In 2015, I wrote this post: Justin’s Rules for Buying a House.
These were things that I had learned when I was shopping for a house in 2002, and solidified in to a tangible list when a couple of friends of mine were house shopping in 2015.
After shopping for a house in 2019 and moving out to the country, here are a few more things I’ve added to my list.
Table of Contents
Edit – 12/29/2022: Added HOA, Septic vs Sewer, and Propane vs Electric vs Natural Gas
Stuff From the First List
- Don’t buy a house at a “T” intersection, or you might end up with a car in your house.
- Ensure glass walls and large glass patio doors don’t face the setting sun, or your house will get too hot in the summer.
- Avoid corner lots, especially in busy areas or adjacent to a busy road. Put in a picket fence to keep people from cutting across your property.
- Make sure the house is up-stream from water runoff. Live at the top of a hill, or make sure the property has adequate downhill drainage, so that your house won’t flood during heavy rain, and your property won’t turn in to a swamp.
- “Property” is land. “Improvements” are the house and other structures built on top of the land. Make sure you buy property rather than just buying a house on a tiny piece of land, because property is a better investment than buying a house.
- Make sure the foundation is good, because fixing a bad foundation is going to be very expensive.
- Trees add value, but make sure they are not positioned where they can affect your foundation or plumbing.
- Make sure your electricity is delivered underground. This will save you from numerous and lengthy power outages. When I wrote this in 2015, land (phone) lines were still common – today, data and voice services are delivered wirelessly or via underground fiber.
More Stuff to Add to the List
Get To Know the Neighborhood BEFORE You Live There
This is something I have been doing for quite some time. Once, we moved three times in one year due to complications with my job, and in the middle of all that, we temporarily ended up at a less-than-desirable apartment complex until we could find a decent place. The apartment seemed like a nice place to live, and that’s how it was represented to us – working-class families that kept to themselves.
Although that was somewhat true, there were also some serious problems:
- The family in the next building over, who would honk their horns and play loud music all day and night, and have loud, screaming arguments out in the parking lot. We had a baby at the time, so that was fun.
- The neighbor who threw parties every other weekend, making it impossible to park near our own apartment.
- The security gate that was often broken, allowing anyone to drive in the the complex, making theft and vandalism not uncommon.
- The neighbor who accidentally set his apartment on fire.
And, the area was less than desirable from a crime perspective.
We were there less than six months, but here are the lessons we learned:
- Check the crime statistics. There are numerous sites online where you can check not just crime, but income, schools, and other quality of life statistics. Unfortunately, property crime is everywhere these days, which usually consists of people stealing stuff off of your porch or off of your property. However, areas with high property crime are obviously bad. Avoid areas with violent crime and robberies. Areas that have a lot of public intoxication or “disturbances” may also be problematic, especially if this is near a business.
- Drive around the neighborhood, and observe. Walk around the neighborhood. Drive around during the day. Drive around at night. Drive around on a Friday or Saturday night.
- Are there nearby businesses? Are patrons of those businesses going to be problematic? For example, a nearby bar might attract rowdy patrons, or a pawn shop might inadvertently encourage property crime. Does parking for the business overflow in to the neighborhood? You don’t want a continuous flow of strangers near your house, and if parking is really bad, you don’t want your driveway continuously blocked.
- Are there nearby nuisance properties, that will attract blight and crime? Are there any empty lots that are overgrown or collecting trash?
- Are the houses well-kept? Are the houses and properties maintained? Houses with even minor damage that goes unaddressed could indicate that the residents are either renting, or just don’t care about their property. Are the lawns mowed? Maybe some of the lawns aren’t perfect, but an overgrown lawn could indicate a nuisance property.
- Are the people polite and friendly? Are they dressed appropriately? Obviously, people probably aren’t going to be walking around the neighborhood dressed in their finest clothes, but people who dress like a vagrant might be vagrant, and people who dress like gang bangers might be gang bangers.
- What kinds of cars are parked in the streets and driveways? Nicer cars probably indicate higher income, but on the other hand, cars that are wrecked or poorly-maintained might indicate the opposite. Do you see any tuner cars, hot rods, or motorcycles? If so, you might be hearing them race up and down the road at 2 AM when you’re trying to sleep.
