Considerations for buying a house
June 7, 2019 5:52 AM   Subscribe

Some practical and existential questions about moving from a small condo in a major urban area to a large house in the residential neighborhood of a smaller city. Topics include: being handy, avoiding a cookie-cutter aesthetic, additional considerations if you'll be telecommuting most of the time.

1. My partner and I are somewhat lazy, not very "handy" people, but we've also never tried to be otherwise. I understand that home ownership means committing to a significant amount of maintenance in both time and money. My question is: if you were not dispositionally handy before, did that change once you became a homeowner? Did you like it more once you were invested? Or was everything even more annoying and expensive than you thought it would be?!

2. I have a strong mental aversion to a cookie-cutter aesthetic, having grown up in such a suburban development. However, in the particular area where we are looking, these kind of 4 BR 2.5 BA colonials are the norm for a good reason - higher supply and reasonable cost. Logistically, they are perfect for our future plans (which do include kids) and are more likely to have wishlist items like a garage and central air. The other large chunk of the market are older homes, sometimes historical, many of which are a decent size and well-maintained and built, but are less likely to have convenient wishlist items, and which may come with higher long-term maintenance costs. (There are also a few contemporary homes that can be both aesthetically/logistically appealing, but are sometimes smaller or more expensive.) If you've had to weight similar factors, did one of those win out in the end? I'm trying to figure out if in the day-to-day lived reality of being a future parent and juggling house stuff - if the practicality of a certain kind of home outweighs any existential angst about essentially being in a lame development - or if living in a home you really love aesthetically can improve your quality of life. And of course, these developments are still part of a city, so it’s not really as isolated as being in a true suburb.

3. My partner will have a very short commute to work, and I plan to spend most of my time telecommuting. We would like to eventually have 2 children, so would prefer a 4+ BR with a permanent office/guest room, because I want a specifically devoted office space where I could shut the door for conference calls, things like that. Is there anything else I might not be thinking of as a telecommuter, re: house aspects that are especially useful or annoying?

Lastly, I know all of this comes to how I personally feel. But I am curious if other people have experienced similar decision points. Consider it a sequel to this question from seven (!) years ago.
posted by leedly to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
1. Everything is more expensive and more annoying than I planned for (but we didn’t buy at the top end of our price range, and our income has gone up quite significantly since we bought, so it’s fine).

2. We bought in an historic district in a small city, not precisely because of aesthetics (though the neighborhood is very cute) but because I don’t drive and so living in a walkable, transit-friendly area is very important to me. I have many times regretted the historic district part, but the mere fact of living in an annoyingly old home... I just sort of roll that into the price I pay for not driving. That said, I am not the one who schleps the window air conditioners twice yearly, and Mr. eirias would probably tell you something different.

No comments on 3; but good luck with all the fun life changes coming your way!
posted by eirias at 6:12 AM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1) Being “handy” can save you money, but you can generally hire people to do any task that requires skill, strength or a lot of time. You should know how to do things like change a light bulb or clear a mildly clogged drain. YouTube can teach you to do many mundane household tasks.

2) The nice thing about owning a house is that you can repaint, renovate and remodel the interior according to your own aesthetic. Location is very important especially if you want to have kids. You probably want to be in a good school district, not just because you want your kids to be in one, but because other parents gravitate to them and having a neighborhood of children and other parents in close proximity is a huge asset. You will care more about having neighborhood parent friends than the changeable aesthetics of your home.

3) my husband and I both work from home. The house we are moving into (tomorrow!) has a somewhat separated attic room that will become the home office/ guest room. Some separation in terms of floor/ distance seems like a good idea. A detached unit or finished basement might be even better.
posted by permiechickie at 6:16 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

The other thing about older homes and small children is lead paint. Any pre-1978 home might have lead paint. A 1930’s house we rented was absolutely covered in it, and it can be a big stressor to make sure it’s not accessible to kids in any way. Most of the time it’s painted over, but moveable things like window sills and door frames can scrape away at new paint and expose it. You really really don’t want your kids exposed to lead paint or dust.
posted by permiechickie at 6:21 AM on June 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Look for infill developments in older neighbourhoods. That way you get access to modern amenities and better layouts while still being in a walkable, well-established community with a sane commute. Best of both worlds.

