Old charm or a parking spot!
February 29, 2012 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Home buying: modern, super convenient, and soulless or old school charm without the conveniences and all the potential pitfalls?

I'm looking to buy a decent size 1 bedroom or possibly very small 2 bedroom in DC and I've found myself at a cross roads.

I initially did not want to be in a big new condo buidling. I feel it's like living in a hotel and the very modern style looks cool in a restaurant, but I find it very cold in a home.

I wanted to get a remodeled place in a small buidling, but I keep running into the same issue in my search. The remodeled places are close to the same price as the brand new condos but tend to smaller, have no parking, usually are in less convenient locations, and have no amenities.

For the same price and maybe a condo fee $100-150 higher, I can get a place 100-200 square feet larger, everything new, underground parking, a doorman (i.e. security and I can get deliveries while I'm at work), a gym, a roof deck, and a ritzier location. And it's unlikely I will have to deal with all the things that can go wrong in a 100 year old buidling.

I never thought I'd want a big, corporate building and I still have my heart set on converted school houses, fireplaces, and crown moulding, but it's making less and less sense. I also don't really like living in doorman buildings for no other reason that I don't really like someone knowing my business, which is a weird quirk of mine I may just need to get over and I really like the idea of having a unique space. But I also really like being somewhere I feel safe (which doormen are excellent for!) and not having my apartment flood or having to replace my 50 year old windows that don't come in standard sizes and have to be custom made.

So how have other people made this decision? Are there financial considerations I'm not taking into account? Have any of you found ways to make really modern spaces warmer and more personalized? What are the big downsides of owning in a big new building (I currently rent in one, but want to know if there are any considerations specific to owning)? I really want to buy something that I will want to stay in and not just immediately want to trade up so to speak so I feel that really liking the place I buy is important even if it's on the smaller side than what I might be able to afford down the road.
posted by whoaali to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've lived in both very old and relatively new buildings in DC and I say go with the newer one. You can decorate it cool. You can even put up crown molding. You don't want the headaches that come with an old building. Seriously, after a few years of living in an 1800s building in the District, my wife and I swore that we would never again live in a building that would inevitably have nooks and crannies full of a hundred years of dust and grime that could never really be cleaned out.
posted by The World Famous at 2:53 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

New construction in cities like Washington, DC or NYC or Chicago generally is preferable to older construction. Older buildings tend to be much older than is average for a country like the US and tend to have older pipes and electrical systems that limit modern conveniences (though all of these problems can be remedied if enough money is thrown at the problem).

I'd choose convenience and modernity every time in an east coast city, and that means modern construction, save the super-high end of the real estate market.
posted by dfriedman at 3:02 PM on February 29, 2012

Why does older construction have more "soul" than newer? Because it's been lived in.

By buying a newer, "soulless" house, you get the chance to give it soul. This can be surprisingly rewarding, and less expensive than upgrading an older, more "soulful" house to have modern amenities.
posted by kindall at 3:07 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whichever one DOESN'T have an HOA.
posted by just sayin at 3:30 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is all very good to hear. I think I have a lot of sentimental friends horrified by the thought of living in a big corporate building and are just abhor the idea.

Unfortunately I can't afford a house so all will have a HOA.
posted by whoaali at 3:44 PM on February 29, 2012

For the same price and maybe a condo fee $100-150 higher

I'd not focus so much on purchase price, and more on the total monthly payments. For an extra $100 per month, you could get a mortgage that was around $20,000 larger (assuming you'd qualify for an interest rate around 3.8%, which is right about where the market is for 30-year-fixed loans under $417k).

I'd also look pretty hard at how long the building has been around and what the HOA fee has been in that time; my brother bought a place in a brand new condo building (only about 10 units) and discovered too late that the developer had set the HOA fees unsustainably low juuuuuuuust long enough to sell all the units and move on. About a year after he moved in the HOA fees doubled or tripled.

Newer buildings may well be better, I'd just scrutinize that HOA fee really hard to make sure it's stable and big enough to be feeding some money into a rainy-day fund for expensive building repairs (otherwise HELLO SPECIAL ASSESSMENT), and also convert it in my head to the equivalent dollars of mortgage and add that onto the purchase price when comparing properties.
posted by iminurmefi at 4:21 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Friends of mine live in the development that's between 12th and 13th and V and W (NW, that is), and I've stayed with them a lot. I've never found their place soulless or corporate, because they've put so much of themselves into it. There's no crown molding, but with paint and furniture and window treatments and the like, they've made it theirs.
posted by rtha at 4:28 PM on February 29, 2012

Avoid old buildings. You can decorate and transform a new space. You can't transform a noisy old radiator that bangs and wakes you up in the night... and parking is a big deal, even if you don't have a car, it'll be easier for people to come visit you, etc... a friend of mine lives in one of those doorman-type places and he says it is amazing in terms of convenience. (E.g you'll never need to go grocery shopping - you can order it and it'll be delivered while you're at work. Rock!)

Owning is even worse than renting in an old building, because you're going to be paying for every repair of the old plumbing... every cracked pipe, every leaky window will be your problem, not the landlord's...

The package delivery convenience of a doorman in itself would decide it for me... (I'm still seething over jewelry that was left on my doorstep and stolen last week.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:42 PM on February 29, 2012

It's good to hear my assessment of things isn't way off . I'm definitely looking at a wide variety of prices and places, including very small row houses that work out to the same monthly payment. However, I've found the few houses I've seen in my price range are in only ok locations, would be a farther commute, and often have really bizarre layouts and/or other drawbacks that explain the low price. Not to mention them I need to worry about maintenance on a house. It also seems a bit silly to buy a teeny 2 or 3 bedroom with an unfinished basement when it's just me. I'd pretty much be paying to have a guest room, and not a good one that, instead of for a larger living space and other amenities.

It's hard because my favorite apartment ever was a 70 year old duplex that had a lot of character, but it also didn't have a dishwasher or central heating. It was also on a warm dry climate where you don't see the same problems in houses you see here.

Most of the buildings I'm looking at are between 3 and 6 years old, so not brand new. I'd be buying from owners not developers and the buildings are huge so I can research their reputations, which in the area I'm in are pretty good. I can usually find a friend of a friend in every major building to vouch for it too. DC is a small town. This has given me a lot to think about and made me feel much better about changing my mind about things.
posted by whoaali at 4:52 AM on March 1, 2012

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