House Hunting: Taking Advice

When it comes to buying a home, Whitney Carpenter has heard everything from horror stories to happy endings. Whitney has advice about taking advice.

adviceSince I decided to buy a house, I’ve learned what almost every homeowner in my acquaintance paid for their current residence. I’ve also learned what interest rate they borrowed at, when they took out a second loan to install their bitchin’ patio, and how they believe, without a doubt, that home is where the heart (and their outdoor kitchen) is. I’ve heard foreclosure horror stories, perfect-house love stories, and I’ve been endlessly reminded that homeowners don’t have the luxury of calling a landlord to fix a sink or kill a spider. Apparently, nothing puts homeowners in the mood to chat like the presence of a prospective homeowner.

Unfortunately, there are few things that make this prospective homeowner jumpier than advice — more particularly the brand of conflicting advice that real estate tends to generate. One of the earliest decisions involved in buying a house is deciding whether or not you want to tell people what you’re up to. The advantage of being open is that most homeowners (and all casual watchers of Extreme Home Makeover) are eager to advise a first-timer. The downside is the sheer volume of advice that you’ll receive, and in the case of people younger than 30 — especially those of us who look younger than twenty when not taking drastic hair-spraying measures — how often that advice will begin with a misty-eyed tale about the transformative power of homeownership and end with a diatribe on the advantages of renting luxury condos.

Being the chatty sort, I elected to be open about my house search and was immediately treated to an avalanche of feel-good phrases and cautionary advice; even my closest friends went back-and-forth between apocalyptic predictions and an enthusiasm that smacked strongly of the American Dream. Tales of homemade bread cooling on brick hearths intermingled with stories about sinister Dickensian bankers, the sort who enjoy making people pawn their pocket watch to avoid eviction on Christmas Day. This disconcerting combination — all the more unsettling for its strangeness — made me very nervous.

During those months, every tale about faulty homeowner’s insurance and busted pipes reminded me of the permanence of the purchase and the need to balance a house’s charm (read: age) with its potential to collapse around me. Similarly, stories about predatory lending sent me paging through my loan agreement, searching for loopholes that I couldn’t have recognized even if I had seen them. And every time someone told me to ignore the crime rate in a neighborhood because memories, not statistics, make a home, I became acutely aware of how choosing a house can be an intuitive voodoo-logic thing, and how likely I was to screw it up.

Like most people who are in a little over their heads, I became a bit defensive about receiving advice. Proverbs and platitudes I resented most of all — probably because I felt corniness was the only technical subject in which I could hold my own. The following four statements comprise a list of the most startlingly accurate generalizations that I’ve heard in recent months. I like to call it, “Four Surprising Truths Learned When I Thought Someone Was Patronizing Me.”

1. Set a budget, but your taste will go up.

When my real estate agent told me that everyone readjusts their initial budget to include more expensive houses, I dismissed it as a polite disapproval of my very conservative price range. A few weeks of viewing homes where previous tenants had stripped the hardware and left hobo nests in the garage changed the mind of this fair-weather-DIY-er; I adjusted my budget to allow for houses that were slightly more expensive but also a lot smaller, in hopes of getting a house in better shape.

2. There will be a house that haunts you.

I heard this statement often and never believed it until I met a little stucco house located — literally — on Main Street a few towns over from where I live. The backyard was overgrown and the kitchen held the dark-wood gloom of the ‘70s, but the house had a mudroom and a lot of potential. I debated the commute too long, weighing the extra driving time against the inlaid cabinets in the dining room, and eventually made an offer that was both too little and too late. I’ve seen quite a few houses in recent months with creaky porches, dusty mirrors, and feral cat colonies, the kind of house that I would secretly believe to be haunted, but the Main Street house is the only house that haunts me.

3. You have to see 30 houses before you know what you’re looking at.

The number changes, but this sentiment stands. It’s only now, with several dozen houses and a new vocabulary under my belt (siding, raised foundation, and API) that I’m starting to feel comfortable viewing homes. When I first started looking I was so distracted by the awkwardness of wandering past someone else’s half-filled hamper that I couldn’t focus properly on the condition of the house. Only time and more viewings can desensitize you to the strangeness of quantifying your admiration for someone’s home while they wait patiently at the neighbor’s house.

4. Escrow is terrifying; you’ll get cold feet your first time and chicken out.

Having just gone into escrow for the first time, I can attest that is indeed terrifying. Looking for a house has been a drawn-out process, like an odd high-stakes scavenger hunt without defined prizes or time limits, and the more involved I became in the search the more removed the end result seemed. Now, just as I started getting comfortable with the process of searching, one of my offers was accepted, and I have a whole new game and vocabulary to memorize before I decide to sign a contract. Whether my first time in escrow (with all of the signatures and meetings with sinister bankers that escrow implies) will be terrifying enough to scare me away, however, remains to be seen.

But, if I do manage to brave escrow and jump through all of the legal hoops with mild grace and artfully notarized signatures, I may enter into the final stage of buying a house. If that is the case, I will be done with searching and I’m a little ashamed to admit that the whole of my wisdom on the topic can be condensed into four teeny paragraphs — paragraphs that read suspiciously like a twine-embellished sign on the wall of someone’s country-style kitchen. Fortunately, the shameless nature of the statements doesn’t make them any less true. As it turns out, when doing something as marvelously clichéd as buying a house in the suburbs, all kinds of platitudes apply.


Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.