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The Post Sara Wishes She’d Read Before Buying Her First Home (+ 6 Tips to Help You in Your Own Search)

Hi everyone, it’s Sara Tramp here, EHD’s head of production and in-house photographer. A lot of you might already know me, but what you might not know is that I’ve worked here at Emily Henderson Design for over FIVE years. It’s safe to say I’ve been through a lot with my EHD family during that time (and you have probably been along for a good portion of it).

Early in my career with EHD, I moved back home for a little while and made over my childhood bedroom. Then my boyfriend (Macauley) and I decided to move in together, and we rented our first joint apartment in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles. It was an amazing 1930s Spanish place, with huge windows and beautiful archway details. We shared that with you all by revealing our living room, office and bedroom. Not even a year after that final bedroom reveal, we were heartbroken to lose that apartment to an early morning fire in December of 2017.

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The fire completely burned out the apartment below ours and severely damaged the front half of our apartment. BUT we were super lucky. Once the fire department arrived they had the fire out within minutes and were able to save 75% of our apartment from the actual flames. We didn’t lose anything in our office, kitchen or bedroom (and no one was hurt). The apartment itself, however, was sadly very unlivable. Not only was there actual fire damage in the living room, but there was smoke damage everywhere and the floors were ruined from water damage caused by the hoses. All the windows were broken out, and our front door didn’t exist anymore. Structurally, it wasn’t safe for us to live in.

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Looking through the photos of what our apartment used to look like, the photos of the fire damage, and remembering that whole morning still gives me goosebumps. But we were safe, our cats were safe, and we had renters insurance (which saved us).

We spent the next few weeks bouncing around couches, making people’s houses smell like cat litter and a disgusting BBQ (because smoke was stuck in all of our possessions). But 5 months after the fire we finally moved into an apartment in West Hollywood. The location was great, but the apartment didn’t feel like home. We lived there for almost a year with a giant pile of boxes sitting right in our living room, unpacked.

Which brings me to the point of this whole post. My parents have been hounding me for YEARS to consider buying a house. I kept them at bay with petty questions like, “how do you expect me to afford one??” Because the idea of buying a house is terrifying. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and a whole lot more permanent than any sort of rental. But once our dream apartment was a partially charred, post-apocalyptic movie set, I started to let the idea creep into my head. And once it was there, I started trying to get Mac on board.

“Let’s just look,” I said. Well, I’ve never been very good at “just looking,” and long story short… now we own a house.

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But here’s the long story anyway. I’ll preface this by saying I’m (clearly) not a licensed loan officer, realtor, or fully formed adult. All of this advice just comes from what I remember from our home buying process, and could likely be slightly off or entirely wrong due to the haze one constantly lives in during the process. But the broad strokes are there, and the biggest piece of advice I have for you is just to work with people who DO know what they’re doing. They were our real heroes.

I digress…

Who knew that the housing market was so competitive? Literally everyone except us apparently, but we were about to find out. We lost out on our first offer pretty early on, and that was only the beginning of a long, painful 8-month search filled with being outbid by cash offers, exhausted by the amount of paperwork each round of offers took, and sacrificing a majority of our weekends during that time to hours of driving around Los Angeles visiting houses that were the size of past living rooms or practically falling apart (aka in our price range).

That’s the price bracket we were in, folks—$falling apart. These places were so bad that the only people we were competing against were developers who had the cash to not only outbid us but also fix the house up to throw it back on the market at double their purchase price. It was emotionally exhausting and wildly frustrating. We never felt like we fully understood the loan process, didn’t feel like our realtor really understood what we were looking for, and around month 7 we were ready to call it quits and try again in another year or so.

But we wanted to give it one last try. We had been feeling pretty lost and uncomfortable with the loan situation for a while, so I decided to try a different loan officer. I asked Emily who she had used to buy her home and after spending 30 minutes on the phone with Andy Green, I felt like I actually understood, for the first time, how we could afford to buy a house. It was eye-opening, liberating, and wildly educational. Not only did I understand what I was looking at when I was comparing house prices on Redfin, but we realized we could actually afford to look at houses in a slightly higher price bracket then we had originally been looking, which ended up making a huge difference.

TIP #1: Understand your numbers, or work with someone who can truly explain them to you. You might be able to afford more than you think…

Switching loan officers to someone who really took the time to break everything down for us was a game-changer, and so much easier than trying to figure it out via Google. 

The truth is, we don’t own our house. At least not for another 30 years (if we don’t move or refinance). A loan company does. They fronted the real cost, and we just covered the down payment. Early on, with the guidance of our loan officer, we decided we would be able to cover a 10% down payment. That meant we were responsible, on the front end, for covering 10% of whatever the price of the house ended up being. The rest was up to the loan company. The loan company decided, based on our shared income, credit history, and assets, how much they would be willing to loan us (getting pre-approved really helps you to understand what you’ll be able to afford). 

10% still sounds like a lot when houses in Los Angeles County easily cost upwards of $400k. That’s still at least $40k that someone would have to have on hand (and for us, it was just a bit more). And we were on the lower end of the down-payment spectrum. A more traditional down payment is 20%, which I believe is considered “conventional.”

Where did we get this wild amount of money from? A few different places – Years of being fortunate enough to put away money into personal savings, and help from my parents, Mac’s mom, my grandmother, and Mac’s grandfather. It took an almost literal village, and we’re so lucky and thankful for them (thanks guys *big heart eyes emoji*).

But don’t despair if you aren’t able to afford that high of a down payment! There are options for lower down payment amounts, and we seriously considered them. If you’re thinking about buying a house but can’t afford a 10% or higher down payment, you can look into something called an FHA loan, which is “designed for low- to moderate-income borrowers. FHA loans require a lower minimum down payment and credit scores than many conventional loans.” (I got that from Investopedia). There are even home loans out there that can help cover a down payment. The number you actually want to be seriously considering is what your monthly mortgage will be after you buy the house. Our loan company approved us for a much higher loan than we actually used, but using that full amount would have given us a monthly mortgage that we wouldn’t have been able to maintain.

