Real estate moves fast these days, and that means you may not have as much chance to look at a home as you would in a slower market. Often, you must decide whether to make an offer on a house within hours of viewing it, rather than scheduling an appointment to see the house again with your best friend, parents and cousins.

That means that you have to make that first tour really count, but knowing where to focus your attention and what to ignore can help. In short, look hard at things you cannot change, or that will be expensive to change, and concentrate less on things that aren’t permanent.

“Do not focus on cosmetic things,” says Connie Durnal, a Redfin agent in Dallas. “That’s something that can be changed economically and easily. If you go into a home, and it’s staged and it’s decorated to the nines. don’t look at all these pretty things in a home.”

Dawn Rae, broker-owner of Florida Buyers’ Advocate in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents, agrees with this strategy. “You have to be sure you ignore the decor, the paint colors, the personal items, the window treatments,” she says.

[See: 10 Must-Ask Questions When Choosing a Real Estate Agent.]

She recommends paying attention to what will really matter in your life and elements that are difficult to change. “Will the layout work for your lifestyle? Is there enough space?” she says. “If they buy the wrong layout, they’re going to be very unhappy.”

The first, and most important, rule of real estate has not changed: location, location, location. If the home is not in the right community, near a busy highway or in the wrong school district, you can rule it out before visiting.

“Don’t ignore your neighbors,” says Victor Quiroz, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties in Southern California. “If your neighbor doesn’t take care of the yard and has all kinds of clutter and junk … they may make a lot of noise and have a lot of things going on.”

Durnal suggests that each member of a couple write a separate list of what they want and need in a home, then compare lists to see what's important to both. When touring prospective homes, mark which items do and don't meet your criteria.

“If you’re in that home and you don’t check any boxes mentally, it’s probably not a good home for you,” Durnal says.

Buying a home that needs major repairs – a new roof, new plumbing, new electrical panel or all of the above – might be a good move, if the price is right and you have the cash for repairs. But you don’t want to think you’re buying a home in good condition and then be surprised by expensive repairs.

A home inspection is one protection against expensive surprises, but you’ll also want to scrutinize seller disclosures, ask questions about the age of roofs, electrical and plumbing systems, furnaces and air conditioners. Also inquire about termite treatments and water damage. These issues may not be apparent when touring a home, even to experienced observers.

[See: The Best Apps for House Hunting.]

“When you’re in a home you should pay attention to everything, but don’t overanalyze a home and overcritique a home.” Durnal says.

Here are nine things to look for when you tour a home:

Location, location, location. Driving to a home via one route may leave you oblivious to what's half a block away in another direction. Look at neighbors’ homes, nearby buildings and road systems in search of things that would make living in your home less pleasant, including odors, noise and traffic. If you can, drive the area at different times of day.

Floor plan and room sizes. Yes, you can knock out a wall to create bigger rooms, but it’s not as easy as the home improvement shows make it look. The home must have all the rooms you need and a layout that works for your family. “Those are expensive to change and a lot of work,” Quiroz says. “Don’t buy a property you have to do a lot of demolition on.”

Signs of water damage. Dark spots on roofs and walls, a mildew smell or even marks low on a wall that indicate a flood could be a sign of problems. Water damage that is repaired quickly is usually no big deal, but a leak that went undetected for months could have caused significant damage or brought mold. It also could be a sign of damage that has not been repaired.

Roofs and gutters. As a lay person, you may not be able to tell if a roof has reached the end of its natural life, especially from the ground. But you certainly can tell if it looks worn, a sign that you need to ask more questions. If the seller or seller’s agent doesn’t know the roof's age, you may be able to find records of a permit in the city’s archives. If the roof doesn’t meet certain standards, you may not be able to get a mortgage or homeowners insurance.

Electrical boxes. If you’re considering a home that still has the old fuse boxes, you’re definitely looking at a job that needs to be done immediately – and perhaps something that will prevent you from getting a mortgage or the homeowners insurance required for a mortgage. Other electrical signs to keep an eye out for are wiring that's obviously jury-rigged. “If it’s old and worn out, it may need some maintenance, and those are not cheap,” Quiroz says. “That electrical panel may be the tip of the iceberg.”

Furnaces and air conditioners. If possible, ask to have the air conditioning and the plumbing turned on, and listen for suspicious sounds. A home inspector will examine these components more carefully, but you can get a hint by looking and listening.

Cracks in garage floors and uneven flooring. Foundation problems can be expensive to repair. Cracks in the garage floor or floors that feel uneven when you walk are indicators of potential problems. Cracks in ceilings and walls may or may not matter. Foundation issues can create such cracks, but so can less serious causes such as slamming doors or normal settling.

[Read: How to Avoid Buying the Wrong Home in a Hot Market.]

Light and the home's general feel. Buying real estate is both a logical and emotional process. How the house makes you feel can be part of your decision-making process, as long as you’re not unduly swayed by decor and staging. Is the house light or dark? Which direction does it face? When and where will sunlight come in?

Yard size, shape and features. You can change the flower beds, but it’s unlikely you’ll be in the house long enough to see new trees grow into a mature canopy. If you want a place where your children can play baseball, a yard with a steep slope will probably not work. And, of course, you will never be able to make the yard bigger.

Tags: real estate, housing, housing market, money, personal finance


Teresa Mears writes about personal finance, real estate and retirement for U.S. News and other publications. She was previously the real estate blogger for MSN Money and worked as the Home & Design editor for The Miami Herald. During her journalism career, she worked on coverage of immigration, religion, national and international news and local news, serving on the staffs of The Miami Herald, The Los Angeles Times and the St. Petersburg Times. She has also been a contributor for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, among other publications. She publishes Living on the Cheap and Miami on the Cheap. Follow her on Twitter @TeresaMears.

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