Moving, Selling, & Buying
So, funny story about the house below. We bought it and we’re moving in.
We know this news probably evokes a whole range of reactions. Excitement for new makeovers. Sadness for leaving our current house. Curiosity about all of the logistics. Confusion. Anger. The inexplicable urge to do The Carlton.
Starting this story requires rewinding seven years, back to our first house hunting experience in Richmond in the spring of 2006. We had just moved from New York City and Richmond real estate felt very spacious and very cheap by comparison. It made dreamers out of us. We checked out a bunch of neighborhoods, and fell for an awesome old area with nice big wooded lots, great schools, charming tree-lined streets, and kids on scooters.
But none of the sweet old character-filled houses in that neighborhood were in our price range, especially because the bank had no faith in us. The issue was not our savings, but the fact that I was less than 2 months into my new job and Sherry was just as deep into her career as a freelance copywriter. In the eyes of the bank, Sherry was unemployed since she was a newbie self employed person (even though she was earning more than me!) so I ended up being the only name on the loan – basically cutting our buying power in half. Goodbye dream neighborhood, hello this looker.
As deflating as that financial reality check was, it turned out to be one of the biggest blessings. Had we not been steered towards a fixer upper, we might not have ever started this blog or learned the advantage of buying a home that’s well within our means. By not stretching financially, we could stash away a lot more project money and build up our nest egg – because we hadn’t lost sight of that neighborhood we first fell for, we had just put that dream on hold.
Fast forward 4.5 years, past a new puppy, a wedding in the backyard, Clara’s birth, and me coming home to work full-time. Our beloved little 1,250 sq ft ranch (with only one full bathroom) was suddenly feeling cramped and we found ourselves house hunting again. Dream neighborhood here we come, right? Try again, compadre. This time I was the financial deadweight (having just left a salaried job six months earlier to come work at home – great timing, right?). So once again we found ourselves approved for something far below our actual mortgage-paying abilities thanks to the bank’s you-haven’t-done-this-self-employment-thing-long-enough-for-it-to-count doubt.
But it dropped another gem of a fixer upper in our laps. And this time we knew that an affordable needs-work home meant even more projects and more money squirreled away for our “maybe someday” neighborhood.
Now, I wouldn’t say we ever consciously thought of these homes as “stepping stones” or rungs on a property ladder that we were itching to climb. Even though we always loved that dream neighborhood from afar, Sherry was fully convinced our first house would be our “forever home” (we even have that statement on video). When we fall in love with a house, we fall hard. But the experience of outgrowing and leaving our first place made us realize that we enjoy the process of loving an old house back to life way too much to stop at just one.
So when we moved into this house, we went into things with a more open attitude. Knowing we’d soak up every second of living here (you know we’re nuts about the journey) but no longer making bold declarations like “we’ll stay here forever.” Admittedly, at halfway through year three of living here, the end came a bit sooner than we expected, but our time here since 2010 has been jam-packed. We’ve celebrated three Christmases in this house, created a book from start to finish here, and enjoyed countless Clara milestones (crawling, walking, talking, Gangnam Style-ing). So this place is by no means a blip on the timeline of our family history. It has been “home” through a heckova lot, which makes leaving it that much more bittersweet.
We just knew we didn’t want our current place to be our last fixer upper (it’s not only what we love to do, it’s our livelihood), so when we felt ourselves tackling the last few untouched rooms on our list we started casually keeping one eye open for a deal that could be a potential rental or even a future Casa Petersik. We’d occasionally flip through real estate listings and drop in on open houses. We always hoped that something would come up in our price range in that dream neighborhood so we could jump on it like a velociraptor, but after two house-hunting experiences that didn’t lead to us ending up there, we weren’t very confident.
And then it happened. Pretty much out of nowhere, we found the sweetest needs-lots-of-love home in that old charming neighborhood that we’ve driven through at least five times a year just to stare creepily since 2006. Yes, this is a seven-years-in-the-making house coup of ours. We would have loved to take you guys on the house hunting adventure with us like last time, but it all happened so fast and before we knew it we were closing on it.
And thanks to putting some of that saved-for-years cash down at closing, our new house’s mortgage amount is almost exactly the same as our current house’s – but our interest rate is even lower. We both spent closing day waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out and scream “you got punked!” but all went well and the house is officially ours. We’ve even had it long enough to fix some first-priority issues like a leaking roof, a broken furnace, and even hooked up the alarm system.
The house hasn’t been updated since it was built around 35 years ago, and knowing that its interior might scare off others trying to buy in a mostly turn-key community, the sellers priced it way under assessment. It was over $100,000 less than another house of the same size that was for sale down the street. A low-priced fixer upper in a neighborhood that we’ve dreamed about for almost a decade? Yes please. 70’s wallpaper, blue trim, lumpy carpet and all…
Beyond the price, neighborhood, and glaring need to be rescued – this place is perfect for us in so many other ways. It’s nearly the exact same size as our current place (huzzah, no more extra square feet to clean). The street is beautiful and quiet (perfect for someday teaching Clara to ride a bike). It’s still just as close to our family (maybe they can watch Clara while we strip wallpaper). And it presents us with so many new design challenges and opportunities that our minds are spinning with ideas. I mean, hello, we have stairs for the first time in seven years of home-ownership!
Perhaps the funniest thing is that at our age, my parents were moving into their third house, which was where they stayed for over three decades. So apparently it’s in the Petersik blood.
