The ideal house 'should grab and hug you'

SMART MOVES

September 19, 1993|By ELLEN JAMES MARTIN

Are you a homebuyer convinced you've found the right house?

Well, you could be mistaken if the chemistry isn't there. Just as you wouldn't pick a marital partner solely on the basis of the partner's resume, you shouldn't sign the papers for purchase of a home that doesn't feel right.

"When you walk through the front door, the house should grab you and hug you," says Henry Strohminger, an agent for the Towson-Hunt Valley office of Prudential Preferred Properties.

Even if the house looks good on paper, you should pass it by if it doesn't feel right, says Mary Bell Grempler, chairman of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty, the Towson-based chain.

"You've got to love the house. If it's strictly a business transaction, you're going to be very disappointed," she cautions.

*

Beyond emotional attraction -- the feeling that a property welcomes you warmly and would be a comfortable place to live --real estate specialists offer four other criteria for picking the right house.

* The property's location.

"For most people, the right place is where they grew up -- where their relatives and friends live," Ms. Grempler says.

Granted, the United States remains a mobile society, and many people are willing to move not only across town, but across the country or around the world. Remarkably, however, most Americans continue to feel most at ease staying within a short radius of their native soil -- what Ms. Grempler calls "their envelope."

If sacred ground for you is Howard County, for example, you may feel more at ease buying in Columbia or Ellicott City than in Bel Air. On the other hand, as a native Howard Countian, your sacred ground might be the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The point is not that you ought to live in one neighborhood or another, only that you should consider location within a personal context.

For instance, one person might be happiest if his big Victorian is on a busy road where it is conspicuous to passers-by. But another buyer might accept the Victorian only if it were on a tree-shrouded out-of-the-way lot.

* The size of the mortgage.

The rule-of-thumb among mortgage lenders is that a buyer can )) afford to put roughly a third of his gross income into house payments (mortgage principle and interest as well as property taxes, homeowner's insurance, and condominium fees, if any).

But even though the lender's "underwriting guidelines" will let you borrow that much, you don't have to stretch that far, says Robert Irwin, author of "Tips and Traps When Selling Your Home," a McGraw Hill paperback.

"If you have a parent in a convalescent home and you're paying a tremendous amount of money for that, you're not going to want to have a huge mortgage payment," Mr. Irwin says.

Private school tuition bills, college costs, and expensive hobbies are other budget items that also might make it wise to pick a lesser home than your lender might allow.

* The size of the house.

Raw square footage figures don't tell the whole story. Floor plan and space distribution also matter.

Some home designs involve a lot of "dead space" in entry ways, hallways and rooms with extra high ceilings. Although architecturally pleasant, such designs may be of limited use. In other cases, space is distributed in an idiosyncratic way.

For example, a custom-built house with a double set of master bedrooms might register high on the square-footage scale. Yet the house could be short of space for a family with three children, which requires a minimum of four bedrooms.

"You need to have the number of rooms, and relationship of rooms, that fits your lifestyle," says Ms. Grempler, the Towson realty executive.

Of course, a well-heeled homebuyer can always buy with the notion of adding on to his not-quite-big-enough house. But there is a catch -- even for the prosperous buyer.

Often, you can augment your total square footage by adding on a sun room, family room or other nonessential area. But expanding your core rooms -- such as your kitchen -- can be much trickier.

* The neighborhood schools.

It used to be that good public schools were just another item on the list of neighborhood amenities -- like good nearby shopping facilities and roadways -- sought out by a homebuyer.

But increasing fears about public education have sent schools to the top of many buyers' lists, says Mr. Strohminger, the Prudential agent.

"People don't take for granted the quality of a school system anymore. Because of stories they've heard on the news, it's something they want to delve into," Mr. Strohminger says.

In selecting the "right" house, it's not enough to find the "right" school system. Many homebuyers are discovering wide variations in the quality of one school vs. another -- even within the same system's boundaries, Mr. Strohminger says.

Before buying, your best hope is to visit the schools that serve your potential neighborhood. Ask questions about teaching and test scores. Then judge for yourself.

Don't plan to have children now or ever? Even so, you should make quality education a key criteria. Increasingly, the local schools affect property values.

"The house you select should fit your needs. But it should also appeal to the greatest number of other people out there. That means that when you buy, you've got to put on your seller's hat, too," he says.

@4 (Ellen James Martin is a columnist for The Sun.)

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