By Jeff Stern
After nearly three decades helping people buy that next home, I have listened to many a first-time home buyer’s regret. I’ve been on the other end of a phone call where the buyer made a common mistake and needed my help getting out of it. Here are seven of the most common mistakes people make when buying a home, and what many home buyers wish they had known ahead of time but often learn too late.
1. Online house pictures are fake
What one sees online and what one sees in person are two vastly different things. It’s a bit like supermodels who, in the pages of a magazine, shimmer with perfection, but in real life, are unrecognizable in the real-world grocery store garb of hasty ponytails and make up-less faces.
House photos get a similar treatment; wide-angle lenses make rooms look more spacious than they are and the place is scrubbed within an inch of its life for staged for photos. There’s the big wide smile and the sucking in for the photo, then it returns to its normal relaxed face and gut.
The surprising amount of “presentation” can feel like a gut punch when you walk in with super-model expectations and find a sweat-pant, beer-bellied version instead. What looked like an enormous eat-in kitchen is revealed to be so small, in fact, one must side-step around the table. It can feel like deception. Knowing ahead of time won’t change that fact, but it will reduce the disappointment and frustration of the process.
2. Deciding ahead of time what we need or want in a home
House hunting is, as buyers soon discover, like the endless scroll – if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can go on searching literally forever. The longest transaction I ever helped with lasted almost four years. Yes, years.
A common mistake most people make is not planning what they need and also what they want in that house – not just for now, but for the future. It’s strange to me that more detailed planning goes into a weekend grocery shop than into the buying of a house.
Listing aspects of a home, including lifestyle aspects like a place to work out or play guitar, that you (a) must have, and (b) want to have, will carry you farther than looking online, browsing forever, hoping to stumble upon “the one”. Trust me… seeing more pictures, more open houses and more privately shown houses doesn’t help focus your search. It actually does the opposite, making your blurry wants even more blurry.
3. Getting mortgage approval before looking at houses
Here’s a painful way to shop: look at houses blindly in “your” price range. Accidentally and unexpectedly fall in love with that perfect home, then talk to the bank and realize you need to be shopping thousands of dollars below that price. Your pre-approved amount and what is realistically within your reach is disappointing.
This is the sour shopping experience of the buyer who does not take the step of getting pre-approved for a mortgage before shopping within the price range they can reasonably afford.
How does getting pre-approved work? Hint: it’s not an app or an online calculator. It’s going to a bank. Here’s more on that.
4. Involving my parents right from the beginning
Once you’ve found that perfect-for-you home, do you plan on getting the “final yes” from your parents (or grandparents, or co-signer or whoever)? The biggest mistake people make with this is involving them only at that final moment. What inevitably happens is the parent comes in cold, doesn’t know what you’ve seen, experienced and turned down up to this point, and so they disapprove of the home you’ve decided on.
If they had been involved from the beginning, however, they would be on the same page with you about what you’d learned and seen until that point. They would know that prices aren’t what they were 20-plus years ago when they bought, and so would not be shocked. They would know what’s available in your price range, and so would not be shocked by what isn’t.
Involve them from the beginning. Invite them to meetings with your real estate agent. Bring them to every showing and open house. My advice to clients is, if someone is going to influence your buying decision, either have them involved all the way or not at all. It will save disappointment and a load of frustration.
5. Taking my friend’s advice is a bad idea
Friends mean well, but there’s a lot they don’t know. And what they don’t know can hurt you.
One condo owner, for example, took her friend’s advice to withhold condo fees until some maintenance issues were addressed. This gave the condo legal leverage against her and she was at risk of losing her condo. Her friend didn’t know what to do then, and she was in a mighty fine pickle. That’s when she called me in a panic.
Having many years of experience, I was able to work some magic and it all worked out well, but at an unnecessary additional cost in legal fees and interest costs that she, not her well-meaning friend had to cover. She nearly became homeless over her friend’s well-intentioned but ill-informed advice.
Most of the time, friends share what worked for them or “heard” worked for someone else. The thing is, that may have been fine in their particular situation, but it’s not necessarily applicable in your situation. Take non-professional advice with a grain of salt. And, if those friends will be instrumental in your choices, make sure they participate in all the decisions and meetings and showings. Otherwise they end up impeding your buying process rather than helping it.
6. I wish I hired an arms-length property inspector
Two big mistakes for home buyers happen with property inspections. Either the buyer foregoes the inspection to save a few hundred bucks on a purchase, or they “hire” Uncle Bob to “inspect” the house.
Here’s the trouble those buyers wish they could have avoided. Those who got no inspection sometimes got nasty surprises with big price tags attached to them. An inspection would have warned them about that. (And for only a few hundred dollars. Worth it.)
Those who got Uncle Bob to look at the house because he’s a plumber (so knows things about houses) and because he’s family (and so does it for free), often find two things happen. First, Uncle Bob may know plumbing better than anyone, but he knows diddly about structural, electrical systems and heating, so he missed something. Again, the new homeowner is the one who will have to pay for his mistake, which can thousands of dollars.
Uncle Bob is not insured with Errors and Omissions Insurance or bonded, so there’s no way to file a claim against that professional, insured inspection agency. You just eat it. Hopefully you can afford to do that – after all, you saved hundreds of dollars in inspection fees.
The second thing that happens is that those family get-togethers now feel a little more awkward.
All of this is easy to avoid. Hire a professional, certified home inspector.
7. I wish I followed my brain instead of my heart
The biggest mistake when deciding on location, many buyers will tell you, is that they followed their heart and not their brain. City folk thought the idea of living in the country sounded romantic, so they went ahead and bought it without thinking through all the pesky details (like added costs of commuting, septic tank maintenance, well water testing and maintenance).
Sometimes people move to be close to where they work. (Here’s why that’s a bad idea.)
Other times people move to be close to someone they love. One client of mine purchased a home in another town to be close to a sibling. One year later, that sibling’s circumstances led them to move away, and my client was now living in a house and in a town where their only connection and reason for living there had left. That exciting move to be near family ended up being the worst and most expensive thing that could have happened.
The bottom line, when you’re looking to buy a home, is to involve a knowledgeable real estate professional. Yes, from the beginning. You are not “bothering” an agent by asking to see houses … they WANT to help you! Then involve others along the way. Home buying is a team endeavour. Assembling a team of the right people and in the right way will save you a lot of pain and time and money and hassle.