To say the hubs and I “stumbled into buying our first house” sounds kind of insane, but that’s basically what happened. Lemme explain. One day I was engaging in one of my favorite Internet pastimes: poking around Zillow.com “just to look.” Most of these perusals just end up with me: a) longing for a house we can’t afford or b) aching for the non-renters life while reminding myself how nice/easy it is to just call maintenance to fix our [insert-major-appliance-here] at no extra cost to our rent.
But on this one auspicious day, something different happened: I found a house that was *perfect* for us. The perfect style (small, but mid-century with plenty of charm,) the perfect neighborhood (safe and close to a playground for any future children we may have,) and the perfect price. SO perfect that I showed the listing to my husband, and said, “Do you think we could do it? I mean, could we just apply for a loan and put an offer on this house?” He agreed that it was beyond awesome— so much so that he got on the phone with USAA and started the process to get pre-approved for a mortgage.
Long story short, we got pre-approved for a VA Loan (AKA- the loan with no down payment needed thanks to my husband’s Army service), and drove by the house to see if there was any flooding from the heavy rain earlier that day. (Sidenote: We now live in Florida!) There wasn’t any flooding, but there was a “contract pending” sign on top of the realtors sign. My heart sank. I had no idea what “contract pending” was, but in my gut I knew it meant this house wasn’t really up for grabs. I emailed the listing agent anyway, and quickly realized I was right: this house was spoken for.
Are you a homeowner rolling your eyes at my cluelessness, or recoiling at the sheer horror of someone wanting to buy a house they’ve never stepped foot in? Both responses are valid, but that’s the story of how buying our first house started. And since I’ve learned a lot since that naïve first night, I thought I’d share some tips to help others be a little smarter about their start:
Tip 1: You don’t need to have 30% down. This was the biggest myth holding us back. Everyone’s financial situation is different, but for us, since we were lucky enough to qualify for a VA loan, it made more sense to get into a loan without a down payment. Even if you do need a down payment, don’t hold yourself to 30%. Put some cash down, and save some in case big expenses pop up, or if you want to find a cheaper house and remodel it to make it your dream. Bottom line: 30% is a lot of money. You know what else is a lot of money? Spending (usually) more money on rent than you would on your mortgage and never seeing that money again.
Tip 2: Find a realtor you love. This is a biggie. Not only is this person going to be your best friend that will look out for you and fight for you, but they’re also going to be the person to console you when the news is not great. I found my realtor through fate, chance, or through a real estate angel—whatever you want to believe in—but for the most part, talk to your friends who have bought homes in the area you’re looking in for recommends. (And if you want more reviews on that person, see if they have any on Zillow.com.) If you happen to be in the St. Petersburg, FL area I cannot recommend Becky McConnell of Keller Williams enough. Seriously, I’m obsessed with her. Besides being just an all-around great person, she’s from the area so she knows a TON about it, and she has great relationships with other realtors, which is helpful to you as the buyer when other agents like working with your agent.
Tip 3: Work with a mortgage broker. Regular banks are great for car loans and personal loans, but when it comes to a home loan, you want someone who works to get you the best rate, is available to answer questions, and the biggest step— closes houses. If you don’t know where to start with a mortgage broker or even know what that is (I didn’t), ask your realtor for a referral. They probably have someone they trust and have worked with for a long time. In my case, it was Mary King and we would have been lost without her. I don’t have amazing credit (it’s good, but not great) and she got us an amazing rate anyway. (Not with USAA, by the way.) She also helped us as we were making offers to figure out how much our offer would translate to for a monthly mortgage amount. And she made the whole process feel easier than everyone says it is while she was at it.
Tip 4: Help your realtor help you. Even if your realtor is amazing, he or she still has other clients. And you know who knows what you want the best? You do. So definitely make sure you have a meeting to let your realtor know what you’re looking for, but don’t think your job is done after you have that meeting. You still have to be on the lookout. Check out the listings they send you, but also keep vigilant online for new listings, canvas neighborhoods for “coming soon” signs, etc. Yeah, you might look like a crazy stalker driving slowly up and down a few streets, but you also might get in on a listing before the house goes on the market.
Tip 5: Let your realtor handle the communication. If you do happen to find a listing on your own, send it to your realtor and let them call the home’s listing agent to schedule a viewing. Couple reasons for this: 1) it shows the listing agent that you’re a serious buyer because you’re already working with a realtor, 2) Your realtor is in the loop, which is (duh) always helpful, 3) Your realtor might have a relationship with that person and might be able to get you in earlier than if you were just Joe Schmoe working on your own.
Tip 6: When looking on your own, try Redfin.com first. I love their app, and between Redfin, Zillow, and Trulia, Redfin seems to be kept the most up-to-date. Helpful when you fall in love with a house (remember my initial love story with the Zillow home) only to find that it’s not actually on the market.
Tip 7: Go to open houses. Even if your realtor wants to send you to one that’s not in your “desired neighborhood” you might discover that you actually like that neighborhood a lot. Open houses are also a great way to get ideas for what you’d want to do in a home, or discover your deal breakers. Tip within a tip: don’t expect your realtor to accompany you to these. Open houses are usually on Saturdays, which is when your realtor BFF is probably hosting her own open house for her clients trying to sell their home. Send her an email or text to let her know what you thought of the houses—a text especially if you loved it and want to talk about putting in an offer. But overall, just go. It’s fun to look around houses and to have it completely acceptable to open up cabinets and be Nosey With a Purpose. Plus, most open houses have cookies for potential buyers to snack on…if you’re into eating communal food that anyone could have touched…
Tip 8: Be flexible. Just in general, be flexible. Be flexible with what you’re looking for (do you NEED a fenced-in yard, or could you put up a fence later if you found a house that was amazing otherwise?), be flexible with how much you can spend—is $X REALLY your highest bid if going up $5K on your offer means you’ll only be spending like $25 more a month and be in a better position to get the house? And, lastly, be flexible on the neighborhood. Yes, location, location, location. All I’m saying is explore as many locations as possible. We ended up in a different neighborhood not far from where we originally thought we wanted to be, and now I can’t imagine us living anywhere else.
Tip 9: Don’t give up. When we arrived to look at our current house, we knew there were already 3 offers on it. A few days later when the sellers eventually chose the highest offer from the 8 that had been put in, the winning offer wasn’t ours. We weren’t even the second highest offer. But two weeks later, when that first offer fell through, and the second highest offer had already found another home, I happened to see that the house was back on the market (through a Redfin alert!) and called my realtor to see if she could find out what the status was. Thanks to my tenacity and her quick work, we’re in the house we were meant for.
Tip 10: Don’t stress. Easier said than done, I know. When you start looking for real there is a lot to potentially get bummed/worried about. You might feel like there aren’t any houses on the market at the time for you. You might realize you can’t really afford what you thought you could. You might be in a lease and have a hard deadline of finding a home and feel rushed to find something, anything. Trust me, I am the MASTER of stressing about stuff, and believe me when I say it: everything works out the way it’s supposed to. I 100% know that sounds like the biggest cliché you’ve ever heard, but I’m here to tell you it’s true. Everything happens for a reason (second biggest cliché) and you’ll probably realize that house you thought was *perfect* might not actually be the right house after all. Don’t stress— your house is out there. You just have to find it.
Have any questions? Leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll be happy to expand.
Note: Everyone’s experience is different, and these tips are based solely on my own. Hopefully you find them helpful, but definitely take your own situation into account as you make decisions for your personal home-buying adventure.