I'm a financial planner and just bought my first house, and I learned 3 unexpected home-buying lessons along the way

  • As a financial planner, I was confident about the money side of things going into my home-buying process, but I still learned some lessons I'd share with anyone.
  • First, there were red flags about our real estate agent that my wife and I ignored, like the fact that she always sent an associate to our viewings instead of showing us homes herself.
  • Our professionals — including our lender and closing attorney — also had a hard time communicating, which slowed down the home-buying process.
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My wife and I knew a lot about the financial aspects of the home-buying process before we bought our first home. I'm a financial planner, after all, and so we felt extremely comfortable with the numbers.

We ran multiple projections and engaged in some intense scenario planning to determine our budget. We saved up enough cash for a 20% down payment. We understood not just our potential mortgage principal and interest payments, but also knew to plan for taxes and insurance. And when we did finally buy, we got a good deal on the property we wanted.

In other words, we were really comfortable with the money side of things. But we still learned a lot about all the non-financial aspects of the process of purchasing a home, and came away with good lessons to carry forward if we buy real estate again in the future.

Always question your real estate agent

We chose a real estate agent based on a recommendation from someone we knew. Because our realtor got a glowing review and we liked her personally when we met, we felt we could trust her — but looking back, there were a lot of red flags we let slide, and shouldn't have.

The first is that we signed on to work with her specifically, but whenever we planned a day full of showings, another associate from her office was there to accompany us. We walked through exactly one house with her, and then never saw her in person again.

That associate also showed up three hours late to our home inspection, saying our realtor accidentally gave him the wrong time. I know mistakes happen, but the end result was we were there on our own with our inspector and the selling realtor and so lacked the presence of another party who was supposed to be on our side.

Because we had never bought a home before, we didn't know what to expect and therefore didn't realize that these were necessarily red flags. But looking back, I felt like our realtor essentially abandoned us, or just didn't care as long as we ended up buying a house and paying her commission.

I wish we had asked more questions about why she wasn't there for us or that we had simply walked away from that relationship to search for a realtor who would have worked harder for our interests.

Make sure the professionals working on your closing can coordinate with each other

In addition to a realtor, you'll need a closing attorney when you purchase a home. This is another professional who should be working for you and in your best interest. 

Our experience here was complicated by the pandemic; we were initially set to close on our home in March — until lockdowns and quarantines began.

Our attorney's office was not prepared to make a sudden and dramatic shift to working remotely, which is understandable — but the trouble was compounded by the fact that they were extremely difficult to communicate with, refused to answer calls and relied solely on email for complicated issues, and went MIA ahead of deadlines (that they then missed and had to reschedule).

A lot of the trouble we had here would have been avoided had we simply been able to get on a conference call with our attorney, the seller's attorneys, both realtors, and our bank. But these teams didn't have a history of working or collaborating together, and there was more than one he-said, she-said moment that led to a lot of finger-pointing and unnecessary delays.

Later, we learned from a new neighbor who had used the same attorney that they had the same experience that we did: it was down to us (and them, as the buyers) to be proactive and push the attorneys and bank contacts forward, and manage deadlines and communications between all the parties involved in the closing.

While it made us feel slightly better to know it wasn't just us who'd had this experience, the next time we go through this process we will look to interview both realtors and attorneys as part of the pre-house-search process — rather than wait to hire an attorney until there's a pending offer on a property. That way, we can choose professionals who have a history and knowledge of working together to help us with the transaction.

Don't be afraid to be aggressive

Buying a home is a massive commitment, personally and financially. While no one wants to be labeled as "difficult," you should be prepared to push back, demand answers, and hold people involved in the process with you accountable.

The biggest lesson we learned in the process of buying our first home is that we shouldn't worry about stepping on toes or just going with the flow because we don't want to offend anyone.

You don't have to be rude or offensive, but we also learned that we can't be afraid of being aggressive. As a buyer, it's on you to do your due diligence, run the inspections you need to, and press people for the information you need to make an informed decision. If the professionals around you aren't supportive of that effort, then it might be time to work with someone new.

There are a lot of houses for sale out there, and there are a lot of people who can help you with the transaction to buy one. Don't force a home that isn't the best fit for you — and don't settle for anything less than people working in your best interest to secure the home that is the right one.

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