What's more important: the house, or the neighbourhood it sits in?
January 20, 2020 8:41 AM   Subscribe

We're on the market to buy a home in a new city where the real estate market is quite hot, and are having trouble deciding if we should put in an offer on a FANTASTIC house in a not-quite-ideal-but-pretty-good location, or hold out for something in our desired neighbourhood...even if it might not be quite as perfect a house. Obviously YANMR (you are not my realtor), but looking for some general advice and anecdata on how you, a happy homeowner, prioritized different factors when you bought your house. Lots of specifics to our situation within, but general advice also welcome.

Some background:
We're moving to Seattle in the late spring or early summer. We currently rent in a very far away city (husband has owned previously, but this will be my first) and are mostly house-hunting remotely. We did spend a month this summer living and working in Seattle, as a "test drive" of the neighbourhood(s) we thought we might like, and as an opportunity to walk some houses with our (fabulous) realtor and form an excellent working relationship. Based on this experience, we have narrowed our search area to a pretty specific area. At this point, both our realtor and we are confident that she understands our needs and priorities, and while we may head out west again later in the spring for another house-hunting trip, we are also comfortable putting in an offer on something from a distance if necessary. No need to advise against this: we trust our realtor, and are comfortable with this arrangement.

Our actual move date is very flexible. We're willing/able to buy something immediately (even though we won't move until later) if a fantastic opportunity came up, but obviously it would be financially better to wait until closer to our actual move to buy. However, given how picky we are, and how rarely things come up and how quickly they fly off the market in our desired neighbourhood, we are a leeeeeetle bit scared of waiting too long/not snapping something up if a great house in a great location comes on the market.

Earlier this fall, a fantastic house in the perfect location came up, we were in love, and we put in a very competitive offer, but lost out to someone who offered a little less but could close a week sooner (lesson learned). So this experience contributes to our general sense of being a little hesitant to hold out, since we feel like we already lost the "perfect" one already.

We've recently found another house that we also love. Indeed, despite us considering literally every house that has come on the market in our neighbourhood in the months since we got back from Seattle, this is the only other one that has us as excited as the one we lost out on. Our realtor walked it yesterday and agrees that it is a very good fit for what we're looking for in the house/lot itself. Two problems: it is listed currently at the VERY top end of our budget (though has been on the market for a while, so there's a chance the seller might consider an under-list offer.....but who knows? This market is bananas), and while it is located in very close proximity to our desired neighbourhoods, it is on a block that is more dense than the areas we were considering (i.e. the surrounding blocks are a mix of apartment blocks, townhomes, and single-family homes, where our ideal location is primarily single family homes). Since it is slightly outside of the area we spent a ton of time in this summer, we don't have a good sense of what the vibe of that particular area is: it might be just as awesome, but we worry the higher density means it might not have the same close-knit community/neighbourhood vibe that is so appealing to us about our "ideal" location. We currently rent in a VERY close-knit and awesome neighbourhood, and would really love to find that in our new home too (especially since a small human is in the plans in the coming year or so).

Besides the general awesomeness of this house, the main factors pushing us towards wanting to put an offer in (despite the price and location concerns) are that houses come up VERY rarely in the neighbourhood we're interested in, and when they do, they are usually either in need of at least some major updates, or are well outside of our budget. The "perfect" house we put the offer in on was the very rare exception to this rule. Doing (probably major) renovations to an ok house in a great location is certainly an option, but it's not something either of us has experience in, nor is it an idea that we feel particularly excited about, for a lot of reasons. Our realtor feels confident that more inventory will come up in the spring, and we're trying to trust her...but there's just SO MUCH uncertainty!

So, long story short, looking for advice on how you weighed location vs house during your housing search. We obviously are talking this over in detail with our realtor, but I'd love to hear your personal stories of making this decision, too: Are we putting too much emphasis on precise neighbourhood? Or should we hold out for the perfect location, even if the house itself might not be as perfect? Is it too much of a gamble to let this great house pass by, since we've seen so few things that capture our hearts come on the market in the many months we've been looking? How do people make this decision?! It's paralyzing! And so high stakes!!
posted by Dorinda to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Just a counter-argument: mixed-residence neighborhoods are more sustainable and diverse, and less prone to NIMBYism. There shouldn't be neighborhoods that are all single-family homes, and in these cities with deliberate housing scarcity there will eventually come a reckoning, probably in the lifetime of your mortgage. You'd be better off long term in a neighborhood that isn't going to be so aggressively targeted for correction and you have to learn what your nice neighbors are like when the masks are lowered.

