Essay

6 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Buying Our First Home

by Grace Bonney

Earlier this week I was reading this piece at Man Repeller about what writer Verena von Pfetten wished she’d known before moving into her first NYC apartment. I had immediate flashbacks to so many bad apartment experiences during my 13 years in Brooklyn. Looking back, there were so many times that I wish I’d spoken up about red flags or taken the time to investigate things and talk to neighbors or think more seriously about how the location and transportation options would affect my life and my budget. But these days I spent most of my time thinking about the things I wish I’d known — or could tell other people — before buying a first home.

First and foremost, buying a home of any size, kind, budget or location is a privilege. I am very aware of how lucky I am to have a roof over my head, period; let alone one that makes me so happy and has been able to house and nurture not just us, but our friends and family during difficult times over the past few years. I’m working on an in-depth piece related to bigger issues in the real estate world (more on that later this month), but today I’m taking an honest look at the advice I was given and which pieces I wish I’d listened more closely to and which ended up not being so important. If you ever find yourself about to sign on a dotted line, I hope this advice will come in handy. And as always, I would LOVE to hear your stories about what you wish you’d known before buying your first home. From the nitty gritty to the big picture issues, hopefully sharing our stories in a safe space will help prevent others from hitting our hurdles or motivate someone to speak up when they spot a red flag. xo, Grace

First, here’s some background on my homebuying experience:

  • I’ve only rented apartments (all one-bedrooms, mainly in Greenpoint, Brooklyn) for the better part of the last 15 years. For all but 1.5 years, I had a roommate or significant other to split rent with.
  • My income has been consistent for the past 5-6 years with no raises or significant decreases. That’s been tough to maintain in today’s blog economy, but it’s allowed me to come up with a clear housing budget and stick to it.
  • My first big real estate risk came when I was given an eviction notice from my landlord because I adopted my first dog, Hope, while living in a no-dogs-allowed building (it’s a long story). I was given a one-week notice, so I rented the first safe place near the park I could find, but it was way above my budget. In the heat of the moment that decision meant I needed to make some HUGE budget cuts, but it felt worth it for the joy of having Hope in my life.
  • I met my wife Julia a month later, and shortly after she moved into this new apartment. Together the rent became manageable and we decided to stay.
  • A year later we took a vacation to the Hudson Valley to get to know the area better and to think about the idea of a small weekend house. After looking online we realized we were priced out of the area we loved (Woodstock, NY) and, on a whim, had lunch with a friend 30 minutes south and discovered a new town with lower real estate prices.
  • This friend sent us a listing, we booked an appointment with an agent and decided to drive up and see five houses in one trip. We fell in love with the last house immediately. It was larger and more expensive than we planned, but we did the math and the mortgage was actually less than our apartment in Brooklyn.
  • We made an offer under asking price, which was accepted a few days later. Our plan was to keep both homes for one year and then make a decision about keeping the NYC apartment (which would require re-budgeting and more work) or letting it go. We ended up deciding to let the Brooklyn apartment go after only four months, realizing we were happier in the country and were living more affordably here.
  • Managing the mortgage and upkeep has been a learning curve, but we learned to plan our finances quickly based on our different income schedules (as the owner of my own business I can pay myself a regular monthly income, while Julia receives payments for her work based on a freelance schedule).

 

When Julia and I first moved into our house, she made a HUGE and very organized list of things we needed to get done. From painting and setting up systems (propane, wifi, snow plowing, etc.), she had it all down to a T. But then we realized that our free time and budget would only allow for so much. So the decorating fell wayside to more important things like getting squirrels out of our walls and sealing up walls and ceilings that were open and rotting.

In the midst of that realization, Julia said, “Being a homeowner means the list never ends, it’s just about deciding what goes at the top.”

That really stayed with both of us and has been powerful to remember in times when we wish we could do something more “fun” with our budget than, say, fix the heating system. But at the end of the day, if you’re lucky enough to have a roof over your head and can afford to keep that roof intact and the space under it heated and safe, the rest is just gravy.

So don’t worry about rushing to paint walls, hang art and get every room “finished.” It will never be fully finished. You will hopefully get to a point where you feel comfortable, but there will always be something that needs to be tended to. So rather than rushing to buy things to decorate and fill rooms and feel “done” (like I did for a while), save your money for the bigger things your home needs to stay safe.

If I could look back and tell myself one thing, it would be, “Ask, push, wait and DEMAND what you need to feel comfortable.” I fell into the same trap I fall into all the time at work, which is worrying about being perceived as “bitchy” if I push too hard for what I want. I’ve gotten over worrying about whether or not I seem “smart” when I ask basic questions over and over until I understand them, but I still worry too much about people thinking I’m being “difficult” when I ask or demand more before handing over my time, money or resources.

Looking back at our home inspection, I wish I’d spent more time understanding each issue that came up and getting a second (and third) opinion. There’s often a rush to ensure your bid is considered seriously, and in that rush you can forget to listen to those voices of concern or to accurately address red flags. But that is time you can’t ever get back. It might be hard to lose what seems like a dream house in exchange for more time to investigate things, but unless you have an endless budget to work with, make sure you ask the right questions, get ALL of the answers and, if you’re not satisfied, wait until you get what you need. Once you sign the papers, all those house issues (good and bad) become yours and yours alone.

