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. Traci says

    I moved in with my fiance and he already had a house. It was a new construction and it’s 2800 sq ft. When we were dating I loved the house and I was so excited when I moved it because I thought it was beautiful….now that i’ve been there a while I can’t wait until we can sell it. I had never lived in a house that big before, and I don’t really want to ever again. It really is too big. Also, it’s a two story house with the master bedroom downstairs. We have a small child and his room is upstairs and ours is downstairs….that’s a really big inconvenience. I wish everyone was on the same floor. I would either want a ranch or have all the bedrooms upstairs. Natural lighting is a huge, huge thing. Our living areas are quite dark and the bedrooms get constant sun. They get hot during the day and the rest of the house stays cold. Also, I would stay away from two story great rooms. I love slightly vaulted ceilings and tall ceilings, but I hate our two story room. It is never warm enough in the winter and never cold enough in the summer. One of my new must haves for our futur home is a window in the kitchen. Our kitchen now is situated in the middle of the house and it doesn’t have any windows…it’s also open to the greatroom and breakfast nook. I would give anything if I could get a window for some nice lighting while I’m working in there.

  2. Emily says

    I concur especially with all the structural comments! My husband and I looked at a ton of houses before settling on ours, and thankfully with the help a super-realtor (who found us old inspection reports of possible contenders) we were able to rule out some potential bad eggs.

    Some of the big no-no’s for us were related to weather, because we live in Hurricane-prone Texas so we wanted to avoid 100-year flood plains and having an old roof (we aimed for one with a roof less than 10 years old because it may have been damaged in recent big hurricanes).

    Also in terms of old houses, we looked to avoid original windows and old AC units (Texas gets HOT in the summer, y’all).

    Of course we had fun things on our list too (big yard, wood floors, lots of natural light) but those were the serious deal-breakers. :)

    • Kelley says

      Totally agree with the AC thing in Texas!! We looked in June (when AC should be running!) Our realtor took us outside and we listened to all the ACs- any funny noises and the house was out. Because the inspector can only inspect what is outwardly visible, we also requested a HVAC cleaning/inspection to be done by a licensed HVAC person. We were not willing to move into a house, in the summer, to have the AC go out!!

  3. Petra says

    I agree with so many of you. I think it’s very important to know your limits, such as if you’re willing to do some serious DIY, or not. Also, need to think about what best fits you and/or your family than what you can afford. Regardless of it all, owning a home is probably the only big debt you will have.

  4. says

    I agree with Megan. Our first house was from the 80’s and we were able to paint, swap lights and toilets without a care in the world. Our second two homes were from the 20’s and loaded with charm right out of a magazine, but changing a toilet and swapping a light can feel like a scene from the ‘Money Pit”…lots of “uh oh’s”, “huh’s?” and “oh sh###”. Our older homes were completely worth it, but we had to budget more money for maintenance and at times put off the fun stuff. So my advice is take careful inventory and be realistic about your budget, abilities and patience.

  5. says

    Love this post. I am a realtor and I am always stressing to my buyers to look past the cosmetic stuff, during the showing and the home inspection. Cosmetic stuff can be fixed and is usually fun to fix. it also gives you a chance to put your own stamp on the house that makes it become your home. It wasn’t until i started my own little home blog (thanks to the inspiration from you guys) that my own little condo i bought 3 years ago actually became my home. And yay for stressing the home inspection. Even if it is new construction GET AN INSPECTION. Sometimes builders are human and make mistakes. The inspector is your friend and is there to help in the buying process.

  6. Sarah says

    I think flooring is a definitely thing to look at intently before buying a house. Not just the flooring itself, but what is UNDER the floor, IE, the underlayment and subfloor. I love my house, but the underlayment is all particleboard, which means I have to replace all of it before I can lay anything besides carpet – and for someone who intends to have all tile and hardwood, it’s an expensive and not-fun-at-all fix.

  7. lindsey says

    I haven’t seen this mentioned, but you can easily look up permits that have been pulled on the house in the past. Many cities and towns allow you to do this online. If the MLS listing says new wiring or hot water heater, but there is no permit for that, it’s kind of a red flag.

    Also, google, google, google. Search the home address, street name, police reports for a neighborhood, etc. Also check the sex offender registry.

  8. says

    I like an established lot with privacy and an older, sturdy home with some character/history. Because all our money would just go into the purchase of the home, we’d steer clear of things that would cost a lot (new furnace, new roof, new plumbing, new electrical, too small or bad layout that would require serious renovation etc…).

    I’m always dreaming of living somewhere cheaper than CT (although I do love it here) so I’m always looking!

