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. Mamaw says

    I’ve always loved your first living room. I had no idea what it looked like before you put your touch on it. That, in inself, is a huge inspiration! Good job!

  2. says

    When we were house hunting, I think our parameters changed a bit. We’re in a college town, so house prices are higher than in other parts of the state, and there’s about an $80k price jump from three to four bedrooms, so we went with a three bedroom. What we found were a lot of homes that had teeny kitchens, guest bedrooms and GIANT master bathrooms – or some other sort of strange allocation plans. We realized we were willing to settle for a small master bath in exchange for living space. We also realized that we wanted a pantry and a home wired to have an alarm system. To get all that, we went outside our geographic perimeters, but are happy with the final results!

    • says

      Oh, I should add that the house we bought had been on the market for a year and a half – partly because it was over priced most of that time and partly because the pictures of it were HORRIBLE! Being willing to actually go and look was worth it! Seriously, how do you have a 1500 sq.ft. house with a 6-foot walk in pantry and 10-foot walk-in closet, and fail to take pictures of those things?!?

      So be willing to go look, even if you’re just curious.

  3. Emily says

    I have to agree with Emily above. Natural light is a big thing for me. I like my sunlight! Also as you mentioned # of bedrooms/bathrooms and overall layout/flow! In our current (second) house we also have vaulted ceiling on the main level which also add to the openess.

  4. Karly says

    Getting an inspection is key, so you know if you’re dealing with any major structural, heat, plumbing issues etc. particularly with an older home. However, keep in mind that the inspector can only report on the things they see….so if your buying a house with an enclosed basement, it may be hiding a crumbling foundation etc. Also, be honest with yourself regarding what you are willing/able to DIY. For instance, painting might seem like an easy fix for a lot of us, but if you’re unable or unwilling to do it yourself, think about how much it will cost to have it done. If its not manageable financially, a newer/updated house might be a better fit. Bottom line, do your homework and be informed before you even start your house hunt.

  5. Jas says

    I was wondering: was your current house posted as a fixer-upper? Obviously people were living in it before you moved in, but it was pretty dated. Or because it was just cosmetic changes, it’s not considered a fixer-upper? (Can you tell I’ve been watching way too much HGTV? I might have a little (ok, big) crush on Scott from Income Property)

    • says

      It had some pretty old details (dated kitchen with paneling and orange wood everywhere and old appliances, etc) but I think the listing just said “on a spacious wooded lot” and didn’t call out things like the fixer-upper nature of it. It wasn’t like our first house, whereas our first house’s listing basically said “Bring your paintbrush! This house is ready for your help!” – hahah!


  6. says

    I’ve been scarred by one too many episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, so I always check the Family Watchdog site to see if there are any predators in the area. I’m sure this is flammable since at least these people are the REGISTERED folk and there’s no stopping someone from moving into your ‘hood once you’ve bought the house, buuuut, I don’t know. It gave me a little peace of mind.

  7. Roxine says

    Expensive to update/repair/change: Roof, foundation, concrete driveway & sidewalks, electrical, plumbing, heating/AC. It’s not that these are always a deal-killer, but it’s good to know going in that you will have maintenance money to spend and how much. Gotta subtract that from the decorating budget, right? And as you said, Location, Location, Location.

    We once passed on a house because when you opened the drapes, it looked directly (like within 3 feet) into the neighbors’ TV room. I know ‘cuz I opened them and he was sitting right THERE watching TV. hahahaha

  8. Casey says

    Totally agree! Do you guys ever watch HGTV and shake your heads at all the people who say they don’t like the paint color? It drives us crazy. That and the classic on-every-show line… “oh, this would be great for entertaining.” Haha.

    • says

      Yesssssssss!!!! I’m like “it would take a weekend and $100 to turn that almost dream house into your dream house!” Paint shouldn’t stand in the way of a term like dream house! Haha.


    • says

      Haha yessss! Glad we’re not alone. Also the “oh that crown moulding is so nice” and my husband is all “that’s builder grade sh*t from Home Depot anyone can slap up” or “the corners don’t even match up, it’s terrible!”

      Our favorite is watching the demo shows where they smash drywall (any other smashable item) into a thousand pieces before hauling it away. What the what?!

    • says

      It makes me so angry when I see that! I can’t even watch those shows anymore because I want to throw the remote at the tv and scream “My walls were covered in yellow cigarette smoke and dirt! You can handle pink paint!” UGH.

      I think they pay people based on how many times they say something is good for entertaining. I promise I never said that when I was looking for a house! :-)

    • Lisa E says

      Too funny. I totally agree. Makes me crazy how many people comment on the decor instead of the actual house. I guess that’s what sparked the push on staging houses so much due to many people’s short sightedness. Drives me nuts.

    • Terri says

      Our favorites, beyond the paint color, which always causes us to laugh. They buy a house in a remote location after visiting ONCE…then they need someplace to entertain friends?? You bought on a remote island???

    • says

      Totally! It is so crazy!

      Funny story about this, the other night I said to my husband, “Sherry did this post about what they look for in a house and I commented on it and said I agreed (etc) and she replied and said yesss (etc)…” He immediately stopped what he was doing, looked at me and said, “What? She talked to you? You guys are like… friends?” I said, “Umm yeah, we talk all the time. Haha.” He was shocked to hear you actually converse with your readers and actually thought it was pretty cool. So good job. :)

  9. says

    Thank you for those pointers Sherry! My fiance and I are currently doing the whole ‘looking for our first house’ thing and it’s a long process…! I definitely see more potential in houses than him (ripping off wallpaper and painting new colours = my kind of party!). It’s amazing to see what your before’s looked like too… (khaki green toilet?!…).. Keeps us both hoping we’ll find our own (magnificently dated) place and make it look just as pretty!


