘house’. In other words, it will become a commodity when it hits the market. Your best chance for getting the highest price the market will offer is to get as many buyers aware of its existence as possible (that’s my job) and to pull them from the curb and into the front door (your job and my job). What I am describing now is changes you can make to the real estate to help pull those people in. Staging, our last effort before taking pictures and putting it on the market, will come later.

Because you are looking at a limited time for owning and enjoying the house (5 years is your general estimate, but it could be much less), you will only make changes which, if not made, will result in more days on market to sell your house, or will make the price lower than it needs to be. The changes you elect to make to upgrade the house in the eyes of future buyers must be changes you would enjoy, too, for the length of time you own the house.

Now… why the cat video?  Today I met with a friend and fellow agent who has recently marketed and sold a house that was home to an elderly couple with dozens of rescued cats! What a feat! (It took a village.)  Our rescues in the video? There are only 11 and they are well-loved and cared for. But, I hope we don’t have to move anytime soon!