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How to Shorten Your Home Search

Shopping for a home is the ultimate high. Visiting open houses and comparing them against your wish list lets you fantasize about the home of your dreams. A poorly planned home search, on the other hand, can be a draining, frustrating experience. First, you need to decide your price range, location and specific qualities you want before you get started. Shopping for a home is fruitless until you've decided on exactly what type of home you're looking for and where. Your next step is to thoroughly research the real estate market, and to use the best available tools to find the widest selection of homes in your category. Here are several tips to make your home search more successful.

1 - Start perusing the real estate ads.
Although newspaper listings provide only the basic information on the home, they do provide an overview of what's available in various neighborhoods you might be interested in. These ads are arranged by type of home and location. Real estate agencies will purchase large ads with more than one listing.

2 - Know the neighborhood.
Take some time driving around neighborhoods that are in your price range. How long is the commute to work? Check out the quality of schools and accessibility to shopping, restaurants, recreation or other facilities that fit with your lifestyle.

3 - Visit some open houses.
Start walking through homes that generally meet your criteria and ability to pay. Open houses are usually held on Saturday or Sunday by the agent or agency that represents the owner, or by the homeowner if the home is a "FSBO," or For Sale By Owner.

4 - Consider working with a real estate agent.
You'll encounter agents at open houses. Rather than starting from scratch, some homebuyers prefer to let an agent research homes on their behalf. You can benefit from their firsthand knowledge. Another reason to use an agent is to gain access to the Multiple Listing Service, known as the MLS. It's an extensive database that saves a lot of legwork. Just type in about any parameter, such as number of bedrooms or baths, location, and price, and the MLS provides a report on homes in those categories.

5 - Remember that you're not obligated to use a particular agent until you sign a contract.
Let's say that an agent eagerly hands you a business card and tries to entice you to visit other homes. Go ahead and test drive an agent that makes a favorable impression on you. You're not obligated to work exclusively with that agent until you sign a "buyer-broker" agreement or you actually sign a sales contract on the home. There's one exception, however--should the original agent show you a home and you later return with a different agent, the original agent might be entitled to a separate sales commission.

6 - Get prequalifed for a mortgage.
The real estate market is generally hot and homes can sell in a heartbeat. A seller will take you more seriously if you're prequalified.

7 - Ask lots of questions.
There literally are no dumb questions. In fact, it's not really in the self-interest of sellers or real estate agents to offer information if it may hinder the sale or affect the price. The more information you get, the better prepared you'll be to negotiate.

8 - Consider time on the market, price and previous offers.
You may not need to rush to make an offer if a home has been on the market for a month or more. Take your time and visit the home more than once. On the other hand, if the owner already has two or three bids in hand, consider making a better offer and be quick about it. Just be sure to make the contract contingent on a home inspection and don't let the auction-style bidding process drive the price unreasonably high. Walk away instead.

By Cliff McCreedy

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