First Time Buying a House?

Enjoying Sunday brunch in our dining room.
Three years ago, my husband and I were in the process of buying our first home. It was an exciting but stressful time, and I want to share a few tips and recommendations that helped us out. There are some basics, like always get a thorough home inspection, organize all your taxes and financial information, get both names on the mortgage (if you're buying a house with a partner), and ideally have a credit score higher than 700. Here are a few more ideas that will hopefully make the process that much smoother for you.

The bank will probably approve you for more than you may be comfortable.
The bank came back with a number for us that we knew was more than we'd be comfortable with. In fact, my husband Michael and I loosely based our "comfortable number" off of one income. This meant that last year I could walk away from a job that was making me miserable and start doing some freelance consulting. I wouldn't have had that flexibility if we were already maxed out. If you buy a house that is at the maximum of your budget, be prepared for some extra stress and a lack of flexibility in your life choices. A house is constantly a work in progress and you don't want to feel overwhelmed immediately. Break down the mortgage, taxes, and homeowners insurance and make sure you're fully comfortable with the final number.

Find a buyer's agent you can trust.
A friend recommended our buyer's agent to us, and we were so fortunate to work with her. The sellers ended up being extremely difficult, and we were glad to have a realtor to serve as a mediator. Our agent helped us look at houses differently, worked on our paperwork, and made the process much easier. As a buyer, you don't have to pay a buyer's agent, and they can serve an important role for you in the process. I would recommend that every person buying their first house should work with a buyer's agent.

Don't get emotionally invested in a house until after the closing.
This is something Michael and I were really good at! We were quite realistic and critical of houses throughout the process, which kept us level-headed throughout the process. It's important to be able to see yourself living in a house, but you don't want to have every room planned out immediately. Do not get emotionally invested in a house until the keys are in your hand.

Drive by the house at different times during the day.
The house may seem like it's really quiet and the road has hardly any traffic when you visit mid-morning. However, you may find that during rush hour, there are lines of honking cars right outside your door. Drive by on the weekend or evening and see if it still seems like an area you'd be interested in living. Remember, it's all about location.

Think about the resale value.
It may seem crazy to think about the resale value of a house before you even put in an offer, but it's a must. Does the house have a really steep driveway? Is it an unusual shape with hardly any yard? These will cut the value of the house and also make it that much harder to sell in the future. Michael and I looked at a couple houses that had been on the market for a very long time and our buyer's agent was able to point out several reasons why the resale would be difficult. 

If you can, put 20% down.
Besides the instant equity, you'll avoid expensive private mortgage insurance, which if you and your partner make more than $110,000 ($55,000 per person) you won't be able to deduct from your taxes (there are many more reasons why it's good to not have to deal with PMI, and click the above link to learn more). If you put 20% down, you can also avoid the requirement of a mortgage escrow account, which is when you pay your lender a specific amount monthly to cover your property taxes, homeowners insurance, and private mortgage insurance. Why is that a benefit? Think about your monthly bills: One month you may have more to put in savings, another month you may have an expensive car repair, an appliance breaks, or you have to travel to a family member's wedding. If you aren't required to use a mortgage escrow account, you can put money aside to pay your property taxes and homeowners insurance. If you're good with budgeting and like to be in control of your own money (with a mortgage escrow account, a third party would be holding your money), then this is definitely for you.

Have a financial cushion.
Don't spend all your money on the down payment. I've heard many people say, "It's a turn-key house so it doesn't need any repairs or work." Trust me, it will. Even the most beautiful houses need maintenance: something will need to be repaired, a toilet seal will leak, or an appliance will break. This article recommends setting aside about 1 to 3% of your home's purchase price for yearly maintenance alone. The bigger the house, the more funds you will need to set aside so bigger is not always better. Make sure that you are comfortable with your house, the bills, and that your budget will remain relatively similar to the lifestyle you've become accustomed to.

Enjoy the process and I hope you find the home of your dreams soon.

