Right now, there are more eager homebuyers than available properties in many neighborhoods. Even so, real estate experts advise buyers against lowering their standards in terms of the homes they consider visiting.
If you make a bad choice, "You're stuck with that house and it's a huge investment," says Ashley Richardson, a long-time agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (www.crs.com).
Before she takes any of her home-buying clients to look at property, Richardson urges them to use the Internet, including mapping and street-view sites, to narrow the list of possibilities.
When Richardson entered the real estate field in 1993, her typical home-buying clients, with fewer screening tools at their command, visited about 50 homes before deciding what to buy. These days, they've ruled out all but a few properties before they get in her car for a tour.
"Most of my buyers look at just five or so houses before making a final selection. And, surprisingly, the property they buy is usually the top one on their short list," she says.
Sid Davis, a veteran real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide for Buying a Home," agrees, saying buyers who make the best final decision save time by "doing a thoughtful review of what you really want and need in a house, and then shrinking the candidate houses to just a few," Davis says:
Here are a few pointers for homebuyers:
-- Consider using the size of living space as a search criterion.
Large houses, which lost some luster during the real estate downturn, are regaining popularity. As a result, square footage is once again a significant factor in housing selection for many purchasers.
"Face it ... for almost everyone, bigger is better," says John Rygiol, an independent real estate broker affiliated with the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org).
Though many baby boomers aspire to move to a low-maintenance single-level property, Rygiol says relatively few want to downsize in terms of living space. Meanwhile, their grown children typically also want as large a home as they can afford.
"Because lots of space is still so important to people, I recommend that buyers sort housing options by square footage. Price per square foot remains a very good measure," he says.
As Rygiol points out, it's not unusual to find that a small home can cost significantly more per square foot than a mid-sized property in the same area. And over time, the mid-sized home should be worth more.
"If the square footage of space in a property isn't shown on the listing you receive, ask your agent to take measurements for you," he says.
-- Factor in bathroom count when creating your short list of homes to see.
In the past, it wasn't uncommon for several members of a family to share the same bathroom. The cultural norm was that people should be willing to wait their turn for their daily shower or bath.
But as Rygiol points out, the current ideal is for all family members to have their own bathrooms.
"These days, buyers are horrified at the thought that their children would have to share a bathroom," he says.
Of course, homes in older communities are likely to have fewer bathrooms than those in newly built subdivisions. But whether you're interested in an older community or a newer one, Rygiol advises you to favor homes with more bathrooms.
"What's wonderful, and now more common, in brand-new communities is for every bedroom to have its own bath. That gives you the ultimate in privacy and convenience," he says.
-- Use an Internet mapping site to study proximity to shopping.
As Davis notes, you can use a mapping site like Google Maps to quickly determine if a house you're considering is located on a heavily trafficked street or a dead-end lane. In addition, you can use this online tool to see how close a property is to shopping.
"You want to be close enough to a supermarket for convenience and reasonably close to "big box" retailers. But you don't want to live right next to a Wal-Mart parking lot," Davis says.
He says you should also take note of the direction a home faces.
"Generally speaking, people prefer a place that faces south over one that faces north. Because of that, a south-facing house may be worth more over time," he says.
Many people also drive by properties that interest them before making an appointment to go inside.
"This allows you to pre-screen for curb appeal, which is a huge factor in potential appreciation," Davis says.
-- Factor in your emotional response as well as objective criteria.
Davis says that the right home-buying decision involves both objective and subjective elements. For example, objectively, a family with three young children probably needs at least four bedrooms. But subjectively, they also want a house that feels welcoming to both family and friends.
"A house should give you an instant feeling of quiet harmony, with everything in proportion. For instance, the windows shouldn't be either too big or too small for the floor space," Davis says.
Richardson recommends that people avoid focusing too much on certain features that may not gel with the property -- like a crystal chandelier in the front foyer.
"Bells and whistles matter less than whether the house will really work for you on a day-to-day basis," she says.
After creating a short list of finalist properties based on objective criteria, like test scores at the neighborhood schools, Richardson says it's time to start focusing on your emotional reactions.
"It's surprising but almost always true that people bond instantly with the right house the moment they walk through the front door," she says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)