- Again, drive around at night and especially on a Friday or Saturday. Is your potential neighbor in a garage band? You might want to know that. Is the corner house the weekly teen party house? You might want to know that.
- We are taught our entire lives not to judge by appearance, and most of the time, doing so is probably morally wrong. But, when you are shopping for a house, you should judge the people, cars, and even the entire neighborhood by appearance.
- If you feel comfortable doing so, talk to the neighbors. If the seller has any dirty secrets to hide, I guarantee that there will be at least one neighbor who is willing to rat them out. Likewise, people will tend to be fairly honest about their neighborhood, especially if there are problems. Hand out a few bottles of wine – bribery works. This is where having soft skills is helpful, and if you don’t, ask for some help from a sociable friend.
Knowing what to expect helps you make a better, more informed decisions, and avoid negative surprises.
Bonus Tip: If You Are Shopping For An Apartment…
On top of the issues we had with the apartment complex, we had issues with the apartment itself.
The manager showed us the “demo” apartment, which was in perfect condition – go figure. The actual unit had some issues:
- The front door’s threshold leaked when it rained. They refused to fix it properly, and eventually we ended up with rats because they could crawl underneath the gap. Not kidding. Finally, I bought a can of spray foam, but we ended up moving out shortly thereafter.
- We were right around the corner from the dumpster. “How convenient”, I thought. “Taking the trash out won’t be a problem!” I hadn’t taken in to account that the only dumpsters I had ever been around were in office parks where people mostly throw away paper and boxes, not spoiled food and used diapers. The smell was horrible, and with the right wind, the horrible smell would blow right in to our apartment, especially after they removed the threshold from the door.
- Everything in the apartment was old and worn out. The cabinets had been painted 100 times, and the handles were loose. Some of the interior doors didn’t close properly because the hinges and hardware were worn out.
- Aside from being next to a dumpster, the apartment was also in a high-traffic area, so we had cars driving past our windows all times of the day and night.
- The upstairs neighbor apparently juggles cannonballs as a hobby. In addition to literally stomping around all the time, giant crashes coming from our ceiling was not uncommon.
The best way to avoid this situation is to have the manager show you the exact unit they intend to rent to you. They will make up excuses about how “it’s not ready yet”, fine, call me back when it’s ready and I’ll look at it. They will make up more excuses about how they “can’t hold it for you”. Don’t care. Knowing in advance that the door threshold is broken, or that the apartment continuously smells like garbage, or that there are traffic and parking problems would have been nice to know.
Be aware of the second-floor trade-off: Moving in and out is much more difficult on the second floor, and you have to carry your groceries (and other stuff) up and down the stairs all the time. However, the second floor of an apartment is significantly less likely to be targeted for crime, and is usually much more quiet.
Check For Flood Plain
If your house is in a flood plain, insurance will be very expensive. Google for where to check.
Check Any Nearby Manufacturing
My new house is down the street from several manufacturing facilities. Before we closed on it, I googled each one to make sure they don’t use or make large quantities of toxic chemicals. For example, if they have train cars full of solvents shipped in every month, there is a chance, however small, that those solvents will get spilled at some point and either poison the water table or release a toxic cloud. Fortunately, in my case, they make stuff, which always involves chemicals in small amounts, but not in enough volume to put my family at risk.
Check Your Cell Phone Signal
Believe it or not, this has happened to me twice, and almost a third time. Having a decent cell signal is so ubiquitous these days, you just don’t think about it.
- Two houses ago, I had PrimeCo when I moved in, which eventually became Verizon, and while I lived there, I ended up switching to Sprint, and then AT&T. My AT&T phone, issued by the company, had such poor service that I had to go stand in my front yard if my boss called me. Not super-convenient. Eventually, the service got better over time, and by the time I moved out, it was pretty decent.
- We bought a house in Mesquite in 2003, where we lived until 2019. When we first moved in, I was on AT&T, and had a decent signal, but my wife, who was still on Sprint did not. She switched to Verizon, which was OK at first, but eventually got so bad that she couldn’t even get a cell signal inside the house, and they ended up letting her out of her contract. In retrospect, I probably should have seen that coming, since they are both CDMA. However, she switched to Cingular (who eventually became BellSouth (again) and then AT&T (again)) after that, and never had an issue again.
