A Handy Checklist for Savvy Home Buyers


Often, I get a text or email from someone asking me what I think about a home they are considering purchasing. They will send me the address and ask me, “What do you think of this house?” I think they expect me to say, “Yes, I like it,” or “No, I don’t like it,” but my response email surprises them.

My response email, at minimum, contains at least seven bits of information I want them to obtain. They include:

  1. Aerial view of the property they are looking for (obtained from Google Earth or their local tax assessor site)
  2. Copy of the property tax card and copy of survey if available (obtained from their local assessor website)
  3. Copy of the property’s legal description (available from local register of deed/documents office online or via visiting their office)
  4. Copy of local flood maps of the area (available online)
  5. Copy of any proposed planned developments nearby (obtained from government planning commission minutes or calling government planning office)
  6. Three or more recent closed sales of similar homes within a mile or as close as possible to the property (obtained from local assessor website or online home sale sites)
  7. Three or more recently listed similar homes within a mile or as close as possible to the property (obtained from local home listing sites online).

The preceding list of items is an eyes wide open preliminary homebuyer checklist that I personally use and advise others to do the same. Thanks to our ever growing technology, everything I have listed above is available free online. Let me walk you through each item on the list.

Let’s start with getting an aerial view of the property. Search on Google Earth or the local assessor site. Locate the home you are considering purchasing by listing the physical address. Look at the property map and consider:

  • How close are the neighboring improvements?
  • Do you see commercial, industrial properties nearby, highway or collector roads?
  • Are streams or waterways nearby?

All represent valuable information to take into consideration.

Next, look carefully at the property tax card information. Most tax cards online contain a property identification number unique to that property. The tax card will contain information regarding the size of the property’s lot and improvements and the amount they are assessed at (amount they use in taxing the property). The tax card also states the age of the property, age of improvements and many other useful facts.

Most homes have a recorded survey that I refer to as it’s “birth certificate.” The survey will show the property/land at birth or at the beginning, typically before a home is built (some surveys show completed improvements).

A copy of a survey will show you property lines, utility easements, common areas or neighborhood easements, waterways, possible flood hazard areas, roadways, and so many more items. A thorough look at the survey may save you from problems later.

The legal description is probably the most boring piece of information you will need to take a look at. If you cannot find the legal description online, a call to the local register of deeds/documents office will get you a copy emailed or you can pick it up.

The legal description will be found within the recorded deed of the property and may or may not contain information important to you. It will typically refer to a survey plat which you may have already looked at or it may actually give details of the property size, easements and encroachments if no survey is recorded.

Simply researching the property address at a local register of deeds or legal documents site can give you additional information regarding possible recorded easements, liens or other recorded information unique to the property that you are considering purchasing. That lovely property you may want to purchase could have a shared easement driveway or private (versus public) road frontage access.

Another good item to view is your local flood map online. Most are available by simply putting in the home address; however, some may take a little more research to find.

Make sure the property is not in a listed flood hazard area and if it is, look to see if the improvements are in the actual hazard area or outside of it. More research should be conducted if the property is located in or nearby a flood hazard area.

One complaint I hear often from home buyers is, “I didn’t know that gorgeous sprawling farm next door was zoned for a shopping center.” Simply, call or check the local government planning commission site online to see what the open properties nearby are zoned for, if commercial or industrial use nearby is a concern to you. Also, local newspapers do a really good job to inform of potential developments on their way in a community.

Last, but not least, obtaining at least 3 closed sales and 3 recently listed sales of nearby similar homes is most important on my list of “to do” items. Real estate agents and appraisers use sales and listings in valuing properties for mortgages, sellers, buyers, etc., but prospective home buyers can also conduct their own searches before a home purchase.

Getting this information is fairly simple to do. There are numerous real estate listing sites online that will show you homes that are currently listed and those that have sold nearby. By clicking on the home sales, you can get an idea of the home and neighborhood prices by comparing them with the home you are looking at. Your local tax assessor site also contains information regarding closed home sales.

Whew, the information to research may seem a bit overwhelming, but information is knowledge and having knowledge gives you the power to make the right decisions! You can do this!

How many times have you purchased a house in your lifetime? Which of the items on the above list did you consider when buying at least one home? Which did you disregard? Have you had regrets about buying any particular property? Why?



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