Like many other homeowners, I researched the heck out of buying my first home: what to look for in a house and location, what kind of mortgage to get, programs for first-time homebuyers, what to ask the sellers and so on. I learned a lot, but mostly it's the stuff I missed and didn't expect in the homebuying process that I remember the most. These are the five biggest ones.
1. You Don't Have to Buy a Home
When I was growing up, homeownership was a given, just like getting a university education, getting married and having kids. I remember helping my father work on houses he rented out as investments and hearing that property was one of the most reliable investments you can make, because it was scarce -- after all, you can't make more land. (At least until we start colonising Mars and the rest of the universe.) After years of writing rent cheques, I agreed. Why give all that money to a landlord when you could instead put it towards your own place?
After the Great Big Housing Debacle, many people are thinking differently and choosing to rent instead of own. Depending on where you live and your lifestyle/plans for the next few years, renting could be better for you. Both renting and homeownership are fine choices if you run the numbers for your particular situation.
I just had always assumed I would buy a house. Given the opportunity to do things over, I'm pretty sure I still would, but I should have taken a deeper dive into the question of whether renting or buying was better. As Trent writes on The Simple Dollar:
Don't buy a home because that's what you've been told you're "supposed" to do.
Don't buy a home because that's what you think you're "supposed" to do.
Don't buy a home because it's a good investment for the future. It's really not all that great of an investment.
Don't buy a home because you might get married and have kids someday and you need the space for this hypothetical future.
Don't buy a home because you think it will lead you to some sort of idealised suburban life. A home won't change who you are.
Don't buy a home because you're trying to "keep up" with someone in your life. It'll make you fall further behind in the long run.
Buy a home because you it truly makes sense financially and you're ready (and excited) to deal with the challenges of homeownership.
Buy a home because it's better for your housing dollar than the other options available to you.
Buy a home because it's what you want and it's what you can handle, not because it's what others want.
In other words, buying a home is a financial decision, not an emotional one (more on that in a bit).
2. If You Do Buy a Home, Plan to Own It for Several Years
Buying a home is the biggest financial undertaking we'll ever make (aside from the millions or so we need to save for retirement). I knew that and planned from the beginning to stay in my house for many years if not decades. But in the back of my mind, I'd always thought if I ever wanted/needed to, I could easily move. Sell the house, go somewhere else.
Aside from the normal additional effort and time it takes to sell a home versus end a rental agreement, homeowners are really at the mercy of the housing market. One of my friends has been trying to sell his condo for two years.
Owning a home is thinking long-term, rather than short-term (and doing it solely for investment gains isn't a sure thing either).
3. Buy As Much House As You Might Need -- But No More Than That
You can probably live on less house than you think. The previous homebuying trend was to get a "starter home" -- small, affordable houses usually targeted towards first-time homebuyers -- and then move on to a bigger house as the family (and income) grew. With the issues above, however, that might not be a wise or surefire strategy anymore.
On one hand, you'll want a decent-sized place, because you can't really know how much room you'll need in a few years -- especially if you're thinking of starting, growing or supporting an existing family. You don't want to live in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom starter home and then all of a sudden have triplets and your elderly parents living with you.
Buy too much house, on the other hand, and you'll be spending more money on maintenance, energy and taxes than you should be. Also, as someone who lives in a house that has more rooms than we use daily, I have to confirm that just as water will flow to take up all available space, so too will junk in a larger house.
So if you're deciding how big of a house you need, know that you would probably be happy with less, especially if there are rooms in the home that could become multi-purpose. An attic could be turned into an office, for example. As Lifehacker reader Dean Udsen was advised by his father: "No matter how big your house is, you can only sit in one chair at a time." (I do have to say, however, that it's nice to have at least one bathroom for every adult in the home.)
4. Negotiate As Much As You Can with the Seller
I wish I had known more about the negotiation process when buying a home -- how much you should put down as a deposit, what you can push for and so on. We used a buyer's agent (someone who represents you and negotiates on your behalf during the homebuying process) to do the negotiating, because back then I knew I sucked at negotiating and would frankly rather live in a cardboard box than haggle my way down to the lowest price.
Looking back, our agent should have pushed for more (and, yes, it was really our fault, because we should have pushed him to push for more, since it was our money on the line, yet we trusted him to do that). Besides just the purchase price, there were things that needed fixing or replacing that cost more than the reduction the seller's agent negotiated with our agent. In hindsight, we should have gotten actual estimates from repair companies, because the concessions we got were less than the actual repair costs. If you're in a situation like this in the future, don't just let the seller do them either, because they're less likely to choose the best contractors/materials if it's just for the sale.
Depending on how comfortable you are with the homebuying process, a buyer's agent can be a great help. Just do your research also so you know how much your agent should be helping, and don't be afraid to push for more concessions if needed. Even if you enlist professionals to buy (or sell) your home, you still have to make sure they're doing their job, unfortunately.
5. Don't Be Afraid to Walk Away
After months of hopping from suburb to suburb doing open-house tours, my husband and I finally found a place we would both buy. We put in a hefty, earnest deposit, and then launched into an eight-month series of Murphy's Law problems (issues with former tenants, the village, title company, insurance company and everyone else). But by that time we were so emotionally tied to this one building we already considered it our home.
That happens to be the biggest problem for homebuyers: emotional attachment. New home builders (and home renovators, for that matter) know this, which is why they ask you to customise the cabinet colours, choose what finish you want on the kitchen taps, select grout colour and so on.
The biggest lesson I learned was to not become emotionally attached to a property before all the paperwork was signed. See it as a financial transaction -- one of the biggest ones most of us will have! -- as well as a lifestyle decision. And then once the papers are signed and the keys handed over, you can think of the place as your home sweet home.