What to look for when buying a house: 12 things to check

Searching for a new house is exciting. But it can also feel overwhelming—especially for first-time homebuyers. Without experience in buying property, how are you supposed to know what to look for in a house? 

This guide breaks down 12 things to be on the lookout for when shopping for a home. Plus, learn what to do before starting your search

Key takeaways

  • Before you start shopping for a house, consider setting a budget, checking your credit, researching first-time homebuyer programs and looking into the different types of home loans.
  • Some things to look out for when buying a home include its location, square footage, layout, exterior and interior condition, and the condition of things like plumbing, electrical, and heating and cooling systems.
  • A qualified home inspector can help you spot potential issues with a home so you have the chance to change your mind or renegotiate the home’s price. 

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Things to know before buying a house

There’s a lot of research to do before buying a home. And it can be hard to know where to start. Here are a few things to learn about before starting the homebuying process.

Determine your budget 

How much house you can afford depends on things like your gross income, credit score, debt and down payment.

Lenders will likely look at things like your income, assets, debt-to-income ratio, credit reports and credit scores. They’re among the factors lenders use to determine if they’ll approve you for a mortgage and the interest rate they’ll offer you.

Keep in mind that you may qualify for a loan that’s higher than what you can reasonably afford. It can help to break things down and think about what monthly mortgage payment you’d be comfortable with. And don’t forget to include things like utilities, maintenance, repairs, property taxes, HOA fees and insurance in your budget.

Looking at the cost of homeownership holistically can help you set a realistic budget that suits your specific circumstances and financial goals.

Check your credit

There isn’t one set credit score needed to buy a house. The minimum credit score to buy a house depends on the lender and the mortgage program. For example, conventional mortgage loans may have stricter credit score requirements than some government-backed mortgage loans.

But regardless of the type of home loan you’re applying for, it’s important to know where your credit stands. You can get free credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com

You can also access your free TransUnion® credit report and VantageScore 3.0® credit score as often as you like with CreditWise from Capital One. It’s free for everyone, even if you’re not a Capital One account holder. And using CreditWise won’t hurt your score. 

If you want to work on your credit before buying a house, check out this guide on seven ways to improve your credit scores.

Research first-time homebuyer programs 

First-time homebuyer loans can help make homebuying more accessible for some people.

Both federal and state loan programs as well as low-down-payment conventional loans are available to some first-time homeowners. And down payment assistance programs through state or local agencies can help cover a down payment and closing costs.

Look into types of home loans 

One big thing to think about is whether a conventional loan or a government-backed loan is right for you. 

Conventional mortgage loans are backed by private lenders like banks, online lenders or credit unions. And according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, conventional loans might cost less than other types of loans. But they also tend to have stricter requirements. 

Government-backed loans are insured by federal agencies, such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Government-backed loans may have less strict requirements for things like credit scores and down payments compared to other types of home loans. But not everyone is eligible.

Keep in mind that some conventional loans may require private mortgage insurance. And all FHA-backed loans require mortgage insurance premiums.

12 things to look for when buying a house

Once you decide on your budget and the type of loan you’re applying for, it’s time to start thinking about what you want in a house, focusing on things like the home’s features and condition.

  1. Location: Consider looking into things like commute times, school districts, public transportation access, walkability and access to outdoor spaces like parks to home in on a location.
  2. Square footage: Deciding what size house you need can help narrow down your options. You can make your decision on square footage alone or focus on things like how many bedrooms and bathrooms you or your family need.
  3. Layout: Craving an open concept living room and kitchen to make hosting a breeze? Or need your children’s bedrooms to be close to yours? Thinking about layout ahead of time can help you eliminate homes that don’t suit your needs. 
  4. Roof: Find out how old a house’s roof is, how it’s been maintained, what it’s made of, if there are any current or past leaking problems. That way, you’ll have a better idea of if and when the roof may need to be fixed or replaced.  
  5. Foundation: Keep an eye out for things like cracks in the interior and exterior walls, window and cabinet misalignment, floor or ceiling sagging, mildew and mold smells, and sticking doors. These may all point to problems with the home’s foundation. 
  6. Siding: Siding that looks warped or cracked can also be a sign of foundation issues. And if the siding is rotting or generally in bad condition, that might mean it needs to be replaced—regardless of whether it’s a symptom of a bad foundation or not. 
  7. Windows and doors: Make sure a home’s windows and doors are properly installed and in good condition to help with weatherproofing, insulation and keeping pests out. If windows stick or aren’t aligned, that can point to foundation issues too. 
  8. Water damage and mold: Visible leaks, mold, discoloration on walls and ceilings, and peeling paint can be some signs of water damage and mold problems. If you notice a mildew smell, that’s a red flag too.  
  9. Potential repairs and renovations: When touring a home, make note of any repairs or renovations you’d need to do. Those costs can add up fast. And including them in your budget can help you think about the big-picture cost of owning a home. 
  10. Plumbing: Checking that things like the pipes, water pressure, water heater and drainage systems are in good shape can help you avoid unexpected—and expensive—problems down the road.
  11. Electrical systems: Ask about the age of a home’s electrical system and if there have been any past electrical problems. You may also want to ask what the wiring is made of. And you can check for things like exposed wires, flickering lights and buzzing sounds, which may point to electrical issues. 
  12. Heating and cooling systems: Does the home have central air? Window units? Gas or electric heat? And when were these systems last updated? This kind of information can help you decide if a home will be comfortable for you and your family. And it can help with estimating the average cost of utility bills.

Worried you’re still not an expert at spotting potential home issues? Don’t stress. Getting a home inspection by a qualified professional is a common part of buying a home. 

Home inspections can help buyers be more informed and help them avoid unexpected, costly repairs and renegotiate the home’s price. 

You can see what’s included in a typical home inspection by checking out the American Society of Home Inspectors’ Standard of Practice.

What to look for when buying a house in a nutshell

There’s a lot to think about when buying a home. And these are just some of the factors you may want to consider during your search. But breaking it down into categories and taking things step by step can help the whole process feel more manageable. 

Want to learn more? Check out these important questions to ask when buying a house

We hope you found this helpful. Our content is not intended to provide legal, investment or financial advice or to indicate that a particular Capital One product or service is available or right for you. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, consider talking with a qualified professional.

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