“Location, location, location” is the stereotypical answer to the question, but location has several important meanings:
Neighborhood – How does this home fit in with other homes in the immediate (4–6 square blocks) area. You don’t want the most expensive home in the neighborhood because you won’t get the value out of it when you sell (which if you don’t your kids will). Today lots of my buyers want to be within walking distance of restaurants, shopping and other services. How important is distance (time) to freeways or public transit to you? Commute time to work? I once found a home that was exactly what my buyer wanted, but it was across the street from a strip club. No sale.
Schools – even if you don’t have school age children today, whoever buys it from you may have, so give serious thought to the quality and distance of public schools.
Architecture – is this a super-modern design in an all-traditional neighborhood, or vice versa? Is it the style that was popular in the 1960’s? 1920’s? 2000’s. Many neighborhoods have a balance of styles, but you probably don’t want the only one of whatever style in the whole neighborhood
Size – You don’t want the largest home in the neighborhood, but you do want one that is appropriate for your family (and an average family when it’s time for you to sell). That’s not just square footage or number of bedrooms. 4-BR in an 1100 SqFt home makes for awfully small bedrooms, and likely no formal dining room or separate family room. I just got a flyer for a 1970 SqFt home with only two BR. Keeping it close to more normal BR to size ratio will mean the home will hold its value.
Siting on the lot – The first question is corner lots, which typically have very small “back” yards, because both “front” and “side” may eat up space without being usable. Too many homes have half the lot as a front yard, again leaving little space for the back yard we all tend to use more.
Floor plan – I once showed a home with three BR’s, all on the second floor, and only one bath, on the main floor. Worse, the only route from the BR to the BA was through the living room, dining room AND kitchen. That (or any floor plan) may be OK for some people, but you want one that works for YOU.
I see lots of real estate flyers that brag about how terrific the home is for “entertaining”, which is great for people who actually “do” entertain frequently, but I suspect for most, “entertaining” only happens 2–3 times a year, so that floor plan may have lots of wasted space for day to day living. When was the last time you “entertained”? How often? If the answer is more than 12 times a year, that may be an important consideration for you.
Age – Victorians can be charming but the older the home the more time and money you’re likely to spend on maintenance. If you have (or plan to have) little children, you might consider post-1978 (when the US outlawed lead paint, which can be poisonous if little ones chew on railings or door frames, or…). Which is not to say everything built in the last five years is maintenance-free, but it is likely to have more energy-efficient furnace and appliances, windows and insulation. I recently worked with a couple who didn’t want to see anything built after 1960, in the belief that the home’s “bones” were likely to be better and anything else (insulation, appliances) could be replaced at reasonable cost.
Price and Financing – Foremost you want to wind up with a payment, including taxes & insurance (and HOA dues if any) that is not stretching every last dollar from the rest of your income. Leave yourself a little to eat out now and then, fly to see the relatives, and God forbid, other emergencies. Just because you can qualify for $X payment and therefore $Y purchase price, you may not want to go that far. When I bought my first house, mortgages were 20% down and everyone got the same rate. You either qualified or your didn’t. Today, there are nearly hundreds of different mortgage programs to fit every conceivable financial situation (and BTW you don’t need that 20% down – 3.5% down mortgages are easily available – 0% if you’re a veteran. A Mortgage Banker or Broker is your best choice for the widest selection.
Discuss all this with your Realtor before you start previewing homes. Most Realtor’s business is built on referrals and we want you to be so happy with your new home (and the buying process) that you’ll tell your friends and family.
How will you know? After we’ve been in a house for 10–15 minutes, I ask my buyers, “Can you see yourself living here?” Most people know by that time, and if the answer is “Nope” then nothing else matters. Go view the next house on your Realtor’s list. When it’s “yes” (or better yet, “YESSS!!!” then you’re ready for the next steps.