12 Questions to Consider When You Start Shopping for a House

Starting a home search is one of the most daunting tasks that you will take on in this decade. It is difficult to know where to start, especially if you are a first time home buyer. Here are 12 questions to consider with some local context of what to expect in the Tampa market. These are good talking points to discuss with your support system such as your spouse or shopping partner as well as with your realtor. This helps to make sure expectations are matched and you have your list ready to start checking off properties.


General

  • What age and size of home are you looking for? The area of town and price range will give you some restrictions for year built. The oldest houses in our market will typically be built in the early 1890’s, which can be found in Hyde Park and Ybor. Most of South Tampa was built in the 1950’s where the typical residence was a 1,000-1,300 sq ft ranch home on what today would be considered a double lot. Many of those houses still exist and have been renovated and expanded many times. St Pete and Clearwater had a lot of construction in the 1950’s – 1970’s where homes gradually added a little more square footage, higher ceilings and one car garages became standard. Carrollwood, West Tampa and Brandon had a construction boom in the 1980’s where 1,500 to 1,800 sq ft houses are common, with close to modern floor plans and electrical. The 1990’s construction boom was responsible for building New Tampa, Westchase and Citrus Park, where homes continued to grow and cathedral ceilings were popular. Today, South Tampa new construction is largely focused on the 3,000 + sq ft luxury market. You can find new construction starter communities in Brandon, Riverview and the southeast corner of Hillsborough, and some smaller low cost development around Ybor and Tampa’s core.
  • Do you want a house in move-in condition, or are you willing to do some work on it? Deciding your comfort level for renovations after you move in is a big part of the initial home search. You can get more for your money if you are willing to put in some sweat equity. Buying a house that needs some cosmetic updating can also help you to get exactly what you want out of the finished product. If you are particular about what you want and can’t stand the thought of living with someone else’s tastes, doing some renovations yourself might be the way to go. Some key things to consider when looking, especially if you are getting conventional financing, are the condition of the roof, plumbing, HVAC and electrical. Deficiencies in those areas are not only costly, but could create challenges for getting mortgage approval or insurance.

  • Do you want to have a swimming pool or hot tub? Pools can be a lot of fun, but are also a lot of work and maintenance. A pool over 10-15 years old may need additional inspections and costly renovations. In Tampa, there is generally more demand than supply for pool homes, which drives the price up for houses in otherwise comparable condition. If it is a low priority for you, you can likely get a better combination of features and value by ruling out pool homes. I often find that if a buyer can take or leave a pool, they are disappointed with the pool homes we look at because the pool is inflating the price compared to the other options they are considering. With that said, pools do not add as much value as they cost. A typical pool will cost $30,000 but add $15,000 to an appraiser’s estimate of value. For some buyers, the pool is the most important feature on the shopping list, for others, it is better to steer clear. Hot tubs are a lot more flexible. If a house has a non-attached hot tub, they are often left for seller’s convenience and don’t add much value or cost.


Property Exterior


  • What type of home are you looking for – single-family, condo, town house, multifamily? Single Family homes offer the most privacy and highest rights of home ownership but come with the most upkeep and maintenance. Townhouses are attached homes that share at least one common wall and sometimes come with yards or patios. Condos are the most maintenance free but also come with the highest HOA dues and the most restrictions. If you are purchasing with a plan of becoming a landlord at some point, check the rental restrictions. Condos have the most restrictions for rentals and sometimes have a wait list of 5 years or more. Condos versus townhouses can often be confusing for first time home buyers. A townhouse you own the land that the townhouse is on. In a condo you own from the drywall in and a shared interest in the whole project.
  • What type of exterior will you consider? Block and wood frame are the most common types of exterior construction. Two story houses are often block on the first floor and wood frame on the second. Wood frame construction cost are a little less, but is more expensive to insure. Both should be adequate for insulation and storm protection. Noise will transfer more easily through wood frame than block construction, so that is something to consider in multifamily developments. Townhouses will often have a block firewall between units even if the rest is wood frame.
  • What size lot would you like? The standard lot size in South Tampa is 5,000 sq ft. That often leaves just a few feet of space around the perimeter for fences and a back yard. In neighborhoods with circular streets and irregular lot patterns 7,000 to 8,000 sq ft lots can be common which gives a little more yard space and distance between houses. That space isn’t always used ideally, sometimes with a large front yard and or grand trees that would be expensive and controversial to remove. You can find double lots of 10,000 sq ft or more. Those are often purchased by builders and split into two lots for new construction.
  • What are you looking for in terms of parking – driveway, garage, carport? Many of the 1950s houses will not have a garage, or will have a one car garage. Carports are common on the older houses. In Hyde Park, just having a driveway or off the street parking for more than one vehicle can be a premium. If you are considering a condo, check out the parking spots that come with the units and their proximity to the unit. Many times, you will need to park on different floors, walk through common hallways or walk outside between parking and the units.

