I Meant to Rent an Apartment. Instead, I Bought a House in One of the Country’s Most Expensive Areas

A man and woman looking through the door of a house held open by a realtor.

Image source: Getty Images

Sometimes, even the best-laid plans don’t pan out.

Key points

  • Renters often have no control over how much their monthly payments go up or when they have to move out.
  • Buying a home can lead to a lower monthly payment, but there are other expenses to factor in, such as down payment and insurance.
  • A great real estate agent can help guide you through the home-buying process.

Several years ago, my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I were looking for a new apartment. Our landlord was selling our unit, so we began spending most of our free time looking at listings online and visiting open houses on weekends. We were living in the Bay Area and trying to find an affordable spot we could easily commute to San Francisco from, so you can probably guess how much luck we were having. In the two years we’d been living in our apartment, Oakland’s prices continued climbing around us, and we soon realized we had been priced out.

After what felt like the zillionth shabby, overpriced apartment viewing, my frustrated brain started wondering what it would be like to buy a place instead. We took a look at our finances, did a little math and a lot of talking, and realized it made more sense for us to look for a home of our own than to keep renting. And that’s how we ended up buying a house in one of the country’s most expensive locations. Here’s what that looked like.

Bringing in help

Our first step was to get some guidance. We found a great real estate agent who was able to explain every step of the process to us and was totally understanding of our situation as first-time home buyers. We didn’t know what contingencies were, what documents we needed to have ready, or what a mortgage pre-approval was. Our agent not only knew the Bay Area real estate market well, but was an excellent sounding board as we figured out what we wanted in our starter home.

We started going to open houses in different cities and neighborhoods, trying to find anything that would work for us. We had a hard move-out date from our apartment, so we were in a bit of a time crunch. After several weeks of searching, we found something.

The first house

The neighborhood wasn’t great, and it was listed at the tippity-top of our price range, but the house had been totally flipped inside. We were smitten, and worked with our real estate agent to draw up an offer. And, holy smokes, it was accepted! Our excitement lasted about a week, until the inspection day. Turns out, there was a huge crack in the foundation that had been “fixed” by the flippers with what our inspector described as a Band-Aid. He told us that with one big shake, the whole house could slide off the foundation. That’s not something you want to hear in earthquake country.

Thank goodness we hadn’t waived our contingencies, which many buyers do in hot markets to get their offers accepted. After discussion, we decided to back out of the deal and continue looking.

The second house

A home search is exhausting, especially after feeling like we were so close, but we kept at it. Another few weeks passed and our move-out date was approaching. One weekend, we wandered into an open house for a little place that seemed sound but very dated. It didn’t have the sparkle of the first house, but it didn’t have any major issues either. And it was listed for $150,000 less, which placed it comfortably within our budget. So comfortably, in fact, that we realized we could do the work to upgrade the house and make it shine.

We got very lucky; the house was in too good of shape (and price) to interest flippers, but not nice enough to interest move-in ready buyers. In the land of bidding wars, we placed the only offer — and were accepted. About a month later, we were handed the keys to our new home with a monthly payment that was about half of what the rent was on our apartment.

How we made it work

I recognize how extremely fortunate we were to be in the position to buy a house, because it’s not as simple as exchanging a rent for a mortgage payment. The expenses of home ownership span from insurance to regular maintenance to property taxes. And before all that, you have to save up enough for closing costs and a down payment, which ideally will be at least 20% of the purchase price. Because we were diligent savers, had budgeted ahead of time, and had chosen a (relatively) modestly priced home, we were able to make the move.

Having a real estate agent we trusted to walk us through the whole process made a huge difference as well. Buying a home can feel daunting, especially for first-time home buyers. We had lots of questions, and often felt like we didn’t know what we were doing. But we kept learning and kept talking things out before making any big decisions, and ended up with a little home that we could make our own.

Many people prefer to rent, even if they could buy. At the time, we felt that way, and would have loved to keep renting in our old neighborhood if we could have afforded it. But life doesn’t always go according to plan… be it Plan A (a new apartment) or Plan B (the flipped house) or Plan C (no renovations required). But Plan D (a fixer-upper!) ended up being the best choice we could have made, and I’m grateful for it.

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