It’s almost the 1 year anniversary of Brent and I closing on our first house! May 16, 2013 was a big day for us and I don’t think Brent and I have ever signed our name that many times in one sitting. Like most people in Houston, we had a whirlwind of a home buying experience. The market is insanely hot down here and it’s not uncommon for houses to go under contract within 24 hours of being on the market. We started seriously looking in March and found our house in about a month.
Our experience was a positive one mainly because we were in such good hands with one of my best friends and realtor extraordinaire, Mercedes Mosby. She really went above and beyond to ensure that our home would be a) good investment, b) property would increase in value, c) be in a great neighborhood, d) be structurally sound, and e) really fit with our lifestyle and wish list. Her flexibility, willingness to show us houses around Brent’s unpredictable work schedule, and patience with answering questions made us feel comfortable and like we were in the driver’s seat. Mercedes didn’t just go above and beyond for us because we’re friends, she really does this for all of her clients. Do your homework and find a great realtor who will do more than just “show you a house!”
In honor of our 1 year anniversary, Brent and I thought we should pay it forward with some helpful tips for the first-time home buyer or anyone really looking for a few pieces of advice. I know the markets and contract processes vary from state to state, so please remember that I’m coming from the viewpoint of buying in Houston.
I hope you enjoy. If you have good tips of your own, please comment below!
I Dream of Pretty Things
Scoping Out the Neighborhood
- Learn more about your desired neighborhoods. Go online to see if the home owners association has a web page and read about their policies, activities, events, and amenities to get more of a feel of “life in the ‘hood.” Many neighborhoods also have Facebook pages that advertise local happenings, crime activity, etc.
- If you like a certain neighborhood, go and visit/explore during different times of day and weekdays/weekends. It’s hard to get a picture of the neighborhood “feel” otherwise. For example, if you’re just stopping by on the weekends, you might not realize the street you’re looking at is on the main carpool or school zone path for a local school. Maybe this is a deal breaker, maybe it isn’t, but it’s definitely good information to know for your commute times!
- Be sure to check out the local database for sex offenders to see how many registered sex offenders are in your potential zip code, area. While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find an area with zero offenders, it’s still something to consider and compare as you compare and contrast different areas.
- Research the reputation of local schools. This is definitely important if kids are in the picture/may be one day, but will also help keep your property value high regardless. Are there school signs out in the yards? Pay attention to which schools you see represented. If it looks like most of the neighbors are sending their kids to a school out of their school zone, go online, talk to your realtor or other parents/people familiar with the area to find out about the schools’ reputations and programs.
- Remember that buying a house can be an emotional roller coaster ride and try not to get too emotionally invested. You may find a house that you fall in love with but is out of your price range. Something might come up with the inspection that requires you have to negotiate hard with the Seller or walk away. Your bank might mess up some of your paperwork and delay closing. Closing any transaction is usually messy, and buying a home is no exception.
- Be patient and don’t expect perfection. The perfect house does not exist. Repeat. The perfect house does not exist. If you go in waiting to find a 100% perfect house, then you’ll doom yourself to failure. This is not to say you won’t find a house that will make you happy. Because you will absolutely find a house that makes you happy, that you can learn to love-flaws and all. Most problems can be fixed with creative solutions or changed with remodeling. Take heart and be patient! Make a list of the criteria that is most important to you. Bring this list to every house and see how well they fulfill your list. It’s a great way to stay objective and not get too emotionally attached.
- Ask yourself whether you want an older house, an older house that has been remodeled, or new construction. Older houses often have lots of charm, but can require a tremendous amount of upkeep. Honestly ask yourself whether you are willing to do numerous home improvement projects. This isn’t to say that new or recently remodeled houses won’t require some of these same projects, but the number will almost certainly be much lower.
- Look past cosmetic or taste-specific changes that can easily be made. The house we bought was almost completely painted in this strange blue color. For a visual person like me, it was so difficult to look past this awful blue. It seems silly now because it’s something we can change, but it goes to show that sometimes things like that can really seem like hangups. Keep your eye on the prize and the more important things.
