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What I Learned from Buying a House for the First Time

April 27, 2020

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This is a guest post by Andrea Ahedo, our Visual Media Producer/Head Photographer. See her bio at the end of the post.

Our first photo as a reunited family in front of our new home (Oct 2019)

When our family made the decision to move to the United States, after I had called Monterrey, Mexico home for 10 years, we automatically planned on renting. That’s just how we were wired to think. We’d be starting over in a lot of ways, we’re just a family of three…and grown-ups have houses. (I heard it. I’m 32 and my husband is 37.) So, I arrived to sunny, blue sky, Idaho with our two-year-old son in August 2019 to start my new job at Chris Loves Julia. He and I would live with my parents for a short season while my husband, David, tied up a lot of loose ends in Monterrey with his company and our apartment. In the meantime I had plenty to do to get re-established on my home turf: Get a US drivers license (again), find a daycare, get a car, and find our next home!

On one of my first weekends stateside, my sister Patty took me on a drive to a prominent, but quaint, part of Idaho Falls called “The Numbered Streets.” I rolled down my window and my jaw just stayed dropped for six blocks. Historical, early 20th century homes with loads of character boasted front porches, brick chimneys, shutters, and storybook gardens, on tree-lined streets.  As my sister stopped in front of a for sale sign and said, “Let’s call!” Before I could finish rolling my eyes and say we weren’t going to be able to get a house like that, she was already leaving a voicemail with the realtor with my name and number. I later realized she was priming me for thinking differently about our home hunt. We could consider buying a house — we were allowed! One within reason and within our budget, sure, but we didn’t have to automatically think renting was our only option. Still, it was hard to entertain the thought of buying a house when we knew nothing on the subject. What would even be our budget? How much are we supposed to have saved up? Are we even candidates?

I’m going to spoil the end of this story and tell you that yes, we bought a house (you knew that!) buuuuut, what you didn’t know is that I only looked at six houses in eight days, and had the keys to our new home within three weeks. Here’s what I learned through the emotional roller coaster of landing our first home:

1. Know what you want, and what your deal breakers are

I was able to see so many houses in a short amount of time thanks to our incredible realtor, Caleb Fullmer (who you’ll be meeting in a minute), but also because we had already spent two months thinking about “the musts” in our home. Our list looked something like this:

  • Garage (we would be braving winter for the first time in a long time!)
  • Minimum of three bedrooms
  • En suite bathroom in the master bedroom
  • A bigger kitchen than what we suffered through in our past apartment
  • Ample window light
  • Stairs (This feels silly writing, but when you’ve lived in different apartments for 10 years, you want to have a flight of stairs in our home so bad! Whether they were just leading to a basement or second floor, we didn’t care. Needless to say, this was an easy check mark in the search.)
  • In-town location, nothing too rural. (This was important to specify to our realtor since we were shopping in Idaho!)

Knowing what you want, and daydream dabbling on Zillow will really get you pumped for what your first step is going to be. Guess what…it’s not calling a realtor. It’s calling a lender.

2. Get along with your lender, they’re going to take your dream of owning a home from possibility to reality. 

Even with our polished wish list written up, ready to spill to our realtor, the thing he really needed to know was: what’s your budget? This was not a question I could answer because my only exposure to the word “mortgage” up to that point was playing Monopoly. Your lender is going to talk to you about your current job and monthly expenses. He wants to know your credit score, and any debt you have on your plate right now. If you didn’t guess by the title, a lender is the one who buys the house for you, and whom you pay back your mortgage to over time. A lender will tell you what your house budget should be, based on all the information they’ve gathered, and will estimate what your monthly house payment will be. You can even start a conversation with “I’d feel comfortable with our house payment being at the most ____.” After I talked to our lender, everything felt so much more concrete and clear. I had numbers. I could narrow down my search on the endless real estate listings I’d scroll through night after night. We would be getting a conventional loan, which only required us to put down 3% of the house cost as our down payment. This was doable. It was time to call our realtor!

