Tuesday, July 27, 2010

how to buy a house: part 1

If you've ever moved in to a new area, where you know absolutely nothing, it really helps if you buy a BIG map. And then, once you have a BIG map, it really helps to spread it out on a kitchen table. For a few days, you might continue to stare at that map and talk to people about where they live, what they like and dislike about their community, and see if you can decipher the traffic flow patterns and the proximity to your work environment.

AND THEN. If you have children, and even if you don't have children, it helps to learn everything you can about the school districts. Because the value of a home, is linked very closely to property value. And while it sometimes might be an unfair parallel, I believe you can typically draw some very good information on the quality of the community, from the quality of the schools in it.

Or maybe not.

I'm new to all this.

But last week, I really didn't feel like we had much of a clue and were shooting in the dark about where to live. While our Realtor has been doing this for 30+ years, she wasn't working the kind of magic that I had hoped for, so over the past few days, I've been devising a strategy.

First, I asked myself - what is important to us in a new home? As they say: LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. For us, the best location is one where we feel we are surrounded by a good community, within an excellent school district, that is an easy commute to my office.

Second, I tried to create a quantitative and yet, qualitative way of capturing those things that are important. It seems that when ever I get overwhelmed, I build spreadsheets. For example, when our triplets were newborns, on or about Day 2 of having all the babies at home, and we were suffering from extreme sleep deprivation and couldn't keep track of when they were eating, sleeping, or pooping, I developed a spreadsheet in Excel. Almost instantly, I felt like I had assumed some control because I could see when things were happening, when they were due to happen, and a pattern emerged that I could easily track.

So this past weekend, when I felt like jumping out of our first level hotel room window, I instead sat down and devised a multi-tiered, color-coded spreadsheet about possible homes in Virginia. And suddenly everything was right in my world.

This was my tactic:

Part 1: I logged on to Great Schools (http://www.greatschools.org) and I sorted schools based on the County where we want to live. Then, I sorted the schools by their ranking and recorded the name, address, and what I considered to be necessary information about any school programs, parental comments, student/teacher ratio, condition of the buildings, etc.

Part 2: Using those schools that ranked within the top 20%, I entered the school address in to Google Maps and determined the exact distance to my office. Any school that was greater than a certain mileage fell off my list because if my children cough, I want to hear it. Or, more appropriately, I'd like to be close enough to at least have the option of volunteering in their classroom over lunch.

Part 4: I e-mailed my Excel spreadsheet to my Realtor and asked for her to do a housing search within those specific school districts and within a certain price range. Once she sent me the listings, Charlie and I looked at each of the properties via Red Fin (http://www.redfin.com) and tagged all those properties we'd be interested to see in more detail.

Part 5: While looking at property on line may potentially cause us to reduce a great home from our listing, we believe that a lot can be gleaned from taking a first pass and looking at houses on line. We know that there are certain characteristics we want our next home to have. If the homes we're looking at don't possess at least two, it's dropped. Tonight, we whittled our possible home list down from 75 to 25. And over the next few days, we're going to see them all.

I'd like to interject that it in the process of buying a new house, it really helps if you have an excellent boss who tells you to take the next week off and for the love of all that is good in the world, find a new place to live.

Since we've been in town, we've looked at approximately 40 homes. Of course, sometimes "looking" involves nothing more than driving in to the neighborhood - spotting a man working on an El Dorado in his underwear - turning around and driving back out. But we feel like if we trust our initial instincts and rely upon this new strategy we have in place, we'll be able to make some very good progress this week.

Although it's important to note that any home that we see over the next few days is going to have to be really amazing to shake our want of the house that we saw this past weekend. We don't want to commit to one location so soon in the game when we really feel like we need to see what else is available, but at this point we cannot stop thinking and talking about it.

And golly gee, our Christmas tree would look so beautiful in that bay window! And our stockings would look so regal suspended from that solid wood mantle! And the brook! And the tire swing! And the this! And the that!

So while we're trying to take our time and seriously look at other possible homes, we're also feeling emotionally connected to this other house and are in the process of formulating an offer because if I believed it was possible, we would both swear that old house and the happy spirit of it's deceased owner told us to BUY IT when we there on Saturday.


  1. Fingers crossed for you!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. I am loving your house hunting stories. When we were transferred I started with the schools, particularly the High School!!! The middle and elementary schools pretty much fall in line when you start at the top.

  3. I know for me, one of my major criteria when picking a home is, how close are the emergency services in town? When you need them, time is of the essance, so for us, thats a make or break it criteria. I'm a volunteer EMT and my husband is a volunteer Firefighter, so we may be a bit jaded....but we go to calls all the time that are way out in the hills with only one road in and one road out, and in bad weather, it takes us a while to get there safely!

  4. Don't forget to check out the electric meter. Maybe that will be an omen!

  5. you should have been an ENGINEER! What a strategic approach! Only question is, how many GUEST bedrooms does it have???

  6. What a GREAT idea your spreadsheet was! Then to send it to your real estate agent, SMART! Because how can they help you if they don't know what you are REALLY looking for? All good stuff. Now, just continue to be patient... or not... or BUY...or wait...or.... all while living in your hotel room with 4 kids! ;o)

  7. ...the other thing I was thinking you guys could go out and do while you are house hunting is BUY A NEW PUPPY!!

  8. Excellent idea, I'm glad you're working up and offer on the house you found it sounded as if it was ideal for you.

    And I agree the spirit of the old man who died there would LOVE to have running, jumping, happy children inhabiting his house. (especially Henry, very unique Henry)

  9. What about a home inspection by a company? We had one done of our home--it was a huge report in a binder. I just haven't heard you mention one at all--they are very common here, but I'm Canadian. Maybe it's not done as commonly in the US.

  10. I have moved a couple of times with small children and found a few things very helpful in our search for a safe neighborhood.

    1. Go to the supermarket and see what type of people are shopping there. These people will be your neighbors.

    2. Check out the playgrounds. This is a good indication as to how they feel about the young in the area. If it is a nice new playground you are good. If you find the playground that you used to play on, then chances are the young are not a priority.

    3. Now this may seem creepy but check the sex offender registry. They may be everywhere but you don't want to live across the street from one of them.

    I actually keep a clipboard with the print out of all the offenders (pictures and all). When I have someone doing work on the house, I check to be sure they are not on the offender list.

    We just moved last year with a then 5 yr old and 3 yr old. It is very stressful to pick a house in an area you know nothing about. Good luck in your search!

  11. I like the spreadsheet method, we do that on a regular basis. I also have a quick method for rating houses as you see them. I've used it when searching for my own homes and I also let my clients in on it when we start looking for homes. It's what I call the four L(s) of real estate: Location, Lot, Layout & Look. In that order. Location can't be changed which is why it's first (most important). The lot is next in the line of importance because unless your neighbors decide to sell you their land, that most likely won't be fixable either. The layout is changeable, but it usually costs more money as it means moving walls and other major projects. And the "look" is the finishes, which are generally easy to change and not overly expensive. So when you're rating houses, location and lot should weigh more than layout or look. I'll end this before I leave you a novella, good luck with your home search!