Should we buy this house?
April 7, 2012 5:36 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to hear from people who have considered buying splendid houses but have felt really weird about it.

We are looking at a house. It will represent 34% of our expenses.

We have run the numbers and feel reasonably comfortable doing this, though it will be a little tight because of other expenses, but we are homebodies and we are not inclined to travel or fancy cars. We will still put money toward retirement, though vacations are likely lean heavily on camping. Some needed work we will do ourselves, other work we will need to put off until we feel more steady. Our idea of a good time is wine at a table in the backyard. We are a boring people. This expense is in alignment with our value system. We would be buying disability insurance to protect us against one of us becoming disabled, and we would be buying life insurance in case one of us dropped dead.

We are older than most first time homeowners, and further along in our careers. Our jobs are stable. We are mid-career.

We feel really weird about this. The house is more expensive-looking (and is in fact, more expensive -- it'll cost more) than every one else's house we know, some of whom rent out part of their homes to tenants.

It seems ostentatious, and too nice for us. We've been renting for way too long, and our expectations are completely unreliable.

We are terrified. Intellectually, I think the people we know socially are either not as deep into their careers as us (in their twenties or early thirties) as opposed to us (fortyish) and more likely to optimize their economic priorities so they could say, fly to Italy. We will not do that, because again, we're very dull.

It just seems too nice for us, though, it feels like are people going to think we're social climbing a-holes who don't know how to manage money, and I worry that it will feel somehow false or stupid compared to a smaller house that we could realistically make work (I have faith in our ability to make any house pretty splendid.)

I do want to make it clear though: we love this house.

I didn't grow up splendid, either. Houses that require a riding lawnmower always seem like they'd be perfectly realistic for someone else.

Are we going to do this and then move in and quake from a terrible case of impostor syndrome? Can we buy this house and somehow *not* feel weird?
posted by A Terrible Llama to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Buying a lot more house than you need (in any dimension of "need") is rarely a good idea from any perspective. As a rule the older and better off you get the less your primary residence should represent as a share of your net worth or its cost as a share of your income. If I were you I'd live in the smaller house and invest the difference (opening a wine shop can be your version of a trip to Italy)!

However 34% of expenses (15% of gross after taxes and savings?) is on the low end of normal by middle class US standards -- it's your friends who seem to have unusual priorities or relatively low incomes, rather than you splurging.
posted by MattD at 5:54 AM on April 7, 2012

This reminds me of the time I went into the optician to ask about having a pair of sunglasses fitted with prescription lenses, and one of the clerks commented on the (very) high-end brand of the sunglasses I brought in. I expressed a bit of guilt about this, and one of the other clerks replied, "sometimes it's ok to have nice things." and this is true. Just read this AskMe thread. A house in a good location is a good investment, and it's best to buy something worthwhile. I myself feel better that I bought a place with a lot of space in a location that I like. I COULD have paid less for a smaller place in a less desirable location, but that would have made me less happy and would have been in some ways a worse financial decision, and I have better judgment than that.

That said, you sound like you know that this is an iffy financial proposition and are trying to justify in your mind why you should do it. Unless you foresee having higher salaries in the next 2-5 years, when the house consumes 34% of your salaries (are you including ALL expenses?) things are going to be financially tight for you. A large house needs to be furnished, and you can't just use milk crates at this point in your life. Are you SURE that you really don't like to travel and leave the country, ever, or are you just telling yourself that to justify your decision?
posted by deanc at 5:54 AM on April 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: It seems ostentatious, and too nice for us.

Hey now, nothing is too nice for you. There's some people who think flying to Italy for a holiday is too nice or ostentatious, and I say fuck em, and fuck anybody who judges you for the house you buy. Put your mind at ease; as you move into this place and fill its bones with the marrow of yourselves (especially as it requires work), you will grow more in love with, and it will become more you and your partner's and the little llama's.

For many years I was a freelance journalist(read: penniless). I'm now a superannuated multi-national-working fuck. As I moved into a world with disposable income, and stopped questioning if I could afford medicine and started questioning if I could afford better toilet paper, I was also concerned that I was selling out, putting on false airs, coming across as pretentious to my friends and turning into exactly the kind of bourgeois running dog I'd always despised.

