What We Look For & Look Past While House Hunting

Q: I have a house-hunting question for you. What do you look for? What do you look past? Help! My main complaint of all the older homes that we’re looking at in our price range is that they all feel dated, but that seems to be what you guys look for. How do you know which dated houses are worth buying and which ones are lost causes? I keep worrying we’ll end up in a money pit! – Aviva (not the one from Housewives of NY).

A: First of all, I’m glad you clarified that you’re not NYC Aviva. Haha. And second of all, we actually get this question a lot. So when it comes to what we “look past” in a house (and what we pay attention to) my general answer is to never be deterred by the following things:

  • baaaad paint on the walls or the trim
  • nasty wallpaper (borders, or entire walls)
  • dated or not-your-style furniture
  • ugly curtains
  • dark brick or paneling
  • not-your-cup-of-tea light fixtures
  • green/blue/pink toilets

For example, here are a few before photos of our first house to further demonstrate how off-putting those dated features can be… but we all know they can be remedied with a little elbow grease if you’re a willing DIYer:

As for what we always try to pay attention to or look for, it’s mainly:

  • the neighborhood (can’t move a house after you buy it)
  • the overall layout (you can adjust some things, but repositioning every room gets pricey)
  • the size of rooms and number of bathrooms, which is another hard-to-change factor (ex: if it has too-small bedrooms or one bathroom when you need two, you probably want to keep looking)
  • things like ceiling height and window placement (which aren’t always easy to change)
  • interesting architecture, like a fireplace, ceiling beams, etc
  • the terrain of your lot (a steep drop off in the back isn’t exactly simple to fill in, etc)

Here are some photos of our first house that demonstrated some of those great “diamonds” that we saw in the rough. For example, the same room that showed dated brick and paneling also sports a nice cozy centered fireplace along with architectural beams overhead:

Which meant that once we painted all the dark wood and brick, it completely changed the feel of the room:

Another great selling feature for us was the lot itself. It was nearly an acre (something you can’t change once you buy a house) with a nice flat and wooded backyard:

All that landscaping was a more than a little rough to stay on top of, but since we had a nice level lot that was private and wooded in the back, we knew it had tons of potential. And thanks to craigslist we got folks to dig stuff up for free (by posting you-dig-it-up-and-it’s-yours ads like this, which even worked for all that pea gravel) and we ended up with a nice easy-to-maintain yard that made us (and especially Burger) endlessly happy:

So although we’re hardly pro house-hunters (we’ve only done it two times), I think we’ve learned that the sweet spot for us is to completely ignore things we know we can change. If the walls are a color we don’t like, we don’t even pay attention since we know it can easily and affordably be updated. Same for the color of cabinets that we can potentially paint, or wallpaper that we can remove. Things that we can’t change as easily are what we pay the most attention to (ex: the floor plan of a house, the location of the kitchen and all the windows, the size of the bedrooms) – you know, things that would be a lot of money, and trouble, to alter.

For those who have a harder time seeing past the bad cosmetic things (like dated curtains and crusty old wallpaper) it probably helps to look at inspiration images in magazines, online, etc and save things that you love (in a binder, on Pinterest, etc). Then stare at them to see if any of those rooms could inspire something. For example, if you see a room that looks totally different than a potential home’s living room but look closer and realize it’s the same size and shape, you could totally repaint and hang curtains and otherwise decorate it to get that look in your space. Know what I mean?

Update: Oh and as for avoiding a money pit with structural issues or other expensive upgrades you didn’t see coming, we definitely value getting a thorough inspection! Of course they can’t always catch everything, but we’d never buy a house without one and you definitely have much higher odds of finding potential issues (and then being able to opt out of the purchase) than if you skipped the inspection. We hire someone super thorough who is highly recommended and in each case he spent a minimum of 3+ hours crawling under the house, on the roof, looking into vents, etc – our guy got verrry friendly with each house. It can definitely keep you from ending up with a lemon! At least for our two house purchases it has worked out well.

So what about you guys. What do you look for or look past when it comes to house hunting? Do you make must-have lists and must-not-have lists along with nice-to-have lists? It’s definitely smart because that way you won’t let something on the nice-to-have list creep into your brain and convince you buy a house that’s missing a few of the must-haves.


  1. says

    As usual, I agree with everything Sherry said! Although it wasn’t our original plan, we couldn’t find anything we liked in an older home and ended up building from scratch after we found a floor plan we liked in a new development. Happy house hunting everyone!

  2. Emily Hester says

    I like to make sure the main living spaces get plenty of natural light. A well lit room can really boost your mood! Our last house had a fairly dim kitchen and living area but bright bedrooms – exactly the opposite of how I think it should be since we spend most of the day in the kitchen and living area.