Maybe make a low offer on this place and don't sweat it too much if it isn't accepted, and wait for the spring inventory increase, but keep that in mind.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:59 AM on January 20, 2020 [49 favorites]

In 1976, we bought a humdrum, hyper-ordinary, 3 bedroom, split-level in a really great neighborhood for raising children. We're still here though the children have grown up. Yes, there have been times I was unhappy that our house didn't match up with some other people's, but it was right for us.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:07 AM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My block is a mix of apartment buildings, three-flats, and single-family homes, and (especially for the people with children) it's plenty close-knit. Blocks with just SFHs tend to be less so, because people who can afford those homes in a big city can afford to be an island. Bringing a kiddo up on a more diverse block is an unalloyed good. Plus: more people/families = more kids to play with!
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:14 AM on January 20, 2020 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I think you may be idealizing the community-mindedness of Seattle single family housing neighborhoods, as Lyn Never says. My family’s experience (in Magnolia, for reference) was so much isolationist NIMBY-ism that it drove us to leave after giving it the college try for 3+ years. That said, in general I believe a good block is better than the perfect house, and is the approach we took on leaving Seattle. (I also knew people in Seattle who had great location-based community....so it can be done...but it’s not as easy as picking a pretty neighborhood)
posted by another zebra at 9:16 AM on January 20, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: We were in almost exactly the same situation a couple years ago, though in a very different market (Montreal). The market was overheated, nothing was coming up in the areas we really wanted to live in, and the one time the perfect house did come up in our preferred neighborhood we were scooped by someone who underbid but paid cash. Then our realtor showed us an amazing house in a neighborhood we weren't even considering at all. It had everything that we wanted but was at the very top of our budget. We bought it and have never regretted the decision for even a second.

I know its an anecdote and YMMV, but in retrospect one important lesson is that in home-buying there are things you can control and things you can't. Neighborhood is one thing that you can only control up to a point. Yes, there are better and worse locations, but ultimately there are so many things that you don't know about a neighborhood until you actually move in - especially if you are moving from afar - and neighborhoods and neighbors can change. We have been pleasantly surprised by how much we like our new neighborhood in ways that we could never have predicted.

Of course new houses always have surprises, but if you love it now you will likely love it while living there. I love by big backyard and I can't imagine anything about a different neighborhood that would outweigh that.
posted by googly at 9:19 AM on January 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

I bought my perfect house in a less-than-perfect neighbourhood, and have zero complaints. When I close the front door, my house is fully perfect.

My neighbourhood is very mixed*, and I like that. Diversity is good for everyone, and it keeps things honest.

There have been some poor neighbours, but I think you get those anywhere, and maybe in a better class of neighbourhood, those neighbours could be entrenched for longer? There is more change in a mixed neighbourhood, so if there are problem houses, chances are they won't stay that way for years and years. Gentrification happens around me, but slowly.

My friends in better parts of town have had more issues with crime than I have -- maybe they're more attractive targets, maybe the pickings are slim around me. Who knows? In the years I've been there, I've only had low-key regular city stuff, the odd times I forget to lock my car at night and someone got lucky trying the handle.

*And I mean fully mixed -- single family homes both high and low end, renter houses, apartment buildings, subdivides, social housing and halfway houses.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:23 AM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would also try to keep in mind that neighborhoods aren't monolith. My neighborhood in Portland is a little rough around the edges, and we live like a street away from a pretty busy thoroughfare; when I tell people where I live, I get wide eyes and backing-into-the-bushes movements...but our street, and the connecting streets are pretty damn great. We have awesome neighbors who are way more invested in the neighborhood than I've found in other 'nicer' neighborhoods in Portland.

I know it's a hassle, and not fun, but since you say that the decision is paralyzing and high stakes, I would slow your roll a little bit, find a mont-to-month rental, move to Seattle, and then slowly work towards finding a house that works as you get to know the neighborhoods, and housing stocks a little better.

Buying a house at-a-distance is not something I would do in a housing market like Portland or Seattle, even if you have a great realtor.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:38 AM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: With the market being that intense, reselling a great house in a totally reasonable neighborhood isn't going to be too hard if you give it a couple years and still just don't click. And on that kind of timeline, a small human probably won't have formed strong attachments, but even if they did, it's not like you'd even be moving that far. Don't sign up for a big renovation project that'll overlap with a new baby/kid when you're not even reno people already. I'm speaking from experience here. Even if you bought such a house tomorrow, the planning and permitting process alone could push the whole thing out another year+, I'm not even joking, especially if the work would be at all impacted by the weather. Definitely aim for something that'll be solid and dependable, not a project.
posted by teremala at 9:40 AM on January 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I am going to be the devil's advocate here and ask why this house has been sitting on the market for a while if it's objectively a good house? You mention that it wouldn't need renovations/updates ... is it a newer house or was it more recently updated? If recently updated, is it a flip? (The quality of flips can be hard to gauge from photos and your agent's impressions. I have friends who have been financially screwed by buying a nice-seeming, passed-inspection flip.)

