How This Couple Bought Their First Home

“I really admire the conscientious way you bought your first house,” said I. “That’s because we’re really cheap!” said they, almost in unison. Meet Jim and Annette. They’re in their late 30’s and lucky. They both watch their pennies. If only all my clients would…well, never mind.Jim and Annette in front of their new home

While many of Jim’s and Annette’s friends bought houses in the last few years, they held back. The market was too frothy and unaffordable, they thought. At the time, life was a cramped one bedroom apartment in North Berkeley. But of course things change. Soon enough real estate prices crashed, and taking the leap made more sense. They started out on their own, found some neighborhoods they liked and found some houses in their price range: no more than $525,000.

Know Thy Numbers
In the meantime, Jim and I worked on their cash flow adding in housing costs (they’ve been clients since 2007).  Both were adamant that they know the numbers and not get in over their heads.  Jim has an inviolable goal, “I want a six month buffer of living expenses at all times.”  As s self-employed graphic designer, www.jameswilsondesign.com he has a about a thousand good reasons for doing this. And while Annette currently works for Williams-Sonoma – layoffs have begun there.  I recommended they get pre-qualified for a mortgage, which they did.

Here’s a few things they learned along the way.

Know your must-haves
Jim and Annette knew what they had to have:

1.  A good location so they could walk to shops and services, and have an easy commute.
2.  A live-in ready house: some work would be okay, but they wanted no delays or additional costs.
3.  They wanted to live near their friends.

What you can live with?
No house is perfect, especially a house in the Bay Area in the $500,000 price range. Here’s what Jim and Annette had to contend with:

Close proximity to Bart meant noise, so new windows are planned.
They lack storage space, typical of older homes (1926).
They have $18,000 worth of work  to do – plumbing upgrades, electrical work, window replacement, foundation repair and some unexpected termite damage. Closing cost credits (due to the fine work of their realtor Carol Parkinson) and first time home buyer credits ($8,000 on their 2010 taxes) will help pay for all this.

Know what you care about most
Jim and Annette are now proud and busy homeowners: they’re refinishing floors, knocking out walls and buying a few new furnishings. They splurged – on a $4,000.00 Thermador Range.   When I questioned the decision, Annette said something to me that I thought was very wise:  “It’s about knowing what you really care about” she said, “and putting resources and energy towards those things, and then making compromises on the rest.” Wise words.  

My Take: Top 5 things to consider when buying a home in the Bay Area

1. Know what you can afford before you start looking for a home.  Get pre-qualified.
2. Identify the neighborhoods where you want to live. Get to know prices.
3. Make a list of your no-compromise must-haves.
4. Get referrals for real estate agents and mortgage brokers.  Make sure you’re comfortable and that there’s a level of trust between all parties.
5.  Know that the costs of home ownership don’t end with the purchase.  Endless amounts of money can be spent improving, furnishing and decorating a home. Carefully plan your expenditures based on your income and budget.  Most important: don’t rely on credit.

About the author

Cathy Curtis, CFP®

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