  9. says

    Sherry, you are spot on again! That’s exactly what we did looking for our first home: Look past the peeling paint, the broken light fixtures, the dark panelling and the bipolar colours through out (yellow trim, navy ceilings and blue and burgundy walls…beware that’s all in one room). Check out what we just did to our wood panelled basement! http://royamak.blogspot.ca/
    We wouldn’t have been able to afford a house in such an awesome neighbourhood otherwise…If its structurally sound I say go for it!

  10. says

    We also look for the type of heating. Living “in between the alps” in Austria, central Europe, this is probably a bigger deal here for us than for you? I think I haven´t read what kind of heating you have. e.g. we prefer geothermal heat / heat pumps that use terrestrial heat over oil-fired heating and changing the whole heating system costs a lot.

  11. Katie G says

    Visit A LOT of houses before making a final decision. We knew we were looking for an old house in a historic neighbourhood, but that didn’t stop us from looking at new developments and those beauties from the 70s! The more you see, the more you’ll know what you REALLY want.

    Also, if you think you’ve found “the one”, make sure you do a check on the heating in the summer, or the AC in the winter… that was a nasty surprise for my parents when they bought their current house!

    Remember that no matter how good a house looks, you’re going to find surprises, it’s just part of the fun!

  12. Candice says

    Great stuff Sherry. On the flip side of looking past easily fixed cosmetic stuff, I would caution to not be blinded by “pretty” stuff either. Yeah, it may have freshly painted wall, in a great color, with lovely white trim, and newly finished hardwood floors; but get a thorough inspection. You never know what may be lurking under that facade. I would also suggest, especially if purchasing an older home, to have a plumber come out and do a thorough inspection of the plumbing, including running a camera down the major lines out of the house. It’s worth the couple hundred bucks to make sure all of that is good (no branches creeping in, old clay pipes buckling, or improper repair jobs) rather than spending the potentially thousands of dollars later to get it all fixed. (We had to learn that one the hard way, boo.)

    • Sally says

      Amen to this too! I bought a house in 2006…height of the flipping. I had to tell my agent to stop showing me flipped houses with new granite countertops. Most of these had only addressed the cosmetics, not the high dollar items like plumbing, electrical, etc.

  13. says

    I wish the point of this post was more on inspections and finding the “real” money pit. A kitchen is a nice splurge but improper plumbing or electrical are the real killers. I am so glad I trusted your radon test advice and I can sleep in peace. My new neighbors were discussing radon and telling me to be careful but I shut them down with our test results.

    My advice is test, test, test. We tested for radon but wish we did lead paint and asbestos rather than trusting the old homeowner. Older homes have stood the test of time but the amount of upkeep and maintenance make a huge difference. Our 1930 home is much worse than my parent’s 1903 because our’s was neglected in the 1970s and not brought entirely up to code. However, their heating is much worse because they have less venting area and we can have forced hot water. Our first home offer was on a newer home where the homeowner basically did everything to make it unsafe which made for a cringeworthy (but very worth it) inspection. We didn’t know to look for notched beams or water dripping onto an outdoor electrical box but after the first inspection, we were much more alert in our home search.

    Before we made our next offer, we took a contractor friend through to point out potential problems and help gauge our offer (and if it was worth the $500+ inspection to even make an offer). The contractor gave us total ballpark $10-20k bathroom, $20k+ kitchen, but it was more helpful when he said “Geez, look at this waterline and damp spots in the basement, that’s probably got the potential for mold.” Then we skipped that house for a house that needed more TLC than major reno.

    We did get a lower price on our current house and redid the heating system as a result of the inspection. But we could always do more. We also moved to a new area and I wish we rented there to get a feel for the town before we bought a house. I like it but I would have liked to be 2-3 towns closer to certain areas and might have made a different decision. I liked hearing that point from you guys. I wish we could just teleport it to our hometown!

    • says

      Oh yes, testing is a great reminder! Always test for radon during the inspection! We’re two for two on that (both houses had it, and since the inspection caught it for this house the sellers paid for the entire mitigation system!).


  14. says

    I bought my house BECAUSE it had a pink toilet (and a pink sink and a pink bathtub). The toilet eventually cracked and had to be replaced with a boring white one, but I will probably request to be buried in my pink tub. ;)

  15. says

    When we were looking we totally stalked neighborhoods — we wanted one that was good for a family, but not too “on top of one another” so as to HAVE to interact with neighbors every single day. Also, seems silly — but KNOW your price range and only buy something you can actually afford. We bypassed some super nice houses that were just a *bit* too expensive for one we can afford and fix up on our own. =)

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