Help clueless future parents buy the right home to raise kids in!
January 10, 2014 11:21 AM   Subscribe

As future parents and first time homebuyers, what aren't we thinking about, or under-emphasizing/over-emphasizing, in trying to pick a home to raise (two) kids in?  What should we consider in deciding on house versus condo, location, neighborhood, size, layout, features, etc?

Here are some specific we're wondering about, but please also add things we don't even realize we should be thinking about!  (And yes, we know that different families will come down differently on all of these issues... we just want to hear your opinion and any generalizations based on families you know.)

- How much space do we really need? The two of us seem much more comfortable in smaller living spaces than your average couple and hence are drawn to small, more affordable places, but how is the equation likely to change when adding two kids? Both in pure square feet, and anything to think about re layout (ie the ability for one of us to sleep with minimal disruption from crying/playing kids? Pros and cons of stairs?)

- At first we were thinking condo (it's definitely what we'd buy if kids weren't in the picture), but now we're leaning more towards a house. Particularly nervous about noise issues in a condo, but also it feels like so few people choose to raise kids in condos and there must be good reasons for that... your take?

- Related to the condo decision (it's hard to find 3BR condos in our area) is whether to buy a place we'd outgrow and need to move from... besides the hassle, it seems like making the kids change schools would be a big drawback, but maybe we'd want to move to a better school district by middle school time anyway (or even sooner)?

- Are there less obvious things about school quality we should be thinking about? (Especially things that are more likely to stay constant almost a decade from now once we're actually using the school system?)

- What are the pros and cons of being in a more urban, walkable area, versus something more suburban with quieter streets and almost no walkable shopping/entertainment/etc?  (How far *is* really reasonably walkable with kids of different ages?  Is our current preference for walking over driving likely to decrease when we have kids? Increase to avoid the hassle of carseats/etc?)  FYI these would actually be in different parts of the same large inner suburb of DC (Silver Spring, for the curious) but with very different feel.

- What other kind of neighborhood features are important?

- How big a deal is it to have a yard? Laundry on the same level versus basement?  For the kids to be in close walking distance to school, versus further but ineligible for busing, versus taking the bus? 

- Anything else you think we should be thinking about?

(For reference, we're planning on two kids, and looking at a price range that would allow one of us to stay home for a few years. But feel free to mention it if you think we should be focusing even more on keeping the mortgage amount really low.)

Thanks so much!
posted by EmilyClimbs to Home & Garden (36 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The number one thing I HATE about our otherwise lovely urban home is that we have such a tiny yard. No room for a swingset, and my son has to go out the front and around the house to get to what yard there is (so he often just plays on the front sidewalk, which freaks me out). There are other things I would change about our house, but outdoor space is the only thing that I think really impacts our quality of life. Our son doesn't get outside as much as he should because I have to take him to a park or playground (none walkable for a 7 year old alone, largely due to traffic and lack of crosswalks) in order for him to really run around outdoors.

My SIL lives in an condo, and she's moving ASAP because one of the condo rules is that you can't leave kids toys outside, so she has to bring the climber, toys, etc. into the house and can't have a sandbox or anything like that. So, check the condo rules before you buy a condo.

The other thing I wish (that you can't really affect much) is I wish there were more kids on our street. There were a few years ago, but in the past 2-3 years they've all moved away, which means that my son doesn't have the "neighborhood gang" experience growing up.
posted by anastasiav at 11:28 AM on January 10, 2014

This pertains to the US (Boston area):

House or condo: we had to move from our loft condo to a house because of noise issues (neighbours were kept up at night by our crying newborn), so that's a big concern. Funnily enough, those same neighbours up and moved when they had a baby of their own, for the same reason.

Neighbourhood: schools are a big consideration of course, but keep in mind that schools may be very good for the younger grades even in an otherwise underperforming school district, so you may be fine for ten years before you'll need to move on.

