When we started looking for our first house, I was given the following simple piece of advice and if I had to pass on one tidbit of wisdom this would be it.
You can't change the location, neighbors or light - everything else is up for negotiation - B.F.
Its concise, straightforward and encompasses so much of what, at least for us, was important in finding our first home. We started with location. From the beginning, I was dead set on one neighborhood. Jeff was more flexible and at times pushed to look elsewhere but I dung my heels in and refused to look outside of our target area. My reasons where in part very rational - great resale value, proximity to places we frequented often, walkability to shops and restaurants and a well recognized public school system. But if I am being completely honest, it was more about gut and intuition. I just saw us living in our now neighborhood. Reflecting back on it, I think a large part of my attachment can be attributed to Northern Michigan as our current neighborhood has a very similar feel and architectural character. Or as my Mom put it "this is about as close to Up North as I think you are going to get in Missouri".
The neighbors criteria is a trickier one and one that we took a bit of a risk on. After the first tour of our house, we pretty much knew we wanted it. But (and there usually is a but) the house to our left, was in a major state of disrepair and seemingly vacant. There was trash and discarded objects in the yard, a ton of fallen bamboo and a house in desperate need of maintenance. In contrast, the house on the right was beautifully maintained and valued significantly higher than what our house was listed at. So before putting in an offer, we had our real estate agent due some digging and found out that the scary neighbor house was the home of an elderly woman. She had recently moved to a retirement home and the house would soon be coming on the market. This was still a risk as it made our future neighbors an unknown. But for us, knowing that the property was in a state of transition and would hopefully sold to someone who would rehab it, was enough to calm our nerves. We also had to compromise in that our house sits on a busier street and Jeff, in particular, was concerned that we wouldn't get the neighborly feel that we so loved in our rental. Again a risk but as it turns out we have some great neighbors who have been extremely welcoming to us. Neighbors and the state of their property can greatly affect not only the value of your house but your experience living in it. Its a criteria that I think often times is overlooked but a really important one as once you purchase your home you really have no control over who/what you are living next to.
Light really refers to windows and the siting of the house. So even though on the walk through the house felt dark and sort of sad, I knew that with some cleaning and white paint it would be bright and light because of all the windows and glass doors. We also got lucky in that our house is oriented north to south while being staggered from the neighbors. This allows for great morning light on the east side of the house and amazing afternoon light on the west side. While it is easy to say you can add lighting to a dark house, there is just no substitute for good natural lighting. It really makes a house feel warm and welcoming.
Finally the negotiable part of the advice, we were looking for something that needed some renovation. We didn't want a completed home but rather, one we could tailor to our own tastes and needs. This meant that (within reason) we were open to a good project. Project homes, however, are not for everyone. The require a lot of time and patience and you have to be willingly/want to make it a big part of your life.
Obviously, there was a lot more to our criteria in searching for a home but being able to really distill down what was most important to us was crucial in our home buying experience. So whether its location, neighbors and light or so some other thing that you have to have in a house, I would say stick to it, know when and when not to compromise and above all learn to be patient.