How to Find Inexpensive Houses
By Steve Gillman
Below is a summary of what we look at when we research our
next home town (11 homes in five states in 12 years), and how
we find the information.
Choosing a General Area
You have to live somewhere that you want to live, so choosing
some parts of the country that might fit your personal criteria
is the place to start. Do you like mountains, beaches, or big
cities? If it is all of the above you can look to the California
coast, but then you won't find much in the way of affordable
housing there. So you may have to prioritize your preferences
and balance various factors. Of course if you have to be a certain
state or city for family or employment reasons, you can skip
Locating Nice Affordable Towns
Once you have an area targeted, start checking out the towns
and cities. Do a quick search on Realtor.com
to see if there is any possibility of affordable homes, saving
the more detailed home research for later. Once you have a list
of candidate cities you can dig into the details of what life
might be like there.
Weather - Our favorite tool for determining the climate
in a town is WeatherBase.com.
It has climate information on almost every city in the U.S. Click
on a state, then find the city you are interested in, and you
can see how many inches of snow they get each year, how much
rain, how hot or cold it gets, etc. There is a lot of information
here, and a link to the current weather forecast.
Demographics - Do you want a town full of young people
or retirees? Check out the town on City-Data.com.
They have information and statistics for most cities in the United
States. From the home page, click on a state on their map, and
then find the city you want on the list. You'll find more statistics
than you can possibly use, and links to even more information.
Population, average income, crime statistics, maps, photos--they
have a ton of great information.
Crime - City-Data.com
crime statistics for most cities and towns. We look at the overall
rate in comparison to the national average. Then we look at what
kinds of crime are common. We are less concerned about non-violent
crimes or ones that are less likely to affect us, like domestic
is another great resource. You may have to sign up (it's free),
but then you can look at exactly what crimes are happening and
where. Sometimes a "dangerous" city is only unsafe
in small parts.
Culture and Politics - Google
the name of the town along with "newspaper" to see
if there is a local paper (it's becoming less common). Scanning
the headlines in each section can tell you a lot about a place.
Reading the letters to the editor can also clue you in on the
way residents (at least some of them) think.
Employment - Although my wife and I have been self-employed
most of the time, we always looked at the job situation when
moving to a new town, just in case. To see if there are jobs
and to compare one place to another, just go to one of the big
employment websites like Monster.com,
and enter the local zip code or name of the town. If you will
be looking for a job you can get more specific.
All the Rest - The forums
on City-Data.com can be very helpful. For example, local
residents will post answers about how much water bills are, or
whether there are decent jobs in town. Be aware that this is
often just a place for locals to vent about all the things they
don't like about their town. The people who love the place might
be out enjoying it instead of hanging out in online forums.
Local chamber of commerce websites or official city sites
will have some useful information, and make for a nice balance
to the "bitch sessions" in the forums.
Finding Cheap Homes
When you think you like a town and are ready to look for houses,
one of the best places to start is Realtor.com. Yes, it's a slow website at times
due to the large quantities of photos and ever-expanding functions.
And you have to learn a few tricks. In fact, there are a number
of different ways you can use it.
Start - Enter a town and state, price range and minimum
number of bedrooms. You can leave out the price range if you
want, so you'll be able to see not only the houses you can afford,
but also what other kinds of housing the place has. We like to
see wealthy neighbors because it sometimes means the tax base
is sufficient to keep the town operating decently.
Arrange the Results - In the results you get Realtor.com
has conveniently made "most expensive first" the default
option, since that's how buyers want to shop (yes, that was sarcasm).
You can change that and start with the lowest priced homes that
meet your criteria. Or, if you have been looking at the same
place for a while you can sort by most recent listings.
Refine Your Search - You can alter your criteria, and
you have many options for doing so. Refine your search by minimum
square footage, type of housing, and more. We get rid of the
land sales when home shopping, and lately exclude the condos
Check Out the Photos - Look closely at the photos so
you know what kinds of houses you're really getting for the price.
In our experience they are almost always much rougher than they
appear in the pictures.
Use the Map Feature - You can click the button that
lets you see the listings on the map, and this function will
sometimes work. When it does work it's very useful, allowing
you to see at a glance where the less expensive homes are, and
whether there are any houses you can afford in the parts of town
where you want to live.
Call an Agent - I like to use the real
estate agent directory at Zillow to find someone to call.
They usually have reviews and ranking. Just enter the name of
the city or the zip code and choose an agent with a decent rating.
While you have an agent on the phone don't ask only about the
house. Ask about the neighborhood and town as well.
Looking at a Town and/or House
When we come to a town for the first time we like to go where
we can talk to locals. Usually that's a bar. But sometimes, when
it's a slow day, we can get an employee at a sandwich shop to
tell us all about the town. Talk to anyone who has the time to
see what you can learn about the place.
The same goes for the houses you look at. Talk to anyone and
everyone. We were about to buy a home in Farmington, New Mexico
once when my wife got the current renter alone and learned that
half of the outlets in the home didn't work. The tenant then
showed us a garden hose attached to a natural gas line in the
basement (I have no idea what that was about). The owner just
shrugged and said, "You can just cut that off." We
just cut off the deal.
Neighbors and renters are especially helpful, but talk to