For most people, the decision to buy a home hits like love at first sight: After endless rounds of dating, you finally find that special one. You walk in the front door and swoon over the refinished hardwood floors. Your eyes lock on the high ceilings. Your heart pounds at the fabulous kitchen and the huge yard. You begin to picture yourself cuddling up by the fireplace with your honey or building holiday traditions for your kids.

While I totally understand leading with your heart, I'm here to tell you to use your head, too. Before saying "I do" to one of the biggest financial commitments of your life, you need to follow up with a few repeat visits during which you play the role of the hard-to-please mother-in-law, checking out every nook and cranny for big-ticket problems. There's nothing more painful, emotionally and financially, than falling blindly in love with a place you soon discover is a financial heartbreak house.

And don't confuse your real-estate agent's statements with a formal condition report. Sure, many states require sellers and their agents to disclose known defects to potential buyers, but the agent might be as clueless as you are. Equally important, agents are typically paid by the seller. The vast majority of agents are honest, but it's only human nature to have a bias in favor of the person who's writing your paycheck. If you're buying directly from the developer, please, please, don't get snookered into believing new means perfect. Every single house or apartment needs a thorough inspection. Before agreeing to buy—in fact, even before hiring a professional inspector—run through this checklist.


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