You want to be in a newer house if at all possible, the complications of dealing with repairs and maintenance on 50+ year old properties is just not worth it, IMO.
posted by sid at 6:30 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I would not use the word "handy" to describe me. Since we bought our home, maintenance-y things I've had to do include: replacing light fixtures, switches, installing curtain rods, drywall patching, replace faucets, toilet flush mechanism repair, tighten railings on the deck. Most are fairly straightforward if you can use a screwdriver and follow instructions. We bought a book by Home Depot with nice pictures to guide me.

As for #3, I like that I can see who's at the door from the door to my office. Saves me the trip of going downstairs just to find out it's some salesperson. Also, my wife and I both work from home but on different days (normally)... we're having the basement finished off so that I have a space separate from her for my office and hobby stuff.
posted by neilbert at 6:34 AM on June 7, 2019

Best answer: I owned a 1920's bungalow style house, which had lots of nice features: oak floors, crown molding, cute little oak telephone nook, etc. It had been expanded on the upper story to form a master bedroom, complete with a wood stove and private bath. Cubbies were built under the portion of the roof that was sloping, and there was a cute nook with a dormer window, perfect for a reading area.

That said, the basement leaked, nothing major, until we got a big rain storm and got flooded. The former owners from years past had neglected to insulate the walls of the new bathroom properly, leading to freezing pipes, which required pulling out the cabinet under the sink and getting to them and insulating them properly (before that, cue me sitting with a hair dryer with my head stuck under the sink, trying to unthaw them).

The upper story was always cold in the winter, as they'd also only put one heating vent in the floor of a 20 foot square space. Some older homes just have open vents that let you see down into the room below, the heat rises through them. Not a big deal with 2 adults, but if you want privacy in your bedroom and little kids might be below, watch out for those. The upstairs bathroom had no heating, so if I wanted to shut the door, I had to use a space heater (one of those oil-filled ones), which added to our electricity costs. Hauling wood through the house and upstairs got old very quickly, birds flew into the stovepipe in the spring and nested. Tho' I do like a nice fireplace in the living room, if you get a place with a wood burning fireplace, you have to get that inspected and maintained by a chimney sweep service, as well as clean out the ashes and buy and store wood. We lived in one newer home that had zoned heating, as well as a huge fireplace in the living area, and those were nice features to have.

The kitchen in the old house was smaller than contemporary kitchens. The washer and dryer were in the basement, which meant hauling laundry up and down the stairs, not a big deal until I had my son, when you have a little baby, that also gets old fast, because you are doing more laundry.

I've lived in houses with bigger kitchens and laundry on the first floor, which is super convenient (also laundry on the second floor, also convenient, as that's where the bedrooms and the dirty clothes are).

I can do stuff like replace a doorknob, unclog a drain with a zip-it or a snake, some minor drywall hole repair, and painting rooms. I will never wallpaper a room again, which I did in that old house, it was a huge pain in the neck.

This house also had plaster walls, which made hanging pictures more difficult. It was heated with natural gas, and we went through a period where the older pipes started having leaks, fortunately nothing major, but disconcerting to walk into your house and smell gas. The water heater was older and eventually failed.

Also look at the landscaping, any older trees that might be a problem if they shed branches or fell near or on the house, trees that shed seed pods or fluff, is the landscaping low maintenance or do you have to trim bushes and hedges, how easy is the lawn to mow (any weird areas like hills or awkward corners). Sturdy railings on the porch, covered overhang (lived in one house that had no overhang, ice would come down and of course, no protection from rain. Can you get from the garage to the house? Even better. How is the roof? Of course, things like needing a new roof will come up during an inspection, but you want to avoid the major repairs the first few years, at least!

