I have two small DCs and am finally nearly in a position to buy our first home (at nearly forty!!!)
At the moment we rent in an area we couldn't afford to buy, nice flat near river in town centre (Northern Ireland).
I would like to have a garden and we also need to be within driving distance of a school (not sure yet where DCs will get a place).
Obviously there is the Protestant/catholic dimension to factor in - we don't fit in to either box very neatly so would prefer a more mixed area, though these are generally more urban areas.
What criteria would you apply when choosing a family home and what would you prioritize? When renting, my check-list has included: no damp (too many damp properties in the past), neighbours OK, sufficient insulation/ glazing, a bath, preferably carpet-free floors (easier to clean with small children)...
I think your criteria are fine for renting but, with the exception of nice neighbours, not great for buying as, once you own a property, all those things can be improved/resolved yourself. So I would be thinking in terms of location/affordability - where would I most want to live and what can I get for my money there - definitely have schools as a priority and decide whether you are prepared to take on a project etc. Do you have to be near the children's father(s)? Convenience for work or getting a different job? Out of hours interests (friends/family/hobbies) and amenities (sports/cinema/theatre/shops).
Ideally something you can stay in (as moving costs ££ and esp given single income it may be trickier to trade up if each time it is costing you xx thousand). So if your budget is a two-bed, look for a reasonable area and make sure one bedroom is big enough you could potentially divide it when the DC are older and have the smaller one for you. Or stretch to a three bed if at all possible. A garden (even a small one) is lovely for DC. Garden flats or ground floror maisonettes can be cheaper than houses but beware of extra expense if its a leasehold/maintainence charges for flats. Terraces are cheaper to heat but you'll have two lots of neighbour party walls so make sure it's a solid 1930s not a paper walled 1970s! Go for somewhere you gut-feeling-really-like, ignore things like deco, as people said most things you can change as an owner. Be wary of big expenses like taking on a grotty roof, an ancient boiler or somewhere with big wall cracks or totally rotten windows/double glazing if replacing them is beyond your budget (or necogiate down to cover them). The area is the important thing: bedt thing is to look at hundreds of places on Rightmove and view as many things as you can to see what aspects you like of each.
The school system is a lottery so I think I'll wait and see which school my DC get into next year before choosing an area. Don't have money/time to take on a project - though would love to! No contact with DCs father and work from home... Ask me about hobbies when I haven't got 2 DCs under 4!!! But we do like going for country walks which makes me think a more rural location might be OK. I really need to know what to look for to avoid later big expenses but we will have a survey done so guess I would see what that turns up. I think we can afford a 3-bed if it's not in a central location, which does seem a lot better than a 2-bed (we are in 2-bed now and all sleep in one room with the other as my home office, but that couldn't go on into the children's teenage years obviously)... Plenty to mull over!
Check things such as windows - do they open smoothly, are they double-glazed (if that's what you want), are the double glazed units still viable (no condensation between the glass)? Does the house smell at all damp? Run the taps - what's the water pressure like? Have a look at all the light switches and sockets - do they look old? If they do, you can bet the wiring hasn't been redone in a while. Check the consumer unit (fusebox) - is it the old sort that doesn't have trip switches? Again, another sign that you may have to rewire. Look at the boiler and make a note of the model number so you can google when you get home - it should give you a clue how old it is if the owners are vague. Is there a hot water tank/cylinder? How well insulated is it?
If you're interested in making an offer, try to visit when it is raining to see if the gutters and downpipes are carrying the water away efficiently (look for green patches or discolouration around the downpipes and gutters if you can't time a rainy visit as these would suggest there is a problem).
Most of all, don't be tempted to think that somewhere that is a bit tired "just" needs a lick of paint, new kitchen, new bathroom. The fact is, if it hasn't been decorated for a while, it won't have had more fundamental updating as well so could well require lots of plumbing, rewiring, damp proof work etc.
PS I'm a city girl admittedly but I wouldn't choose to live in a rural location as a single parent. As your children get older, they will probably want to do lots of different after-school activities, visit shops, see friends, it's much easier to do in a town than out in the sticks.
It depends on where you are in NI but there are still quite a number of areas that present good value for money - in other areas the fact that the housing market has perked up has been really noticeable and since August more properties have sold and prices have gone up.
We have just opted for something a bit further out/rural but it means more space and a cheaper house. We're happy to drive a bit longer to work, but we didn't have to factor in schools so far. The village does have a primary, though.
In certain areas you can get a decent three-bed semi for around £100,000 or less, but nearer Belfast this is obviously dearer. I've noticed the Lisburn area seems to be good value for money, as is up near Ballymena/Ballymoney and out towards Enniskillen. We're in the expensive area in Down, hence the decision to move out a bit. But there is lots on the market atm.