As a renter, I never had to think of home budgeting beyond the basics: rent, electric, and heat. But when we became the sole people responsible for ensuring our home was safe and running properly, those expenses sky rocketed. It took me about a year to get a handle on all the extra expenses that come with home ownership (especially in a rural area and in 150+ year-old home). Thankfully, all of those expenses still don’t cost more than what we paid in the city for a small, one-bedroom apartment — and they come with a lot more privacy, open space and fresh air.

Here are things to consider that people may not bring up, depending on your region:

  • Propane/Oil: I had NO idea how high these costs could be until we moved to a place with serious snow. Now we factor these into our budgeting big time.
  • The Great Outdoors: While our 3-acre plot of land is considered teeny by our farming neighbors, it takes a lot to maintain a yard, house, and driveway, especially when snow is involved. Keeping pipes insulated, driveways de-iced and interiors free of pests, can cost a lot. We have a steady stream of trades people coming in and out of the house in certain seasons when dealing with pests (like a huge snake in our basement rafters), and getting used to padding our budget to handle these occasional “call a pro” moments is now something we plan for.
  • Taxes: Depending on where you live, these things can change dramatically over time. Our school taxes go up every year and I feel happy to know where they’re going, but we’ve gotten involved in local government now that we realize how much control they have over where the rest is spent. Get involved with your local town meetings or community boards if you want to ensure your tax money is spent in a way that you support.
  • Travel/Tolls: Do you live near public transportation or toll roads and bridges? Factor those into your commuting if you think you’ll be going back and forth regularly.
  • Water and Heating Systems: How old are your home’s systems? Do you know where they are and how to fix them if they fail? Do you know who to call if they fail and you can’t fix them — and how much they cost? We learned this one the hard way and I’m glad that we now better understand how to budget for everything from well testing and septic systems to finicky water heaters.
  • The roof! Roofs are expensive. And they typically need to be done in times of the year when working on them is practical. So have yours inspected and make sure the warranty is valid and you know who to contact if it fails and is still under coverage.

There are always hidden fees in homeownership, so be sure you talk to the previous owner or other people in the area to understand what sort of hidden fees you will incur living in this new area/home.

When we met our first neighbor, she said, “I hope you like snakes, because you’re going to get a lot of them in your basement.” I shivered and realized we hadn’t even begun to think of the right questions to ask neighbors before we moved in. All of the issues we’d had in the city (Do people throw parties? Is the building maintenance decent?) didn’t apply here.

After moving in, we slowly started to meet people in our area who had a lot to say about the previous owner of our home and how little they were involved in the community. We’ve worked hard to do the opposite and have learned so much about our town in the process — much of which I wish we’d known ahead of time.

So before you buy, talk to the people who have lived in your desired location for a while. How has the area changed? Is there tension between neighbors or groups of people (ie: locals and weekenders, etc.)? Have taxes gone up significantly? Have they seen local crime increase? Do you live near a loud airport, stadium, or a fire station? These sorts of basic things not only give you an idea of what you’re in for when you move in, but they give you a chance to get to know people around you and understand the area from different points of view. The neighbors on either side of us would describe our area very differently, so I’m glad we’ve gotten to know both.

And if you’re in a rural area for the first time (like we are), ask about wildlife and septic and well water — people will let you know things that might take you years to figure out and can save you time and money.

One of the many things that I let go in one ear and right out the other during our homebuying process was the idea of a property map. We had more space around us in this home than I’d ever dreamed of, so the idea that it eventually ended at some point didn’t seem like a problem. But then one day we saw someone right up against our fence (not far from our windows) and watched them mark the property with electric orange spray paint. I immediately called our agent and realized that the land behind us (that gave us lots of privacy) that we were told would never be built on was, in fact, being divvied up and offered up for sale.

To make a long story short, thankfully the land ended up selling to the people who were already behind us (they bought up the sliver of land to ensure even more privacy for their home), but because we never got our own property map and looked through it closely, we had no idea that that land was available and that part of our property on one side didn’t go nearly as far over as we thought. Thankfully we didn’t build the fence close enough to that line, but we were awfully close — and redoing it would have been way over our budget.

A property map gives you not only an idea of property lines and who/what is next to you, but it lets you know where YOU can build, where city property begins and (hopefully) gives you a clear idea of where your utility lines are. The last bit is very important if you ever plan to do anything to your yard.

In addition to property maps, make sure you discuss and fully investigate any outstanding tax or lien issues with your home. Sometimes these things don’t come up in the first round of research and they can stall processes for months (if not longer) and they can hold up a down payment if it’s discovered after you pay. So be extra sure these issues are examined until you fully understand and can make an educated, comfortable decision.

Housing markets change. Relationships change. Families grow and needs expand. Jobs and incomes can shift quickly. All of the circumstances surrounding a home are constantly in flux, so thinking ahead is crucial.

Whether or not you have a child or children now, if you’re considering it at some point down the road, looking into school systems (and their ratings) around you is always a good idea. Whether or not you commute to a job now, having access to high speed Internet and reliable transportation is always worth considering. Are you living beyond your means now in hopes of catching up with an income raise at some point? All of these questions are absolutely crucial to consider before signing on any dotted line.

