On Buying a House

beige wonder

What we wanted in a house: something classic with lots of character and woodwork from a lost and forgotten time. What we bought: this generic beige garage front monstrosity. Yet we feel good about our house every night as we lay in our bed, staring up at the eleven foot ceiling in our oversized master bedroom suite.

Last year we bought a newer house. We knew what our dream house would look like, because we already saw it. Too bad for us someone else bought it. House hunting is like a lottery that way; sometimes you just have to be lucky. Then sometimes you have to make your own luck.

generic floor plan

Barring the historic old houses that are few and far between (unless they are all in the same historic neighborhood) most houses from the last thirty to forty years have the same floor plan. The main floor always has an oversized entryway, a useless dining room, and a big open space for the kitchen, another dining room, and a living room.

The rooms along the back are not really rooms at all, they are one big cavernous space with different types of furniture and flooring. This floor plan makes no sense for a family where everyone ends up doing something different in each space. You have to share each function with everyone else in this big space whether you like it or not.

We struggled with this standard floor plan until we found a few houses with finished walk out basement. The term “walk out basement” is an oxymoron. If it was a real basement, you couldn’t walk out of it (unless there is a tunnel to the surface world). The walk out basement houses really have an extra story, with the lowest level only half buried like some eco-friendly earth home. It works though, and with another refuge we can escape the big room in the main floor and finally get some peace and quiet. We can also crank the sound on our home theater in this half buried lair while the kids are sleeping soundly two stories up.

Based on our prior house, we found the main floor to be the most important space. As nice as the basement is, most of the time will be spent on the main floor, i.e. the floor with the kitchen. We feel that a good minimum amount for the main floor is about 800 useable square feet. Because we want to maximize the space, the formal dining room in our new house became the office. The main floor is not a good floor for a spare room.

I suppose in a nicer climate the walk out basement would not be necessary. We love spending time outside on a nice day and we have to literally drag the kids inside on bright and warm summer evening. But we live in Iowa and Iowa winters can be brutal, nigh Apocalyptic. The extra space in a finished basement comes in handy during those cold dark days when neither child nor man should venture outside.

Typical Iowa Winter
During a typical Iowa winter, you best keep indoors.

Orientation matters. The modern garage front eye sore has most of its windows on the back of the house. There are usually no windows on the side. So if the back of the houses faces north, you will never see any sun. If the back of the house faces south or west, then the sun will be bearing down on you as you play in the backyard in the evening. If the back of the house faces east then the house itself shades the backyard. We think the perfect orientation is a house where the backyard faces east. That way you get sun in the morning and shade in the later afternoon.

back lit

evening shade

Location matters, as the old triple word saying goes. We wanted to be in a good school district, close to a park, close to my office, and close to all of our friends. The area of search really starts to narrow with those criteria and we passed over many a fine house next to an interstate on ramp or an hour from everything. Put all those factors together, plug in the price we were willing to pay, and out pops the house we bought. Not as romantic as finding the house of our dreams but romance does not come with an Energy Star rating.

The scariest part of buying a new house is selling the old house. We knew were were losing money, but then so was the person we bought from. If the market was great and we sold our house for a higher price, we would have paid a higher price for our next house. In a terrible market, more expensive houses take a bigger hit than less expensive houses. It all evens out.

To save money on closing costs, we sold our house using a broker who charges 4.5% instead of the standard 6%. Getting on the multiple listing service was key. “For sale by owner” seems lucrative, but not if you can’t find a buyer. As a side note, all the houses that we looked at that were for sale by owner were priced to high. Most of these folks had no idea what they were doing. We almost bought a “for sale buy owner” house. Having agreed on the price and the provisions of purchase agreement, we went over to the owner’s house to sign the papers. Then they dropped a bomb on us. They wanted to put in a clause that would let them back out if they found a better price. We were not going to be their fall back buyers. When you look at a “for sale by owner” house, you are opening yourselves up to all kinds of crazy.

My only other advice is to sell your old house before buying a new one. We sold our old house first and arranged the closings to occur on the same day. Technically, we were homeless for about two hours. Most importantly, we were never paying more than one mortgage at the same time. One mortgage is enough!


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