Love. Terror. Giddiness. Teeth-gnashing desperation. Buying your first home involves all these emotions, and more. And like so many other milestones in life, you won’t fully understand it until you go through the process yourself.
In an effort to clue you into some of the challenges you'll face as a first-time home buyer, we asked some folks who've already gone through the ringer to spill what they wish they'd known earlier that would have saved them a ton of time, effort, and tears. Here's to hoping their 20/20 hindsight will help pave your own path to homeownership.
Even if a home looks 'perfect,' it has problems
First-time home buyer Hunt Ethridge fell hard for a recently renovated house in Jersey City, NJ, which looked like it was in absolutely perfect condition. What could go wrong?
The home inspection, that's what.
"My home inspector found a laundry list of issues," Ethridge says. "He pointed out that the hardwood floor had been lacquered without sweeping, so dirt was sealed into it. Kitchen appliances were broken. Some windows were missing caulking. Worst of all was an old underground oil tank."
After recovering from his shock, Ethridge used this info to renegotiate a lower price with the home sellers. He is grateful he didn't pass on the home inspection and urges all home buyers to never skip this step.
“The last thing you want to discover after you buy is a major problem that could have been identified early on,” he says.
The takeaway: No matter how nice a home looks, a home inspection is the only way to make sure you aren't buying a lemon, says Jane Peters, broker and owner of Home Jane Realty in Los Angeles. “You don’t have to ask the home seller to make repairs,” she adds, “but you do need to know whether you should proceed with the purchase or not.”
Step away from the computer
Jonathan Cooper and his wife had a baby on the way, so they were ready and raring to buy their first home in Royersford, PA. They spent hours scrolling through real estate listings and Googling questions such as "how much home can I afford?"
This was all well and good, but at some point, a mortgage broker gave him some sage advice: "Stop Googling, move away from the computer and into the real world.”
Sure, online surfing and research serve a purpose, but if you're serious about buying a home, “it’s not until you get pre-approved for a mortgage that the home-buying process gets real," Cooper points out.
The takeaway: “You can’t get pre-approved by plugging in simple numbers on a mortgage calculator,” Peters says. “You need an experienced lender who will take a detailed history and require documentation of your assets and income. This is the only way you'll establish if you qualify for a mortgage and for how much.”
Never miss a deadline
When Steven Mingilton and his brother found the perfect condo in Denver and their offer was accepted, they wanted to celebrate. However, their lender informed them that the closing process would take about two months. "And within those 60 days, we had a hefty to-do list,” Mingilton says.
Mingilton and his brother struggled to keep up with the copious paperwork and nearly missed an essential appointment to complete their loan.
“We had to beg and plead our case," Mingilton remembers. "Thankfully, we were able to hustle and finalize."
The takeaway: “Buying a home requires you to stay on top of your to-do items, especially during the escrow process where there may be penalties for missing a deadline,” says Peters. “Prime among this is the three-day requirement to send in your deposit. Miss that and you may miss out on the deal.”
Choose a lender you like
Newbie home buyer Aaron Norris loved the real estate agent who helped him find his Riverside, CA, residence, but his lender was a “total jerk."
"I couldn’t believe how disengaged and unprofessional he was,” Norris recalls. “He wouldn’t return emails or phone calls in a timely manner. He dragged his feet on a transaction that required speed, and he simply did not communicate."
Although everything worked out OK in the end, he regrets not shopping for a lender he liked: "I felt like I was working for him and that he was not on my team."
The takeaway: “A lender can make or break a deal, so choose wisely,” says Peters. “One of the main things to look for besides the loan rate is the responsiveness of the lender. They need to move fast or the deal may fail."
Here are some questions to ask mortgage lenders to help you decide which one is right for you.
Summon reserves of patience
While hunting for their first home in Omaha, NB, Jordan Bath and her partner put in several offers on different properties—all of which fell through.
“At the time, it was a major disappointment,” she recalls. Their real estate agent kept advising them to be patient. Sure enough, after a year of losing out on properties, the perfect home fell into their laps.
“Our agent overheard a contractor mention he was doing work on a house in our dream neighborhood,” Bath recalls. “She asked him for the address and seller’s information, and we were able to purchase the house without it ever hitting the market.”
Now, Bath says, they can look back at those frustrating “misses” and realize “they weren’t meant to be.”
The takeaway: It’s tough not to get disheartened while house hunting, says Peters. “Competition is fierce, and you need to prepare yourself for the long haul.”
You may need to adjust your criteria so more possibilities are opened up. In the meantime, “keep making those offers,” Peters says. “One of them will get accepted.”