3. Be critical and realistic as you are shown houses. 

I’m the person at the restaurant who just eats the over-sauced pasta because I don’t want to hurt the server’s feelings. Forget about the chef. I’m sensitive to the messenger. Ok, when you’re being shown a house by the realtor, you cannot worry about hurting their feelings! Their job is to help you find what you are looking for. They need to know what your deal breakers and concerns are, so each house you see feels closer to home. Think out loud, and talk through everything you’re thinking as you walk through. You’ll often find your realtor taking notes and shedding his or her much-needed expertise when you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed. Because my husband was still in Mexico, we FaceTimed as I was shown houses and had the tough conversations of pros and cons together, as he was only seeing potential homes on his phone. Not exactly ideal, but we wanted to have our house for his arrival at the end of October. Here’s an example of what I sounded like walking through houses I was being shown:

“The yard needs a lot of work. We have never even mowed a lawn, let alone tackled landscaping. Maybe it’ll feel like a lot of work right off the bat…”

“I wish there was a separate dining room, but having a kitchen island for the first time would be worth it.”

“The laundry room is unfinished, but who will see this room anyway? It wouldn’t be a space we have to prioritize right away.”

“I can’t believe this size of a room was considered a bedroom in the listing! It’s tiny. Could this be a home office? I don’t think it would work for a guest room unless it was a twin bed in here. We really wanted a queen in the guest room.”

4. Location, location, location

One thing Chris and Julia taught me early on was you can change and improve the look of your house all you want, but can never change its location. I felt like I had a good head on my shoulders when considering location even though I was new to the area. I thought about my commute to work, our son’s daycare location, access to main avenues…honestly it’s not a big city. Nothing would really seem too inconveniently located unless we were way out in the boondocks.

There was a house we were pretty set on initially. It was kind of tucked into a part of town I didn’t know well, but it was just new, new, new on the inside. It really felt like a fresh start. They had re-done everything. And confession: I still think about the dining room. But there were a few things on our con list. For example, it had a huge side yard, but no trees whatsoever and the lowest fence. It was also a house on a corner lot. The front steps to the house went right out to the public sidewalk.  We just felt really exposed, with little privacy. Location isn’t just about how close you are to Target or the movies.

The house seemed so promising, and move-in ready, and sure there were things we didn’t love about it — but that list was short. We were about to move forward with this house despite the cons, when we decided to check the state sex offender registry. You can enter an address, and see the number of registered sex offenders within a one-, three-, or five-mile radius, as well as their name, address, and offense. In shock, I saw the neighborhood around this house light up, with several offenders living right across the street. Once you have information like this, what do you do with it? We decided to walk away because our drawback specifically for this house was the lack of privacy, and we wanted our home to be a place where we felt our son was safe playing outside.

4. When you see a lot of realtor business cards on the kitchen counter, and you love what you’re seeing — act fast.

It was a rainy Saturday morning when I walked through our would-be house for the first time. I went through my normal ritual of talking through everything on my mind, Facetiming with David. But this time, Julia was there too, reassuring me about every square inch! This house felt completely different than the others. It felt like it had been waiting for us. It felt welcoming. It felt like it needed some work, but it was in our realm of possibility. It didn’t feel intimidating or overwhelming. It felt exciting. I still remember seeing the business cards on the kitchen counter. Realtors leave their cards after showing a client the property. There was a stack. After getting another pep talk from Jules and knowing my husband and I were on the same page — we made an offer that very day! I camped by my phone that weekend (every weekend, who am I kidding) and waited to hear news back if our offer was accepted. The house was listed at $210,000. We offered $205,000. They counter-offered at $208,000 and agreed to cover closing costs, and we accepted.

From left to right: Our lender, a new home owner!, and our realtor on closing day!

Front room: Living Room

 

My sisters and I painted the green wall the “khaki” color that’s on all the walls of the rest of the main floor, within days of me getting the keys.

 

Master bedroom with en suite bathroom

 

Guest room on main floor

 

Kitchen: My sisters and I painted the green walls in the kitchen white

 

The built-ins in the hallway that leads to the bedrooms is one of my favorite features in the whole house!

 

 

Deck and backyard view, from sliding kitchen doors

 

Guest bathroom on main floor

 

Smaller bedroom on main floor, our son’s room

The basement! A huge selling point for us. Although all of the bedrooms, kitchen, and living room are on the main floor, this kind of space is what really drove home we aren’t in an apartment anymore!