Regarding density -- I am very pro-density but I would take a careful look at the zoning around your potential house. In Seattle we are having a terrible time with building the "missing middle" housing -- developers are going for maximum profit so very expensive apartments designed for 1 or 2 inhabitants, versus larger apartments/townhomes that could accommodate families. It's something to think about it. You can look this stuff up on the city website.

Do you have any friends in the area who could walk the neighborhood and give you their impression?
posted by stowaway at 9:47 AM on January 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Gently, you seem to be using “close-knit” as a proxy for preferences you might prefer not to examine and which you would be well-advised to. I’d be more worried about buying at the very top of your range. How realistic were you in setting it? People can get into more financial trouble overbuying a house than almost anything else.
posted by praemunire at 9:57 AM on January 20, 2020 [11 favorites]

Not Seattle, so take this with a grain of salt, but I bought a house I really like in a neighborhood I really like. It's across the street from the Fancy Neighborhood where I originally started looking, but like in your case, low inventory/turnover, and what did come available was usually over budget for me or needed more renovation than I was willing to do. Crossing the street meant that I was able to buy a nearly identical house to one I liked a lot in Fancy Neighborhood, for around 20% less. (Thanks, redlining?)

Funnily enough, when I tell people I live a block from Well-Known City Landmark, they often assume I mean Fancy Neighborhood. It's a really great tell for unconscious biases, which I find incredibly useful as a brown person working alongside ostensibly progressive white people (all of whom live in different cities entirely "for the schools.") For that alone, buying in this neighborhood has been worth it.
posted by basalganglia at 9:58 AM on January 20, 2020 [6 favorites]

Don't sign up for a big renovation project that'll overlap with a new baby/kid when you're not even reno people already.

This this this this this.
posted by the_blizz at 10:03 AM on January 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

Also, builder/contractor costs in Seattle are off the charts and wait lists are long.
posted by matildaben at 10:30 AM on January 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

I say be very wary of anything near your high end. My experience: We looked for a long time. As we looked, our High End crept upwards. We saw a bunch of crummy places, and our internal ideas for what we wanted became colored by some of those negative experiences. So our High End of what we could buy crept up, little by little, based on some things we discovered as we looked. But the truth is: real estate comes and goes. There's trends overall for price points, but as an individual (or a couple) what you end up seeing and considering are a tiny fraction of "the market." And luck and timing and all kinds of weird variables affect what you actually see for sale.

The internet has made a world where so many people think of themselves (not you specifically, just in general) as real-estate experts, based on articles and advice and numbers and data. But in the end: you only see specific properties. And everyone will freely give you more advice than you want. You don't put a mortgage down on a trend or a forecast. You buy a HOME.

Without going into a long story about my details, I would recommend really, really examining what number you consider your limit to be.

We got lucky. The place we bought (condo, not a house) was on the market for a long time, at a very good price. Now, that could have been for serious reasons as mentioned by other commenters here. But what was actually driving it was it had 2 bedrooms and 3 full bathrooms, which made it a total odd-ball, layout wise. It's very large, with a big backyard and garage. But for the area, and size, most buyers were looking for at least 3 bedrooms, for a kid or guest. But it fit our "double-income no kid" needs extremely well. The 2 bedrooms are huge, and the place is big. But it's because someone renovated it in an odd way that it didn't sell. So we are extremely happy. I mean, it has more bathroom space than we need, but that's not a big downside to us. And we plan to renovate. For certain types of housing, there's a market that does NOT want to do work or spend money on those things.

tl, dr: be very careful and honest to yourselves as to what you consider your high-end limit is. And give yourselves time.
posted by SoberHighland at 11:29 AM on January 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

I bought a serious fixer-upper in neighborhood with a lot of crime, about 5 years ago. I have loved the process of fixing up the house and redoing the yard and got to involve/pay some friends I have made in the neighborhood for help with my ongoing renovation and yard reclamation. But my renovation efforts take up from anywhere 5 to 30 hours a week, depending on what I have on my plate. I don't mind and the work has been an amazing way to connect with my community and build new parts of my character. But I'm also single, childless, established in my region and already ensconced in a career I enjoy. Since you're in a relationship, moving to a new city as well as a new job and may potentially have to plan for a child in the future — I would in no way sign up for anything that called for a renovation of any degree.
posted by caveatz at 11:42 AM on January 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

I recently bought an antique farmhouse in Vermont and about 30 years ago, my ex and I bought and sold a few houses where we could raise the kids and send them to good schools.