Because we didn’t go with a 20% or higher down payment, we’re currently paying something called mortgage insurance. But it’s temporary, and after we pay off a certain amount (or pay on time for a certain number of years), that will be removed. It’s an extra $80 a month, and it allowed us to fall into a down payment category that we could actually afford. Another thing we realized is the difference between, say $450k and $550k isn’t nearly as big as it sounds, once it’s broken down into a 30-year mortgage loan. That gave us the confidence and ability to shift up in our price bracket (without going house poor right out of the gate). Again, you really just need a loan officer who is willing to explain all of your options to you.

Edit: There have been some GREAT comments from readers who have successfully bought homes with only a 2-3% down payment and an FHA loan. And few people have even been able to lump together the cost of buying the house PLUS a loan for renovations into a single loan, so they have money to fix up their homes once they’ve purchased it (which is then all part of their monthly mortgage). Which could be greatly beneficial if you’re in a lower price bracket and buying a fixer. We didn’t do that (I’ll touch more on our renovation process in the next post), but other EHD team member Emily Bowser did!

TIP #2: Work with a realtor who specializes in your area, who knows the other realtors in that area, and who makes you feel excited to see homes.

Our loan officer also introduced us to a new realtor. We had been working with someone who was super nice. But he wasn’t well acquainted with the area we were looking in, and it just didn’t feel like he knew the market there. No surprise, but you want to be working with a realtor who is familiar with your priority neighborhoods and needs. So on our loan officer’s recommendation, we reached out to L34 Group, and got paired up with Fawn Vu. We met with Fawn on a Saturday morning for coffee and it felt like she could finish all of our sentences. She had bought and renovated a house in an area we were interested in 10 years prior, and every house we mentioned she instantly knew the selling agent, had a good sense of how they operated, and had concrete opinions about whether it would work for us or not.

Now, I don’t honestly know if it was switching realtors, luck or the stars aligning for us, but within a month of working with Andy and Fawn, we were in escrow on our house. Here’s how it happened:

First, Fawn asked us to be super honest with her about what we needed and what we could do without. While I would have been fine with just a driveway, Mac really wanted a garage. Ideally, we wanted more than one bedroom, but decided that for a starter home we could compromise for a single bedroom if the house really spoke to us.

TIP #3: Be really honest with yourself and your house buying partner/s about what you need vs. what you want vs. what you’re willing to compromise on…

Mac and I individually made a list of our top 5 priorities, then cross-referenced our lists with each others and made those shared items our deal breakers. Fawn then took those and used them to help her narrow her search.

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TIP #4: Constant Vigilance! (This is a Harry Potter reference, if you were wondering.)

Fawn let us in on a not-so-secret secret. Basically, realtors have as much of a jump on new listing as the general public. Every now and then they might get a pre-market tip-off, but with websites like Redfin and Zillow, they’re generally working with the same information we are. It’s really once you get into the actual wheeling and dealing of submitting an offer that your realtor is going to shine. That being said, Fawn and I were both scouring residential listing sites like starving rats, and sending each other new listings every day. It was exciting to see her as excited as me, and it made sure listings weren’t slipping through the cracks. Which is how we found the listing that would be our future house.

  • First, we went and saw the house the day they dropped the price. It had been sitting on the market for a month without much interest. It was in a good area, but needed a lot of work. The key being  it wasn’t cheap enough to be attracting developers (our sweet spot).
  • Second, we went slightly above the asking price. This is where Fawn really gets all the credit. She had a good recommendation of how high we should go, got a lot of information from the selling agent, and helped us stick to our guns (even when I was feeling desperate and ready to offer more).
  • Third, we reduced our contingencies. This part is a little tricky to talk about because it kind of falls into legal issues and really depends on your loan officer and your comfort level, so take this advice with a grain of salt.

When you submit an offer there are all sorts of contingencies, or “second chances” in place that allow you, the buyer, to back out of the sale once you enter escrow. Some of these include a loan contingency (if you’re not approved for you loan, you aren’t obligated to buy the house anyway), appraisal contingency (if the house doesn’t appraise for the amount you offered you can back out of escrow), and an inspection contingency (if, once the house is inspected, you realize there is way too much work that needs to be done, you can use this to back out). What you can do is speak with your loan officer and determine if you can remove any of these contingencies from your offer, which will make it more attractive. 

TIP #5: Try and get pre-approved for your home loan, and speak with your loan officer about what other things you could offer the seller (besides going over asking).

For example, we were able to get pre-approved for our loan, which meant we were submitting our offer without a loan contingency. Cash offers are often accepted over non-cash offers because cash offers automatically don’t need a loan contingency. Not having to wait around for the buyer to get a loan approved lets the seller know the money for the sale is guaranteed, likely reducing the escrow period (another deal sweetener), therefore getting the house off the market (and off the seller’s hands) faster. All of that makes the seller feel more secure about the sale going through. No seller wants their house to fall out of escrow or linger on the market for too long. It makes other buyers suspicious, and the house less desirable. WILD RIGHT?! I feel like an encyclopedia of house buying knowledge, but we really just went through a solid crash course of “Home Buying 101” with our loan officer and realtor.

Edit: A few commenters have mentioned things like “please don’t get rid of your inspection contingency!!!!” and I want to be clear that I’m not telling anyone to get rid of it! Those were just the contingencies I could remember off the top of my head, and sometimes there may be a few other options (like covering closing costs for the seller, shortening the escrow period, etc.) that can make your offer more attractive without just offering over asking. It’s obviously very important to get your home inspected. First to make sure you’re not buying a foundation-less termite nest, but also because you can use certain things found during inspection to help negotiate the price of the house once you’re in escrow (negotiating these types of deductions once you’re in escrow is another place a great realtor will be wildly helpful). Our chimney needed to be fixed, so we had someone come out to give a quote and were able to have that estimated cost deducted from our offer.

TIP #6: Take time to write a heartfelt personal statement about what the property would mean to you, address it by name to the seller, and include photos! 

Lastly, we submitted a killer personal letter. Now, personal letters don’t always close the deal. If a seller is faced with the best personal statement in the world or $100k over asking, I’ll let you guess which they’re going to take. But if you’re neck and neck with a competing offer, having taken the time to put together a compelling personal letter could make the difference between an accepted offer and another rejection.