Property Interior

  • What kind of floor plan do you prefer – open versus walls between all living spaces? Open floor plans have been the preferred style for the last couple of decades. Many homes built before the 80’s will have closed off kitchens, dining rooms and compartmentalized living areas unless they have been updated. Do you need two separate living areas or a separate defined office space? These criteria can be difficult to filter for in an online search or determine looking at pictures because of angles and loose definition of the phrases “open floor plan” or “bonus room”.
  • Do you have flooring and lighting preferences? Flooring and lighting are easy to change but replacing a whole house of flooring is often out of people’s budget or desire. Carpet is almost completely out of style, even for bedrooms. Ceramic tile is the most durable and will stand up to water, scratches and pets well, but is cold and hard on the feet and can feel less inviting. Wood floors have been the most popular for many years and create a welcoming and clean feeling, but need to be kept dry and treated carefully to avoid scratching them with furniture, pets and high heels. Laminate flooring is a good cost-effective substitute and can look almost indistinguishable from wood. Quality laminate can come with lifetime wear warranties. The most important thing to consider for lighting is the natural lighting that a place gets. Porches, balconies and other buildings can block natural lighting. It is also good to consider the position of the house to the morning and afternoon sun. If you like sleeping in, you may not want your bedroom window to face east for the direct morning sun. If backyard entertaining is important, you may not want another building blocking the western sky. Other lighting considerations are the fixtures in the house. You will want to check ceiling fans and bedroom lighting for functionality and understand what lighting you may way to add. Many times new construction does not come with all of the fixtures such as pendant lighting, chandeliers and ceiling fans so you will need to budget for adding those.


Budget

  • Have you identified a price range? Is there maximum amount that you want your monthly payment to be after all taxes and fees? Principal and interest are easy to calculate with any online mortgage calculator. First time home buyers are sometimes surprised by how much taxes, insurance and HOAs can add on to the monthly payment. Most mortgages will escrow taxes because tax liens are the only thing that can take priority in foreclosure over the first mortgage. They will also escrow homeowners insurance to make sure their investment is protected. Home owner’s associations can add several hundred dollars or more to monthly payments and it is important to discuss your comfort and budget for communities with HOAs early in the process.
  • What funds have you set aside for closing cost and down payments? Do you need any of that to come from the sale of a property, a gift from a family member or seller concessions? 5-20% down payments plus 3-5% closing costs are standard, but there are a variety of loan options for almost any budget. Larger down payments are more competitive and help to win contracts with multiple offers. Gifts from family members are normally acceptable sources of down payments but should be discussed early in the pre-approval process to make sure rules and documentation requirements are followed. Seller concessions are possible to help with closing cost but most contracts close with no seller concessions so it isn’t something to count on in this market.
  • Have you been pre-approved for a loan? Many properties go under contract in a day or two. Once you find a house that you like, you may not have time to get financing together before someone else secures the contract. You need a pre-approval letter to write an offer. Pre-approval letters are normally good for 60 days or more and can often be renewed without running credit reports again. Getting pre-approved is normally the first step of seriously looking at property. You will get a good idea of the monthly payments, down payments, closing costs and an understanding of the financial aspect of the transaction.