Three first-time homeowners shared how an impending marriage, a growing family and the desire to build equity pushed them to make the purchase of a lifetime.

On the heels of our first-ever Agent Appreciation month, Inman is leaping into February with our Residential Finance theme month. Join us as we investigate how buying and selling a home is changing, from companies backing consumers in new ways to integrated services that handle the entire transaction.

First-time buyers accounted for more than a third of sales in 2019 — no small feat when you consider the enormous learning curve they must navigate to reach closing day. Three first-time homeowners, including a young woman preparing for her wedding day, a young mom with a growing family, and a married couple preparing for the future, told Inman the catalyst behind making the biggest purchase of their lives.

The right moment, the right house

Christina and Jake

Name: Christina Opdahl 

Location: California

Before purchasing their dream Oceanside, California, abode, family members told Christina Opdahl and her fiancé, Jake Daigneau, to hold off on their homebuying dreams and wait until they’d paid off their student loan debt.

Opdahl considered their advice but thought about the seven years of preparation she’d already taken to become a homeowner. She went to the University of California-Long Beach so she could commute from her parent’s home, a decision that saved her money on room and board and lowered her loans. After graduation, she and Jake paused plans to live together so they continue saving money for a down payment.

“Part of [making a purchase] was wanting a space that we could have control over,” Opdahl told Inman. “It’s nice to be able to say, ‘I can do what I want to my yard, and this is mine.’ We also wanted to be able to have a dog.”

“I’d been looking at the market for a year and seeing what’s out there since, in our market, there’s a limited amount of houses in the exact area I wanted,” she added. “I understood their advice, but you’ve gotta jump in if you find the right house at the right time.”

During their year-long search, Opdahl and Daigneau continued saving and diligently budgeting using a millennial-favorite app, You Need A Budget.

“I didn’t even know what the first step was to save money,” Opdahl said of the beginning of her financial journey. “I didn’t know what I was spending my money on until I started to write it down and track it.”

“So you begin to see maybe I’m spending too much money on Starbucks, and Starbucks was something I spent way too much money on,” she said with a laugh. “We had so many rewards [stars] and I was like, ‘We’re spending too much.'”

As the couple got closer to making a purchase, Opdahl began to research mortgages and loan options, something she had limited knowledge about, outside of hearing about them at the real estate marketing firm she worked for.

“I didn’t know very much about mortgages,” she explained. “I just knew they existed and you needed them to purchase a home. I had no clue on how to qualify or what you needed to work on.”

Thankfully, their loan officer gave them a crash course on mortgages and provided a loan option that allowed them to put 5 percent down (roughly $30,000) without needing a co-sign from their parents, since neither had two years of W-2s.

“I’d save more for the down payment,” Opdahl said about the future. “But I’m glad that we purchased anyway because we got the home that we needed. It’s worth cutting Starbucks or putting an extra $25 away — it all adds up.”

A two-year and five-job journey to homeownership

Hannah Scandy-Collins and Chis’Lon Collins

Name: Hannah Scandy-Collins

Location: Oklahoma 

Hannah Scandy-Collins and her husband, Chis’Lon, were tired of shelling out hundreds of dollars on rent that went to lackluster landlords. They wanted a yard and indoor space for their cat to run free, but most of all, they wanted to begin building equity for the future purchase of their dream home.

The couple’s budget was $80,000, a hard find even in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city that’s considered one of the more affordable metros in the nation. The Collins began looking for homes in 2018, viewing 50 homes in person and more than 100 online.

“It was incredibly difficult in our price range,” Collins said. “We ended up ghosting one Realtor because he kept showing us insanely dilapidated properties, like one that had a person squatting in it when we went inside and another that was shaped like a wedge of cheese.”

“The house got shorter and shorter as you walked through the additions to the point that my 5’10” husband’s head touched the ceiling,” she added. “We eventually went to an open house at random and found a great Realtor that was more familiar with first-time buyers with a small budget.”

