Updated: Sep 13, 2020
Last summer, in the midst of planning our wedding, my now-husband and I began our search for our first home together. Since there are not many great rent options in our area, we decided it would be best for us to go all out and buy a house. We also decided that it would be a great idea to plan for our wedding party to stay with us, at our new house, for our wedding weekend... which only gave us a few short months to find the right house, get everything moved in, and set up the rooms for multiple guests. (If you want to know how we planned our wedding for a low cost during this busy summer, also visit 10 Tips for Wedding Planning on a Budget)
We had found a house months earlier that we really liked and were ready to buy in the summer, but that had unfortunately fallen through in early June. Despite the time crunch, we were determined to find the right house and have it ready by mid-August. We learned a lot in the process! Here are some tips for first-time home buying, for anyone who may be considering looking for that perfect place soon!
1. Know What You (Both) Want
The first thing we had to do was decide what we wanted in a house. We knew that the house had to be move-in ready, to make our dream of having our wedding party stay with us come true. We wanted 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and an open-concept floor plan, if possible. We wanted a house that would be big enough to grow our family into, but not enormous (because, hello, who wants to clean all that??) It was important to both of us that we would be near family, yet in a location that would work well for each of our work commutes. We wanted to be in a more secluded, private environment, at least a few acres of land, ideally wooded. One wish-list item that I did not think was very realistic but that my husband had long hoped for, was to live on a lake. (What are the chances??)
We wrote all of these "wants" down on a piece of paper, and then decided which things were just "wants" and which were "must-haves." Thankfully, we were both mostly on the same page about what was really important to us in a house. Then, on to the next step we went.
2. Get Pre-approved & Decide Your Budget
This element is VERY important. There's really no point in looking around for your dream house before you get pre-approval from the bank to know what you can and can't afford. Looking at a bunch of beautiful houses you simply cannot afford will just leave you feeling disappointed, or worse, could lead you to biting off more than you can chew.
So, we went into our bank with all of the necessary information we needed to get pre-approved for a house loan. We made sure that our credit scores were in the best shape possible (because that really counts in getting pre-approved). Based on all of this, our banker helped us to assess what would be a good budget for us in buying a house. From there, we knew what we could afford, and when looking at houses the realtors would know we were serious since we were already pre-approved. This pre-approval only lasts for a set amount of time, so you should only get pre-approved once you're serious about getting the house hunt started.
3. Explore Your Options
The beginning of our house hunting was discouraging. VERY discouraging. In a month's time, we saw a lot of really bad houses that the realtors themselves even seemed embarrassed to show us. Some were smoke-damaged, others partially finished, and yet others actually falling apart. It was amazing to us how good a house could look in pictures, compared to how terrible it was in reality. A few of the houses that we saw and liked had heftier price tags than we had anticipated, so those were out, too.
Even if you're feeling discouraged with the house hunt at first, keep going! You'll find the right house. Although, at this point for us, we were starting to wonder about that.
Our time was running short. By this time, it was mid-July, and we had yet to find the right house for us. Then, one day my husband came across a cute cabin on a lake. It had never been used as a year-round home, but it was a fairly new construction and looked adorable in the pictures online. We called up the realtor and scheduled a tour.
This little lake cabin was set back in the woods, on a private road. There were some neighbors nearby, but not too close. It was on a couple acres of land and in a good location for both our work commutes and proximity to our families.
As soon as we walked in, I knew this was the one. It had a beautiful open-floor plan, with the kitchen, living room, and dining room all forming into one great space. It had two bedrooms and one bathroom downstairs, along with one bedroom and a half-bath upstairs. There were tons of windows, allowing for natural lighting, which I love. All of the floors were hard surfaces, no carpet - a plus for easy cleaning. This house seemed to be checking all of our boxes - well, all except for a few.
4. Accept Necessary Compromises
Even though we knew almost immediately that this was the house for us, there were some compromises we would have to make if we were to go through with it. First of all, it was at the tippy-top of our price range. Second, it lacked a washer/dryer, closets, and a bathtub. Third, some elements of the cabin had not been entirely finished, such as the stairs and some trim work. We had to decide if these compromises were worth making.
