We are officially looking for a home to buy.

CalvinonAdulthoodIt’s taken entirely longer than I ever imagined it would, but Anne and I are finally in a position to start looking for a house to buy. Having read umpteen million horror stories of first-time buying experiences over the years it goes without saying that we are a little intimidated by the whole process, but we’re jumping in with both feet because there’s really no other way to get started.

Ironically enough, our opportunity springs from Anne becoming unemployed. Her previous employer had an Employee Stock Purchase program as its form of retirement savings and as she is no longer employed there she had to option cash it out, which she did, and after taxes and penalties it’s just enough to make a 5% down-payment on a house of $150,000 or less. So that’s what we’re looking for.

We started browsing homes online Wednesday night on Zillow.com and I have to say that it’s amazing how quickly a real estate agent will get back to you even after 8PM. The first three homes we filled out “we’re interested” forms on called or texted me within 10 minutes of us hitting send. One of them already has a pending offer on it, which is a shame because it looked perfect online and was close to work. Another one had just listed that day and already had 11 offers so if we were pre-approved (we’re not) and ready to make a fast decision (we’re not) then it was an option. We passed on it. The third one in Whitmore Lake we’re scheduled to go look at this evening after work. Of the three, it’s the one we were least excited about — it’s an old house built in 1940 — but we figure it doesn’t hurt to look so we will.

All of the agents are, of course, trying to lock us into using them for any additional searches and that brings up the first problem we’re facing: How do you know which agent is willing to put up with us long enough to find a good deal on a home? A coworker suggested I ask each one how many homes they would have to show us before they got annoyed. I have a feeling we’re going to be a particular pain in the ass because A) we need something that’s ready to move into as I’m far from a handy man and I won’t be able to afford a contractor anytime soon, B) being that I’m buying a home so late in life I have every intention of making it the only home I ever buy… unless I win the lotto, C) I’d prefer to have city water/sewer and a finished basement, though that’s not a deal breaker if it’s a really good buy, and D) I’d prefer to avoid places with Home Owner Associations.

Our lease comes to an end in May and we need to let the apartment complex know if we intend to renew it a month ahead of time and that’s the second problem we’re facing. Rent is likely to go up (jumped nearly $200 last year) and if we try to do a 6 month or a monthly it’ll be even more ridiculous. So do we sign up for a year and then break it when we find a home? I think our agreement includes a clause allowing us to do so if we buy a house, but I’d have to double check it to be sure. We’re going to go into the office and discuss it with management soon.

So, yeah, the next weeks and/or months are sure to be filled with joy and peace as we undertake what I understand to be one of the more stressful life events you can engage in. Change is always fun, but if we don’t do it now I don’t think we’ll ever own a home of our own. Feel free to leave your horror stories of first-time home buying in the comments and, if you have any advice, that would be good too.

6 thoughts on “We are officially looking for a home to buy.

  1. First off, congrats! While there are a lot of folks who pooh-pooh home-buying these days (and I agree it’s not the be-all/end-all for everyone), there are some distinct living advantages to owning your own place to balance the disadvantages.

    WARNING — RAMBLING INFODUMP ENSUES:

    I think you are taking the correct tack in not rushing to buy a place but looking until your agent’s eyes bleed. Having helped a good friend find a place recently (in a very competitive market), it can be very wearing over the long haul to keep looking and either not be thrilled or else find a place you love only to have someone else snatch it away.

    The biggest process advice I can give is hang in there. Our friend looked for multiple months, saw dozens of places, and was ready on more than one occasion to compromise and say, “Okay, this is just good enough, I can live with it.” Do not let that very natural desire sway you. Especially if this is your “forever house,” you want to find a place you are excited about. Given the amount of money it will cost you, and that you don’t really have a time limit, don’t buy it if you don’t love it.

    A few other pieces of unsolicited advice:

    1. Make a list of things that you really want in a house. This list can grow as you start seeing more places, but keep it under control. Realize you might not get everything, but you’d hate to move in some place and then say, “Oh, hey, I forgot how much we really wanted a bay window in the living room for our Christmas tree.”

    Part of this is also considering the purposes you expect to put rooms to. Big, entertainment class kitchen, or small nook to microwave Stouffers? Do you want a bedroom on the first floor for mobility impaired guests (or yourself in the future); do you want a ranch style or a multi-level, etc.

    Proximity to work is important — but you may not always be at that one job (and buying a house may lead you to figure out a better location). Consider proximity to other conveniences (and bothers) too. (Drive the neighborhood — are your neighbors keeping their places up? How about a block over?)

    The flip side to this is important, too — what specifically would drive you crazy in a place?

    (The market and your resources may limit how far you can go here, but knowing what you do/don’t want will help — and being aligned with your wife will, too.)