- When we moved out to the country in 2019, I checked the entire property to make sure I got a good cell signal, since I knew I would need it for work. I checked both phones – work and personal. AFTER we moved in, however, I found out that there were line-of-sight issues from my new home office. Eventually, I upgraded to a new phone, as the old one was a few years old at that point, and the new phone fixed the signal issues. Initially, however, it was very frustrating when I couldn’t take a call occasionally or had poor voice quality.
Make Sure You Can Get High-Speed Internet
Wait… isn’t high-speed internet ubiquitous these days? FAR from it.
The chances are pretty good that you will be living within one or two geographical monopolies:
- One that’s operated by traditional “phone” services companies, including AT&T and Verizon
- One that’s operated by traditional “cable” service companies, such as Comcast
With the advent of “convergence”, all three of these companies offer the same services – namely, TV and internet. Since each of these owns their own internet backbone, they are also known as “tier 1” ISPs.
Unfortunately, just because they own access to your area, there is no guarantee that they actually deliver services to your house. Because this is accomplished by running a physical cable (usually underground), they tend to do this in areas where they expect higher return on the investment it takes to run the cable, which means they tend to target higher population densities first. So if you live in a rural or even semi-rural area, you probably can’t get traditional ISP service.
Although there are companies like Spectrum that only handle the distribution, and basically sell you access to one of the tier 1 ISPs, these tier 2 ISPs tend to have limited distribution areas for the same reason: They can’t spend lots of money dragging distribution cables through sparsely-populated areas and still expect to be profitable.
Since my new house is in a semi-rural area, this was exactly the case. When I did a “zip code” check before buying the house, I got all sorts of options. However, when I went to actually sign up for services, I quickly found that none of the tier 1 nor tier 2 ISPs delivered service to my exact address.
Fortunately, I had exactly one option, Nextlink Internet, and fortunately, they turned out to be pretty decent.
Nextlink and many other “rural” ISPs uses terrestrial radio, which means that you can get internet access anywhere within line-of-sight to one of their towers. Also, fortunately, I’m apparently 3,000 feet from a Nextlink tower, with clear line-of-sight – the closer you are, and the better your line of sight, the better your bandwidth.
The next step down from terrestrial radio is cellular, 3G / 4G / 5G. Although the 3G “mobile hot spots” kind of suck, the newer 4G and 5G offerings are more like traditional ISP service. The plans aren’t cheap, and the bandwidth isn’t great, but it’s better than nothing. Of the various cellular internet offerings, T-Mobile seems to have the best.
If you can’t get cellular, the next step down is satellite – for example, Hughes. Satellite requires an expensive, up-front equipment purchase, which includes installing a satellite dish on your house. Satellite is known for higher latency and lower bandwidth, and monthly service is not cheap.
Before you buy, make sure you check your exact address to see who can deliver internet service to your house.
Also, make sure that if there is a geographic monopoly (highly likely), make sure it’s a company you’re willing to deal with. For example, Comcast has a reputation for having the worst customer service of any ISP in the US.
Get a GOOD Home Inspection
When we bought our house in Mesquite in 2003, the home inspector did a really good job. Fortunately, there were no major issues with the house, and only a few minor repairs were required by the former owner before we bought it.
When we bought our current house in 2019, the sellers talked us out of a home inspection by offering a home warranty in its place. In retrospect, we should have gone with the inspection, because there were a lot of things that were not done properly, and should have been caught. On top of that, we had to have the AC unit replaced in our second year here, and there have been tons of minor inconveniences, such as light switches that are worn to the point of failure. And, after our 3rd claim due to various issues, the home warranty company dropped us.
NOT having a good home inspection could cost you tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention years of hassle over the lifetime of your ownership.
Make sure the inspector checks:
- The roof
- ALL major appliances
- Hot water heater(s)
- Central heating / air
- AC condenser unit(s)
- Electrical panel(s)
- All electrical switches, outlets, and receptacles
- All drains, faucets, and fixtures
- Sewer and plumbing, and septic if applicable
- signs of water damage
Avoid Home Owner Associations
The purpose of a Home Owner Association (HOA) is to set policies and standards for its residents, and then enforce those standards.