If you've found a house you really love, but there are a few drawbacks, think about how important these items are to you. And will it be that way forever, or could you potentially add/change things to make it into what you want? If so, don't let these compromises hold you back. Be realistic about the possibilities. Then, make your choice.
5. Make a Confident Choice
Together, we came to the conclusion that yes, this was the house for us. We brainstormed solutions for the things the house lacked that we really wanted. With time, we knew that we could add everything we had hoped for. We were confident that we could live in this house for many years and grow our family here. At the moment, though, we just needed to make it wedding party ready!
We put in an offer, and after a few counter-offers and negotiations, we settled on a price. We were ready to get moved in!
6. Stick With It!
Our decision was brought into question when we encountered appraisal problems with our house. It unfortunately did not appraise at or above the value of our accepted offer. This came as a shock to us, as we had pretty much assumed that everything was good at this point and all we'd have to do was wait for the inspection and appraisal.
When the appraisal came back low, we had to decide if it was worth it to pay the extra money that the bank would not give us (as a bank will usually only give you a loan up to the amount that the house appraises at). Our banker advised us to leave this house behind, as it's generally not a good investment to pay more for a house than it's thought to be worth. Now I'm not saying you should just disregard what your banker says, but if you really believe that a house is the right one for you, and you're willing to take that risk of paying a little more out-of-pocket, then do it. After considering our banker's advice, weighed against how much we loved the lake cabin, we decided to stick with our dream. We bought the cabin, determined to transform it into our home.
7. Plan for the Move
I refer to this house as a cabin because it is just that - a cabin. Yes, we live here year-round now, but when it was built, it was designed to be a weekend getaway. It is not huge. In fact, it's rather small and cozy. We have a little over 1200 square feet total (which, believe it or not, was the average size of a home built in 1960. Today the average square footage for a new home is over double that!) With this smaller size, we had to plan how we would arrange our furniture and fit all of our stuff, especially given that there are no closets and very limited storage spaces. We drew out a floorplan to scale, measured all of our furniture, and voila! We had a plan for how we would move everything in.
We only had a few days between closing on our house and the arrival of our wedding party. This meant we had to make move-in as efficient as possible. We shared our plan with our families, who had agreed to help us move in. I directed traffic as everyone brought in the furniture and larger items first, and then the smaller things.
If you have a similar situation, where your home has limited space, or perhaps a unique layout that requires some forethought, put in the work ahead of time so you don't have to scramble on move-in day. Especially when you have others helping, it's nice to have everyone on the same page. It would have been so much harder for me to direct traffic if I didn't even know where things went!
8. Renovate and Update
This has been the fun part of the home-buying process, and it's still continuing. We get to make it our own! Ever since moving in about 9 months ago, we (and by "we," I mostly mean my husband) have been renovating and updating this cabin to make it into a true home.
The first issue we had to address was the lack of a washer/dryer. We bought a combo laundry system with some wedding money, and my husband and father-in-law installed it. Compromise Number 1 eliminated! Next came the closet issue. We bought some clothes hanging units that attach right to the wall, as well as a free-standing closet unit that has been working well for us ever since. Along with our dressers, we have plenty of space for storing clothes.
Before too long, my husband had tackled finishing the stairs and trim work that had been left undone by the original builders. His next project will be expanding the half-bath upstairs and adding a bathtub.
Part of being a homeowner means doing renovations and even just basic upkeep on your home. Even if the house you fall in love with and buy isn't perfect in every way the moment you move in, remember that you'll have lots of time to make the changes you want and need to make. Yes, it will cost you some money, time, and resources. But that's part of the whole homeownership deal. At the end of the day, though, the house is yours! Every upgrade you make is (hopefully) adding to its value. And if you ever do move out, you'll get something for it, rather than renting a place and leaving at the end with nothing to show for it.
Good luck to you if you're starting out on your home-buying journey! You won't regret the choices you make if you make them well. Know what you want and go for it!
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