Yard: important for very young kids but you will want to take them to the local playground just the same. Also, if you don't set an example by being out in the yard much your kids may not be interested in being out either.
posted by Dragonness at 11:31 AM on January 10, 2014

A fenced-in or fenceable yard is a very good thing to have. Make sure it gets shade in the summer and sun in the winter. A park nearby in addition to a yard is great. A quiet street. In your area you'll probably find houses with finished basements which can become great play spaces for kids when it's too wet to be outside. Two bathrooms, or at least 1 and 1/2 baths. A good elementary school within 1/2 mile.
posted by mareli at 11:33 AM on January 10, 2014

(How far *is* really reasonably walkable with kids of different ages? Is our current preference for walking over driving likely to decrease when we have kids? Increase to avoid the hassle of carseats/etc?) FYI these would actually be in different parts of the same large inner suburb of DC (Silver Spring, for the curious) but with very different feel.

I grew up in DC proper (semi-detached old townhouse; postage stamp front yard on an elevated terrace and an enclosed backyard) and I'll just say that this probably depends a lot on the parents. Having a car was, I think, pretty crucial for a lot of kid reasons, but we were walked to nursery school/pre-school at a pretty early age (or taken in a stroller) and that pattern continued throughout our childhood. BUT my dad loves walking, so for him it fit into his morning routine, and being able to pick up supplies on his way home has been helpful. A lot of my suburban friends grew up in neighborhoods with no sidewalks so they just never walked anywhere and never got into the habit. They also learned to drive, which I still haven't really gotten down, so your mileage may literally vary. (But I'm really great at the Metro and bus routes!) My parents still love the house and the neighborhood and the walkability factor is more important to them than ever.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:36 AM on January 10, 2014

Kids don't need their own room. Sharing can have big benefits when they're young.
Find a place closer to a park. A change of scenery can work wonders for parents and kids.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:42 AM on January 10, 2014

How much space do we really need?

1250 sq.ft.

the ability for one of us to sleep with minimal disruption from crying/playing kids?

Earplugs and learned selective deafness are the way to go.

Pros and cons of stairs?

Stairs are a pain with small children, but you can cope if necessary. Given land-use patterns in the D.C. area, you're almost certainly going to have stairs unless you have a tiny house.

Is our current preference for walking over driving likely to decrease when we have kids?

Not at first and not later on, but in the middle, probably. Newborns and infants are easy: strap them into a carrier or put them in a stroller and you're good to go. It's when they're 3-5 (ballpark, depending on their size and development) that it's tough. They can be too heavy to carry and too impatient to spend a lot of time in a stroller, but their coordination isn't entirely there yet, their strides are small, and they like to wander, so letting them walk can be a challenge. By 6 or so they can usually keep up pretty well and are usually aware enough of cause-and-effect to think twice about running out into the street, at least under a parent's watchful eye.

What other kind of neighborhood features are important?

Parks, parks, parks, parks, did I mention parks? I cannot overstate the importance of parks (especially close by) for entertainment, exercise, play, and socialization for parents and children.


But feel free to mention it if you think we should be focusing even more on keeping the mortgage amount really low.

I would consider this very important. YMMV.
posted by jingzuo at 11:46 AM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does the school system have a robust system of early childhood support / preschool for kids that need it?

When our son turned out to be speech-delayed it turned out that our county had excellent intervention and access to grants for early education and therapy. Then we discovered our local school district had it's own preschool that let him continue his work there and make the smooth transition to kindergarten, again under state grants.

Of course not every kid needs this kind of help but I can't imagine where we would be if we had moved to some neighboring districts that didn't have this kind of support and resources available.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:50 AM on January 10, 2014

Where we live (TX), there are some neighborhoods with sidewalks, and some without. We definitely prefer having sidewalks in the neighborhood. It makes going for walks so much easier and safer, and provides a easily-defined boundary in the yard, as in "stay on this side of the sidewalk!"
posted by Shohn at 11:52 AM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Decent indoor playspace within sight--or at least sound-- of the kitchen is a biggie.

Lots of storage, whether basement/attic/garage/cupboards. I looove my new house's built in cupboards.
posted by kestrel251 at 11:55 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you haven't already had kids yet, then I personally would say that you could buy a condo now, and live there until you get to the point where one of your kids is about to enter Kindergarten, at which point you may want to move based on school district.

I don't think you need a large amount of space (although space is nice); I think stairs are fine (I grew up in a country where almost every house has stairs); walkable is really really really nice, but you can be a car family in a non-walkable neighborhood until your kids are old enough to want to walk with you to the store etc (2 ish).

