1. Do your homework. Check out the area you think you want to live in: How are the schools? On sunny weekends, are residents outside walking their dogs or playing with kids? How close is the supermarket, the main road, or the downtown area? The “right” answer to these questions is a matter of personal preference, but it’s important to think about them before you begin to house-hunt in earnest.
2. Decide ahead of time what is non-negotiable. If you need an easy commute into a major city, only search in areas that have train or bus service or are close to major highways. If you love to cook and entertain, make sure the kitchen and dining room are big enough; don’t get distracted by other appealing features (big closets, perhaps?) and lose sight of what you need to live the life you love.
3. Don’t even look at homes you can’t afford. It doesn’t matter whether the economy is in the tank or in great shape—stay within your budget. Talk to lenders, check out mortgage calculators on the web, and figure out what you can reasonably afford to spend. Then tell your real estate agent you’d like to look at homes in that price range only. The fact is, there is always going to be something better out there, no matter what your price range. But if you don’t even see it, you’ll never know what you’re missing.
4. Hire an independent home inspector. This is crucial: Do not get recommendations from the agent who is selling the home you want! Yes, there are many honest people out there, but the professional you hire to inspect your potential new home should have absolutely no stake in whether you buy it or not. The inspector will tell you if there are signs of previous flooding in the basement, or if the roof needs replacing ASAP, or if the concrete retaining wall is about to disintegrate. And then you can decide if you want to proceed with the purchase.
5. Stay cool. You may make an offer on your dream home and get outbid. Your home inspection may reveal a true deal-breaker of a flaw. Your mortgage guarantee may hit a snafu and fall through at the last minute. Any number of things may come between you and your dream home—and none of this will be the end of the world. As with everything in life, when something falls through, something even more wonderful may be waiting around the corner.
Melanie Mannarino is the deputy executive editor of REDBOOK, where she oversees the magazine’s advocacy work and domestic news features as well as the health, fashion, beauty, celebrity and entertainment coverage. She also writes about food and entertaining on the Serving Dish blog at redbookmag.com. She bought her first home in 1999.