Well, none of those friends said anything and I'm still friends with them - I buy them dinner now when we go out without making a big deal of it and everyone seems happy with the arrangement. They don't hate me for my mortgage, my health insurance.

I also made new friends, at my godless capitalist mincing machine and I discovered that those rich people were - mostly - no better or worse, and not really so different to my friends with less money. Some of them were dicks, some of them know how lucky they are - I didn't judge them by their money or their houses; just if they're dicks or not.

You're buying a nice house because a nice house is something you value and you can afford, the same way some people buy nice shoes, or nice cars, or nice whatevers. There's no big deal about it, and humans are notoriously good and becoming blase to new situations. Buy this house, love it, in a year you'll both be staggered that you went so long without it. If you don't, hey, maybe I'll buy you dinner. ;)
posted by smoke at 5:57 AM on April 7, 2012 [41 favorites]

My parents moved from the cramped house I grew up in to a beautiful house with a beautiful ravine backyard after a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice. It is the one major luxury they have ever allowed themselves. And it is the best decision they could have made. They love it so much that they don't even feel the need to take vacations, because their home is as good as any getaway spot. Loving their home has brought them so much happiness and peace.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:01 AM on April 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

15 or so years ago, my partner and I were house-hunting and stopped in to an open house for a house we knew we'd never buy--it was too big, too fancy, and at the high end of our price range. Somehow, we talked ourselves into buying.

For eight years, we lived in a gorgeous Dutch Colonial with 9-foot ceilings and early 20th-centry woodwork. It has 8 or 9 rooms (depending on how you count rooms) including 2 sunrooms. The basement was divided into 4 rooms with a hallway between them, and was bigger than many apartments we'd lived it. There was a chandelier with many dangling crystal-y things in the dining room. Everyone who walked into the house, even just to deliver a package, commented on how beautiful it was. It was in the kind of neighborhood that has an annual homes tour.

It ended up not working out for us for a lot of reasons. I didn't feel too much like a social-climbing asshole, and I was sort of blind at the time to how much fancier it was than our friends' houses. But it was a lot of house to clean and maintain, and the time and expense of that tired us out.

Most importantly, though, we learned from the experience that we are not "beautiful house" people. We are very functional-minded about our living space. We always buy used furniture, for instance, because we're hard on furniture, so our living room is always a mix of mismatched pieces in various stages of decrepitude. Neither of us enjoys housekeeping for its own sake. There was much that I loved about that house, but I often felt like we simply weren't doing it justice.

We sold it ten years ago and moved to a much smaller, very plain mid-century ranch, which fits us much better style-wise. I like to think that the people who bought it from us would do better by it than we did. And over time I did come to feel that the splendid house didn't reflect our values very well.

Hmmm, what is my point that might help you?

Well, in our case we let ourselves be seduced by a beautiful house that turned out not to be a good fit for us in terms of either our lifestyle or the amount of time and money we want to put into our home.

I guess I'm advocating caution. But, at the same time, there's nothing wrong with buying a beautiful house if that's what will make you happy. My partner and I are cheap about furniture but extravagent about other things that we care more about. You are also allowed to make choices to spend your money in the way that will bring you the most happiness and satisfaction. If you buy this house, I hope you will let yourself enjoy it to the fullest possible extent.
posted by not that girl at 6:03 AM on April 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

My wife and I just bought a house that in many ways is a solid step up from the one we'd lived in for the previous 12 years. It's bigger, it has central air, a garage, a deck, a fireplace, a view and is in a prettier neighborhood. It felt a bit odd to us, but not in the anxiety-producing way you describe. For us, it felt like a relief.