 

4th bedroom, in basement that we use as our office

 

Laundry “room” in basement

What happens next is a timeline that can greatly fluctuate depending on a lot of different factors. Caleb Fullmer, who has been Chris and Julia’s realtor and ours, outlined a standard sequence of events you can expect when buying your first home:

 

A couple more things:

  • We had to put down $6,240. Our $1,000 earnest money check went towards our down payment. So at closing we had to bring a cashiers check for. $5,240.
  • Our closing costs came to around $2,000.
  • Your realtor recommends the inspector, but you have to call. Caleb always worked with the same guy. The inspection cost $400. An inspector is an unbiased third party person who comes in and tells you everything you should know about the house, down to bent prongs in our dishwasher, and if your microwave dish doesn’t turn. He takes pictures of everything and sends you a full detailed report. I met him at the house when he was done, and he walked me through everything. His report is sent to the owners and you, the prospective buyer. You can negotiate any issues you want fixed before you move in. In our case, I opted to be given a check of $1,500 on closing day, from the previous owners, to be able to fix things on our own timeline. The inspector gave me that estimate of what we would need for repairs. Our realtor recommended that we take cash instead of having them fix things because you never know if they’re going to short cut things, rush things, or make sure a quality job is done.
  • What happens after inspection is an appraisal. This is what the lender needs to know. They need to protect their investment on the loan. So they don’t want to loan you $200,000 if the appraisal shows $150,000. If the appraisal comes back lower than what all parties thought, a couple things could happen: The seller would have to lower the purchase price to the appraised amount, or the buyer would have to pay the difference in cash.

I also asked Caleb if he would share some of his pearls of wisdom with those of you who have been entertaining the idea of buying your first home. Here’s what he had to say:

1. What is the most common mistake you see first time home buyers make?

“Waiting. Waiting for the perfect time, perfect home, perfect price.  I’ve seen a lot of first-time home buyers miss out on great opportunities due to ‘The grass is always greener’ mentality. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to buy the first home you look at. I suggest making a list of the top 5 priorities you’re looking for in a home. Once you find one that checks those boxes, don’t be afraid to jump on it. Because someone else will.”

2. How does one prepare to buy their first home? Financially and in other ways?

“Learn the basics of the community — where should I buy? What areas will give me the best resale value if needed?  Understand the buying process and how long it will take. Understand the difference between a home inspection and appraisal. An inspection asks ‘What are the problem areas? How much money is this actually going to cost to fix?’ Is it less or more than expected? I think you will be surprised! A trusted real estate professional should be able to help with these specific questions and more.”

3. What’s your advice for home buyers?

“Buying a home should not be a stressful situation. It should be fun and exciting. Find the right professionals that allow you to enjoy the process. The benefits that come from home ownership not only financially (especially with these low interest rates), but emotionally as well, will make it the best investment you’ll ever make.”

Psst! For anyone in the Southeastern Idaho area, you can get in touch with Caleb Fullmer at [email protected] – he’s the best!

Julia gently warned me that once we became homeowners, all of our money will start going towards the house. Like wanting to spend money on things such as area rugs and bamboo blinds…that we would get hooked on painting and weekend remodel projects. I kinda shrugged it off and told myself “I’m not Julia though! I don’t even know how to do all that stuff.” And looking at us now, just six months in, and I cannot stop tackling the next thing on the list! We’ve done art ledges and remodeled our basement.  We’ve already done our fair share of painting, and fixing up the guest room is next on the list, while planting a garden for the first time…and landscaping around our house. I also can’t stop dreaming about what color to paint our kitchen cabinets this summer, and my latest Pinterest search is “front doors.” Ours has got to go!

Buying your first home is an investment, yes, and it feels really serious and grown-up, and it’s work. You don’t get to call a landlord anymore when something is broken. And at the same time, it is so freeing to call a whole house your own. The moment it hit me that we had a house, was the very day I was waiting for David to arrive from his long three-day drive from Mexico. I was in the kitchen, placing fruit in a new bowl and I lit a candle. I lit a candle in a clean, new kitchen. And that’s when it hit me this is our home now.

 

Andrea Bradley de Ahedo is a stylist and commercial photographer who recently moved to Idaho after living abroad in Monterrey, Mexico to be the Visual Media Producer for Chris Loves Julia. She loves foraging for unique spoons and bowls for her ever-growing prop collection, and shooting flatlays for days. She feels most at home when she is traveling with her husband and toddler son in tow. You can check her out on Instagram at @andiandreastudio.

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What do you think?