While viewing homes, the couple began to double-down on improving their finances. Hannah, who is an attorney for Tulsa’s Domestic Violence Intervention Services, started working at a local bar part-time for a 70-hour workweek. Chis’Lon ramped up the ante too, working three part-time jobs alongside personal training to help pay down student loan and medical debt, and contribute to a down payment fund.

“It was very frustrating because we’re making ends meet, but I work for as an attorney with a nonprofit and he’s a personal trainer, so we really couldn’t afford much more,” she said.  “The fact that we both ended up working 60-70 hours a week and just barely made it says a lot about where our country has their values.”

The mortgage process wasn’t any easier for the couple, who had to apply in Hannah’s name only, due to her nearly-perfect credit score. They couldn’t use Chis’Lon’s veteran benefits to get a VA loan, but Hannah was able to secure a conventional mortgage by taking a loan against her 401k to beef up their down payment and cover closing costs.

Although the Collins were frustrated by the process, due to rising housing costs and other large-scale issues that hinder renters from reaching homeownership, Hannah said the sacrifice will hopefully provide a better future.

“Most of the issues with the process are structural on a scale larger than Tulsa (looking at you, student loan debt and housing crisis), but a lot of the stress we felt was because of how unaffordable renting is in Tulsa,” she explained.

“I think already owning is going to make any future move much easier and familiar,” she added. “When we do it again (Team Starter Home), we won’t look at as many houses and will hopefully have a better budget. Our ultimate goal is to build, but who knows.”

A home for a growing family

The Gilberts

Name: Patra Gilbert

Location: Oklahoma

With two dogs and a child on the way, Patra and Dominic Gilbert knew their one-bedroom duplex on Oklahoma City’s northwest side would no longer meet the needs of their quickly growing family. More than that, the couple wanted their housing costs to go toward a home where they could build equity for them and their child’s future.

After crunching numbers, the Gilberts realized they could easily own a home.

“After reviewing our finances, we were able to determine a range for our mortgage and realized it was only $100 to $150 more a month compared to our rent of $750 at the time,” she said. “Towards the end of 2018, our landlady notified us that she was going to increase our rent by May 2019.”

“Fortunately, January 2019 we had given birth to our son and I was on maternity leave,” she added. “This allowed us time to view homes and find something more suitable for our growing family.”

To prepare, the couple revised their budget and determined the best way to split the bills based on their individual incomes. They also cut back on unnecessary expenses to speed the process for saving for a down payment.

Their Realtor connected them with multiple loan officers so they could compare rates against what their bank offered. They ended up choosing one of the Realtor’s suggestions, which required them to complete the process digitally — something the Gilberts appreciated since they didn’t want to bring a new baby to multiple loan officer appointments.

The process was relatively smooth for the new pharmacy school graduate, except for the fact that she didn’t have two years of W-2s. Luckily, her loan officer was able to create a solution, which included providing school transcripts to cover for the year she was missing.

Once they secured a mortgage, the couple began searching for the perfect home, with help from friends who already went through the homebuying process.

“We asked several of our friends who have purchased homes in the past to help narrow what we deemed to be our ‘necessary features’ versus ‘desired features,'” she explained. “We physically looked at approximately eight to 10 homes, but online searched over 50. We found several homes that we liked, but the utility of some of the homes did not meet our requirements.”

The Gilberts eventually found their perfect home in Oklahoma City’s rapidly-growing northeast side, where homes are often more affordable than other parts of the city. They made their purchase just in time — the couple is expecting a second child in July.

Although their process was “smooth,” Gilbert said she has a list of things she’ll do differently next time, such as hiring an independent home inspector and shopping around for home insurance.

“Be prepared to be turned down on multiple occasions before finding a home suitable to your needs. This requires time and patience,” she said as advice to other first-timers. “Since this was our starter home, we decided to start with something small, then work our way up to a bigger home later on.”

If you have a client with a unique story to share about his or her financial journey to ownership, drop us a line at Homebuyer@Inman.com.

Email Marian McPherson

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