1. Any house in a middling to crappy school system should be avoided. It is FAR better to have a less-than home in a better school district than an awesome palace in a crappy one. We bought a maximum, gorgeous brand new house when my kids were babies, and the schools were so terrible that we ended up selling the house at a loss to get out.

2. I cannot overstate this enough: EVERY SINGLE HOUSE HAS THINGS WRONG WITH IT. An awesome house that shows beautifully and even has a terrific inspection report--things will begin to break down. Things need replacing. Do not get hung up on curb appeal and perfect houses.

3. Yes, neighborhoods matter. My kids grew up in an area where they walked to school every single day, they walked to friends' houses, they walked to the library and the town pool. These things matter. If they wanted to play a sport, they needed to be able to ride their bikes to the field. I knew early on that I was not going to live a life revolving around driving my kids places.

4. As you comparing houses--whether perfect today as is or a starter that will need some help--take a look at the property lines and find out if the house and/or lot will be able to get an add-on or other construction. DO NOT TRUST THE BROKER'S WORD ON THIS. We bought that amazing-neighborhood house but didn't really check the lot or the town bylaws, and it turned out that we couldn't do anything to the place. That was bad. We wouldn't have bought the house had we known that.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 11:43 AM on January 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have just gone through a nearly-identical situation relocating to Seattle, so if I can offer advice, reassurance, or even an on-the-ground assessment of this particular block, I'd be more than happy to do so. Feel free to memail me!

The market here, despite being nuts, is cooling off a tiny bit—so very much agree on not letting your budget drift up, and on examining why this place has been on the market for a bit (could be a really off-putting paint job! could be structural damage!). If you did your test run in the summer, I might also advocate for seeing how livable this potential place is during the 1-2 weeks a year where the city ices/snows and everyone loses their minds. We ended up selecting a house that was on a flat, walkable block near a grocery store partly for that reason.

Our personal selection criteria stayed pretty consistent through our search: limit to 1-2 broad category neighborhoods, make sure there's a walkable commercial street nearby, aim for a mix of single-family homes/apartments/condos, and don't talk ourselves into trying to be Fixer Upper people (we are not). We viewed a house with a quirky feature we both loved, saw some people walking big dogs on the street, noticed a few public parks nearby, walked the commercial street, and made an offer. I will admit that I'm more cavalier about major life decisions than many people, but it's worked out great and I love my house and neighborhood a ton!

Looking forward to you arriving here!
posted by ausdemfenster at 11:49 AM on January 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I live in a very different city than Seattle, but in my experience, dense populations tend to have better feelings of community than single family houses. Having to share community space and resources tends to build relationships.

And in single family neighborhoods, an increase in distance from the road and each other tends to decrease the amount of friendly interaction between neighbors.
posted by Candleman at 2:53 PM on January 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

I own a house I love in what is statistically my city's crummiest neighborhood. I have no regrets whatsoever. The problems from living in a bad neighborhood have been mostly manageable. I get a lot of trash in the yard and there are sometimes gunshots, but my home is cosy and beautiful and really and truly feels like home. I would recommend being willing to compromise on the neighborhood but not willing to compromise on the home itself--after all, you'll be living there for a while, so little annoying things will eventually become bottomless wells of Lovecraft-scale madness.
posted by zeusianfog at 3:06 PM on January 20, 2020

I don't know anything about Seattle in particular, so I say this only in general terms: You can usually take some sort of action that will make the house itself better (and more valuable), but you can almost never do anything that will make the neighborhood better.

House: You can paint, upgrade, renovate, expand, landscape, etc.
Neighborhood: You can't make nuisances disappear, you can't make crummy neighbors go away, you can't make crime go down, you can't make traffic go to another street, you can't make a school or park appear nearby.

Buy the best neighborhood you can afford, even if the house leaves something to be desired.
posted by mccxxiii at 6:03 PM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It’s worth noting that while you can’t fix your neighborhood the way you can fix a paint job in your house, you can work towards ameliorating many problems of your neighborhood if you’re willing to live as an engaged citizen working alongside your neighbors.
posted by praemunire at 6:54 PM on January 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Earlier this fall, a fantastic house in the perfect location came up, we were in love, and we put in a very competitive offer, but lost out to someone who offered a little less but could close a week sooner (lesson learned). So this experience contributes to our general sense of being a little hesitant to hold out, since we feel like we already lost the "perfect" one already.

