L Bee and the Moneytree

5 First Time Home Buying Mistakes I Made That Cost Me Big Time

I like to think of the first year of homeownership akin to (what I assume to be) the first year of marriage. It’s often the most difficult, because you don’t know what to expect. You’re used to something different (renting) and the entire year is spent adjusting. It’s just as great at you imagined it would be, but it often involves a lot of very hard work.

Next week it will be my one year anniversary of closing on the house. I’m celebrating in my own small way, but looking back on it, there are more than a handful of things I wish I’d done differently. Here are five (of many) first time home buying mistakes that cost me big time.

Buying Too Much House

I bought a house when I was engaged and expecting the single family home to be for a growing family rather than a swinging single gal. I did the best job I could and made a decision based on the set of circumstances that were true at the time. If I had a crystal ball to see if I would have been a single female homeowner three months after I bought the house then, yeah, I would have bought a lower maintenance condo in a nicer area and skipped the renovations altogether.

The relationship was far easier to get out of than the mortgage, so I think the first mistake was buying something I couldn’t manage on my own. I know buying for a current situation rather than a future one feels a bit like betting on the relationship to fail, but better safe than sorry when you’re playing the high stakes real estate game with someone you’re not married to.

I Would Have Prioritized Renovation Projects Like an Investor

It’s the old real estate adage that kitchens are what sell the home, and bathrooms hold their value. Thinking I was making a home for a family I did a bunch of other projects that would only make sense if I were going to stay in the house long term. The game changed, as did my desire to stay in the home longer than necessary and so looking back I wished I’d prioritized the renovation projects with the precise eye of an investor looking to make money.

I renovated the downstairs bathroom instead of the “master” bath simply because the green bathroom was hideous and I couldn’t stand to look at it. Yet every day when I run out of counter space or have to shower in my teeny-tiny stall in my bathroom upstairs, I wish I’d done things differently.

I Would Have Asked More Questions

I think there is a difference between paying attention and asking questions. You can pay attention your whole life and never get up the nerve to ask questions.

Looking back on it, I was definitely afraid to ask questions during the mortgage and renovation process because I didn’t want to seem unintelligent. I think being young and naive I expected someone–anyone–else to come charging in and ask them for me, not remembering that the biggest part of being an adult is having to have the tough conversations yourself.

Truth time: What you don’t know CAN hurt you and if you don’t ask you’ll never know.

Most importantly, if you don’t ask, no one else will and we’re talking about the most expensive purchase of your adult lifetime. If you neglect to ask your mortgage broker, real estate agent, or contractor something, you could risk losing thousands of dollars, so why take that risk? Just ask the darn question.

I Would Have Done More Research

I only shopped at two places for a mortgage. I only got two bids for the renovation work (partially because it was difficult to find a contractor willing to take on 203k renovation loan.) I didn’t check references or anything. I just felt like I got a “good vibe” from my contractor and trusted my gut. Sometimes even your gut can be wrong, and there isn’t anything bad about backing up a “gut feeling” with a little hard research.

I Would Have Budgeted More

I had my budget for the purchase and the renovation. Even without the down-payment assistance I received from the City of Atlanta, the budget barely left any room for overages. If I’d done more research, I would have been able to make a better budget. My rule of thumb now? Whatever I think something home-related is going to cost, I double it, just in case. Better to be surprised than stressed.

I know I’m painting a very negative picture, but it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve got a lot of equity in the home to fund whatever venture I want to do next, and I now know all kinds of crazy stuff: like how to hang a light fixture, troubleshoot plumbing problems, and install shelving and closet systems. It’s been a tough journey, sure, but also and incredibly rewarding one personally and emotionally. With the purchase of a home I’m officially adulting, I just wish I could’ve saved myself a little bit of the stress along the way.

Many of you have followed up with me regarding this post, and I’ve decided to stay-put for another year at least. Not because of the capital gains tax, but after consulting with a realtor, I don’t think I’d be able to sell the house and make my money back, which even though money isn’t an important thing, I can’t take a loss on the house. At least not this year. I also really tried to imagine myself moving again and the thought exhausted me, so I’m here for the time being. I’m even working on a few house projects (posts to come in the following weeks.) Thanks to everyone who weighed in with such great advice!

FREE BONUS: Download the Ultimate Homebuyer’s Checklist for more advice on what to do when buying your first home.

P.S. More about buying your first home


first time home buying mistakes

  • My wife and I made a very deliberate transition through homes:

    1.) First year of marriage we lived in a townhouse, which allowed us to get a feel for what we wanted/needed in a home
    2.) next 7 years we lived in our starter home, which allowed us to get a feel for what home ownership was like, what maintenance we were willing to take on and what we didn’t.
    3.) Built a custom designed home that has pretty much everything we ever wanted in our home. We lived in this home for 10 years now, and still love the house as much as the day we moved in.

