Thursday, November 15, 2012

It Wasn't Supposed to be the Transitional House! It Was Supposed to be the One!

Three years ago, my wife and I sold our first home, where we had lived since 2003. We loved that house.

It was a white colonial with a big, open kitchen, an enormous backyard, and a wrap-around country porch. The lot backed up to a large tract of land, part of a common area for the neighboring subdivision, that will never be developed. The downstairs had a great flow to it and made it seem larger than it actually was. Over the years, we put in new windows, new HVAC, some new appliances. It was home. You hear me. It was the place you wanted to be when everything else has gone to shit. The place you want to eat the Chinese food and watch The Sopranos on DVD.

The only problem was that the upstairs was about the size of a paperback book and with the addition of a second child, we decided we could use a fourth bedroom so we could have a dedicated office/guest-room space. We also wanted a neighborhood with a little bit more of a community feel to it -- as much as we loved our house, in all the years we lived there, we progressed to more than a hello-in-passing with only one neighbor. And it seemed like our kids (then 4 and 1) were the only ones under the age of 12 in the entire subdivision.

We put the house on the market in May 2009, and it sold in six days for close to asking price. Remember, this was when the housing market was in total shambles, which should tell you something about how nice a little house it was.

Selling that house broke my heart a little (actually a LOT), but we felt like it was time to move on and find the house we'd spend a decade or more in.

So with our house under contract, we started looking for a new home in the spring of 2009. We wrote an offer on one promising place, but within an hour, I started to regret it. Namely, we thought the kitchen was too small. Other things about it that seemed acceptable earlier that afternoon suddenly seemed mind-blowingly terrible. We pulled the offer before the sellers, who, luckily for us, were out of town, had a chance to accept. With the panic of pulling the offer still fresh in our minds, we saw a second house in a neighborhood we liked the very next day. 

It SEEMED like the right house (which I started calling Winterfell from Game of Thrones, since one of the home's previous owners’ was named Stark). The house showed well. It was (and still is) a very fine house, well-built, no issues. It was in a great neighborhood with lots of young families, running paths, a clubhouse, and a pool. Great school district. And we gained the extra bedroom that we wanted. There was a trade-off, though. A kitchen with a much different layout that I was used to, and a far smaller yard on a less private lot. But after six years of mowing a huge yard, I was ready for a smaller one.

Or so I thought.

We put in an offer that afternoon, which the sellers happily accepted. It passed inspection, and there were just a few things we asked the sellers to fix, which they readily agreed to. And I never felt that twinge of buyers' regret like I felt with the house we pulled the offer on. But the weird thing was, as the weeks ticked by toward closing, not only did I not feel any regret, I didn’t really think much about the new house at all. I was very busy at work, and I was struggling with the mind-blowing pain of a herniated disk in my neck. And I was having a hard time letting go of the first house. I REALLY didn’t like the idea that someone else was going to be living in my house. I kept thinking about all the great times we'd had there.

Moving day arrived. Everything went smoothly. And just like that, there we were, in the new place.

Within a couple days of moving in, something started to nag at me. A sense of unease. Little things I hadn't thought through began to haunt me. The layout bothered me. .And guess who doesn't like small yards? Small kids! Eventually, I started to wonder if we'd bought the wrong house for our family. But I kept quiet. My wife seemed to like it, and I didn’t want to rock the boat. I hoped the feeling would pass, that it would just take a little time to get over moving out of our first home. After all, the house itself was fine. Nothing physically wrong with it. Plenty of space. And it was in a fantastic neighborhood. I was being unreasonable, right?

But the feeling didn’t pass. In fact, it grew stronger. I'd wake up early and lie in bed, wondering how I was going broach the subject with my wife. Would she kill me quickly, or would she make me suffer? A few months later, I finally admitted to her that I didn’t like the house and didn't see us living there long-term. Not the most joyous conversation we've ever had. But the damndest thing happened. She agreed with me. Renovation wasn’t an option -- the configuration of the house wasn’t conducive to a renovation job that we could ever have afforded. And I longed for my large private backyard.

And so we waited. And saved. And kept the place spruced up, not with an eye on making it more ours, but on getting ready for the day we'd put it on the market. We put in some carpeting. We put in a new HVAC system, which killed me to do, since I wasn't planning to be around for most of its useful life. And we watched interest rates and home values continue to drop, wondering which one would have the biggest impact on our decision.

