There are few things in life more exciting and terrifying in equal measure than buying your first home (although I have friends who would argue that marriage and having children would top the list).

When you’re considering buying your first home, there are so many things you need to consider: mortgage rates, property taxes, hidden assessment fees and that’s before you even do a home inspection or deal with the hassle of moving.

Even when you are working with a Chicagoland real estate broker, it helps to hear personal stories from friends, families, and neighbors who have experience buying and selling homes.

Your real estate broker will guide you through the process of searching for a home, help you place an offer that will stand out from the competition and propel you towards a successful close on the perfect home. Even so, there is much to learn from the personal anecdotes of others who have walked in your shoes already.

Here are some important pieces of advice from Chicagoland home buyers who have already navigated the search for the perfect home — and want to help you succeed, too.

Organize your finances ahead of time

Get finance approval first. Find out how much of a loan you can secure, then don’t spend that much. I had great credit, so I was approved for twice the amount of my final purchase price.

I had a spreadsheet where I logged each place I looked at (51…yes I looked at 51 condos). It had built into it a multiplier that would calculate my monthly mortgage payment. I had columns to add in parking (because some were included in the purchase, but others were monthly), insurance, electric, cable, taxes, etc. to give me what everything home related would cost me monthly.

I was determined to not be house poor, but have what I needed in a neighborhood where I would be comfortable.”

-Mary Kay H., Gold Coast

Save for those unexpected expenses

“Don’t blow your budget on the house, because as soon as you move in, there’s a lot to furnish. More importantly, something expensive will always need to be repaired or replaced.

On our first day in our first house, there was a random leak where the water service from the village met up with our interior pipes. A year or two later we came home to a basement flood because our water heater had quit on us and leaked all over the floor.

If you buy an older house with original windows, it’s smart to replace them with energy efficient ones, especially if the previous owner left a sock in one to block air leaks.”

-Kim M, Chicago Suburbs 

Watch out for hidden assessment fees

“Find a good real estate attorney who can break down all of the condo association history, budgets and meeting minutes for you. Knowing your monthly assessment amount is one thing, but you may need to be prepared for a special assessment or a big increase depending on what that information reveals about the state of the building’s structure and finances.”

-Anne C., West Lakeview

Look for “what’s behind the walls”

“We bought a condo in 2009 that we knew would take a lot of work. You could just see it: ugly paint colors, battered trim, unfortunately, placed walls and even missing doors.

The important part is that the shoddy and haphazard state of what you could see foreshadowed what you couldn’t. We learned the hard way that a ‘fixer upper’ means fixing the unsexy things you can’t see.

Since then, we’ve gut renovated three rooms and have had to rebuild floors, reconstruct and add studs, rewire, replumb, re-drywall, and on and on.

The real expense is in what you can’t see because that’s the stuff that requires expertise to fix, and you just can’t do yourself. And some things you just never know until you open up walls. So from our first project on, I made sure our Boring But Important Structural Things to Pretty Visible Things budget ratio was about 2:1.

Now that the memory of how hard the renovations were is starting to fade, it feels like it was all worth it – our home is perfect.”

-Nora S., East Lakeview

If you live in the city, consider walkability

“When we were ready to leave our beloved 3-BR condo in Roscoe Village (baby #2 was on the way), my husband had us do this exercise where he and I took seven or so home qualities (size, location, walkability, school district, price, etc.) and we ranked them independently, then compared our answers.

Both of us ranked home size over walkability. I think we were wooed by the home we fell in love with (lot and a half, super roomy and open, 5+ bedrooms. We took walkability for granted, having lived in Roscoe Village for 10 years. Our new home is only 1 mile away, in North Center, and while we do love the home, we hate that it’s not really near anything. To walk to the very southern border of Lincoln Square takes a solid 20 minutes with the kids in a stroller, or (literally) forever with them walking.”

-Lisa G, North Center

Keep it all in perspective

“Homes are like partners. Make sure you can live with exactly what you see and don’t assume you can change everything you want to.”

-Lizz P., Oak Park

Written by Maris Callahan
Maris is the director of communications at @properties. She lives in Wicker Park and when she's not at work, she's usually cooking, reading, writing or walking the 606 with her chihuahua, Henry.