Fawn found out a little about the current owner from the selling agent, and let us know her name and how long she’d been living in the home. She also let us know that she spoke very little English, so I wrote out our letter in both English and Spanish. It turned out that the owner was not only Hispanic, but she was Guatemalan which is where my mom’s family immigrated from when my mom was 10. I had written about that in our personal statement and had even included a photo of Mac and I in Guatemala back in 2015 (without ever knowing she was Guatemalan). I consider that our luckiest moment in this whole house search, and I think it may have been the final piece of the puzzle. Here’s a copy of our personal statement:

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Finally we got the call that our offer had been accepted, and after what felt like a whirlwind escrow period, we were slightly dazed and confused homeowners.

But the real work was just getting started.

Stay tuned to see how this…

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Turned into this…

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And to see all the before photos of the house, what it looks like now, and all our future plans – plus more photos of us covered in dirt, holding rat skeletons from our crawl space, and generally looking like we have no idea what we’re doing.

Catch up on all of Sara’s Makeover Takeover: Sara Buys A House Part II: The Renovation | The Designing Begins: A Floor Plan Design Agony | The Designing Continues: Time To Pick Furniture | The Final Design Plan | A Fireplace Design Agony | Sara’s Moody TV Room Plan | How Much It Really Costs To Work With A Designer: The Final Tally Of Sara’s Project 


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101 thoughts on “The Post Sara Wishes She’d Read Before Buying Her First Home (+ 6 Tips to Help You in Your Own Search)

  1. Congrats Sara and Macauley! Your house looks beautiful and that was a killer personal letter indeed (I cried…) Hope you enjoy your live as home owners and I’m really excited that you’re taking us along on your journey!! It looks like it’s gonna be a great super educational series 🙂

  2. Congratulations Sara! It sounds like a long path, and excited to hear about the search.

    Since this has come up many times on this blog, I did want to mention the downside of the now very popular personal letter when buying a home. I’m a real estate agent in a very hot market (Portland) and previously a hotter market (Seattle). More times than I’d like to count, I’ve seen personal letters used as a way for sellers to discriminate against certain buyers. If you have 20 offers, all around the same amount, but you choose a buyer “that reminds you of you”, who are you not choosing? Since there has historically been a lot of discrimination in home ownership in the US, the market is already heavily weighed against minority owners.

    I recently had an example where a seller declined a much higher price offer from a gay couple, for an offer from a family who is “just like us”, who happened to be also be a husband/wife with 2 beautiful blonde kids. The letters, especially accompanied by photos, are a huge open door for really ugly behavior.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, but just wanted to make sure you are aware since this practice has been promoted many times on the blog.

      1. He/she is not saying that it’s a bad thing, just that there is a dark side to it that many people probably haven’t considered (I know I hadn’t)

    1. That’s really interesting. I am kind of guilty of this, but in the reverse. When I sold my bungalow last year, I accepted a slightly lower offer from a young lady who wrote me a wonderful letter about how she was the first person in her family to go to college and is in the early years of her career as a lawyer. She went on to write that she is dedicated to helping other young black women like her do the same. I don’t know if this was the “right” thing to do, but it made me feel good, especially in light of this country’s shameful history of redlining and excluding black families from “white” neighborhoods.

      I will admit, however, if I had received a MUCH higher offer from someone else, the letter may not have swayed my decision much (not trying to paint myself as a saint here).

    2. Thank you for your perspective J. While I would like to think that a personal letter can also be a way of leveling the playing field -giving less afluent buyers a chance to win over sellers even though their offers aren’t as high as others – I can see how it can also open you up to discrimination. I don’t think this is the letter writers fault, but rather down to the sellers prejudices, but I also don’t think this is what you were implying. Not sure how to ‘solve’ this one but definitely food for thought…

    3. Thank you for writing this in such a thoughtful manner. I couldn’t agree more that this approach perpetuates decades of discrimination and does not move us towards more diverse communities.

      1. I see this advice all the time, and have done it both times we have purchased homes. The thing is, when we sold our first home 4 years ago (in a pretty hot market), I didn’t read a single one – they were too intimate and I couldn’t handle hearing about a family and then denying them the opportunity to buy our house. It was too emotional for me, so I didn’t read any of them (we probably had a dozen offers). So we ended up just going with the highest bidder. Was that more “fair”? Maybe, maybe not. It was certainly less emotional. I kind of don’t understand that aspect of it – who wants to put themselves in that place of judging someone’s worthiness for a home? I just couldn’t handle it.

    4. 100% this – I’m guilty of writing these letters without thinking about possible consequences to other buyers until my realtor said the practice is no longer allowed and explained why. Maybe it’s a New York State thing, but my understanding is that personal letters cannot be submitted along with offers anymore.

    5. I just bought my first home 3 weeks ago and this is all the stuff I had to learn myself that I wish had been spelled out for me!
      In Des Moines, newly flipped starter homes with multiple bedrooms are from 120k to 180k, if anyone else feels like falling over dead at the idea of a 1bed fixer for 400k!!! Iowa is a hidden gem!

      1. Ren, just had to add that you certainly speak the truth. Some of these housing prices I hear just kill me. I’m an Iowan native as well. Lived here all my life–my parents bought a $30k (yes, thirty, that is the correct number of zeros) farmhouse on a gravel road an hour from Des Moines with a 20% down payment. Our monthly payment was only around $300. It was falling apart, but it held up for the 14 years we lived there! Now we both live in apartments–mine in a college town is around $600/month, including renter’s insurance, and theirs is closer to $800/month, but they can walk to work. I am always planning and scheming on moving into a $160k~ 2-3 bedroom ranch in or around Ankeny or Des Moines once I finish college. 🙂 I read home buying guides for relaxation. God bless Iowa and its affordable housing!! Congratulations on the new home!

    6. I completely agree. I’m a realtor in KY and this practice isn’t super common, but is becoming more so, especially for houses in the “first time home buyer” range. Because of the risk of discrimination our board is looking in to not allowing them at all.