So I'm saying you can try and future proof your purchase by going straight to a house in a good school district, but that might cost too much depending on your area (which I'm not familiar with). I personally think its impossible to plan as far ahead as middle school when you havent even had a kid yet - so many other things might change. But if you want to go for the house, then I personally would prioritise:
1. Safe neighborhood
2. Good elementary school (this is not purely about test scores)
3. Walkable (inc nice park within walking distance)
4. Space for kids - they can share room, you don't need a huge American house IMHO.
5. Having a yard with space for play structures

Many kids around the world and in the US grow up in apartments and condos, and are just fine. Having a house is definitely nicer, but don't saddle yourself with horrific debt in order to do this.
posted by Joh at 11:55 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Something we didn't think about but lucked into is that the streets of our neighborhood don't connect anything - in other words, we're not a shortcut between two points. If you drive into our neighborhood, it's because you're coming to someone in our neighborhood. Cuts way down on the traffic and speeds, which in turn makes it easier to do things with kids out front.

It's also flat with nice sidewalks, good for walking and learning to ride bikes... but it also means that for Halloween, we need a lot of candy. 200-300 pieces.
posted by neilbert at 11:57 AM on January 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

FWIW I have 2 kids, one in preschool and one in 1st grade, and while its a great safe neighborhood and a lovely house, I hate our commute to from work/school and that the neighborhood is not walkable. I would trade down house size and lose the yard for those two things.
posted by Joh at 11:57 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a one-story house with a somewhat unconventional/suboptimal layout in terms of bedrooms. Everything was fine. It was slightly weird that my bedroom was a room that had obviously been designed to be an office and was off the living room instead of in the back of the house with the other bedrooms, but honestly it did not impact my life at all and would have been a bizarre reason for my parents to pass on the place.

I think a lot of this sort of weird "but all the bedrooms have to be upstairs" or "it has to be a two story house" or "it has to be colonial style and not ranch style" are really down to personal preference (and to an extent availability/price range) and not necessarily must-haves.

What I would say probably are must-haves:

Enough bedrooms so that you aren't sharing a bedroom with your baby. If you are planning on more than one child, I would get a place with enough bedrooms so that you can have a Parents' Bedroom, Kids' Bedroom, and Nursery. If you are planning on having more than two children, I would get a place with enough bedrooms so that your kids can have a degree of privacy as they grow up. For example I would not attempt a two bedroom condo if you're thinking of having 3-4 kids, no matter how small a footprint you currently occupy.

A neighborhood or building where there are other families. And as a corollary, living in a place where it's possible to have friends in walking distance. The other kids on my block were practically family, and my childhood would have been very different if we'd grown up in a very rural area or some kind of urban loft building full of single adults.

Usable outdoor space. A "big yard" isn't much help if it's unsafe to play in or stays just a big empty space with no swing set, playhouse, rope swing, patio furniture setup, or whatever.
posted by Sara C. at 11:58 AM on January 10, 2014

The biggest thing I learned from buying/selling my first home is to recognize what you can and cannot change about a home.

Backyard is ugly and busted? Landscaping and planting trees is easy, can be relatively inexpensive and you can see quick results. Kitchen is too small? Tough cookies, you're stuck with a small kitchen.
posted by gnutron at 12:00 PM on January 10, 2014

How much space do we really need?

The average house size in the 1950s was 938 square feet.

Just something to consider.
posted by saeculorum at 12:05 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

My husband and I could have written this question a few months ago. We ultimately moved from Columbia Heights to Vienna, VA.

We don't have kids yet, but bought our "townhome style condo" with an eye towards that future. We really found most 3br places we could afford would compromise way too much on the walkability/near amenities aspects that we want to enjoy even knowing those might turn into car-based trips when/if kids come.

We figured that the one thing you really, really can't change is schools. We went with the best school district we could buy into. (Being closer to both sets of potential-grandparents was another factor.) This means we've got a 2br, with an eye on having 2 kids.

We also tend to be happier with smaller places, and unless "nesting" instincts really go bananas, I don't see that changing. Kids can share rooms. I know it's not as common now as it was, but this is how we got the urban sprawl we have now. Babies can have a bassinet/crib in the parent's room until they can move in with older sibling. Your whole house will more or less be given over to the chaos of toys and diapers as near as I can tell, no matter how large or small.

