Homebuying 101: First-Time Homeowners Share Lessons Learned

Becky Bowman
September 21st, 2020

There are few steps in adulthood as monumental as buying a first home. From cutting that massive deposit check to realizing it’s your job now to solve the plumbing problems, a first house or apartment purchase marks a massive shift in lifestyle — and, for couples, can be a big emotional and financial leap.

So it should be no surprise that when I set out to research the lessons of first-time home-buying, the stories poured in. Friends replied, sent me notes on Messenger and even texted me with additional thoughts. Why are we so excited to share these lessons? Is it just that homebuying is such an emotional process?

Yes, said Patty Hyun, the San Francisco Bay Area realtor who helped my husband and me to land our first home in 2013. I remember clearly how crushed I felt the first time we lost out on a house — and also how awesome it felt to move our first piece of furniture into the home we won.

“It’s supposed to be business, but there’s a lot of crying in real estate,” said Hyun. “It’s very emotional, for buyers and sellers.”

And of course, like any major financial decision, this one has the potential to add stress to a relationship.

In the spirit of adding a bit of rationality to your side, then, here are a few lessons from first-time homebuyers about what they learned from having gone through it.

Buying a home? It’s important to trust your agent

A good real estate broker is key, according to those who’ve made it through the homebuying process.

Dan Villamarin, 33, purchased his first home, in Washington, D.C. in 2018 with his partner, 31-year-old Lily Ickow.

“Putting your faith in someone else to do right by you is not easy,” he said. “The first thing is, if you don’t have a solid referral on an agent, you need to do your research on them, because that makes all the difference."

A solid agent can make the process easier to understand and help you to navigate competitive markets, Villamarin said — but having trust in that person is also important, since you might be relying on them for advice in key decisions.

Know all the costs involved

Budget some extra funds, previous first-timers said, because your down payment — even if you’ve targeted a traditional 20-percent figure — might not go as far as you think.

“Temper your expectations,” Villamarin said.

Keep in mind, too, that you might want to make updates, upgrades, repairs or even full-scale renovations once you move in.

Heather Hansen, age 46, didn’t have a traditional 20-percent down payment ready when she purchased her Austin home in 2019, so she used options including an FHA home loan to make it happen.

Her monthly payment landed a bit higher than she’d targeted, but she was able to secure her 4-bed, 2.5-bath house with a downpayment of just $13,000, instead of $60,000.

Her advice? Start saving money, even on the little things, to put aside funds for what you'll need to make your first house a home.

"You know, what HGTV needs is a show about not ordering pizza," she joked. "You want to save the money, because you want to do your home renovations.”

If you have concerns about updates a house might need, talk them through with your agent during the buying process, Hyun said.

Identifying potential after-closing costs — for instance, the expense of installing a new heating system or updating a sewer connection — can help a buyer to make a more informed offer.

It’s also especially important if buyers are considering waiving a home inspection or other contingencies in order to make an offer more attractive, Hyun said.

An ugly home can be 'house beautiful'

Outdated paint colors or flooring might take away from a home’s curb appeal, but they’re also opportunities to improve a home’s value and make it fit your style.

Jenn Driscoll, 35, a financial analyst in the Bay Area, went for a 203(k) “rehab” mortgage to purchase her first home with her then-husband in 2010.

Driscoll’s first house was a “hideous salmon-pink” fixer-upper with a crooked porch, “poop-brown paint” and wooden floors she described as having an “orange-y sheen.” But she was able to renovate it while she lived there and sell it in 2019 — complete with a kitchen featuring blue tile and quartz countertops.

“Don’t be afraid of finishings that are not to your taste,” she said.

Yes, the idea of rehabbing a home covered in weird wallpaper (on top of the leap of buying the home itself) can feel overwhelming. But tearing out the old an bringing in the new can feel exhilarating -- even addicting.

Driscoll, who is now searching for a new home, said she’s actually excited when she sees, say, 1970s-era shag carpet.

“I’m like oh my God, it’s beautiful in a way, because I can just rip it up,” she said.

Remember it’s an investment

Last but not least, keep in mind the potential for building equity.

“First-time home buyers — they always feel like they’ve overpaid,” Hyun said.

But when things go right, that initial home purchase can lead to even better ones down the road.

“If you buy your first house, that’s gonna help you get a better house — and then that’s gonna get you your dream house,” she said.

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