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. Kara says

    Wow, thanks to everyone who’s asked this question to prompt an entire dedicated post, and all the comments too. This is an excellent list to have in mind. I REALLY want to stop renting and buy my own little place, but am extremely terrified of the commitment of it. (If I have issues about deciding what shoes to pack for a weekend trip, how the heck am I gonna pick a WHOLE HOUSE?!)

    • Jenelle says

      Do it and do it now! There is truly no better time to be a buyer. The longer you wait, the higher the prices will be. We’re coming out of a deep housing recession, interest rates are extremely low, and you will not have this great of an opportunity again!

      I have nothing to gain from giving you this advice, I just know from experience that the timing on when you buy your house can make all the difference!

    • says

      We were very scared to buy a house too (it was the MORTGAGE I was afraid of, I am so scared of debt). But, we had to move closer for my husband’s commute to school. Once we met with a great mortgage guy, and he told us just how economical it was to buy, I couldn’t say no! We have more house for less money than we were paying in rent. And now I get to paint and stuff!

  2. Jackie Seybert says

    One of the best things we did was post our gravel on Craigslist! I got the idea from you two… we literally had a TON of people who wanted it and we got a large section of our yard cleared out for free! =)

    PS – I’m loving your book. It sits right next to our couch on an end table… with a white ceramic bird on top of it of course! Our family was flipping through it over Thanksgiving!

  3. Ashleigh says

    My advice is to buy the least expensive house in the best neighborhood possible. You can always make upgrades to your house but the condition of the neighborhood will always be out of your hands. Our amazing neighbors make our drafty windows a little easier to deal with! But also, don’t buy a complete fixer-upper if you don’t foresee having the funds and/or skill and motivation to make the required repairs and upgrades.

    • erin says

      I disagree with the suggestion to buy “in the best neighborhood possible.” I’m not sure if this applies to the suburbs or smaller cities, but I live in a major city with neighborhoods that are constantly evolving. You can get a lot more bang for your buck, not to mention resell value, by purchasing in a neighborhood that’s on the edge. Granted, location is still an important factor when it comes to commutes and lifestyle.

  4. says

    Our house was a total beater when we bought it (did I say was? I mean still is except for the addition). The point is, my biggest tip is know your limits. I never would have bought this house without my husband who is a professional. While it’s nice to think “we can add bedrooms and a bathroom” the reality is, everything costs money and it can get pricy. For example: I love old New England farmhouses. The amount of work they need, plus the energy they take to heat, plus the cost of that energy is atrocious. While in theory it would be fantastic and my husband has the ability to fix it all…we had to put the heart aside and know that it didn’t make sense logically or financially at this point in our lives.

    Here are a few of my other tips:
    -flush every toilet and turn on every sink. Make sure the plumbing works and nothings slow. It could be as simple as a clog, or as bad as a severely backed up/broken pipe dependent on the house/plumbing.
    – Look for moisture signs: Bubbles under the paint (especially large ones)could be a sign of moisture coming through the other side of the wall. Staining on the ceiling/walls indicates water damage (though, an inspection should point out if this was old damage and how extensive/expensive it is)
    – Talk to the neighbors. If you’re truly interested in the house, don’t be shy to knock on a few doors and talk to the neighbors to get a feel for your neighborhood. These are the people you’ll hopefully have a relationship with, you want it to be a good one.
    -Hire an inspector who is licenced and is NOT through the realtor. An independent inspector is absolutely key.
    -Rooms are rooms. Yes sometimes walls can be knocked down, but sometimes they simply can’t be and you have to work within your confines.
    -old houses – is it knob and tube or has it been fixed? Knob and tube = expensive.

    Finally, Sherry’s right – don’t be scared of simple cosmetic items and the previous owners taste. Just know your limits, and what you’re willing to learn – and the cost of it incase you realize you don’t want to do it or it’s not up your alley.

  5. LisaOK says

    We ended up in a 1950s house that was owned by only one family. We have a lot of updating to do, but it’s so nice to know that the home was loved and cared for by devoted owners for over 60 years. We figure that it has to be a solid home or there’s no way you’d stay there that long!

    When we purchased it, there was wall to wall carpet on every square inch (bathrooms and kitchen included). We pulled up the carpet and we’re very lucky to find hardwood floors that with a little TLC look amazing! We also have three giant oak trees that keep our house nice and shaded during the summer. I appreciate those trees so much more than I could have ever imagined!

  6. Allison says

    As a few other posters have said, I strongly believe that location is the only thing that really matters (other than safety, of course). Anything else about a house can be changed eventually, and may become less of a big deal with time. My husband and I have been in our house for 3 years and I’ve gotten used to a small kitchen (I love to cook), no bathroom upstairs with the bedrooms (a bigger deal now that I’m pregnant), and no fireplace (a real priority when we were looking). Someday, we’ll change all of those things. But I love our neighborhood so much and I never get tired of being able to walk only blocks to go to restaurants and the farmers market.

