You’ve narrowed down where you want to live, so it’s time to start setting some new home parameters. The next challenge is setting a budget for the place you’ll soon call home.
1. Less Money, Mo’ Problems
If you’d been a little smarter (we weren’t), you might have worked out your budget before setting your heart on a city you love. That would save you the heartache of really wanting a sweet little bungalow in an upscale neighborhood when you’re shopping on an edge-of-town, where-the-buses-don’t-run shack budget. If you’re like me, though, planning logically might not be a strong suit, so now you’ve either got to deal with disappointment or get a little creative. If you’re lucky, it’s a buyers’ market and there are still a few housing options in your decided upon location. Remember: one family’s foreclosure is another’s dream home! It doesn’t make the housing crash any less depressing, but hey, at least you’re still on track to buying a home. Minus copper wiring and a toilet, probably.
Luckily, the equation for figuring out a budget for buying and affording your new home is pretty simple:
Income - [utilities (x 50 in winter months if you’re cold-blooded like me) + mortgage (x twice what you expected it to be, then multiplied by “you can’t afford this”) + (closing costing > than your current savings, always) + (expected repair costs x 400 because you will break a ton of shit while you’re making minor repairs)] = Why are you even bothering? You’ll be broke for years, just accept it.
2. Drive-By Creeping
You know where you want to live, you’ve got the house in mind, and you know what you can afford (or can’t afford but plan to buy anyway): now let’s find your home!
Mr. Jetson and I started our search online, combing realty sites for homes that had some of the features we were looking for, like walls and working plumbing (your standards might not be so optimistically high). Mostly, Mr. Jetson looked while I ate Doritos and watched Netflix. Sometimes, I half-heartedly made an attempt at scanning the sites, and I sent Mr. Jetson some homes I found appealing. They usually either a) lacked necessary criteria, like the three bedrooms we wanted, or ceilings, or b) were homes he’d sent me a link to a week earlier that I’d either ignored or vetoed because “It looks like it smells funny.” The important thing is to have these sorts of parameters in place.
After picking a half-dozen or so houses in a given area that seemed passable, Mr. Jetson and I decided to pass by each one to see if it looked as good in person as it did in pixels. Of course, in the dead of winter, what house WOULDN’T look amazing? Things like dirty snow and decrepit tree branches really bring out the best in any home’s landscape. Since the foreclosures we were considering were all empty, we could sit on the side of the road as long or stand on the porch for as we wanted, peering around for signs of basement windows (we didn’t want to live on a slab) or just broken windows. The only people creeped out by this behavior were the neighbors, who will undoubtedly remember your car if you ever DO move in, and will shun you for the rest of your days in the neighborhood.
3. On the Hunt
Once we found a house that we actually wanted to see the inside of, Mr. Jetson emailed the first realtor whose ad he saw on the side of whichever site he was browsing at the time. He could have been a scam artist, Nigerian prince, or homeless man with wifi, but we contacted him and told him the house we wanted to see. Luckily, Bob the Realtor was both insightful and NOT a murderer, which are key factors you’ll want in your own agent.
We picked out a few houses to look at, and Bob agreed to meet us on the coldest day of the year so far. Instead of carefully checking the area for more houses nearby that we wanted to see and arranging our time accordingly, we picked houses in three separate cities, about 30 minutes apart each, and zigzagged across the metro area to look at them. Bob was, luckily, understanding. Since we were looking at the low-priced foreclosures flooding the market (because we’re broke and have delusions of grandeur when it comes to our home repair skills), most homes needed updating. Or appliances. Or floors and walls. If you’re planning to look at foreclosures, be prepared for this.
The first house we visited was in a rural-ish area right next to a big field, which we of course thought would be “the one.” It was a bit run-down on the outside, requiring new siding and a fair bit of landscaping. And the roof looked a little wonky - all of which we noticed before Bob and his champagne-colored Saturn even arrived. When he arrived, we went in together to immediately discover that the fridge, oven, dishwasher, and part of the kitchen wall were missing. It looked like they’d had a built-in dining seat along one wall, and had taken it with them. Which was fine by me; I’m not a fan of the built-in dining area, anyway! Less work for us! The rooms were sizable, with spacious closets (missing doors, of course), but what really threw us was the unfinished basement and missing copper wiring. It was unstable, at best. Plus, you know, all that shady vandalism. We gave it the thumbs-down.
Our second stop was a tri-level just outside of the downtown area we had initially wanted to call home. It was small. Uncomfortably small. The living room was a narrow strip of floor, with a brick fireplace that went clear to the ceiling and had been painted robin’s egg blue. Imagine chipping THAT off. The dining room was nonexistent (I had no idea where we would put our tiny four-seater dining table). And instead of a proper basement, of course, the house featured the lowest of the tri-levels, which had already been redone for a family room. The problem was, this left no storage. Anywhere. And we have things! We have like, a whole pair of skis! Despite our trepidation at this house not much bigger than our apartment, we of course thought it was “the one.” It was near our dream area, had a backyard, and, most importantly, was cheap as hell. Giddy with excitement, we moved onto the final house of the day (although we almost said “Why bother? We’ll just throw the dining table out!”).
The last house was not a tri-level, but a QUAD-level. It had a huge kitchen, living room, spacious dining room (complete with mirrored wall!), family room, three large bedrooms, and a full basement. It was considerably pricier than the first, but we briefly thought it might be “the one.” Then we realized it backed that ass up right against a major road. We worried for our cat at home, who might get out and explore his newfound freedom in traffic. We were discussing the pros and cons when an Indian family wandered in through the front door, thinking it was an open house. Bob obligingly showed them around, leaving Mr. Jetson and I to talk about the house, and Bob, who was really nice and didn’t seem to be trying to sell us on anything. That was one of my favorite things about Bob the Realtor - he was really there for US. I urge you to find an equally noncommittal agent in your home search. But preferably one who will shut the door upon showing you a house so other families or vagrants don’t call dibs.
4. You Must Be This Tall…
Since we are dangerously impulsive when it comes to major purchases, Mr. Jetson and I decided on the drive back that we wanted to put an offer in on the miniscule tri-level, and emailed Bob upon our return. We looked at the listing again, and were curious to see that it was a short sale. For those of you who are not informed, a short sale means that the current owners of the house are attempting to sell it for less than what they owe the bank — it’s sort of a stop-gap to foreclosure, and it’s a way for the bank to cut its losses. It’s also an immense headache for the buyers, since getting the bank’s approval on the price can last six months or more. More time to pack, sure, but still a pain in the ass.
Fortunately, Bob got back to us the next morning to let us know that an offer was already pending on the home, and had been put in just days before. As disappointed as we were that this tiny house was now out of our reach, we were a little relieved that we wouldn’t have to start eating on the floor. But this took us back to the drawing board. We went through the “web browse, drive-by, visit” routine a few more times before finally finding the house that would one day become the new home for The Jetsons.
In the final installment of “The Complete Amateur’s Guide to Buying a Home”: Narrowing Our Choices, Making An Offer, and Home, Sweet Home!