We know that you guys probably have dozens of questions – When are we moving in? (Don’t know yet) When can you see more pictures? (Soon) What does Clara think? (She already picked out her room… based on the closet size. Is she 16?) But this post would be ten thousand words if we tried to cover everything, so we’ll get to those things in time. We also have a few things to finish around here to get our current house sold (anyone interested?) so in an effort to keep our own minds focused on those to-dos, it won’t be all new house posts all the time. We’ll just be moving at our usual real-time pace and sharing a little bit of everything that’s happening (selling, packing, planning, moving, and diving into our new house adventure).
Did I mention these two are the most excited of all? Okay, three if you count Ariel.
We can’t wait to continue sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly with you guys. Seriously, who wants to come paint some mauve trim with us? And if there were a moral to this story, it’s patience. This is not “the house the book bought” (we still haven’t hit our royalty point), it’s the house that seven years of saving up and living within our means bought. Had we strained our wallets and gone for a larger or more turn-key house back in 2006, we probably would’ve had a very different financial path, and most certainly would have had a different career path. So even though we had to wait a while, it just makes this new chapter in our lives that much sweeter. Who knows, we might just stay there forever…
Q: I have a house-hunting question for you. What do you look for? What do you look past? Help! My main complaint of all the older homes that we’re looking at in our price range is that they all feel dated, but that seems to be what you guys look for. How do you know which dated houses are worth buying and which ones are lost causes? I keep worrying we’ll end up in a money pit! – Aviva (not the one from Housewives of NY).
A: First of all, I’m glad you clarified that you’re not NYC Aviva. Haha. And second of all, we actually get this question a lot. So when it comes to what we “look past” in a house (and what we pay attention to) my general answer is to never be deterred by the following things:
- baaaad paint on the walls or the trim
- nasty wallpaper (borders, or entire walls)
- dated or not-your-style furniture
- ugly curtains
- dark brick or paneling
- not-your-cup-of-tea light fixtures
- green/blue/pink toilets
For example, here are a few before photos of our first house to further demonstrate how off-putting those dated features can be… but we all know they can be remedied with a little elbow grease if you’re a willing DIYer:
As for what we always try to pay attention to or look for, it’s mainly:
- the neighborhood (can’t move a house after you buy it)
- the overall layout (you can adjust some things, but repositioning every room gets pricey)
- the size of rooms and number of bathrooms, which is another hard-to-change factor (ex: if it has too-small bedrooms or one bathroom when you need two, you probably want to keep looking)
- things like ceiling height and window placement (which aren’t always easy to change)
- interesting architecture, like a fireplace, ceiling beams, etc
- the terrain of your lot (a steep drop off in the back isn’t exactly simple to fill in, etc)
Here are some photos of our first house that demonstrated some of those great “diamonds” that we saw in the rough. For example, the same room that showed dated brick and paneling also sports a nice cozy centered fireplace along with architectural beams overhead:
Which meant that once we painted all the dark wood and brick, it completely changed the feel of the room:
Another great selling feature for us was the lot itself. It was nearly an acre (something you can’t change once you buy a house) with a nice flat and wooded backyard:
All that landscaping was a more than a little rough to stay on top of, but since we had a nice level lot that was private and wooded in the back, we knew it had tons of potential. And thanks to craigslist we got folks to dig stuff up for free (by posting you-dig-it-up-and-it’s-yours ads like this, which even worked for all that pea gravel) and we ended up with a nice easy-to-maintain yard that made us (and especially Burger) endlessly happy:
So although we’re hardly pro house-hunters (we’ve only done it two times), I think we’ve learned that the sweet spot for us is to completely ignore things we know we can change. If the walls are a color we don’t like, we don’t even pay attention since we know it can easily and affordably be updated. Same for the color of cabinets that we can potentially paint, or wallpaper that we can remove. Things that we can’t change as easily are what we pay the most attention to (ex: the floor plan of a house, the location of the kitchen and all the windows, the size of the bedrooms) – you know, things that would be a lot of money, and trouble, to alter.
For those who have a harder time seeing past the bad cosmetic things (like dated curtains and crusty old wallpaper) it probably helps to look at inspiration images in magazines, online, etc and save things that you love (in a binder, on Pinterest, etc). Then stare at them to see if any of those rooms could inspire something. For example, if you see a room that looks totally different than a potential home’s living room but look closer and realize it’s the same size and shape, you could totally repaint and hang curtains and otherwise decorate it to get that look in your space. Know what I mean?
Update: Oh and as for avoiding a money pit with structural issues or other expensive upgrades you didn’t see coming, we definitely value getting a thorough inspection! Of course they can’t always catch everything, but we’d never buy a house without one and you definitely have much higher odds of finding potential issues (and then being able to opt out of the purchase) than if you skipped the inspection. We hire someone super thorough who is highly recommended and in each case he spent a minimum of 3+ hours crawling under the house, on the roof, looking into vents, etc – our guy got verrry friendly with each house. It can definitely keep you from ending up with a lemon! At least for our two house purchases it has worked out well.
So what about you guys. What do you look for or look past when it comes to house hunting? Do you make must-have lists and must-not-have lists along with nice-to-have lists? It’s definitely smart because that way you won’t let something on the nice-to-have list creep into your brain and convince you buy a house that’s missing a few of the must-haves.