  1. Jen says:

    What a great first home! Thank you for writing such an informative and relatable post. I agree with the others comments and would love to see finished projects on your home in the future.

  2. amy says:

    What an adorable house and a helpful, candid post! Now I’m thinking I should move to Idaho — I know it’s beautiful out there! Where I am, middle of Seattle, you do the inspection before you place an offer (so that you can waive it to be more competitive), closings are much faster (14 or 21 days is pretty common, but still some 28-day), and you usually have to put down around 20-25% to be competitive. It’s rough! So interesting to hear how this works in different regions and even other countries. Thanks again for the informative post! I would love to see your projects, since they may be more reflective of the typical person’s experience. Enjoy the new house!

  3. Katie says:

    My comment yesterday must have been deleted or something… with 3% down, are you now subject to a PMI? I think that would be helpful information to people reading this. As those can be expensive!

  4. Tara C says:

    Congratulations!! Thank you for sharing your process, Andrea. I hope you get to enjoy many years in your home, making it your own!

  5. Ashley says:

    Congrats! I’m from Nebraska our home prices and loan percentages are similar to what you wrote about! We were kind of like you in thinking there’s no way but there was a way with the right loan. That’s one of things we were so thankful for, our real estate agent informed us about a few diff loans that would be good for our family. Thanks for sharing! Hope you have lots of fun making it your own. :)

  6. KOKO says:

    As a longtime follower, this post was immensely helpful. I’m looking to buy in the next 3-5 years and I’ve read a lot, but this by far is the most helpful and (realistic!) advice I’ve seen. Thank you for sharing and for being so open.

  7. katie says:

    Hi. Due to the fact that you only put down 3%, do you now have to pay a PMI each month? I don’t think that was touched upon in your post, but is pretty common (and commonly not cheap!) when someone puts down 3%. (*edited to add: in FL if you put down only 3%, you have a PMI. Not sure if that varies by locality.)

  8. Beth says:

    Great, super-honest and helpful post.
    I was shocked that you included your finances, but so pleased that you did as I’m sure it’s helpful to many.
    That all said, this made me pretty depressed about the state of housing in Australia. I’m a single woman in my 30s and I’d be looking at a purchase price in the $700,000 mark for a 2 bed unit in my location. Super scary!!
    I also enjoyed hearing about the process including the inspection process, and the fact that the seller has to fix defects or give you money to do so! Unheard of in Australia. Most homes are sold at auction here, so you’d have to pay for an inspection on every house you bid on, and the seller doesn’t have to fix anything! It’s just information for the buyer – either you buy it or you don’t, but you buy knowing the defects at least.

    • Ash says:

      It’s a very different process from what we went through in Brisbane, Australia I would agree. My city doesn’t have as many auctions (<30%), but still the process is quite different. For starters, houses are listed with a particular agent and they are the ones to walk you through the house. We inspected 30+ houses and didn't see the same agent twice. Prices are also quite a bit higher (we're the 3rd largest city in the country and our 2 bed house was $550,000. and that was cheap).

      Our contracts also are commonly subject to finance and building and pest inspections – you have 14 days after you sign the contract to confirm your financing (appraisals, loans etc) and do the B&P inspection. If defects come up you can
      1) get out of the contract with no penalty or
      2) negotiate the price lower/or for the owner to get it fixed or
      3) accept the defect and continue with the purchase.

      Quite different but I love hearing about your process! And congrats on the house <3

  9. Julie S says:

    This was really fun to read :) I married into property as it were (my husband had taken over the loan on his dying dad’s home/childhood home while in his early 20’s and managed not to default on the mortgage by working every hour God sent for a few years). When we moved to a new house after 7 years of marriage it was delightful to house shop and go through it all together. Love Andrea & David’s house- it is cute but basic and modest, and what most people have to work with while raising kids and getting established, I feel like. Much could be done to personalize and freshen such a home… not everyone chooses too, but as part of the CLJ team I hope we do see a few renovations over time!

  10. Courtney says:

    First, congratulations on your home. Second, things are very different in Idaho vs. Los Angeles where I live. 20% down is standard and there are a lot of cash buyers. House prices are astronomical, in most neighborhoods north of a million. We love living here but it is honestly so strange to see someone talk about buying a house with less than $10,000 out of pocket.

