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How to Find Inexpensive Houses

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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 this part.

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 violence. SpotCrime.com 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 as well.

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 anyone.


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