If the place you're considering would be a very large change, I'd definitely recommend caution. I've known more than one couple who overbought on their first house after years of living in less-than-ideal rentals. The burden and expense of maintaining the big place lasts much longer than does the relief of no longer living in a place that's too small. A common pattern seems to be, long time renting (too small, god I want a house) >> buy big place (too big, my god this is expensive / a lot of work) >> buy second house that's just right.
posted by jon1270 at 6:06 AM on April 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Go for it! You're not leaving the 99%. It just feels that way to you. I've felt the way you describe about many things (including my house) and have learned to recognize those feelings as something other than they appear to be. They are more about your self image and the resultant projected image of how your friends see you then they are about reality.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:07 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have friends with very nice houses (for our location) and friends living in relative poverty, and it seems that having a nice house doesn't make your friends think you're an asshole; being an asshole is what makes your friends think you're an asshole.

On the other hand: I've deliberately avoided doing what you're doing, and my reason is one you haven't mentioned. I'm also a homebody and can live happily on relatively little. But moving into what you might call "mid-career", I'm very conscious of wanting the freedom to take career risks. That is, to quit my job and freelance, to start a business, or to go and take some badly paid work in order to build experience in another area. I'm VERY pleased that I'm not obliged to keep to a well paying job every step of the way up to retirement, as I could be if I took on a mortgage in my forties.

I also want the freedom to tell my boss where to stick it. Not because I ever plan on doing that, but because it makes my time at work SO much more pleasant when I know I'm there because I want to be.

On the gripping hand: Even though I didn't buy an expensive house, I did buy a lovely (but small and cheap) house and indeed, there's a lot of peace and comfort that comes from living somewhere that is beautiful and that really suits me.
posted by emilyw at 6:08 AM on April 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

A common pattern seems to be, long time renting (too small, god I want a house) >> buy big place (too big, my god this is expensive / a lot of work) >> buy second house that's just right.

I have seen this, too. The purchase price is not where people seem to get into trouble, but rather the maintenance/repair costs. Repainting an elaborate, multi-story house is a lot more expensive than repainting a small, single-story house, for example. I'm in no way saying not to buy the place, but be realistic about the long-term budget first.

Personally I went the other direction, for some of the reasons you describe, but also for the reasons emilyw mentions: I am a lot more mobile with a cheaper house (easier to sell or rent, and even taking a total loss on it would not be devastating), and we have a lot more control over our lives as a result.

I have also been struck by the number of people I know, usually in their late 50s or early 60s, who give off such a palpable sense of relief when they downsize to a smaller house or condo. A big, expensive place can sometimes be a weight on your back, and priorities can change as you go through life.

indeed, there's a lot of peace and comfort that comes from living somewhere that is beautiful and that really suits me.

This, however, is extremely true, and is the heart of the matter. If the house suits you, buy it, and don't pay attention to the naysayers.
posted by Forktine at 6:15 AM on April 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

There's a lot of emotion at play in this decision, which can make it hard to make a judgment. Set aside the "love" of the house for a moment, and sit down and make a list of everthing about living in this new house that would be different from your present (or another) house. Include things like:

-cleaning and maintenance load
-cost/frequency of exterior and interior painting
-yard, landscape, and tree work
-flexibility to adapt to changes in layout or decor if you desire them
- will you retire in this house? Can it adapt to potential mobility problems in old age, or are you planning to move elsewhere if that happens?
-where's the area headed?
-do you like the neighborhood/city?
-convenience of the services (grocery, dry cleaning etc) nearby
-method of entertaining (if you do) - does this house suit that
-privacy needs

it will be a little tight because of other expenses

I totally agree with others that it's fine to have nice things, but also, pay attention to this. If "it will be a little tight," what does that mean you'll be giving up? What flexibility do you lose? And what's the long term savings cost? How does this all compare with what you've got for retirement? One disadvantage to buying a house later in life is that with a 30-year mortgage, you have fewer years at the end living on the invested value with no mortgage, and you have less money now to put away for your future comfort. I know 34% of your expenses is just 1% above the classic "one third for housing" rule, but honestly, in today's uncertain world I have felt a lot better aiming for 25% on housing instead, because there's nothing as valuable as extra cash.

