April 20, 2016

Homework and a Home Purchase

by Katherine Salant (Special to Freddie Mac)

Homework and a Home Purchase

Before making a major purchase, consumers are routinely advised to “do their homework first.”

What does this mean in the context of buying a house?

Most of the advice out there revolves around the financial aspects of the purchase.

Equally important but rarely discussed are the benefits of a careful study of where you live now. The information you glean following the steps below will be invaluable as you start to canvas the market where you hope to buy.

Step 1: Measure the size of all the rooms in your current house or apartment and make a rough sketch of the floor plan with the dimensions on it (this is easier if you use graph paper). If possible, note the sizes and positions of the doors and windows on the floor plan.

"Carefully study where you live now before you buy."

What's the point of this exercise? Consciously or not, you’ll compare everything you see to where you live now. If you rely on your mind’s eye, which is notoriously unreliable, you’ll end up saying, “This looks sort of like our living room but it might be bigger.” To make a valid comparison, especially if a bigger living room is important, you need to know the size of the living room you have now. As you measure your house, be sure to include the closets because adequate storage is an issue for most households.

If you have a treasured piece of furniture, like a home entertainment system or a huge collection of vinyl LPs, and CDs that you’re not ready to abandon if it won’t fit in the new house, you should also measure that.

Step 2: Make a sketch of your kitchen at a larger scale so that you can include more detail. Because kitchens have specific functions, you need more information to make a comparison than just the overall size of the room.

Before you make the sketch, measure the size of your wall and base cabinets and note what is stored in each one (dishes, glasses, pots and pans, food stuffs, etc.). Kitchen cabinetry generally comes in standard widths of 12, 15, 18, 24, 30 and 36 inches (don’t worry if yours are slightly different). You just need a general idea.

After you’ve sketched your kitchen, you’ll have a sense of the number and size of your cabinets and be able to make a fairly quick determination about the storage in any house you see. It may be adequate (“my stuff will fit nicely”), generous (“I can get more pots and pans and still have space for my wedding china”) or inadequate ("I'll either have to get rid of stuff or find other places in the new house to put them").

Since you want to be sure that you have enough space to put a meal together in the new house, measure the size of your current kitchen's food preparation areas.

These may include both counters and a table surface if you have a country kitchen arrangement.

Step 3: Make an honest assessment of each room when you study your house. Note what you really like, strongly dislike or don't care about.

For example, your master bedroom may be so small there's only room for a bedside table on one side of the bed. Or your master bathroom has only one measly-sized recessed wall cabinet and a pedestal sink with no storage below for, say, all the creams, liquids and lotions that you routinely use.

You may be tempted to blow off this homework assignment as unnecessary. But nothing is worse than moving into the new house and discovering that you have the same space issues that you did in your old place. The only difference is that the new house is bigger or smaller. Even if you get the best price and a great mortgage, it won't prove to be a good investment if you are not happy living there.

Follow this series just in time for the spring homebuying season.

Katherine Salant has been a syndicated columnist covering home building for more than 20 years. She also writes about real estate for the Washington Post. She can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com

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