I've never actually done something like this, but I'm seriously thinking of trying my hand at open-heart surgery this weekend. I mean, how hard can it be? It's all just plumbing, right?

Before you get all excited and email me wanting to be the first patient, I'll probably just stick to building websites (that's my "day" job). My obviously silly point is that, when taking on a large, serious task (such as heart surgery or buying a house), you really should have a bit of training and education behind you before making that first cut.

When I purchased my first home, I contacted a friend's wife who was in the mortgage business. She went way above and beyond the "call of duty" of a mortgage broker. She educated me on various loan programs for my income bracket, found me some government programs for first-time homebuyers and accompanied me on a couple of showings. Now, granted, we were all friends and she was chipping in to help out a newbie, but the education I received from her and my friend was priceless.

Today I'd like to spend a little time hitting some of the high-points for any first timers out there looking to buy their first home. We're sneaking our way into spring and the housing market will be heating up shortly. Nothing can replace working with an experienced, local real estate professional. That should simply be the first thing you do, but you still need to have a decent understanding of what you are buying. It's not just the four walls and roof, and it doesn't even stop at the edge of your property. Let's dig in a bit.

For obvious reasons, let's start on the outside. I was fortunate that the duplex I purchased just had the roof replaced, but there were a handful of other places we looked at that showed visible signs of age and decay up there. You don't have to be a roofing expert to see a sagging roof line and missing shingles. This goes for the rest of the outside as well. Paint chipping and peeling may not be a sign of damage. It could just be the previous person did a terrible job painting. But as you are walking around the home, be super vigilant about any signs or symptoms of wear and tear.

Living in New England and "northern" climates my whole life, I tend to be very sensitive about "leaky" homes. As you are evaluating the exterior of the home, try to imagine all the places that cold air can seep in and heat can seep out. Is there rotting around the windows and doors? Is the siding intact or are there pieces missing? Is there frost on the windows? Are there huge ice dams hanging off the roof? (Although these look quaint in pictures, they are a sign of terrible insulation in real life!) Again, you don't need to be a construction expert to evaluate a home; just try to think like one.

I want to be super clear about something. Just because you see peeling paint or cracked caulking around the home doesn't necessarily mean something is wrong. I just want you to be "aware" of it and ask questions. The goal here is to gather information.

Working our way inside the home, the first things we're looking for, just as with the exterior, are cracks, chips, peeling paint and that general "not-kept-up" look and feel. I'm especially interested in cracks in the walls and ceiling (not just sheetrock, but basement floors, walls and garage floors). We want to know if this home is about to fall over sideways!

"Perhaps this would be reserved for a second walk-through but I urge my buyers to get into the crawl spaces, basements, attics and every other nook and cranny of the home," notes Badger Realty agent Deirdre Lorway. "I want my buyers to be aware of non-insulated pipes, sagging floor joists, water stains and even shoddy-looking wiring," she continued.

Lastly, it is important to be aware of the home's surroundings. The residents of Bethlehem just narrowly voted down a landfill expansion in their town. You won't know everything about the area, but asking questions and doing your homework will help a ton. A good friend made the colossal mistake of moving into a condo in downtown Fort Collins, Colorado. Little did he know that the train comes by multiple times a day and blasts the horn at all of the road crossings. The train's horn was literally 25 feet from his patio door. Needless to say, that's not something, as many people say, that you get used to!

The goal of today is to encourage you to open your eyes a little wider and be much more scrutinizing than you would normally be. This is a huge deal for you and your family and gathering all the pertinent information is critical to helping you make a good decision. Talk to your real estate professional and gather all the information you possibly can, and remember: Never stop asking questions!

I'll see you at the showings! (I'll be the guy in the crawlspace!)

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