    1a. At a higher level, each of you write down five attributes (not features) you are looking for from a house. “Sunny” “Welcoming” “Fun” “Open” “Quiet” “Private” “Natural” “Quaint” “Modern” — that’s going to be helpful for the agent, but also for you to checklist places.

    2. As you suggest, getting a good agent is essential. A big advantage over time is that they will filter for you — “Yeah, two places came on today, but I know you wanted a two-car garage and they had carports.”

    Also, while it’s good to be polite and appreciative, agents expect to be inconvenienced. They’ll tell you if you are asking too much of them (if they are any good). The agent is your guide, not your master — don’t let them dictate the terms, timing, frequency of the search too much.

    3. Be aware of what’s easy to change and what’s not. Paint color? Trivial. House facing? Difficult. Built-in bookshelves? Moderate. You will perforce become more handy as a home owner, and that’s an annoying but good thing. Consider what elements you can deal with yourself, before you move in or after (a house is a life-long project). Don’t let the trivial drive you away from a house that meets other more significant qualities.

    That’s especially true for the yard. Yardwork isn’t minor, but it’s a lot easier to change things in the yard, esp. over time, than you might thing. Concerned about privacy from the neighbors? A fence or high hedge can solve the problem, if not this year than maybe in five years. Again — think “forever house” and what that time frame gives you (you will have 1-year lists, 5-year lists, 10-year lists).

    (Flip side, also consider the difference between what can be fixed and what’s a systemic problem in a place. Inspections before closing are essential. Your agent should be an assist in this, too, both in a specific place or, if they know their stuff, in neighborhood — “Yeah, the places around here, a lot of them were in that big class action suit against the builder …”)

    And finally, in this aspect, consider that even if it’s something you don’t know how to do or that you don’t want to do, there are always other people who you can pay to do it. That can be really expensive, or it can be a lot less than you think.

    Bottom line — this is the biggest purchase you’ve ever had, which means it’s a great opportunity as well.

  2. Thanks for the tips, Dave. Turns out we won’t be going to look at the house we had planned on viewing this evening because I received an updated listing for it and discovered it doesn’t have a basement, which is something both the wife and I are insistent upon. I got too much stuff not to have a basement.

  3. Having come from a land (California) where there are no basements, I do understand that — but then you end up losing chunks of your garage for All That Stuff.

  4. Dave pretty well covered it. I agree if it is a forever house remember the all on one floor thing or at least the essential rooms on one floor plus your basement needs. Don’t chose something too old.

  5. Definitely what Dave said.

    When we were house hunting, an extra room for storage was a requirement. I know I’m a pack rat, and I don’t like using the garage as storage. Not to mention Texas isn’t basement land as well (I’d love to have one, though).

    The garage could be an issue if it’s one of your requirements. If you plan to park in the garage, measure your cars. Look up measurements of the cars you think you may buy in the future. We were ok with an 18×18 (standard from our builder) with our small cars when we moved in, but my wife now has a van that has less than 8 inches space total from bumpers to wall/garage door when parked. Right now our garage has my car, my motorcycle, and my shop space – wife parks under the carport. I had to get a shed for the yard tools to make room in the garage. If we ever get another house, a 3 car garage with at least 20+ feet of room is a requirement.

    As for home repairs, I practiced minor stuff on our apartment(toilets, sink drains, patching drywall) before moving. If it didn’t work out, I was going to get maintenance to fix it, but never had to. Home Depot and Lowes usually hold How-To seminars, if there is one around you. The “All Thumbs” guides are good beginner references to have.

    Consider using the extra bedrooms and bathrooms as test rooms for projects/repairs – I used our closet to try out wood flooring, and the guest bathroom was the guinea pig for toilet replacement, new faucet, and floor tile. (Especially the floor tile – it was the deciding factor on me doing it vs hiring someone) It’s also going to be the one where I test removing wallpaper. Having the guest bath out of service is easier than having the master bath or kitchen messed up while I figure things out or have to wait on a repairman if I don’t.

    Don’t let ugly paint color, landscaping, fixtures, or carpet distract you. That can be changed over time, piecemeal in most cases.

    As far as rent goes, I’d say compare worst cases. Say, 7 months of month-month vs a 6 month contract that you close on a house in the second month. Which one is a harder financial hit? Also consider if your closing date gets pushed back a week – will you have a place to stay?

  6. We’re hoping to get a 2+ bedroom ranch home with a basement, but wouldn’t necessarily turn down a tri or quad-level because the stairs tend to be very short flights. Anne want’s at least one and a half bathrooms. A basement is also a requirement. Beyond that we have things we’d like to have, but aren’t deal breakers.

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