Jump on in: a first-time homebuyer’s diary

Neophyte house hunters find their diamond in the rough

Buying your first home is a little like antiquing. You either look at a lot of junk before you find something great, or you look at a lot of nice but expensive stuff before you find something affordable. But if you hang in there, you're bound to find a good fit.

My fianc and I began house hunting this February. By the end of April we closed on our house. Now, we're in the throes of home improvement plans and projects.

We've learned a few lessons every prospective homeowner should know - and that you probably won't find in a guidebook.

#1 Know thyself … and those other people living with you We knew what we wanted -- at least, my fianc knew what he wanted and I knew what I wanted. Him: two-car garage, fenced-in yard, a finished basement and central air conditioning. Me: nice kitchen, solid residential neighborhood, a sense of character/charm and central air conditioning. Decide these things in advance and don't let go of them.

#2 Looks can be deceiving Next, we needed a realtor. My fianc checked out a real estate Web site, read a few realtor's bios and called the one with the most awards by his name. The following weekend, we had an appointment to view three houses with our award-winner.

The first house we saw was beautiful -- an early 1900s home with hardwood floors, a built-in buffet, a fireplace and detailed woodwork. It was also $45,000 more than we wanted to spend.

From the outside, the next house (a one-and-a-half story brick number on a quiet street) was pretty cute. But the inside was anything but. We were struck by the smell of neglected cats and years of cigarette smoke, and the fact that it was still $17,000 over our price range.

The third place was OK. It had a big, brand new kitchen, but we couldn't handle the room with the green tinted "wood" paneling or the nightmare pink bathroom -- pink sink, pink shower, even a pink toilet -- and the fact that it was $30,000 above our top price.

We made our price range clear and tried to tell the realtor we couldn't afford these houses, but our award-winning realtor seemed hard of hearing.

#3 Assistance can be found in unexpected places We decided to find a new house hunter. (Note: We had not signed a contract with the first one.) I was less than excited when my fianc called me from a bar to tell me that the bartender was to be our new realtor. But our bartender/realtor turned out to be great. Sure, we spent time looking at places we would never live in, but at least they were within our price range.

The first house our bartender/realtor showed us was one I'd already seen on the Web. I thought this would be "The One" -- a two-story in a great neighborhood with a cute front porch and a back yard gazebo and Jacuzzi.

Then we went inside to look around … as best we could.

My 6-feet-3-inches-tall fianc had to duck to get through most doorways. The place seemed to have been papered over -- the kitchen and bathroom had cheap peel-and-stick floors that literally looked like contact paper. (The owners were betting on prospects that hadn't yet discovered rule #2.)

We saw another peel-and-stick floor throughout the main floor of another house. Apparently the previous owners spent all their time (and money) in the basement, which had a brand new tile floor, a built-in entertainment center and a wet bar -- nice for my fianc, the basement dweller, but not for me.

Then there was the house that time forgot, untouched since the 1960s. It even had the original stove. My fianc said it smelled "like death and mothballs."

#4 Dejected? Keep going anyway We were just about to give up. I decided to forget about the Web and checked the classifieds in the newspaper. I spotted an open house listing -- nice neighborhood, in our price range -- that had to be too good to be true. We drove to the open house anyway.

It was "The One."

It had all of our "wants." The living room had character (with cove ceilings and 1950s-esque built-in shelving). It was a dream kitchen (new in 2001, with maple cabinets, seamless countertops and new appliances). Plus it had central air and was located in a good neighborhood. That did it for me. With a big garage, finished basement and fenced-in yard, my fianc was set, too.

We tried to look nonchalant in front of the owners, but once we were back in the car, we called our bartender/Realtor to tell her we had found the "The One."

#5 Get preapproved, then let go and let the realtor That same night, we wrote up an offer for $2,000 under the asking price. But the next day, we got squeamish. What if there were other offers? What if they just laughed at us? Before our realtor presented this offer, we gave her some negotiating room -- we could go up to $2,000 over the asking price.

After the seesawing, we ended up paying the asking price.

Later, we learned the owners weren't considering offers below their asking price. Apparently, they also had another offer that same day but went with ours because we were preapproved for a home loan.