11 Shockingly Common Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Your First Home
Avoid these first-time homebuyer goofs so you can get the best deal on the right house for you (and make the process easier too).
Mistake #1: Going it alone
Buying your first home is a big deal. It’s a major (really major) financial transaction, and it has a big emotional component too. This is where you’ll live, and love, and shelter your family! So protect yourself by working with a pro, who will help you steer clear of many of the mistakes on this list. A buyer’s agent guides you through the process of how to buy your first home, and typically, you don’t pay for her services (the seller does). In some cities and states, you must be represented by a real estate lawyer; and again, you’ll want and need professional help to navigate the complicated waters of negotiating a deal and financing a home purchase. Start the process by asking these essential questions for first-time homebuyers.
Mistake #2: Not giving yourself enough credit
You probably know that you’ll need a good credit rating to secure a home loan and that you should check out what your rating is before you start talking to lenders. But many first-time homebuyers don’t realize that it can be worthwhile to delay a purchase in order to boost that credit rating. “Waiting an extra 60 days could improve your credit enough to lower your monthly payment,” says Elizabeth Mendenhall, the 2018 president of the National Association of Realtors and the CEO of Re/Max Boone Realty in Columbia, Missouri. “Talk to a lender ahead of time and find out. It could be worth it to wait if you’ll save money in the long-term,” she says.
Once you do have a loan in place and a home under contract, don’t celebrate too early by taking out a new car loan or charging a bunch of furniture on your credit card. Your lender will re-check your credit report just before closing, and any changes to your financial status won’t be welcome.
Mistake #3: Not knowing the real cost of your purchase
When buying your first home, it’s easy to compare a mortgage payment vs. your rent and think, “Yep! I’m ready to shop!” But there are hidden costs to purchasing and owning a property. “First-time homebuyers don’t always factor in an increase in their expenses when they go from renting to owning,” says Daniel Rodriguez, a money coach at Dr. Budgets in San Diego. “If they purchase a bigger house, there are increases in heating or cooling costs. And homes need maintenance; when you’re renting, if the water heater or the furnace goes out, you don’t have to pay for it; your landlord does.”
Rodriguez also reminds would-be homeowners to remember there are costs for cleaning, yard work, insurance, transportation (how does the new home affect your commute to work?), homeowners’ association dues, and of course, property taxes. So think about your total monthly budget, not just your monthly mortgage payment, before you start your search. These are more surprising costs every first-time homebuyer needs to know.
Mistake #4: Not pre-qualifying for a (realistic) loan
Before you start browsing listings and dreaming of how you’ll decorate your new home, make sure you have a lender that’s willing to help you make your dream come true. Checking in with a financial institution (whether it’s a bank, credit union, or online lender; shop around!) will help you understand the mortgage process and your own financial situation. “Seeing a lender prior to the purchase helps you know what kind of documentation you need, what type of down payment you can expect to make,” and so on, says Mendenhall.
However, you should always proceed with caution and allow yourself a financial cushion. If you spend every penny you have on your down payment and closing costs, you won’t be able to cover any unexpected repairs or necessary renovations. “Stretching can be a good thing,” says money coach Daniel Rodriguez. “But people often buy the maximum house they can afford, when maybe something a little less expensive would mean less day-to-day stress to make it work financially.”
Brush up on these 26 terms every homebuyer needs to know.
Mistake #5: Relying on online pics
Even if you see 50 photos of a house online, you won’t get the true picture unless you physically walk through it. If you can’t do that, have your realtor take a video for you, says Mendenhall. “A realtor is bound to present a true picture,” she says. “It’s part of our code of ethics.” A good real estate agent will also advise you, when buying your first home, to visit a potential property more than once. “Go during the evening. Go in the morning. Get a sense of what it would be like to live in that neighborhood,” Mendenhall says.
Plus, photos don’t tell you what the local school system is like, what amenities are nearby, what the turnover is like in the area, and so on. Visiting in person and getting background info from your agent helps you zero in on those important qualities.