    7. I can definitely see how personal statements could easily lead to discrimination. I can see how a personal statement could really trigger ugly behavior in some people but really generous behavior in others. It seems to still be a very common practice here in California (at least from what we saw). Both our realtor and our parents told us it was important to submit, as we might not have been submitting the higher offer, but could hope that a buyer would relate to our story. My parents remember selling their home back in the 90s and they actually took a lower offer because they connected so much with the personal statement (who was a young couple that was looking for their own starter home) and wanted to give them the opportunity to own a home. It’s hard because just going off of the highest offer also immediately eliminates all those kinds of stories out of happening (and also lead to perpetuating the wealthiest people to continue being favored). So interesting to hear about states outlawing it, and I’ll be curious to see if that happens here in California eventually.

    8. I’m sickened to think of the discrimination aspect. Honestly I’m confused by the personal letter. When we sold our last house, we had one offer $25k above asking in cash and a full price offer conventional loan with a letter (I too live in Portland). Honestly the letter wasn’t going to sway us in the least…the cash talks!!

    9. Yes, we were a minority couple buying in a wealthy mostly white neighborhood. We decided not to submit a letter or a photo of our family.

      1. I live in a predominantly white suburb of Cleveland. Zillow lists the area as 90+% married, average age in the 40s, more than half have at least a BA and the average income is like two and a half times what i make. I’ve rented here for 8 years and decided to buy a home here in 2017. I’ve now been trying to buy a home here for over 2 years. The market is extremely hot and it favors sellers right now. I’ve considered writing a letter to help close on a home but I have to admit that I’m afraid people here will view single motherhood as a black mark and couple that with my ethnicity and suffice it to say I haven’t written a single letter yet. In the meantime I’m still waiting for my first home.

    10. 100% agree with this. There is a long history of racial discrimination in housing in the US (redlining) and these letters allow that practice to easily continue. While it wasn’t the case here for the writer, I wish the entire practice would be abolished. It also seems like these letters favor married/partnered people because the gist of these letter almost always includes some mention of starting a family. If that’s not you, it feels like it’s one more card stacked against you when trying to buy a home in a competitive market.

    11. We’ve written personal letters, successfully, for two homes in a row. Our realtor admitted that he passes letters and pictures along when he represents buyers, but he doesn’t show pictures with the letters when he represents sellers. I think he said it’s because he has a (legal? moral?) obligation to prevent discriminatory selections as a seller’s agent. Of course, sellers can also glean information from names, descriptions in letters, etc.

      As a seller, a letter has helped us decide among two top offers. In our case, it was clear from the letter and the fact that they stayed for two full open houses that they loved the house; it confirmed our decision, but they also made the highest offer. A letter certainly wouldn’t take someone from the bottom of the pile to the top.

      As a buyer, we asked in our letter for the opportunity to match the top offer, and the seller granted our request. I don’t know if she was being overtly discriminatory, or if she preferred the idea of selling to a local family vs. the all-cash foreign buyers who are flooding our market. I’m glad it worked, but I agree that there is a dark side to the trend.

    12. I wonder if rejecting the letter-writing trend is regional to the PNW? We just bought a house about an hour and a half north of Seattle and were surprised when our agent was firmly AGAINST writing a personal letter. She passed on a bit of personal info about us to the seller’s agent (that husband is an RN, I’m an artist, this is our first house together and our first PNW home) but no pictures and nothing more personal.

      When our offer was rejected at first in favor of a cash offer (ugh!!) I did wonder if a letter would have made a difference, but I completely understood why our agent rejected this practice and didn’t want to get a house if it meant someone else was discriminated against. Luckily for us, the cash offer fell through and we now live in that house!

  3. I have been following Sara’s reno process on Instagram and was so excited to see this post was up! Can’t wait to see more. Also, as someone in their 20s also looking to buy a home in the next few years this has been SO enlightening.

  4. Congratulations on your new home! As a 29 year old, “is it time for me to buy a house? and what does that actually mean?!” is also running through my mind, so I find this post particularly relevant. As someone who definitely does not have 20% of a home purchase laying around, I also super appreciate your full transparency in regards to the price, down payment, etc. Thank you!

    1. I also really appreciate you honesty, sara, how you afforded the down payment. These days it feels like you have to win the lottery (literally or career-wise), have a trust fund or yes, borrow money from your parents to get that down payment. I had my own TV show and STILL had to borrow $20k from Brian’s parents to get the down payment (paid off, finally) of our first house. Anyway, yay for transparency (and yes, this is something we are saving for our kids – hopefully they’ll choose to use it for a house down payment and not a massive wedding :))

      1. Emily – I’m so happy to hear that you’re considering how to set your kids up for success with a house down payment!

        In high school, I had a lot of friends whose parents had saved up money for them to buy their first car and/or to go to college, and all those friends just looked at that money as a budget for picking a school – which some exceeded by going to expensive colleges and taking out student loans to cover the rest. My parents had also saved a decent amount for me, enough that with my academic scholarships I could have gone to an expensive private college and/or not needed a job during college. Thanks to some offhanded comments from my mom (she didn’t pressure me at all, just mentioned it) I had the idea in my head that I wanted as much of that money left after college as possible so that I could buy a house, so I went to an in-state school, worked retail and as a TA all through college, worked paying internships in my field (accounting) during two summers and one school semester (tax season), and left college with a masters degree and almost as much money in that college fund as I had started with – enough to make a 20% down payment on a 3 bedroom home in the Midwest along with my husband.

        Was it as fun and exciting to talk about going to the in-state school when my high school friends were touring expensive colleges? No. Was it hard to exercise self-control as a college kid who wants to buy cool stuff and do fun things and technically has money sitting in an account, when some of my college classmates were charging things on their parents credit cards and taking out student loans? Yep. And society told me I was the one doing things wrong – YOLO and all that. But most of my friends couldn’t dream of having a 20% house down payment, even now that we’re 5 years out of college – it’s just so hard to save up that much on a starter job salary.

