10 Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before Buying My First House

The following post was written by Nate Hedrick, PharmD., a 2013 graduate of Ohio Northern University. By day, he works from home as a hospice clinical pharmacist for ProCare HospiceCare. By night, he works with pharmacist investors in Cleveland, Ohio – buying, flipping, selling, and renting homes as a licensed real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway. This experience has led to a new real estate blog that covers everything from first-time home buying to real estate investing. Nate’s blog can be found at www.RealEstateRPH.com.


My wife and I met on a blind date in pharmacy school. We were set up by a mutual friend and despite an impending snowstorm and an exam I really should have been studying for, we went out to our local Mexican restaurant and had a fantastic time. We were crazy for going out in that blizzard and my transcripts can attest to the fact that I should have spent more time studying. Despite the risks, we made it home in one piece, I passed that exam (with a C), and I ended up meeting my best friend that night.

We made that date work despite nature and other obligations working against us.

Now, over 7 years later, we are blessed with a darling baby girl, a goofy dog, a wonderful home… and a mountain of debt.

Pharmacy school is expensive. So are homes. (So are dogs and kids come to think of it.) Looking back, our blind date is actually a great analogy for our early financial life together. We bought our first home pretty much the same way we handled our first date. We were jumping in with both feet regardless of other obligations. I had just finished residency, our friends and family owned homes, and we were tired of the “temporary feeling” we had from renting. We were driving out into that blizzard despite what the weather report said.

I certainly don’t regret our first date and I love the home my daughter gets to grow up in, I just now realize that there was probably more we could have done to set ourselves up for success in both cases.

Just like we could have waited an extra night for better weather and would have still gotten married years later, we could have waited a little longer for our finances to get in order and still would have ended up with a great place to live. Hopefully some of what I learned can help you whether you are about to buy your first home or your forever home.

#1 – The bank does not set your budget.

A pre-approval letter from the bank is not the same thing as how much house you can afford.

As pharmacists we are lucky to make great salaries right out of school. However, this is a double-edged sword that often fools us into thinking we can take on a lot more debt than we probably should. When a bank calculates your pre-approval, they use the “28/36 rule” for conventional financing. This means that no more than 28% of your gross income may go to your total housing expenses. Furthermore, no more than 36% of your gross income may go to all your debts. Using these numbers with a pharmacist’s salary will often result in a pre-approval that could have you looking outside your range.

While there are many ways you calculate your own home-buying budget, I recommend considering the “50/30/20 rule”. The idea is that 50% of your TAKE HOME income should go to your needs, 30% to your wants, and 20% to savings.

Needs are things like food, clothing, transportation, medical needs, student loans, mortgage (or rent), insurance, and property taxes. Wants include entertainment, vacations, charitable donations and any extra you want to throw at your student loans or other debt. Savings include traditional savings accounts, extra retirement contributions, and wherever you stash your emergency fund.  

Remember, this is take home pay, which really should be what you bring in after taxes and after maxing out your 401k match through your employer. I like the 50/30/20 calculation because it is specific enough to illustrate what you can really afford but flexible enough to allow you to adjust certain things based on your individual needs. Regardless of the method you use, calculate the number for yourself instead of allowing your lender to fool you into looking for a house you really can’t afford. 

#2 – Shop around for mortgage lenders.

When I was looking for a bank to get a loan for our first house I had no idea where to begin. I ended up just asking my parents which bank they used for their mortgage and went with that. It seemed like too daunting of a task to tackle otherwise.

Despite the numerous choices, I encourage you to meet with at least 3 different lenders or utilize a mortgage broker when finding your first mortgage. Find someone who is comfortable with the loan product you intend to use (FHA, conventional, VA, USDA, etc.) and compare what other incentives or advantages they provide if you decide to use them as your loan servicer. If you aren’t sure what the differences or advantages are between the different types of loans, check out my website www.RealEstateRPH.com for an article that walk through each type.

