Friday, April 26, 2013

How to Buy a Boxy Colonial in 143 Easy Steps

Today is our houseiversary! One year ago today we closed on our house (didn't move in until a few weeks later, once we got functioning air conditioning and toilets). So I thought I'd celebrate by sharing the story of how we happened to buy the Boxy Colonial. Because I don't have cable anymore and I miss House Hunters.

Up until December 2011, we had no plans to move at all. I mean, we thought about it from time to time, but for the most part we figured we'd just have to stay put. The housing market was no good for selling, our house was....fine, and the payments were cheap. It was close to Dave's job. While all of these were very practical reasons for staying where we were, we still didn't really want to. We were close to Dave's job, but not to anything else. I spent tons of time driving kids all over the place. The house was not tiny by any means (just under 1900 square feet), but with the kids getting older we were realizing we wouldn't mind a little more space to stretch out in. But still....housing market! Moving is hard! Etc.!

But then, in December, we were jarred out of our complacency by a sort of wild hope that we might be able to buy my late grandparents' house. Long story short: that didn't work out. But the more we thought about really and truly moving, the more reasonable it seemed. Sure, we'd lose money on that house, but we'd get a great deal on the next one and interest rates were crazy low. We called a realtor, starting working frantically to get our house ready to sell, and began exploring the fairly small area that was close to friends and kid activities but not too much longer of a commute for Dave (he's since transferred to a closer school, but we had no idea that would happen at the time).

I'll save the house selling story for another time. To sum up: it was a lot of hard, stressful work; we had TWO offers fall through before one finally stuck; we did indeed lose money; and we wound up with two mortgages for a few months (which was only possible thanks to the very creative financing our mortgage holders--who, it just so happens, are my in-laws--helped us out with).

We looked at far more houses before buying the Boxy Colonial than in either of our other house buying experiences. Our first house, in Boston, we actually saw as an open house before we were ready to really start looking, then fell in love with it and scrambled to make it happen.

(I snagged a picture of it off of google maps street view. Isn't it cute? The picture makes it look kind of weird. But look how close the neighbors were! I am not really cut out for the city, it turns out. Or landlording. ANOTHER story)

And then with the next house, we were moving from Boston, so we only had a couple of days while we were down here for Christmas to look. We looked at half a dozen houses or so and then picked the best one.

But this time we had forever  to look while we were waiting on our house to sell.

Our first day of house hunting was pretty encouraging. We looked at three houses in our price range, and all of them were varying degrees of acceptable.

The first one was our favorite for a long time, and would have been strong competition for the Boxy Colonial had it not sold before we were ready to make an offer:

It was HUGE (the only one we looked at over 3,000 square feet, I think), and it had 5 bedrooms, which was the hardest to find thing on our wish list. It had an absolutely enormous great room with hardwood floors that Dave and I were both in love with. And the part the kids liked the best was that there was this deeply bizarre SECRET ROOM halfway up the had this little door sort of floating halfway up the wall in the stairway. It was a challenge to get into it, but then it opened up into this groovy secret hideout sort of place. I really wanted to give the kids a house with a secret room. But I also was worried about them jumping around in it at all hours immediately above the dining room. The main drawbacks of this house were that it had no basement and it backed up to a busy road. Oh, and it had this seriously quirky floor plan. Which most people would see as a drawback, but I thought it was awesome. Aside from the strange hobbit room, the whole first floor went in this odd circle. You walked into the foyer and then, going around to the left, you'd come to the formal living room, then the dining room, then the big great room, then the kitchen, then the master and the other downstairs bedroom, then back around to the foyer. There was no way to cut through the middle (well, once you got to the dining room, you could bypass the great room and cut through the kitchen instead). Probably the feng shui was terrible, but I love a house that keeps you guessing.

Then, in the same neighborhood, we looked at this house:

The kids loved those columns out front (pretty much every house we looked at was built in the 80's....we had to go back that far to find the size yards (I wouldn't look at anything under a third of an acre and I preferred at least half an acre) and houses we wanted in our price range. Not much was built in this area before the late 70's/early 80', all of that to say, if the houses look older and a bit dated, it's because they were). This was a ranch on a finished basement. From the pictures, I thought I was going to love it, but once we got inside it felt kind of cramped. It had a great yard, though, with a row of little baby peach trees. It went under contract very quickly after we looked at it.

House #3 that day was the first colonial!

The main thing this house had going for it was that it was cheap. It also had a HUGE backyard--a full acre. But it was Four rooms downstairs and four up, all nearly exactly the same size. Someone had bought it to flip, but they'd done the bare minimum--kitchen upgrades that were supposed to look fancy, but looked cheap to me. There was carpet everywhere except the kitchen, and it smelled like smoke. The master bedroom was indistinguishable from the others except for the tiny, outdated bathroom attached to it. it had a finished basement, but it was laid out kind of weirdly and unpleasantly. It was also a little farther from Dave's school than we preferred. But still. Cheap! And bigger than our old house, although it didn't really feel like it.

