The First-time Buyer Chronicles, Part 5: Dream House vs. Practical House vs. Right House

First Time Buyer ChroniclesWhat do I want in a house? It was a little hard for me as first-time buyer to go from my ideals (Castle? Sprawling ranch with horse stables and vineyard?)  to what I can actually afford and maintain. And okay, sure, a “castle” might seem funny  but really, it’s not fair to laugh at such impracticality- these days many Gen X and Y buyers have unrealistic frames of reference when it comes to buying a home. If our parents own a home, it’s probably worth more than we personally can afford now. My parents, for instance, bought a 3 bedroom home near the beach in Santa Cruz, CA in the mid 1980’s. It’s not a mansion by any means, but the property alone has tripled in value since then. My husband and I would never qualify to buy its equal today--even though, when adjusted for inflation, our income probably exceeds that which my parents enjoyed back when they bought the house. 

Like so many Americans these days, my decision to buy a home coincided with a decision to leave my home town. But Portland, as I have already outlined, hit enough of my “I needs" to ignore the ”I wants” or “I wishes” that aren’t realistic in a first home on a moderate income. So that decision, though difficult to make, felt right. Next decision: what kind of house do I want?

Looking Within Our Means

My strongest advice when looking at homes is to do it realistically. As much as perople talk about buying the home of your dreams, you really can only buy the house of your reality.

When we first looked at buying, we tried to do it San Francisco. This was 2006:  the market was pre-crash. We were offered no money down, interest only, just-sign-here and you can have whatever you want today, no questions asked type deals. These deals drew me in like a sad, silly moth that can’t help but beat itself against the shiny glass of a hot light bulb. I remember touring $800K houses with my then agent, because with an interest only ARM loan, it wouldn’t be much more than my rent to live there.

Scott, my husband, was that pesky human who turns the light off.  “We can’t afford $800K, Anna. Period.” He was (and is) a conservative spender. He grew up on a farm. His parents waste nothing. They spend close to nothing. He could not, and would not, believe in the magic potion that was an interest-only ARM, then offering us 1% interest-- and that’s all we had to pay—of course, until the market changed. But we could sell the place before then and get out with so much more money than we started!  Or that’s what we were told.

I was drunk on the Kool Aid. Scott wouldn’t touch it.

Of course, he was right. We, with our fairly predictable middle-class income, had no business buying a high-end home on the proviso that a) maybe interest rates would never reset and quadruple our mortgage; and b) home values would never go down and thus trap us in that home whose mortgage had now quadrupled. The problem came in the mismatch. I’d seen the $800K and above houses. Touring those closer to our price range was a slap in the face. Particularly San Francisco and Marin County, where we looked, our money couldn’t buy what I wanted. We barely fit in a 700 square foot apartment. What made anyone think we could make a 500 square foot condo, with no yard, no parking, and no storage, work any better?

Finding the Home Right For Us

Portland, OR bungalowLuckily, in Portland, the kind of house we both want—and can afford!-- is actually accessible. We both love older homes, both for their craftsmanship and for their history. But we also like Portland's new green construction, much of which mimics the lines of classic local architecture.

We made ourselves open then, to anything with enough square footage to accommodate two people who work from home, who like to create stuff (me: clothes and pages and pages of text; Scott: paintings and pages and pages of sketches), who play and collect music, horde books and are both over 5 foot, 10 inches tall. Old or new construction was fine, if in a neighborhood we could walk in: to buy food, to get a drink, to take our dog to the vet, to do our baking or visit the library. We wanted a houe with a yard, preferably with a garag and a new enough roof-- somethinwg we could make our own without needing an additional fortune. And of course, it can’t be so big that we can’t afford to heat it or that we can’t physically take care of the thing, right?

Our combined Internet search time qualified us both for a job, if only someone was offering to pay—we must have spend at least 20 hours a week previewing and researching MLS listings in Portland. Even with close, detailed searches that we could do with ZipRealty’s detailed search parameters, this process was overwhelming.  But eventually, keeping the “I need” list in front of us and the “I want/wish” list firmly in the periphery, we assembled a conquerable list of houses we wanted to see in person.

Now, we were ready for the agent tours, the home visits, for the physical to meet the virtual. And that would be a whole different chapter.

…Stay tuned

Further Reading