Our kid minded base requirements were these: good schools, reasonably safe*, washer/dryer, dishwasher, 2+ toilets, 2 bedrooms. Bonus: a tub to wash kids in. We have a park at the end of the block, and a school playground near-by too, so no yard wasn't a concern for us.

Really, we figured at the end, we could only plan our 5-10 year future. We knew keeping the house for 5 years, with a very conservative gain in price would basically break even with closing costs, should we need to move at the end of those 5 years. We're still waiting a year or two until kid #1 would even be attempted, and plan to have kids more like 3-5 years apart than 2-3 years apart like lots of people do. We figured if critical mass truly was reached when kid #2 was a toddler, we'd be breaking even to move. And should the market tank again, we could make due with the current house or eat our losses.

And this all assumes hugely that like, we are even able to have kids. That after having kid #1, we're interested in adding another. That our jobs don't take us somewhere else. There are just so many factors, we can only really plan for what are the logical choices for the near future. Else, we would just be driven mad. We even started considering which state (we were considering MD too) would have better public universities! In like 20 years! Which is just a handful of years shorter than have been alive ourselves, let alone future kids?!! AHHHH Really, I am so glad we just settled and are done with that ball of stress.

*So, was Columbia Heights safe? I mean, the odd mugging, car smashing happened, yes. And gang-related violence sure. I thought for an adult it was fine, be aware, lock your doors, etc. I had a friend raising his kids just a few blocks away from me and he eventually moved out because some other kids in the neighborhood had older siblings in gangs or committing crimes. When they're little kids, it doesn't matter so much. 7, 10, 12? They're being informed about the world beyond the scope you set for them. He didn't want them to admire the thuggish examples being set by older kids.
posted by fontophilic at 12:16 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd take into account a few things:

1. Your needs are going to change dramatically over the course of the next half decade to decade.
2. You are going to be able to afford a lot more house later than you can now, because your income and savings should be improving over time.
3. In case you haven't been paying attention, selling a house is a lot harder than it was a half decade ago. Especially the kind of house that makes a good starter home.
4. If you aren't sending your kids to private school, they are going to need to be in a good school system, which generally translates into expensive houses with high property taxes. If you are sending them to private school, you will want to live relatively near to school or you will lose thousands of hours of your life and your kids lives to extensive commuting.

All of these add up to you either renting or buying a small place that you could realistically use as an investment property on the off chance it won't sell for a while. Then, when you actually have kids and need more space you can move to a good school system and actually get a nice house using the purchasing power that you likely don't have now. If you buy the most you can afford now, you may very well find yourself stuck in a house that isn't what you want without having the means to up and move before it sells, which could well be a very long time.

Some other bits of advice: don't buy the most or least expensive house in a neighborhood; don't buy a townhouse or a condo in an area where they are still being built, when it's time to move people will look at yours for the features they want and then just buy new; ALWAYS get an inspection done.
posted by teh_boy at 12:18 PM on January 10, 2014

Above anything else, I strongly suggest getting a small house.

I live in a tiny house, ~800 square feet. One floor, two bedrooms (both small), kitchen and living room one big open space just off the bedrooms, bathroom, laundry room. No basement, no attic. We do have a dirt crawlspace but we only use it as a wine cellar. My sister's condo is bigger than our house. My old apartment that I lived in alone was bigger than our house. Two grown ups and a soon-to-be 7 year old reside in our tiny house. We love it. It is tiny but WONDERFUL for so many reasons.
1. The mortgage is small and we'll be able to have it paid off before our kid leaves high school! HELLS YEAH!
2. cheap as dirt to heat in the winter and keep cool in the summer. We have one tiny air conditioner that is meant for one medium sized room and it keeps the whole house cool and comfortable all summer when it is scorching hot outside.
3. we're forced to be a family and interract since the space is so small. Yes, this is a HUGE benefit. When I was a kid we had a huge house and we were never around each other because we didn't have to be. I think our forced closeness is creating closer relationships and better sharing/co-habitation skills.
4. when our kid wakes up at 6am on the weekends we can see him from the bed in our bedroom, keep and eye on him while sleeping in a little bit. We're always within reach if he needs us. This is really nice. :)
5. great comfort knowing that we can afford our house on just one of our paycheques if need be. You have NO IDEA how fantastic that is. We both have good job security but man, who knows what will happen!
6. cheap to furnish because we only have a couple of rooms. No second living room or spare guest room or whatever. We even save money on stuff like christmas decorations.
7. we have 3 acres of land around our house so if we ever wanted more space we could always add on, so we have the option... but being able to maintain our tiny house is just wonderful.
8. because the house is small we don't have the luxury of accumulating "stuff". We have what we need, we like what we have. It takes the option of materialism and clutter our of the picture.
9. the huge house thing that so many people have done is going out of fashion. There is always going to be a market for small houses, especially as time goes on. A smaller house is a much better investment (in my opinion) than a large one.
10. our big screen tv looks a billion times bigger because it is so big compared to the room! ha ha ha
11. Doesn't take long to clean it since it is so small. :)

