First Time Buyers: What To Look For When You Buy A House

Q: Would you and John consider posting a home buying guide or list of tips for first time home buyers? We are out on the hunt for our first place and we’re looking for something that has potential, like your home, but maybe needs a little work and updating. I have read countless articles on things to look for, but I’d be really interested to read your opinion, because you’ve definitely found a great home and done a terrific job of taking it to it’s max potential! -Erin

A: Good question! One of the hardest things about finding the right house is that there’s no such thing as the perfect one. It’s all about picking the perfect house for you, so figuring out how you’ll use a home before you buy it is the challenge. Our biggest tip would be to sit down for hours, maybe even days and talk about what you’re looking for in a home. Not how you’d like to use it if you were a debutante, but how you’ll really use it on a day to day basis (for example, you might have lofty dreams of entertaining droves of people but you have to look deep inside and be certain that’s really how you’ll live before you snag the house with the giant formal dining room instead of the TV room that might get eons more use). In our case we opted for a house with two living areas (a living room and a den) so we knew we’d have space to spread out as our family grows.



You’ll also want to take things like your children or your pet’s habits into consideration (will you want a mud room to keep their things organized?) and your own lifestyle (will you want a computer counter in the kitchen with a chair and room for a laptop since you often cook and surf the web at the same time or is that an upgrade that you’d pay for and never use?). All these decisions can be easily organized in a must-have, and a would-be-nice-but-not-necessary list to guide you in your search. For example, these were some of the things on our must-have list:

  • nice location/neighborhood
  • good schools
  • private backyard
  • at least three bedrooms
  • at least one and a half bathrooms
  • garage

This was our would-be-nice list:

  • wood floors
  • a fireplace
  • basement or attic storage
  • front porch
  • sunroom
  • bay window

You can see from our list above that we didn’t have things like new granite counters and curb appeal on our list. This is because after a few long what-we-really-want chats we decided that we’d like a fixer upper that we could mold into the perfect house for us instead of paying for someone else’s upgrades that might not necessarily be our style. This allowed us to snag a house that was almost 25K less than our budget (so we had some money leftover to put into renovating our new house into our dream home). So if you’re looking to do the same thing, we’d suggest asking your realtor to show you homes that don’t have any obvious structural issues, but could use some cosmetic updating (this means that a bit of elbow grease and maybe a bathroom or kitchen redo will take the old clunker from ick to ooh-la-la).

You’ll definitely want to steer clear of homes that have more obvious issues (for example, a house that has sustained flood or fire damage can turn into a money pit once you inherit it and realize there’s a lot more to repair than initially met the eye). And of course getting a thorough inspection before you move in (which will allow you to withdraw your offer if the house is too much work) will help you uncover issues that may have alluded you otherwise). On the other end of the spectrum, you might know yourself well enough to be certain that you don’t want to deal with the headache and stress of a renovation at all, so an updated kitchen and new windows should probably be on your must-have list, so you’ll end up with something that wows you from day one.

Asking yourself how your house can work the hardest for you and your lifestyle before you buy can really make or break your choice. It’s the difference between purchasing a house that would be good for the joneses or good for you and your family. For example, maybe hardwood flooring and granite counters aren’t really your cup of tea, but you do laundry five days a week… choosing a house with a spacious laundry room might just be the thing that will have you thanking your lucky stars for years to come. We actually picked our house due to the lot that it was on. We loved the location and the schools (two extremely important things to consider when looking to buy) and the private backyard complete with 9′ privacy hedges and a half acre woods beyond ensured that we could enjoy a serene and secluded existence (and our future babies could play all day back there without worry).

We were hardly wooed by the house itself. After all, it looked like this…


But we could see beyond the bad wallpaper…


…and the green toilet and the empty rooms to see that it had good bones and a lot of our would-be-nice features and then some! It not only had a sunroom with three full walls of glass and gorgeous private views but it had two working fireplaces, basement and attic storage space, hardwood floors in about half of the house, and a sweet little front porch. So even though it also had terrible floral wallpaper, giant ceiling fans dwarfing almost every modestly sized room, and a whole host of other grievous features (have you seen the stove-microwave combo along with the faux-brick backsplash that we inherited?)…


…we knew that some paint and a save-for-it kitchen remodel would take our home from caterpillar to butterfly.

In thinking about how we live we also appreciated the abundance of common space in such a small footprint. Although our home is only 1350 square feet, it still has a back patio, a sunroom, a den, a living room, and a front porch for reading, relaxing and enjoying some downtime- which will really come in handy for our future kiddos who want places to play together (or hide from their annoying siblings). We also liked the layout with the bedrooms on one side of the house (which feels more private) and the more open living areas on the other side of the house. It just made sense when we walked through it, and although we made plenty of changes and it certainly didn’t have it all (we would have loved if our master bedroom was on the back of the house instead of the front), it’s still the perfect house for us.

