Editor’s note: This is the final column in a four-part series.

I recently signed up to use a virtual assistant service for a couple of small online research projects. These particular projects are simple to do but I never have time for them. They don’t take much subject matter knowledge, but they do take a soupcon of good judgment and discretion.

Done correctly, they have the potential to save me a whole lot of time. But you know what? In the past, I’ve actually hired on-site assistants and paid them for hours’ worth of work on these projects before, and have never really seen them be done to my satisfaction.

Yet the other day, I logged on to a new assistant service I’d heard about, described the project and put it up for bids. I had about eight "runners" bid on the project within the first hour after I’d posted it. I reviewed their bids (the dollar amount they said they would do the work for), and their backgrounds.

I selected a runner and dropped her a line with a little more descriptive information about what I wanted and needed from her, and I gave her a deadline several days out. Three days early, I had the completed first project in my hands — done to perfection. For less than one hour’s wages to one of my former assistants.

So, what gives? It’s not so much that my former assistants were lacking. The problem was, they were smart people, and we were pretty friendly, too, so I expected they would know what I wanted. So I just gave them a vague idea of what I was looking for, and, as a result, I got a vague approximation of the result I was looking for.

With the virtual assistant (and a couple of years more management experience under my belt), I didn’t know her from Eve, nor did she know me. And I wasn’t paying her to get to know me — just to do a simple, finite research project.

So, I gave her extremely explicit instructions for what I needed, what I planned to use the outcome of her research for, and even prepared a spreadsheet for her with headers she could just drop the information into.

I briefed her on what the next step of the project would be, and told her very precisely what I felt a successful outcome would be. And voila — no questions asked — she was able to deliver precisely what I was looking for.

The final column in this series of four fundamental elements of being a successful real estate consumer — whether a homebuyer, seller, owner or investor — is to set yourself up for success by knowing with clarity what outcome you are aiming for, and then holding your decisions and actions to account against that aim at every step along the way.

Know what you want, and make sure that it’s personal to you — not something you think you may want because someone said you needed the tax deductions that come along with homeownership.

If you want to buy a home, know why: How is it you want and need your life to get easier or better out of the deal? Are you looking for a solid financial investment, or to create a lovely sanctuary, or to better accommodate the activities you want and need to do on a daily basis?

It’s the same with selling or refinancing — ask yourself, "What’s in it for me?"

Your answer may even change your course of action. I’ve known homeowners who were freaking out at being upside down and called up wanting to sell, stat, who calmed down and course-corrected back to staying in their homes when they realized that the home and mortgage payment all still worked well for their lives.

There was really nothing in a short sale or move for them that would make their daily lives noticeably better than it already was.

This is about accountability — holding yourself to account. To yourself, that is. This is how you’ll make sure that your life actually gets better every time you buy, sell or move, and not worse.

Sounds basic, but you can bet your bottom dollar that there are a bunch of your fellow Americans out there that wish they’d had a better system for holding themselves and their decisions accountable to some standard around life enhancement before they did that last refinance or moved up to the bigger place.

If you decide that your goal is to live with more ease and less drama and to enjoy life more in your home, a bigger home might not live up to that standard. You may have more space, sure, but you might also have to work more, cut out more, and cut back elsewhere, in areas that don’t work for you.

Or it could be just what the doctor ordered — you got the raise, and have eliminated extra expenses so you’ve saved enough that, combined with today’s low prices, a move-up will fit the bill.

If your goal is to get your home paid off by retirement, a refinance could move you toward or away from the goal, depending on the specifics. Your job is to figure our whether you’re getting warmer or colder, and only do the things that bring you closer to your end goal.

The idea is to know exactly what you’re trying to do, then measure your real estate decisions against your goal, at various points through the process.

When you get preapproved is a good time to do a check: Are you getting closer to — or further from — where you want to be? It’s also a good time: when you make an offer, get listing agents’ recommended list prices for your home, accept an offer, remove contingencies and even get a good faith estimate from the mortgage broker before you refinance your home loan.

This level of accountability can and should empower not only you, but also the professionals you engage — to stay a straight course, or course-correct if you find yourself moving in the wrong direction because it seems like such a great price for that place, or because rates seem so low, or because your friend Lilian just got such a beautiful new home in that subdivision.

This accountability is about knowing and doing what works for you — not someone else or someone else’s math or wishes for you.

Real estate can effect a wide variety of life changes — some good and others less so. If success as a real estate consumer is defined as making decisions and moves that improve and enhance your life, then getting specific about defining what a successful outcome of any transaction you’re considering would be — with precision, before you make any moves — is the final, fundamental key to unlocking that success.

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