Money Talks, So Should You

What not to do when buying your first home

A full 60 percent of homeowners in a poll say they made at least one mistake.

Jeff Brown
by Jeff Brown, MainStreet contributor

By the time you’ve bought and sold two or three homes, you’ll be an old hand, savvy to most of the pitfalls.

But that first home purchase can be a harsh learning experience. Missteps are easy.

What are the worst? A survey of first-time buyers in Canada provides some good examples — ones just as useful in the U.S. A full 60 percent of those surveyed in the annual RBC Home Ownership Poll say they made at least one mistake.

READ: Takes these features into consideration when buying a home

Among them, 15 percent said they bought a home that needed too many renovations. Obviously, that means they faced budget-busting expenses or a lot of unwelcome toil.

About 14 percent said they made a down payment that was too small. That saddles an owner with monthly payments bigger than they had to be, straining the budget. And, if home prices do not rise quickly enough, it can make it harder to sell a home for enough to pay off the mortgage.

Third on the list was the 13 percent who did not have their home inspected. That opens the buyer to ugly surprises after moving in — termite damage, mold or a failing water heater or furnace

Among the other mistakes cited were 11 percent who said they’d bought too quickly, 10 percent who hadn’t planned for all the costs of homeownership and 8 percent who did not think about the space the family would need in the future.

Many first-time buyers are in their 20s, living on modest incomes and just thrilled to have a chance to own rather than rent. Tight budgets typically narrow their options. Aside from the mistakes already listed, beginners are subject to a number of others.

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The home’s appeal to future buyers is one of the most important. A discussion by HSH Associates, the mortgage-information firm, notes that a location is key. That means proximity to job opportunities, good schools, public transportation and other features future buyers would want.

Keep in mind that your potential buyers may be house hunting five, 10 or 20 years down the road. If your town depends on one or two big employers who could shut down or leave, your location’s appeal could suddenly plummet. But if you have features that will last, such as waterfront or mountain views, your home’s future value may be secure.

Certain appealing features persist over the long term, including having three bedrooms and two full baths. Others may or may not be passing trends, such as today’s preference for a dining area spilling out of the kitchen.

Homebuyers, HSH says, tend to like newer homes, and properties with regular shapes — square or fat rectangles, not long and skinny ones, triangles or chevrons. Having a big lot won’t compensate for a problem such as having a home jammed along one edge, too near the neighbors.

READ: How to get ready for your first home closing

Because a home is a very big expense buyers often tend to the conservative. Much as they like hip ideas such as straw insulation, geodesic-dome construction or shingles made from crushed beer cans, they’ll be wary of spending too much on a home that may not appeal to many buyers later. You should be, too.


For the past 20 of his nearly 40 years in journalism, Jeff Brown has written about personal finance, economics and the financial markets. He has been a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer and other papers, and in his six-year freelance career has been a columnist for and the Nightly Business Report on PBS and blogged for The New York Times, and other Internet sites.