Get a tiny house. Save your money.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:26 PM on January 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

If you go for a multi-unit dwelling, take the bottom unit, ideally carpeted, with the appropriate number of bedrooms not sharing a common wall with other units; most of the noise complaints will be avoided. Resale wil suffer, but purchase price will be lower.

As for amount of space: I am raising two kids (and a dog, formerly two dogs) in a 1,340 sqft home, and feel like I have plenty of space. Each kid has their own room, as do I (formerly shared with my wife at the time) and 1.5 bathrooms seems to be enough. My ex felt that it would be too small, but eventually acknowledged that it wasn't; similarly, she felt a six-seater minivan wouldn't be big enough for two adults and two kids, but eventually acknowledged that the larger minivan was overkill. The single most important thing to remember is that your children will take up the most space in their first few years, and when they're teenagers, and both of those situations are transitional (meaning: you can just hang on for a few years and you'll be through it.) Plus, a smaller space is easier to clean and keep clean, if you make wise storage choices and prune clothes/toys on a regular basis.

Finally, the one thing I wish I'd done differently: bought into a good school district for grades K-12. When I first bought, I thought "oh, I'll have forever to move before they go to school!" but it arrived quickly. Luckily they got into a charter, but it is a long commute, and in the next 2.5 years I either have to luck them into another charter or move to a better district for middle school.
posted by davejay at 12:28 PM on January 10, 2014

A lot of this comes down to personal preference and lifestyle choices, some of which may change dramatically after you have a child. So, an example from my personal experience, I am very glad that we waited until after our daughter was born to even start looking at houses to buy. Our preferences evolved, especially once our daughter was past one year old. We discovered that to see our friends, we have to entertain at home. It was fine bringing a baby to restaurants, but it's been impossible with a toddler. Our rental living room was too small to have more than a couple of friends over at a time, the kitchen was shut off from the rest of the house, etc ... so it became important to find a house where we could entertain more than two friends at a time and let kids roll around on the floor with their toys. I don't even think of us as the type of people who "entertain" but here we are. There may be something you'll feel is a requirement that you just couldn't predict.

That said ... having enough storage is pretty important. Even if you are being a minimalist with your kids they still have lots of stuff. I also feel that having convenient outdoor space is good for the whole family's mental health. It's nice to be outside without having to make it a grand production of packing bag/loading car/etc. So a yard of some kind, it doesn't have to be big, or a park so close to home that you can risk going without a diaper bag.
posted by stowaway at 12:43 PM on January 10, 2014

Good schools are important, but in some areas it's cheaper to go private than to buy into a neighborhood with a good public school system. When doing the calculation, take into account that you are paying interest on a mortgage, but you won't pay interest on tuition. I happen to live in an area with very bad public schools, but lots of private schools. To buy into a good school district would have cost $800,000, and that's for a very small house (1000 sq ft). Instead, I bought a very small house for half that, and will send my kid to private school when he is old enough.