So then, in the following weeks, we looked at a LOT of boxy colonials:

There's a sampling. Colonials were incredibly popular around here in the 80's, it seems. They all have very similar layouts, so you pretty much know what you're getting before you go inside. Here is what we learned about buying a boxy colonial in our price range:

*There are three basic things to set boxy colonials apart from each other: size, degree of updating, and presence or absence of a basement. If you need to stay under $250,000 or so, you can have a big colonial, or you can have an updated colonial, or you can have a colonial with a basement. If you can find two of those things, snatch it up!

*Colonials need to be at least 2,500 square feet before they start to feel a little less boxy. Under that and you have 8 or 9 very cozy rooms. As I mentioned, our old house was not quite 1,900, but it used space much more efficiently than your typical colonial, so it felt bigger. It had only 7 rooms in those 1900 square feet, for one thing, and just one narrow hallway. Most of the colonials we looked at had 9 rooms and a center hallway + foyer downstairs in addition to a long (and often wide) one upstairs.

So I won't pretend that a colonial was my favorite style. There is much to disapprove of, with all that wasted space and relentless repetition. We got kind of excited when a non-colonial popped up for us to look at.

But I was also excited when I found our house. Here is my first recorded reaction to it, when I sent a message to my realtor after spotting it online:

Location is perfect, and it's huge. A foreclosure, right? If you have time, maybe we could run by this one this weekend, too?

It IS huge....just under 2900 square feet. And the location IS's in a neighborhood 2 minutes away from two very good friends and about a mile from the place where Gus does plays and Milo takes guitar....and a very reasonable commute for Dave (both at his old school and even more so at his current one). We can even walk to TWO different frozen yogurt/ice cream places!

And it was a foreclosure and well within our budget--much cheaper than most of the houses we'd looked at.

So we went to see it. I would like to say that I immediately knew it was the house for us. But I didn't. I liked it a lot. It had a lot of things wrong with it. Our realtor met us at the door with the greeting, "come see the indoor water feature!" and proceeded to show us a massive leak in the sunroom. It needed two new furnaces. There was stained carpet in all the bedrooms, non-functioning toilets, a deck that needed a lot of help...the list was and still is long. It had been sitting empty for nearly 2 years. But it also had a lot of updates/nice features that we hadn't seen much of in our price range like granite in the kitchen and hardwood floors everywhere except the bedrooms. And most of the things that you can't change were right: location, neighborhood (a small subdivision with no HOA, in a town that allows chickens, even!), a big lot (1/2 an acre), a full basement.

I think the main thing holding me back from fully embracing the Boxy Colonial at first sight was this not-a-colonial:

....we went to see it a few days later. I loved it, I really did. It had a beautiful yard. It had 5 bedrooms (TINY, except for the master). It had a basement. It was a rambly story and a half house with a giant screened porch. It was too far away from Dave's job. It was way too expensive. It sold nearly immediately for much more than we could have paid.

And THAT was when I fell in love. Suddenly we really, really wanted the Boxy Colonial. We wanted it so much and were so worried that we'd lose it (because it really was an AMAZING deal; I still can't believe we got it. I think the giant sunroom leak scared people off) that we put in an offer before we sold our old house, something we'd never intended to do.

But, after some frustrating dealings with Bank of America (who owned the house and neglected it utterly and completely--there were two liens on it by the time we put in an offer: one for unpaid water bills and one for never, ever mowing the lawn) and some nail biting about the house selling end of things, it was all worth it: we really do LOVE this house. Dave spent months just randomly bringing it up out of nowhere: "I really love this house."

So Happy Houseiversary to us and the Boxy Colonial....and many returns (because we're never moving again!)


  1. Happy housiversary! I love house stories and I love the way colonials look. We looked at a TON of them before we bought. Congrats on living in a home within a glowing aura of perfection!

    1. Non-colonials are tough to find around here!

  2. Happy houseiversary! We've been at our house a year and a half and Matt JUST started saying "I really love this house".... because maybe I bought it while he was at work one day. And maybe it was positively disgusting until I got my hands on it. haha.
    Glad you found the perfect abode!

  3. As I've told you before, we looked at your Boxy Colonial when it was on the market too. The location IS perfect. We were scared away with the amount of fixit projects it needed, but you clearly were meant for it-- look at what a difference you have made to that house!

    1. Thanks, Elaine! It really does (still) need a lot of I mostly just spend a lot of time in the finished dining room so I don't have to think about those parts ;)

  4. Happy houseiversary to you! What a riveting story. I was at the edge of my seat the whole time to see if you indeed did get the boxy colonial at the end. Phew... :) :) :)

    So happy you LOVE it! And that the indoor water feature has been fixed :)

    1. hee hee--I do like to keep people in suspense!

  5. Happy housiversary. I LOVE your house. It is beautiful and has the best classic curb appeal. You made a great choice. I'm also digging the new blog header :)

    1. Thanks, Kenz....I will probably tinker with it more, but it's a little more polished than the last one anyway, I think (hope!)


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