        I just wish the way we talked to kids about their futures had a bit more long term thinking – instead of selling them on how awesome of an experience that $30k a year college will be (and I don’t doubt for a second that it is), shouldn’t we at least mention that the alternative could be to use that money, whether it’s a college fund or future earnings that would otherwise go towards student loans, for something like a house just a few years down the road? I’m sure there are a lot of expensive colleges/degrees that pay that tuition investment back in future earnings, but not everyone wants to go to Harvard or be a doctor. Some kids just want to get a solid, reasonably priced degree and go do taxes for a living with her husband, two cats and a dog in the suburbs (me!). And I was lucky I had a parent who pointed out my whole college fund didn’t have to be spent entirely on college if a fancy school wasn’t important to me. I sincerely hope you have these real life sort of conversations with your kids someday – not that they’ll do what I did (unless they’re also bound to be accountants) but just plant that seed. We could use a tad bit less college YOLO and a tad more “look what you can have if you work hard” in today’s world.

        1. Great point! I also went to an in-state school, and it was the best financial decision I could have made, and we’re now saving for our toddler’s college in a 529 plan. I also love the idea of helping the kids jumpstart their adult lives by starting to save early.

          My husband and I are both designers and planning on buying our first home next year all in cash, albeit in NC, not LA, so I understand how crazy the California market can be. We’ve been saving for 7 years. My only point to add to this article is you should really try to go for a 15-year loan as the interest on a 30-year loan is insane. It unfortunately can really hinder you from building wealth in the long-term. I found this mortgage payoff calculator particularly illuminating — plus it motivates you to throw more at your mortgage as your income rises!

          I learned this the hard way with student loans. Best of luck on the new house, Sara! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Congrats!! Great house! I’m a Dave Ramsey fan & he always encourages people, when hiring someone to deal with financial matters , to choose someone who “has the heart of a teacher.” Sounds like that’s exactly what you got when you switched loan officers!

    So sorry about the fire. :/ What a scary situation!

  6. yessss.. all of this! this is exactly how I felt in this go around of buying our second home. The first time around, I felt all the things you felt with your first loan officer & realtor. They didn’t do a good job of explaining finances. The realtor didn’t know the area we were looking in.

    So second time around, 10 years later, I met a realtor, and OMG she is literally the best thing ever. WE UNDERSTOOD everything, never once did we feel dumb. She helped us sell our condo and we got it for over asking. And helped us buy a house. All those things are sooo important. Don’t just go with the first person that someone may refer you to, you really need to feel like you connect on the financial level!

    I ended up recommending her to a few people!

  7. I would NOT recommend dropping an inspection contingency. A thorough home inspection can uncover a myriad of expensive structural problems that you should be aware of before purchase. You don’t want to be saddled with a money pit, unless you have unlimited resources. I think the constant vigilance advice is the best: it teaches you to recognize good value and to be instantly ready to act. Home buying really has an element of “chance favors the prepared mind”. Cannot wait to see the remodeling process!

    1. Totally, no one should drop any contingencies without first very carefully understanding what they mean. Those were just the contingencies that I could remember off the top of my head!

      1. From a Realtor in Seattle, an extremely competitive seller’s market:
        I wanted to point out that being pre-approved for your loan does NOT mean that it’s always advisable to waive your financing contingency. This means that you are on the hook for your earnest money if your loan doesn’t come through and you can’t pay cash, which can happen. It’s a calculated risk that many buyers take with careful consideration in competitive markets, but I want to make it clear that Pre-approval is NOT equal to not needing a financing contingency. Everything else here is awesome, valuable advice!

    2. Love the story as a recent first home buyer but I absolutely concur. Inspections are CRITICAL. Our inspections relieved a lot of worries about structural (read: invisible) conditions of a house without many/any upgrades but also helped us negotiate down the price (we needed a new roof).

    3. Agree! You want an inspection! But in the super duper competitive Seattle market the norm I found when buying was to do a pre-inspection – that I had to pay for before I even knew if my offer would be accepted – so I could assess the risks and waive the inspection clause.

  8. Wow, congratulations! I hope we get to follow along with the progress. I wanted to note that when we bought our house in the PNW my dad was our realtor and he doesn’t approve of any of his clients writing letters as it leads to discriminating practice of sellers selecting buyers who look like them. He said in our community, that was a shared sentiment among all the realtors and a letter would not be accepted. We had moved from Seattle where it had seemed common practice and expected so I thought that was interesting and made sense and I’m curious to hear if other communities are discouraging this practice as well.

  9. Wow, what a journey. Congratulations! Such a cute house! I think you made the whole buying-in-a-competitive-market, loan and offer process very clear and personal. My husband and I had very similar experiences when buying our house in LA last year. Good luck with the renovations. I can’t wait to see the results!

  10. wonderful post! i, too, am scared to even imagine owning a home in a very expensive city (DC). this gave me hope! i really can’t wait to see how you fixed it up!

    1. We did expand our search out of the city and into more suburban areas (I’ll talk about that a bit more in the next post!), which helped with the house prices.

  11. I love this so very much! Having been through the home buying/selling experience, I love hearing how others experiences were. I can’t wait to read more about Sara and Mac’s journey into home ownership!

  12. Congratulations to both of you! This is such an exciting and smart milestone. We just sold the home that we lovingly built 25 years ago. Two competing offers were submitted; one with and one without a personal letter. Guess which one was accepted (even though it was just slightly lower). Your advice on including a narrative is spot on. I look forward to see the metamorphosis!

  13. OMG YAY, please please bring us on your home renovation journey! I love Sara’s style and voice and it’s so refreshing to read about someone who feels so approachable/like me in both age and budget. Reminds me of the old EHD days!!! Congrats on your new home!!!

    1. Don’t worry, I’m bringing you all along! I’m working hard on the next post and we’re deep into renovation, but starting to see the light.

  14. Interesting post! Have a good friend just finishing the buying process in Los Angeles and I’m telling you-thank god I live somewhere else. Also wondering if you will speak to any obstacles when buying with someone you are not married to? Did you have a harder time with loans etc? And do you have a contract between you if something happens? Just curious, have heard all different stories.

