5 Unexpected Things I Never Thought to Consider When Buying My First House

published Oct 6, 2020
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My wife and I did our homework before buying our 1920 fixer-upper. We took a great first-time homebuyer class, studied the market, toured dozens of homes, read DIY blogs, watched “This Old House”… we were as prepared as we could have been when we finally signed the deed and mortgage. And we’re really happy with where we ended up. But there are still some things I wish I had given more thought to in our home search a decade ago.

A flat driveway is a surprisingly big deal once you have kids.

For example, childless at the time, we had no appreciation of how important a flat driveway or a quiet side street is once you have a kid on wheels. Having lived in downtown Boston for years, where we often had to ditch the car a full half mile or more from our studio, we were happy just to have any driveway at all, even if it was cracked and crumbly and shaped like a checkmark. Nor did it bother us to be on a fairly busy road, after falling asleep to the downtown din for years. 

But once our daughter started riding bikes and scooters, we realized our driveway has a pretty dangerously downhill incline—certainly not a great training ground for a kid unsure how to use brakes. And while her friends pedal around independently on the quiet side streets outside their homes, there’s no way for her to do that on our busy road. 

You don’t always need to replace old windows. 

Like many homeowners, we were under the impression that our rattly, original cord-and-pulley windows should be replaced for energy efficiency’s sake. So we paid thousands of dollars over the course of several years pulling out 100-year-old windows, constructed from long-gone old-growth timber, and getting vinyl replacement windows installed. 

Years later, I realized that was a mistake. While it’s not a bad idea to upgrade windows in homes built in the 1970s or later, most older windows were built to last forever. They simply need to be restored and outfitted with a storm window for an efficiency boost, not swapped out with cheap vinyl replacements that will just break down in another 20 years. The cost is roughly the same (and, while labor-intensive, you can even do it yourself), the efficiency gains are equivalent, and you’ll reduce petroleum-based plastic use and keep high-quality craftsmanship out of the landfill.

It’s worth getting things right before you move in, if you can.

For the past decade, we’ve been slowly chipping away at the legions of updates this house demands, which was always our plan. Homes are expensive in the Boston area, and we barely had a buck left after closing to do any real work on the place. But looking back, it would have been so much easier, and probably cheaper in the long run, to just do everything all at once before moving in. 

For one thing, some projects—like refinishing floors or replacing rusty old iron and brass pipes behind plaster walls—are simply so much easier to do in an empty, uninhabited space. And if we had used a rehab loan to do a wholesale renovation at 2008 prices, spreading the cost out over 30 years, it probably would have been less costly and less of a headache than making piecemeal upgrades. But hey, we were lucky to get any house at all.

Money can fix just about anything. 

There’s a reason realtors talk about location—it’s really the only thing money can’t change. When we were house hunting, I was scared off by all kinds of home maladies, from foundation issues to evidence of fire. But the more I’ve spoken to realtors and contractors over the years, I’ve learned that none of these issues is truly a dealbreaker; pretty much anything can be fixed, it’s just expensive to do it. Not that we would have been eager to take on a dilapidated Colonial teetering on a cracked foundation, but we definitely allowed ourselves to get spooked too easily on a few occasions. 

Inertia is powerful. 

My wife and I have always loved traveling, and settling down with a mortgage and everything, felt a little scary. One the reasons we felt comfortable buying our home—and not, say, blowing our down payment backpacking around the world for a few months—was that we knew it was rentable: If things got tight, or if we needed to move for work or wanderlust, the property could just about pay for itself, and that made it feel less like a permanent ball and chain and more like a straightforward, rational investment.  

But as Newton’s first law of motion states, an object at rest tends to stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force. That is to say, we are very much still here, with many more belongings than we moved in with. That hasn’t stopped us from traveling, at least in short doses. While I continue to harbor daydreams of buying a house in Canada, and starting over in a new place still sounds intoxicating, the idea of actually, physically moving—and of uprooting our lives, at this point—also seems unimaginably complicated and exhausting. 

Luckily, though, we overlooked these considerations, we got enough things right the first time.