View Photo Gallery: A Maryland couple’s house hunting story starts with their dog.

Living in a one-bedroom apartment in Bowie with a rambunctious golden retriever made one thing clear to Brian and Jessica Smith: they needed a backyard.

The couple, graduates of the University of Maryland who met in high school, were saving up for a house since moving in together in the spring of 2010. Remmy, the spirited pup, became a part of the household within weeks of the move, and, not long after, a motivating factor for a bigger space.

“As much as I love my dog, he is terrible on a leash,” said Jessica, 24. “He has so much energy, so he needs space to run.”

House hunting, while on the to-do list, took a backseat to planning their wedding. After the college sweethearts tied the knot in September 2011, they began perusing online home listings.

The pair was certain they wanted to be in Columbia, near their parents, good schools and Route 29. The location promised a shorter commute to the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the District, where Brian, 26, works as an economist. It was also a straight shot to Jessica’s job at the University of Maryland in College Park.

The search got off to a slow start, until Jessica met real estate agent Scott Kapinos at an open house in Columbia in late October.

“He was awesome, really laid back and had been in the market doing this for years,” she said. “He recommended like four different lenders, and really helped us understand the whole home-buying process.”

The Smiths were pre-approved for $600,000 with SunTrust Bank, but decided to keep the budget under $400,000. Kapinos met with the couple shortly after and asked them to jot down the three most important features they wanted in a house.

“Of course we had different answers,” Jessica recalled. “I said it had to have a basement because I’m afraid of tornados and wanted a place to hide.” Her husband, however, was bent on having a garage.

“We both agreed we needed a big yard for the dog,” Brian said. “And Scott realized after we saw a couple of houses with small yards, that the yard was a dealbreaker.”

The Smiths toured nearly 40 houses in three months. In November, the couple thought they found “the one”—a colonial in the Longfellow section of Columbia. But they were outbid by another buyer. Heartbroken, but not devastated, the duo kept up the hunt.

“Timing was ticking away on our lease, and we wanted time to move,” Jessica said. “But when it came to buying a house, I was not willing to compromise.”

That unyielding spirit helped the Smiths hold out for a house they were both excited about. At the start of this year, the couple toured an 1,800 square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom house right off Route 29.

Nestled on a tree-lined street in the older section of Columbia, the 48-year-old split-level did not have the garage on the Smith’s wish list. But it more than made up for that fault with just over a half acre of land for Remmy to roam.

“The yard was killer,” Mrs. Smith said. “I was initially picturing a typical Columbia neighborhood with the houses right on top of one another, the sidewalks and the cul-de-sacs, but it was so nice that we got this amount of space in the backyard.”

Despite the house being a foreclosed property, the Smiths were comforted to learn that it was part of the Fannie Mae HomePath program, which meant the agency had replaced the carpets, cabinets, light fixtures and tiling.

“You don’t have to freak out about cleaning up other people’s mess. But it’s a toss up because we wouldn’t have picked some of the finishes,” Jessica said. Nonetheless, she welcomes the updates “because we don’t have the money to do a kitchen or bathroom renovation right now.”

At the end of January, the Smiths put an offer on the split-level, received a counter at $5,000 more and settled on $380,000—with a down payment of 10 percent. They closed on February 24 and moved in two weeks later.

“Sitting here now, I really don’t think the process was bad at all. I was quite surprised, having never done it before, how easy it was to get a house,” Brian said.

While Fannie Mae took care of the major renovations, the Smiths embarked on a few upgrades to make the house their own. First up was the family room.

Located on the lower level of the house, the space was divided into a fourth bedroom and cramped living room adorned with wood paneling. The couple, with the help of their parents, tore down the paneling and dividing walls. Once the space was opened up, the Smiths noticed the ceiling was uneven and promptly began fixing it with the help of a contractor.

They hired an electrician to install recessed lighting in the family room and the kitchen, plus add more light fixtures to the laundry and craft rooms in the basement. (Jessica, who makes jewelry, turned one of two storage spaces next to the washer and dryer into a craft area.)

Stacks of laminate wood flooring now lay in front of the stone hearth in the family room, as the Smiths detailed their renovation plans on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Near the hearth, in the corner of the room, a caddy corner TV cabinet, complete with speaker stands, is in the works. Opposite the future entertainment center, measurements are in place for the installation of a mini-bar.

Minor cosmetic changes have been made throughout the rest of the house, including new cabinet fixtures in the kitchen and a fresh coat of paint in the bathroom, study, kitchen and master bedroom. Swatches of varying hues of color are painted on several walls in the house as Jessica admits she is “very militant about paint.”

All told, the Smiths estimate they have spent more than $11,000 so far on updating their home.

“We’re at Lowe’s or Home Depot at least twice a week,” Brian said. “I’ve already been to Lowe’s twice today.”

But the couple agreed the time spent has been worth it as they came closer to the home of their dreams. And Remmy? He seemed quite content bounding from the second-floor deck to the yard.

Do you have a good house hunting story? Share it with us. Email