I bought my house at the ripe old age of 22, and 6 years later consider myself quite the expert on all things home related. I ended up in a very strange situation of being able to buy a home built and owned for over 50 years by a family friend. My parents almost bought the house back when I was in highschool because they loved it so much, and the original owner ended up passing away and selling the house to someone else. 6 years later, I was in the market for my first home, and it ended up being for sale again! It all feels like a lot of fate, but I absolutely adore my house and yard. And of course, it is the inspiration for Style & the Suburbs after all!
Knowing what seemed important to me when I was first looking for a house and realizing what is really important to me now that I own it, I feel like there are a lot of secrets or advice that first time buyers don’t think about. Here are my top tips for first time buyers to end up in a home they love now and years from now:
- The perfect home probably isn’t out there. I said it. When I first started looking for a house, I was so excited to get out there and look but was instantly surprised by what my budget could (and couldn’t afford). Having the reality that you probably can’t get EVERYTHING that you want will help you prioritize what you really do want.
- Make a list of must haves and like to haves. Once you step back from the “dream house” idea, think about the amenities you really want and need. For me, a location that was close to work and in a nicer neighborhood was really important. I also wanted a house with potential that wasn’t in total disrepair. But, I was open to finding something that needed a little freshening up in order to afford what I really wanted.
- You can change your house, you can’t change your location or neighbors. When watching friends buy their first homes, I heard a lot of “well it’s not in the best neighborhood and the yard sucks, BUT THE KITCHEN IS AMAZING”. I lucked out when purchasing my home in a nice, quiet neighborhood, with a really big yard. And I’ve been slowly making the inside my dream house too. A lot of people are scared of remodeling a house, but if there are only one or two rooms you aren’t thrilled about, it can be easily changed. If you have neighbors you aren’t thrilled about, that can’t be changed (unless you get into some type of criminal activity..).
- Know what you can afford. This probably should have been the first tip, but get prequalified, know what you can afford a month, and be sure to understand all the other expenses like a realtor, closing costs, and down payment expectations. It’s really not worth looking at homes until you know what your budget is to prevent you from having unrealistic expectations. There is also a lot more to owning a house that the generic mortgage calculators you see online. When I put the offer in on my house, they wanted 10% earnest money as a part of the offer and I would have never expected that! Here’s one handy guide of potential costs that I found:
- Be in the know for repair costs. Don’t just think of a house as what the total cost or monthly payment will be, but what else you will have to pay for in the next 5 – 10 years. How old is the roof? How old is the heater and water heater? How are the siding and windows? These updates can be a huge cost if they are nearing the end of their life and the last thing you want is to buy a house and realize you need to spend another $10,000 on a roof!
- Be in the know for remodel costs. If you love the house, but hate the kitchen, know what the cost would be to update it so you know if it is a deal breaker or not. When the housing market is hot, these decisions have to be made really fast so it’s better to have a base level understanding of budget.
- Don’t judge a book by its cover. If this blog teaches anyone anything, I hope it shows how much you can do to a house on a budget. The reason I loved my house so much is that it was in almost perfect original condition, but was dated. A lot of people passed it up because of the green bathroom tile and retro looking kitchen, but that allowed me to get a great deal on a house with all new siding, roof, windows, and appliances, and let me spend my extra money on cosmetic updates.
- But be judgmental of everything. Be sure to hire a reputable inspector who looks at EVERY inch of the house so you don’t end up with a major headache later on. The first house I almost bought had a sagging roof that we noticed the second time I looked at the house. It would have meant that the entire roof had to be replaced (not like just the shingles– the roof would have to be rebuilt), to the tune of about $40,000. It would’ve meant I would have to disclose this to any future buyers if I didn’t fix it either. If we didn’t notice this and have it inspected, I could have been in a whole heap of trouble. Most cities require things like this to be disclosed, but I highly recommend having your own inspector to find anything that might be hiding.
- Find a realtor you are comfortable with. My home buying experience would have been so much more stressful had I not found a great realtor who was really patient and great to work with. Be sure to level set expectations for communication, response times, and timing to be fair to both parties. When buying my home, I was in a unique position that I was living with my parents (like most millenials right?), but had time to really be patient to find the house I wanted. The longer I waited, the more money I was also able to save up. I was sure my realtor knew that I was willing to wait months for the right place to pop up, but I also was serious about buying. They are trying to make a living too and don’t work for free if you aren’t serious about purchasing.
- Be smart with your money. I bought my home towards the end of the housing crisis and I ended up buying it for even less than the previous owner owed on it. The previous owner is also still likely paying for the brand new new roof, windows, and siding on the house. We live in a culture that is all about having the absolute best we can buy or finance at any given moment, and that lifestyle can get you in a lot of trouble. I was sensible in buying a house I could stay in for a really long time, but also wasn’t above my means. I was laid off for 9 months a couple years after I bought my house and was able to easily pay my bills and make my payments with my savings. After going through that experience, I know that peace of mind is way more important than a spendy vacation or new car, and I spent the next 3 years putting all of my money into paying my house off. It is an amazing relief knowing that my name is on the title and the entire house belongs to me. I know not everyone can be in the same position, but I think it’s really important to think twice about the cost and make sure you really can afford what you are buying, even if something unexpected happens.
The biggest advice I have is to just do your homework and level set your expectations. Buying a house and conversations about money can be super emotional which sometimes makes it really hard to think clearly. The more factual you can be and the more you can level set expectations up front, the more prepared you will be to navigate a really stressful process.
Best of luck out there!