    The one thing we would have done a better job of with our first home, though, is research the neighborhood a little better. The realtor said a group of 6 plexes were filled with nurses and residents from the nearby Mayo clinic. Untrue……the day I was riding bike with my son down the street and saw a car pull up to one, saw an envelope go one way, and another envelope go the other direction I knew it was time to look at moving…..

    • That is a super deliberate state of transitions and I applaud you for it. My real estate choices definitely feel very “emotional.” And I live in such a neighborhood as you described, but I did my homework and went in with eyes wide open, so I’m ok with it.

  • You did so, so many renos, I’m sure it was rather overwhelming at times. Good call on staying put awhile longer, you can pay down more priciple and save yourself closing costs, etc.
    I like your list of 5 things, lessons well-learned!

    • Thanks Anne! Even though it’s hard at times, I know staying put will be the best decision financially in the long run, and probably emotionally to as I won’t have to deal with a move.

  • We’re struggling to prioritize renovations, too! It’s so hard to decide timing and priority, as well as make the money side of things happen. It can be so frustrating! Plus, as my husband says, he doesn’t want to live in a half-done house forever…

    • I read an article on apartment therapy about instead of making a GIANT list, just set one task (big or small) to get done for the week or next few weeks. Will definitely keep you motivated and help cut down on the overwhelming feeling. I’ve been trying it lately, and I definitely feel better.

  • It’s been interesting to watch your journey with this.. so many ups and downs. As I’m getting older, I’m starting to warm up to the idea of home ownership but I’m still intimidated by all the costs, especially the unexpected ones (plus houses in my city are ridiculously expensive to begin with, so that’s a huge barrier). Great post though! And happy 1 year as a home owner!!

    • Thanks Bridget! It has definitely been a turbulent ride, but I’m glad others are learning from my journey as well. 🙂

  • If I could go back in time, I would have tried to put down 20% instead of 3.5% for my FHA loan. The required mortgage insurance is brutal and has cost me ~$60 a month! I’ll finally get rid of it next summer once my principle drops below a certain point. I would have saved thousands of dollars if I had put 20% down!

    • True, but are you also calculating the rent savings? My net worth goes up every month when I make my mortgage payment because I have more equity in the home. I also put down only 3.5% and pay PMI, but I felt it was worth it.

  • Just like Addison, I would have put down 20%. Also, I would never buy in a triplex again-unless I owned the WHOLE BUILDING! It has been a serious pain in the a@@ to agree on things and get things done. I know this experience has been very different from what you originally imagined…but you have navigated it with grace and good humor. Basically, you’ve experienced the crazy road show that is life.

    • Paula at Afford Anything owns a triplex, but she makes everything look easy. Thanks for your kind words Michelle!

  • Your point about asking more questions is applicable to a lot of situations. Especially when you are investing a serious chunk of change. Its easy to follow along, but I’ve often found being more inquisitive helps you gain information, and those you are working with take you more seriously.

    • As someone who writes about money…DAILY…I am ashamed I put down that much money and didn’t do more homework. I hope others can learn from my cautionary tale.

  • I am not a homeowner, but I can relate to some of these in other areas of my life. Asking more or better questions and doing research is SO important when trying out new, life-changing things. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

  • Good points about backing up your gut with facts and research. My sis and BIL hired one contractor based on their gut and getting no other quotes. While I think there’s been no major problems, the cost has doubled primarily because they’ve made changes, but how do you really know? Going from 35K estimate to 70K is a lot! Maybe some contractors work this way and nickle and dime you to death. I’m actually dreading doing our home renovations in four years, which we plan to do before we downsize our home. So any tips I can get are helping me to overcome this fear. Thanks, Lauren!

    • Go with word of mouth referrals. If no one has any, always ask a contractor for references. Then call the better business bureau and make sure they don’t have any complaints. And always get multiple quotes!

  • I’ve really loved watching you transform your house over the last year! It is absolutely gorgeous, Lauren, and you should be incredibly proud of what you’ve accomplished.

    I bought a two bedroom condo two years ago last month and I’m SO glad I bought a condo. It’s also the perfect size – I just can’t imagine when I will want to move out of it. I have to say that I love not worrying about housing and how much rent will go up. Owning a condo is a great mix of homeownership and apartment living! Plus, the rent savings is amazing.

  • I am thinking (read: freaking out) about buying my first house and this was so helpful! Thank you!

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