Good luck!
posted by pizzazz at 12:45 PM on January 10, 2014

I grew up in Silver Spring (near Holy Cross Hospital fyi) and loved that neighborhood so much. Medium yards, older wooden-walled homes, lots of families, Sligo Creek Park right out back, diverse neighbors, walkable to the metro if need be, at the time cheap (though also somewhat crime-ridden, crackheads broke in to the house a couple times, but that was in the early 80s). There was a tiny corner store walking distance into the neighborhood, and a barber shop. If I walked to Georgia Avenue I could go to a deli and Snider's grocery and a couple of local bars (when I was older). I walked to the local elementary and middle school (uphill both ways in the snow) and liked it, though there were things that were hard about it some of the kids I met there are still friends. Yes it did mean we had to drive to many things, but the leeway of being able to take the Metro on weekends or for random appointments was really nice. You'll have to ask folks around there now if it's still a good place to raise kids, but based on my experience I couldn't recommend it enough. I want to find a place like that to raise my own kids--semi-urban but detached homes near as much greenery and playgrounds as possible.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:57 PM on January 10, 2014

Parent of two small children, 2 and 6. We bought a new house a block away from our old house (both in inner suburban Austin) because the second house has a big beautiful backyard with direct access from the kitchen and livingroom and easy visibility from the sink. The other house had a big beautiful backyard with no easy access, and no direct views from the kitchen. That simple change has improved our quality of life dramatically.

Backyard = important.
Backyard access and visibility = just as important.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:39 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

You'll know the right house for you when you see it. The most important thing for a family is storage.

For some reason for every person you add to your family, your crap expands exponentially. More coats, mittens, toys, computers, beds, junk in general.

I do recommend being a zen-like, spare consumer type person, but it doesn't matter. Kids are sticky and things attach to them.

A nice basement is good.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:40 PM on January 10, 2014

Several of my friends who are now parents report that they didn't really think hard about the safety of their home when purchasing. Think 15 Mid-Century Modern Dream Homes that will Kill Your Children which is written from a funny point of view, but the number of times my one friend's kiddo got his head stuck in the stair balusters before she had them replaced (three!) will definitely make me think twice about all kinds of things in the future.

Another friend of mine now has two kids, and her second one is much more...adventurous...than the first. So they're having to use a huge baby gate system to keep the kid contained but not bored, because their apartment has lots of electrical cords and other delightful but dangerous temptations for a two year old. Thankfully they can arrange that given the configuration of their home.

School district things change, but do keep in mind the trends in areas you're looking at. And also be mindful of the costs of childcare where you are looking. It is impossible to plan for every contingency, but job loss, disability and death of one parent are definitely things to consider in your home purchase decisions, both for the home itself, and the neighborhood (and insurance. Please for the love of everything, have insurance before you make a baby, and address the insurance situation frequently, and definitely with each promotion and addition to the family).

As for your question about walkability, my observation is that parents seem to become more like they were before. That is, if a parent preferred driving when possible, they aren't likely to suddenly want to walk everywhere. If you really prefer walking, please don't put yourself in a neighborhood where you can't safely or quickly walk to at least a few basics (bread, coffee, post office, park, library, adjust as needed.) This also goes for relationships with nature. If you are a serious boating/hiking/camping family, this proooooobably won't change, but if you just dabble in the outdoors, or avoid it, then nature will likely not be a priority unless you actively work hard to make it one.

This kind of segues into how you use space and what kinds of storage you want to look for. Do you need extra garage space or a shed to store a pair of kayaks? Do you anticipate having a dog? Cats? Lots of dinner parties? Overnight guests? Potential for an elderly relative to move in with you at some point? Do you plan to use the third bedroom eventually as an office if you have two same gender kids? Which parent is a lighter sleeper? Is that parent the one that will be taking time out from paid work? If not, how much space do they need between themselves and a crying baby to ensure a full nights sleep? Or will both parents sacrifice sleep? (Talk about has led to serious tension in more than one relationship)

And now the piece of advice I give to everyone buying a house...remember that the inspector recommended by your realtor has a relationship with that realtor and if they are the reason the sale falls through, the inspector stops getting referrals. Get. Your. Own. Inspector. Make sure they actually access crawlspaces and attics. Do not accept a report that says "could not access the crawlspace." Be present for the inspection. Turn on every tap. Ask questions about every water mark, every skylight (ugh, the skylights that friend of mine bought two years ago are still causing her trouble) and sliding glass door. Be suspicious of shower caulk and grout that look just tooooo new for the room they are in (might be hiding water damage behind). And the newest thing, which is thankfully rare, but seriously, google the address. Check to make absolutely sure that you aren't buying a former meth lab. Once you own it, you're on the hook for cleaning it up.
posted by bilabial at 1:57 PM on January 10, 2014

Having a decent place to put stuff when you first get inside. Hooks, room for muddy boots, backpacks, etc.

