The Definitive Guide to Buying Your First Home

Here's the No. 1 thing I did right when I bought my first home

House in Treme, New Orleans. Photo by author.
House in Treme, New Orleans. Photo by author.

When I set out to buy my first home about five years ago, there was a lot that I didn't know I didn't know. I didn't know how important it was to only buy once you were ready, for example, or to evaluate the underlying financial health of a building because, in the long run, buying an apartment in a well-off complex saves you lots of money.

I did, however, suspect that it was a good idea not to buy more house than you could afford. So even though my husband was a corporate lawyer in Manhattan and I worked at a well-established non-profit, we set a strict budget for ourselves based on what we could easily manage, and we stuck to it.

That was one of the best decisions I ever made, in real estate or in life. Because, as it turns out, real estate can affect every part of your life, for better or for worse.

Not long after I started looking through listings for two-bedroom apartments, I realized that we could get a lot more for our money if we were willing to overspend. Fancy condo developments came with amenities like roof decks and swimming pools! Even mediocre condo developments offered gyms and elevators and doormen. I had to turn my back on all of that. I had to say, "Get thee behind me, Satan, with your upscale billiard rooms."

Our upper limit left us priced out of almost all of Manhattan as well as the ritzier parts of Brooklyn. But though we could raise our ceiling and still keep our monthly outlays on housing to under the recommended 30 percent of our income, the idea made me nervous. What if my husband didn't want to be a corporate lawyer forever? What if I wanted to try to fulfill my dream of working as a writer/editor full-time?

Sure, we could qualify for a mortgage for a more expensive place — for the moment. And a more expensive place would mean more space, maybe even a terrace or a second bathroom, not to mention access to those swanky billiard rooms. But a lower payment would give us flexibility. Peace of mind, I decided, was priceless.

The wearying, months-long search tested my resolve. Most of the places I found in our price range were significantly flawed: Small, drab, small and drab, or, most often, small, drab and divided up into two floors connected by a wrought-iron spiral staircase that would almost certainly one day kill our child. (We hoped to have at least one.)

Nevertheless, we persisted.

I took more tours with more brokers, climbed more stairs, poked into more closets, combed more listings, explored more neighborhoods I'd never heard of and, finally, I found a two-bedroom apartment on a block in brownstone Brooklyn across from a subway stop.

It had hardwood floors and high ceilings, crown moldings and even a decorative fireplace. It had a washer-dryer. It had new kitchen appliances. And it was listed at $15,000 below our maximum price.

Sure, the apartment was under 850 square feet, it didn't have outdoor space and yet it cost far more than the average far-more-spacious American house. It felt like home. We didn't get the sense that we were settling for it; if anything, we felt like it was settling for us.

Thanks to a last-minute bidding war, we ended up buying it for $5,000 less than our max. Since we had the cash, we put down more than the required 20 percent in order to reduce our monthly payments even further. And that turned out to be a wise move. A year and a half after we closed, I quit my job to try writing and editing full-time. A couple of years after that, my husband took a less lucrative but more creative and exciting position in a new field. We had a baby and then — in for a penny, in for a pound — had another.

Baby #1. Photo by author.
Baby #1. Photo by author.

Six years after buying our first home, we are a completely different family: Doubled in size, roughly halved in income and much, much happier. The choices that had worked so well for us were, in large part, made possible by the fact that our mortgage was a manageable burden, like a backpack, rather than an unmanageable, cartoon-sized ball-and-chain.

If we had opted for the mortgage we could, technically, have afforded back in 2011, both of us would have been stuck in both personal and professional ways, weighed down and held in place by the responsibility of owning an expensive home. Neither of us would have been able to take the initial risks that led us to more fulfilling careers. Maybe we wouldn't have felt comfortable having another child.

No terrace, no second bathroom, no amount of extra square footage would have made that worthwhile.