#3 – Save 20% for your down payment.

It can be extremely tempting to skip saving up a significant down payment for your first house. With loan products available that allow 3.5% down, why would anyone want to save up a full 20%?

While there are a number of reasons, the primary financial concern comes down to private mortgage insurance or PMI. Essentially PMI is insurance that protects the lender against individuals who default on their loan. The problem is that this monthly payment effectively buys you as the homeowner nothing but ends up costing you $100 per month or more. Luckily, this requirement is removed once you have reached 80% loan-to-value.

What the lender often neglects to tell you is that unless you submit a request at that 20% they can actually continue your PMI requirement up until your reach 78% loan-to-value. Although it might not seem like much, this 2% difference could equate to hundreds of dollars! If you do decide to put only 5% or 10% down, make sure you are paying attention for when you reach the 20% mark and are aware of the process your lender requires for waving PMI on time.

#4 – Don’t forget the hidden costs of buying a home.

Aside from saving enough for a down payment, you need to have some cash reserves set aside for all the little things that come with buying a home. Once you put an offer in, your first major expenses will typically be inspections. General home, pest, radon, sewer line, and other inspections are all important in making sure the home you are buying doesn’t have any major issues. Depending on which inspections you choose to have, you can expect to pay a few hundred to about $1,000.  

Closing costs typically run between 2% and 4% of the cost of the loan. That means for a $200,000 house you need to have an extra $6,000 or so available on top of your down payment. The lender is required to give you a detailed breakdown of exactly what your closing costs will be before everything is due. The good news is, many times the closing costs can be negotiated into the purchase offer and actually paid by the seller. Your real estate agent can help with this.  Property taxes, home insurance, and PMI (if you have to pay it) are often taken out monthly by your lender and put into an escrow account. This ensures the lender that these important payments are received each month and are on time. Look for an online calculator that includes all these costs when determining your true monthly payment. Here is one calculator I like from Bankrate.com

Lastly, if your heater goes out in the middle of winter, you don’t have a maintenance department you can call like you do with a rental. Setting aside some additional funds for these unexpected costs is why an emergency fund is so important. Don’t drain your savings account with your down payment and forget to keep something in reserve for the unexpected.

#5 – Prepare for a lot of “hurry up and wait”.

If you are going to be getting any kind of loan for your new house, prepare yourself for the uncomfortable month that is underwriting. I understand it from the bank’s point-of-view, there is some serious legwork to be done when giving someone tens or even hundred of thousands of dollars. However, I have yet to experience a closing that didn’t involve some mix of “We need this document from X and Y in 24 hours or the whole deal is going to fall through.” Promptly followed by days of utter silence. It can certainly be nerve racking. My advice is to simply be prepared for it and don’t try to squeeze your closing date into a smaller time period than is advised by your Real estate agent or lender. Also, be as diligent as possible when it comes to document collection. Create a new folder on your computer for all your loan documents to live in during the underwriting process and gather all your financial information in that one space. 

#6 – Don’t skip out on the home warranty.

I distinctly remember the moment during our negotiations that my wife and I told our Real estate agent we didn’t need a home warranty. The house we bought had just been redone and we were certain the appliances were new. I lived in that certainty for about 4 months before I had no way to wash my dirty laundry. Several hundred dollars later we had a working washing machine and a heap of regret. The average home warranty costs between $300 and $600. The average cost of a new washer is $700. The average cost of a new furnace is $4,000. Each of these (along with several other household appliances) are covered under most home warranties. A small price to pay for a lot of peace of mind. This is especially true when you consider that you can often negotiate for the seller to cover the home warranty for you.

#7 – Work with a real estate agent – its free! (sort of).

Being a Real estate agent myself, I admit I might be slightly biased. However, even before I became licensed, I realized the advantages of working with a good real estate agent. For starters they have access to a lot more information than Zillow® or Realtor.com®. These websites work well for the initial home screening process but when it comes time to look seriously for a home, you need a more powerful tool. Each agent has access to a database of housing information specific to your area called the multiple listing service (MLS). Think of it like Lexi-Comp® compared to webMD®.

