The Home Buying Experience: A (Very) Basic Timeline

I recently had lunch with a friend whose husband accepted a fantastic job opportunity in a new city. They’re excited and anxious and ready to embark on their first journey as homeowners, so she asked me about the “ideal” timeline for a new home purchase.

As someone who’s guided clients through the process dozens of times, I had to laugh a little. There’s no standard timeline or straight path from offer to sale. But her question forced me to think about the ideal scenario for the home purchase process, and what it looks like if (most) everything goes according to plan.

Here’s what I put on paper for her.

Phase One - Define and refine criteria for your future home. (ideally, days 1-30): View homes as they come to market. Make sure to see enough inventory to get a feel for what you’re really looking for, and to know what you also do not want. Determine what you can and cannot live with as far as a house goes – for example, are you willing to tolerate outdated bathrooms in return for a newer kitchen? Are you willing to sacrifice a prime location for extra yard and square footage? You can usually stretch your budget if you’re willing to make a few concessions.

Phase Two - Make offer; (hopefully) get offer accepted. (ideally, days 31 – 45): In a perfect world, you find a house you love and make an offer. Maybe your offer is even accepted right away, without much negotiation. And if you’re really lucky, perhaps you even pay a little (or a lot) less than asking price. You put your offer in, get it signed, then clink glasses at a local pub to celebrate – just like they do on TV.

TIME TO WAKE UP. If you’re shopping in this region of New Jersey (or any desirable area with good jobs, great schools and safe neighborhoods),  home shopping is an emotional roller coaster. I’ve worked with many clients who have gotten the first house they’ve tried for. I’ve worked with lots of others who have had to try two, three, or even four times to get a house. Shopping for a house in this area of northern New Jersey is a lot like dating in your 20s – you can go in optimistically, but you should never get your hopes too high until everything is signed (by your attorneys), sealed and delivered. Which leads me to…

Phase Three – Paperwork, Inspections and More Paperwork: (Days 35 – 85 or so): In the home-purchase process, this is where the rubber meets the road, and when things get really real. In this phase of the process, you complete attorney review (if you’re in New Jersey), perform inspections, and secure your mortgage. During this time, you’ll  submit several years’ worth of tax documents and paystubs to the bank, (if you don’t have them in PDF format, start scanning them now!) and spend countless hours poring over things like hot water heaters and ideal water drainage, all while managing the logistics of moving for yourself and your family. If you’re lucky, you have a great team who can guide you through the process and help keep you on top of things; if you’re not, make sure to set about 67,342 calendar reminders for the countless moving parts that must be managed.

Phase Four – Closing and Move-In: Now the hard work is done, the money is spent, and it’s time to relax and enjoy your new home.

Just kidding!

I often jokingly tell clients that buying a house is the easy part – getting set up and settled in can be just as hectic and emotionally and financially taxing. There are new bathmats to be purchased, schools to sign up for, and friends to make. And unless you’re ridiculously type A, you’ll likely be living among boxes and wondering where your favorite scrunchie from ninth grade went for months.

Of course, the end result – a happy, right-sized home in a great neighborhood – is almost always worth the pain and hard work of moving. And it gives you something to talk about at barbeques and cocktail parties forever.

Meg Mullin is a Madison mom and realtor. For a dose of truth with a healthy (but not unrealistic) bit of optimism in the home-buying and selling process, you can contact her at

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