    1. It was a little more paper work, but on a whole not any more difficult! The only thing we had to do was each fill out our own sets of paperwork, instead of being able to fill them out as a married couple. And we do have a legal agreement about what would happen to the house in any number of unfortunate situations.

  15. Congratulations! I can’t wait to see the afters.
    For those of you reading the comments for additional advice on the home buying process, I offer the following:
    As a real estate attorney, the points about having both a good loan officer and realtor are spot on. Having a realtor who knows the area you are looking in is so so important, as is one who understands your wants and needs and is willing to walk you through the process–especially when you are buying for the first time. Don’t just use any realtor recommended by a friend. Meet with/interview a few.
    One note about pre-approval and mortgages in general. Most banks will pre-approve borrowers for a loan way higher than most people’s actual budgets can afford, so talking to the loan officer about home prices that match your actual budget is super important before you start house hunting. And finally, pre-approval letters are as valuable as the piece of paper they are printed on. No bank who pre-approves you is legally obligated to approve you for a loan, even if it is within the loan amount you are pre-approved for. So, while realtors sell the idea of needing a pre-approval letter to make your offer look good to sellers, know they are meaningless during your actual loan application process.

  16. This post has a lot of great tips! Just wanted to mention that getting pre-approved doesn’t quite translate to waiving the financing contingency. It’s more of a way to get the ball rolling so when you find a house you like you are ready to make an offer. Once you’re pre-approved a lender can give you a better idea of whether you can then waive a financing contingency with your offer. You will still have to get officially “approved”. They will still mull over your finances up until the day of closing to make sure you can afford the house.

  17. Congrats on the new house!

    I do have to say, I always laugh when I see people say their house hunt was a long 4-8 months. For me it was 4 1/2 years In South Los Angeles. I was up against the same issues you were, I wanted houses developers wanted in the pits of the recession but our budget in LA was $200,000. Eventually we were in a better financial place to buy at $335,000, but I do have to say I disagree with going with whatever your lender says you can afford. We also were looking at houses that were 100+ years old and severe deferred maintenance. I actually was really offended by realtors at open houses who’s response to me was constantly “Have you been preapproved lately? You may be preapproved for more than before.” I kept telling them “I know what I can afford.” I did not budge on that and I think it’s important to know WHAT YOU CAN AFFORD. I don’t care if a lender says they’ll give me more money. If I feel like I’m waking up in a cold sweat at night and having panic attacks over my mortgage payments while I have to save up for a $50,000 foundation project, that’s not smart. We also did Conventional with 10% down. My down payment came from literally 20 years of hoarding money (tax returns, bonus job money, shifting monthly amounts to savings). We had PMI, but refi’d out of it 7 months in as our house appraised to show 20% equity at that point and we had a credit for the closing costs so it only cost the amount of the appraisal!

    I never understood how FHA is useful in LA. Many of us are often buying at an amount that is really pushing our limits. . . it was so important to me to have those monthly payments be as small as possible, with less down and higher pmi than conventional and interest rates, you have a higher monthly payment. Then again I am someone who has never had credit card debt. I never spend more than i can afford so I am really anal about knowing my limits, and not being in financial trouble. Letters didn’t work for us since they were mostly foreclosures, the one house that was an estate selling their father’s house didn’t care. They took a cash off because it was a sure thing. It’s brutal here. I legit felt so small in that 4 1/2 years. My down payment, my years of living in my means, my 840 credit score LOL all meant nothing. Cash is king and here I am at another open house where I am the only person here looking who wants to live here. All developers. It caused some level of depression for sure and we too had to buy a house that was in a price range where a developer had no room to make money and I’m so happy with the house we have.

    I would also not wait inspection contingencies. Theses new normals for competing really upset me. Our sellers asked us for a quick close and inspection period to be 7 days.

    Sorry if this was a lot, but I feel your pain especially when you are considered to be on the low end of affording housing in Los Angeles. The market here is not normal.

    1. 100% AGREE that what you are pre-approved for is usually ridiculous and not actually realistic. I ran a lot of numbers, and used the Zillow Mortgage Calculator to get to a number I felt comfortable with and stuck to that like glue! I found the entire closing process to be unbelievably stressful because I was constantly having to stress what we could ACTUALLY afford, and the closing costs, interest rate, etc seemed to be in constant flux.

      I will say that FHA totally worked for my husband and I, but we were lucky enough to find perhaps the cheapest house in all of LA County and were willing to take on a MASSIVE renovation, so the monthly payment was still affordable. We also had zero debt (aside from student loans) and good credit; always helpful. Finally, we bought in an area where our home values were going up. Our house has appreciated quite drastically in the last 2 years due to market improvements and the reno we did, so we only had to pay PMI for about 18 months before we were able to refinance out of it. Every house is going to be different, but I feel blessed every day that we pulled it off!

    2. That is a LONG time, and now I feel so lucky that our search was under a year! Even our 8 month search was emotionally depleting, and I 100% feel your pain about how small you feel when competing with developers. But the most important part that I agree with you about is MAKING SURE YOU CAN AFFORD THE MONTHLY MORTGAGE. I can’t stress that enough too! Like I said above, we were approved for more than we actually ended up using because we ran numbers and figured out the range of monthly mortgage we would actually be able to afford, which brought our price range lower than what we were approved for. And I feel you on all the things buyers are asked to do in order to be competitive. There were so many offers we were outbid on because someone else was willing to waive an inspection contingency and agree to what felt like a 2 hour escrow period, haha. Which we obviously couldn’t do! But eventually it worked for us, and it sounds like it did for you too!

  18. Congrats Sara! Can’t wait to see what you do with the house. I also had an early morning fire in my apartment a few years ago and it was so traumatic, not to mention stressful, especially trying to figure out where to live after. It took about a year but I also ended up buying a condo with my then boyfriend (now husband) and the process of fixing up and decorating our new home was so healing and cathartic. Congrats again Sara, and PSA to all the renters out there: GET RENTERS INSURANCE!

  19. Congratulations on your new home!! What an exciting time for you! I’m 26 and two years ago my (now) husband and I bought our first home – a major fixer-upper that we’re still renovating – so this story is very familiar!

