How We Built Wealth with Our First House

Like many couples, we rented our first house together. $1,600/month. It pained me to write that check every month…$1,600 gone like clock work. I wanted to buy a house, but I didn’t really know what to do to get my Pinterest Dream Home, and how could I settle for anything less?

My husband happens to be a realtor as well as an attorney. He wouldn’t let me see the inside of one house on Zillow until I was preapproved for a mortgage. I hated that rule, but in hindsight, it kept me from putting us in a financial quagmire. 

At first, I was a very poor public defender making about $40,000. It was just after the Great Recession so lending was strict and I knew I couldn’t get approved for anything that I wanted. Then I became self-employed, and that actually made it more difficult to get approved for a mortgage. 

We lucked out and found a lending company that worked with us to get approved…$235k. Before we could look at even one house, my husband called. There was a house that I just had to see.

It had only been on the market for 24 hours and he wanted me to meet him there ASAP. Excitedly, I put the address in my GPS and headed over to the house.

When I arrived, I was horrified. …it was the ugliest brown house on the block and it that needed a lot of work.  (See above). But the price was right and we made an offer.  The house sat vacant for two years after the prior owner passed away and his estate left the house basically untouched. The house was in good shape but it lacked attention and we knew that at the price we could really build equity in the house. 

I asked my husband what he was looking for in our first house, and here is what he said: “To make money when we sold it.  I didn’t care what it looked like, I didn’t care if we needed to put some work into it.  I only wanted to make a solid investment in the best neighborhood that we could afford. I was very familiar with the neighborhood and the prices that similar homes sold for.  The listing price seemed to be below market price, and when you combine a good price and good neighborhood, that house will not last long. We put an offer in after just four days on the market. You hated it at first.”

 It’s true… I’ll be honest I hated the house when I saw it.  I really liked the neighborhood and the location compared to work. But it was very, very brown. Wall to wall white carpet and it was a little smelly. It had good bones, but I had to live in it. 

Something changed for me as we went through this process…I started looking at the house as a big pile of money. For us buying our first house was all about making money. Not spending money.  

I figured out the bare minimum that we could spend to make the house less brown and more cozy and we did just that.  If we wouldn’t get a return on the investment, we didn’t do it (like the kitchen). In the coming weeks I am going to share the before and after of what we did.  It has been such a balancing act of spending money on the house, while paying down the mortgage and the real estate market gradually rising in our favor. 

Today we have more than $100,000 of equity in our house. That means, when we sell our house, we will put $100,000 into our bank account. 

In addition to changing our mindset, here is how we did it: 

  1. Low-Interest Mortgage with affordable monthly payment: By having a mortgage with a low interest rate, we pay less than we did in rent, but that monthly payment is now equity.
  2. A good neighborhood: By buying the ugliest house in a good neighborhood, the house organically gained value. We live in a neighborhood with a voluntary home owners association which means there is a lot of activity in the neighborhood among the neighbors so crime is low and it’s somewhat maintained. The houses are older but very well build, so people buy and renovate the houses or add additions so increase value. Older neighbors are selling and young families are coming in and the home values are simply rising.
  3. Structural improvements: We added a new roof, irrigation, fixed some electrical issues…all the things that an appraiser will consider when assessing value. Cosmetic changes do not necessarily add value no matter how much money you spend.
  4. Low-Priced Cosmetic Changes: To make the house more attractive, we did make cosmetic changes that are trendy and desirable, but we spent very little on this.
  5. Willingness to sell: Have you heard the term “house rich but cash poor?” You can have all the equity in the world, but until you sell and cash in, it’s not real. You have to be willing to move. 

I totally get the desire to have the prefect, newly-built Pinterest dream house. Our long-term goal is to continue to build wealth with low-priced houses in good neighborhoods that we can renovate, live in for a short term and then move. If we play our cards right, there will come a time when we can pay cash for exactly what we want.

 That’s currently a challenge because there is no inventory, which is a good reminder that the market is always changing. You need regularly check-in on your house value. To truly maximize equity, it is important to keep your eyes and ears open for good opportunities to build your wealth through homeownership. 

 

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