What I Learned

For the first time homeowners describe their forays into the tangled task of purchasing  a new home, and share their best advice to help you find your perfect new home.

Kim Niro, 32, looked at a total of eight houses during her six-month home search in 2003.

"My Realtor was so good at weeding things out for me," Niro says. "Her goal was to keep me under 10 houses; she didn't want me to waste my time looking at properties that weren't right for me."

Niro was clear about what she wanted. "First of all, affordability - something that I could do on my own as a young professional and something that wasn't going to require a lot of fixing up but still had the old charm of the older homes in those quaint little neighborhoods," she says.
She found the perfect mix of price and content in Cleveland's Old Brooklyn neighborhood in August 2003.

"I knew it the minute I walked in the door," she says. "The kitchen and bathroom had been remodeled. It had a full bath in the basement. It had hardwood floors that I loved; built-in cabinets in the dining room. It had a big front porch, which I loved, and a fenced-in back yard. It felt like the right size for me."

Kim's tips for finding the right house in your budget:

1| Be wary of looking at houses in a higher price range just because you're offered a big loan. The bank may look at your strong credit rating and approve you for a $160,000 mortgage loan. But, "they are not taking into consideration a lot of things that you have to pay for on a monthly basis," Niro says.

To counteract that problem, Niro carefully laid out her budget. "I wrote out all of my bills, what I had to spend each month and where I wanted to be ? I did not want to be in a position where I couldn't afford to pay for other things outside of my mortgage." Not wanting to be strapped by a house payment, Niro set her sights much lower than the amount she pre-approved for and her monthly mortgage ended up being cheaper than her previous rent of $900. She now pays less than $800 for her mortgage, taxes and insurance combined.

2| Never look at homes out of your price range. "You'll see something that has more square footage or a newer kitchen, and then the stuff [in your range] that you end up looking at - you feel like you are settling. So don't even tempt yourself."

3| Be ready to negotiate, be willing to walk away. "Some people aren't very fair in their asking price," Niro says. "Find out what the owner of the house paid for the house." She notes that homebuyers can access the info on Cuyahoga County's Web site for free. "Even if you love the house, those are the houses that you have to walk away from if they are not willing to come down in price, because you may never see the return on that investment."

4| Check out the neighborhood. Drive through the community at different hours - at night and during the day. If the neighbors are outside, don't be afraid to ask them questions about the area.

One of the biggest reasons Lydia Bishara, 31, wanted to make the leap to homeownership was to take advantage of the tax write-off. She was single and had been living in an apartment for four years. "I wanted to buy a house so I was putting my money toward an investment instead of wasting it on rent," she says. Bishara opted for a four-bedroom home in West Park in July 2005.

"When I walked through the house there was absolutely nothing that I had to do," she says. "The windows were newer and the carpeting was newer. It was remodeled before I moved in and there was only one room that I had to paint and that was it."

Even though her mortgage payment is double what her rent was, she is glad she took the leap.
"I love having the house and I love being able to do my own thing with it," she says.

Lydia's tips for an effective search:

1| Take it one step at a time. "It was kind of scary and at times it was overwhelming. There is so much you don't know and it seems like when you start the process there is just that much more that you don't know," Bishara says. "My Realtor was really great. She took me step-by-step through everything, and my financial person was the same way. That was a big part of it."

2| You're not always as ready as you think you are. This was the second time around for Bishara; she looked for houses three years ago and never found the right place. "I looked for about a year the first time but honestly I think that I wasn't ready, so I nitpicked," she says. "There were plenty of decent houses - but I just kept finding some reason to not want it."

3| Keep an open mind. Bishara ended up buying a bungalow instead of the ranch she desired originally. "What I wanted was a ranch with a finished basement or a partially finished basement; I ended up with slab bungalow - and bungalows were my least favorite houses," she says. "This house was so well put together, I just really liked it."

About a month before Jim and Rebecca Kodysh got married, they began looking for a starter home in Cleveland. Renters in West Park already, Jim, 26, and Rebecca, 27, knew they wanted an older home with some character.

"We wanted a house that had at least three bedrooms, with a newer roof [and] appliances, and we really liked the Tudor-style home with brick," Rebecca says. "At first we wanted to buy a house on a side street because we eventually want to have a family. But in the end we bought a house on a busier street."

When the couple discovered the traffic lights were timed, they knew they couldn't pass up such a great house just because it didn't perfectly fit their original criteria.

"We got a lot of house for our money," she says about the Tudor home they bought in 2005. "It has a huge back yard, a four-car garage and lot of character. We love it. We really lucked out in a lot of ways and I think a lot of that was due to our Realtor's help."

Jim and Rebecca's tips for making the right choice:

1| Make sure you're properly represented. "If you are going to look at a house up for sale by a Realtor, I think it's important that you have a Realtor before you go - you want to make sure that your interests are covered too," Rebecca says. If you don't, things can get tricky. For instance, if you sign an open-house book and say that you are not working with a Realtor, you are technically the client of the Realtor who is selling the house.

2| Make a decision or someone else will make it for you. Jim and Rebecca fell in love with a house but lost it to a quicker buyer. "It happened so fast," she says. "After that experience, we learned you've got to make a decision because things get bought fast."

3| Think long and hard about buying a fixer-upper. While it appeals to your romantic, creative side, a fixer-upper isn't always fun and games; usually, it's a lot of hard work. "We figured we could get a fixer-upper and do some painting and interior decorating ourselves," Kodysh says. "We were looking forward to [it], and we thought we could save a little bit of money that way. The home we ended up with was not much of a fixer-upper and I'm kind of glad. Now when I think about it, if we were spending every weekend working on the house, it would be crazy."

At the end of the first year of his orthopedic residency at University Hospitals of Cleveland, 27-year-old Raymond Liu got engaged to fellow doctor Caryn Tong - who would soon be moving to Cleveland to work at UH - and started looking for a place they could call home together.

"We were looking for a standard three- to four-bedroom home and we wanted to buy in Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights or University Heights," he says. "We definitely wanted something close to the hospital that would be convenient. Since we spend so much time working, we don't want to spend that much time commuting."

Less than a month after the couple enlisted their Realtor, they found a great house in the Forest Hills community of Cleveland Heights.

Raymond's tips for getting the most out of your search:

1| Enlist the help of a professional Realtor. "There are a lot of resources on the Internet. They're definitely helpful, but I think getting good help, person-wise, is the most important thing," Liu says. "My fiancée and I tend to be the type of people that do everything on the Internet. But in terms of getting a house, I think getting actual people to tell how things work is much more important since it's such a complicated process."

2| Take time to reflect before you begin. This might seem like obvious advice, but the more you tell a Realtor about what you're looking for, the more they can help you. "It's hard to tell people what you want until you have really looked at a bunch of houses and thought about and tried to imagine yourself living in those homes and knowing what you really need."

3| Always consider the resale value. "Resale was huge for us because we are only going to be in Cleveland for five years total," Liu says. "We're both originally from L.A.; both of us will have more training left when we are done here, but we're hoping to finish that up in California."

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