    The great advice here is to find professionals who can explain everything to you, and I would add, don’t be afraid to ask questions! It’s quite liberating and empowering to actually understand some of that home-buying jargon.

    We finally convinced our newly married friends (of the same age) to buy a home (like their offer was accepted last week)! If you have the money for a down payment and can commit to being in an area for a certain length of time, buying is always better than renting. Put money into something you’ll actually OWN instead of someone else’s pocket.

    I think the ‘money for a down payment’ part really holds people back, so I like that you touch on other types of loans that can really lower that amount. There are certain loans for first-time home buyers, and where I live (not sure if they’re available everywhere?) there are Rural Development (RD) loans. Definitely ask about your options!

    Another important part that you touched on is being pre-approved – This tells you how much the bank is willing to lend you, BUT that doesn’t mean that’s how much you can afford!!! Before we looked at houses, we downloaded a “loan calculator” app to determine what our monthly payment would be (by inputting the selling price, interest percentage, and term length of the loan). Then we input that number into our monthly budget to make sure we could swing it.

    Well, that turned into a novel.. I just love this topic and wish more (especially young) people would talk about it. Sara, you did a great job explaining everything!! Congrats again!

    1. As the owner of three properties I have to say, buying is not ALWAYS better than renting. Circumstances differ. But it can feel better !

  20. Congratulations on the home!!! I am so excited for the series! While I LOVE the blog, I feel like the recent projects (looking at you gorgeous mountain house & Portland project) have been a bit more out of reach so I’m looking forward to following this journey. Thanks Sara and Mac for being so open about what it takes to own a home. My boyfriend and I bought our first home last year and there’s no way we could have done the down payment without family help.

    1. What I’m realizing is that most people have family help (at least their first time), which has made us feel so much better 🙂 But also realizing we’re incredibly lucky to have families that are in positions to have helped us (though to be completely transparent, they expect us to pass along the help to my brother when it’s his turn to buy a house).

      1. Oh my goodness, that is the coolest thing – they’re asking for a “pay it forward” method of paying it back. Hopefully your brother can pay it forward to someone else in the family too at some point.

        Don’t feel bad about having family help – lot’s of people have family help, whether it’s just that their parents paid for their college so now they don’t have student loans to worry about, or maybe they let them move back in for a year or two after college so that they could save up a down payment. It may not literally be in the form of gifted/loaned money for a down payment, but family help of some kind is something to be grateful for, not ashamed of.

  21. Congratulations Sara and Macauley! It is such an exciting feeling to own your first home, especially in this very tight and competitive market. You will make this house your own, and I have no doubt that it will be gorgeous!

  22. We bought our home in the San Francisco Bay Area with an FHA loan. 2.3% down paymeeent! Ours was a total mess as well, and similar to yours, one that the flippers didn’t want to deal with, and it had “scary flaws” normal sane people wouldn’t go for.

    We have redone the roof (it was raining inside when we bought the place), the foundation, the sewer lateral, the gas lines and meters, the electrical panel, added a heating system, painted the house, rebuilt the front stairs, added a sump pump, repaired half a dozen windows, added new plumbing and plaster repairs, asbestos removal and some old fire and pest damage. And those costs were rolled into the FHA loan, to bring it up to habitable levels, so the overall loan was the purchase price + the renovation costs.

    We’ve since tiled the bathroom, rebuilt the back yard fences, framed future rooms downstairs.
    Next up we’re embarking on phase 2: a new kitchen, and combining the units back to it’s original single family layout. We will finally, after 5 years, have a real kitchen, with an actual stove instead of hotplates, and a DISHWASHER. I’m beyond psyched.

  23. Thanks for this post! We bought in LA 6 years ago and had many of the same struggles and issues. Definitely bought the $fallingapart house on a nice street. Now we’re looking into getting a HELOC loan and doing some major upgrades and it’s definitely scary to know who is the best lender and how to find the best contractor and all that craziness.

    Congrats! Looking forward to seeing more!

    1. Haha I know, so many people told us to buy “the worst house on the best street” and I was like “what if we can only afford the worst house on a moderate to bad street?” But we actually ended up getting very lucky with our area!

      1. Yes! The market is so outrageous right now, I’m so happy you were able to find this! It’s that little bit of magic in life that every now and then works in your favor. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

        Our house was a rental for over 20 years before we moved in so it was very poorly maintained. Now that we’re about to take some walls down I’m kind of terrified about what we will find. I need all the $fallingapart scary reno tips!

  24. I think people would be really surprised by how “possible” it is to buy your first home, even somewhere like LA. My husband a went through this same process about 2 1/2 years ago (blessedly, we didn’t have a fire to motivate us), and what seemed completely impossible became a reality pretty quickly. You are totally right that there are other options if you don’t have at least a 10% down payment – we had an FHA Renovation loan (where you can roll some or all of the cost of the renovation the home needs into your mortgage loan), and we only had to put down 3.5%! I tell people how small our down payment was (about $15k), and they’re SHOCKED.

    Having a good realtor (to talk you off the ledge) and a good mortgage broker (to trust in this crazy world) are key. I still think the entire housing industry is completely inscrutable and that our entire economy is being held together by thread and tissue paper, but whatever. I own a house! In LA!

    Can’t wait to see your renovation posts. We gutted our place, and man have we got some crazy stories! Hopefully, your reno went a little more smoothly, lol!

    1. We didn’t mean to gut our place, but we definitely have in a few areas. WHOOPS.

  25. I wish I had this 4 years ago! One other tip I learned is to not focus TOO much on listed square footage. The house we ultimately bought was missing nearly ~1,000 sqft on the Redfin listing. It turned out that the house was a foreclosure and the bank basically put zero effort into the listing, leading to the inaccurate square footage. The inaccurate square footage on the listing worked in our favor though, since it likely drove a lot of potential buyers away. The house buying is a PROCESS so be prepared to spend your weekends visiting places that likely won’t fit the bill

    1. I recently purchased my first place and this was one of the many surprising things I learned along the way. Never trust the listing. For better or worse, it’s a rough approximation.