  10. says

    We did a TON of house hunting before we bought either of our houses. I would add a BIG, bold header to this post that structural, plumbing, heating and AC as well as grading of the yard should be a huge priority when looking at a home.

    When you factor in the cost to update major things like this it can be insanely expensive usually wasting any savings you have from buying an older home.

    For instance while our house was built in 1970 the house has AC (not all in our ‘hood do) and a relatively new heating system, the roof had another 10 years on it, and most of the issues we are facing we knew we were up against when we bought the house.

    I would also add to the above list (windows, fireplace, privacy) that the schools play a big role in why we chose our current home. We paid more to be in the size/age home we are in to be in a much better school district.

  11. Maureen says

    Sometimes getting what you need means making sacrifices. Our must have item was an attached garage when we moved to the DC area. Our oldest was under 2, our second was coming soon and my husband was leaving on a year long deployment and i did NOT want to be scraping ice off the windshield every morning while worrying that my kids were freezing to death while waiting! The only house we could find that had the other things we wanted had a TINY barely wide enough for one car garage. We ended up trading in two cars to purchase one smaller one that actually fit in there. (In our 8 year marriage, 6 of those years have been as a one car family so we knew that my husband giving up his car wasn’t going to be a problem). So think outside the box…don’t limit your search by trying to fit all your current stuff into a different space. Maybe it’s time for a new couch or smaller dining room table, or even a new car! :)

  12. Kate says

    Where do you all stand on bad carpet? I’m finding that a lot of older houses around here (Richmond) have some wicked bad green and pink carpets all throughout the house. Should we be looking past that and how easy of a job is that to tackle on your own if you choose to?

    • says

      Ooh I’d see if there’s hardwood underneath! If there is we know the best guy here in Richmond who can refinish it for super cheap! Even cheaper than getting cheap new carpeting!


    • Ellen says

      Sherry, I need the info of your refinish guy! It’s on my list…but if it really is as cheap as you say…it might just get moved to the top:)

    • Yvonne says

      In my area (San Francisco) a lot of older houses have hardwood floors underneath. It’s definitely worth asking if you can lift the carpeting to peek underneath. The listing agent for our house even lifted the carpet for us. Though, you have be careful that a peek at hardwoods could still hide damage to the floors in other areas. We had hardwood with inlays in great condition (though we refinished them to change the stain) but there were 3 areas that needed repair, including one big plywood-patched area. We also had lovely hex-tile in our bathroom under the blue carpeting (I think the elderly owner was afraid of slipping in the bathroom??!) Just be prepared to include a little in your budget to refinish or recarpet.

    • SW says

      We live in the NW in an area with lots of older homes. When looking at houses that have carpet (usually an older person moving out – as newer refurbished houses mostly have refinished wood) it can go one of two ways.
      One — the wood floors have been covered since the home was built. Wood was cheap when many of them were built and then people covered right over them ’cause carpet was en vogue!
      Or two — the carpet is covering damage – or asbestos tile (we had that in the upstairs of our old house so we kept the carpet).
      It might be worth asking the listing agent since even peeking only gives you a corner to see. Hardwoods are such selling points here that they love to brag when the floors are in good shape under carpet.

    • Sally says

      Amen on the carpeting. Always ask the agent to help you peek, but rate that house it a bit lower ’cause you can’t see if its damaged. Also, be wary of new carpet over hardwoods…that is almost certainly hiding damage that couldn’t be sanded out.

      In the scheme of things, refinishing hardwood floors is a fairly low cost. And so worth it!

  13. Elizabeth says

    Ditto on the importance of an inspection! We found what we thought was the most perfectly outdated 80’s house in our ideal neighborhood with a great lot and awesome layout. It just needed all new flooring, paint, wallpaper removal, new light fixtures, etc. Then came the inspection. Long story short…we walked. The house had so many unseen issues that it would have been a total money pit. Though we love an older home (our last was a 1952 ranch), we ended up with a transitional looking cape cod that’s only six years old. Funny thing is we still want to paint every room and change out all the light fixtures and even some of the flooring. I think the bottom line is you have an idea of how much work you can/want to put into a house, what you can afford/not, and what time frame is acceptable to get all the changes made. It’s definitely a balancing act.

  14. says

    The most important thing for me when looking for a home is the area. We’re moving to VA in June (Langley Air Force Base) and I’m really apprehensive about it. I’ve heard some scary stuff about the area, and so for us location is the most important.

    • Jules says

      Seconded. Much like the lot, the location can’t be changed. I would rather paint every weekend than have a move in ready great house in an area I don’t want to be. You can make a house a home, but you can’t do the same to an entire neighborhood.

    • says

      Your Realtor can’t discuss crime, but you can get crime reports from the police department. It’s worth doing in Hampton. Some of the older neighborhoods aren’t what they once were.

    • Kim says

      Hi Heather, don’t be scared! I lived down there briefly and I survived. I’d highly recommend Yorktown or Poquoson as they have the safest neighborhoods (and the nicest schools if that’s a deciding factor). Don’t bother wasting your time looking in Hampton or Newport News. Good luck with your move!

    • says

      Thanks everyone. Schools aren’t a factor for us, because we don’t have kids, but with the military we won’t be here forever so we want to be in a good school area for resale value.

      I’ve heard Yorktown is nice, Poquoson is nice, and I’m actually pushing for us to be closer to Williamsburg.

      Definitely bookmarking this post!

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