First-time buyers' biggest surprises (© Juice Images/Corbis)

One person couldn't believe how simple it was. Another was surprised by how much financial help was available. A third didn't realize just how many "flippers" he'd have to battle to get a great deal.

Plenty of surprises — good and bad — wait for you the first time you buy a home. You can't plan for all of them, but you can benefit from others' experiences. That's why we asked five recent first-time homebuyers to share what startled them most about the process.

Here's what they had to say.

1. An easy approval
"I was really surprised at how easy it was to get approved to buy a house," says Jon Briscoe, who closed on his 1,600-square-foot Cape Cod-style home in the Cincinnati area with his wife, Jaala, in April 2010. "I thought it was going to be a whole huge process — and it is a process — but we went through a mortgage broker, and she was amazing," in terms of helping the process run smoothly, says Briscoe, who is a youth minister at a church. (Bing: Do you know how a mortgage broker gets paid?)

Wait — isn't the credit market supposed to be seized up right now? Isn't it still hard to get a loan? Briscoe, 26, didn't find that to be the case at all. "Basically, all I did was give the mortgage brokers the last two years of my employment history, my history of income and some pay stubs" and a few other things. The broker did the rest, he says.

He also underwent a credit check. But even that was a surprise. "I think one of the biggest things that surprised me was that your credit score doesn't have to be that great," he says. "Mine was right around 700" — which is solid. But, he says, the mortgage broker said it only had to be around 630 to look decent to a lender.

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All in all, he concludes, still sounding a bit in disbelief, "It was extremely easy — from the time we bought the house until we closed was less than a month."

2. Battling the 'flippers'
As a single 24-year-old, Patrick Kussman didn't have a lot of money when he started looking around to buy his first home. As a result, he naturally gravitated toward foreclosures, which are plentiful in many markets these days. And here came his big homebuying surprise: "To me, finding the one that I could finally buy and put a down payment on was difficult, not so much because I was competing against other people who were also trying to purchase the house to live in, but competing against guys who were bidding to buy the house to rehab and flip it."

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For instance, the first house Kussman looked at in the St. Louis suburbs was a steal at $12,000. Of course, it needed a ton of work. "I put an offer in — I don't even remember how much — and they said, 'We're sorry but there's someone who already has made an offer and they have the $12,000 in cash,'" he recalls. Cash! They were investors who were going to fix up the house a bit "and sell it for twice what they'd bought it for," Kussman says.

Later, Kussman found another foreclosure. "I put an offer on this house and I found out there were also some other guys who were gonna do the same thing. ... It was like, here we go again." This time, however, the foreclosing bank, Pulaski Bank, saw the wisdom in a different approach. "They said, 'We've got a 24-year-old kid who wants to make this his home, instead of a group of guys who want to make a profit.'" The bank sold it to Kussman for a shade less than $40,000.

And here is the second lesson, as Kussman sees it: "If you go out and give it a shot, you'll be surprised that people are willing to help you. ... As my dad says, 'We beat the big boys.'" I feel like I was the underdog in this one, and we won."

3. There's money out there
Drew Barth is a do-gooder. The 26-year-old is involved with a couple of volunteer groups, including one that has focused on stopping gun violence in North Minneapolis, one of the Twin Cities' most ethnically diverse and economically depressed areas. So when he started shopping for a house, "I felt compelled to move into the area — not that I'm the 'Great White Hope' or something like that," he says. 

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And here's what Barth was pleased to discover: Money is available for people such as cash-strapped first-timers who are willing to jump into an "overlooked" neighborhood and help revitalize it. In Barth's case, his real-estate agent turned him on to a grant by Minneapolis' Pohlad Family Foundation — $8,000 for people who purchase a home in certain distressed ZIP codes of the Twin Cities.

Unfortunately, you can't apply for the Pohlad program anymore. But other money is available. For instance, Barth looked at — but made too much money to qualify for — assistance through the City of Lakes Community Land Trust. The trust helps foster affordable and moderate-priced housing for lower income families by significantly investing in a home's purchase price, with the stipulations that the home be sold for no more than a moderate profit later (to keep it within reach of its intended homebuyers) and that the money be shared with the nonprofit, which in turn buys still more affordable housing. 

Now, owning a home is cheaper than renting, he says — and maybe that's the biggest surprise of all.