Lessons From a First-Time Home Buyer: The Story of How We Bought a House
In 2015, my wife and I moved to Springfield, Missouri. At the time, while we originally elected to rent an apartment, we figured we’d eventually be able to buy a house here thanks to the lower cost of living and easy-going housing market. Despite this, although we’d revisited the idea from time to time, it seemed that something was always standing in our way. Most recently, this included interest rates driving up payments to a frustrating degree.
Despite all of this, as I write this now, my wife and I are officially homeowners. What’s more, this whole thing came together incredibly quickly, with us going from online searches to closing documents within mere weeks — and were weren’t even in town for half of that time!
Seeing how this is a major milestone for us, I wanted to walk you through the story of how we came to become first-time homebuyers and share just some of the things we learned along the way.
Our First-Time Homebuying Journey: From Zillow Search to Close
Our budget and what we were looking for
When it came to what we were looking for in a potential house, we had some firm needs as well as a few “would be nice to haves.” For example, seeing as we both work from home, having at least one spare bedroom we could turn into an office is pretty much a must. As for things we’d like, ideally, we wanted a home that included at least a few stairs — whether down to a basement, up to a loft, or whatever else.
Here was our basic wishlist:
- At least 2 bedrooms
- At least 1.5 baths
- Some sort of stairs highly preferable
- Covered parking – ideally an attached garage
- In Springfield – and near our current neighborhood if possible
As for our budget, working backward from the $50,000 down payment we had, we could go up to $250,000. However, given the current interest rates and what those mean for our payments, we hoped not to go quite that high. So, we were mostly looking at homes between $175,000 and $225,000 or so. That way, we’d not only be good on the down payment but would also be able to cover the closing costs with the $50,000 and keep our payments at a reasonable level (until we can hopefully refinance in the future).
Starting our search and taking initial action
Like I assume most prospective homebuyers in 2023 do, we started our search on Zillow. If you’ve ever used the site, you likely know that, once you plug in a search, Zillow will then pepper you with various alerts. This, in turn, gets you spending more time on the site and looking at houses in general. That certainly happened to us as my wife and I would swap listings with increasing frequency leading up to our next step.
One weekend, we decided to go ahead and check out an open house. While we weren’t that interested in the house on display itself, we figured it would be a good opportunity to see a home “IRL” instead of just on a computer screen. As it turns out, we were 100% right — and I even noticed how some home listings can be a bit tricky.
At the open house, although we snuck in undetected initially, an agent eventually came to talk to us. When she asked if we already had an agent, we said “no” — to which she replied, “Well, you do now.” Good enough for us!
With that, we passed along our wishlist, budget, and contact info to the agent. The next day, she had us set up in her system, which was basically like Zillow but allowed us to save homes we liked so that she could set up tours for us. About a week later, we took the opportunity to go ahead and see some other available houses with her.
Funny enough, when we originally gave the agent our info, we noted that we probably weren’t looking to buy for another six to 12 months. After all, our apartment lease is active until June of next year. But, as you’ll see, things moved much faster than that.
What we found
During our tours, we looked at a few houses we liked quite a bit (of course along with some others that weren’t as exciting.) Yet, none really ticked off every box on our wishlist. For one, finding a home in our budget that had stairs is a weird and difficult ask — although we did admittedly find a couple. Still, the bigger compromise is that we’d likely need to settle for either the north or west sides of town as there wasn’t much available near our neighborhood.
Well, that was until we came across the home. As luck would have it, we managed to stumble upon a property that was in an area we were well familiar with, had three levels (although they’re relatively small levels), and featured several other things we wanted. Immediately, we let our agent know we wanted to see the place.
But how had we not seen this place before? Was it new? Well, when we opened the Zillow listing, we were shocked to see that it had actually been up for more than two months. However, until recently it had been listed at $250,000 — in other words, above our budget and search parameters. Now, it had been cut in price and, thus, showed up in our search.
To demonstrate how perfect this place was for us, let’s revisit our wishlist and compare it to the home we found:
- At least 2 bedrooms: 2 real bedrooms and a finished basement they’re counting as a third
- At least 1.5 baths: 2.5
- Some sort of stairs highly preferable: A full flight up and a full flight down
- Covered parking – ideally an attached garage: 2-car attached garage
- In Springfield – and near our current neighborhood if possible: About 7 minutes from our current apartment
- Walkability: Right near restaurants, a pet store, coffee, groceries, and more.
