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Published Sep. 10, 2005

My wife and I recently bought our first house. Along the way we learned a few things:

Some "bedrooms" aren't large enough to fit a bed.

Houses we can't afford are nicer.

When someone describes a neighborhood as "sketchy" or "dicey," they mean its residents don't make enough money, are mostly renters or are the "wrong" color.

Tampa natives feel sorry for you when you move to St. Petersburg.

Home-buying stress may induce your wife, for the first time, to tell you to "shut up" when you interrupt her.

Real estate agents are not expendable.

Happiness is a screened-in porch.

Ours is not an extraordinary story. Thousands of people buy homes each month in the Tampa Bay area. But as home-buying neophytes, we will always remember our first time.

The hunt was rushed. Our Tampa lease was to expire in a couple of months, and we knew nothing about St. Petersburg. Fortunately, our colleagues rallied. They delivered hand-drawn maps, sound counsel, even an agent. Rebecca and I spent many Sundays and weeknights driving through unfamiliar neighborhoods in search of our 3/2 Shangri-La.

We saw things. A home filled top to bottom with used books bought and sold via the Internet, electric outlets wired directly into the bookshelves. An upstairs "bedroom" with no closet or bathroom, the walls covered by graffiti. A detached garage inhabited by a lonely macaw that shouted "Come back! Come back!" long after we departed.

Another visit brought us to a charming home marred only by a doorless, oddly shaped attic bedroom, a violently cursing neighbor and the discovery that my boss lived several doors away.

I came face to face with my inner yuppie. My wife and I fell hard for another house, a big, tree-lined abode that had fallen into disrepair. We dreamily imagined nursing it back to glory. Love is a strong word to attach to a house, but this was at least a crush.

Eager to learn about the area, I walked over to a neighbor and began to ask questions. Though friendly, he had more tattoos than I could count, and a mouth I wouldn't want my mother to overhear. Handmade signs warned of malicious canines. Nearby, kids played baseball in a narrow field of weeds that would have made Kevin Costner cry.

I rejected the neighborhood, then cringed at myself for doing so.

There was the one that got away. The house was well-kept, with tall, swaying trees in the back. It was a short walk from a bustling city park, perfect for strolls at dusk, and it was just a mile from my office.

Questions arose, however. Our agent worried about the dilapidated rental units next door. A friend described the street as a "demilitarized zone." Rebecca and I promptly went into reporter mode, calling the neighborhood association, the policeman assigned to the area, and the owner of the apartments. I even shared my concerns with the couple who owned the home.

Big mistake. In a bidding war later that night, the owners rejected our offer, even though it was the highest. Worried we would back out of the deal, they signed a contract with a less inquisitive couple. I blamed myself.

So did our friend, Greg, who buys, renovates, then resells homes. Once he was told that his bid for a house had been rejected because the sellers thought he and his partner were drunk. He hopped in his car and headed for the sellers' home, where he passionately defended his sobriety, displayed a portfolio of his other homes and repeated his bid. The sellers were overwhelmed. He won.

Our own search was fading. Our agent informed us we had run out of homes. We had two choices: lower our expectations or raise our maximum price.

As our hopes dimmed, we began revisiting the idea of leaving Tampa. In the year since moving to town, we had made friends there, found a synagogue we adored. I suspected my bosses were toying with the idea of having me move back to the Times' Tampa bureau, and Rebecca's next job could easily land her in Tampa.

It seemed foolish to move to St. Petersburg given such uncertainty. With our lease soon expiring, we resolved to move back into a small apartment for the time being.

But there was one last home we'd made an appointment to look at. Rebecca sobbed quietly as we drove to the house on a Saturday morning, frustrated that our search had failed, anxious about having to pick up and move again.

The House Gods had a sense of humor, though. The 60-year-old home had character, warm touches such as a bird feeder outside the kitchen window, built-in shelves, a noisy and powerful attic fan that reminded Rebecca of her childhood home. What's more, we liked the owners, which struck us as good karma. By the time we were ushered into the huge screened-in porch, Rebecca and I were grinning idiotically at each other.

This was the one, if we could afford it.

Negotiations were contentious at times. We were insulated from the stress by our agent, who converted our raw emotions into dispassionate strategy and more than earned his commission.

What remained was the flotsam of home buying: hiring an inspector, getting a loan, finding a mover.

From prior experience, we knew not to hire any mover whose ads said "Our drivers are sober" (they aren't). Our agent recommended an inspector.

I was suspicious of the lenders. When I owned a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., the bank sold my loan to a gigantic mortgage company halfway across the country. Not only did the new lender regularly change my payment amounts, but it neglected to pay my property taxes, almost leading to default. Fortunately, we found a bank that never sells its loans and will allow us to pay our taxes directly.

Oh, and they approved our loan, too.

The house isn't perfect, mind you. The bathroom is so small that my 6-foot-4 father-in-law will have to leave the door ajar to use the toilet or otherwise poke holes in it for his knees. An asbestos roof on the garage will need to be replaced someday.

But we consider ourselves lucky. Shortly after our bid was accepted, an agent representing the sellers of the first house we had bid on breathlessly called our agent.

An inspection had revealed a major problem with the house's foundation, leading the buyers to bolt.

Were we still interested?

_ Scott Barancik is a business reporter for the Times.