  3. says

    I totally agree with all of the above! I would also say that houses built in the 1980’s are often a great bet: the electrical is modern enough that you would be stuck upgrading all of that, same thing with the pluming, insulation, etc. You also don’t have to worry (as much) about lead paint, and there’s less of a chance of asbestos.

  4. Emily says

    But how do you differentiate between a house that is just superficially outdated vs. a house that hasn’t been taken care of and will prove to have big unseen issues? The inspection? Or it’s always a gamble?

    • says

      Oh yes, an inspection!!!! We would never buy a house without one. We hire someone super thorough who is highly recommended and they spend a minimum of 3+ hours crawling under the house, on the roof, looking into vents, etc – our guy gets verrry friendly with the house. It definitely keeps you from ending up with a lemon! At least for our two purchases it has worked out well. Also I think older homes have stood the test of time – especially brick homes – so they’re not going to fall down when the wind blows, ya know?


    • Emily R says

      I’d never buy a house without an inspection. And if they find some serious faults you can back out of the purchase.

      Most newer homes (1950s +) constructed with brick are really just wood frame with a brick veneer (or depending on the area of the country CMU with brick veneer). You have to go back pretty far to find a home that’s built out of weight bearing brick (1850’s).

    • Paige says

      There are some simple things you can look for before you hire an inspector. Look for signs of water damage, like darkened wood floors, brittle baseboards or door casings, darkened spots on the ceilings, and/or a damp, musty smell (most common in basements). These could be signs of bigger problems that you might not want to deal with in your home remodel, such as water leaks, mold, roof replacement, or termites. I also look for even, flat, sturdy floors with little sagging, as a significant dip in a floor could be a foundational problem. All these things are technically fixable, it just depends on how invested you want to be in a house project, whether it be through your time or your money. But a little “pre-inspection” like this in no way is a substitute for an actual home inspection!

    • says

      Oh yes, very smart! Try to get a selling agent with eyes like a hawk! We loved that she would point out flaws to us and advocate for us instead of acting like everyone house was perfect in the hopes that we’d just buy one without thinking about it!


    • says

      Oh yeah, I bet there’s lots of regional stuff! I’m learning so much from people’s comments about the types of heat or roofing or construction that’s desirable in certain areas!


  5. Ashleigh H. says

    Although it will be a few years before I’m out of college and ready to look for homes with my OH, I still love looking at places for sale online. This post was very insightful and alleviated some of the concerns I had about the possibility of purchasing an older home!

  6. says

    I’m curious, did you guys consider not painting the beams in the old den? I think the exposed wood might look nice! Of course if the wood wasn’t in good shape I totally understand painting it.

    • says

      We actually did everything but paint them and left them raw with all the walls and paneling and brick painted but it still looked bad. I was gunning for leaving them since it was less work- haha! Painting beams is a pain, but with everything else looking fresh they just looked old and orangey.


  7. bfish says

    I agree with all of your points about what can, and can’t, be changed. I’m old and I’ve bought a lot of old houses so what I’d add is:
    * Carpeting — can be changed but you have to consider the cost. House hunting for our second house, we were deterred by all red W2W carpeting in the downstairs of one home. This was a mistake as the house was beautiful in most other ways. We probably could have lived with the carpeting for a few years while saving up for wood floor refinishing.
    * Wiring — another thing that scared me off in my earlier days of looking at old houses (1920s) was funky, rats-nest wiring. Now I realize it can be changed without breaking the bank; you are probably going to want to upgrade anyway as old houses often have only one outlet per room, inadequate wiring for A/C and modern appliances/technology, etc.

    Unless you know a whole lot about construction and home building, employ an impartial home inspector to check out roof, structural issues, mechanical systems, etc. A multitude of sins can be hidden inside the walls. OTOH, if a beat-up house is cheap enough and it’s in your budget to make a lot of major repairs, it could be a good deal especially if the charm is there.

    My personal must haves:

    1. Lots of big trees and privacy — not close to other houses. This seems to be a Sherry and John strategy too, judging by their two houses so far!
    2. Lots of windows — you can’t have too many windows IMO.
    3. Fireplace — can’t make it through the winter without a fire every night to cheer me up (short days and cold weather bring me down).

    • says

      Agree about the electrical stuff. Our house was built in 1901, and while the electrical had been updated, it was in pretty bad shape. We talked the price down about $6k, and then ended up spending $1.5k to fix it all. Which wasn’t bad considering the house is in great shape for its age, and it’s in a great neighborhood. (I also think the paneling in just about every room deterred potential buyers).

  8. says

    These are all great tips. Thanks for sharing.

    My big thing is anything that is cosmetic you can change. But like you said – if the neighborhood isn’t the best then I move on. One more thing that would be a deal breaker for me is a mutual driveway…if you have an inconsiderate neighbor then that can cause a lot of problems.

