Fewer Americans now seek a "show-off" house than a few years ago, real estate market observers say. That means oversized houses are less popular than in the past, in large measure due to cost.
"Middle-class people are far more price-aware, and that's led to a strong pushback against McMansions," says Karen Rittenhouse, a realty firm owner and author of "The Essential Handbook for Buying a Home."
Through her company, Rittenhouse stakes out and buys eight to 10 houses each month. These are soon remodeled and then typically occupied by young families. The business gives her a keen awareness of what people want in a property.
"Buyers are more realistic now," says Stephen Melman, who oversees buyer surveys for the National Association of Home Builders (www.nahb.org).
John Rygiol, a real estate broker since 1971, says it's wise for all buyers to define their search criteria thoughtfully rather than simply visiting an indefinite number of properties.
"The goal is to find a house that excites you. By first creating a short list of houses to visit, you should get to that goal faster," says Rygiol, who's affiliated with the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org).
Here are a few pointers for buyers:
-- Use price per square foot as a general guide.
Although mega-sized houses have lost their luster for many buyers, Rygiol says square footage remains a useful metric to judge value when comparing properties.
Rygiol says his home-buying clients are often surprised to find that a large house will often sell for less per square foot than will a smaller place in the same neighborhood on a same-sized lot.
"In popular locations, land costs are rising, which makes lot size an important factor influencing sales price. The lot around a house is the one thing you can't change or replace," he says.
If for any reason the square footage of a home you like isn't shown its listing, Rygiol suggests you check the local property tax assessor's website.
-- Count bathrooms before deciding which homes to visit.
In decades past, it wasn't uncommon for several people in a family to share the use of a bathroom. People simply waited their turn to take their daily bath or shower. But these days, many buyers have lost patience with this waiting game.
Granted, homes in older neighborhoods are likely to have fewer bathrooms than those in recently built subdivisions. But wherever you're looking, he says it's smart to favor homes with multiple bathrooms.
"Even if you personally don't mind sharing, the house you buy will hold its value longer if it has more bathrooms," Rygiol says.
-- Take an aerial view of properties that interest you.
The task of screening homes is much easier for the current generation of buyers than for their parents. That's due to Google Maps, an online tool that lets you pinpoint properties by simply typing in an address.
"This aerial view lets you rule out a house that backs up to something unpleasant,like an industrial park, a busy street, a discount store or an apartment complex," Rygiol says.
What about living across the street from a school? For most buyers, he recommends against it, because "schools generate a lot of traffic from parents dropping off and picking up their children."
You can further narrow your search if you drive by available homes in an area that interests you. That can help you preview homes for exterior appeal, another critical factor in helping you decide which homes to visit.
-- Look for a place with "good bones."
There's lots of hidden value in a house that's well designed and structurally sound. As architects say, such a property has "good bones."
Perceptive buyers can readily sort through available homes to find those with good bones, says Rittenhouse. These properties typically give buyers more for their money than do homes that are superficially appealing but have fundamental issues.
"It doesn't cost much to repaint a room or replace carpet. But the owners of homes with serious issues, like structural flaws, can spend huge sums to remedy those problems," she says.
-- Make lifestyle a primary consideration.
Before the recession, Rittenhouse says some house hunters, particularly those in the trade-up market, allowed ego to determine what they bought. But she says your lifestyle should be a more important selection factor.
"It's silly to buy the showiest house in the neighborhood just to impress other people. You're the one who will live there," she says.
When visiting homes, she encourages buyers to trust their instincts. Upon passing through the front door, the place should give you a feeling of harmony. The rooms and major features, including window sizes, should be in proportion.
Notice especially the layout of any home you're visiting because the floor plan can be influential element in your lifestyle.
For example, an empty-nest couple that often has dinner parties will likely want a formal dining room. But a family with young children will probably make better use of a large family room that flows into a country-sized kitchen.
"You've got to go by your own personal needs," Rittenhouse says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)