Help us decide!

michael_in_chicagoAugust 12, 2010

We have owned a small starter home (1100 sq. ft) in a fine neighborhood for 11 years. We've been wanting to move for a few years, and have been looking. We'd like a slightly larger house (2200 sq ft.?) and a lot more land (I garden, we grow a lot of our food).

We are in stable jobs, but our house criteria are very specific, so we haven't been in a hurry. We like contemporary houses, and what is in this area are more like colonials, victorians, etc. So we'd have to find a generic house (ranch, etc.) and redo it.

We also need sun in the yard for the garden, and many of the neighborhoods have mature oaks, hickories, etc. If it's on a neighbor's yard, you can do nothing about it, and many, many houses have been rejected due to the trees being in the wrong place (i.e., the north side would be great, as they wouldn't shade the yard much).

We also need to be near a public transportation stop, and are sensitive to noise, so are avoiding houses near or on busy roads.

We're well aware that this may take some time, and are more or less in no hurry. We're now in year 3 of looking, and have a place we've put an offer on, have had the inspection, and now are reconsidering. Talking to others has helped, and so has reading these threads, so I thought I'd throw out my own.

The house is slightly larger than we want/need (2800-3100 sq ft., we've seen both numbers). But a great piece of land. Neighborhood is great, but more suburban/distant neighbors than we're used to, so it feels odd to us. Neighbors on both sides are very nice, though.

House is old but in decent shape internally, though needs a new roof sooner than later, which we hadn't planned on doing until later. We'd planned with an architect to do the living spaces first (including mechanicals, electric, getting things up to code), then bed/bath areas, then roof.

Also, the bathrooms are from 1951, which was charming at first glance, but less so after the inspection (can we live with semi-functional toilets for 3 years? Or fix them?).

Also the cost - its difficult to get a real idea of a budget when it's not your house yet and there are no firm renovation plans, but we've taken high estimates, added to that, etc. and it will just stretch us for about 2 years. We think.

We're in our mid 40's, no kids. I know it's ultimately our decision but we keep going back and forth (especially after the roof).

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My first question would be what on earth are the two of you going to do with 3000 square feet of house besides heat it, cool it, clean it, and pay taxes on it?

I live in the chicago area and recently bought a 2000sqft home for my family of two adults, two children, two cats, and two dogs. (I just realized how Noah-ish that sounds). During our house search, I was so concerned that this place wouldn't be as big as I'd like in comparison to some of the larger homes we were looking at, but it all boils down to "usable space". This place has a great layout and even though it's got a fully finished basement and two living areas, we all still spend most of our time in just a couple of the rooms. When the kids aren't home the place seems like a deserted mansion to us.

As for "semi-functional" toilets...well, toilets are cheap. Cheap to fix, cheap to replace. What are the issues?

My advice would be to not pay for more house than you really need. I would much rather have a smaller house and pay to customize it to my likes and preferences than have to pay to paint, floor, and furnish rooms that I'll only ever walk past.

But, it has all your wish-list items, which seems a hard bundle to find. You'll have to weigh the importance of that yourself.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 12:56PM
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And, negative as this may sound, once you're over 40, each decade that passes makes you wish you had a smaller place because cleaning and maintaining just gets harder and physical 'conditions' are unpredictable. Boring, but true (been there).

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 2:23PM
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To Larke~~~ AMEN~~~~no truer words have been spoken!!...been there, done that also~

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 5:39PM
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Thanks for the replies; every point of view helps. We really don't want 3,000 sq. ft of space - we have been aiming for 2,000 or slightly larger. But in 2+ years of looking we've found 3 that mostly meet our criteria, and this is the most recent (the other 2 we finally decided weren't right for other reasons). So it seems to be a trade off for us.

The majority of the extra space is a family room/sun room which is quite large. The rest of the 4 BR/2 BA house seems nicely proportioned. Thanks for your help.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 5:57PM
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DH and I wanted a great lot in a great neighborhood with a southern exposure for the rear yard. We ended up doing a teardown after looking on and off for three years.