Four Friday Favorites: Natural Products

Whenever possible, I try to use natural and/or organic products. We use only natural dish soap, cleaning wipes, multi-surface sprays, toilet cleaner, sulfate-free hand soap, and organic toilet paper. My mom belonged to a coop when I was a child and we always had the very uncool crunchy peanut butter and whole grain bread (no white bread and Skippy in our house).

Still, when it came to beauty products I used to feel like I had to choose between conventional products that worked or all-natural alternatives. Now, natural beauty brands make products that are as effective as conventional ones but are far friendlier to my sensitive skin. I am now buying mainly natural skincare and makeup that are cruelty-free and free of these dirty chemicals. Below are four of my favorite beauty and personal care items, in no particular order.

1. Acure Moroccan Argan Oil is certified USDA Organic, and is rich in Vitamin E, essential fatty acids and proteins. My facial skin is on the drier, sensitive side and since I've started using this product, the texture of my skin has improved dramatically. I also rub it into my cuticles at night, and it can even be used on hair or dry elbows. It's a healing, multi-use oil that I never plan to be without again.

2. Tata Harper Clarifying Spot Solution is for blemish-prone skin, and it treats breakouts but doesn't dry out the skin. The first week that I tried this, my skin was in the middle of a bad hormonal breakout (full disclosure, I had switched birth control methods). I noticed right away that the painful, hormonal pimples along my jaw switched from being hard, to the kind that you can easily pop. The second quick change was a reduction in redness and inflammation, and pimples seemed to heal extra fast. The only breakout I've had since I started using this spot solution was when I forgot to apply it while PMSing. If you don't like the scent of juniper, you probably won't like this smell. Tata Harper products are quite expensive but when I use them, they make a drastic difference. They're also 100% non-toxic, and are created just a few miles from my house.

3. The Konjac Sponge Company 100% Natural Vegetable Fibre Face Sponge With Nourishing Mineral Rich Pink Clay for Tired or Devitalised Skin (whew!) is a hard sponge that becomes very soft and moisturizing when wet. The Konjac sponge was developed in Japan and is derived from the Konjac plant. I received this sponge in my Petit Vour beauty box last month, and use it after my face wash in the shower. It smooths my skin, refines my pores, and feels like a mini facial.

4. Organic Tampons (by Natracare and Seventh Generation, specifically) are free of fragrances, deodorants, chlorine processing, and pesticides. Cotton is one of the dirtiest crops when it comes to pesticides, and pesticide residue has been found to cause infertility, hormonal imbalance, and even cancer. Similarly, many conventional tampons come with plastic applicators that contain phthalates, which mimic human hormones and have been found to be endocrine disrupting compounds (they are also found in many conventional perfumes). I have used both Natracare and Seventh Generation for tampons, and the occasional pads, and love their products.

Favorite Independent Magazines

To read interviews, short essays, and long-form journalism celebrating art, style, work life, and Nordic home design, check out Kinfolk. Each issue has a different theme.

For beautiful photos, delicious recipes, and simple craft ideas, read seasonal Sweet Paul and get ready to drool.

If you're a proud feminist and love learning about women's history and popular culture, paired with recipes, craft ideas, sex advice, and book reviews, then BUST is for you. It's published bimonthly and can be found at indie bookstores and Barnes & Noble.

To savor gorgeous photos without re-touching, enjoy empowering interviews with strong women, and read a magazine that celebrates the "art of being a woman," check out Darling.

If you live to travel and eat good food, bi-annual Cereal magazine is for you. It's based in the UK.

Celebrate women and food with Cherry Bombe. It pairs beautiful design with interviews, fun features and recipes, and has its own podcast.

Are you an entrepreneur, freelancer, or daring creative? Read the uplifting interviews and tips in BUNCH.

For interior design inspiration, editors' picks, and entertaining ideas, flip through online Rue Magazine. It's free.