Finally, in March of this year, we put Winterfell on the market and began looking for a new house. This time, we were ready. We made a long list of every single thing we’d liked and disliked about both homes we’d owned. (You'd think we would've done this when we bought Winterfell, right? Oops). It took six weeks this time, but Winterfell finally sold for a price we could live with. And we found ourselves in the same position that we’d been in three years earlier. House sold. No prospects on the horizon. But we refused to let ourselves panic. We were ready to move to an apartment if need be. No way were we going through this ever again.

About three weeks later, on our way to another showing, we stumbled across a house in our price range in one of our target neighborhoods that had just gone on the market a few hours earlier; it hadn't even gone into the big MLS database yet. It looked really promising. Our agent got us in to look at it that evening. The downstairs was spectacular – everything I could’ve hoped for. Awesome kitchen. Screened-in porch, a deck, AND a patio. Huge family room with a wood-burning fireplace (which we’d had at our first home, and had given up for a gas fireplace at Winterfell – for God’s sake, Winter is Coming!). The yard, huge and private. A quiet cul de sac. The same school district for the kids. Plus a bunch of other features I couldn’t believe we’d found in our price range. And the house had obviously been immaculately cared for.

Then we went upstairs, simply hoping it was half as good as the downstairs. Quite frankly, unless the upstairs had been engulfed in flames while we were there, I was ready to buy. And the upstairs was just as nice as the downstairs. We went down our super-obsessive list, and the house passed every test. We made an offer on the house that night, and it was accepted the next day (on one of my kids’ birthdays). As it turned out, we had a connection to the sellers – I had briefly worked with the woman in 2010. I didn’t get to know her very well before she left for another job, but she was very nice, and exactly the kind of person you’d want to buy a house from.

We closed on both houses a few months ago (on my other kid’s birthday), and the difference is like night and day. For one thing, I spent the month leading up to closing terrified that either our sale or our purchase would fall apart. Quite a bit different than 2009, when I didn't really think about the transaction at all. I freaking love this new house. It felt like home the minute the moving truck groaned its way out of our neighborhood, leaving us alone there for the first time.

We did make two sacrifices for this house, although I'm realizing that they're far less of an issue than I thought they might have been. First, we don't have a fenced-in yard for the first time in a decade. This means taking our dog out on the leash, but it also means immediate poop cleanup.

Second, we don't have a garage, which we had at Winterfell (but didn't have in the first house). But we rarely parked in the garage. Maybe a few dozen times in three years. And I never found myself wanting for one when we were in the market in 2009. It just so happened that Winterfell had one. And with each passing day, I grow more and more convinced we made the right call, just as with each passing day in Winterfell, I became more confident we'd made the wrong call.

I do feel bad that things didn’t work out with our now-former house. Buying and selling a house is a hell of a big deal, financially, emotionally, and mentally, and going through it much, much sooner than we’d anticipated made it that much harder. Especially since we'd been hoping to make it our long-term family home. Part of me wonders if it would’ve been impossible for any house to measure up to our first house. After all, that’s the one we brought our kids home to from the hospital. It’s where we spent our first anniversary. It’s where we hosted our first big Thanksgiving.

Don’t get me wrong, our family thrived at Winterfell. I made great strides in my writing career. My wife was promoted at work and continues to be a superstar. My kids are doing well (and truthfully, kids don’t seem to care too much where they live). We loved the neighborhood. We had fantastic neighbors, and I will miss the dads’ crew at the morning school bus stop.

But I can’t help but think that Winterfell was a rebound, a transitional house, something to bridge the gap between our beloved first house, and the one that I hope will be our family’s legacy home. Winterfell was fine, it served its purpose, but it was never quite home. I never became attached to it.

(Yes, I realize I’m writing about first-world problems here, so SHUT UP. NO YOU SHUT UP!)

Have you moved a lot? Have you ever moved much sooner than you originally planned? Do you believe in the idea of a rebound house?

2 comments:

  1. My wife and son and I live in an absolutely microscopic dwelling that we would love to get the hell out of, but because of money factors — we don't make enough, plus prices in our area are outlandish — we will be here for at least another fifteen years, if not more. As our son grows into his teen years, this is becoming more and more of a problem.

    But what are you gonna do? If there's no money, there's no money and if there are no reasonably priced houses, then there are no reasonably priced houses. It's going to suck (more) to live here the longer we stay, but it's our fate. Consider yourself very, very lucky.

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  2. Indeed we were lucky. We also had the saving grace of living in a very reasonably priced market, and scoring a very low interest rate.

    I just can't get over how stupid we were the last time out. I obsess over even minor purchases, and we bought that second house with barely a second thought as to whether it was right for our family. You'd think that the being homebody I am, I'd never make a mistake so colossal in this arena.




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