So I'm not saying don't buy this house - I'm saying that there's an infatuation that happens when you see a place you really, really want to live and can so easily see yourself living there. Don't make your decision based on the infatuation, or, conversely, the fear that it's "too nice" or any such thing. If it's too much house for you, it's just too much house, regardless of how nice it is. And if you end up somewhere you are totally comfortable with the workload, expenses, and impact on your finances long-term, then that's really the nicest thing of all.
posted by Miko at 6:26 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

(add heating/cooling bills to my list and check roof, basement and furnace/boiler condition too)
posted by Miko at 6:27 AM on April 7, 2012

I too want to caution about maintenance -- if "our idea of a good time is wine at a table in the backyard" you are going to start to loathe the house if you are rarely able to rest at the table in the yard because of all the time spent mucking about to do yardwork. Miko has covered a lot of the hassles. My answer would be different if you were rich and budgeting for people to do things for you, but.

"Some needed work we will do ourselves, other work we will need to put off until we feel more steady" is dicey -- nice about the disability insurance but it won't help when you end up with something like just enough backache that is just persistent enough to make it quite unrealistic for you to work on the house with any regularity, and houses can be pretty impatient -- I have seen almost every flavour of tradesperson in my house on an emergency as well as non-emergency basis, and I've only been in it for five years.

How much time do you want to spend on maintenance, and how resentful/broke will you be if multiple appliances fail simultaneously? If you are so in love with this house that the idea of nurturing it makes you happy, and you're sure you have a good understanding of how much work that can be, a splendid house sounds splendid.
posted by kmennie at 6:40 AM on April 7, 2012

A common pattern seems to be, long time renting (too small, god I want a house) >> buy big place (too big, my god this is expensive / a lot of work) >> buy second house that's just right.

This is also part of our dynamic. In our case, we'd been living in a house my partner owned that was much too small for us, and it had caused conflict. His theory is that we overcompensated when we bought the big place.
posted by not that girl at 6:46 AM on April 7, 2012

It's a great time to buy a house. Most single-family homes are riced significantly lower than they would have been a few years ago. Interest rates are very low. The housing market is poised for a recovery (though it will never be as robust as it was before the recession).

Here's the thing. You obviously love this house. When you look at other houses, you'll be mentally comparing them to this house. If you buy another house, you're going to be wondering if you made the right decision. There's nothing wrong with having a nice house that really speaks to you.

That said, we did the same thing. We bought a 3100-square foot brick two story and it is lovely but it is also a money pit. Have someone inspect it very thoroughly. Look at all the stuff that is expensive to replace -- windows, for example. They may look fine but poke at the frames with a screwdriver to make sure the wood's not soft if they're wood windows. Look at the roof, the HVAC systems, the siding. Look for any signs of water damage. It was not the cost of the house that was a struggle for us, but the constant stream of repairs that it needed. Good windows are easily $1000 each if you don't want white vinyl, for example. Consider that the things that don't seem that bad now might drive you nutty once you move in. You might want granite instead of formica, or decide that the builder-grade fixtures need to go. That gets expensive, too. Go for the house, get it inspected, make some general estimates for repairs/upgrades, add 20% and sock that money away.
posted by Ostara at 8:14 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

We were in your shoes though our place wouldn't bee considered terribly big or grand relative to what I see out in the suburbs.

We love the house and have had many happy moments in it but after 15 years, we're looking to downsize. A big house takes a long time to clean. We've also felt a little embarrassed when people visited because all our apartment stuff looked so crappy in it. It needed more repairs than I anticipated and that has soaked up most of our spare change over the years. It's true what they say about your possessions owning you, so don't buy more than you need.

That said, you could buy it an see how it fits. If your local market is low, chances are you can sell it in a few years without losing much money. There are positives, like having a dedicated guest room, a workshop, room to park cars.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:34 AM on April 7, 2012

Best answer: Oh, my gosh. We bought a splendid house, and I feel weird every day. Less weird as time goes on, but weird, still.

For the first six months, I thought that every day there'd be a knock at the door, and there would be the bank lady saying they had made a horrible mistake, and that people like us couldn't live in a house like this, and hahahahaha what did we think we were doing? Furthermore, get out! Rich people want to live here.