A kitchen that is the center of the house. Close to the door for bringing in groceries, able to see out to the backyard and into the living space.

Washer/dryer in a convenient location.
posted by Sukey Says at 3:26 PM on January 10, 2014

Having an attached garage in my need-to-drive-everywhere suburban area has been a life saver in super hot and super cold weather.
posted by cestmoi15 at 4:53 PM on January 10, 2014

Nearby playgrounds - Being able to walk a block and a half to a playground saved my sanity during my daughter's toddler and preschool years. We'd just go over for a little while in the evenings after dinner, she'd run around for a little bit, we'd walk home, and then it was bedtime! If she had a diaper incident or whatever, we'd just call it an evening early.

Sidewalks - great when your kids are young, unless you live in an area with little car traffic and you're ok with your kids playing in the street.

Traffic patterns - when you're scouting houses/neighborhoods, ask the neighbors about the non-obvious traffic patterns. We learned after we moved in that our street was the main shortcut for the high school kids getting out of school. So it was basically a drag strip for about 20 minutes or so during the afternoon, and extremely quiet all other times. But living so close to the high school became really handy when when our daughter started there herself.

Bike paths - my daughter was able to ride her bike to middle school and junior high, because both schools were very close to a bike path that ran near to the neighborhood. She only had to cross one or two streets.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:21 PM on January 10, 2014

This is such a personal thing. We have friends with kids that live very happily in city apartments and would never trade that in for a suburban place, and others in massive suburban homes who love their pools and double car garages.

We bought our first place when pregnant with our first knowing we would only be there for 3-5 years (it ended up being 4). It was a new 2 bdrm townhouse located close to transport in an ok but not so desirable neighbourhood. The neighbourhood was still under construction so it was pretty cheap. Fine with a baby. Our primary concerns were close to the subway, affordable, good daycare nearby, new enough that we weren't going to have big problems popping up.

After baby 2 we started looking for our "real home" and moved in before #1 started kindergarten. We wanted a good school, lots of parks, close to the water, backyard, access to public transportation and affordable. Like some above we bought so that we can afford the place on one salary if need be. To get all of that we had to give up the subway and accept the train. We settled on a modest post WWII home, about 1400 sq ft. Nothing's been renovated since the 80s but everything works and is in good shape (we got our own inspector!)

What I love about our place

Affordable. This is worth so much to me.
Good public primary school less than two blocks away.
Two excellent high schools a short bus ride away.
Water and bike paths easily accessible.
Lots of parks.
Great backyard, we use it year round. I love gardening.
Great neighbourhood vibe, lots of other kids and babysitters.
Lots of storage, inside and outside the house.
Tons of local activities for all of us - great pool, gymnastics club, ceramics, exercise facilities etc nearby
1.5 baths. That .5 is really handy.
Short and painless commute to work by train or by car, quick trip home if a kid is sick and the school calls.
Spare room in the basement for the grandparents.
Relatively inexpensive to heat.

What I don't like

The 1.5 bathrooms are seriously tiny and I'm cheap enough that we probably won't renovate until the place is paid off.
The kitchen is pretty blah, if functional. Needs more cupboard and counter space. No renos likely to happen there for a while though either.
Other cosmetic stuff. We have some wood panelling I'll eventually get around to!
The massive number of steps that need snow shovelled off them in the winter. Try doing that while watching two kids at the same time.
No play room. The kids play in the living room or their bedrooms. Sometimes a feature, but sometimes a bug.
The expensive taxi ride home from the city if I ever want to go meet friends and have drinks at night. The last train goes at 9pm.
The lack of racial diversity.
Limited selection of good restaurants around here.
Entertaining for more than about 10 in the winter gets pretty tight.
No carport/garage. I get tired of scraping off ice.
Washer/dryer are in the basement.
posted by Cuke at 6:54 PM on January 10, 2014

