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Home buyers should learn to spot incurable defects

July 04, 2009

There's not much you can do about keeping a down market from having some impact on the value of your home. But, you can carefully choose the home you buy so that you end up with a property that holds its value well, even in a slow market.

Gerry and Patty Montmorency have lived in their Oakland, Calif., home for 11 years. Prior to this relatively long period of ownership, at least for them, they bought and sold seven homes in six different cities. It took them between 12 hours and two weeks to sell the last six homes, even one they owned in Nashville, Tenn., for less than four months.

What is the secret to their success? Location is at the top of the list of features to look for. A convenient location with good public or private schools, public transportation and a commercial district close by are a plus. But, being too close to a school or commercial zone can detract from value, particularly in a buyer's market.

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HOUSE HUNTING TIP: To make sure they don't end up buying in the wrong neighborhood, the Montmorencys walk the neighborhood on different days and at various times. They are on the lookout for a pride of ownership that is reflected in good care and maintenance of the homes and yards. They also check for loud neighbors and noisy pets.

Patty and Gerry steer clear of buying the smallest or largest home in the neighborhood. Both of these can be tough sells in a slow market, and you can't always time your move to sell when the market is hot. In a hot market, buyers tend to overlook defects because they're so intent on buying when home prices are appreciating.

Other features on the Montmorency's list are: at least a two-car garage, ideally with inside access to the house; at least 2,000 square feet of living space; three bedrooms and two and one-half bathrooms; wood and tile floors throughout; a newer kitchen and bathrooms, or ones that can be updated; and no aluminum windows or siding.

They also prefer to live on a cul-de-sac, if possible. But, if not, there should be no double yellow line in the street in front of the house. They always buy single-family homes - never split-level homes or condos. For decades, single-family homes outpaced condos in terms of appreciation rate. However, that turned around at the beginning of this decade.

Many things can be improved in a house, like the color scheme or lighting fixtures. However, some qualities are difficult or impossible to correct. For example, good natural light is appealing to most home buyers. You might be able bring more light into a house by adding skylights or enlarging windows. But, some homes are oriented in such a way that they will never have good natural light.

Other incurable defects that you might want to avoid are a lot of steps leading to the front door; a house with living space on more than three levels; a location near a noisy freeway, under the flight path of a local airport or on a busy street; a choppy floor plan that doesn't flow easily; lack of a bathroom on each level; and limited storage space.

Buying a home involves making compromises. The perfect house doesn't exist and probably can't be built. However, you can and should avoid buying a house with incurable defects like a bad floor plan that can't be fixed without rebuilding the house.

THE CLOSING: Resale value shouldn't be the only reason you buy a home. But, it should be seriously considered.

Dian Hymer is a nationally syndicated real estate columnist and author of "House Hunting, The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers" and "Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer's Guide," Chronicle Books.

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