  9. says

    Laundry. My first house (which was the first YHL house without the great built-on den!) had the laundry in the kitchen, and there was no way to move it without basically building a new room.

    Also, decide what’s important to you. Some of the earlier posters suggested houses built around the 80s often don’t have issues with electric/etc but down here they often have huge issues in other areas because of their vinyl siding. I wouldn’t want to do deal with that, but I don’t mind dealing with low level electric/plumbing issues in an all brick house with a solid roof.

    • bfish says

      Yes, several friends (in Petersiks’ neck of the woods, Chesterfield Co, VA) owning new 1980s houses with masonite (faux wood) siding had to replace much of it within 10-15 years due to rotting. (Disclaimer — I’m partial to houses built in first 1/3 of 20th century and believe construction got really shoddy after the 1950s/early 1960s, unless custom or high end (maybe).)

  10. Emily says

    I always like to be aware of the status of the bones – foundation, any water (or hints of water issues), insulation, age of heating/AC/water heater, age of roof, age of doors/windows, etc. Not sexy but can be expensive to replace, update, or fix.

    Another item is floor material. Our lower main living level is on a concrete slab which didn’t seem a big deal, but I’ve learned over time that it gets really cold in the winter and it’s hard to stand on for long periods of time (like when you are doing some serious cooking).

    Finally is the orientation of the house with respect to things like sun/shade. It’s important both for what you can and can’t plan and how quickly snow (if that’s a factor) will melt off your sidewalks. I’ve been so thankful we are on the sunny side of the street when we get big snows.

    • LisaOK says

      I agree with you about sun/shade orientation of the house, but I always remember being jealous of the neighbors across the street when I was a kid. They had snow for weeks to play in/go sledding whereas ours melted far too fast. As an adult, I envy the fast melting side of the street!

    • Kitty says

      Very good point that house orientation is very important – I wish we paid attention. We moved from Calif to PNW – didn’t have a clue and bought a house backing up to beautiful natural park/forest – it is gorgeous and no neighbors behind us BUT we are 5-10 degrees colder depending on the season and sun is hidden in cold months – brrrrrhhh. Wish we knew.
      Plus in a freak windstorm on a freezing Nov night we ended up with tree on our house – $20k later all fixed (thanks to insurance) but what a hassle.
      Next house, we will stay away from trees that can land on the house or block the sun or view.

  11. says

    Location, location, location.

    You can change your house. You cannot change your location.

    It’s also a bit of knowing yourself and your priorities. Do you enjoy working on a house or would you prefer something move in ready (and are willing to pay for it)? What type of workload are you looking for in a fixer upper? Total gut job? Or just a few rooms that needs some small, cosmetic changes?

    Sometimes assessing what you (and your partner) are really committed to / excited about is tricker to pin down than the house…That’s my two cents from the peanut gallery!

  12. Meredith says

    I think watching “Property Brothers” on HGTV gives a good perspective on this. Obviously they’re planning on taking on a lot of DIY, but they’re always pointing out good bones or a fabulous view as the house’s inherent potential and then showing how they’re going to rip out the carpet/knock down a wall/add landscaping to capitalize on that. Of course, I say this having never purchased a house myself, but you know…

  13. Alix K says

    Talk about everything you want A LOT (like a billion time), even if you are not actively looking… It does help that we are both working in real estate and houses are pretty much all we talk about all day! Our house was the one and only that we looked at. It was a REO with some serious issues but we were ready for it and it was priced low enough that, even after completely gutting it, we would still be way under what other comparables are selling for in our area. It was all about location, location, location. NOTHING beats the worse house in the best neighborhood.

  14. says

    When house hunting I also think it is important to rank what is important to you too. Most likely you will have to compromise somewhere along the way, which is okay in this instance. Understand what you really need and then understand what you just want. Usually the wants can be addeded. So look for a house with your needs!

  15. says

    As an architecture degree graduate (although not yet licensed and all following advice should be at-your-own-risk- whew internet disclaimers):

    Remember for future large scale changes to check your local building codes, setbacks, etc. You can talk with your local officials and a good local architect (usually for free) about ideas for a home BEFORE purchasing to get ideas of cost and feasibility. Don’t assume you can “add on a porch” without checking it out before the purchase. Also- here in Florida home insurance is a huge constant cost (thanks hurricanes), age of the home, wall construction (frame vs concrete block), age of the roof, even style of roof (hip versus gable) can all affect your monthly insurance costs.
    Also a home inspection before purchase is so important!

    Sherry is 100% right to ignore easy cosmetic changes, also remember to look deeper and find out about the components of your home you may not “notice” until they’re broken. I’d much rather spend money on home decor than faulty electric.

    Thanks for another great blog post!

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