  26. Your photo captioned “Stay tuned to see how this… turned into this…” gives me anxiety re-living my own recent fixer purchase and restoration in Sonoma County last summer. While pulling down suspect sheetrock a nest of carpenter ants dumped on my head! From gutting the kitchen for a complete redo to refinishing the hardwood floors doing all the work myself it has been quite an adventure filled with much frustration, joy and satisfaction.

    A cover letter was also key to ending my 5 month search. I had become somewhat cynical and hesitated including it in what would be my 6th offer but I did and I beat out an all cash offer by a winery owner for his daughter.

    I wish you luck and remember to celebrate the little victories along the way

    1. Your ant comment gave me shivers, so gross. We found so many disgusting things under our floors.

  27. An excellent post that is informative.
    As a seller two years ago my house was in a “hot” market in North Texas. It was crazy how the home prices were changing weekly.
    I moved out and left the house in the capable hands of my contractor and realtor.
    The one thing I was adamant about was I wanted to do my part to keep my neighborhood affordable for single people or a young family . I told my realtor I did not want to see any offers from investors. Yes, I probably walked away from $20,000…..but I have never regretted it. I had twenty offers the first weekend. The ones with letters touched my heart as they were young families trying to buy their first home. The first two I selected had signed a contract the same weekend.
    But the third family I picked was still holding out hope. They had three little girls that would all be able to walk to the elementary school.
    So if I discriminated against a person with deep pockets because I wouldn’t look at an investor’s offer ……I am not apologizing about that.
    Soeaking from my experience as a seller….those letters absolutely do make a difference.
    Another item I would like to mention is that if you live in a state that offers homestead exemptions for property taxes, be sure you inquire about how that can save you money on your monthly payment after the first year.
    So many people forget or don’t realize the state they live in offers that option if you are living in the house you purchased.
    Looking forward to seeing your house renovations.

    1. Mac and I aren’t even thinking about selling yet (we’ll need to live here at least 10 years to make it worth it, more likely 15) – and I even have dreams about just staying forever and adding an addition if we need more space eventually. But if we ever do sell I really hope that we’re able to keep our own experience in mind.

  28. LOVED THIS! Congratulations Sara and Mac!! Thank you for putting the home buying journey into more digestible bites! It is such an overwhelming process and I do believe your personal note with the offer made all the difference! Can’t wait to see whats to come!

  29. Sara I would sell you my house after reading your statement! ? Seriously though – what a great post with a lot of good information. Navigating the house-buying process can be so tricky. Can’t wait to see more photos! ?

  30. Such a cute house! What a shame about your apartment, though. I LOVE those apartment buildings.

    Real Estate in L.A. is insane. Insane! I know people who have dropped the inspection contingency, and that would be so super scary for me. Looking forward to seeing all your improvements!

  31. Houston, TX chiming in here. Fiance and I started our hunt for our first-ever house (both sides) in earnest just after Enron imploded. The news was full of stories daily about couples who both worked for Enron (I was astonished how many there were) and used their entire salaries to maintain their homes, cars, lifestyle, etc so when they both lost their jobs at the same time, they lost everything. The banks and brokers told us, “You’re jointly approved for $X” but we shook our heads wildly and said, nuh-huh! I do believe it delayed our search (nearly two years) but we finally bought a house that was affordable on a single salary and even though our 30-year fixed mortgage has not changed a dime, property taxes and homeowner’s insurance have skyrocketed (thank you, Gulf Coast hurricanes and numerous roof-ripping tornadoes they spawn) so we’re beyond grateful not to be in the classic house-rich, cash-poor scenario today. So do consider that if you’re looking – what if your area becomes “hot” as ours has and the tax assessor notices? We have equity but that’s all paper value until the day we actually sell. What if your area is hit by a natural disaster and HOI rates go up across the board? What if you have children and one of you wants to stay home with them? Etc.

  32. Some constructive criticism: It would be really helpful with so many contributing writers if there was a photo next to the authors name and if the name was also a hyperlink to their other posts. I can’t keep track of this many people and find not knowing who I am reading really diminishes the experience of the blog.

    Congratulations Sara & Mac! It’s such a cute house, I love the exterior! Can’t wait to see what you do with it.

  33. This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger.I’ve joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more oof your excellent post.Also, I hve shared your site in my sodial networks!

  34. Best tip I ever received before buying my first house was to buy the smallest/most affordable house possible that would allow me to “live large” as I defined it. When realtors and my mortgage lender were both cajoling me to buy bigger because I afforded it my mindset kept them at bay. As a result, I spent less, had more $$ to put into making the house a home, and paid my mortgage off far sooner than had I heeded their advice to get more house than I really needed.

  35. SF resident here – the market is so competitive here and overpriced that it is not unusual for buyers to waive BOTH the loan contingency AND inspection contingency… basically promising to find the money somehow, someway and assuming responsibility for any problems that arise from the inspection, even if they’re dire and not originally known. It’s rough out there in California! I’m glad that LA hasn’t succumb to this.

    My realtor in SF also said that personal statements go a long way still, so it does seem to be a California thing, for what its worth.

    Sara – I’ve been following your renovation on your instagram stories. I loved how you made your previous rental “your own” and can’t wait to see what you do with your own home! You add a fresh approach to EHD because of your age and budget – it’s definitely more relatable to someone like me who is also in the home-buying process for the first time!

  36. I’m excited to see how this house comes along. Nice to see something a bit more accessible budget wise and house size wise. Congrats!

  37. Congratulations on buying your first home, so exciting!

    I wonder what the parameters are, surrounding the “love” letter to the homeowner.

    As a realtor, I discourage these types of letters as they could be perceived as a Fair Housing violations – when you mentioned your Christmas tree, your familial status, the photo, etc.

    Did your realtor press any concerns about that? Just curious, thanks!

  38. I am a Realtor in Souther California and am so happy you wrote this post!!!! I advise clients on the same things. Getting a Realtor that knows your area is key, and your comment on contingency removals is right on. So Cal is expensive and has been extremely competitive. Good job getting the right advise and the right people to help make your dreams come true. Looking forward to your post-purchase story.

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