If you’re like many homebuyers in today’s market, you’re looking for a house that’s ready for you to live in right away. You don’t want to go through the hassle of making a lot of changes before moving your furniture in and calling the place home. Simply put, you want a move-in ready house.
But what does "move-in ready" really mean? Depending on who’s talking, it could simply mean that all the appliances work; for others, it means a freshly renovated home that reflects popular trends and styles. Or you may want a house that requires zero work – if the paint colors don’t match your tastes, it’s not move-in ready.
As a result, it’s hard to pinpoint what a listing agent means when the house is described as move-in ready online or in other marketing materials. To help you navigate the house-hunting process and manage your expectations when it comes to common listing descriptors, we’ve broken down how the definition of the phrase varies and how you can change your search to match the meaning you need to find your next home.
Take 'Move-in Ready' at Face Value
The technical definition of move-in ready, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is that the building can be occupied, meeting all local code requirements for living in it, including working plumbing and electricity and doors and windows that lock.
By this definition, how you see a property doesn’t really relate to whether it’s move-in ready. Freshly painted walls and a remodeled kitchen to match current trends may pull you in as a buyer, but upon inspection you could learn there’s structural damage that needs to be repaired before you move in.
When it comes to house hunting, however, move-in ready tends to take on a more cosmetic definition for homebuyers. Dan Galloway, a real estate agent and team manager for national brokerage Redfin in the District of Columbia, says some buyers get a wake-up call when they see what’s actually available for them to buy.
“It’s sort of the scourge of HGTV – [buyers] think that move-in ready means that it’s going to be completely to [their] taste, and fixer-upper means just change around some carpet, maybe some paint. And that’s not the case at all,” Galloway says. “Especially with the sort of nationwide inventory crisis that we have, you have to take what’s available. That might mean that you’re going to move into a place where you hate the green walls or you hate the shag carpet, but you’re not having to do any structural improvement, any systematic upgrades.”
While you may consider the space in need of updates or renovations to meet your needs and wants, you can’t assume a property description that includes move-in ready will adhere to all your personal preferences. Take claims of move-in ready at face value.
“Even [with] brand-new renovations, brand-new construction, there are always going to be minor imperfections in a home,” Galloway says.
Finding Your Move-in Ready Home
Since move-in ready can mean so many things for different people, it’s important to convey your preferences to your agent with plenty of specifics. Do you prefer to only see fully updated homes? Are you OK with remodeling for cosmetic purposes only? Does the thought of having to repaint a room disgust you?
By being able to better describe what you prefer in a home, your agent can discuss whether those expectations may need to be altered based on your budget and target neighborhood. For example, if the majority of houses going on the market in your preferred neighborhood are being sold by homeowners who’ve lived there for 30 years rather than investors who’ve renovated the entire property, you may have to consider a home that needs more work or look in a different part of town.
But if your determination for an interior with no work required means you have to live 40 minutes from your preferred neighborhood, keep in mind what you’re giving up. Joe Zeibert, senior director of products, pricing and credit for Ally Financial Inc., notes that in more recent years, homebuyers have been focusing most on the neighborhood, rather than all the finest details of the house itself: “People want something for their lifestyle, versus ‘I’m going to move somewhere for this house.’”
Keep this trend in mind when considering your ability to build wealth through your home – if you like a certain neighborhood, chances are other people do, too. The more desirable the community, the more likely you’ll see property values continue to climb over time and at a faster rate. Your ability to enjoy your home in the years you live there certainly takes priority over return on investment, but if your community preferences line up with trends in property value growth, sacrificing it for a brand-new master suite may not be the best money move.
If you’re struggling to find the kind of pristine, move-in ready condition you want in existing homes, it may be worth it to look at new construction, which allows you to either add your preferences to a house that will be built for you. Many builders offer brand-new homes that are almost finished with construction for those who don't need the custom design or may be on a tighter timeline to close on a property.
If time isn't a concern, you can always wait to see if a home that better suits your needs in your preferred neighborhood comes on the market. But if you're going to wait, be sure what you want is a reasonable expectation – you don't want to realize a year from now that the house you hoped to find simply doesn't exist where you want to live.
Consider Living With the Ugly a Little
Budgeting to buy a house in a pricey neighborhood and make immediate renovations isn’t always as feasible as you’d like. As long as the house meets that technical definition of move-in ready and you’re not living in squalor – but simply have a dated master bathroom – wait and save up a bit more before you start planning for a remodel. And if the house isn't move-in ready or in need of a new roof or furnace, focus your budget on those required changes before you make any cosmetic upgrades.
The neighborhood you buy in can also make waiting on upgrades a valuable decision. Zeibert says the primary focus for many buyers is to find “a community that matches [their] personality.” If you’re shopping in a unique, eclectic neighborhood for that reason, it may clash with that vision of a model home you have in your head. Wait to see if the narrow hallway or pedestal sink in the powder room that’s characteristic of homes in the neighborhood isn’t something you grow to love.
There’s a good chance you’ll learn to tolerate it. Galloway faced a similar situation with his own home: “I’ve bought a home saying, ‘I hate this kitchen. I’m going to rip it out the second I get in.’ And here I am, five years later, and I haven’t done a thing to it, and it doesn’t register to me anymore.”