As of about a week ago, Nick and I are officially homeowners. Yay! Buying our own place was cool and exciting and also possibly the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. Here are 10 things I learned along the way, that I wish someone had told me before we even started…
1. Be flexible about your dealbreakers. This sounds like an oxymoron right? Dealbreakers are, by definition, unflexible. But the thing I learned while househunting is that most people make a lofty list of “must haves” and “dealbreakers” for their future home, and then they actually start the househunting process, and suddenly those lists feel arbitrary, unrealistic, and more confusing than anything. Don’t feel like you have to settle for a run-down shack or something, but do be open to places that don’t match up with your preconceived notions of your “perfect house.” Looking at a bunch of different houses is going to clarify what’s actually important to you, which might render your dealbreaker lists irrelevant. You know how a lot of women spend years dating tall men, saying, “I would never be attracted to a short guy,” then end up meeting their soulmate, who just happens to be 5’2″? It’s like that.
2. Know that you won’t find the perfect house, but you will find the perfect house for you. This was something my best friend told me when I started getting really frustrated and nitpicky about the houses we were seeing. I was losing hope that the perfect house was out there, and called her in a panic. “There is no such thing as the perfect house,” she said, “but there is a house out there that’s perfect for you.” This is why letting go of some of your dealbreakers is essential: it helps you reassess the idea of perfection and focus more on the overall feel of the house and if you’ll be happy living there.
3. Advocate for yourself. Listen, I’m sure there are some real estate agents out there who are kind, patient, calm, and great at listening, but most of the ones I’ve dealt with so far have been more on the hyper, frantic, a bit pushy, and incapable of listening side. Treat the realtor/homebuyer relationship like a doctor/patient relationship: find someone who is competent and trustworthy, but prepare to advocate for yourself, ask the right questions, and bring in a second opinion when necessary.
4. Don’t be surprised if you start talking like one of the most annoying people on HGTV’s “House Hunters.” One of my favorite pastimes is watching “House Hunters” and making fun of how terrible everyone on the show is. “WHY ARE YOU ACTING LIKE PAINT IS AN UNCHANGEABLE FEATURE OF AN OTHERWISE PERFECT HOUSE?!?!” I’ll yell at the screen in rage. “Ooh, wait for it,” I’ll tell Nick, “the wife is gonna make a comment about how the closet isn’t big enough for her shoe collection — yep! There it is. So predictable. And now the guy is gonna talk about turning the basement into a ‘man cave’ — BOOM. Called it.” After becoming a real-life house hunter, I lost the ability to make fun of that show forever, because there I was, peering into small closets, making dumb jokes about my large shoe collection. And there I was, grimacing at bad paint colors like they were permanent dealbreakers. What I’m trying to say is: I’m sorry, House Hunters. I thought I was better than you, but I’m not. House hunting makes people weird.
5. Know that renting and buying are very different things. For some reason, I wasn’t able to grasp this concept until embarrassingly late in the game. I thought we’d be able to buy a house just as nice as the one we are currently renting, in the area where we currently rent, and pay about the same price per month. Umm…no. There’s usually a fairly big divide between what you can afford to rent and what you can afford to buy (if you’re thinking, “DUH,” I don’t blame you). Obviously this is not always case, and obviously there are many perks to owning your own home that make it worth it, but adjust your expectations accordingly.
6. Don’t bite off more than you can chew with renovations. When Nick and I hit the point that most first time homebuyers eventually hit — realizing our budget and our dream home were like a venn diagram with no overlap — we decided to look at some “fixer-uppers.” Initially we though, “Ooh it will be so fun to tear down walls and design our dream kitchen and repurpose the rotting foundation into a charming headboard!” Ultimately, we realized a huge renovation wasn’t what we really wanted. We didn’t want to spend months overhauling a house; we wanted to live in it. The house we eventually chose needed better floors, new counters, a coat of paint, a dishwasher, and some fairly heroic landscaping. This feels doable, and the best part? We can work on all of this gradually, at our own pace, while we live there. Figure out how much renovating you actually want to do, and don’t get sucked into a minute (or a dollar) more.
7. Trust your gut. This can be applied to every part of the homebuying process, from choosing your realtor to knowing which house is “The One,” but I think it’s especially true for neighborhoods and any safety concerns you might have. We turned down a couple of perfectly lovely houses just because something felt a little off to me. If you have a weird or bad feeling about a house or a street, don’t apologize or try to find a logical explanation, just trust it, and move on to the next option.
8. Pause for reality checks. House hunting, especially in any kind of a competitive housing market, is surreal and intense. It’s very easy to get swept up in the fast pace and the weird standards and the subtle pushes of your realtor, and lose sight of not only your true intentions, but reality in general. Nick and I vowed to remain thoughtful and measured throughout the process, but within a couple weeks we were looking at places $50,000 above our maximum budget, 20 miles outside of our desired area, and giving serious consideration to a shockingly overpriced house with a floor tilted at a 30-degree angle, just because it was kind of near our favorite taco restaurant. Whaaattt?!?! Be sure to give yourself frequent breaks to check in with yourself and say, “Is this what I really want?” and also “What is real?”
9. Take advantage of free money wherever you can get it. Buying a house is expensive, so you have to be ruthless when it comes to seeking out discounts, loopholes, and free money. Look for tax credits and discount programs for first time homebuyers. Negotiate for better prices on everything (not just the price of the house — the home inspection, closing costs, your interest rate — EVERYTHING). Request that the current owners repair as much as possible before the house changes hands. Offer to barter for services, especially if you have a sought-after skill (perhaps that electrician needs his taxes done?). Have no shame.
10. Repeat after me: when it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. When Nick and I were in the thick of our house hunting psychosis, we started freaking out that we were going to miss out on our house because we weren’t opening our realtor’s emails quickly enough. We imagined the house that was meant to be ours being scooped up by some other young couple who knew a shortcut to get the open house faster. We were afraid that we’d make a bad offer, or choose the wrong house, or fall prey to a crooked home inspector, or all of the above. We were total stress balls. But let me tell you something: when our perfect house did come along, it all just worked out. Things fell into place. Was it still a little stressful? Sure, but from the moment we walked in the door and whispered, “Oh my god, I think this is it” at the same time, to the moment we got the keys, there was a sense that things were unfolding exactly as they should. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that it will all work out in the end. And maybe have a margarita in the meantime.
[Photo via Shutterstock]