It’s not always easy to have these discussions if you aren’t in the stage of life yet when you’re considering bigger family/life planning issues, but they’re important to consider because once you’re settled into a mortgage and a home, it isn’t always easy to get out of them. Houses can be deceptively hard to sell and markets change all the time, so if you’re planning on living in your first home for only a few years (so called “starter homes”), be sure that your basic family/life needs are met in this space if circumstances change and you need to stay there longer than expected.

Longterm planning is always a good idea when you’re making a longterm investment. Sure, some homes are flexible and you can add on or commute if that’s in your budget. But if you’re living on a tighter budget, take your time and make sure the choice you make for your first home is one that will support you and your lifestyle (or your family’s lifestyle and needs) for years to come.

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Comments

  • Thank you for the thoughtful essay. I have to keep reminding myself (husband reminds me too) that fixing things comes before styling rooms! I’m making that my mantra and just doing the basic cleaning and painting that the inside needs. (No fussing over colors- sparkle and white).
    Looking at Scandinavian/ minimalist esthetics to remind myself that a clean working start is most important.

  • This is really helpful. I’m not yet in a place where I’m ready to think about buying a house, but I’m bookmarking this for when I am. Thank you!

  • This is a great list! We bought our 3rd home a year ago, and what you’ve written covers most of what I’d advise as well.

    I may have one more item to add: consider your personality when choosing a new home. This sounds obvious and intuitive, but I’m saying this as someone who’s had a tougher time settling in than expected and couldn’t figure out why. We intentionally downsized from a big house with a large yard to an adorable place closer to downtown in a much more walkable neighborhood. We wanted to be nearer to our kids’ schools, in a place where they could play with friends more easily. Our current street is teeming with kids who run between yards and play together constantly. It’s tight-knit, and the adults often gather on one another’s porches, sipping wine, sharing conversation, watching the kids use the entire street as communal space. It’s idyllic, exactly what we wanted. BUT…I’m an introvert. It took me nearly a year to figure out my need for privacy and space was causing stress with everyone constantly in one another’s space.

    I wouldn’t change a thing about where we are, and I know we made the right decision moving here. Recognizing my limitations earlier, however, may have made the transition easier and that first year more enjoyable.

    • Sarah

      You are right. I’m a huge introvert and didn’t realize how much being in a rural area with neighbors being decently set apart would be a calming thing for me. I can’t imagine going back into the city now… :)

      Grace

  • This is all great advice and very timely as I’m looking to close on my first home. Off to talk with our future neighbors now… :)

    • Meghan

      Knowing your neighbors (and their motivations) is always a good idea. We got some bum advice/warnings from a former neighbor who turned out to have been angry that her private offer to the former home owner wasn’t accepted…

      Grace

  • Property line…ditto. My friends sold me their home for an amazing price, but warned me about the next door neighbors, saying that they were intrusive and demanding and had built an addition (without prior warning) that took out their vegetable garden. I shrugged it off thinking that they were being overly-dramatic and that I was much easier going. Not true. Before moving in, i had never thought of locking my doors, but after the neighbors started walking in and using my dryer and stove, and going through my mail, I had a better understanding of how things can get out of control. Over the years the neighbors and I have had our ups and downs, but owning a house has also taught me important lessons about gathering the courage to negotiate or say no.

    As to the house, I have worked on my very small house (1000 sq ft) for over 18 years now: insulating, putting down floors, new windows, new doors, new water lines — you name it. It never ends. Just last night a leak developed in one of the pipes in the basement. But I am so lucky that I was able to purchase this home that has sheltered my son and myself. Home ownership has given me much joy and solace.

    • I just can’t imagine anyone other than a family member just coming in your house and using your things without being invited to do so. Even a family member it’s a little annoying like every time my brother borrows tools from my garage I have to second guess if I lost it or it was stolen before I find it at his house later.

  • This is some really great info to consider. My husband and I are in the “thinking about it” stage of buying a home in the Seattle area, and this gives us some great thing to think about before we get too far into the process. Especially as we had really only been thinking about budget and location. Thanks!

  • These are really good points. We live in a house in a semi-rural area outside San Francisco. Checking your property map can be very helpful, particularly if there are easements (sections of your property legally set aside for utilities or roads to pass through, for example), setbacks or limits on development near waterways, etc.. Where we live, there are 50-foot setbacks from the property line for building, which can be somewhat limiting on a odd-shaped lot., and significant limits on proximity to a creek. These are very important to know before you start dreaming about all the things you want to do – some might not be permissible. I’d also add insurance to the list of expenses.

    On another note, I’m finding the new font used for headings rather hard to read on a laptop and almost impossible on a phone. Design*Sponge always seems very good at managing style vs. function, but for me this one is cute, but not very functional.

  • Such a great list! We went completely gung-ho into our first house purchase. I don’t regret any of it, but it has been a rocky road and I wonder if I could have saved some of my sanity by taking a step back and thinking through some of our decisions before acting on them. We had a huge headache with our boundary line which could have been dealt with at the time of our purchase if we had known the right questions to ask. You live and learn, right?!

  • This is a great list. I completely agree with ‘There’s often a rush to ensure your bid is considered seriously, and in that rush you can forget to listen to those voices of concern or to accurately address red flags.’ When you fall in love with a house or you’ve chosen it as the best one for your budget, you do become distracted by the excitement and worrying about finances, mortgage, legal issues, moving logistics etc. I guess if you have unlimited funds you don’t have to worry. I’ve bought 4 houses in my time and, sure enough, those little flags fluttering out the corner of my eye turned into large (expensive) banners within the first year. The houses became lovely homes but I wish that each time I had either put aside money right at the start to spend on the flag issues or had figured out how I was going to pay for them. I hope I remember this advice next time.

