The most common mistake home buyers make is that they buy with their heart instead of their head. This often means they pay more than they should or are disappointed when they uncover defects in the home or find out the neighbourhood isn’t quite what they thought.
- Visit the neighbourhood on foot.
Take a walk through the neighbourhood and talk to people. Drive by at 7:30 in the morning to see how many school buses are picking up children. You can also tell how long it may take you to commute to work during rush hour. By speaking to people, you can not only get a sense of the friendliness of the community, but also as to whether there are any surprises that no one is going to advertise, a local haunted house, vandalism, former grow houses, or the neighbour from hell.
- Go to City Hall
Visit your local building department and find out if any new developments are planned. New development may increase property values but also increase traffic. Check to see how many owners have applied for minor variances, to either build homes or additions that are larger than the by-law permits. This gives an indication of the future direction of this neighbourhood.
- Find the right real estate agent
Start by asking family and friends. Look for signs in the area that interest you, especially “Sold” signs. This is a good indication that the agent has the area’s pulse and knows what a home should sell for. They should also likely be aware of any problems, such as sewage backups, termites or vandalism; things that may only be known by locals. Also check the website of any agents that you may interview. Do they offer tips and explain what services they provide? Do they offer information about the neighbourhood including parks, religious institutions, demographics and schools? Ask about their success rate with bidding wars and do they know how to approach sellers who refuse to pay commission?
- How much can you afford?
When it comes to mortgages, it is not enough to know in advance how much you can safely borrow based on your income. Buyers should also realize that the lender will do an appraisal and if the lender believes you paid more than the house is worth, they will not give you the full amount of the loan that you expect. So, be very careful about stretching yourself to the limit when you make an offer on any home.
- Title insurance is a must
Title insurance can be arranged through your lawyer. You will be protected against unpaid taxes or water bills by the seller, as well as problems that are not known at closing. This includes problems where part of the home or swimming pool is in fact on your neighbour’s property. However, it is a mistake to believe that title insurance will protect you against everything. For example, title insurance will not compensate you if you thought your lot was 50 feet and a later survey showed that it was only 48 feet.
- Why a survey is important
A survey will reveal all boundary issues in advance, which will ensure that you do not have problems after closing, especially if you plan on making additions or other improvements.
- Choose a home inspector carefully
The home inspection is a critical part of the process, so do your research. Make sure the company is registered before retaining them. The Ontario Association of Home Inspectors is a self-regulating body that defines qualifications for home inspectors, and grants the designation RHI, or Registered Home Inspector, to qualified practitioners in Ontario. Most inspection firms have a limitation of liability clause, which states that if they miss something that costs you money, they are not responsible. Ask the company if they have ever been sued by a buyer.
- Ask the seller hard questions
Ask the sellers if they have had basement flooding problems, or mould or roof leaks, even if the leaks have been repaired. Watch how they answer. Most sellers will now refuse to sign property disclosure statements, but they are required to respond truthfully to these questions if you ask them directly. If the seller refuses to answer or acts suspiciously, then you need to discuss this with your home inspector and your real estate agent and either adjust your purchase offer or walk away.
- Basement apartments must be legal
If the home contains a basement apartment and the income is important to you, make sure that it legally complies with zoning and the fire code by-laws. If it doesn’t, then all it takes is one complaint from a neighbour and you may be forced to spend thousands of dollars to make it comply after you buy.
- Check about your insurance premium early
Find an insurance agent right away and if possible, check what it will cost to obtain insurance as soon as you sign your agreement and before you waive any conditions. An insurance agent can check the history of claims in the neighbourhood and can let you know about claims for sewage back-ups or vandalism. This is important information that any buyer should have before deciding to waive their conditions and complete the deal.
If you follow these simple steps and buy with your head instead of your heart, chances are you’ll get the house you want at a price you can afford, with no unwanted surprises later.
Mark Weisleder is a lawyer, author and speaker to the real estate industry.