Taking the time to write out the cons of a house that you’re thinking about purchasing can also be extremely eye-opening. For example, these are some cons that you should probably disregard because in under $100 and an afternoon, you can usually remedy them:

  • the walls are bright pink/green/yellow etc
  • there’s an ugly light fixture above the dining table or in the bathroom
  • there’s hideous wallpaper with clowns/flowers/fruit on it
  • there’s ugly furniture or clutter on every surface

By contrast, these are a few cons that might take a substantial investment on your part to rectify, which might be just fine with you if you’re going into the process looking to redo things, but if you don’t have money leftover for renovations you’ll probably want to avoid these cons:

  • the bedrooms are far apart (not on the same floor, etc) and you’d like them together
  • the kitchen is a lot smaller than you’d like
  • there’s not enough room for your existing furniture
  • there’s hideous flooring throughout the home that needs to be replaced
  • the aren’t enough bedrooms, bathrooms, or living spaces

Keeping the cons in mind as well as the pros should really help you evaluate whether you’ve found a nice house for someone else, or a nice house for you!

And here’s an after-you-move bonus tip: we would suggest waiting a bit to take on any major restructuring right after you buy your home, just to give yourself time to settle in and be sure that you’ll really use that dining room turned library or that you truly want to sacrifice the family room for a bigger kitchen. Chances are that your initial instincts were right on track, but we actually didn’t think about widening doorways for about 6 months, so if we started our kitchen reno as soon as we moved in, it wouldn’t be half as open and airy as it is today. John and I intentionally lived with our house as is (we just painted, but didn’t make any structural or layout changes) for almost a year until we were confident that we wanted a bedroom more than a formal dining room (you can read more about how we majorly restructured our home’s layout to work for us) and we were certain about what we wanted (and didn’t need) in our new kitchen. Hope it helps! Happy house hunting…


  1. says

    One of the things I always laugh at when watching HGTV is that people pay too much attention to the furniture in the house rather than the house itself. The furniture isn’t going to stay but the countertops/flooring/layout/etc. *are* so pay attention to the home more than the goods that are filling it.

    One of my good friends bought a house mainly on how it was decorated and the wall colors but when she moved into the house she was oddly shocked that there were holes in the walls from the pictures that needed to be filled (and no paint to fix the holes!) and her furniture didn’t look the same in the house.

    I say definitely have a list of things you want/need/would like but when you actually walk through the house pay close attention to the HOUSE not the decor/furniture/wall colors.

  2. Madelaine says

    Great advice!
    I was just thinking this morning (after hearing more a friends recent plumbing nightmares on their new house) that there isn’t a good place to go to for what first-time home buyers should look for in a good house inspector. The problems my friends are experiencing should have been caught by the inspector. Do you have an advice on the home inspection process? Maybe worth a separate post?

  3. Christin M says

    I look forward to reading your blog everyday! Great post with some very useful information to keep in mind when my husband and I look for our first place to own. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Meredith says

    Great post!

    I bought my house when it was vacant. This should not be a big deal right? At least you are not making a decision based on someone else’s furnishing. However, it is a small house, and the front door opens directly into the living room…which also has a fireplace, entry to the dining room, and another door. Furniture placement has been insanely difficult, and I have normal (not oversize) furniture.

    Also, you really need to look deep within your soul and evaluate if you are going to be ok with renovations. Even if you know you are not a DIY-er and do not intend to lift a finger yourself, you are going to have to locate, hire and supervise everything that is done. This was probably my biggest mistake… knowing that most of the problems were cosmetic but not getting my head around the time and hassle of doing something about it.

  5. Jean says

    Three things:

    Don’t let yourself in for more maintenance and renovation than you want AND have time for. Sounds obvious, but a cool yard can be a pain in the butt if you’re just not into yard work.

    Don’t start with stipulating number of bedrooms, square feet, etc. First make a list of the things you want to do in your house: entertain inside, entertain outside, cook, sleep (for each person, but don’t say bedroom yet), watch movies on a giant home theater, rehearse your band, do woodworking projects, host overnight guests often, grow orchids, etc. Express “the art of living” as you would love it. Only then, consider the kinds of rooms you need, how many, how should they be connected and flow with each other.

    Get as much easily accessible storage space as you can afford.

  6. says

    I wanted to throw in my two cents for Erin. When we started looking for our first home, we were also looking for a fixer-upper. We saw some pretty nasty places that would have been a ton of work (which we thought would be fine since we are young, eager, and willing to work hard). However, we ended up buying a place that was move-in ready and we *thought* only needed a few minor changes and projects. What we’ve learned so far is that almost every project is more work than we anticipate. And almost every project takes longer than we planned. It takes patience and perseverance for sure. It’s ok since we love our house and love working on it, but we often think about how lucky we are that we didn’t buy one of the really rough houses we looked at earlier. We had never done a home remodel before, and so we didn’t know what was in our skill range, realistically. Plus we’re newlyweds who work full time and also go to grad school, so it would be tough to fit all the house projects in our already-busy schedule. We would have been in way over our heads in one of the other houses (that needed serious renovating).

