Everyone knows that buying a house is a long and stressful process — and that was the case long before “Covid-19” or “social distancing” became part of our everyday vocabulary.
When I began the search for my first home in December 2019, I underestimated just how long finding the right place would take. I’d done my homework, knew roughly what area I was interested in, and how much money I was willing to spend. But once the pandemic hit, I slammed on the brakes. Life felt too uncertain and making a big purchase felt too risky.
Still, my moderate obsession with searching Zillow never fully ceased and I’d see places I was interested in here and there. Then I saw headlines about real estate that included phrases like “record-low rates” and “suburban housing boom,” and suddenly I had major FOMO.
I realized that the housing market right in my backyard was seriously heating up. At this point, I’d spent the better part of five months searching for a townhouse in the suburbs of New York. I knew I needed to act quickly to beat the big rush of buyers.
Embarking on buying a house in the middle of a global pandemic can be an intimidating prospect. It certainly was for me. But at 29, I’m now the proud homeowner of a place I love.
Here are the things I learned and what I wish I’d known before I started.
1. Research prospective neighborhoods
This is one of the biggest purchases you’ll make in your entire life and setting your own parameters is important. Being a first-time homebuyer is scary. But you don’t have to go into it blindly.
Research different cities and neighborhoods — compare prices and decide what you’re comfortable with. The work-from-home trend has opened the door for so many people to live in towns, cities, or suburbs they never imagined, so take advantage of that.
2. Find a real estate agent you trust
When I first started on my house hunting journey, I was working with a real estate agent that I didn’t jibe with at all, but I felt strange about starting over with someone else. My advice is don’t be afraid to break up with your agent and start fresh.
If it’s not working, if someone doesn’t push for you when you’re putting in offers, it will take you much longer to get into your dream home. Think of searching for your real estate agent the same way you would a therapist: It may awkward at first but it’s totally worth it in the end.
Because of Covid-19 restrictions, my agent and I often weren’t allowed to view homes together. I would show myself around, she would walk through after me, and then we’d discuss outside. When you’re functioning under less-than-normal conditions, finding someone you communicate with well and who understands you is more important than ever.
3. Shop around for your loan
Don’t just go with the first company you find on Google that offers home loans. You’ll be working closely with your loan officer and you’ll often need to get in touch with them under time-sensitive circumstances.
When you’re making an offer on a home, you’ll need to be preapproved to borrow a certain amount, and depending on the property, that amount will change. I found myself calling my loan company to change my preapproval details repeatedly. Getting that offer in ASAP is crucial, especially in the competitive housing climate we’re in.
Locking in your rate is also key. When I was shopping around, rates were running wild. I was always wary of a huge spike and would drive myself crazy wondering if I was getting myself the lowest rate possible. My loan officer ultimately helped me lock in a rate at the best time, despite the wild market swings.
I also learned it’s best to lock in your rate before noon. Who knew?
4. Go along on the home inspection if you can
Depending on who you hire to do your home inspection, you may or may not be allowed to be present due to certain restrictions. I called around to find someone who could legally have me with them when they inspected the house. That was important to me and I wanted to be sure I could walk through the house and point out any concerns I had along the way.
The appraisal process was more outside my control, though, and that was something I just had to make peace with. Due to the pandemic, appraisals are based upon comparable homes in the area and not the traditional walk-through of the actual home. It can seem like it involves the appraiser driving by the property, comparing it with similar houses, and slapping a dollar figure on it.
It feels impersonal and made me uneasy, but I had to accept it.
5. Be prepared for a bidding war, and be prepared to walk away
I can’t even remember how many homes I put offers in on or how many times I walked away because the price felt like too much. Toward the end of my search, I thought I had found “the one.” This home was in the town I wanted and the community I wanted, and it met all my criteria.
The seller accepted my offer (that was a first!) and I’d scheduled the inspection for the next day. Then another buyer came in with an all-cash offer and the seller’s real estate agent was setting up for an all-out bidding war way above what I was comfortable with. So I walked away.
Still, having that final number in mind and sticking to my convictions paid off, because I ended up in an even bigger place on the same street.
I closed on my first home in June of 2020. My main takeaway from the experience is that it’s helpful to be armed with information every step of the way. The world of real estate amid our “new normal” is fast-paced and confusing. But feeling like I had good people on my side, a grasp of the housing market, rates, and the type of home I wanted to end up in allowed me to have full confidence in those moments when I said “no” and the final time that I said “yes.”
Karissa Giuliano is an associate producer at CNBC.
The article “I Bought My First Home at Age 29: Here’s What I Wish I’d Known Earlier” originally published on Grow+Acorns.