On top of that, while the home didn’t have the most updated look in some rooms, it did have notable recent upgrades. For example, the roof was replaced only a few years ago, while the HVAC system was swapped out even more recently. Plus, the owner had put down new flooring. All of this meant that we’d have a home that was move-in ready but didn’t command as much of a premium as a fully updated flip.
Of course, seeing as we’d watched as other homes popped onto the market and flew right back off, we did wonder why this one hadn’t moved. Well, I honestly still don’t really know the answer to that — but I do have a solid theory. See, this home isn’t fully detached. Instead, there’s a “party wall” between us and our neighbor. I can see why this might be a deal breaker for some but, for us, it was largely a non-factor.
With that, we were pretty much sold… but we weren’t ready to buy. Right?
Over the next couple of weeks, even as we continued to look at other places, we kept thinking about the possibilities of the home we found. The problem was that, even if we did decide to break our lease and move early, we were about to leave home for three weeks of travel. So, even if we wanted to make an offer, it was really a bad time. So, we resigned ourselves to leaving it up to fate and checking in again when we returned.
But then… one afternoon, I checked my email to see a price-change alert from Zillow. It turns out that the home we were eyeing had again slashed its asking price and was now listed at $224,900. Even though there seemingly hadn’t been much interest in the place before, we worried that this cut might just do the trick.
When we told our agent, she happened to be in the area and offered to show us the place again. After doing so and talking to her about our predicament, she assured us that we’d be able to take care of anything we’d need to do remotely.
And so, less than a month after starting our search for real (and claiming we weren’t buying for half a year or more), we put in our first-ever home offer.
Our offer and counter
Once we decided we wanted the house, it meant that we’d need to conceive of an initial offer. Being new to the whole thing, we didn’t really know exactly what to do. Ultimately, since the house was listed at $224,900 and had just cut its price for a third time, we decided to offer $220,000. However, since the refrigerator, washer, and dryer were already in the home but weren’t included in the listing, we made a point to ask for these appliances in our offer.
To our delight, the only counteroffer that the seller made was that they wanted $1,000 in earnest money. If you’re not familiar (as I wasn’t), earnest money is essentially just a deposit meant to show that you’re serious about buying. To be clear, this $1,000 was applied to our purchase price — so, essentially, our initial offer was accepted.
The closing process
We accepted the counteroffer on a Friday afternoon before leaving town on a Saturday. Then, that Tuesday, we flew across the world to Hong Kong and spent a week there. All the while, we were managing the various things we’d need to complete in order for us to close on the house we’d just purchased.
The first challenge was that we’d need to submit that earnest money. This shouldn’t have been a big deal, but with that following Monday being a holiday and with the terms only giving us five calendar days (versus business days) to submit the money, we were a bit worried. Luckily, we were able to wire the funds without issue.
As for the rest of the process, it mostly involved a lot of Docusign-ing and communicating via e-mail. While away, we arranged to have the home inspected, chose an insurance policy, got the final approval on our loan, and, once the inspection came back, negotiated for a couple of small items to be fixed.
Amazingly, by the time we returned home to Springfield, we were already clear to close. In fact, we could have moved up the date even more from what we’d end up doing — but we weren’t yet back in town. Two days after we did return, we took one last look at the house before signing all of the papers and getting the keys.
Since closing, we’ve slowly been moving items to the new place. Because it’s a short drive from our apartment, it’s been easy to just take a few boxes over there and hang out for a bit as we brainstorm ideas for our new home. Speaking of our apartment, we did opt to break our lease — which resulted in a penalty amounting to two month’s rent. On top of that, we did need to give 60-day notice, so we still have the place until January.
Needless to say, throughout this entire process, I’ve learned an awful lot — including having my eyes opened to some strange quirks that I never would have thought of. Because of this, I’m excited to be kicking off a new series here on Fioney where I’ll be diving into some of these topics. Future installments include what I learned about getting approved for a mortgage as someone who’s self-employed, how store credit cards could impact your mortgage approval, why I’m (likely) skipping a home warranty, and more. So stay tuned for more Lessons From a First-Time Homebuyer every other Wednesday going forward.
After years of thinking about buying a home — and nearly giving up on the idea — we basically did a speedrun through the process once we got started in earnest. Now, just a couple of months later, we’re already making our first house our own. It just goes to show you: never say never.