When I moved out of my parents’ house and into my freshman dorm room, I had no idea that my existing concept of “home” would change so dramatically. Throughout college and my first few years in the real world, I found a reason to move every single year. Yes, really — nine times in nine years, always during the summer, and never without a flight of stairs on at least one end. It’s a small wonder no one was ever seriously hurt on account of my furniture.
As I grew a little older (and a wee bit more mature), I was feeling like a permanent nomad and longed to live somewhere for a matter of years — not months — that actually felt like a home. Not to mention, as I started to create a professional life, it felt a little less-than-professional coming home to a noisy apartment complex where I had to battle for a parking space.
But before I was officially ready to take the home-ownership plunge, I reached out to my family and friends for advice and spent some time doing research online. This was overwhelming to say the least — there’s a lot of information out there, and a lot of opinions on the best route to take. Nevertheless, I’m glad I did it. I learned about mortgage options, escrow accounts and HOA fees, and doing my own research gave me a good look at the entire process and a better idea of what to anticipate.
And then, the search began.
It took several months and a minor emotional roller coaster, but I closed on my first house in early 2009. It was a three bedroom, two bath built in the 1950s and completely restored. I loved the house, the neighborhood and, let’s be honest, the fact that I wouldn’t be renting a U-Haul any time soon.
The process wasn’t always the smoothest, and it probably isn’t for any first-time home buyer. But looking back, there are five key pieces of advice that I would share with anyone just starting the search. Here’s what you should know now, that I didn’t know then.
1. The right Realtor will lead you to the right house
I didn’t want to pick a real estate agent out of the blue, and found mine through a mutual family friend. We hit it off immediately — I trusted her and had full confidence in her skills. More importantly, she listened (to everything!). I never had to repeat my preferences and I wasn’t pressured into anything.
This, however, is definitely not everyone’s experience. I can’t stress enough how important it is to choose someone who you feel completely comfortable with, who listens to your priorities and your concerns, and who has your best interests at heart. Not only is this a major life decision, but you’re going to be spending a lot of time with this person.
2. Educate yourself
I compare buying a house to planning a wedding or expecting a baby, in that every person you know will have an opinion on what you should do, say and feel. But remember, though this is a huge decision, it’s your decision, and one you need to be comfortable with, independent of any outside influences.
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So before you start asking your friends and family for their advice, take the time to educate yourself on all sides of the process: mortgages, comparable properties, market trends. You’ll then be able to filter everyone else’s experiences and advice through your own information. There are tons of free resources available — check out the National Association of Realtors Buyers Guide or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to start.
3. A neighbor is forever
Or at least, it sometimes feels that way. I made it a point to talk to different people who lived on my street before I bought my house, but was still surprised by some of the neighborhood antics I’ve witnessed. Like the house with six cars, parked on the street, all the time. Or the strange antisocial couple four doors down, or the loud dog next door. Of course, you’re never going to find a place with the perfect neighbors and people can always move in and out — but it’s good to know what you’re getting into on the front end.
4. Rome wasn’t built in a day
And you likely won’t be able to update, furnish or decorate your new home in a day, a month or even a year. When I bought my house, I felt a sudden pressure to transform it into a Pottery Barn catalog, but soon realized I would end up losing my mind and my credit score in the process. It’s perfectly OK to update the bathrooms, do the landscaping and buy furniture and decorations in stages. No one expects your place to be perfect right away. Plus, there are some awesome ways to add character and décor on a budget. Thrift stores and Pinterest will become your new best friends.
5. Two words: hidden costs
Everyone warns you about this, but it doesn’t quite hit you until you’re writing checks to exterminators, carpet cleaners, landscapers and plumbers. The list goes on — and it certainly doesn’t end after you close on the house. It’s hard to think about saving again after such a big purchase, but you must. Strange and unexpected costs will sneak up on you — broken heating systems, leaking roofs — and they love to arrive around holidays and vacations, when money is already tight. Trust me on this.
While these may not be the most crucial factors in the home-buying process, they were the ones that had the most surprising impact on my experience. And they’re what I still remember, three years later.
Above all, remember that — whatever it looks like and wherever it sits — you should absolutely love the home you buy. It will be a lot of money, time and work, but also will be where you live, love and build memories, hopefully for many years to come.
© 2012 Forbes.com