If an older home has been well maintained, it can be a joy to live in, with the features like built-in cabinets, but you need to make sure the wiring and other things are up to date, and if you decide to go that route, have a good handyman on call. Things will happen in any home, so set aside funds in your savings for emergencies, and money for things like garden tools (rakes, clippers, etc.), hoses, lawn mower (or a service), screw drivers, etc.

Drive by the house at night and listen for any neighbor noise: loud music, someone working on a car in their garage, etc. Turn the furnace on and see if it's noisy (once lived in a very nice home that also had the furnace directly underneath the master bedroom, which was very annoying, hearing it kick on and rumble all night long). Make sure the room you'll be using for work has natural light and good ventilation. Have your partner go to another part of the house and walk around and call your name, to see how good it is in terms of sound proofing. My biggest problem when working from home is being too close to the refrigerator, ymmv.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:34 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

We own a home and I'll be honest: I just repaired a toilet, so that's fine, but a) we are absolutely unequal to the very small amount of yard work this house requires and are losing a battle b) we are simultaneously too broke to pay someone else to fix.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:49 AM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: if the practicality of a certain kind of home outweighs

How much actual open house/visiting houses on the market have you done? We were dead set against a cookie-cutter development in our urban area, and were sure we wanted a historical place, until we actually walked through historical places and saw the dirt floor basements, the cramped staircases, and uninsulated kitchens. It was a good reality check, and led to us upping the budget and buying a house in an urban area that looks like everybody else's on the block (which came with its own issues, but still).

And if you're planning on having kids, particularly multiple kids, I would not underestimate the value of a separate playroom like a finished basement or four-season sunroom. Sure, there will be bedrooms, but what happens when you've got a four year old and, say, a two year old? You need to keep an eye on both of them, and they want to play with different things. Baby toys are easier to keep in a box, but toddler toys, especially the kind of dollhouses/garages/train sets that grandparents love to buy and many toddlers really love, take SPACE and are clutter machines.

It's super-helpful to have a space where their stuff can just be out and not underfoot when, say, getting dinner on the table.
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:55 AM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wouldn't have necessarily considered myself handy, so much as that I can reasonably learn, and I'm reasonably stubborn. I still don't really have the tools to properly make furniture joins in a way that wouldn't make a carpenter cringe, but I've built an inclined bed frame for a king size bed that makes 0 noise; an outdoor movable deck to access our hottub. Moreoever, a few decades ago, I'd done nothing more complex than assemble ikea furniture, while now I've demo'd rooms, removed (non-load bearing) walls, done drywall, hung ikea cabinetry, added a built-in island, replaced any number of lights/outlets, replaced a few toilets, run additional lighting, installed a bathroom exhaust fan and more. Heck, I'm afraid of heights but I even got up on the roof to install a vent for our kitchen exhaust hood, and it doesn't leak! And yes, I do periodically check the attic to watch for leaks.

I'm a geeky sort who's willing to spend time to learn on the internet. Sometimes when learning something new, I'll buy extra materials to practice - making the joints for drywalling for instance. And yeah, my time lines for some work has been considerably more than I thought it would be, but it's saved tens of thousands in labor.

At the same point if you don't want to, you can always throw money at a problem. My wife says if I weren't arround she'd be thrilled to pay someone $100 to change a light fixture. We had an upstairs pipe burst in the attic (improperly insulated), and I was able to turn off the water main, and find the pipe to realize it was a hot water pipe and just turned that off so we had running water (toilets!) until I could get a plumber to visit in a non-emergency call. I haven't put in the time to learn to solder pipes, so my plumbing is limited to ABS work. But hey, I made sure the insulation was good once the plumber left so there won't be a repeat.

Similarly if you're afraid of electricity, there's people one can hire to do even small jobs like changing a light fixture, outlet or switch, fix a small amount of drywall, or even hang curtains if you couldn't find a stud and had a rack fall out of the wall.

