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.