The first place John and I lived in was a tiny, one-bedroom house we rented in Denville. We really liked Denville. It was a sleepy little bedroom community with an adorable downtown area, cute shops, convenient train station, respected hospital, good schools...pretty much an ideal place to live. The problem? We couldn't afford to buy a house there. Oh sure, we probably could have purchased the house we were renting at the time, but it was a cottage with no room to grow a family. One bedroom and one bathroom just wasn't going to work once we started a family. And we did plan to start a family. We talked about 3 or more kids!
So we worked (often 12 hour days) and scrimped and saved and payed down our debts...but time passed and I really wanted to have a baby. Were we ready? John didn't think so. We still didn't have enough saved to buy even a starter home. See, houses in New Jersey within any reasonable commute to NYC are VERY expensive. But then something amazing happened.
John's grandma Sophie had been living on her own down in Florida for a number of years, but her health was starting to fail. Long story short, she moved in with my in-laws and, when it became apparent that this was going to be a permanent situation, she went to work selling her Florida retirement home. Through a series of sad circumstances, eventually it became necessary to find a nursing home for Sophie. The problem? She had a sizable nest-egg in the bank and any decent home in the area would require her to turn over her assets to put toward her care. Sure, she might go on living for many more years, but she wanted to leave something to her family. So she decided to give each of her grand-kids a gift. We were elated when she gave us this money. With what we had saved, it was finally enough to make a decent down-payment on our first house. Or so we thought.
One last thing before I get to the really useful information. At that time, the internet was just starting to build. I was using dial-up and AOL to get online. (Yes, we are ancient.) Did I think to search for tips for first time home buyers? Nope. Not really. I was more focused on finding the lowest interest rate loan possible! We were pretty confident that it was just going to take a lot of looking and patience to find just the right place. So we found a Realtor, gave him a price range based on what the bank said we could afford, and started hunting. And hunting. And hunting. Wow, what an eye-opening experience. What we could "afford" was horrifying. But I'm pretty sure I've written about our house hunting experiences here before. You can't un-see orange shag carpet and avocado appliances. (What the HECK were they thinking in the 70's?!)
1. So yes, first and foremost, know what you want! You could start house-hunting blindly, like we did, until you figure that out, but the neat thing about the internet these days is you can look at houses inside and out ONLINE! You can get a good idea of what is in your price range before you ever leave the house. Amazing!
2. We decided to go with new construction. Are you a do-it-yourselfer? Kudos to you, if you are! You have lots more options, especially if you are a first time home buyer. You can work with the seller to get into the house and paint, change carpet, redo floors, etc. BEFORE you move in your furniture and belongings. Once all your stuff is in the way, it gets a lot harder to do things. We are not Home Depot people. So...
3. New construction is great if you don't have the time or skill to change out light fixtures, rip out carpet, install hardwood, refinish cabinets, etc. You get to pick all these things out before your house is even finished. However, the choices can be really overwhelming. Visit remodeling and home design centers. Look at lots of photos online of kitchens and bathrooms. Do your homework and think about your future needs!
a) When we were making our choices, the hot and popular kitchen choice was all white cabinets and white appliances with marble counter-tops and low maintenance solarian (vinyl) flooring to match. Bright, clean and spiffy. Don't do it. Almost 15+ years later and the cabinets are stained with years of splatter that we can't get clean. The floors showed every bit of soil from day 1. Hard wood in a kitchen, while it looks nice, is also a really bad choice. As is slate (really hard on the feet and back.) Most kinds of wood + exposure to water just don't mix. We've replaced our dishwasher. Trust me, when a dishwasher goes bad, it goes very very bad. Water, water everywhere. White appliances? Also a bad idea. Again, with the stains. Every bit of splatter and soil is highly visible. I am still bummed that we missed the whole stainless steel fad. If I had it to do over again, my cabinets would be like this:
High gloss, easy to clean, with stainless steel accents and appliances. Not the black counters though. I'd probably go with a dark grey granite. And the floors? That's not wood! It's tile that LOOKS like wood. Greatest invention ever.
