Ten Things the MLS Can't Tell You

When you're in the market for a new home, it's easy to spend hours pouring over online listings. But don’t get too excited about that dream home that meets all of your criteria on paper: the listing is just the beginning.

Think of the MLS (Multiple Listing Service, an online database of homes for sale) as one giant advertisement whose main purpose is to pique your interest rather than to inform you about a product. The most important pieces of information it can give you are what neighborhoods you can afford, the addresses of properties for sale, the prices of those properties, and a few key details like whether the place comes with a dishwasher and how many rooms it has.

But even what appears to be a detailed listing can seem like a woefully inadequate description once you’ve visited the place. Sometimes a listing can even be downright misleading: it’s hard to believe, but mobile homes located in trailer parks are not always identified as such on real estate websites. With this in mind, here are ten important things that even the best listing is unlikely to describe well.

1. Layout. Even the best photos can't give you an idea of how the floor plan feels when you're actually in the place. A 1500 square foot condo may sound spacious on paper, but it can actually feel cramped if the place hasn’t been designed well. A small split-level living room may leave you without any good place to put your couch and television, for example. Additionally, the listing may say the place has three bedrooms when it really has two bedrooms and a tiny office.

2. Design. Will your existing mid-nineties wood veneer furniture match your new solid maple hardwood floors? If you’ll have to buy new furniture to match or fill up your new place, you’ll be adding a significant amount of extra shopping time and expense to your home purchase. Also, even a brand new place can have significant design flaws, like a bathroom door that bangs into the toilet.

3. Storage Space. Many buyers are in it for the long haul rather than to make a quick buck, especially in today's market. The longer you live somewhere, the more stuff you'll tend to accumulate. Is the place spacious enough to accommodate not just your current belongings, but future possessions as well? Is there adequate closet, garage, or attic space to hold all that stuff in boxes that you never use but don't want to get rid of?

4. Neighbors. How loud or quiet are your neighbors? Is the community active and tight-knit, or do people keep to themselves? Are there lots of children running around? Also, if you’re looking at a brand new condo or townhome, keep in mind that you'll have no idea what the character of the building's community is like until you already own the place.

5. Privacy. Where are the windows and who can see into them? Is it all-too-easy for passersby to peep in or for would-be criminals to observe your comings and goings? If you're looking at a house, how close is it to your neighbors? For condos and townhomes, how thick are the walls?

6. Safety. Will you feel comfortable walking around the neighborhood by yourself? How about at night? Do alleys or neighboring buildings have graffiti?

7. Noise. Is the home on a busy street, and if so, can you tolerate traffic noise, including angry honking and sirens? Is the home near a bar, fire station, police station, hospital, or airport? What are your neighbors' living habits? Musicians, babies, and some twenty-somethings have the potential to be especially noisy.

8. Parking. This is particularly important if you're planning to buy a condo or townhome, or if you're planning to live anywhere in the city rather than in the suburbs. Do parking spaces come with the unit? Would you prefer a townhouse with an attached garage, or is apartment-style community garage parking acceptable to you? When you have guests over, will they be able to find a nearby place to park on the street, or does your garage have guest parking?

9. Vibe. Is there enough natural light, even on a cloudy day? Does the walk from the garage to the back door give you the creeps? Are there shady characters hanging out on the street drinking booze out of paper bags? Does the neighborhood have a chaotic feel?

10. Value. The MLS will tell you if you can afford a place, but it won’t give you any idea of what kind of value you’re actually getting. In my experience, price seems to depend more on location than on the actual amenities of the unit. The range of what's available is huge, from $1.6 million condos that seem like a pure waste of money to $200k houses that make you feel like a million bucks.

So go ahead and start drooling when you’re searching for your dream home online, but don't get your hopes up too high. Remember that to get a true picture of any place, you’ll want to check out open houses and schedule visits with a real estate agent. The MLS is just the beginning.

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