10 things I learned buying a home for the first time
After a decade of renting a cramped closet-sized apartment in New York City, my husband and I decided to buy our first real live home, with rooms and a yard.
We are both in our 30s, which I assumed was “about the time people buy houses.”
According to Zillow, most first-time homebuyers clock in at an average age of about 31, though the age is rising to 32-34.
We spent the last few years saving money for our down payment and doing research. Starting on Trulia and Zillow, we searched for homes around the five boroughs, and eventually in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, upstate New York and New Jersey before we found areas that seemed affordable, safe and to our liking.
My general MO is: I want it all. This case was no different. Sure, I am open to compromising, if I must, but I have the mentality that just because I’m not rich doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get to live well, too. If I hold fast to my needs, wants and, most importantly, I do the research, I’ll eventually find the loopholes — like a circular driveway for the price of a straight one. #priorities
1. Know what you want.
I wanted a big house at under $200,000 that didn’t need a lot of work in a rural area that was safe and clean with decent schools and low property taxes, less than two hours from New York City. Sure, finding a unicorn might have been easier. But I was confident that with a little bit of hustle, time and focus, anything is possible.
Together, my husband and I made it fun, poring over hundreds if not thousands of homes fitting to roughly the above qualifications, texting links to each other and compiling lists. This wasn’t our parents’ home buying excursion. We had the Internet, iPhones and apps to help make it so much easier than they had it.
Finally, we found the perfect house, an hour and a half from NYC in a woodsy part of Pennsylvania, near a waterfall and other hippie stuff.
2. Trust your gut.
Though we’d looked at dozens of houses in person, when we set foot into the driveway, we knew it felt right. It wasn’t the biggest or the fanciest or even the cheapest one that we saw, but it had a certain je ne sais quoi. It felt like a place that could become a home. I could see myself not only having parties there, or sitting in our future jacuzzi, but raising a family, settling in for the long haul. I felt the feeling in my gut and I didn’t ignore it.
3. Look twice.
Though we had a long list of rad houses to look at, we kept talking about the first one we’d seen. We asked our agent to take us back to see it one more time at the end of the day. We took a closer look around and were happy to find that we were even more in love than before.
4. Ask your agent how they’ll get paid.
I had little understanding of this, being a first-time homebuyer. Was it up to us to pay? If it was anything like an NYC renting agent charges, it would cost us thousands and thousands.
I decided, as an adult, I was entitled to frankly and respectfully ask, “How will you be paid if we buy this house?” The agent explained that the commission would be paid by the seller. The seller factors in the agent’s fees when deciding on their asking price. Upon the sale of the house, the commission is split between the listing agent (the agent who listed the house for the seller) and the buyer’s agent (the agent who showed us the house).
I didn’t know any of this until I asked, and I was relieved to learn the juicy agent fees wouldn’t be an additional cost for us (even if we did sort of pay them because they were partially wrapped into the asking price of the house).
5. Learn about the ‘hood.
As we became more serious about making an offer, we researched the area. Websites like neighborhoodscout.com include data on U.S. towns and cities. You can find crime rates, weather patterns, school ratings, property appreciation and more. Most states have Megan’s Law websites that show where sex offenders live in relation to your new home.
Basically, spend some time in the area, if you can. We ate at several restaurants over the weeks leading up to making our offer, researched schools, though having kids won’t be happening for us for some time still, talked to some of the people we met, especially people our age, and read the local newspapers.
We were satisfied enough with our findings to move ahead.
6. Check out similar houses.
We found what comparable houses in the area had recently sold for and offered about $10,000 less. This is a sticky area because you don’t want to insult the homeowner by making too low an offer, but why shell out more Benjamins than you have to? We consulted with our agent first, and she said our offer sounded fair. Our offer was accepted and we are picking out living room paint as I type this.
7. Ask about and try to negotiate the fees of your mortgage and closing costs.
Getting a mortgage was thankfully, for us, no problem because my husband is one of those “good credit” dudes. We called a very large bank chain based out of Dallas and talked to a man who explained some of the glossary terms that we were unsure of. I learned that some of the fees were flexible, and that we could find some of those providers (such as a title insurance agent) on our own. I also learned that the interest rate on a second home was less than the interest rate on purchasing a vacation home. That small item could save a buyer about $2,500. In the grand scheme of home buying, $2,500 isn’t that big a savings, but if you get two or three of those, you’re jammin’.
We shopped around for the best deal on a mortgage and ended up going with a smaller local bank where we were able to reduce our mortgage interest rates, saving us thousands.
8. Get a great inspector to test the air and water.
Of the inspectors we found, we decided to go with a more expensive inspector who had countless excellent reviews. Am I glad we did. He was a Boy Scout and was really into his job. He was so thorough, he actually irritated the seller by taking a very long time. He noticed things I didn’t, like wood rotting in certain areas and hidden mold.
9. Address all the inspection issues during the inspection period window.
Luckily, our inspection finds were relatively benign. We then reported our findings to the sellers. They were very generous and fixed everything that we asked them to fix. I learned that we had 15 days to have the house inspected, negotiate repairs with the seller and re-test or dispute anything that needed to be dealt with. We got it all taken care of in our window, but after the inspection window closes, depending on the issue, you don’t have much of a leg to stand on if something else comes up.
10. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
In our case, the problems were fixable. But it’s important to “lift rocks and look under them” because you never know what you will find, and it’s better to lose the chance to buy your dream house than to buy a nightmare with windows.
Do your due diligence, read and research as much as you can, ask friends and family who have purchased houses before, and take your time.
The last piece of advice I will give you is this: Be willing and able to walk away. As a young-ish person, you have time to look around and make an informed decision. Try not to fall so head over heels in love with a house that you doesn’t allow you to envision the whole picture. You can always find another dream house.
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