I don't know what your price range is, but there are MILLIONS of 50 X 100 lots in Chicago with dinkum houses on them -- do you see any teardown candidates? Is YOUR house a candidate? You could build the size house you want, have your sunny garden, and have a NEW house instead of trying to bring a 'too big' golden oldie up to snuff.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 6:04PM
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We're looking in the Evanston/Wilmette area where we live now, and there have been a few tear down possibilities, but they are obviously more expensive than renovations. Again, a trade off. Evanston has an especially high Demolition Fee of $10,000 for any residential structure, so that seems out of the question here for now!

I don't think I mentioned it before, but the advantage of this house is a very large lot, and I am a serious gardener, so it appeals a lot because of that. The neighborhood and schools are excellent and reselling would never be a problem. And my realtor just told me the sellers are willing to offer a credit equivalent to half of the roof replacement.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 6:13PM
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Buy it, unless you have another 3 years to find the next right one.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 7:10PM
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It's your decision.

3000 sq ft. for two people, in my opinion, is way, way overkill. It's just my partner and I in 1850 sq ft. and sometimes I struggle to keep it all clean and in order, and heating it costs enough in the winter. I can't imagine if it were larger!

When I hear about or talk to people that have specific needs, and it takes them years to find a home, I always think in my head, "Why the hel* don't they just build a new house on a piece of land?".

Your case is difficult because you need to be close to mass transit, but it could be doable. I know the City of Cleveland has lots for free if you agree to build on them.

You're going to regret having a 3,000 sq ft. house.

It seems that you guys know exactly what you want, which is fine. However, do realize that it is highly likely that you'll NEVER find "just the right" property unless you build your own home on a lot of your choice.

You should sit down and really crunch the numbers concerning a tear down, versus a new lot with new building, versus buying this house. I can't imagine a 3000 sq ft home in a good neighborhood is cheap by any stretch of the imagination. Who knows? For the same price, you could demolish an old dinkey house on a decent lot, build a new 1800-2100 sq ft. house, and voila.

And I do see that you say doing some of the renovations will be a stretch for the first 2 years. Why do it all at once? You can spread the expensive stuff out so you are not stretching your budget. It doesn't have to be perfect right away. And as long as your roof isn't leaking, you can put off that major expense for a couple years.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2010 at 8:27PM
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Well you can always reduce the size of a house too if you want to. Especially if it is something like a sun room that could be converted into a porch and then reduced in size, although I could imagine a sun room would be nice in a northern climate.

Also depending on the layout and size of the rooms you could always close the door to unused rooms and the sq ft you live with will be much less work to clean as it doesn't have to be done all the time. Also who knows where your interests lie or where you want to be when you retire so I wouldn't worry about the size from an aging perspective.

I would get the roof replaced soon though as it is always better to be pro-active in these areas and sometimes there can be small leaks that you don't see. It always ends up costing more if you wait to fix a roof until it leaks where you can see it. Then it generally isn't just the roof that needs replacing, but decking and of course fixing the damage from a leak.

Now the part that bothers me is the extensive re-modeling. Have you actually lived through this before. It can be quite taxing to never have order in your house while living there and always have a project you need to finish hanging over your head, when you'd much rather be out in the yard gardening - although I imagine you can't do that in the winter. Still there is something to be said for having things done and mostly completed when you move it.

If it were me having done both the remodel over 2 1/2 years and building - I'd do the building again, so what I would have done what others mention is found a tear down with a lot that worked for me and then built a house, even if it might cost more initially in the end it would have been worth it to me and a 3 year search for even a lot would have allowed me to save up more money towards the house.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 8:56AM
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On another note - a sun room might not be a bad idea from a gardening perspective - you might be able to use it to winter sow, and also have a tropical indoor garden and enjoy it during the non-gardening season in your area.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 8:58AM
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I agree with lyfia. Think of the possibilities for using the sunroom to over-winter out-of-zone ornamentals, and to start veggies and bedding annuals from seed in early spring.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 10:18AM
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Hello, Neighbor! Our 'starter house' was west of Hibbard, near Edens Plaza. Big lots; small 1950's houses.

