Shopping for a house is stressful. You're trying to find the best home, in the best area, for the best price. Making your budget match your wish list is overwhelming, but take heart. It's not about finding the perfect house; it's about finding a house you can make into a safe, comfortable home that isn't going to cost you loads to repair and maintain. Here are the features to look for that can save you costly headaches and give you the most value while you live there.
An energy-efficient home is not only better for the environment, it's better for your budget. Certain energy-efficient features will save you a lot more in the long run than others.
Ductwork often leaks out so much heating or air conditioning that it adds significantly to your utility bill. Experts say that by insulating the ducts, you can cut the cost of running the HVAC system by up to 30 percent.
Modern HVAC systems
Speaking of HVAC systems, if you purchase a home with a modern unit, it's a value-added feature. Older HVAC units (20 years or older for heating units, 10 years or older for air conditioning units) are inefficient. Newer models, even if they're not top-of-the-line, can give you a utility bill that's 10 percent to 20 percent lower.
Look for newer, double-paned windows or exterior storm windows installed over the original interior windows. Windows can be quite pricey to replace, so it's best if you can find a house with efficient ones already installed. About 30 percent of your home's air conditioning and heating can disappear out of your windows. Purchasing a house with newer windows already installed can reduce your energy bill by 12 percent to 33 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Window treatments won't prevent air leakage, but they can reduce heat gain in the summer and heat loss in the winter. Look for exterior awnings, particularly on the south- and west-facing windows, where they can reduce solar heat gain by 65 percent to 77 percent, according to the Energy Department.
Interior, well-fitted blinds or drapes can also help with energy costs, reducing heat gain in summer and heat loss in winter. However, it's not very expensive to install these yourself, so don't make this item a deal-breaker.
The way a house is designed and built can determine how well it ages and how costly any future repair work might be. Keep your eye on these features for the best long-term value.
Look for plumbing that's reachable through a crawl space, basement, and outdoor access points. The more work you have to do to access mainlines, the more costly any plumbing repairs will be in the future. Inaccessible plumbing can also mean that leaks or clogs are difficult to find, which can prolong plumbing problems and add to the total cost of repair.
In houses that are more than 40 years old, wiring can be outdated and dangerous. Replacing it is an expensive, involved project. In older homes, find out when the electrical system was last inspected. Find out if there is any aluminum wiring (which can become a fire hazard as connections age and deteriorate), and if there is adequate amperage in the house. Many older homes used a 60 amp standard, but most modern households need around 200 amps to keep everything running.
From floor joists to support beams, structural features cost a lot to repair. Some structural problems can be covered up by unscrupulous sellers.
In this case, it's not about the features you want, but the telltale signs you don't want:
Squeaking, uneven floors.
Ill-fitted doors and windows that are difficult to open and close.
Large cracks in the home's exterior, particularly if they don't follow the mortar and/or if they are larger at the top and taper down.
Cracks in the interior walls above doorways.
Warped or sagging ceilings.
Exposed gaps between walls.
Just as important as the house itself is the area around the house. The yard, greenery, and hardscaping, such as sidewalks and walls, affect the value of the house and the cost of ongoing maintenance.
Trees will help reduce energy costs by providing shade from the hot summer sun and acting as a windbreak in cold winter months.
There's a caveat here: You want strong, tall trees that will provide shade, but you don't want them too close to your house. Shade is good; a heavy tree branch falling on your roof during a storm is not good. Look for healthy, well-established trees. Bonus points if they're planted on the south or west side of the house.
Look for landscaping that works with the natural contours of the yard and the climate. A lush flower garden may look great, but if you have to water it daily to keep it alive in your arid, hot climate, it's not a smart choice.
Landscaping should direct water flow away from the house as well. Drainage issues in the yard or hardscaping around the house can be very costly to fix, but failing to fix them can lead to even more costly water damage inside the house. If you're getting serious about the house, drive by or arrange a visit with your realtor after a heavy rain.
To get the most value in a house, you must know thyself. If you're an avid cook, a large, well-equipped kitchen may be worth a higher price. But if you hardly spend time in the kitchen, why spend money on a large one?
Choose a home with the features that matter for the lifestyle you live now, not the magazine-promoted lifestyle you think you ought to live someday.
Take inventory of how you spend most of your time in your current home. Is there an unused dining room, or a too-large bedroom just taking up space? Don't shop for a house by room count or square footage. Shop for a house that fits the way you live your life, and you'll end up with a house that brings you the most possible value.
What doesn't matter
Part of selling a house is making it look as good as possible. All too often potential buyers are wowed by the fresh paint, new carpet, and shiny new light fixtures, and miss the bigger issues. (See also: Don't Let These 6 Home Décor Flaws Ruin Your House Hunt)
Here's a short list of things that are nice to have, but shouldn't impress you with their value:
Freshly painted walls, ceilings, or trim. Paint is cheap, and with a little time and work, you can put a fresh coat on anything you want. Unless there are issues with lead paint, don't let paint impress you much either way.
New or custom fittings, light fixtures, and fans. Nice touches, but they won't make your house significantly more valuable. You can upgrade these yourself for reasonable prices.
Decor elements. Whether it's trim work or cabinet refinishing, decor can be upgraded on your timeline and budget without a major effect on the house's value.
Smart thermostats. A good upgrade, but one that's fairly inexpensive and easy to add yourself.
You don't have to find a house with all of these features. But knowing which ones will bring you value can help you adjust your expectations — and your purchase offer — accordingly.