The house is quite far out of the range of our friends' living situations, and that was another weird thing. Living in a this splendid house has meant that I can't complain about bills and housing stuff to the same people. I can almost hear them groan with "poor little rich people", there's that. We're not rich, but our house screams FILTHY RICH, to me. It's so much grander than I ever dreamed of.

In the end, we bought the splendid home for the same reasons as you, we are both homebodies who would prefer this over vacationing, we love this house to pieces, (and it will resell for more than we paid for it, because of the specialness of the house), and the fact that I have driven by this home for 25 years, and never, ever dreamed I would even get to see the inside of it, let alone buy the thing. Yes, it's probably going to be weird, and some of your friends might think you're social climbing a-holes, but really, if you love this house, and can afford it, and like to clean and do maintenance, I vote go for it. The weirdness will fade and your friends will see you're not a-holes.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 8:52 AM on April 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

The thing about big houses (and I can't tell if yours is big? you mention riding mowers) is that they need more furniture than small houses, more cleaning, more heating, more window washing. If they have big gardens that needs a lot of maintenance. The cost of all this adds up! Time investment too. My house is pretty small but going from renting to owning was still a bit of a financial shock in terms of those "non-mortgage" and setup costs. Just don't forget these things in your calculations.
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:14 AM on April 7, 2012

Oh gosh yes, I panicked when we were about to *build* a house! We'd been married for years and were pretty settled too, but I didn't have grand aspirations. I always thought I'd live in a small, cottagey type place. I shared a room with my sisters growing up and was no worse off for it.

My husband wanted to build a NICE house, with vaulted ceilings and huge Master bedroom and yes, we were expecting our second kid but did we really need 4 bedrooms, a family room AND a living room?! And didmthe screened porch need to be so huge?

Not to mention that I am SUPER frugal with big purchases and even though we'd run the numbers and we could afford it, and even though, like you, we were people with pretty quiet lives (okay, maybe dull is a good word), I was panicking.

Fast-forward 15 years and we are still living there and very, very happy with our home! .

We took our time with a lot of things-- we only just upgraded our kitchen for efficiency, and it's taken us years to replace the mismatched, inherited furniture with some of our own (When I see you saying you'll wait on some issues, I figure that's the kind of stuff you're talking about, not major structural repairs, right?).

So, if you feel like you are going to live in this house a long time,, you have budgeted extra for maintenance, and can see yourselves living the life you want there, this house is absolutely a good idea.

A couple things: have you made a lower counter-offer than the asking price? Definitely do that!

Can you see yourself using all the space in this grand house? Note the "two sunrooms" answer up above! We actually didn't use the living room much, and I think maybe we could have handled three bedrooms just fine, too .So, as others have said, you may be going a little too big.

Talked to any neighbors about the neighborhood? You really can knock on doors and introduce yourselves and find out good stuff about the area and the neighbors that way.

Did you get the best mortgage rate terms you could? Be suspicious of "points" tacked onto a low rate.

But please don"t feel you "deserve" less! If you can afford this house and you love it, than you deserve it, in my book!
posted by misha at 9:32 AM on April 7, 2012

I am using this exact same argument to talk myself out of buying an awesome Eames lounge chair and ottoman. Please buy this house so I can have my chair.
posted by elizardbits at 9:35 AM on April 7, 2012 [9 favorites]

So I don't have a fancy house, but I do live in a cheap place so I can travel to Italy and other awesome places several times a year. I totally understand that some people prefer to live in a nice house over the hassle of traveling. And I don't think of them as rich snobs. If anything, my friends who are more set in their careers and live in fancy houses kind of think that my lifestyle with traveling constantly is a bit ostentatious (they don't think it in a bad way, but just think that it's a lot fancier than living in a nice house). So basically, everyone is different, and people's definitions of splendid and ostentatious are very different. Just don't act like a rich snob in your house (you don't seem like you will), invite your friends over to hang out on your nice patio and treat them well, just like you would without the house, and everything should be fine!
posted by at 10:15 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I believe that you should never make such personal decisions based on what you think someone else might think.

