Monday, May 16, 2011

House Hunting, Part I

Growing up, I LOVED houses.  I would grab "The Real Estate Journal" everytime we stopped by the grocery store, and pore over local house listing just for fun.  My friend's mom was a real estate agent and used to give me old copies of her MLS listings, simply because it made me happy.  I was checking out Better Homes and Gardens magazines from the library by the time I was 12.  And while many of my peers were catching up on episodes of "Saved by the Bell" after school, I was busy picking up tips from "Trading Spaces."  Yup, I was a fan long before Paige Davis hit the scene. 

But then I grew up, got married, had kids, and realized owning and decorating a home took major moolah ... and time.  I still held on to a few copies of BHG, and every once in a while, on a slow day at work, I'd check in with the local Pennsylvania listings to see if I could find my parents a new house.  But for the most part, my "house love" had slipped below the surface.  Until recently.

Jon and I were almost sure we were going to rent again when this next move popped up.  We weren't positive, but one night over dinner we decided it was the best and safest route for our family at this time in our lives ... and the economy.  I had even found the most perfect, ancient farmhouse on 18 acres on the water for rent on Craigslist, and was busy dreaming of my boys running barefoot across the field as I hung clothes out to dry.  And yet, for some reason, we applied to get pre-approved for a mortgage "just in case."  And then kept checking the for sale listings "just in case" and after discovering that my "perfect" farmhouse was perfectly rented, and after several weeks of hunting for a rental, and coming up empty-handed each time, we decided maybe it really was a good time for us to buy.

But now I'm jumping too far ahead.  We've known we were probably going to move since the day we arrived here.  There was always a chance we'd get restationed here, but a move was most likely.  We just didn't know where.  We also knew we had a list of our top 10-15 choices, unofficially labeled a "dream sheet" in the military.  We thought we'd get one of the choices on this list, but you just never know.  Jon has always gotten his first choice (that's my guy!), but his detailer had kinda prepared us for the worst this time around and made it seem like his first few choices weren't going to be in our future.  So we tried to "plan for the best, prepare for the worst."  In the preliminary days, we relied mainly on Zillow.  And although we focused mainly on our top choice, we tried to get an idea of the market in other areas as well.  Of course, we were very excited to find out we would once again be getting the #1 job on "our" list.

I say our list since these moves involve the whole family, but really these are Jon's top job choices.  We all know my list would go something like:  Central PA, Eastern PA, Southern PA, Northern PA and England.

We tried to be really smart this time around, especially after this last move. We learned a tough lesson in January when our house was burglarized, and we didn't want to make that mistake again.  Sometimes having a nice house, in a nice neighborhood, just isn't enough.  So our goal was to fully research and truly understand each and every town we considered.   I was actually really surprised to find out later that our realtor couldn't provide us with any neighborhood information.  I had always assumed real estate agents were also "relocation experts."  But apparently it is now against the law for them to advise us on neighborhood demographics, crime rates, schools performance, etc. because this is considered "leading" and is purely conjecture.  It all makes sense now, but at first I was a bit disappointed to hear we were on our own!

Thankfully, we live within driving distance of our new stomping grounds and we both know a few people from that area.  So we asked questions.  Lots of them.  If I even overheard someone was from such-and-such an area I was stopping them for advice.  I even called up a stranger, a relative of a friend of a friend, to ask some questions.  We searched all sorts of different websites for measurable information: crime stats, school stats, sex offender registries, median incomes, median home prices, median ages, education levels.  One website, http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/, which I love, even provided a write-up on the personality types of people who reside in specific neighborhoods (not just cities).  My favorite part of this website was that you could input one of your current favorite neighborhoods and ask for it to find similar places within a certain mile radius of a new location.  Golden!!  Yeah, I had a lot of fun with that one. 

In the end, we were able to narrow our seemingly hugantic search area to 3-4 specific towns.  By this point, our referral program had assigned us a realtor and, after months of searching the web, we were finally ready to get boots on the ground.  So anxious, in fact, that we went to check out the area on our own that first weekend, even though our realtor wasn't free. 

We went to an open house for a new construction community and of course fell in love with the place.  But when we tried to go back a few days later it had already been sold.  Yikes!  We took it as a sign that it wasn't the right place for us anyway and made an appointment to look at a few more with our realtor the next weekend.  Thankfully, my parents were down visiting Uncle Jared that weekend and offered to take the boys off our hands for a few hours.  Otherwise I don't know how we would have ever made it through 6 houses that day.  It didn't seem like a lot at first, but even without towing kids around, I was exhausted by the end of the day. 

Our first real day of house-viewing was a big disappointment.  But I suppose it was just a necessary part of the learning process.  We looked at 6 houses, only one was worth considering.  My favorite part of the day was the house that we literally ran out of at the end.  Floral wallpaper, pink carpet, crumbling kitchen ... I could look past all that.  But the sticky linoleum and plug-in-air-freshener-hiding-the-faint-scent-of-dog-urine was just a tad too much.  Even sitting on over an acre wasn't enough to make me think twice.  And the fact that it was slightly over our price range, well I almost wanted to cry (instead we laughed, even our realtor thought it was funny).  But nothing says "realty check" like discovering you can't even afford a borderline dump in certain areas of your location. 

The rest of the day wasn't much better.  The sellers were still in two of the houses we tried to look at (some sort of miscommunication), and both stories involved people in showers.  Awkward.  There's nothing more uncomfortable than walking through a house and there is still steam on the bathroom mirror.  Or trying to comment on a kitchen when the owner is sitting right there checking his email.  Or not being able to see a house at all because the owner doesn't feel good and can't leave.  Um, motivated much?  We didn't have time waste on unenthusiastic sellers so we crossed those three off the list really quick.

The other thing I wasn't expecting was the "creepy" factor.  I've been in dirty houses, houses that need work.  I get that.  I don't mind it.  We're not house flippers ourselves but I love those kind of stories.  But I just wasn't prepared to be totally, completely creeped out by some places.  They looked totally normal on the outside, were fine on the inside, but just plain felt weird.  And I'm not the only one.  There were 3 houses that we looked at that, both Jon and I agreed, were just "off."  I don't know if it was the house itself, or the people who lived there, but we just couldn't get past it.  Dude, you can't renovate creepy.  Those got crossed off the list pretty quickly too.

But there was definitely one house that felt so absolutely perfect, so us, so HOME.  Or at the very least like a friend's home.  And THAT was the house that got our attention.  But as this is post has reached uneccessary lengths already, I'll save that story for another time...

Sorry, no pictures.  I don't know about the legalities of posting pictures of other people's homes.  Although I WISH I could share with you some of the things we saw during our hunt!!

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