    But our house is a perfect in-between. We are still adding value to our house by finishing the basement (and probably adding another bathroom), and also adding to its aesthetic appeal with cosmetic changes and decorating. So my advice to Erin is to really think about what kind of improvements they can do themselves, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and make a realistic time frame and schedule for it. Good luck with house shopping, Erin!

  7. says

    Great advice! I second your thought on settling into the house a while before making any changes. We tried to get our entire 1200 square foot condo painted and recarpeted (in 2 rooms) in a week, and made some serious missteps. Nothing that a new coat of paint wouldn’t fix, but it’s taken nearly 3 years for us to get to the point that we could identify the flaws we could live with and the ones worth some investment to fix.

    Another tip — walk around your new neighborhood at night before you buy. This is especially important to city dwellers, but the last thing you want is to move into a new home and feel uncomfortable running errands at night.

  8. says

    Great post with lots of good tips. We did the same thing, made a must-have list and stuck to it, looking beyond cosmetic imperfections. And boy did our house have a lot of them.

    Question about your kitchen: I think I remember an old post about the brick backsplash being actual brick, and Sherry having to chip it off. What was the best way you found to remove that stuff? Our bathroom is covered in semi faux brick, and someday we are gonna have to remove all of that when we remodel.

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Jenny,

      It was actually a brick facade backsplash (thin brick fronts were attached with grout and thinset like tiles so it was a major headache to chip off). Removing them created a completely uneven, holey surface, so skim coating the marred wall until it looked smooth again was definitely a necessity. It wouldn’t be a bad project to hire a handyman to help out with if you don’t have any prior experience since wonky walls really take away from the polish of a renovated space (maybe you can do the demo but bring in an expert to apply smooth and even skim coating?). Hope it helps!


  9. says

    This is great advice! One mistake I felt I made in buying my first home was not thinking about resale. In my case, I knew I would only be in the home about 3 years and I was a single person. So for me a one + bedroom home with no garage was no problem. However, I have since gotten married and we purchased a home together (considering many of the things on your list) and now are stuck with my old house. Luckily we have been able to rent it out, but I never dreamt how hard it would be to sell it. The market is tough and it’s hard to compete with the larger homes that are abundantly available. So lesson learned, if you don’t plan to be in a home long-term, think about how the resale will be and don’t pick it just based on your present criteria.

  10. says

    Great post. My husband and I bought a house last April that was “move in ready” and, indeed, all we did upfront was change the paint color in the guest room and install some window treatments. Now, a year later, we’re repainting the common living areas and have sold our old furniture to justify buying some new things better-suited for the style of our 1940’s colonial (we came from a modern, airy condo with huge rooms and big ceilings). We also did some cosmetic work in the master bedroom and are about to change the configuration of our yard (more grass, fewer bushes). I can’t stress enough about WAITING — a lot of our ideas came to us over time, and now that we’re implementing these plans we’re thrilled with the results. Figure out how you’ll actually use the space BEFORE you change it up!

  11. says

    Well written. When I bought my house, I forced myself to look beyond the cosmetic stuff (pink carpets throughout the house, dining room with wood paneling, wallpaper with hearts and cows, bright pink bathroom)and focus on the house’s potential. The minute I walked into the kitchen with the lineoleum floor and wallpaper with hearts and cows, I knew I found the house for me. It had good bones and didn’t need any major work. With a bit of paint and elbow grease, we turned our house into a home. Also we’re in a great neighborhood on a dead end street, which meant minimal traffic.

    I agree that making a list of what’s important (including what you can and cannot live with) and researching the neighborhood are key!

  12. Jenn says

    GREAT advice! We approached our house hunting in a very similar way. The big benefit that we noticed is that you can move through houses quickly when searching. If you have a clear set of must haves, you can quickly move on the next house if your realtor shows you something that doesn’t work. We walked in and out of some houses in a blink of an eye because we just knew the space wouldn’t work but that gave us time to spend in houses that did have potential.
    I’d also suggest printing out the info sheets on each out (or have your realtor do it) and take copious notes of each house with potential. If you see more than a few houses in one afternoon, things can get blurred together. This will help in your pros/cons list and when deciding which house to revisit.
    Good luck with the search!

  13. says

    Great post! We are currently selling and haven’t had much feed back. What we have gotten is mostly cosmetic and stuff we aren’t willing to replace currently (like our carpeting which is covering some great wood floor that needs some serious refinishing) but would be willing to negoitate about. Also, we live in the city so some complaints have been about the city-ness of it…. really make sure that you are looking in the right area for you!

    We always look for things that we need vs. want and we have a list of things we can give up with out hesitation. We have figured that SPACE is more important than how the house is finished.

  14. Tracy says

    PERFECT timing for this article! My fiance and I are looking for our first house. We looked at some places on Sunday that we thought would be nice and needed just a “little” work. Needless to say, they all were ones I didn’t need to go farther than the living room to know they weren’t the ones for us. UGLY is one thing, damaged and destroyed is another!

  15. says

    What great advice! I agree with B also, it would be nice to se the neighbourhood you are moving to trough your own eyes. those real estate agents have a tendency to put a bit extra icing on the cake.. lol

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