You’re itching to plant roots. You’ve got some savings. You’re so very tired of paying rent. But are you really ready to buy your first house? “The past two years have created a sense of urgency among buyers,” says Ricardo Rodriguez, a real estate agent and the principal of Boston–based Ricardo Rodriguez and Associates. “Meanwhile, real estate has become more about finding home—a place that feels safe and comfortable—than the transaction it once was. But ultimately it is a transaction, and especially because the current market can demand quick decisions, it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into.” Read on for the top five questions you should ask yourself before you even begin to look.
“The most important thing for the first-time home buyer is financial readiness,” Ricardo explains. “Not just that you have enough for a down payment, but that you understand the financial implications of owning a home.” Everything these days is more expensive, from property taxes, homeowners’ insurance, and utilities to snow-removal services and lawn care. If something breaks, it’s now on you. Meanwhile, that pool that looked like such a dream in the listing won’t exactly clean itself. “Before you start looking at homes, look at your finances,” says Beatrice de Jong, a broker and consumer trends expert at the real estate platform Opendoor. “This is the time to be as objective as possible and understand where you stand going in.”
Know your price range and commit to staying within in. According to Ricardo, “Because there’s always something bigger, and better, and nicer,” it can be easy to get tempted by a place you can’t quite afford which might require sacrificing other things in your life to pay for it, whether that’s travel or designer clothes. “Be aware of your financial non-negotiables and limits, and don’t feel pressured to make an offer that is outside of your budget to purchase your dream home,” Beatrice warns. She recommends using a mortgage calculator to get an idea for which house you can afford while still leaving room for the other things you love.
A common pitfall Ricardo often sees is buyers migrating from the country to the suburbs without considering how nice it was that their gym or grocery store was a five-minute commute. Or buyers who fall in love with certain features—the La Cornue range in the kitchen, for instance, or the his-and-her closets—but fail to look at the house as a whole. “Get and stay clear on the sort of experience you want to have as a homeowner,” he suggests. “If you’re not handy and you prefer to go out to eat more often than you want to cook, know that about yourself and don’t get charmed by the fixer-upper 30 minutes from town or the beautiful kitchen you may never really use.”
A home is an investment, one that, with patience, generally generates a return. But it’s also where you’re going to live. A great investment opportunity and your dream home may not be one and the same. “As I tell people, I’m here to help you know whether a particular house is a good buy based on things like price per square foot, amenities, neighborhood value, things like that,” Ricardo says. “But you’re the one who has to want to come home to it.” Take your time to look around at houses, but know that it’s also okay if you fall in love with the first place you see. “The advice I constantly give people—whether it’s their first time buying or they’re more experienced—is trust your instincts,” he says. “You will feel when a place could be your home.”
The great COVID migration has seen lots of people relocating—from cities to country or vice versa, or to places they thought would be a certain way but just aren’t. Ricardo isn’t the only agent already starting to see some of them come back. According to an Opendoor survey conducted by Wakefield Research, 35% of first-time homebuyers wish they did more research before buying their home. “Make sure you’ve looked into everything there is to know about the area, and what to look out for when touring homes,” Beatrice says. “And stay open to all options. You may have a certain neighborhood in mind, but go exploring! Drive around. You may be inspired, surprised, or even stumble upon a new neighborhood that’s just right for you.”