b) Carpet. Carpet is an economical choice, but if you can afford it, get hardwood right from the start. Something sustainable like bamboo flooring would be my choice. What did we pick? Well, in my defense, we did not have any kids at the time. We were young, in an empty house full of possibilities and I went with pretty, airy and light choices. Pale sage green, white berber, pale beige... add 2 boys and multiple cats and you know what you get? Stains! Horrible, awful, disgusting stains. Don't get me wrong, the berber has stood the test of time! I just wish I'd gotten a nice shade of speckled brown or grey. Got pets? Kids? Then hardwood or mid-range colors are best. Dark colors will show lint and hair.
|See? Pretty pretty bamboo...wears like iron and ages nicely.|
d) Closets. You'll be tempted to cut corners there. A rod with a shelf above it? Good enough, right? No. There are closet companies out there for a reason! California Closets! Seriously. A well organized closet with lots of storage options is a sanity saver. We could fit SO much more into our nice walk-in closet if only I'd given it a little thought.
|Yes! yes yes yes!|
So there you have it. Lessons learned. Oh, and if you have the option to get a nice front porch? Do it! You'd be surprised how many times I've wished there was room for a rocking chair or swing out front. And the deck! We got the builder's standard model and it ended up barely serviceable. We should have gotten bigger. With a patio under it. And stairs. It would be nice to have more than one way to enter our kitchen.
4) Finally, we come to my biggest regret. Years ago, when my eldest was still small, we decided to finish the basement into a playroom. We'd had the foresight when we built the house to take the "walk-out" basement upgrade (extra windows and a slider to the back yard) and requested roughed-in plumbing for a future half bath. The builder forgot our plumbing. They poured the foundation and we were stuck. Lesson? Watch your new construction carefully! We caught several other errors before things got permanent, but not that plumbing snafu. *big sigh* Why was this so important? We brought in a respected contractor to finish off an office space, add a guest bedroom, and put in floors, walls, ceiling (tiles, so we have access to plumbing and ducts - VERY important!) and moldings. Painted and did lighting too. Bathroom? Nope. Not without adding one on to the back of the house at great expense. Solid slab down there. No way to put in plumbing now. That office space off the guest bedroom would have made a perfect guest bath too. *big sigh* Other problem? Heating/cooling. It's a big space down there. It really needs its own zone, but we have just one thermostat. In our upstairs hallway. What does that mean? It's fricken freezing down in the playroom and guest room. All. Year. Round. Heat rises so in the winter, it's a meat locker. Summer? The air conditioning works REALLY well down there while the upstairs is still relatively warm. Meat locker again. We had guests stay in our guest room a couple times, but once they figured out the only bathroom was up 2 flights of stairs in the hallway? And they froze their asses off? Yeah. We don't have guests anymore. Plus the boys don't stay downstairs for long to play. It's fricken FREEZING down there. So the beautiful playroom has slowly reverted back into a basement. Full of random junk and toys.
I should have had the contractor put in storage cabinets downstairs too. Shelves. That would have been good. I bought some later but they are pre-fabs. Hardwood pre-fabs. I managed to put together a corner armoire desk unit with the thought that the kids could use it for homework and gaming in the future...but it was back breaking work and no one ever uses it. I have shelves and a tv/entertainment unit still in boxes waiting to be assembled. Years have gone by now. Still in boxes.
So many regrets. Maybe when Tyler gets a wee bit older, I'll put him to work constructing the rest of the furniture for downstairs. I figure one day soon he might be interested in taking that bedroom downstairs. Teenagers, you know. That playroom would make a great hangout spot too. The kids could all wear parkas and gloves while watching the big screen or gaming. Yeah. It could work. ;) I just fear all the peeing out the back door will kill the grass. :p