Daydreaming about owning your own home is one of the most intoxicating practices known to modern man, especially now that HGTV is a thing. But when the time comes to actually put your money where your daydream is, it can be challenging for first-time buyers especially to understand how a home that doesn't currently come anywhere close to "dream" status could be whipped into shape -- and how a home that they think is perfect now will end up feeling like a mistake in a couple of years.
To avoid that unfortunate scenario, first-time buyers will need to think carefully and weigh all of their options. After considering all of these factors, you'll be well-prepared to choose a house that feels like home today and for years to come.
First and foremost, you need a home that you can afford. There's no sense in deciding that you must have four bedrooms when the most you could afford in your market is two.
You don't need to go through the entire process of getting pre-approved for a mortgage before you can start even considering what you want, but do a little bit of research around what your current housing market looks like, and then think about the down payment size and your own current finances. There are mortgage calculators and other tools online that can be useful, and it's almost always helpful to talk to a real estate professional, like a mortgage broker or a real estate agent, so you can get a realistic idea of what you might need to spend and what you can spend on your new home.
Beds, baths, and size
You know what size your household is and whether it's likely to grow in the future. You also know how much space you're likely to need based on your own current household's configuration -- if you work from home, then your desire for a little more space (and a room for a home office) might be non-negotiable, whereas if you're used to commuting to an office every day, you may not need a home office at all.
So get a handle on the minimum number of bedrooms and bathrooms you'll need in any home you buy. If you can, try to come up with some parameters for square footage, too. And you may want to think about your overall lot size if, for example, you're an avid gardener or you have large dogs who'll need some space to romp in the yard.
Once you understand your basic requirements for a home, you can start thinking about additional features that you'd like it to have. Perhaps you want a garage to store your tools, or a fenced-in yard for the aforementioned dogs -- or a deck where you can lay out and soak up some sun on weekends.
You should also think about the ideal heating and cooling setup in any home you buy, and it's also wise to consider the school district (because even if you don't have kids, it's smart to keep in mind any buyers who could purchase your home from you in the future -- they might have kids).
Some of these special features might be "nice-to-haves," and you might decide that some are absolute necessities. Spend some time talking to a general contractor or a real estate agent before you make any final decisions about necessities, though -- it's quite possible that some of the things on your "must-have" list can be easily added once you move in.
Location matters -- a lot
Smart first-time buyers will want to think beyond a school district when choosing a home. How close is your home to major highways in the area (and is that a good thing or a bad thing)? How close are you to work, and are there other job opportunities or thriving industries nearby? What's the shopping like? Are there parks or recreation centers, and where are the best grocery stores?
You're buying a neighborhood just as much as you're buying a home, and unlike your home, there isn't usually a lot you can do to change the neighborhood. So make sure you're fully aware of what the area where you're hoping to buy is like, both positive and negative, and understand how that's going to affect your life while you're in the home and any buyers who may come after you.
Focus on what you can't change
It's really easy to fall in love with one part of a home and allow it to cloud a truer vision of your future. Maybe that kitchen is perfect for re-imagining yourself in a scene from Julia and Julia, but if there aren't enough bedrooms or bathrooms in the home, then you'll regret the purchase soon after you move in.
Try to look beyond trims and finishes to focus on the aspects of the home that are fixed and unchanging, like the lot size or the location of the property. If you're touring a potential home with an agent, give your agent your list of must-haves and ask your agent if the house could fit that list with a little bit of work.
A real estate professional can help you figure out if a house that you think is just OK today might actually be your dream home in disguise. You can change out carpeting for hardwood floors and redo a kitchen over time, but if your heart is set on waterfront property ... that might take a few thousand years to manifest, and you don't have that long.
Is that really a "bargain"?
If you're faced with a choice between a home that seems like a bargain but requires some fixing-up and a home that's more expensive but requires little or no work, which should you choose?
In general, you probably want to opt for paying more out-of-pocket today for a home that's still standing solidly tomorrow. There might be a good reason why that home is listed at a "bargain" price -- it might be too expensive and time-consuming for anyone to reasonably fix.
This is another area where your real estate agent can help you understand whether a home's condition is really worth the savings. Agents have seen homes in the area of all ages and in many different conditions, and they can let you know what issues typically arise in homes and whether the place you're considering might be at risk for exhibiting one or more of those issues.