  • How about the “don’t make a serious decision within 1-2 years of a serious life change”?? I know people that have been through losses or welcomed babies into their lives and make reactive changes to their living situations that might not have suited them in the long run. I also think people get distracted by the “the grass is always greener” and don’t realize how hard a complete life shift can be. A lot of people in my parents’ generation have moved somewhere completely new now that the kids are gone- for some it’s the opportunity that they had been waiting for for years, for others there are huge regrets about leaving the communities and support that they built over their lives.

  • Thank you for this post! Home ownership is a major dream and goal for me, and I love hearing your perspective. One thing I’m really curious about, if you’re open to sharing, is whether being a small business owner + freelancer made the mortgage process challenging at all. I work for a very small non-profit and even though the work is full time, I’m a contractor, not an employee. It has been consistent work and income for me for several years now, but my family comes from very traditional careers and warn me that a freelance career can be an obstacle or “risk” in the eyes of lenders. Is that true, in your experience?
    The property map anecdote reminded me of something my parents have been discussing a lot recently, as they look toward downsizing in a coastal area — apparently flood zones are being redrafting due in part to climate change projections, extending inward to non-waterfront areas, and it’s a big deal whether or not a house is up to date on flood insurance. In terms of future planning and unexpected expenses, this seems like a big one, albeit a geography-specific one (and of course, the price for the privilege of living along the coast).

    • Jess

      That’s a great question. I think it has a lot to do with different factors, but in our case, no- we didn’t have a problem. I had a WAY bigger problem being approved for rentals in Brooklyn than we did to buy a home here.

      Our house was well within our budget (we’d been paying more monthly already- in rent- in Brooklyn) and we both had 10 years of consistent income (even if it is freelance or self-employed) and we both have good credit, so we were pre-approved quickly over the phone after we faxed over tax records, pay stubs, etc. I know that is not always the case, but we didn’t have any problem. I’m writing a piece about race and other identity factors that affect real estate issues, so stay tuned.

      Grace

    • My contracting/consultant coworker just bought a million dollar house in our ultra competitive area (SF Bay) and it was extremely difficult due to her contractor status. She did not know it would be a factor when they fell in love with the house and the bank did not want to give her family the loan as a result and she had to appeal, have it escalated and ultimately write a letter about her choice to be a consultant and how she and her family would afford the house. Happy to say they did get it by the skin of their teeth, but I would say look into this much further as you move toward considering a home purchase so at least you know what you are in for as it sounds like it varies by area (probably due to how competitive/expensive it is there). :)

  • Great article.
    Where/how does one “fully investigate any outstanding tax or lien issues with your home”?

    • Eva

      I good real estate agent should be able to help do that research for you, but you can also visit the local county recorder, clerk, or assessor’s office in your area to check on the property records.

      Grace

  • Our house is more than 100 years old, and beyond the dream list of things we would want updated, we had to spend $4,000 this spring to install metal beams in our basement to stop the sagging. That’s two years of vacations gone. It’s not always the fun stuff that comes up, and often it’s things that one never sees that goes into caring for older homes. I also think you need to budget about $5,000 when you move – it’s a fortune to set up new services, buy paint, and maybe do electrical work before you move in. Maybe you need a new washer and dryer (like we did) when we moved in, or you spend that much on moving, eating out while you move and after, and just the “stuff” of moving – new bath mats, new shower curtains, new condiments, etc.

  • This is so wonderful. As a reader who hopes to someday go from renting an apartment to owning at least a small chunk (at least an acre!) of land, I really appreciated all of the detail included about what can come with more rural property. Thank you!

  • Great discussion topic and excellent points, Grace.
    I’d like to echo an earlier comment on the importance of considering one’s need for privacy. Soon after we purchased our home, our next door neighbors built a two story garage with a roof deck that not only did away with the privacy we had in our backyard, but has prevented us from being able to open our bedroom windows without fear of scrutiny. We live downtown and no longer have any windows we can open without sacrificing our privacy. It feels stifling. (And, yes, I know that city folks may be rolling their eyes at this, but losing privacy that you thought was secure is dispiriting.)
    Another, more important, issue to consider is accessibility. Our home is only accessible via outside stairways. Not long ago I broke my ankle and because my partner had to spend several months out of town, leaving me on my own, I had to take refuge in the home of a friend for weeks on end. Disabilities can strike anyone, at any time of life. If you anticipate living on your own in your prospective home, it is especially important to imagine how you will manage if you fall ill or are disabled by an accident for any length of time: how will you move around inside your home? how will you get in and out of it? what will be your options for using public transportation?

    • This is something I really relate to, as a surgery spiraled out of control a few years ago and I was unable to walk without crutches for over a year in my city apt accessible by stairs — but thank god there was a freight elevator! I would go to physical therapy pool class and commiserate with many others who were recovering from surgery or injuries who did not have that luxury. We bought our first house this year and future mobility was literally the first thing I considered in choosing the home. There are 3 steps in with a rail and as many out to the back! I could live forever only on the first level if I ever had to. I think calling this out as something to think about is huge and smart — where I live many, many homes have tons of stairs to get in and out. Once you have lost your easy mobility that feeling remains etched in your mind and you know how quickly it could be gone someday. (and privacy is another major issue!!)