  11. Allyson says:

    I absolutely loved seeing this perspective on CLJ! And I really, really appreciate how candid you were with your finances. I think I might be thinking that home ownership is out of my grasp (due to the need for a HUGE down payment) when maybe it’s not as much as I thought! Thanks for opening my mind a little :)

  12. Erin says:

    The lender (in the photo above) MUST be Kelsi’s brother because they are twins.

    • Colleen says:

      Congratulations! We live in a ranch house with a full basement also and I LOVE it! It’s not too big, not too small. You’re lucky to have your sister help you, I’m sure it’ll be looking amazing in no time!

  13. Lisa says:

    Thank you for this post! It was so interesting to read since the home buying process seems to be very different from where I live. In Austria it is recommended to have saved ~30% for the downpayment and there are a lot of initial costs upfront (e.g. entry in the land register) that are an additional ~10%. So if you bought a house for 300.000€ for example, you would need a downpayment of ~100.000€ and needed to pay 30.000€ just for the buying process. Therefor it is very uncommon to buy a property and sell it only a few years later.

  14. Rachael says:

    Congratualtions, Andrea! I’m so glad that you and your adorable family are feeling at home, it really is the best feeling to experience.

    I loved this blog post. Aside from your unique perspective to Julia’s, I also really enjoyed your writing style. I can’t wait to continue following along as you tackle projects and face all of the challenges of a first-time homeowner. Good luck!!

  15. Abby P says:

    This house is adorable! I can’t wait to see the projects unfold. Congratulations!

  16. Jennifer says:

    Well informative! I would argue the timeline may start with Day 1: Speak with a lender and get a pre-approved for a loan. This allows you as a buyer to understand what homes you qualify for and will allow you to actually make an offer. Without a pre-approval, there may be things in your financial history that you don’t realize can hinder what you can afford (down payment limitations, credit scores, outstanding debts, etc.)

    • Andrea Bradley says:

      Yes, Jennifer. In the blog I wanted to make a clear point that the first step is actually talking to a lender before a realtor. Something that surprised me! And I went on to explain what that lender does and how it influences your house search.

    • Emily R says:

      Also, I’d never let the lender tell me what I can afford. I own a condo, and I’ve looked at buying a vacation property. Without fail, the lender tells me I can afford so much more than I feel comfortable with. You are the best person to know your finances and what sort of payment you can afford every month. A lender is there to explain the loans, and what types you could qualify for.

  17. Nicole says:

    I wish this guide was around when I was first starting to buy a house. Also might want to have an idea of what mortgage insurance requirements or HOA’s are for certain areas. My neighborhood requires windstorm and sometimes that can tack on a lot of additional $$ to your monthly payments.

  18. Patricia says:

    Just wondering with all the “sisters and me ” painting going on, where you singing “We are family”…

    Reminds me of our first home purchase. We closed the same month we got married. Spent peanuts on the wedding and honeymoon and put all our money on our new house. Best financial decision we ever made.

    Hope you’re as happy in your new home as we were in ours … for 32 years!

  19. Jill says:

    Wonderful “reporting”! I really learned something.
    And isn’t Andrea Julia’s sister in real life? :))

  20. Jessica says:

    Your house is so lovely and charming… I’m excited to see future projects! I’m bookmarking this article in my head, it’s very helpful :)

  21. Mara says:

    I thought conventional loans required a 10% deposit and FHA loans were 3%.

    • Chris Loves Julia says:

      If you’re a first-time home buyer, you’re eligible for a 3% down loan.

      • Sarah says:

        First time homebuyer loan eligibility can vary by purchase price of the home and family income depending on where you live. The eligibility requirements in our state (South Dakota) vary by location even within the same state. It’s a super great program though with a lot of unique benefits. Our program had a low interest rate and a special tax provision that allows us to receive our mortgage interest back as a tax refund (even if we can’t itemize) in addition to a low down payment. Definitely a great opportunity for a first time buyer.

      • Lilian says:

        That’s amazing!!! We just bought our second home in VA and would have had to to put down a whopping (for us) 20% to get a conventional loan! We went with an FHA but can’t wait until we can refi to get rid of that PMI!!!

      • Emily says:

        Isn’t that for an FHA loan, not a conventional loan?

      • Chris Loves Julia says:

        The standard 3%-down loan, known as the “Conventional 97,” is available to first-time homebuyers, which is defined as at least one borrower hasn’t owned a home within the past three years.

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