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A first home buyer might be surprised to know how much stress goes into the process.

Buying real estate will likely be the most daunting and expensive purchase of your adult life.

To make matters more complicated, cities like Washington, DC have one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. So until you actually go through the process, first home buyers can easily get in over their heads with seemingly great mortgage deals.

That’s why before you start house hunting, you should think about the avenues available to purchase your first home responsibly.

It’s critical that first-time homeowners “understand what you can afford,” says Landsdowne Development Group  Director of Operations and Finance Michael Cardman. “You can do that by doing your own calculations and being honest with yourself.”

Median Home Prices

The median price of homes currently listed in the District is approximately $528,000. That’s more than double the national average — approximately $208,000— according to online real estate database Zillow Group.

And while Washingtonians do have a higher median household income than the average American — approximately $73,000 versus $57,000, according to the latest Census Bureau statistics — the bump in salary is not enough to compensate for the drastically higher home prices.

If you’re dead set on buying your first home, you’ll need to carefully evaluate your assets, liabilities, cash flow, and monthly living expenses to figure out what kind of house you can realistically afford.

DeathtoStock-first-home-buyer-living-room-apartment-high-rise-luxuryWhat You Can Actually Afford

Cardman also cautions first-time homeowners to take a bank’s evaluations of your finances with a grain of salt. “They’re  going to say ‘Cool! Based on your income and your assets you can afford X.’ Well yeah, maybe you can afford X, but you’re never eating out again. You can’t go do anything with your friends, and you can’t buy furniture for the home you just bought,” he says.

Someone renting at $1400 might think a $1700 mortgage at their current salary won’t be too much of a stretch.

But you’ll also want to be aware of the additional expenses that come with owning a home, says Enterprise Homes Development Director Louis Kiang.

“It’s kind of all of these ancillary costs — which aren’t necessarily extravagances — that you don’t think about,” says Kiang.

“The standard ones are easy. You got utilities, you got taxes, you got insurance. But what about furniture? What about routine maintenance and upkeep, lawn services? All that stuff that the bank won’t consider,” he continues.

To prepare Kiang suggests you “think about what your lifestyle is like before the purchase and what it’s like after the purchase.”

“Practice what it would be like to own a home. Write yourself a check to a savings account, to your parents, to your siblings. Actually get the money out of your account like you’re about to have mortgage. And after doing that, evaluate whether you can still support your current lifestyle,” says Cardman.

Your Credit Score

And what about building good credit? Kiang stresses that first-time homeowners “can’t start soon enough.”

“You can’t run up high credit card balances and then all of the sudden decide ‘You know, I’m gonna buy a house in a year, so I’ll stop spending now.’ Even if you pay it all down, that’s still on the records and you’re going to generate questions with the bank,” he says.

If you’re not confident in your credit score, Kiang tells us that there are ways to fix it. He suggests opening another credit card, charge nothing or an extremely small amount on it, and make all of your payments on time.

“You want as much credit as possible, you just don’t want to use any of it,” he says.

Both Cardman and Kiang also suggest that homeowners set up an emergency fund to cover housing expenses. They advise having at least 3 months’ worth of your mortgage payments stashed away at all times. If possible, Cardman suggests having a fund with as much as nine months’ worth of mortgage payments.

Getting Started

Finding a good agent is an important part of a successful home buying process. When it comes to choosing the right one, prominent Weichert real estate agent Cesar Milla tells clients to “trust your gut.”

“You’re entrusting someone to search for a home you’re going to live in an average of 7 years of your life,” says Milla. “That’s a big commitment. Ask your potential realtor questions like ‘how long have you been in the business?’ and ‘how often do you like to communicate with your clients?’

“Likewise, they should have questions for you. Like ‘what is your objective’ and ‘how much do you want to spend?’ You’re building a working relationship so it’s important to know what the expectations are.”