  • Thanks for this! I’m going to be 24 and I know that’s very young to be buying a house but I live in San Antonio, TX where real estate hasn’t caught up to Austin yet! I’m hoping in the next 2 years maybe I will be able to buy a small house instead of renting. How do you feel now paying a mortgage instead of renting??

  • I hope you like snakes because you are going to get a lot of them in your basement. Not the news I would want to hear!!! I would gladly take the squirrel who chewed through our fascia, ran freely through the walls, ate from the trap that pest control set and we finally caught ourselves after having him for a week in the house then ever seeing a snake in the basement. But we all have our phobias…

  • One thing you should think about if you move from a city to a rural area is how to interact with neighbors. In an apt building in a city there is less space, so I think people try not to know their neighbors too much: it’s just too close.

    In a rural area you can depend much more on a neighbor. When we met our neighbors where we live now in the sticks, one of them allowed us to dispose of some land-clearing material on his land, and when we asked if we could pay him, he said, “just be good neighbors”. We look out for his elderly parents a little, give him garden stuff, etc. We all tell each other anything that affects our general neighborhood; if there have been any crime issues, hunting, etc etc. We don’t necessarily see each other all the time, but we know we are there. It’s a different way of living.

  • Great post, property lines are so important and they have haunted us and we are experienced buyers, amazing how easy it is to close your eyes on that one. But snakes in the basement, hope the sequelle is NO MICE!

  • This is a great list Grace! I can certainly agree and relate to most of it after 7 years into home ownership. I might add: Buy well within your budget. Mortgage lenders can often approve for loans much higher than what is smart or comfortable long term. We aimed to get a house we could afford on one income if need be, and I’m so grateful we did! It has given us so much more freedom and flexibility. Consider having an arborist look at any large trees prior to purchase. We’ve spent about $10k having huge, sick trees removed. Live in the space before making drastic renovations if possible! I waited 3 years to renovate my very sad, low functioning kitchen and i did things much differently than I would have done if i had renovated right when we bought the house.

  • As a brand new homeowner, I’m enjoying this thread! One factor that I’d suggest considering is the benefit of getting in the market. There is a risk in some areas of the country but in our city, the value of homes has shot up every year and that trend is only likely to change with respect to the relative steepness of the curve.

    While we saved and waited to make our ideal move for 5 or so years, the median house price around here doubled. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but in areas like ours we should have known that getting in the market however we could manage was more important than waiting for the perfect moment.

    We were really lucky and found a place that works well for us, even if we have to be really patient about certain improvements we can’t make right now – but we’re paying out the nose for it compared to our peers. And yet, I’m sleeping better every night b/c we finally got in the market. If we waited much longer, we’d be priced out for sure.

    • Agree 1000%. Just get in, if you live in one of those major areas that has been spiking for years now. I cannot not buy a home in my always pricy (now astronomical) hometown and was priced out without hope of catching up, but gradually even all the historically cheaper areas around me became insanely expensive over the past 10 yrs. Now I see people dropping a million for small homes in those places… Don’t think I could ever get back in, as it will continue only going up unless a major disaster strikes. If you can afford it, get in while you can and check out how much the home prices are going up per year in your area compared to others, plus where tech companies are coming in. ;)

  • Thank you for this essay. It is very inspiring. I one day dream of being a home owner instead of a renter but if I stick with where I live (Istanbul – Turkey), chances of me having a house as opposed to a small appartment is very limited. Your rural adventures keep me very inspired though. Will we soon have a anothet photo tour of your house? Your kitchen table by the windows is my absolute favorite!

  • This is such a great piece and a very important topic for people to informed about. A few things I’ve found helpful:
    -No matter how much you like and trust your realtor, consider researching and hiring your own independent home inspector rather than the one your realtor recommends. Your realtor’s chief concern is bringing about a successful contract, where your chief concern is making sure you don’t end up with a money pit. It’s smart to hire a professional home inspector who has no affiliation with anyone involved in the transaction and will get paid no matter the outcome from what is found in the inspection and isn’t burdened with friendship or a sense of loyalty to your realtor. If the home inspector you hire creeps you out or you don’t feel it was a thorough evaluation, consider getting a second opinion. It’s worth a few hundred dollars to identify thousands of dollars in costs that will be your problem imminently.
    -Be present for the home inspection, follow the inspector around, and ask a zillion questions. This can feel really intrusive and uncomfortable, especially for women who traditionally haven’t been encouraged to participate in this way, but is is so important for learning about how all the systems work in your new home and gaining an understanding of how to maintain them. Knowledge is power. I wondered if my inspector would be annoyed but I blazed ahead anyway, and it turned out he actually found it refreshing I was interested and asked a ton of questions.
    -If possible, visit the neighborhood at different times of day. Does it get spooky at night? Do you feel safe in the location? Does the beautiful sunlight in the house during your tour disappear for the rest of the day? What is the drainage like in the area? In your yard? Is there a history of flooding? If there is a basement, does it smell moldy?
    -Check out the property records. See if your locality has public property records that can be searched online. Are there any red flags in your home’s history? Figure out what your local property taxes will be and make sure you can afford them. Know the local legislation regarding how many dogs you can have for your size lot. Do you want to have chickens or other animals? Make sure they are allowed in your locality. Do you want to drink the tap water? Check out what chemicals have been found in routine testing. Some people may find this controversial, but regardless how you feel about the issue personally it is a good idea to check the local sex offender registry because this can have an impact on how much your house appreciates in the future, and it is important to know from an investment perspective.
    -Understand ALL the numbers–the mortgage principal, interest, taxes, insurance, any HOAs (if possible, see if you can determine how steeply they increase each year), and utilities. Based on the size, layout, and exposure of the house, will you have a massive air conditioning bill each year? Can you afford that?
    -Identify if your home is of an age where it could potentially have issues with lead paint, asbestos, or other similar issues, and determine with your home inspector if they are present in the structure. If they are, can you negotiate remediation into the contract or are you prepared to absorb those costs? Stand up for your concerns and get things checked out for your future peace of mind. My realtor mocked me for insisting on having a radon test, but I think it cost less than $100 (of MY money) and I am now able to live with the confidence I don’t have radon in my house. Especially for women, there is an attitude that we should be more concerned about the aesthetics only (particularly the kitchen), and the structural bones and systems of the house are not in our purview and it is pushy or b*#%y of us to be asking about them. This is silly. Before the papers are signed is the time to ask ALL the questions we need to complete thorough research and make sure we will be purchasing a home that will provide safety for us, both financially, physically, and psychologically.

