If you’ve been reading this blog for a hot minute, you know Manny and I have been busy as bees since moving into our Savannah bungalow a year ago. And while it seems surreal to say this, we are pretty much done with our renovations. The transformation didn’t come easily. It didn’t come cheaply (though it was a lot less expensive than it could have been). Yet somehow we managed to turn around a fixer-upper in just twelve months, without losing our sanity or going broke.
But it occurs to me that, while I’ve shared many aspects of our renovation, I haven’t really discussed why we decided to buy a home in the first place…
Why We Bought
Let me start by recapping the facts: Manny and I were recently married and living in a studio apartment in Brooklyn late last June when he got a job offer in Savannah. My parents were already living here. We’d gotten married here. A lower cost of living, less traffic, a yard for Tilly — the attractions were myriad. Ultimately, it was a no-brainer for us: We decided to leave NY for good.
Our first instinct was to rent in our new city — an instinct that had been strengthened by all those years of living in a metropolis with a frenetic housing market. And why not? Renting for a year seemed like a great way to get to know Savannah better before making a big financial commitment. We could canvas neighborhoods and sharpen our understanding of the local market, all while channeling additional money into our savings.
But, to our surprise, the Savannah rental market was tight. Of the existing properties up for grabs, some were in poor shape, others had poor locations. All were over-priced, or so we thought.
Meanwhile, during furtive Zillow searches, I’d noticed that the Savannah buying and selling market was actually really hospitable. With our day of exodus swiftly approaching, I broached the idea of buying with Manny. Secretly, that’s what I really wanted anyway. After all those years of renting, I longed for a place to call our own.
Turns out, Manny was toying with the same idea. Within a week, we had a real estate agent. And by the time we moved in August 2015, we were ready to roll.
We arrived in Savannah on a Sunday evening and woke up early the next day to meet with our agent. The second house we walked into wasn’t in great shape, but she was “the one” (<– i.e., this one…) and within forty-eight hours we had our offer in.
Sort of. Truth be told, we loved our little bungalow at first sight. But she was desperate for TLC.
Given our lack of experience with both real estate and renovations, the head-spinning-ness of this is crazy to reflect upon, even a year or so out. But my point is this: For as much as the decision to buy a house seemed like a leap of faith, we landed on it as a result of market forces.
Should You Buy?
Manny and I had some friends from Brooklyn over last week. “Wow, you guys are so grown up,” they told us — while helping their 18-month old daughter bring a handful of food to her mouth.
“Um, you guys have a BABY,” we replied.
But I get it: Buying a house is a fairly big deal. (To my mind, still not as big a deal as having a baby. But… ‘eye of the beholder,’ I guess.)
One year of homeownership and DIY-ing does not make me any kind of expert. But for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts when it comes to buying a house and making it a home you really love on a budget:
Buy for the bones: Our house was a bit of a wreck when we moved in, as this blog has (ahem) lovingly detailed. But the bones were good. We liked the layout. We loved the neighborhood. And this was all that ever really mattered.
While the actual process of renovating was stressful and kind of awful in some ways, I would totally buy a fixer-upper again — because the experience of renovating this house has shown me how worthwhile it is. Sure, if your potential house needs a new roof and HVAC, you could be in the poor house before you know it. But if the inspection comes back without major red flags in terms of the structural components, compromising on aesthetics and committing to fixing a few things could save a lot of money.
Buy as an investment: A willingness to take on some remodeling as described above reframes the home-buying process. It’s the difference between a buyer mentality of “which house on the market has what I want?” and “is there a house for a good value I can update to suit me?”
Of course, everyone has to do his/her own math on the question of time vs. money — i.e., should you pay someone to do the work for you before (or after) you move into a house, or should you do it yourself to save beaucoup on labor costs. For some, time is worth more than the money it costs to pay someone else to do the work. But for the rest of us, it makes way more financial sense to DIY. With a few (okay, many…) free weekends and your new best friend, Youtube, it’s possible to remodel an interior for a fraction of what it would cost to pay someone else to do it. People get caught up on walls and flooring in particular. But these are relatively easy fixes. Paint makes a huge difference in a space but is a negligible expense. And normal humans can, with a bit of prep work, rent a sander and refinish wood floors without hiring a pro. Or paint them. Or install new ones.
Perhaps the biggest turn-off for first-time buyers is a bad kitchen. No one wants to undertake a major kitchen renovation. But a lot of bad kitchens are a few cans of paint and a good cleaning away from being pretty good kitchens. Even a kitchen that needs new cabinets and counters is fixable for the average person, as we can attest (I mean, we’re pretty proud of our DIY total-kitchen reno). And no matter what: Updating this space is one of the surest returns on investment you can make in a home.
Buy ‘in town’: Living in NYC forced us to be less dependent on our car. In the long run, it’s proven a good thing. I know I sound like Mr. Money Mustache in saying this (not that that’s a bad thing, IMO), but seriously: Cars are expensive! There’s the sticker price, plus the insurance, gas, maintenance, and — often — parking. Manny and I were wary of living anywhere in Savannah that would require us to buy a second car. So we bought a house about two miles from downtown Savannah. Our dependence on the car is further mitigated by our scooter, which had a low upfront cost, gets 90 miles a gallon, is low maintenance, and was a cinch to add it to our insurance. (Bonus: Manny looks super adorable scooting around in his suit to and from work.) Living nearer to work and other amenities, whether that means public transit or the grocery store, can make a huge difference in your budget if it lets you move away from a-car-per-person dependency.
Buy secondhand: Buying an existing home is often the sanest bet. I’ve written before about the American impulse to buy big and buy new. But demand outpaces the number of new middle-class homes going to market in many (if not most) places. So if you’re hankering for a brand new pad, reconsider whether this is really the best, or only, way to meet your needs.
The wisdom of buying secondhand doesn’t just relate to real estate, of course. When Manny and I moved into our bungalow, we had basically no furniture. Renovations + furniture buying = recipe for financial stress. But a few tips on good secondhand stores from our real estate agent sent us off on a multi-month treasure hunt that provided plenty of great diversion from the thick and thin of renovation madness.
Be your own designer: For many, the idea of remodeling a kitchen, for instance, without consulting a professional designer sounds preposterous. How will you know where to put the cabinets??!! But… while designers have valuable experience and, oftentimes, good ideas, it’s completely possible for you to determine an appliance arrangement that works well for you. Ditto for furniture. And wall color.
New to design or not sure what you like? That’s what Pinterest is for. And I always say, if in doubt, start with the following: a few gallons of Benjamin Moore Simply White paint, some affordable schoolhouse-style light fixtures, a couple of huge house plants, a jute or sisal rug, and some wood shutters or fabric roman shades for simple window dressing. And hit up local estate sales where you can get real wood furniture on a dime. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a home.
Anyone else have tips for first-time homeownership or want to share their home-buying story?