Shopping for a home can be both exciting and stressful. The emotions ride even higher when you’re looking to buy. Investing in property is one of the most financially draining transactions you can make.
So how do you set the right tone for the house hunt? It takes a few logic-based steps to rein in the emotions of buying a home.
1) Set Realistic Goals
Setting realistic goals comes easy for some and proves difficult for others. If you’ve been a renter for a while, visions of the perfect house come to mind. While that might be in the cards for some, finding a forever home as a military family is unlikely, since you'll most likely be at a base for only a few years.
Get tips for your pre-PCS househunting trip.
2) Establish a Budget
The goal is to live within your means and not go into debt for everyday expenses. Setting your budget is an important step in the house-hunting process, which means more than just calculating your Basic Housing Allowance.
While your BAH is a huge consideration in setting a budget, you need to think beyond to account for your financial goals. Do you want to tackle existing debt or put aside extra money for savings, investments, or retirement? Consider whether or not you want to keep the cost of utilities within the government allowance or if you’re okay with paying some out of pocket.
Things to consider for your budget:
Basic Housing Allowance
How much did the government budget for your housing costs? To find your current 2022 BAH rate, use the DOD BAH calculator here.
Cost of Living Allowance
Are you eligible for COLA? To see if you’re eligible and find your rate, use the CONUS COLA Calculator here.
What’s the loan amount you qualify for? Start with your pre-qualification, then obtain a mortgage pre-approval.
Your Financial Goals
As mentioned, are you looking to tackle debt, save up an emergency fund, or invest in the future? Answering these questions will help you calculate how much you’re willing to spend on a mortgage or rent each month.
The Cost of Utilities
Utilities range anywhere from $20 to $500 a month. Before you commit to a home, a quick search of the average cost of electric, gas, and water bills will serve you well.
Is living in a less expensive home further from base going to cost you less than living closer to base and paying less for fuel or public transportation?
Homeowner Association Fees
The house you found might be right at your budget, but HOA fees can be pricey, depending on the community.
Budgeting takes careful consideration since it determines what kind of property you can afford.
3) Create Your Search Filters
How can you start your home search if you don’t know what you’re looking for?
This is the part when your budget serves as your accountability partner. As soon as you start looking, the comparison game begins and you’ll need to be picky about which features are worth it to you.
Determine Your Must-Haves
While HGTV trends are sure to catch your attention first, don’t forget to look beyond the sparkling quartz countertops and go back to basics. Do you prefer a one-story house or a two-story home? How many bedrooms and bathrooms does your family need? How many garage spaces and storage are necessary? Are you looking for an open floor plan or something more traditional? These core ingredients define your must-haves.
Add those items to your filter, then take a moment to assess the results. From there, you can dive back into the wish list items like particular finishes, appliances, bathroom upgrades, etc.
4) Research the Area
Go ahead and roll up your sleeves if you thought budgeting was hard because this is where the real work starts. You need to learn everything about the area that you can, especially if you’re diving into homeownership. Anything that can impact your comfort and your property value is crucial because just as much as it needs to be a good home for you and your family, it needs to be marketable when you leave.
Related: How to Choose Your Non-Negotiables When Buying a Home
The best way to get a feel for this aspect of any particular neighborhood is to touch base with the local police department. They can help give you an idea of how many calls they receive in the area, helping you to narrow the location based on stats rather than feelings.
Other factors to check include:
- A crime mapping service like City Protect.
- Pull up the National Sex Offender Public Website.
- Observe how many homes are listed for sale right now (not including a newly built neighborhood). Are people trying to get out of the area?
- Talk to service members who are more familiar with the area.
Convenience to Restaurants and Shopping
A short drive to stores like Target, Walmart, Whole Foods, and restaurants (both local and chain, like Chick-Fil-A and Five Guys) helps sell a home. Many people like to have options, and if stopping at these hot spots proves convenient on the drive home, that’s even better.
Proximity to the Base or Post
Few service members want to add an hour of commute time on each end of their workday. Not only can living close to work be easier on the service member, but if the family intends on joining base activities, shopping at the commissary regularly, or using base facilities, then it’s likely best to live nearby.
When looking into a new school, you’ll most likely have a series of questions you’ll want answered. What are the class sizes? How is the district rated? Which extracurricular activities do they offer? What curriculum do they follow? The list goes on and on.
Great Schools is the place to look for answers (and to view average test scores). School Digger and Niche also serve well for reviews and statistics. And if you’re looking for private schools in particular, then Private School Review is a must-have resource.
Although handy to read through the reviews, it’s good to remember that the data collected for those school rankings could be outdated or biased per individual experiences. Some schools experience turnover in their staff. While a high turnover rate can be a red flag, any turnover could indicate that the reviews you’re reading are based on a school culture that’s no longer there. If you’ve taken interest in a school that doesn’t seem to score a high rating, don’t rule it out immediately. Contact the administration and ask about the specific features you’re looking for in a school.
Another resource for military families is the School Liaison Officer. They can help you find a school district where your children will thrive. Although this representative may not share personal reviews of the local schools, they can point to which schools most military families choose, especially if your children need specific services.
But when looking for a home, remember to extend your research beyond the schools that your own children will attend. Your goal is to find a good school district that can support a quality education from preschool through high school. A premium district can work as a selling point if you choose to list your home for sale or rent later.
How does waking up to a jackhammer right behind your house sound? Not only does this create a noisy living environment, but the construction might affect the value of nearby homes. It’s a good idea to find out what’s being built to determine whether it will cause you to lose money when you sell or potentially help you profit.
5) Keep Track of Your Favorite Homes
While browsing through ads for homes, keep tabs on which homes catch your eye. MilitaryByOwner allows you to like properties and add them to your saved homes folder. By saving your favorite listing, you’ll be able to keep that specific ad and build a list in your account. Later, review the houses you’re interested in and revise as you continue the hunt.
6) Schedule Open Houses
Open houses can feel a lot like walking onto a car lot with that immense pressure to buy, only more personal because you’re not walking around a car lot, you're walking through someone's house. But open houses serve as a great opportunity to see how the current owners use the space, look for flaws that the photos online hide, and envision your family calling it home.
Keep an eye out for:
- Stains: They can indicate a larger issue like a leak or previous water damage.
- Cracked or peeling paint: Disrupted paint can point to cracked walls and a shifting foundation.
- Foul smell or smelling too clean: Mold and mildew are big red flags in an open house, and the scent of stronger cleaners like bleach might mean the owner is overcompensating for it.
After you’ve toured a handful of houses (or more!), go over your notes and look through your photos. Take note of the features that you’re drawn to. From the style of home to the school district nearby, those preferences can help you narrow down which listing would be the best fit for your family.
One of the biggest challenges of moving to a new area is learning what it’s really like to live there. This is where social media shines. Connect with the local community or even a service-wide group like Military PCS to find real-life people with experience in the location you’re headed.
Our site is overflowing with resources designed to help make your PCS and home buying experience as painless as possible. Take a look at our free series of home buying ebooks, including our resource with more househunting tips below!
By Danielle Keech