A Frugal Dad reader (Tracy) recently wrote to get my opinion on a housing dilemma she and her husband find themselves in. To summarize, the couple recently relocated to be closer to both their jobs and bought a “fixer-upper” that turns out to need more work than they originally thought. The purchase was made a bit hastily because their home sold quickly and the buyer wanted to take ownership in just three weeks. With buyer’s remorse setting in, and the couple finding themselves quickly outgrowing their space, they are wondering if a remodel/expansion is in order, or if they should try to find something else to buy (which is difficult given the options in their immediate vicinity).
I asked for Tracy’s permission to post her story here and allow Frugal Dad readers to offer their advice. I’ve provided my response below her original email, and hope you will do the same in the comments section.
I have a burning question that ties in with a topic you’ve touched on before; your advice was, (I think I remember this correctly): When purchasing a home, “buy a starter home and stay there.” In our situation, our starter home was in a small, suburban tract community about 40 minutes away from my work and an about an hour from my husband’s. Throw in some heinous weekday commuter traffic and a couple of daycare stops (after a couple of years) and we decided we were spending way too much of our lives in vehicles. So, we purchased a 30-yr-old fixer much closer to our places of work and now our commutes are down to about 20 minutes each, one way. Right now, that’s about the only good thing we can say about the place!
We sold our first home much quicker than anticipated, and our buyers were relocating and really wanted to be in our home in three weeks. So we had to find a home and move in very little time. We’d narrowed down our choices to two houses in the same neighborhood. We made an offer on one, a sprawling ranch with an open layout that we both loved. The inspection came back with structural damage, as well as a number of other costly items; the seller was not willing to negotiate the price to offset fixing the items, nor was she willing to fix them, so we rescinded our offer. The other home came back with a clean inspection, but had many cosmetic issues such as 30-yr-old green shag carpet, layers and layers of floral wallpaper, etc.
Now, three years later, we’ve made a few updates but still have a long way to go. The kitchen, which I thought was “quaint” when we were under the gun to find shelter, is actually barely functional and doesn’t really meet our needs as a family of four. It has one operating drawer for utensils, and only about six cabinets for dishes, pots, pans and food. There is no pantry.
The huge yard with lots of flowering shrubs (mostly azaleas) was a big plus when we were buying the place, but last summer they contracted a disease and promptly died, leaving us with gaping holes in the yard after mercifully putting them out of their misery earlier this year. There are also drainage issues with the property that we’ve been told would cost about $3500 to correct. Also, our minivan barely fits in the narrow one-car driveway, and when people stop by to visit–forget it. We’re forever moving vehicles to prevent blocking someone in.
The other items add up to about $14,000 in repairs/upgrades: Painting or removing the dark paneling in the den, replacing the green carpet with hardwoods or laminate, adding a freestanding pantry to the kitchen, replacing cracked tile in the bathrooms, replacing a cracked shower door, widening the driveway, etc.
We’ve only been there three years, so we don’t have a lot of equity to tap into for a second mortgage, nor do we want the added expense. Our current mortgage is about $1300. The average cost of homes in the neighborhood is around $190,000 (up from $165,000 when we bought the place). Most of the homes for sale in the neighborhood are about the same age with virtually no upgrades; ones that are fully updates go for much more, around $250,000, which is out of our price range. Newer homes in our range are generally about 30-40 minutes away, which would put us back at square one.
What do you recommend? My husband is reluctant to move, knowing that it’s a stressful ordeal, and often costly, even if the new mortgage ends up being less than what we’re currently paying. Thanks for any help!
Tracy, your story is probably not that uncommon from others around the country. I’ve known people who have taken on “fixer-uppers” for a variety of reasons and suddenly they find themselves without the motivation or means to continue. It’s a cautionary tale for taking on such projects, but you are here now, so let’s consider your options.
I guess my first question would be how much of the “cosmetic” issues could you live with, in the short term? Ugly carpet, a narrow driveway, and paneling in need of paint are certainly not ideal, but far from untenable. I’d recommend prioritizing these jobs and saving for them in a dedicated savings account. Things like drainage issues and leaky shower doors should be a priority as they can lead to further damage, while cosmetic items can be prioritized much lower.
Depending on how handy you and your husband are, perhaps some of the work can be done yourselves. House painting is a relatively low-cost project that can make dramatic changes to a space without much investment, assuming you don’t have to pay a paint crew to do the work. I’m not particularly good with flooring and tile work, so I’d probably have to hire someone for those projects. Ask around at work or at church to see if you can find someone reputable to do the work, or perhaps find a colleague who would like to tackle the project on the side.
Basically, my advice is to move slowly. What’s gotten many of us into trouble as a consumer society is impatience – the need for instant gratification. It sounds like you aren’t interested in taking on new debt, and that’s a good thing. Stick to that! It will take longer to make these repairs if you have to save up the cash, but at least you will own your new driveway, new floor and additional pantry, outright.
For the benefit of other readers, this is a good example of why I stress that there is no shame in renting. I’m not sure it was even an option in Tracy’s case, but assuming her and her husband had rented for six months to a year they could have bought some time to fully explore all available options before buying their next home. What would be your advice to Tracy and her husband?