Know what you want
Before you explore neighborhoods and open houses, you should think about what you want in a house.
A single-family home
Is a free-standing house on its own lot. It can vary greatly in size, number of rooms, building style, and in many other ways, such as whether it has a garage or a pool. It's the most private kind of dwelling you can own.
Also known as a condo, is a unit that generally shares a wall or other structural part with an adjoining unit, so it's not as private. In a condo, you only own the space inside your unit, so that's all you pay taxes on. Maintenance and upkeep of the home's exterior and yard are typically performed by a management company. You'll pay homeowners' association (HOA) fees to cover your share of those expenses—and those fees aren't tax deductible.
Planned Unit Developments (PUDs)
Generally consist of freestanding houses with a yard. But as with a condo, there are usually rules you must follow that guide the appearance of your house and your yard. You'll also typically pay HOA fees that go toward maintenance, security and other services.
Co-ops or housing cooperatives
Are essentially corporations that own a building that has multiple units. When you buy a share in the corporation, you're buying the right to live in a unit of the building.
Other factors to consider
How happy you are in your home depends on more than just the house itself. Other factors that can make a big impact on whether your house feels like your home include:
If you have kids, or hope to in the future, then the local public schools near your home will be important to you. How are the schools rated? What's the dropout rate? How far will your kids have to travel to get to school? A good real estate agent should be knowledgeable about this.
How many crimes take place in the neighborhood? What kinds of crimes are most common? Will you feel safe going out with your family? Talk to your real estate agent about local safety, and you can also talk to local police. Visit the house at different times of day and night to see who's out, and what it's like after sunset.
How long will your commute to work be? How busy are the streets around your house? How much noise does that traffic make? How easy is it to get around for basics like grocery shopping?
Privacy and neighbors
Are there a lot of children playing in the neighborhood, or is it quiet? Do the neighbors know each other, or mind their own business? By talking to neighbors and your real estate agent, you should be able to get a sense of what the neighborhood is like.