- Bring a measuring tape, camera, notebook, and pen with you. You never know when you might want to measure a space (for existing furniture, etc). Have a good idea of the sizes, measurements of your favorite or largest pieces of furniture and keep this information with you when you go on a visit.
- When you’re visiting a house, remember to look up and look everything over very closely! It’s easy to get caught up in a beautifully decorated home filled with lots of eye-catching decor and distractions. Be sure to look up and check out the ceilings for things like water damage, foundation issues, mold, etc. See an awkwardly placed piece of furniture in the house? Give it a quick look to see what’s behind it. Does the house seem to be staged with too many burning candles? Perhaps there’s a bad odor inside the house or in the area (nearby sewage drains, etc.) to be aware of.
- Take advantage of time you have in an unfurnished, unoccupied house. This is your chance to truly see a house “as is” without any distractions.
- Find the right realtor for you. Does this person get your vision? Are they familiar with the areas you want to live in? Do they specialize in your favorite neighborhoods? Are they accessible when you need them? Do they seem respectful of your budget? Do you feel comfortable contacting them with questions? Most of all, do they have your best interest at heart and won’t pressure you just to collect a commission? Buying a house is an extremely personal and life altering decision and you want to make sure you’re working with someone you trust and have a good rapport with. Moreover, if you are like us, you are going to be very dependent on your realtor because you have never gone through this process.
- Be accessible and be responsive. In a hot market like Houston, you may have a window of mere hours before you lose out on a great opportunity. If you know your realtor is sending you listings to review or they have a great lead, be accessible and answer their phone calls or e-mails in a prompt manner. You never know when your day-late returned phone call prevented you from seeing your dream home. Similarly, be prepared to cancel an after work plan if you have a good lead on a house!
- Gather as many contractor recommendations as you can before you start looking or at the beginning of your search. Your realtor may have some people in mind, but it’s nice to know that you have the name of a reputable inspector, electrician, etc. that you can call as soon as you go under contract to inspect the house or make repairs shortly after closing if needed.
- Do your research ahead of time and ask your friends, family members and coworkers for referrals for mortgage brokers. Do some research and see what the current trends in interest rates are, etc. so that you can spot the best deal.
- Get a pre-approval letter from a mortgage broker/bank. It doesn’t make sense to look at houses that may be way out of your price range and in a hot market like Houston, you’ll need this letter to even put a serious offer in on a house.
- If you’re buying a house with a spouse, partner, parent, etc. make sure you have really honest discussions on budget and priorities before you get serious about the search. It will be a waste of everyone’s time if you are not on the same page on price point, remodeling budget, etc. while looking.
- Live within your means. Be honest with yourself about your finances and your threshold for your monthly payments involving the house. It’s not just the mortgage to think about…there’s taxes, home owner’s fees, insurance of all kinds, reserve funds for repairs or projects, etc. Remember, you don’t have to spend the maximum limit on your pre-approval loan letter, and probably shouldn’t. It can be tempting to keep up with the Joneses, but be careful about your commitment. You won’t have much fun if you can’t go out to eat anymore or visit friends out-of-town because your entire paycheck is going to the house.
- Think about the resale opportunities for this house in the future. If this is your first home, chances are that you will be there 5-10 years and then buy something different. Is there a house that you love but has one big problem that raises a red flag? Maybe it’s that the house faces a business on the other side of the street or maybe there are too many power lines running across the backyard. Perhaps it’s not a deal breaker for you. Just remember that if it gives you pause now, it might concern future buyers as well. You never know what the market will be like in the future, so weigh the pros and cons in your head to see if this problem could be a major deterrent down the road to the average buyer.
- Dig out your personal checks and make sure you know where your nearest bank branch is located. When you put down an offer, you will most likely have to write one or two checks. Some sellers require certified checks while others will accept personal checks. Make sure you have these on hand to give to your realtor.
- Know your credit score before you start looking. If it looks low or there’s something amiss, do your best to identify the problem and fix it so that you are in the best possible position for the financing process of your new home.
- Hold off on making large purchases while you’re looking for a house. Major purchases like new furniture sets, a new car, boat, etc. will affect your credit score and can sometimes make or break your house buying options. Similarly, don’t start opening up new credit cards, etc. as it will affect your credit!