In retrospect, we got incredibly lucky.
After giving up the lease for our Brooklyn apartment just after the pandemic began, my husband and I bought a house in Savannah, Georgia. Online. We never saw the house in person before closing—just pictures.
Our real estate agent, who is also a close friend, thought that we were getting ripped off. The house was listed for $340,000—higher than comparable properties in the neighborhood—but we put in a bid for the asking price anyway.
Issues With Our New Home
Since the house was built in 1920, we knew it would likely need some work. Although it has three bedrooms, it only has 1 1/2 bathrooms. Most troubling of all: It hardly has any storage space except for a heat-trap attic.
Almost immediately upon moving in, many more problems became apparent. The floors in the living room buckled and expanded terribly in the hot, humid Savannah summers. The housepaint was peeling in many places, and an estimate to re-paint the exterior, which also included replacing rotted wood, came in around $22,000. Midway through August, when putting our two toddlers down for a nap, we realized that the room temperature was 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Our HVAC system—which we later realized was 20 years old—had stopped working and it cost us $16,000 in cash to replace.
I say that we were lucky because, despite all of these unforeseen expenditures, soon after moving into the home, the real estate market exploded. Just a mere two years later, the house next door to us (which was very similar) sold for $580,000 in cash. We just happened to buy at the exact right moment and the sense of relief we feel now erases the sting of our rookie mistakes.
What Homebuyers Should Look For
Still, there are so many things I wish I had known before purchasing our house—and I’m not alone. According to a recent survey by Zillow, 75% of recent buyers have at least one regret about their homes, the most common being the location of the home, the condition of the home, waiving an inspection contingency and not spending enough time searching for a home.
To learn more about common mistakes first-time homeowners make—and how to avoid them—I turned to the real estate experts. Here’s what they told me.
- Never Waive the Inspection
Given how quickly properties are currently moving in the real estate market, Shannee Theus, a buyer specialist at Keller Williams Realty in Savannah, Georgia, says that it’s increasingly common to see buyers waive inspections to win bids. “This is a terrible mistake,” she says. “You need to protect yourself.”
Inspections can reveal faulty roofs, plumbing issues or other major problems that can be costly—and disruptive—to fix. Theus recommends hiring an inspector with experience in the construction business (even if they cost extra money) because they know what to really look out for. She also says you should request that the inspector use a sewer scope to check plumbing. This can cost around $300 more but can uncover cracked pipes or sewage lines that are being blocked by roots.
- Know All the Costs
Most new buyers realize that they will need to have a chunk of change available for a down payment. We qualified for a Federal Housing Assistance (FHA) loan for first-time homebuyers, which allowed us to put only 3% of the asking price down. Even still, we needed $10,000 in cash on hand. What we didn’t realize was that we also needed $1,000 for inspections and $3,000 for closing costs.
“Knowing exactly what you need to budget for before buying a home is essential,” says Mark Johnson, CEO of JPAR Real Estate. By the time we moved in, we were so broke we couldn’t even buy furniture for the next six months.
- Don’t Be Fooled by Good Photographs or Staging
A beautifully staged property listed with professional, high-quality photographs can obscure a lot of problems, like weird layouts, lack of storage or a noisy location. Michael J. Franco, a broker at Compass in New York, has had clients fall in love with an expertly staged apartment that ends up needing $100,000 in renovations. “It’s so pretty they’re not even looking at the problems,” he says.
Susan Abrams, a broker at Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York, recommends really considering banal things like closets, light and the neighborhood when looking at properties. “Pick up the shades and see what the views are,” she says. “Walk around the block during different times of the day to see if there’s anything odd going on or any loud noises.” Although we’re happy with our location, our neighbors across the street who retired in Savannah are constantly distressed by the noise from the road that runs alongside both of our homes.
- Don’t Assume Things Can be Fixed
If you love all but one thing about a house and try to rationalize that it can easily be fixed, proceed with caution. I hated the counters in our kitchen and planned on replacing them as soon as I moved in—but the new high-quality stones would cost us $5,000 minimum. At that price, I can live with the current counters, thanks.
If you intend to do renovations, have architects or contractors come walk around the space with you before placing your bid, recommends Abrams. They might tell you that the changes you want to make are or aren’t within your budget. Or they might help you realize that, with the cash you’d spend on renovations (the average cost of a minor kitchen renovation, for example, is about $24,000, according to Home Depot), you can bid on a more expensive home that already has everything you need.
Don’t forget that, along with being costly, renovations can put a lot of stress on a family, especially if they disrupt your daily life.
- Budget for Home Repairs
Financial experts generally recommend that you budget between 1% and 4% of your home’s value for yearly maintenance, which can include repairs to your home, replacing appliances and paying for services like exterminators and yard care. With the price we paid for our house, we should save around $13,600 every year for maintenance. But we spent more than double that in the first year to repaint the house, fix the floors and replace the HVAC system. A whopping 77% of homebuyers also faced unexpected repair costs in their first year of inhabiting their homes, and roughly half spent over $1,000 to fix them, according to a recent survey from insurance firm Hippo.
- Don’t Think of Your Home as a “Starter Home”
Franco says that it’s common for buyers to purchase a property with the assumption that they’ll trade up for a bigger, more expensive property as their family grows. But the markets change constantly and finding a larger home in the right neighborhood might be more complicated than you think. So if you have kids or know you want to have kids someday, stretch your budget to buy a house with more bathrooms or more storage space, for example, rather than assuming that you’ll be able to do so in five years.
My husband and I constantly fantasize about an extra bathroom and a toy storage area but can no longer afford these things in our neighborhood with the increase in prices on listings.
- Work With a Broker You Trust
While not the case for her or many brokers she works with, Abrams acknowledges that real estate brokers have a bad reputation and that people assume they are just in the market to make money. “Most of us are not in it for ourselves,” she says. “And, in our case, our reputation precedes us.” She recommends working with someone you trust—rather than trying to cut a broker out of a deal—and asking your friends for referrals.
Research the broker beforehand so you know what kind of experience they have—for example, a broker who has worked in a certain market for decades is going to have extensive knowledge about neighborhoods and pricing that will be invaluable to your search. “We know about everything in our market, from how to deal with multiple bids to why a certain property is priced high,” Abrams says.
We certainly found this to be true with our broker, who walked around with us on FaceTime during all of the inspections and was able to point out things that she was concerned about.
Brienne Walsh is a writer based in Savannah, Georgia. She contributes to Forbes, Rangefinder and MarketWatch, among other publications.
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