My two cents: You are homebodies, so your home should be a place where you love to be. A person who doesn't spend as much time at home might prioritize other expenses over home expenses. But there's no fundamental personal judgment there, just differences in lifestyle.

I hope you go for it! Enjoy this great new house, take your time fixing it up just how you want it, slowly find just the right furniture and decorations. You will love it all the more for the personal touches you give it. And your favorite thing will be coming home at the end of the day!

Best wishes.
posted by Boogiechild at 10:57 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I say no. I don't think a house is worth stretching financially for - the margins are just too thin. Disability insurers are known to deny claims for no reason at all. Your kid may hate highschool and need to go to a better private school. You can buy a perfectly lovely house somewhere for less money and less risk.
posted by yarly at 12:34 PM on April 7, 2012

You deserve it. You said you love the house, you seem to have no qualms about paying for it, I say go for it. Install solar panels if you think it's wasteful to live in a big house. Your friends should be happy that you're happy.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:46 PM on April 7, 2012

I can't imagine anyone who's really a friend thinking you're being an asshole by buying a nice house. You spend a lot of time in your home--why not make it as nice as possible? If you're really worried about the effect on your pals, just make sure to have lots and lots of wonderful parties.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:04 PM on April 7, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for taking the time to share your your experiences. It's been so helpful to read through these perspectives. Even though some experiences don't totally apply to us, it really helped hone our thinking about the decision overall and sort through the whirring considerations about the entire thing, and it helped us get through a rough day of wrestling with this decision.

In answer to some questions, we were pretty meticulous in our budgetary calculations, including even little things, and took into consideration maintenance costs and calamities and so on, and though limerence surely plays a factor, I hope it is offset by the timid and cautious nature of llamas overall.

Thank you so much, everyone.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:28 PM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder if some of what you're feeling may be first-time home buyer jitters?... and I think that just about everyone I know who is responsible and telling the truth gets them. Lots of us get a minor version of them every time we commit to buying a new house. If you've done your homework first, and it sounds like you have, those jitters will pass within a couple of months of moving in. I think it has to do with all the unknowns out there -- Can we handle all the costs? Will we be sorry? What haven't we thought of that might bite us in the butt?

We're homebodies, too. We stretched to buy the house we're in now, and we probably paid more than it was worth at the time, but we loved it then and we still love it. There has been a lot of work to do -- there was no landscaping at all, and the house wasn't even completely finished -- but we're fairly experienced at home remodeling and we've enjoyed working on the project together. You have to be willing to live in a less-than-perfect house for awhile, however, and be able to live with knowing there's a long "to-do" list in your short-term future. In our family, I'm the 'big-picture' partner and my spouse is not, so I've learned not to share too far beyond the next project to help keep him from getting bogged down. He's a project person, but less of a homebody than I.

The best part of living here has been -- like you envision -- sitting on the deck at the end of the day enjoying a drink or BBQ'ing our dinner and being pleased with the work we accomplished around the place that day. There's nothing like that feeling! I'm not a gym rat, but I love working hard around the property. And we enjoy sharing our home with friends and family... so the fact that it's more expensive than lots of their homes doesn't seem to be an issue with them.

We're not in one of the areas that have had the bottom fall out of the housing market. Our projects have added a lot of value to our property in the 5+ years we've lived here... our recent appraisal was $85,000 higher than we paid for the property. So homebodies can enjoy caring for their home and turn it into a good investment, too. Best wishes -- I hope the house turns out to be everything you want it to be!
posted by summerstorm at 3:33 PM on April 7, 2012

I believe that you should own things that add to your quality of life. That said, I'd like to offer two thoughts:

1. Unlike your friends in their 20s and 30s, your salaries have probably hit (or are approaching) their peaks. You should plan on carrying the debt load for this home without an increase in salary, but with the possibility of higher tax or interest rates. Stress-testing an investment like this with several "what if?" scenarios is a good idea.

2. If you've been living modestly, don't forget the cost of buying furniture and accessories that are suitable for your new home. This was a point that was made well in The Millionaire Next Door
posted by quidividi at 6:58 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

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