I think that's the wrong conclusion to draw, though. Right now we have no evidence of sentient life on other planets. But if we found one instance tomorrow, the safe bet would be that there are millions.

You were close on that first offer, and that's evidence that such opportunities exist; the current one (the second one, more evidence) probably won't be the last one. And you learned a lesson that might help you next time. Given that you don't need to move right away, patience seems like the best strategy.

As for whether to prioritize the house or the neighborhood, I personally lean far to the latter side, but the quality of the house seems like something you have a better chance of gauging accurately from a distance. If you know in your heart that the neighborhood is what counts for you, too, then renting first might be the safest course, to make sure the neighborhood is everything you hoped (or enough to justify whatever you have to sacrifice to live there).

(Source: I own a so-so house in a location I love after renting in the same neighborhood; zero regrets.)
posted by aws17576 at 10:14 PM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

I just bought a house last year in a neighborhood where the housing stock is mixed. On most blocks, there are apartment buildings on the corners, some three- and two-flats next to them, and then a handful of single family bungalows in the middle. I'm in one of the bungalows and I love it. It's just the right amount of density to have *life* on the street - I think truly single family neighborhoods feel empty and dead, even here in Chicago where lots are relatively small. I love how diverse my neighborhood is in terms of race, income, and religious background. People look out for each other even if we aren't having each other over for dinner -- though we did throw a great block party last summer -- and every. single. sidewalk on my block was shoveled by the first day after the most recent snow storm.

My neighborhood is not super transit-accessible and doesn't have a nearby walkable commercial district, which kind of sucks but is why we could afford it. If the neighborhood you're looking at has everything else you want except is slightly more dense than you had envisioned, definitely don't write it off.
posted by misskaz at 8:10 AM on January 21, 2020

My house isn't that great; I had to make a lot of improvements to it over the years. One thing that makes the house gold to me is the commute: where I live, the rush hour traffic is always headed in the opposite direction. The hours of frustration and anxiety I've saved at not having to wrestle every morning and night with jammed freeways is worth every minute of sweat equity I've had to invest in the house.
posted by SPrintF at 8:13 AM on January 21, 2020

You know that Tim Minchin song that is like "you are one of the likely thousands of people on earth that I would have been happy with"? Buying a house is like that. It is so, so easy to get caught up in the emotion of it all - realtors emphasize this on purpose, you'll notice they always talk about buying HOMES - but the truth is, there are many houses that would work for you JUST FINE, and it's much better to be patient than to let yourself get pressured into raising your budget/not pushing too hard on the inspection/talking yourself into something you really deep down don't want.

It's true that you can't remodel a location, but also sometimes the location itself changes without any input from you. I bought my house because it was a five minute surface street commute to work, and the next year I was laid off and now I'm a 40 minute drive away again. Plus, I've lived in my current house for 15+ years and in that time the neighborhood has shifted from mostly owner-occupied to mostly rental units. I will say that I live in a working class area that is quite dense (townhouses) and probably reads as a "poor" neighborhood, but because the place is full of multigenerational immigrant families there are nearly always a ton of kids playing outside, grannies walking with strollers, people hosting cookouts, etc., and we've never had any issues with crime at all. But of course, I'm kind of a hermit by nature and just know most of my neighbors well enough to wave at or drop off a misdelivered package. But sometimes you can't predict what a neighborhood will be like to live in from pictures.

I ended up with a Bad Mortgage due to being really young and inexperienced and buying before the big housing crisis, and it has made me pretty gunshy about the whole process even though I eventually got a somewhat decent mortgage and my equity recovered. The next time (if ever) I buy a house, this is what will be important to me:
1) Staying under budget
2) not letting artificial scarcity or "if you don't raise your offer you'll lose the house!!" make me go over budget
3) prioritizing everyday utility (having enough closet space, being close to work) over fancy stuff I'll hardly ever use (space to "entertain" when I have like one party every five years)
4) spending way less than I "can afford" so that I can afford to fix stuff that breaks - because something will always break

Don't put yourself on artificial deadlines. If you need to move in and rent for a while, do that! There are a lot worse things than being somewhere that you can leave relatively easily and where someone else is on the hook to fix whatever breaks. Plus, you can get to know your new city and hear from your new friends/co-workers what they do and don't like about where they live, where the traffic is bad and where it's fine, which place has super high property taxes but the other place a mile away is a lot cheaper and almost as desirable... etc.

Also, I would suggest being flexible on things that aren't absolute dealbreakers about the house itself and super inflexible about price.
posted by oblique red at 2:45 PM on January 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

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