  • This is a great post. We loved all of the giant old trees in our yard when we bought our house. Living in the city, they were so special. 5 years later and we’ve had to take down two giant trees at $8k a piece. Definitely not in the budget. Definitely not a fun way to spend money and our yard has lost a lot of its original charm.

    • Jill- I hear you. I am constantly staring at the trees around us and worrying about them and how we need to keep them in good condition so they don’t fall on us :(

      Grace

  • We purchased a home in the mountains of Southern California about two years ago and, for anyone looking for a rural home, I highly suggest taking every point in this essay about rural home purchases seriously. We too had issues with septic systems, property boundaries, neighbors, etc. and spent WAY more money our first year here than we had expected…not that I would change a thing! It’s just nice to be prepared and know that you might not be able to afford that perfect wallpaper immediately. (I am still saving for mine!)

    Grace, I can’t even imagine caring for three acres! We have half an acre, and, because we are in fire territory, we have to keep vegetation trimmed and leaves raked. When the oak trees and pine trees decide to drop a blanket of leaves on our property, it can take days to rake it all up!

    Again, this introvert wouldn’t give up her peaceful bit of forest for all the world…it’s just nice to be prepared :)

  • This list is so great and I love reading through these comments! We bought our “forever” apartment last year and the process was mind boggling. We absolutely loved our old apartment (and were so lucky to have it here on D*S!), but realized we were outgrowing it. By chance, one of the larger units in the building (on our floor!) became available and we had our hearts set on it. We ended up paying much more than we anticipated, but knew that what was a lot for us was affordable for the influx of people moving in from other areas of the city. We bit the bullet and are so happy we did. Almost a year later, we are still unpacking and hanging artwork on the walls. I know we’ll never be “finished,’ as you helpfully state, but I’ll get into moods where I’m like “OMG we need to hang stuff up. Look at this boring white wall. Why does this room look so sad?’
    There are four things I would tell my last-year self:
    – Renovations will take much longer than you think. I should have learned my lesson with our previous home, but didn’t and became really impatient when months later, we were still not home. 6 months is not bad, but I think because this time we had a little one, not having a home base drove me crazy.
    – When you’re in a coop, even when you own your home, you will still be paying to live there. Maintenance fees are the norm, but they still take me aback every now and then.
    – Be. so. organized. with. your. financials. We had to reapply to be “accepted” into the building. We thought we were set but were taken by surprise by having to do this. Every time we submitted our application paperwork we were asked for something else and we’d scramble to get it together.
    – Unpack the records first. You will be much happier.
    Advice I should give myself now:
    – Stop buying artwork. The flat file is full of photos and prints. Buy frames instead.

  • 1. Hire an independent home inspector- like the poster above said, the inspector hired by your realtor is just there to get the place sold.
    2. Insist that before you move in, have the seller remove all extraneous crap from the premises. I had to haul down 16 gallon cans of paint, 2 huge shutters and a whole lot of wood from the attic after I had been promised that everything would be gone.
    3. If you buy a fixer-upper, you will be fixing it up for a long time. Especially if you are on a budget and doing it as you can afford it- which is exactly my position as a single female home owner.
    4. I echo everyone above- fix all structural problems first.
    5. You will be astounded at the previous owner’s bizarre decorating/renovating decisions which you will have to obliterate.
    Having said all that- buying my first, last and only home at age 57 (yep, that’s right. Had to wait a long time) has been a great adventure, bringing me (mostly) incredible joy and happiness. Despite the occasional snakes and bats that I have had to get out of my house, I have no regrets. And after I get my kitchen renovated, I know I will have an excellent property to resell if I have to. I should also note that I bought low (because of its incredibly crapola condition) in a very expensive area. I told everyone this would pan out to be a very good decision and I know I will be proven right.

  • Great list!