The intent of a HOA is to keep property values high by maintaining certain minimum standards, such as having approved paint colors, requiring lawn maintenance, and imposing dictates around parking. Often a HOA is started and managed by the builder of the development, who writes the initial by-laws (regulations), appoints board members, and conducts regular meetings. After a few years, the HOA is handed off to the residents to self-manage.
Some HOAs offer perks, such as:
- Private parks
- Gated community
- Community center, swimming pool, gym, and other facilities
Residents pay dues that fund facilities and services that are shared by the HOA. Although some HOAs don’t provide any services, and the dues pay only for the cost of maintaining shared facilities and administering the HOA itself, others offer more extensive services that might include:
- Lawn care for its residents
- Maintenance services for its residents, including house painting, exterior repairs, interior repairs, and the like
- Assigned parking
All of this sounds great – you get to live in a neighborhood that’s nice because everyone has to follow the same rules, your property value is typically higher, and you get to enjoy all of the nice perks offered by your HOA. However, a HOA can have its down sides.
The HOA Board
The HOA board meets regularly to conduct the business of the HOA:
- Review proposed rule changes.
- Review and approve matters before the board (for example, can Joe at 1234 Any st paint his house blue).
- Review complaints and infractions. The HOA assigns a person or persons to walk around the neighborhood in order to ensure that all of the residents are complying with all of the rules. In addition, residents can complain about each other to the HOA. If the HOA finds that a complaint or infraction is valid, they can penalize the resident, which might range from a warning to a fine.
- Review and approve any changes to vendors and vendor contracts.
- Review and approve a budget.
When the HOA is first formed, it’s largely managed by the builder, whose primary interest is in selling more houses within the development.
As time progresses, the HOA is run by its residents, and at first, things are still probably OK. However, over time, any position of power, however minor, tends to attract tin pot dictators who derive their own sense of importance from being able to control other people. These are the same people who run the PTA at your local school, and for the same reason. They are completely, otherwise ordinary and unremarkable, except that they wield a tiny modicum of power over everyone else, and because of this, everyone else must be nice to them. Except that as a board member of a HOA, they can literally terrorize people they don’t like by fining them for every minor infraction, or disallowing any request (such as: “may I put up a picket fence” or “may I paint my house blue”).
Because there are a plethora of shallow, power-hungry people out there, what might start off as neighbors-helping-neighbors must eventually devolve in to tyranny. Once one of them gets elected to the board, they immediately drive out the “good neighbors” and fill the board with other shallow, power-hungry sycophants.
The HOA board might be “good neighbors” right now, but you’re always one board member away from paying a fine because your grass is 1/2 inch too long, or your front door is painted the wrong color. Google “HOA horror stories”.
The HOA Can Legally Steal Your House
In America, a person’s house is their castle.
Unless, of course, you live in a HOA. You see, when you buy a house in a HOA, you are required to agree to the HOA’s by laws, which is legally equivalent to entering in to a contract. In this case, the “contract” states that the HOA is allowed to fine you REAL MONEY for anything that the board deems to be an infraction of the rules. Hell, they can make up NEW rules that apply specifically to YOU, and THEN fine you for not being in compliance.
And, if you refuse to pay the fines, or can’t afford them, or if you fail to pay the annual dues, the HOA can put a lien on your house, which means that they basically own part of your house until you pay your debts to the HOA… plus interest, of course.
If you sell your house, the first money from the sale of the house goes to the HOA to pay your lien. And if you fail to clear your debt within a couple of years, the ever-so-helpful by laws allow the HOA to foreclose on your house in order to resolve the debt.
In kind of a worst-case scenario, let’s say that a tree falls on part of your house. The HOA can fine you that very same day for:
- Having a fallen tree in your yard
- Your house is in a state of disrepair
- Did your car get dented by the tree? Well, you get a THIRD fine for having a wrecked vehicle in your driveway.
All of this stuff takes time to clear up – good neighbors understand this. But a petty bureaucracy doesn’t. They can fine you THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS PER DAY until you get everything resolved.
