In this series, NerdWallet interviews new homeowners across the country about their unique homebuying journeys and the financial decisions that helped them along the way. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your first-time homebuying story.
Brittany Hilzinger, a 31-year-old restaurant server and part-time dog sitter who has been saving for a home since she was 17, recently purchased a $136,000 condo in Las Vegas.
The San Diego native moved to Las Vegas with her husband Jesse earlier this year. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing: A few months into the search, she was unexpectedly denied a loan and worked extra hours to pay for the condo with cash.
Read her homebuying story and find out what she would have done differently. (This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
What brought you to Las Vegas?
I moved in January. I’m originally from San Diego, but my husband and I vacationed often in Las Vegas. We looked at San Diego properties before we decided on Las Vegas, but the home prices in Las Vegas were so much more affordable. It’s also relatively close to San Diego, so it’s easy for me to go back to see my family. I also knew I could make about the same salary (or more) as a food server there.
Why did you decide to buy a home in Las Vegas?
When I was 17, I realized that I wanted to buy a house someday and started saving back then. I was in high school and would save half of my paycheck from retail jobs. I loved the idea of owning something and making it mine. I’ve always been interested in the real estate market, and I also knew that the home prices in Las Vegas have been rising.
What were you looking for in a home?
My budget was $250,000. I wanted something not too close to the Strip, but still close to restaurants and shops. We were originally looking for a home with a yard since we have dogs, but couldn’t get preapproved for one, so we decided on a condo. And after unexpectedly being denied a loan, I had enough money saved up to buy a condo. We figured that we could eventually rent it out for passive income.
What was your homebuying journey like?
We started talking to a real estate agent in August 2018 and started looking seriously that October. We put in an offer on Nov. 30 for the condo, and it was accepted right away.
Unfortunately, although I was preapproved for a loan, the loan company called me in December — about two weeks after our offer was accepted — and said they couldn’t approve me for a loan because my 2016 taxes weren’t showing enough income. I hadn’t claimed all of my cash earnings from serving. I had great credit (over 800), but because I earn so much of my wages in cash and hadn’t claimed all of it, my income wasn’t sufficient enough.
That was the worst week of my life. It was really stressful. We wondered if we should keep renting or just buy the condo with cash. I had more than the price of the condo ($136,000) in cash saved up, so we decided to buy it. We didn’t have room to negotiate on the price; the owner was firm. We did a 45-day closing since we were moving from San Diego and I wanted to give myself time to buy new furniture and work like crazy since it was a cash purchase. We closed on Jan. 15, 2019.
How did you know that the home was the one for you?
For us, it’s a starter home and we don’t plan to live here for more than three years. It’s three bedrooms and two baths. I had my agent take pictures and give me his honest opinion. Although I didn’t see the exact unit, I had a good sense of it since I had seen two other condos in the same complex. Ours was an amazing deal; it was between $2,000 and $3,000 less than others in the complex. Since it needed new floors, we got $2,000 reduced from the closing costs to help offset the cost. We’re also in a better location in the complex and face east, so the [afternoon] sun isn’t beaming on us.
What’s your approach to finance, and how did you save for the home?
I’m a born saver. I look at the bigger picture and always have goals that I want to reach. The few things I splurge on are trips and my dogs, because I love to buy them toys and treats.
When I turned 21, I got a job as a restaurant server. The restaurant closed down, so I started working in professional sports. I had a paid internship with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010 and moved to Philadelphia in 2013 to work for them for six months. But serving offered me way more income than sports. After that, I moved back to San Diego and have been serving at gastropubs and craft beer restaurants ever since.
In 2014, I started dog sitting for Rover, a marketplace for pet sitting and dog walking. I can make between $800 and $1,000 per month through the app, and I put all of it into my savings. At one point, I was working three server jobs and dog sitting at the same time.
» MORE: How much house can you afford?
Were there any surprises or challenges? Would you have done anything differently?
I would have claimed more of my cash tips from the previous tax year. In the moment, it was me thinking about having more money in my pocket, so I used to be afraid of doing that. I know now that claiming them will help me achieve what I want in the long term. [Editor’s note: To comply with IRS requirements, report your tips to your employer monthly if they total $20.]
What advice would you give to someone considering buying a home in Las Vegas?
I work with a lot of people around my age who are content renting, and some servers laughed at me or thought I was joking when I told them I was buying a house. But servers can make decent money. I hope to inspire more people to think about it.
Advice for first-time home buyers
Jason Garcia, the real estate agent who helped Hilzinger find her home, discussed a few things first-time buyers in the area can keep in mind.
Inventory in Las Vegas is growing. Good news for buyers: There are more homes coming on to the market. “You have more choices,” Garcia says. “This means you don’t have to feel as rushed buying and can take your time, compare different choices. You could even get help with closing costs.”
Consider living farther away from the Strip. Buyers tend to flock to the busy, casino-lined stretch south of downtown Las Vegas, which means they end up paying more for real estate. “There are some great opportunities for people who may want to go to the northwest side, where you can get more bang for your buck,” he says. “Plus, traffic isn’t bad in Vegas. You can get anywhere in the city within 30 to 45 minutes.”
Your offer is more than the number. Garcia emphasizes that there are things you can bring to the table that aren’t related to the dollar amount. “It’s not always about the highest price,” he says. “Sometimes the seller wants to move and doesn’t want to be put into a temporary home, so you can offer a couple weeks of free lease back. Those factors are sometimes more important.”
Top photo of Brittany Hilzinger and husband Jesse. Photos courtesy of Brittany Hilzinger.