First Home Buyer's Guide

Tired of renting but can't afford to buy? Experts and parents share their tips on how to land your first house.

Home Economics

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Isn't it funny how a 7-pound baby can take up so much space? Factor in his crib, changing table, stroller, infant gym, bouncy seat, and all those new toys, and suddenly that spacious apartment you've been living in happily for years can seem as cramped as the backseat of a Miata. And it's not just the need for more elbow room that has so many young families checking out the real estate ads; it's the natural desire to set down roots and start building a financial future by investing in a home of their own.

But if you haven't saved up much money or are still paying off student loans or credit card debt, buying your first home can be a daunting proposition: even with the market cooling down and a surplus of housing inventory on the market, the average one-family home in the United States still costs more than $200,000 (and in metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles, the average is much higher). But if you use a little creativity and are willing to compromise on certain details, you may be able to find an affordable, cozy nest for your family. Here, how five families found ways to afford the house of their dreams.

"Turnaround" Neighborhoods

Kim Morel-Betances, a mother of two, loved the area of Brooklyn, New York, where she and her husband had been living for years, but when it was time to buy, they found themselves priced out of their own neighborhood. So they looked across the river to Staten Island. "We saw a townhouse we could afford, but the area was still considered up-and-coming," she says. Morel-Betances examined the public school test scores and found they were going up every year -- a promising trend. But it was a stroll around the block that finally convinced them that the neighborhood was truly on its way up was a stroll around the block. "There were kids outside playing basketball, and some of the boys even asked my son if he wanted to join them, so I got a really good feeling about it."

One way to see if a town is transitioning from borderline to solidly middle class is to check out how many construction trucks you see parked on the street. "If a neighborhood is truly turning, there should be three or four houses on each street that are being remodeled," says Robert Irwin, author of Buy Your First Home! (Kaplan Business). Experts agree that good schools and safe streets are your top priorities. "Drive through the area during the day and then again at night to see who is out on the streets," suggests Diana Brodman Summers, an attorney and author of How to Buy Your First Home (Sphinx). "You can also call the local government office or go online to see if new schools are being built and if there are any bills pending for more school funding."

Livable Location "Quirks"

If you have your heart set on buying a home in a neighborhood that is already well established and desirable (which, of course, means higher prices), you can still occasionally find a bargain. You just have to be willing to look past certain quirks that might give other home buyers pause, such as living on a busy street, on an oddly shaped lot with a small yard, or even overlooking a cemetery. These homes may be priced well below a similar house in the same neighborhood, but you still get the benefit of sharing the same school district and zip code.

"When we decided to buy a house four years ago, we knew we wanted to stay in the city, near all the things we love, rather than moving out to the suburbs," says Brooke Doyle, a mother of two, in Seattle. She and her husband zeroed in on a neighborhood that had lots of other young families and a lake with a walking path, but most of the homes were out of their reach. "Then we found a house for sale by the owner that was on a major road right off a highway," she explains. "It's very busy and noisy -- I can see a traffic light from our window. But the plus side is that it is bigger than what we could have afforded just around the corner. We love the neighborhood, and our kids get to go to the good schools."

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