Recipe: Mango Avocado Lime Salsa

I have created some of my favorite recipes by simply tossing food together and hoping for the best. I developed this recipe to accompany the tostadas and saffron rice (pictured, recipes coming soon). Strawberries would also be a nice addition to this salsa.

You'll need
One ripe but firm avocado
One mango
Juice and zest from one lime
Agave nectar, to taste

Chop the avocado and mango into chunks and add to a medium bowl. Stir in lime zest and juice. Add agave nectar to taste. Mix and enjoy!

My Beauty Regimen

Several of my beloved skincare products
I love watching the YouTube videos when people share their favorite products and morning routines. I don't really like makeup that much but I am obsessed with skincare and body care products. My morning/nightly routine and weekly face masks are therapeutic, and while I tend to add products and samples regularly, below are the mainstays.

My skin tends to be quite dry, especially in the winter, so I am always looking to slough off dead skin cells and for hydrating products. I try to avoid parabens, phthalates, and sodium lauryl sulfate as much as I can.

I tend to shower in the morning because I'm not a morning person and it helps to wake me up. In the shower, I use Derma E Hydrating Scrub because it's a naturally-rich, creamy scrub with moisturizing Hyaluronic Acid. I have found that my face needs a form of Hyaluronic Acid, which aids in the skin's natural ability to hold water and thus plumps your skin. It helps your skin recover from sun/environmental damage and harsh skincare products. The Derma E Hydrating Scrub doesn't make my face feel tight; the dead skin is gone but my face feels soft after use. Every other day, after using the scrub, I follow up with Alba Botanica Good & Clean Pore Purifying Mini Peel. This one-minute mask contains 6% Alpha Hydroxy Acids powered by fruit extracts, and gives my pores a quick detox. If my skin has been especially dry or at least twice a week, I use Acure Brightening Facial Scrub. This sulfate-free, cruelty-free cleanser contains argan stem cell and chlorella, and has a satisfyingly gritty texture. It also has chamomile and calendula to calm your skin and french green clay to reduce the size of pores.

Once or twice a week, I use Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Glow Pads for Face. These subtle self-tanning wipes are travel-friendly and make a huge difference on my complexion. They wipe away dead skin cells while also adding a very light glow to my face. My secret weapon if I have hormonal breakouts or an extra dry patch of skin is to actually dab a tiny amount of hydrocortisone cream on my face. It calms any irritation or inflammation. My new favorite moisturizer is Andalou Naturals Ultra Sheer Daily Defense Lotion SPF 18, which I picked up at my local health food store. It is light, but not too light that I can't feel it on my skin. It's part of their age-defying line that has fruit stem cell complex and resveratrol CoQ10. Unlike a lot of other face lotions I've tried with SPF, this one doesn't make your skin look white or pasty. If my skin is extra parched (so every day in January and February), I add a couple drops of Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Liquid to my skin, which is a magic potion for dehydrated skin.

I hate foundation but I like how my skin looks when it's evened out a bit. Enter BB Cream! I discovered my all-time favorite, which I see myself using my whole life, is the Canadian Marcelle Golden Glow BB Cream. If I could only travel with one cosmetic, this would be my choice. This beauty balm is a lightweight tinted moisturizer that evens skin tone while also brightening your entire face with a slightly sun-kissed glow. My skin is olive with yellowy undertones and it blends perfectly. On good skin days, one light coat is all I need but you can also add a couple coats for more coverage. I add Tata Harper Very Sweet Lip & Cheek Tint on my lips, cheeks, and along my cheekbones for additional glow and that's it. I can't wear eye makeup (including mascara) because my eyes are extremely sensitive, although I will occasionally wear some on special occasions and try not to scratch my eyes out. I find that I have to use eye drops anytime I wear eye makeup, and eyeliner is the worst. Birchbox keeps sending me great-looking mascaras that I'll try but I have yet to find one that doesn't irritate my very light green eyes. (If you have light eyes with this problem and have found a mascara that works, please let me know.)

