1 : Know Your (Financial) Limits
The weird thing about mortgages is that they don’t take much of anything else into account. We qualified for a loan nearly double what we had calculated that we could afford. Why? Because mortgages don’t look at things like groceries, entertainment, property taxes, dog food—all those little things that never show up on a credit report. Figure out what you can afford as a monthly payment, and then don’t be swayed by the number that comes “prequalified.”
2 : Know Your (Renovation) Limits
While shopping for our first home, we were excited to look at pre-foreclosure and foreclosed properties that might mean getting more house for our money. But we were a little daunted by the amount of repairs some seemed to need: huge cracks in the ceilings, sloping basements, massively overgrown yards—not to mention hideous carpet and paint. We were honest with ourselves that we’re not super-DIYers, and opted for a home that seemed to need a lot less TLC. Be honest with yourself about your renovation skills, budget and time before taking on a “fixer upper.”
3 : Clean Living
When we got the keys to our new home, I was ecstatic. When we started moving in, I was dismayed: The previous owners had left us with what seemed to be decades of accumulated dirt and grime in every room: dirt and dust in every corner, a funky smell in one of the bedrooms, nasty carpets and what looked like Coca-Cola sprayed across the master bedroom wall. I just assumed—from years of apartment living—that the previous owners would clean the house when they left, but because it wasn’t written into the contract, they didn’t.
4 : Understand the Process
We ended up purchasing a home that was in pre-foreclosure, but it was no easy sale. Because the previous owners’ bank had to approve every step, everything took much longer than a traditional sale—and we were on the lucky end of the spectrum, measuring the delays in weeks, rather than months. If you are interested in foreclosed or pre-foreclosure properties, make sure you work with a real estate agent who knows the process and one who will be honest with you about the timelines.
5 : Inspection Limitations
We hired an inspector who came highly recommended and seemed to do a thorough job. But what qualifies as red flags on an inspection report and what actually shows up once you start living in a place are two different things. To our surprise, we spent the entire first year making changes and repairs—like recaulking a leaky shower, rewiring three-way light switches, patching holes—even though our home passed its inspection with flying colors. Be prepared for a host of little “surprises.”