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A Home Buying Checklist: Organize Your Wants And Needs

Finding the right home can mean separating what you want from what you need. Here’s how to think about the difference — plus a checklist to help your house hunting.

Use our simple one-page home buying checklist to prioritize wants and needs.
If you came to me as a prospective home buyer and asked to go out shopping for houses, there are two things I would ask you:

  1. What do you want in a house and
  2. What do you need in a house?

To many people, this subtlety is lost. If buyers tell me their home needs to be at the end of a cul-de-sac, so be it: they’re the clients.

But let’s be honest: You need a roof over your head, running water, heat, and — depending on your latitude — maybe air conditioning. But you want four bedrooms, a white picket fence, and a pool.

If you’re planning on buying a home anytime soon, let me give you some helpful advice: Be prepared to distinguish needs from wants so that you can be confident about which homes you want to make offers on when the time comes. Here’s how:

Start with your dream home…

Envision your ideal home. Does it have a huge plot of land for your dogs to run around? Or is it a high-rise condo overlooking big city lights? Where is it and what makes it special to you? Now, think about your budget: How much house can you really afford?

If you’re ready to shop for homes, you should have already gotten a pre-approval from a lender. So, with that price in mind, you may need to forgo some of the wants. Unsure what’s reasonable and what’s not in your price range? This is where your agent comes in. One of the main roles of a real estate agent is to know the area, know what homes are going for, and about how much added features — like an additional bedroom or a pool — should add to the price.

…then work backwards

As you put together the picture of your dream home, you may discover that there are features you don’t want to sacrifice and for which you’re willing to pay more. Maybe it’s living within a thirty minute drive from work, an open kitchen or family room, or even something less common, like wheelchair access for a family member.

Sometimes, the wants are easy to distinguish from needs because you’ll find yourself saying “a pool might be nice.” But another way to look at it is: wants are things that you can add or change on your own.

For example, maybe you’re a chargers fan and want a home with yellow walls and blue carpet. Obviously, with a little effort, it’s easy to change these things after you move. If you watch cable house-hunting shows, it can be maddening to see couples turn down home after home because the flooring isn’t right or it doesn’t have a patio.

Some people don’t even want to consider getting their hands dirty and working on their home themselves, but trust me, finding a great home at a good price is infinitely easier when you’re flexible on wants.

Focus on “value items”

In real estate, a value item is a feature that adds value to the property to future buyers.

When evaluating your needs and wants, it’s a good idea to consider value items with more weight than things that are personal preference but add little value.

Items that add value include dual-pane windows, granite countertops, hardwood floors, land, nice landscaping (but don’t forget you’ll have to maintain it) and even intangibles like a beautiful view and being in a top-rated school district.

A great real estate agent will be able to help you determine the difference between a valuable feature and personal touch.

Of course, some big features don’t always add value. For example: Does a pool add value? It depends. Lee Dworshak of Keller Williams LA Harbor Realty explains on the National Association of Realtors website:

“Those buyers who want a house with a pool are usually not willing to pay much for it and in some areas of the country having a pool may even be perceived as a negative to many prospective buyers. Some folks just don’t like them or have young children and are afraid of the safety risks.”

So a pool is kind of a toss-up depending on where you live.

Anything too personal may lack value in terms of resale … or even subtract it. Examples I’ve seen include a giant meditation platform in the backyard, chicken-coops, or bright yellow walls. You may fall in love with the giant mural that the current homeowners painted in their child’s room. After all, your son loves He-Man too! Just keep in mind that when you go to sell, someone will want to repaint over it, and they’ll count the cost of repainting when they consider what to pay for the home. Things that add value are generally thought of as beautiful, safe or convenient by the majority of people. Things with no value are special to you for a reason that other people might not understand or want.

As you prepare to buy a home, remember that no home is perfect. Whether finding a place to rent or buy, you will always end up making compromises. But with a good understanding of what’s most important to you, what you can live without and what will add value to the home, finding the right one will be easier.

Use a home-buying checklist

I tell my clients to create a home buying checklist of the features they want and need so I can help them determine what’s feasible within their budget. You can use a similar checklist before you go out looking at houses. In fact, print it, fill it out and bring it to your real estate agent on the first appointment. See if that doesn’t knock her socks off!

Download our free sample home buying requirements checklist here »

Read more:

Need more help finding the right house? Money Under 30 has every topic covered:

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2012. It has been thoroughly updated for relevance and accuracy.

Published or updated on September 3, 2015

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About Sarah Davis

Sarah Davis is a real estate broker in San Diego, Calif. She enjoys helping both buyers and sellers and was voted one of the top 10 best real estate agents in San Diego in 2013 by Union Tribune readers. In her spare time she talks about real estate on a local radio show and manages her website RealtorSD.com.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Ramona says:

    This is a ‘template’ ANY potential home buyer should abide by. Buying a home is such a personal experience that it’s easy to get sidetracked and waste money on all kinds of things that are useless and costly. This way you’ll know exactly what to look for and be as objective as possible when making the deal.

  2. Wow, thanks for the advice, I will be using this advice from now on hands down. And perfect explanation of value items.

  3. Great explanation of value items. I suspect this will help both buyers and sellers.

    It’s odd that some people count coupons and search all over town to find the lowest gas prices yet don’t seriously consider the weight of a home mortgage and a home’s value. The thousands of dollars that someone could save in increasing the value of their house by installing the granite counter tops (rather than the He-man mural!) may outdo other significant types of savings.

  4. I created a list of expectations and wants before dreaming. Then moved on to what I was willing to invest sweat equity into and what I couldn’t do on my own. Then I had my trusted contractor friend come and inspect all the houses I really liked to figure out what was realistic and what wasn’t. Looking a lot of different houses really helped me figure out what exactly I was looking for.

  5. Brandy says:

    My husband and I have a house but we get in these kicks where we decide to look for a different house. We are not willing to move unless we can find some of our wants. Let me tell you it isn’t easy finding a house with a pool, 3 car garage, and less than 2500 sq feet. These things may not be “needs” but we are happy to stay where we are since we cannot find them.

  6. Great post!

    Housing cost is one of the biggest item on everyone’s budget and it should not be seen only as a mortgage payment or rent. The neighborhood in which you live somewhat dictates your other expenses as well. So, the choice is important one. Living in a good public school district would help avoiding the expense of a private school for your kids. Also one should consider advantages of the free amenities, such as library, community center, tennis court, etc.

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