    I bought my 1890’s farmhouse in Portland two years ago. I feel like we made such a wonderful decision and love the house and home ownership so much. I credit this to a few things:
    1) Location is the biggest non-negotiable in the house. Buy for location first, house second. I can’t stress this enough.
    2) Buy less than you can afford. And much less than the bank thinks you can afford.
    3) When you’re down about spending money on lame stuff, like roofs and plumbing, take a few hours and a hundred bucks for a 1.0 upgrade. A little paint & creativity can go a long ways towards making something feel like home.

    :) Rebecca

  • That look of focused determination on your face in the photo is priceless.

    I would add take someone else with you for the viewing. I was so dazzled I failed to see a cockroach infestation, lol.

    • Tess

      We took my in laws with us which was a huge help. But I’ve found it depends on who you bring- some people won’t encourage enough close detail looking and others might over-analyze things. I found in the end I enjoyed going on our own to revisit so we could understand and ask questions on our own.

      I’m so glad that look came across as determination- ha! I had actually already fallen in love with the house at that point and was imagining how I would decorate or rearrange things. ;)

      Grace

  • About snakes ,mice,rats and such…..
    get an outside (inside) male cat.Snakes don’t like male cat urine.They will go and live elsewhere. Cats are excellent at removing mice and rats . They are cheaper than an exterminator and make nice pets.

      • We just had a mouse that came back with us from camping and our two male cats enjoyed his company more than anything. They didn’t do much, we had to catch and release it ourselves.

  • All of this, and…DO pay attention to how it feels, and how you feel when you are there.

    I live an itinerant life and bought a house in a rural area that would become my base while I worked elsewhere. At time of purchase, you could sleep on air beds in some rooms in the summer, but it was bought as a project and stayed that way for 4 years. Now, some 19 months after getting the keys back from the builders, and still with a cobbled-together kitchen and a garden hidden under cement, it is a home. I just spent a week alone there studying and despite it being a house designed for many friends to come, the size didn’t overwhelm. The house felt like my home, even though I haven’t spent more than 3 months there all told since the building was finished.

    The things in it are mine and have followed me around, so the house tells my story and those of my friends, but it is also home because the area and village spoke to me and made me calm from the first visit. It is nurturing because I made the decision early to invest in natural materials and to wait until I could do things with solid wood, lime plaster, hemp and wool insulation and every other sort of eco-evangelist option. It nourishes also because I thought about every surface and because I can find my books (old friends), photos, etc, while still seeing the bones of a 150 year old house and the scruffy village right outside.

    It took me two years to plan the build. It was designed around the purpose of the house: in this case my own refuge and that of friends coming from challenging working environments; a place to gather people who haven’t seen each other for a while and a place to introduce old friends who hadn’t met before they arrived. Bedrooms were designed for adults to be able to get away and bathrooms for both aging parents (and eventually friends), and for the children of friends. Spaces were carved out for quiet time and there is a natural draw towards the hearth, kitchen and fire. The house has hot and cold places, and places that pull at different times of the year. It was designed for exactly what it does, and so it does it well. Take the time to do the thinking.

    When I have been away too long I wonder about the wisdom of buying a house in a country in which I can’t work, in a place in the middle of the countryside where the only industry is wine-making and duck-rearing (OK, that bit isn’t too bad). I start to think about the money I see myself spending via my house bank account for things I haven’t appreciated that month and wonder how crazy I had to be. Then I land in Bordeaux, pick up a rented car and find myself humming as I drive through the semi-industrial wasteland that is on the outskirts of every French city. By the time I see the village church and drive into the square, step inside let the wood and quiet envelop me, I am home and can’t imagine a better investment.

    So count in all of the things listed above, and then weigh them against the goal. If the goal can be achieved with less space, closer to or further from town – do that. In the end, it isn’t the house it itself. It is what you do with it. If you build a home that accommodates the life you have and the life you are building then the home will be enough. I have lived in more than 40 bedrooms. There is something magic in how residences become homes when we build, rebuild, decorate and use them in ways that nourish our lives. The questions Grace lists are perfect; how you analyse the answers and the decisions you make as a result will be all yours. They can be the key to wonderland.

  • This is such a great post and the comments are helpful too. When we sold our first house in the Bay area for 6 figures over what we paid for it five years prior, we were ecstatic. We bought a big, old house in Seattle with the notion that the extra money would go toward renovations and my not working for a year to manage it all. HA! That money was spent within the first few months and I needed to work on-call to keep us afloat until I found the right full-time position. We love our home and now own it outright. It’s really the story of our life to think back on all the iterations of this old house over our 26 years of occupancy. So to all you young homeowners out there, enjoy the process. You will one day have that dream kitchen or spa bathroom but won’t enjoy it nearly as much if you haven’t lived through some ugly to get there.

  • This is such a helpful, thought-provoking post. I dream of one day purchasing an old Victorian and restoring it to its original charm. But I really don’t know if my anxious personality is a good fit for such a demanding, expensive, intimidating project. Also, as useful as all these points are– I’m still stuck on SNAKES IN THE BASEMENT. Ahhhhhhh! Thank you, Grace, for sharing your wisdom born of experience.