The best part is that they can give you limited access to this database for yourself if you simply ask. Through the MLS portal, your Real estate agent can set up automatic searches that deliver updated listings directly to your inbox as soon as new information becomes available. Once you find a property you are interested in, your agent should help you set up showings, put in offers, negotiate with the seller, and generally help you navigate the complex buying process.

When it comes to contracts and offers, I also recommend finding an agent comfortable with DotLoop®. This online tool allows all the important documents to be drafted, signed, and delivered online. The convenience of being able to submit a signed offer from your pharmacy’s break room is hard to beat.

Finally, the best part is that all this help provided by a Real estate agent is effectively FREE if you are a first time homebuyer. The commission for real estate transactions is generally paid by the seller and then split between the listing agent and your agent. This means you usually only pay a small office fee of a few hundred dollars to get the whole deal done! Not a bad price to pay for personalized service.

#8 – Home ownership provides tax advantages, even for people that make “too much”.

Not many people would expect there to be disadvantages to making a six-figure salary right out of school. If there is a downside however, it has to be income tax and a significant lack of tax breaks. Even the meager deduction that is student loan interest is lost if you make more than $80,000 per year ($160,000 if married and filling jointly).

Luckily, real estate remains a refuge for limiting your taxable income. Since interest payments can be the largest component of your mortgage payment in the early years of owning a home, the biggest deduction for many people is mortgage interest. There is even an extra point-based deduction you can take the first year you buy your home. For example, if you paid two points (2%) to close on a $200,000 mortgage ($4,000), you can deduct the points as long as you put at least $4,000 of your own cash into the deal. And believe it or not, you get to deduct the points even if you convinced the seller to pay them for you as part of the deal.  

Finally, you can also deduct local property taxes you pay each year.  

All these combined deductions can add up to quite a lot come tax day. This advantage can even be taken several steps further when you talk about real estate investing and home depreciation, a complicated topic that is worth reading up on.

#9 – Plan to stay for a few years.

The real financial advantage to buying a home comes from slowly building equity by staying there for several years. Although it’s not always easy to predict where you are going to be in a few years (geographically and in life) try to make a five-year plan when deciding how and where you want to live. If you don’t want to be tied to a particular location, perhaps renting is a better idea. If you and your spouse want to have a large family, pick a location (and the number of bedrooms) that supports your plan for a few years down the road. Again, all of this is easier said than done.

My wife and I bought a home with three bedrooms thinking we could grow into them once we started a family. That plan started to fall apart when both of us ended up working from home. Just two years after buying out home we found ourselves with a master bedroom, a nursery, an office…and one of us at the kitchen table. Flexibility is really the answer if your original plan has to be scrapped. Eventually we worked out an extra office space in the basement and now my wife only works at home a few days per week. My advice is to have a plan, then be able to roll with the punches if and when things change.

#10 – Consider “House Hacking”.

How would you like to buy a home, live privately in your favorite part, and have someone else pay your mortgage for you? If this sounds to good to be true, I encourage you to start reading up on the concept of house hacking. The basic concept is to buy a home with 2-4 units, live in one of them and rent out the others. Ideally, these are long-term tenants that consistently pay you enough rent to cover all or most of your housing expenses.

The real beauty of house hacking becomes apparent when you learn that the bank treats the loan for a 4-unit home in the same way they treat a single-family residence. This means a single mortgage buys you not only your first home but also your first investment property. There are also easier ways to house hack if being a landlord isn’t your cup of tea. Renting out your extra bedrooms, transforming your basement into a rentable guesthouse, even Air B&B are all simple ways to lower your house payments by having others pay your mortgage for you. No matter how you do it, if you don’t mind living with a guest or two, house hacking can be an incredible way to make your first home more affordable.

Spread the word

Leave a Comment