Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Narrowing Down Your Options When Buying a Home

For many months, wannabe homebuyers in popular neighborhoods have bemoaned a shortage of what real estate agents call "inventory" -- the volume of homes available on the market.

But a slowing of home sales in November, as reported by the National Association of Realtors, could mean a gradual rebuilding of inventory levels in some of the hottest communities.

"In 2016 there might be a lot more starter homes available if the economy continues to improve," says Sid Davis, a seasoned real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide for Buying a Home."

More inventory could translate to more choices for homebuyers. But surprisingly, the prospect of more home choices is not one that thrills all buyers.

"Some people find decision making harder when there are more options. They can feel paralyzed by what they perceive as over-choice," Davis says.

During his more than 30 years selling homes, Davis says he's often observed that the buyers who make the best choices are those who define their search criteria carefully, rather than simply visiting an indefinite number of places.

"Believe it or not, there's an art to creating a short list of houses to visit and then examining each one on your short list very carefully," he says.

Here are a few screening tips for buyers:

-- Start by comparing houses on the basis of square footage.

"After you've picked the right neighborhood, I recommend you sort on the basis of square footage. Price per square foot remains a very important factor," says John Rygiol, a long-time broker who's affiliated with the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

Though it's surprising to clients, Rygiol says it's not uncommon to find that a small home could cost significantly more per square foot than a mid-sized property in the same neighborhood. And over time, the mid-sized home should be worth more.

"If for any reason the square footage isn't shown on the listing in the Multiple Listing Service, ask your agent to pre-screen the place and take measurements for you," he says.

-- Factor in bathroom count when deciding which homes to visit.

Once it was common for several family members, particularly the children or teenagers in the household, to share the same bathroom.

But as Rygiol points out, the current ideal is for every member of the family to have his or her own bathroom.

Of course, homes in older communities are likely to have fewer bathrooms than those in recently built subdivisions. But whether you've targeted an older community or a newer one, Rygiol says it's wise to favor homes with more bathrooms.

"The best-case scenario is to find a place with 'his and her' bathrooms off the master suite, a feature that today's buyers greatly appreciate," he says.

-- Consider homes within their neighborhood context.

One online tool for placing homes within their neighborhood context is Google Maps, which uses satellite imagery to pinpoint the location of properties simply by typing in an address.

"This way you can quickly see if a house is located on a busy, cross-through street versus a dead-end avenue or a quiet cul-de-sac. And you could tell, for example, how close a property is to a 'big box' retailer," Davis says.

He says you should also take note of the direction that a home's front faces.

"Most people like a house that faces south better than one that faces north. Over time, chances are the south-facing house could be worth somewhat more," he says.

In addition, you can narrow your search by asking your real estate agent to drive by properties in an area that interests you. That way your agent can help you pre-screen for curb appeal, another important factor in deciding which homes to consider.

-- Search for a place with "good bones."

Most architects are well aware of the hidden value contained in a house that's well designed, structurally sound and that has energy-efficient systems -- such as superior heating and air conditioning units. They say such a property has "good bones."

Discerning buyers, working with attentive agents, can readily cull through available properties to identify such houses, Davis says. These properties usually give the buyer more for their money than homes that are superficially appealing but have fundamental issues.

-- Think through your lifestyle needs when comparing floor plans.

When touring homes, Davis suggests you trust your instincts about the impression a place makes after you've first entered the front door.

"A good floor plan gives the visitor a feeling of harmony. The rooms and major features are all in proportion. For example, window sizes are in proportion to overall floor space, neither too small nor too big," Davis says.

You should also think carefully about the layout of any home you're visiting, he says, because a floor plan can be influential in helping shape your lifestyle.

For instance, an empty-nest couple that often holds dinner parties will likely want a formal dining room that's well positioned within their home. But families with young children typically place more emphasis on a large family room that flows into a country-sized kitchen.

"Don't let yourself get wowed by a home's shallower attributes. Rather, think of a place that will underscore your happiness for as long as you choose to live there," Davis says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)