House Traps

8 Common Regrets First-Time Homeowners Have — And How To Avoid Them

The speed of the current housing market can leave a lot of first-time owners with whiplash — and more than a few regrets.

Buying a house for the first time is an emotionally draining experience. Particularly in overheated markets, buyers are under pressure to make huge purchases quickly. Unsurprisingly, second thoughts abound. According to a recent Zillow survey, 75 percent of recent homebuyers have regrets about their purchases, with over a third wishing they could have spent more time shopping for a home.

But while regrets are nearly universal, the nature of those regrets vary, with homebuyers realizing they don’t like their location or feeling like flashy design hid structural problems. Here, a range of real estate professionals offer common regrets many first-time homebuyers have and their advice on how to avoid post-close remorse.

1. Not Budgeting For Expenses

The Problem: It’s tempting to put all you have into your down payment and lower your monthly mortgage costs. But if you don’t keep a sizable amount of cash on hand post-closing for utilities, maintenance, and general upkeep you’ll lose far more than you’ll gain.

“A lot of people aren't thinking about budgeting going forward and forget that other expenses start creeping up,” says Florida mortgage broker Chris Brady. From the moment the house is yours, expect to be responsible for paint, caulk, tiles, downspouts, concrete, furnaces, dishwashers, wallpaper, and more.

Dave Speers, vice president for mortgage brokerage site Houwzer, echoes the sentiment. “Maintaining a large shingled roof, a well, a septic system, or a massive lawn takes time and diligence, which many people underestimate if they haven't had them before,” he says.

Brady recommends having at least two months worth of mortgage payments set aside. “It sounds like a lot, but when things go wrong in a house they're not cheap. Unless you're handy yourself, you could be looking at thousands of bucks per service call.”

The Solution: Put less money down. “Sometimes people get caught in needing to put 20% down,” Brady says. “Well, maybe you don't have to.” Consider putting down 15% and holding onto the rest as an emergency fund to cover ongoing expenses.

2. Buying Too Big (Or Too Small)

The Problem: It’s hard to judge how much house you need before you move into your first house. First-time buyers can buy a house at the upper end of what they can afford, get sticker shock with heating costs, and puzzle over why they wanted so much space. But, as Texas realtor Bob McCranie notes, buying too small a house can also pose a problem, especially for growing families and when parents work from home.

“Now that we're working and teaching kids from home, having that smaller home isn't as comfortable,” McCranie says. “Consider buying just a bit larger than you're looking for so that you have room to grow.”

The Solution: A moment of self-reflection can help. “It's really having that conversation with yourself and asking Am I really getting the right home for what I need?” Brady says. “I can afford a million-dollar home. Does that mean I really need to buy one?”

3. Overvaluing Aesthetics

The Problem: It's hard to resist a beautiful home. A newly renovated kitchen with gleaming marble countertops or an HGTV-worthy open floor plan living space can make a house seem irresistible. But the allure fades away quickly if you buy the house and have to replace the roof the first year you own it. “That honeymoon period dissipates within the first month or so of actually living in a house,” Speers says. “And suddenly all the flaws and quirks of the property and neighborhood become more than evident.”

The Solution: Think like a high school basketball coach and stress the fundamentals. “When buying a home, buyers should focus on the 'bones' of the property: the location, size, views, and ceiling heights,” says Nate Johnson, product manager at real estate research site NeighborWho.

4. Waiving The Final Home Inspection

The Problem: Martin Carreon, a broker in Santa Rosa, California, says first-time homebuyers skip the final inspection only to save a few hundred dollars or to make sure their offer is accepted. It might make the home-buying process go faster, but it can be a serious and costly mistake. “It can create a big financial burden after closing due to repairs and maintenance that the inspection would have caught,” Carreon says. The real estate market ebbs and flows, and it’s better to cover all your bases with an inspection process rather than get your offer accepted at all costs and at the top of the market.

The Solution: Make sure the inspection happens. The majority of purchase agreements permit a final inspection. “The cost is worth it unless you want to feel regret, after living for a few months in the uninspected shade of your new home,” says Matt Woods, CEO of real estate research site SOLD.com.

5. Overlooking Location

The Problem: An oft-repeated saying holds that the three most important elements of real estate are location, location, location. Sure, it’s a cliché — but it holds true. Bill Gassett, a realtor in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, says he’s seen many first-time homebuyers fall so in love with a house they’re blinded to everything around it.

“The importance of location in real estate cannot be understated,” he says. “Some buyers will sacrifice the location to get a bigger or better home, only to find out a kid is on the way.” Your quiet country home could be in a bad school district or too far from neighbors for your child to make friends.

Also, as Ohio realtor Malinda Koncar points out, first-time home buyers may fail to take long commutes into account. “They are eager to get into a home and they often stretch the commute slightly outside of the comfort zone,” she says. Spending a third of your day in the car can get old fast.

The Solution: Don’t just focus on the house itself. Look at the neighborhood and how the location relates to the rest of your life.

6. Not Shopping Around Enough

The Problem: When you’re buying a home, you’re going to feel rushed and worried that the home of your dreams is in danger of slipping out of your fingers at any moment. But fight the urge to jump at the first financing deal that comes your way despite the pressure. First-time homebuyers should explore as many options as possible before signing anything. “We all remember the fly-by-night mortgage brokers selling ARM loans prior to 2008,” Illinois real estate investor Tomas Satas says. “Well, there are still companies out there that charge exorbitant fees.”

The Solution: Real estate can move fast but make sure you take the time you need to feel comfortable with your decision.

7. Not Getting Pre-Approved

The Problem: Carreon says first-time homebuyers who start their home search before getting pre-approved for a home loan run into trouble. They could find the home they want only to have the rug pulled out from underneath them at the last minute, either because they can’t afford it or because another buyer is able to act on the property faster. “With pre-approval, you'll be confident to submit an offer when the time is right and there is fierce competition for the property,” Carreon says.

The Solution: Get your finances squared away first. In addition to being able to act fast, going through the loan application ensures that homebuyers understand their full financial situation.

8. Underestimating A Fixer-Upper

The Problem: Steve Gottlieb of Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York says many first-time homeowners are surprised at the learning curve for maintaining their home, especially if they buy a property that needs work.

“Some homeowners who were adventurous enough to buy a fixer-upper regret taking on a project that was tougher than they thought it would be, turning around to say that their next home will be a turnkey new construction,” Gottlieb says.

Speers says that the ’80s Tom Hanks comedy The Money Pit should be mandatory viewing for couples considering a fixer-upper. “It's an inside joke in the real estate world that couples that jump into a first-time rehab together have a really good chance of divorcing before the home is done.”

The Solution: Go in with your eyes open. Research the real ins and outs of DIY repairs and make a real assessment of your skill set and resources. If you don’t have the ability, time or money to put into the work, don’t buy a house that requires it.