I see it mentioned, but one of the bigger time/money sinks will be outdoor yard care, because it's so consistent. At this point, even going 7 days instead of 6 between lawn mowings has it looking pretty bad on the last day - and missing a week just means the job takes twice as long to not choke the mower. Shoveling vs. buying a snowblower vs. paying someone with a snowblower. Lawn mowing, vs. paying someone (a surprisingly large amount?!). Then there's all the weeds trying to take over any non-lawn sections. Or, one can throw more money, and get a natural xeniscape put in to lessen the work of that. Be prepared to spend a mixture of ~$200 per week, or 3-6 hours a week on various mantenances, with occasional larger bits of time. I've lost entire days from letting a vine get too established and then finally crossing a mental line and deciding to eradicate it.

The main problem that I'd have with "older" houses, is if it has properly wired or not. Our last has hadn't been properly upgraded from an original install of ungrounded wiring. But a number of outlets were 3-wire outlets that were wired to a nail in a stud - I.E. not actually grounded and cost us a few hundred until I relized why our surge prodectors weren't working. Removing finished basement ceilings to run a ground wire, and opening things up enough to fish wire up, was a bit ugly mess, and then costly to repair. I've never attempted to deal with knob and tube.
posted by nobeagle at 7:15 AM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Whatever you buy, please make sure you have a really good inspector. Ask your Realtor and then ask others you know who have bought homes. Recall that the Realtor works for the seller when considering his/her recommendation.

A good inspector will know how to look for signs of water damage that occurs only with huge rains, they will look in the basement and attic for signs that renovation undertaken in the recent past might have been shoddy - like notched beams. They will look for signs of asbestos. They will check that the electrical panel and wiring is safe and current. They will check every outlet (if you ask) and run every faucet and flush every toilet at once to check for water pressure. They will inspect the roof for its condition and write a full, multipage report (with pictures). If defects are discovered that were not disclosed by the seller (sometimes not known by the sellers but problems nevertheless) this gives you bargaining leverage. My daughter's home inspection uncovered knob-and-tube wiring in one wall which meant they would have to replace the wiring in order to have electricity in that room. Without an inspector they would never have known. The seller reduced the price to allow for replacement.

Inspection has its limits. My husband and I bought a gorgeous old house in an older suburb that was being flipped. The elderly woman who lived out her days in her family home had not cared that her sewage pipe couldn't handle shower and laundry and dishwasher drainage simultaneously. It could not handle the water load after we moved in, and was an expensive repair early on.
posted by citygirl at 7:23 AM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I live in a 160-year-old brick row home. While there are some challenges with the age of my house, I like that I know that it has been built well enough to survive this long. I look at new construction going up in the area and am shocked at how flimsy everything is compared to houses like mine. It's a tradeoff but don't dismiss older houses as necessarily more work than newer houses.
posted by mcduff at 7:35 AM on June 7, 2019

Best answer: I was just telling my wife that all that's involved in being "handy" is a willingness to try, fuck it up, take it apart again, and try again. Using this rubric, I don't do electricity or any plumbing more serious than toilet innards. (Seriously, toilet innards are really easy.) But I can remove/reinstall baseboards, refinish wood. replace a door handle, hang stuff on drywall, etc. I have fucked up all of these things, sometimes spectacularly, but I have then re-fixed them all.

I live in a house that is possibly the least cookie-cutter imaginable (it's a geodesic dome.) It's delightful, but we bought it because a) the location is perfect for us and b) the actual house itself is pleasant to live in. I dislike the mass-produced aesthetic a *lot*, but if this specific lot, at the price we paid, had the kind of basic 1992 contractor construction that most of the houses on our street have, we might well have still bought it. A much bigger concern to me is the presence of an HOA, which are anathema. (I had an HOA in my condo building because you really cannot run a condo building without one, and I was super lucky that it was pleasant and not run by control freaks, but I would never ever voluntarily submit to one again.)

