Advice for First-Time Homeowners – Thrillist
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Millennials made up 43% of home buyers last year, many of them purchasing for the first time. But once you actually close on the house and move in, the real challenge starts: learning how to take care of a house and all its associated maintenance. I learned this first-hand when my husband and I bought our first home in 2021 after 13 years of renting. The past 11 months have been a crash course in homeownership; learning how to deal with everything from a gas leak on move-in day, to a broken pipe that caused a hole in our kitchen ceiling, to water in the basement. If you are a fellow first-time homeowner, or planning to soon become one, here’s a look at what I wish I knew at the start.
Chat up your neighbors
Getting to know your neighbors is necessary for feeling integrated into your new community, but being friendly with your block has more concrete benefits, too. Neighbors, especially if they’ve lived on your street for many years, can also be a great source of knowledge about your house. Case in point: It only took one conversation with a new neighbor the day I moved in to solve the mystery of why there was a disconnected generator on our property, something various agents and inspectors had been unable to answer. Neighbors may be able to tell you about renovations that previous owners did and why, or whether or not basements on the street tend to flood during a storm. (This is also the kind of info that can be hard to discern from sellers during a buying process.) Also, remember to exchange numbers: It’s always good to be able to reach somebody close by in case of emergency, or if you just need someone to grab a package while you’re out of town.
Get to know your local building department
If you plan to do any major renovations to your new house, you will likely need to file some sort of permit, and that means going through your local building department. It helps to get familiar with local ordinances early — you know, before you get your heart set on expanding your patio or building on a garage — so that you know exactly what’s allowed and required. Call and ask questions of the building department staff and remember that these are the people with the power to approve or deny your applications, so politeness and friendliness can go a long way. And if you didn’t pull the property records while you were buying your home, make sure you do so now — they can be a wealth of knowledge on any work that’s been done on the house over the years.
Prepare to be ghosted by contractors
One domino effect of the recent home buying boom happening in tandem with a labor shortage is that most contractors have more work than they can actually take on — which can make booking a plumber or electrician or mason quite a challenge. Prepare yourself for a lot of contractors not calling you back, coming out to give quotes for work and never sending said quotes, and so on. Like online dating, finding the right contractor takes persistence. Line up at least three people to give you a quote for the work, and be aggressive about following up. Because most contractors won’t charge for quotes, they’re basically working for free — let them know you’re motivated to move forward with the work; an assurance that you’ll become a paying customer may help to move things along.
Don’t beat yourself up for what you don’t know
Making the leap from renter to homeowner is a huge change, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the new things you have to learn, from how to fix a plumbing leak, or unclog a drain, or clean your gutters. Just remember that despite the doomsaying headlines about millennials having “no life skills,” there was no reason for you to know any of this stuff before now! So take a breath, give yourself a little grace, and use this as an opportunity to seek the help of older, wiser homeowners, such as parents or other relatives (they’ll likely be thrilled that you called).
Make YouTube your new best friend
You may already use YouTube for movie trailers and makeup tutorials, but it’s also a treasure trove of DIY homeowner content. Need to figure out how to stop your faucet from leaking, snake a clogged drain, or clean your refrigerator’s condenser coils? There’s probably a YouTube video on it, even down to nuances for specific appliance models. So before you think “I have no idea how to do this myself,” do some quick searching and see if someone else has already figured out the answer for you.
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Pace yourself on renovations
It’s exciting when buying your first home to think about all the updates you want to make to truly make it your own — but unsurprisingly, those costs can add up fast. Remember that a home is a long-term investment and resist the urge to start changing everything at once. Instead, be realistic about your budget for renovations in your first year, and focus on projects that will make the biggest difference to you. If you’re an avid cook but the kitchen is ancient, or if you love being outside but the landscaping needs an overhaul, choose to start there. For those who (understandably!) drained most of their budget just buying the home, focus on smaller-cost DIY projects that can have a big aesthetic impact, like painting and changing out door knobs. Pacing yourself also allows you to actually spend time living there before you commit to changing everything — after a few months, you may find that light fixture you thought you hated is actually kind of charming.
Learn how to maintain your appliances
When you’re renting an apartment, you tend not to think much about the appliances unless something breaks — and that’s when you call in your landlord to take care of fixing it. The hard truth of homeownership is that you’re now the one who has to figure out how to repair things (and pay for it), which means you should be motivated to keep your appliances running smoothly. Get familiar with basic maintenance: changing air filters, cleaning your oven, replacing your water filter, and winterizing your outdoor faucets, to name a few. A quick internet search can usually turn up owner’s manuals for your specific model number and let you know how often these tasks need to be performed. Drop notes on your calendar to remind yourself when to complete these tasks so that you can stay on top of maintenance — because it’s much easier (and cost-effective) to maintain what you already have than have to replace it.
Ask a lot of questions
When you do need to call in the pros for a repair or a renovation project, become friendly with your contractor or serviceperson and ask lots of questions. Want to know what that wire does, or where that pipe goes? Just ask! Tradespeople are experts in their crafts and are usually happy to share their knowledge. They may even be willing to take a look at another issue in addition to what you initially called them out for, and if it’s a small fix, help you out for no extra cost. Just remember to be respectful of their time and ask if they need to rush to their next appointment before you pepper them with questions or ask them to look at something else.
Get a contractor list from the previous owner
Houses unfortunately don’t come with user manuals, which means figuring out how everything works will be a lot of trial and error. When things were last serviced is often a big question mark, as is why a repair was done a certain way, or even what may exist in areas of the home you can’t easily see (like underground landscape drainage). Asking the sellers to provide you with a list of contractors they’ve used in the past can be hugely helpful in filling in some of these blanks, if they’re willing to provide one. This doesn’t mean you have to continue using these same contractors if you don’t like them, but calling them out for an initial visit can often pay off in gaining background knowledge about your home.
Divide and conquer the projects
When we first moved in, my next-door neighbor told me that the first year of home-ownership will feel like a part-time job, and nearly a year later, I can say that’s absolutely accurate. If you’re living with a partner, help manage this workload by splitting up who will be in charge of which tasks and try to play to each other’s strengths. If one of you is super-organized, take charge of contacting contractors and following up on quotes and work orders. If one of you isn’t afraid to get your hands dirty, take on more manual tasks like landscaping or changing out fixtures. Last, be honest with each other about what you’re willing to DIY vs. outsource — don’t assume that just because you’re willing to spend a weekend painting the basement that your partner is too. Being transparent with each other about how you are comfortable contributing will keep you both on the same page, and turn you into homeownership pros in no time.