Mistake #6: Acting like you’re on House Hunters…
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… and have free reign to comment negatively on properties you’re seeing. In many parts of the U.S., we’re currently in a sellers’ market. That means a seller could have multiple offers on her home and get to choose who’s buying. She’s probably not going to pick the potential homebuyer who mocked her decorating choices or complained about minor details. Look at the process more like a job interview (where both parties are seeking information to make a smart decision) vs. a shopping spree at the mall (where you, the buyer, have total control over whether or not you spend a dime).
Mistake #7: Forgetting a big real-estate rule
You’ve heard it: “Location, location, location.” You can fix or update a lot of things about a house, but you can’t change its location. So make sure you’re happy with it. How busy is the street during morning and evening rush hour? What is the crime rate? If you’ll need public transportation, is it close by? Is walkability important to you? What are the neighboring properties like, and how are they used? Nearby public parks, for example, are generally a benefit—but you might want to find out how busy they are with special events. As a first-time homebuyer, you may not be quite sure what you are looking for; a real-estate agent can help you think it through.
Mistake #8: Skipping the inspection
Buying your first home can be expensive, so it’s tempting to cut expenses where you can. But this is not the place to do it. In fact, forgoing an inspection could actually end up costing you big. A good inspection can expose costly problems ahead of time, Mendenhall says. Once you know what’s going on, you can negotiate with the seller to make or pay for repairs. After you close, those problems (like these 12 crazy inspector finds) are all on you. “Buyers can save themselves thousands on the other side by getting the inspections up front,” Mendenhall says.
Mistake #9: Letting your emotions take over
The whole home-buying process can be fraught with feelings. This may be the first big financial decision you make with a partner. You have to expose your financial status to a lot of strangers. You are buying not just an object, but a home, with all the emotions that go along with that (like dreaming about the future children and pets who’ll live under your roof).
It’s easy to fall into some first-time homebuyer traps, like falling in love with a house that’s unsuitable or a bad value. If you’re letting your emotions guide your decisions, you may overlook problems that should be deal-breaking, from structural problems to a blown budget. You may set your heart on a house that’s in the midst of a bidding war. You may even purchase a property, and then suffer from buyer’s remorse. So do your best to be clear-eyed as you house-hunt. Having professional help, such as a realtor, can help; so can a friend or relative who’s willing to level with you and help you keep those eyes on the prize.
Mistake #10: Waiving contingencies
Say you’ve found just the right property and you’re ready to start the process of buying your first home. To sweeten your offer, you decide to waive some of the rights you have as a purchaser, such as the ability to back out of the deal if certain conditions are not met. Red flag! If the deal falls apart, you could end up losing out on the house and any deposit you’ve already paid out. So be cautious about opting out of anything. Consult a lawyer or realtor, and be sure you understand all the potential outcomes first.
Mistake #11: Skipping the walk-through
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You’ve got a contract and a loan—all that’s left is the closing, and the keys will be in your hands. Congratulations! But first-time homebuyers should not take a pass on walking through the property just prior to closing. “The walk-through is not an additional inspection, but a visit to make sure the house is in the same condition it was when you put it under contract,” says Mendenhall.
When Grace Spencer and her partner bought a co-op apartment in New York City, they did do a walk-through, but the timing was off: “We did our walk-through the day before closing. The current owner hadn’t fully moved out yet. Our agent advised us to go back the next morning before closing, but we ran out of time.”
After the closing, Spencer excitedly went to the new apartment. “When we opened the door, we were greeted with… a mound of junk! The (now) previous owner hadn’t quite moved out all her stuff. There was food in the fridge, an old lamp, old t-shirts…that kind of thing. It was such a buzzkill to get to our new home and find it in that state.” Thankfully, Spencer’s lawyer helped negotiate a payment from the previous owner, and there was no lasting damage. Here’s what can happen in a walk-through (and how you can respond).