I telecommute, and having my own office is a lifesaver even *without* kids. And my office is not the one that doubles as a guest room, because I still have to work even when my in-laws decide to show up for a week with 36 hours' notice. Otherwise, nah, I've made it work in all sorts of layouts, I just need the privacy.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:37 AM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A few clarifications:

1) We aren’t incompetent, but I’ve just never cared enough to do much! We’re also being fairly conservative financially and would be able to budget outsourcing maintenance costs if needed. I’m mostly comparing well-maintained (solidly built!) older homes with the fundamentals already updated vs. newer homes – we are NOT looking for a fixer-upper.

2) Our current 1 BR condo was built in 1899, so we are familiar with the whole 3rd floor walkup/basement laundry thing and window-unit AC deal. The 4-flights-of-laundry/narrow staircase thing is tedious, but all is mostly OK except for the size, so we can deal with some annoying aspects of older homes. I am more worried about surprise time/money pits not picked up in the inspection, and if the equation adds in kids if we’ll just be too tired/too busy to deal with stuff that comes up. (e.g. I remember someone in another question saying they never paid a plumber <$500 in an older home because the issue was never generic or a simple fix, unlike it would be in a cookie-cutter house)

3) Re: school districts – let’s just say that I’m already looking in the right areas. This is the market in our predetermined areas of interest.
posted by leedly at 8:03 AM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Regarding "handy":

Prior to owning my first home, the extent of my handyman abilities was painting walls. Since owning my own place (now in my second home), I'm comfortable enough to have changed literally every light fixture in my house (the originals were ugly as sin), done basic plumbing (replacing faucets, clearing issues, etc), basic woodwork, etc. It gets easier over time, and a lot of it is not that hard after you watch a video or three on youtube. I also went from a kid who hated yardwork to an adult who actually likes many aspects of it. So, it's totally possible to go from "not really handy" to "handy enough to deal with most stuff".

The primary thing really is time -- and sometimes it's worth doing yourself, while other times it's worth paying someone else to deal with it.

Regarding "cookie cutter", I think it fundamentally comes down to what you mean by that.

The outside of my house I'm sure many would describe as cookie cutter, but (a) it's still a pretty house and (b) paint or siding color choices can go a long way [my house is a beautiful blue which stands out] and (c) you spend way more time inside your house than you do staring at the outside (and (d) we've made choices about plantings and particularly things in the backyard [deck/patio/garden/etc] that are fairly unique and fit our aesthetic).

The inside is not cookie-cutter, as we've painted and decorated and messed with walls to meet our aesthetic.

Basically: I think a lot of angst over "cookie cutter" houses is focused on stuff that you really don't notice once you live someplace, and becomes a very limiting factor in finding a home that will actually suit you because you're throwing out good potential places based on a pretty nebulous and subjective value judgment about whether a house is "unique" enough [regardless of function].
posted by tocts at 8:17 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

As tocts said.. handy is a factor of time and willingness. I'd also add, you sometimes don't know if you're handy until you try.

Some people just have a knack, some don't.

And also, as said above, you can take a cookie cutter house and use your "handiness" to make it your own with self-made wall inserts, built-in shelves, and the more extreme knocking down or building up of walls or half-walls.

Handy also could mean many things, as noted above. And telecommuting, you may tend to take on small projects to do in little 30 minute breaks during the day.

It starts with replacing faceplates on light switches and outlets. Or painting a wall.

Then a sink needs to be replaced, or a toilet. Or the actual outlet. Or you want to put in a new light fixture. Then 10 years later, you're gutting a bathroom and rebuilding it yourself over 3 months, learning how to tile and use PEX.

Outside, you want a fence. Or to take down a fence. Or make a garden, or put in a pond. Or remove a pond. Or move 10 peonies someone thought would be great going straight through the middle of your yard, making it pretty non-functional, but you want to save those peonies and put them in a row by the fence you just put in.

Or move the blueberry bushes that are in the shade for some reason. Or take down the weed tree that gree unabated that is shading said blueberry bushes.

Or level out a 15 foot by 20 foot section of slightly graded ground for a swing set for the kids. Only to realize too late that there is a LOT of earth to move, even if the grade only rises a foot over the course of 15 feet.