  • People spend more time considering a new dress than they do a home. Asking questions and persisting until you understand is vital. I bid on a 150-year old home. While awaiting the response I visited several times to check the neighborhood out and met a charming, welcoming lady. She lamented the planned road expansion that would cut through the property! The seller lied by failing to disclose that, but I still would have been stuck. Sad to drop the bid, but I bless the lady for her help. Also get all closing docs in advance and read EVERY word. Ask more questions at closing and don’t be pressured. Doing that saved me $25,000 by correcting “little errors” the lawyer blamed on his paralegal. Great, useful article!

  • This was such a thoughtful, truthful, and humble essay. We will be starting to look at homes in the spring and I so appreciate your advice! Design Sponge has been something I’ve looked at on a weekly basis for many years, but often don’t leave comments. I wanted to thank you for so much great design and creative inspiration for so many years now!

  • This is an excellent list! I especially think the part about looking 10 years into the future is good advice for everyone looking to move to a new home. My husband and I are about to hit 60 years of age, which makes us cringe enough, but considering 10 years down the road puts us at 70! We are considering things like, will we still be able to physically mow and shovel snow in 10 years? Is that how we even want to spend our time? How much room do we need? We are two people who definitely want our own space. Can we handle stairs? What about our elderly parents? Would they ever need to live with us?

  • I just bought my first home with my fiance earlier this summer and I think you put a great list together. We’ve been slowly learning many of the things you mentioned above. The part about realizing your to-do list is never ending as a homeowner really rang true. I love old historic homes with lots of character, but we ended up building the home so it’s brand new construction. Of course we’re extremely fortunate to be able to do that, but it made me feel like I needed to style and furnish it as quickly as possible to make it feel more homey and more like me. I have a long and growing list of things I’d like to do, some more expensive than others, but even the smaller tasks add up quickly. I’m now trying to be more diligent about saving for the more substantial and expensive tasks instead of blowing through my leftover budget on the less pressing tasks. It’s tough to not be able to do everything all at once because of the intense need to feel settled, but I guess that’s when you have to trust it will slowly come together over time.

  • This is a great list and useful reference to keep. Here are some other ideas from my journey:
    – Make a list of features you must have, those you do not want, and others that woulc be icing on the cake. Be honest with yourself and trust your gut instincts. If it feels wrong, it is. Don’t compromise.
    – Develop a single info sheet for each property you visit. Do a little sketch, note where sun rises and sets, proximity of neighbors, etc. Take a few photos to remember each place clearly. That can help you remember when your brain is overloaded with many houses.
    – Once you have serious contender(s), visit the neighborhood at different times of day and week. Observe noise, neighbors, traffic, transportation options, and walk around and talk with the neighbors.
    – Hire a buyer broker who will represent your interests. If you don’t, the regular realtor you speak with represents the sellers and will tell them your price range, incentives to buy now, and other useful info from their discussions with you. This weakens your negotiating power. A buyer broker represents and protects your interest and costs no more than the normal system.
    – Do research and ask trusted friends for references on inspectors, mortgage lenders, title searchers (and buy title insurance in case something goes wonky) closing attorneys, etc. If you hire these people, they are more likely to be unbiased.
    – Check your credit before you start searching and work to strengthen it if needed. Once you apply for the mortgage, make a plan and estimate all the things and services you will need to get started. Then double your estimate.
    – Buy much less than you are approved for. That gives you much more freedom if your situation changes.
    It’s a scary, wild ride to buy a home. Enjoy your new castle and slowly make it your own!

  • Love this list! All things I wish I hadn’t learned the hard way. I’d add:
    -In addition to getting a independent inspector, bring in a handy man/woman you trust. They’ll have a different perspective and can help you put dollar amounts next to the problems the inspector identifies so that you can start to budget.
    -As you meet your neighbors, ask for references for tradespeople. That way, when you have a plumbing emergency, you’re already one step ahead.
    -Scope out your neighbors’ landscaping. They’ve already made the costly mistakes in terms of what dies in a drought and gets eaten by deer/voles/moles/rabbits/whatnot so you don’t have to.
    -Check for city rebates. The stuff further down your “new house list” may be cheaper than you think (thermostats, toilets, windows, xeriscaping, rain barrels, compost systems, etc).
    Been there with the snakes. They entered through the crack between the toilet and the floorboards. Ugh. Coming up with a wildlife contingency plan helped me sleep at night.

  • This is a very timely article as we are just looking of moving from city to a more rural area and from an apartment (which we own) to a house. Not having owned a house that i ve actually lived in before, your article – and the comments section – has brought so many good points up, and has reinforced some which i ve so far dismissed, but will consider more seriously as of now.

    As for people considering buying an apartment, my biggest piece of advice is to check beforehand how well insulated the apartment is from noise coming from the other apartments within the building. In case that it’s not practical to figure this out on site during your viewing appointment make sure to come round again and speak to the neighbours, ideally not just one, and consider carefully what they have to say). I ve had a (future) neighbour that i met in the stairwell actually warn me on the day we originally viewed our apartment, that noise travelled up and down and all over the apartment building and that he considered it a real nuisance. I didnt’t take it seriously AT ALL and now, 6 years into our homeownership, now with two young children, i am yearning for a place were i can pick up my cello after the kids-bedtime or listen to a record after 9 pm without being inconsiderate to the neighbours (all of whom, in fairness, have been great). I m probably not an introvert but i value my privacy more than anything now and having no-one listening-in, or myself involuntarily having to listen-in on other peoples private lives , is what i m most looking forward to in our future home. Plus a garden :o)

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