23 Things Every First-Time Homebuyer Should Know

Seven first-time homebuyers admit their biggest rookie blunders and reveal recession-proof lessons to guarantee home buying success.

Lesson #1: Decide location versus space before searching for a home
When first-time homebuyer Jarrod was shopping for his first place in Chicago, he faced a tough decision: Should he buy a small home in Lincoln Park, his favorite area of the city, or should he buy a larger home for a lower price in Uptown, about two miles north of Lincoln Park? Jarrod wanted to spend some time weighing his options, but then another buyer made an offer on the Uptown home he was considering. He needed to make a quick decision or face losing the home, so he decided to put in an offer. The sellers accepted, and Jarrod got the home. But almost a year later, he’s still not 100 percent sure he made the right choice. While he loves having plenty of space to entertain in his Uptown home, he misses Lincoln Park’s proximity to restaurants and nightlife. Before shopping for a home, it’s important to set your priorities and decide which is more important to you: space or location. If you settle on this in advance, you can make thought-out decisions during the home-buying process and avoid the unsettling feeling of buyer’s remorse. 
 

Lesson #2: Don’t commit before you’re ready
Owning a home is a huge commitment -- and a more expensive one than some homebuyers realize. Jarrod’s monthly housing expenses, for instance, have gone from about $1,300 a month as a renter to $2,200 a month as a homeowner. Before buying a home, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into so you can decide if you’re financially and personally ready for such a large commitment. In addition to your monthly mortgage payment, figure out how much you’ll be paying for property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, HOA fees and other monthly costs of owning a home.  

Lesson #3: Sweat equity can save thousands
First-time homebuyers John and Jennifer always knew they wanted to add value to the first home they owned. So when they bought their first place in Roswell, Ga., they immediately started remodeling, and they decided to tackle many of their home improvement projects themselves. The couple spent $20,000 remodeling their kitchen, building a new deck and installing a new patio -- upgrades that would have cost $50,000 by their estimation if they had hired a contractor to do the job. If you have the skills, the time and the patience to live with dust and debris for a while, do-it-yourself home improvement projects can save you a big chunk of cash.

Lesson #4: A down payment is never a bad investment 

John and Jennifer originally planned to put around $60,000 down on their first home. However, they changed their minds just before closing when they qualified for a loan that didn’t require any money down. The homebuyers opted for 100 percent financing and invested their down payment money in the stock market. After losing about half of that money, they regret not putting it into their home instead. Putting some money down is a good idea for any homebuyer because it minimizes your risk and lets you start off with some equity. 

Lesson #5: The school district will affect home value 

Even if you don’t have kids, it pays to check out a neighborhood’s school district before buying a home, as living in an area with a sought-after school system raises your property value. John and Jennifer’s home, for instance, is in one of the best school districts in Georgia, and their neighborhood typically does well in resale. 

Lesson #6: A land survey will answer boundary questions
Before making changes to your property, it’s a good idea to find out your exact property lines. A month after they moved into their home, John and Jennifer had their land surveyed and discovered that their yard ended 8 to 10 feet closer to their home than the previous owner told them, leaving them confused as to where to build their fence. You can’t always rely on the seller’s knowledge of the property, so getting a land survey will clear up any uncertainties you have.

Lesson #7: Check building plans for the neighborhood
Shortly after John and Jennifer moved into their home, they learned that a large playground was going to be built in the community -- right next door to them. Since the homeowners have no children, they get to hear the squeaky sound of swings all day, but they don’t benefit from having a playground so close by. Plus, having a playground practically in the backyard is hit or miss when it comes to resale -- buyers with kids may see it as a selling point, while others may not. Before buying a home, find out if there are any building plans near your home to avoid surprises after you’ve moved in.

Lesson #8: Reserve some cash for home improvements 

Before Brooke even bought her first place in Decatur, Ga., she was already planning home improvements. To make her plans a reality, she stayed below her budget when buying a home, giving her extra cash for upgrades. With the money she saved, Brooke was able to expand her deck, build a privacy fence and add a shed. Staying a bit under budget can give you the freedom to make improvements, letting you enjoy your home even more. 
 
Lesson #9: Dig deeper during inspection 

Brooke’s home inspection revealed several nail pops in the shingles on her roof. After having them fixed, she thought she was in the clear because the roof was advertised as new. However, about two years later the nails popped up again and caused a leak. A roofer determined that there were two layers of shingles on Brooke’s roof: a new layer on top of an old one. Brooke felt misled and looked into legal action, but discovered that having multiple layers of shingles is legit in Georgia. If a problem pops up during your inspection, it’s always a good idea to take a closer look. If Brooke had checked out the roof herself, she would have seen the two layers of shingles and known that something was amiss.

Lesson #10: Continue negotiating after the inspection 

If a flaw is discovered during your home inspection, use it to your advantage. If Brooke had known more about the roof issue before she closed on the home, she might have been able to use it during negotiations to get a price reduction. Even after inspections, you still have another chance to get a great deal. Staying under budget when buying a home gives you extra cash to add the upgrades and decor you’ve always wanted.


Lesson #11: Real estate is not a recession-proof investment 

In the past few years, housing prices have taken a hit across the country. Adam and Becky, first-time homebuyers from Phoenix, Ariz., learned this first-hand. Since they bought their home a little over a year ago, homes in their neighborhood are now selling for half of what they paid, leaving them disappointed that they didn’t wait a little longer to buy their first place. However, no one can predict exactly where the housing market is going. It’s important for homebuyers to realize that if you’re emotionally and financially ready to be a homeowner, it’s always the right time to buy.

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