Throughout the day, if I need added hydration or a quick wake-up, I spritz on a hydrating mist. This is the 3:00 p.m. cup of coffee equivalent for your face. One of my new favorites is Eau Thermale Avรจne (Thermal Spring Water), which works well on hypersensitive, allergic, and irritated skin. It's especially awesome in the summertime.

At night, I wash with either the Derma E Hydrating Scrub or an oil cleanser (Josie Maran and Tata Harper Skincare make great ones). A couple times a week, I will use a face mask depending on skin concern. My favorites include the Origins Activated Charcoal Mask (especially effective to scare my husband when I walk back downstairs), or a soothing Tata Harper Honey Blossom or Resurfacing Mask. For deep hydration and to wake up with a glow, I use Weleda Skin Food, which smells amazing and is deeply hydrating.

Looking to try new products?

If you're like me and love trying new products, check out and for monthly beauty boxes. They're a great way to try skincare and hair care products without the commitment of a whole bottle and I love bringing my samples with me when I travel (I never check luggage). Petit Vour only features ethically-made and vegan luxury beauty products. Birchbox blends tried-and-true brands with natural and up-and-coming brands. I like these two more than other boxes that seem to focus on makeup but if you're looking just for makeup, it's probably best to look elsewhere (Ipsy, Sephora Play, etc.).

Book Review: In the Company of Women

Curl up by the fire with a blanket,
a cup of tea, and this beautiful book.
In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs by Grace Bonney (Artisan) is a gem of a book. Grace Bonney, the founder of Design*Sponge, one of my favorite websites, interviewed over 100 incredible and influential women from all backgrounds in this celebration of a global movement of entrepreneurship. In this book, they describe their creative processes, what success means to them, and the best business advice they received when first starting out. If you're tired of not seeing entrepreneurs who look like you, then this is your book.

Bonney states in her introduction, "I'm proud of what we've done as a community to support these business owners, but in 2014 I had a realization: the majority of women-centered business events, books, and platforms were promoting the same type of woman over and over again. These success stories most often belonged to young, straight, white, cisgender women. I am 100 percent in support of any business that's bringing good into the world, but I was acutely aware of how many women (women of color, women from the LGBT community, and differently-abled women) weren't being celebrated or included in these discussions." The businesses she features vary from new start-ups to companies with years of experience but each of the women who runs them will inspire you. This book is one that you will return to regularly for doses of advice, and flipping through its pages is like joining a community of powerful women who are making a real difference in the world.

Go Abroad: Personal Reflections, How to Move Abroad & What to Expect

My first trip to another country was when I was 14 years old, and I traveled to Mexico. I went with a group of teenagers and the areas we were in were unsafe for tourists, so we stayed in convents and visited the slums that the nuns served. My mother, who spoke Spanish before English as the daughter of an anthropologist and pathologist, grew up in Liberia and Peru, and she wanted me to experience the developing world at a young age. A visit to Ecuador my senior year of high school solidified my love of traveling.

In college, I worked multiple jobs during the school year and summers to pay for trips abroad. I camped in the Alps one summer with international volunteers and helped build a stone wall and patio area at a camp for disabled people. Another summer, I lived in Utrecht, Netherlands and painted a retreat center for U.N. officials, while also listening to speakers on international relations. I majored in cultural anthropology in college and studied abroad in Cork, Ireland for several months. These were just a few of my travel experiences, and each one made me want to travel even more.

