There will be surprises. And hidden costs. And more paperwork than you ever thought one person could file in a lifetime. Oh, and it might take you a while to settle into this giant commitment you just spent your pretty pennies on.
Buying a home is a lot of things — easy it is not. Which is why a little knowledge from the pros and those who have been-there-done-that can go a long way.
We asked industry experts, everyday homeowners and our own reporters to offer words of wisdom — things they wish they had known before buying their first home.
Responses have been edited for space and clarity.
There are always, always, surprises. No inspection catches everything. Count on something going wrong — a water heater that dies, roots growing into water lines — something will happen. You think you’re broke the day you close? You’re going to be more broke a month later. And if you can, refinish floors, replace carpet and repaint before moving. These are the most disruptive upgrades to do later because they disrupt entire rooms. It’s actually less disruptive to the household to remodel a kitchen or bathroom than to upend the entire living room to paint a year after you move in.
Combine deals at home improvement stores. Research in advance the best deals they offer on in-store credit cards, and ask when they have sales. Combine sales and credit offers to get the best possible prices on appliances, fixtures and materials.
If you have kids, line up baby-sitting for the day of the move and a day or two later. Plan a couple of unpacking/organizing shifts that let you park toxic, sharp or fragile items without worrying about protecting them from the kids or vice versa. And pack a suitcase for each child’s essentials, even if you’re just moving across town — think blankie, toiletries, spare clothes. Keep the suitcases in the car so you have everything you need for a first good night’s sleep. — Joanne Cleaver, freelance writer, real estate and personal finance
I wish we’d known that there was nothing short about a short sale, and ours was one for the record books, according to the attorneys and real estate agents. The seller had two loans on the property, which meant we needed the cooperation of two banks. If you are hoping to close on a short sale in a reasonable amount of time (30-90 days), you probably shouldn’t lock into a contract on a home that has more than one loan.
But our family of five — we have a college student and two teen boys — has needed more space for a while, and we wanted it in our same diverse, historic neighborhood. We knew that anything with four bedrooms would be pricey, so we started looking for deals. We landed on this beautiful, modern, well-kept short sale a block away from our current home.
My experience was unique because I bought from a trust. I think it’s critical to have a professional relationship with your seller. If any additional “due diligence” type work comes up as part of the sale, you’ll need to make sure those lines of communication are open and both parties are aware of the necessary next steps. A strong relationship allows for any hiccups to be handled with minimal interference to the purchase process. Second, ensure whatever documentation provided by the seller is acceptable to your underwriters. If the documentation does not align with what your lender is asking for, it can cause a lot of rework between both parties. Finally, your lender has a lot of control over the purchasing process, so it’s imperative to be organized throughout the process and to have a good working relationship with them. — Jim Cullen, consultant
I purchased a condo around 1990, and I wish I’d learned more about the condition of the common spaces, as well as the nitty-gritty details of the actual unit’s condition. The previous owner had updated with fresh paint and new carpeting, so it was certainly move-in ready. But a few weeks later, I attended my first condo board meeting and learned that the 25-year-old buildings were in serious disrepair. The roofs were leaking, the sidewalks were crumbling, the courtyard was a swamp and the tennis court was unplayable because of deep fissures. I was heartbroken because I had sunk all my money into the down payment. For years, we had special assessments in the hundreds of dollars to fix everything. A year later, I ran for the board and ultimately became the president.
I wish I’d known about all the additional costs of simply living in my first condo after the real estate closing. The list included blinds for two windows and two sliding-glass balcony doors, a garage door opener, extra keys, locks for my laundry and storage room cubicles, floor mats, lightbulbs and more. I moved in at night, and the next morning when I got ready for work, I realized I didn’t have a shower curtain. I took a shower anyway and flooded the bathroom. My very first “new home” purchases that day were a shower curtain and bathroom rug. — Pamela McKuen, freelance writer, features
My father is a homebuilder, so I grew up in the industry. The first home I bought was with my wife in 1983. It was a model home in Wheeling built by Lexington Homes. It was in a building of eight units, all with one-car garages and a common entrance, and measured 1,200 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths. I remember wishing we had a basement when the one-car garage got cluttered, and it was rough parking one car outside in winter. We also did not like the noise from living below another unit and being next to the hallway to the garages. Another issue was we had only one, small window in the master bedroom. We only stayed for two years, then moved to a single-family home twice as big in Buffalo Grove. These are things I keep in mind today as a homebuilder when designing homes! — Jeff Benach, principal of Chicago-based Lexington Homes
What do I wish I had known before buying my first place? That applying for a mortgage loan would be the seventh circle of hell. It makes sense. Banks need to ensure you can actually repay this giant loan. But they want to trace the origin of every cent you have, and they want paper documents — a bit of a challenge since I do everything electronically and, yeah, I don’t have a printer. If you’re getting close to being under contract, start gathering your paper now: paychecks, bank statements, tax returns, other sources of income, the promissory note committing your left kidney to the broker. Lesson learned. I either have to live in this condo forever, or I need to get rich and buy my next place with cash. — Dawn Rhodes, Chicago Tribune reporter
San Diego Union-Tribune