Then after setting up the swingset, realizing it would be better 20 feet to the left because of that branch.

Sorry, what were we discussing again?
posted by rich at 10:28 AM on June 7, 2019

Oh how I miss condo living! Not having to know what day to put out the garbage for collection, never having to shovel snow, underground parking with ample visitor spots, having someone else in charge of the annoying stuff like making sure the gutters and chimneys are maintained... it was bliss, until we had a really annoying (and LOUD) neighbor move in above us, and our kids got old enough that the pitter patter of their running feet caused our downstairs neighbour's light fixture to shake.

I know many people who are still very happily raising their kids in condos or apartments but for us (and in our particular condo) it became time to move to a single family dwelling. That said, we stayed in a condo until our kids were aged 4 and 18 months respectively, and there were a lot of great things about being in a somewhat communal-by-default situation. If you're in a 3rd floor walk up though, that is a lot of stairs to shlep a stroller up and down every time you leave the house.

So there's a lot that I miss, but the saving grace is having more control over our immediate environs, the pleasure of having a small backyard that I will one day learn how to garden in, and a little more buffer space between us and neighbours.

Not sure if this is part of your research, but there's an emerging issue for people in my city (Toronto) where certain residential areas increasingly vulnerable to flooding. We've had massive floods regularly over the last 5-6 years, causing millions in property damage, to the point where some insurers won't cover properties on certain streets. If at all possible, you'll want to look into how climate change is affecting your target neighborhoods as that's not always immediately apparent.
posted by dotparker at 10:55 AM on June 7, 2019

Best answer: I bought a 1920s bungalow in 2010, and had a baby in 2017, so I can speak to the owning an older home with small kid aspect. Reading through the responses so far this part from Marie Mon Dieu's stood out to me:

Also look at the landscaping, any older trees that might be a problem if they shed branches or fell near or on the house, trees that shed seed pods or fluff, is the landscaping low maintenance or do you have to trim bushes and hedges, how easy is the lawn to mow (any weird areas like hills or awkward corners).

My house has a huge old elm in my backyard, probably older than the house. It is gorgeous, but drops a lot of seeds. My daughter turns 2 in a couple weeks, and between late pregnancy, infancy, and the toddlerhood, I've been unable to keep up with pulling all the volunteer trees on top of mowing and weeding. I have a forest growing between my garage and my back fence. It is just hard to keep up with anything other than the very basics when you are working full time like we are as well as raising a child.

Another downside of older homes is the stairs. A lot are not up to current codes, being very steep like the ones in my home. Putting up baby gates can be a challenge with unusual setups at the top and bottom. I've been pretty lucky that my daughter is pretty physically unadventurous compared to other toddlers, and she has been pretty cautious with the stairs and we have had no scary moments.

So we are looking for a different house. I still adore the character of older homes and maybe will own another one someday, but at this point in our lives it is just a little easier to go for something newer.
posted by weathergal at 7:13 PM on June 7, 2019

In terms of being handy, you can search youtube for videos on how to do almost anything. I've done a lot of stuff I wouldn't have known how to do or feel comfortable doing that way. It's all there. It's pretty incredible.
posted by xammerboy at 8:12 PM on June 7, 2019

Response by poster: So we ended up buying a newer home (built ~2000) with a finished attic and basement. It’s super cookie cutter and kind of huge. But I love it! The amount of space is wonderful (especially w covid)—my partner and I are literally working on separate floors. The various routine processes of life are truly much easier with this setup. As for being handy... nope. Turns out that lack of interest is really more like active disinterest. We’ve done what is necessary and let a bunch of stuff linger and have outsourced stuff like yard work. For us, that trade off has been worth it. I think I was into the idealized notion of being the type of person who could lovingly maintain a historical home, but the truth is I’m not and have just had to accept it! So much of the advice here was spot-on and it made me feel much more comfortable taking the plunge after posting - we actually found the house shortly thereafter, so it was great timing.
posted by leedly at 12:08 AM on May 7, 2020

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