  7. says

    GREAT TIPS! I’ve been house hunting with my SIL for the last few months and she cannot look past some ugly paint…it’s a tragedy!
    One of the biggest things I keep an eye out for {and this is probably more of an issue with newer homes} is water damage in second floor laundry rooms. We did a lot of house hunting last year and without fail, every home with second floor laundry had some sort of flooding/water damage.

  8. says

    Aside from the normal “important” stuff (location, structural issues, and as one reader pointed out – predators) etc, I picked both my homes based on where I would put the Christmas Tree – sounds silly, but I always hated how we always had to rearrange furniture 90 gazillion times as a child!

    • Jasmine says

      Glad I’m not the only one! Although, my concern was less about moving the furniture and more about having a big window to put the tree in front of so that it can be seen from the street. Love that giant picture window and spent more money on that pretty tree than any other one piece of decor or furniture in my house!

  9. says

    I agree with everything that’s been said so far, and I’ll add something that was incredibly important to me: the situation of the house on the lot. I wanted a ton of windows, BUT equally important, I wanted the windows to catch the sun. :) We rented a house that only had windows that faced south and west (but the western windows were blocked by our neighbors house). No morning or evening sun came in, except for a month in the winter. It became my obsession to google map every house before we looked at it and figure out which way the house faced. We picked a winner. :)

  10. Anne says

    When we bought our house the one thing my husband was so excited about was the unfinished basement. To him it was a good way to make our house worth that much more. We plan to eventually finish it making a family room, another bathroom, bedroom and laundry room. When it’s all said and done we will have doubled the square footage and made it a four bedroom 3 1/2 bathroom house!

    I wasn’t completely sold on the house from the beginning though. To me, it was like walking back in time to 1991. But after looking past all of the bright gold light fixtures, mint green carpet and floor to ceiling wallpaper I realized that this was a home we could make our own. Compared to all of the “move in ready homes” that felt cold, this one felt like a home. It has been fun to paint and decorate and really make it feel like ours.

  11. says

    Great advice, and more good suggestions in the comments, too. It always cracks me up when I’m watching House Hunters and the buyers rule out a house because of a wall color or because the seller’s FURNITURE is not to their taste. Really?!

  12. says

    personally, I really HATE HATE HATE watching those shows were people go in to buy a house and are all like “eww I hate the wall colore” or “look at that couch”. IT’S NOT YOU DANG COUCH! you can PAINT people! lol personally, I will look past ANYTHING that can be changed, including tile and fixtures. I like old homes so things I LOOK for are things like original flooring, door nobs, stain glass, and architectural detail that you can’t find in other homes or would have to put a lot of effort into to find or recreate. Also, things like major problems like sewage leaks, foundation issues, and roof sagging (which can also be a sign of foundation issues). Other then that, if it has enough rooms/space, and the layout is nice, its a go! :P Don’t be picky people, you can get a LOT more for the money and find a LOT of charm and love in a house that needs a little elbow geese. Right Sherry and John ;)

    • says

      Aaaahhh! That’s the first thing I thought of when I saw this post title. House Hunters makes me SO MAD when all the picky girlfriends or wives complain about the countertops that aren’t granite, or the paint in the extra bedroom that they hate. Geez, read some DIY blogs!

    • says

      This might be part of the reason I give granite the stink eye. I’ve only seen it twice now where I didn’t think it looked like hokey builder grade counters. I admit that in some houses it looks nice, but in my house? No thanks.

      Also, please watch as a I eat crow in a couple years when we redo our kitchen and we somehow end up with a honed granite slab somewhere. I bet now that I’ve put it out there, this will happen.

  13. says

    For us neighborhood and location was key – glad to see it on your list too.
    Because the town we wanted is in such high demand however, we did sacrifice one other must have – a second bathroom to score a house we could afford. We have plans to eventually put one in. I’m sure we’ll be borrowing to make the project happen, but don’t need it soon and know that one big project will add so much value it will be worth it. Who has one bathroom in a 4 bedroom house?!

    We also wanted to buy a house we see ourselves in for a long time. A house that would work for 5 years didn’t make the list – it needed to have 20+ year potential.

  14. Brenda says

    I remember Sherry & John talking about how they almost didn’t even look at their current house because a closed garage was a must-have. So even though I haven’t been house hunting, I would suggest broadening your search a bit just in case. You might find a great house that is currently without a must-have that could be added later.

    • says

      Yes! That’s right! We were so anti-carport we refused to look at our house until like the tenth time our agent suggested it and we were like “oh fine, but we won’t like it” – she knew us better than we knew ourselves!


  15. Jill says

    We had this this list of exactly what we “thought we wanted” like a master bathroom, spacious bedrooms, and large entertaining area. We ended up with a masive entertaining area, large kitchen, 1 bathroom, 3 smaller bedrooms and a large fireplace. When we walked in we knew it was it, even though on paper it wasn’t exactly what we wanted. 3 years later we are more in love and say on a weekly basis that we didnt know what we were doing, but we were glad we did it. :)

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