My husband and I had just tied the knot. My domestic urges must have been in overdrive, because within days of the wedding, I found a house on a Madison "for sale by owner" website that seemed so perfectly us.
I had been combing the Madison WI MLS as a matter of habit -- but I had gone to only a handful of open houses, and I really hadn’t moved from curious to serious. We loved the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood, where we were renting an apartment. However, we also wanted to keep our mortgage affordable and not sacrifice our lifestyle in order to pay our housing costs.
Unfortunately, everything in our ideal area that even came close to our comfortable price point needed an incredible amount of work! We’d seen The Money Pit -- and we had been warned of the ways a fixer-upper can take over your life (for better or worse), so we were focused on our first home being as move-in ready as possible.
In the end, this two-bedroom house a little further beyond our ideal area held all of the charm we were looking for -- plus a kitchen and bathroom that were both generously sized and updated. As seasoned apartment dwellers, we thought two bedrooms seemed like more than enough space, and we were willing to overlook the lack of garage for the large basement and walk-up attic. One fast month later, it was ours, and we were moving in! A happy ending!
Now, I'm armed with 6+ years of life experience and a real estate license. I can look back and offer the following kernels of wisdom to “first-time-homebuyer me” and others.
Lessons I've learned:
1. Know your priorities. We sacrificed on location to get the house we wanted for our price. Was this a good decision for us? Probably. We’ve been able to comfortably roll with life’s punches (several job changes, new babies, travel opportunities) thanks to a very affordable monthly payment. However, location is the one thing you can never change about your house, and this will absolutely top our criteria for our next purchase. We really miss being in a more walkable area, and have some new family-related neighborhood priorities. I also think my husband will insist on a garage next time around! There will always be trade-offs; it’s about weighing them and making the best choice for you and your lifestyle. Make a prioritized list of your wants and needs at the start of your search and use it to keep yourself honest.
2. Hire a "Wisconsin Registered" Home Inspector. We asked a family member who is a licensed professional home contractor to look at the house for us. He helped us go into the purchase with our eyes open about some of the home's potential issues. But, even if he had pointed out every defect that a home inspector would have found, we wouldn’t have been able to use his findings to negotiate with the sellers, per the state-approved Offer to Purchase contract. This basically meant we bought our home "as-is." When we go to sell our home, chances are the buyer will want a formal inspection, and we’ll be on the hook for issues that may have been present in the home when we purchased it. The money spent on a qualified home inspector pays off up front in negotiations and down the road in peace of mind. A professional home inspection and report is in the best interest of every buyer.
3. Work with a buyer’s agent. We bought the home on our own, from a seller who was selling it on their own. While I don’t have a horror story to accompany this scenario, I do wish we had used a professional buyer’s agent to guide us through the process and help us pay attention to the details we overlooked. Sellers pay the buyer’s agent commission 99% of the time, so it makes sense to employ a seasoned buyer’s agent who can advocate for you and manage the paperwork and other details of buying a home, which can otherwise be pretty stressful. While we felt like we purchased the home for a fair price, now I know how much information should be used when determining market value, and we didn’t consider all of the pieces in the puzzle. When we go to sell our home, we will be subject to the market conditions and recent comparable sales when choosing a listing price and negotiating with a buyer, so it pays off to work with someone who knows this data when you buy.
I’m looking forward to finding our next home in the coming year or two and applying what I’ve learned to advocate for my family in the process. Our home has treated us well over the years, so I also look forward to giving it new life with its next owners!
Want to learn more? I welcome your questions and would love to apply my experience and professional knowledge to help make your next home-buying experience a positive one!