I don't think you need a zillion bedrooms, just enough for you, and the kid/s (and I agree, they can share very easily for a long time) but in our house we most desperately look for non-bedroom space away from one another. For example: our kitchen/dining is the biggest room, and it adjoins the living room, so the people using those two rooms are in earshot of one another and have no privacy. We'd kill for a small, separate room to do quiet things in. Another thing that is a great plus especially with small kids, is some kind of safe, under cover outdoor space, either a verandah, or a summer house or something. It's good for kids to do stuff outside, but it's good for them to have some shelter, plus those spaces are ideal for all kinds of messy activities that will dominate your kitchen (painting, playdough, sand or water play), and if those spaces are pleasant, you'll use them too and little kids really do spend more time fooling about outside if there's a parent floating about somewhere nearby. If you like to walk with kids, living in a neighbourhood with a lot within easy walking distance is fantastic, the easier it is to get out, the more likely it is you will, for trips to parks, the library etc.
posted by Kaleidoscope at 7:07 PM on January 10, 2014

We have two children in a small three bedroom, one bathroom house. We're in the middle of renovating it; one day it will be four bedrooms, two baths.

Currently, both kids sleep with us. Another bedroom is the play room (toys, changing table) and the third bedroom is an office/sewing room. When the kids want to sleep separately from us, we'll move them into what's currently the playroom. They're boys; at this point I have no qualms about them sharing a room until they really don't want to.

Kid-related stuff I love about our house: easy walking distance to three parks, reasonable biking distance to several more, as well as to the library and the grocery store. Easy to babyproof. When they're teenagers, there are 5 bus lines within a ten minute walk, so they can basically go wherever. Other stuff we like to do in easy walking distance.

Kid-related stuff I don't like: no direct access to the back yard from the house, and no real visibility, either. Laundry in the basement - two flights of stairs from the bedroom where we all sleep. No dining room or architecturally delineated eating area. Tiny old closets. On a busy street.
posted by linettasky at 11:17 PM on January 10, 2014

We live in a 1200 sq ft house in an urban area. Our lot is 16 ft x 99 ft so the back yard is pretty small but we are directly across from a park and have two more very close. We don't have a car so we walk to shops etc and I try to spend lots of time outside. Kids stuff (all stuff really) expands to the space you have I find so I am constantly decluttering and working on new ways to maximize space. Some must haves for me: two bathrooms, a basement or other storage area, backporch/somewhere nice to sit outside. We could easily have a house twice the size in the suburbs but it wouldn't be worth it for us. Definitely take note of whether there are young families in neighborhoods where you're looking and make sure the schools are acceptable but other than that I think it's most important that you love where you live.
posted by betsybetsy at 6:33 PM on January 11, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone! I was going to mark best answers but realized I'd be checking off virtually everybody. This is all super-helpful, thanks.

(If anyone is still paying attention and has any advice on how to actually figure out if a neighborhood has lots of young kids-- especially househunting in winter when they may not be outside much-- we'd love any tips! Also on how close parks/playgrounds need to be to feel really convenient... 2 blocks? A quarter-mile? A half-mile?)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 11:00 AM on January 21, 2014

Look for minivans. Also, drive around about the time that kids would be arriving home from school.

I can go a half-mile or a mile to the playground with the stroller. But you also need to consider if the walk is pleasant or safe enough. My in-laws lived very close (less than 1/4 mile) to a wonderful park, but there wasn't a sidewalk on the road to it, so they only went in their car.
posted by stowaway at 3:49 PM on January 24, 2014

And if you're in a more dense urban area, drop by a local cafe, bakery, ice cream shop, or whatever you have where you are after school.
posted by Sara C. at 5:05 PM on January 24, 2014

My local "newspaper" has been running stories lately about "where the rich people live in [my town]" and "where the college graduates live in [my town]" and other weirdly-specific details, obviously drawn from census data. Maybe an afternoon of looking over the local newspapers for the town or area you're interested in, or checking out what's available at might give you some clues along those lines?

The park we went to when my daughter was little was one and a half long city blocks away. Easy for me to push the stroller, and occasionally she could walk the whole distance. But ymmv.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:52 AM on January 25, 2014

« Older What are some options for my database of recipes?   |   How do you organize your health records? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.