I knew one thing when I graduated from college: I wanted to live abroad for a while. I enrolled in a TEFL certification class in Prague, which I had fallen in love with after backpacking across Europe for five weeks while living in Cork, and bought a one-way plane ticket. Before I went to Prague, though, I spent a month in France, first visiting a friend in Paris and then trekked to the Pyrenees to live and work on a donkey farm through As a WWOOFer, I helped around the farm in exchange for food and housing. I hitchhiked up and down the steep roads to get back and forth to town, met several people from other countries, hiked up part of El Camino each morning to get to the donkeys, made bread for farmers markets, visited a tiny town in Spain, and played violin with a few others for my host's birthday celebration. Once in Prague, I finished my TEFL certification program and ended up finding an apartment and a job working for a language agency. My students were all adults, and as a native speaker I taught mainly advanced intermediate or advanced students. One of my students was an advisor on gender equality to the Czech president. I had to go through metal detectors, hand over my passport each visit, and be escorted to the bathroom, but I learned so much about Czech history and culture. I was even there when Condoleezza Rice was doing a press conference. At 22, it was such an incredible experience and my time in Prague still remains one of the all-time highlights of my life.

If you're reading this, then you're probably flirting with the idea of moving abroad. So, how do you get started?

Become TEFL-certified or have a job lined up before you go
TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is great because you are certified for life and it's quite easy to then find a teaching position abroad. Reputable schools and language agencies abroad require you to be certified. If you teach business English like I did, you'll make more money than if you work in a school teaching children. Of course, it's your preference. Working for an agency, I traveled around the city to my students' offices. I could say yes or no to a class, which meant I had control over my schedule. Some days, my classes would go from 7:30 to 2:30, and other days they'd go from 11:30-8:30. Since my students were generally pretty high up in their company ranks, the majority of my classes were with one or two people, which meant I could give very personalized lessons and became very close with my students. If you're moving to a country that you'll need a visa for a long-term stay, then you'll need to work for a company that can sponsor a visa for you.

Have a financial cushion
In order to save up for my move abroad, I lived at home with my parents and worked retail for six months to save up enough money for the trip. You will probably spend more the first month or two when you're getting settled (security deposit for apartment, visa fees and paperwork, transportation, etc.). You don't need to be rich to move abroad, but you should have emergency funds available. You will also need to research banks, cost of living, and expected salaries so you can plan ahead.

I moved abroad with one big suitcase. Yes, that's right: I just brought one bag. I had my parents ship me a box of clothes that I had put aside about three months into my stay (summer clothes because it was early January when I left), but one amazing discovery about living abroad is it makes you realize how little you actually need.

Be aware of the phases of culture shock
For the first month or two, everything will be sunshine and roses. You will be excited about your new life, you'll romanticize your new city and its inhabitants, and life will feel fabulous. However, be aware that you will crash soon. For me, it happened after being abroad about three months (two months in the Czech Republic), when I was lost in the outskirts of Prague and no one spoke English. It was cold and rainy, and I couldn't figure out which bus I needed to get home because no schedule was posted. Suddenly, I felt completely overwhelmed in my new life. In between the honeymoon stage and the adaptation stage, you will be easily frustrated, a little homesick for friends and family, and comparing your new city to your homeland. Just know that if you push through, you will hit the best stage: When you realize that you consider your new home the place you belong.

A lot of movies and books focus on the incredible thrills of moving abroad, but parts of it are hard. Your highs will be extra high and your lows will be extra low for a while. If you're like me and didn't know the language when you moved, it will be extra frustrating. You will deal with bureaucracy, different job requirements, paperwork in a language you don't yet speak, and unique customs. However, traveling and being so far removed from your comfort zone and support network enables you to grow in ways you couldn't have imagined before. It will also restore your faith in humanity. And on your worst days, you'll have memories to recall of sitting in a beer garden looking out onto Old Town Prague at sunset, or making new Hungarian friends in a dive bar in Budapest, or sitting in the middle of palm trees helping Honduran children with their homework, or remembering the nice Polish man who helped you and your friend find a place to stay when you were locked out of your hostel on a sketchy street in Krakow, Poland, or sampling fresh sugar cane on a friend's farm in the Jamaican highlands.

If you ever have the opportunity to move abroad, take it. I know that I will live abroad again in my lifetime. It's a question of when, not if.

I'd love to know: Where did you live abroad? What were your experiences, and what advice do you have for someone about to move to another country?
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