The Starter Home

A Realtor's Reflection on how to Get from Starter Home to Dream Home

As I begin to wrap up a big batch of home renovation projects (like installing a new kitchen floor and refinishing the hardwood floors), I can't help but look around at the rest of my home and think... If I only could replace that counter top! My original 1950's counter top would be fantastic, if it weren't for the stains and faded patches. Oh, and then there's the bathroom, remodeled in the 80's with the cheapest, tackiest fixtures you could imagine. And now that I think of it, the storm doors are starting to look a little drab... Geez, how is it that I'm still working on this house, anyway?!

I've made many improvements during the past three years; but sometimes, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. I start to dream about that renovated bungalow on Rutledge, or the funky mid-century ranch on Crestwood; why couldn't I have bought something like that -- something that was beautifully restored and move-in ready? Then I remember -- as a first-time buyer, I couldn't afford any of those homes!

As a Realtor, buying my first home was not nearly as exciting as it should have been. I see homes at both ends of the spectrum every day: from the $100,000 handyman special, to the $950,000 lakefront beauty. I really get to know the homes I show and sell, so setting out to purchase my first home, for me, was more frustrating than fun -- it's hard not to feel a little house envy from time to time. I was prepared though -- I had my pre-approval letter, so I knew exactly how much I could spend, and I had my wish list: 3+ bedrooms, Near East Madison, etc., etc. But, at my price point, my options were slim; there was precisely one home that met my criteria. While it needed a lot of work, it had plenty of drool-worthy features: original wood shake siding, spacious rooms, tons of southern facing windows, plus it was right next to the bike path, ice rink, and lake. I wrote the offer immediately, and we countered back and forth. When my final counter-offer was enthusiastically rejected by the seller, I was nearly in tears and ready to give up.

Luckily, I had a couple of people to talk some sense into me. They were quick to remind me that the rental I was living in was up for sale, so I needed a place to live, and moving to another rental felt like a step in the wrong direction. And, they pointed out, because it was my first home -- my "starter home" -- I couldn't expect it to meet all of my wishes and desires; they basically told me all of those things I tell homebuyers every day.

Thank goodness they did. After a short period of mourning, I got back out there; I tweaked my criteria, looked at homes a little smaller, with a little less character, and a little farther out. Once I stepped into the home that I wound up making my own, I was glad I didn't rule it out based on the online listing (I almost canceled the showing). The house was homely from the outside, it was in a neighborhood that I wasn't completely excited about, the street was a little busy, and the bedrooms were a bit snug. But once I stepped foot into the house, my whole perception changed. Sure, the carpets were worn and dated, and the kitchen was an eyesore, but it had its redeeming qualities, like the arched doorways, large living room, and cute backyard.

I bought the house and never looked back. I've made a lot of improvements, like retrofitting cabinetry to install a dishwasher, refinishing the original cabinetry, converting a three season room into a bedroom, and sprucing up the front with contrasting paint colors and a little landscaping. While there's still more to do, it feels like home. I've grown to love the neighborhood, making friends I wouldn't have otherwise met; and while the street is a little busy, it doesn't bother me one bit.

If you've considered buying a home this year, and you're “sitting on the fence”, I urge you to reconsider your wishlist -- you may be happy you did. Interest rates are creeping up, and while the days of 30 year fixed rates under 4% may be gone, you can still lock in a great rate, and stabilize your living expenses. Something else to keep in mind is that home prices are finally appreciating; we saw the bottom of the market, and have been experiencing appreciation for four or five months, so this is a perfect time to find a great starter home while prices are starting to climb.

I think about how defeated I felt, losing out on that first house, how close I was to renting for another year, and am SO grateful that I had people there urging me to be more open-minded in my search. Sure, the house isn't everything I wanted, but my monthly mortgage, interest, and taxes are far less than I would be paying for a comparable rental, and it's mine to do whatever I wish -- have a pet, paint my living room green and orange, host dinner parties in the backyard, provide a long-term home for my family; things you just can't put a price on. And then there's the equity that I'm building, so when I'm ready, I can buy that fully renovated 1930's charmer near the lake.

If you have a similar story to share about your starter home, don't be shy, we would love to hear about it!