So, your insurance pays for the car, the tree, and the house, but it takes a few weeks to get everything done. In that span of time, you’ve racked up $15,000 in HOA fines, which you can’t afford, and which the insurance doesn’t cover. So the HOA can attach a lien to your house. And, by the end of the year, if you don’t resolve the debt, they might be able to foreclose on your house to resolve it. There are plenty of “HOA horror stories” where people end up owing more in fines than their house is worth.
Don’t ever put your fate in someone else’s hands – avoid a HOA at all costs.
Sewer vs Septic
If your house is on city sewer service, all waste water from your house drains in to a large, underground pipe buried under the street or alley. The city sells you water, and charges you a percentage of that for “waste water”, which is the fee the city charges for maintaining the sewer.
If you DON’T have city sewer service, then you have a septic tank, which is a big tank buried out in your back yard somewhere that catches all waste products. In a traditional septic system, the tank only holds solid waste, and “lateral lines” disperse waste water in to your yard – for example, when you take a shower or do the dishes. In a sprinkler system, you have multiple tanks, one of which is a liquid tank. Once the liquid tank reaches a certain height, a pump forces all the water from the liquid tank out through a sprinkler system located somewhere on the property.
If you have a septic system, at minimum, you will need to have it cleaned out periodically – this could be as much as $300 every year or two. Depending on the type of system, you might need to add chlorine to the liquid tank, or use other additives (such as Rid-X) to maintain your septic system. And, you will probably experience more clogs than a sewer system.
Eventually (after 30 years or so), you will need to have your septic system replaced, which could be a significant expense.
A septic system isn’t bad, but you need to be prepared for the extra cost and maintenance required.
Propane vs Natural Gas vs Electric vs Fuel Oil
How you heat your house, food, and water could drastically affect how much you spend on energy.
- If your house is all electric, your stove, oven, dryer, water heater, and central air are all heated by electric energy. Usually, this is the most expensive of the three options. Electric appliances usually require a special 240-volt breaker, a circuit with heavy-gauge wire, and a special 240-volt receptacle.
- If you are in a development with natural gas, some of these appliances might run on natural gas instead of electricity. Natural gas is usually very cheap compared to electric, but not everything runs on gas. For example, most houses with gas still use electricity for the dryer.
- If you are out in the country, it’s not uncommon for some of these appliances to run on propane. If this is the case, you will have a large, cylindrical propane tank somewhere on your property. You will need to have someone come out periodically and fill your propane tank. The first time they come out, tell them that you’re new to propane and ask them to explain it to you. They will explain the gauge, the cut-off valve, and help you figure out how much propane to buy, and how often. When you buy propane, you buy it in gallons, and the price per gallon is anywhere from $3 to $5. In my case, my current house uses propane for the stove, oven, and central air, but the dryer and hot water heaters are electric. We have a 250 gallon tank, which can be filled to 80% (200 gallons), and anything at or below 20% on the gauge means we need to reorder urgently.
- If you live up north, it’s not uncommon to have a central heater or boiler that burns fuel oil. Like propane, you will need to know how much to buy, when, and how to know if you’re running low.
Always make sure you know how your energy is supplied, monitor your usage, and plan for your energy costs.
In addition to everything on the first list, make sure you take in to account the following, before you buy (or rent) a new house:
- Check a crime map online. Make sure the area isn’t known for violent crime, nor excessive property crime.
- Drive around the neighborhood, especially on Friday and Saturday nights to make sure your future house isn’t on the neighborhood drag strip, or that the corner house isn’t the local teenage party hangout. Drive around the neighborhood during the day to make sure that the people are friendly, and that there are no sketchy situations such as excessive foot traffic, overgrown lots nearby, at the like.
- Talk to the neighbors to see what they think of the neighborhood.
- Make sure your future residence is not in a flood plain, nor in range of a factory that might be using toxic chemicals.
- Make sure you have good cell coverage, and that you can get internet service.
- Avoid a Home Owners Association at all costs
- If you have a septic system, make sure you know how to maintain it, and be sure to schedule clean-outs.
- Natural gas is cheaper than electric. If you have propane or a fuel-oil system, know how to monitor it, and plan for refueling.
- Make sure the manager shows you the EXACT apartment you will be renting.
- Consider the second floor, which might be more quiet, and farther away from crime.