When we wanted to move farther north we looked and looked and finally bought another 1950's ranch on a large lot. We planned to remodel it until a neighbor *who was an appraiser* encouraged us to tear down and build new. I'm so glad we did. We have an ALL-new house, the size we want. It's value is much greater than a partially-new, mostly-old house. We are money ahead overall -- and have needed zero repairs for 10 years.

I had never lived in a new house before -- with tight construction, efficient and quiet heating and cooling, new PLUMBING and ELECTRIC, etc. We're enjoying living in it, and enjoying the fact that our remodeled house would have been worth only slightly more than it was un-remodeled. Our new house is still worth more than we put into the land and building, even during this RE bust.

I urge you not to buy (or build) more house than you need. You'll be paying extra to repair, furnish, decorate and insure it. You'll be paying extra taxes on it.

How long will you stay in this house? More than ten years? Weigh the long term costs and benefits.

There are few houses I would consider remodeling and none I would camp out in during the year-plus it usually takes. (Historic homes deserve remodeling and preserving, but that expensive hobby is not for me!)

There's a myth that an old house is better built than a new one. That hinges on the new one being a cookie-cutter spec in a development. Most old houses are not as well built as *quality-built* new homes; they are just 'old'.

BTW, how's the market for selling your present home?

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 11:57AM
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Hmmmm. Tough one since you are very particular about what you want - nothing wrong with that - but I don't know of anyone who's ever found everything they want in one house. New or old - with the exception of building it yourself. Even then, I suspect that if you ask, custom home people will say they should/could have done things differently. It's my experience that most people compromise & live with the house a while before making expensive changes.

First, if you stick with this house, first up should be a new roof. That's a pretty important thing & I don't see how you could wait. It's the topping/protection for all the renovations you plan. If it continues to leak, all of your hard work & money will be affected.

Second, I'd look closely at the added expense of a larger house than you initially wanted. We recently sold our bigger primary residence & moved to a much smaller 2nd house we had purchased for eventual retirement. Everybody's financial situation is different, but it sure is nice paying less in utilities, tax & insurance!

Not sure about your area & the availabilty and affordability of a teardown, but I do agree with chisue - that new houses can be great. Years ago we renovated a very old farmhouse. Took 2.5 years of living thru mess after mess - but the end result was great, comfortable & full of character. When we moved to the house we just sold, it was new & we had real doubts that we would like it. It was the area & lot we really liked - so we compromised. That said, it was well built with tons of closets & plugs & we didn't have any repairs or issues while we were there. A big switch from the old house & a nice surprise.

Good luck & please keep us posted about what you decide. Pictures of this house would be great, too, if you feel like sahring.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 12:31PM
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I bought my property (farm) because of the land and knew I could deal with the house.

I was very specific in what I needed for the land because I wanted to start a daylily nursery. The property I bought had been a horse farm with 5 acres cleared, 15 acres of woods, 3/4 acre pond behind the house which I needed to water my gardens, and various outbuildings I knew I would need.

The house was in need of a lot of work, which I have managed to do gradually during the past 13+ years I have lived there ... emphasis on gradually!

I LOVE my property and now LOVE my house ... and yes, by the time I finished the house is much bigger than I need but I can close off sections so I don't have to heat them in the winter.

So, in my opinion, if you have found the land you really like ... buy it and slowly deal with the house. It worked out well for me ... I purchased my property when I was 38 years old and plan on dying in this house ... my forever home.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 1:30PM
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I appreciate the additional responses. The encouragement to tear down and build an appropriately sized home registers with us. This would be more expensive, but much more controllable.

The number of red flags during the inspection made us re-examine the comps and we just believe the price we'd agreed to was far too high, so we're terminating the agreement. Chisue, the house was near you (or where you were), near the intersection of Hibbard and Winnetka Rd.

Thanks for your help. This thread plus friends and family helped breath a little wisdom into our confusion.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 1:44PM
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Sorry for your realtor and seller, but glad for YOU!

You've said you prefer contemporary. You probably already know this, but they are a hard sell. If you buy an existing one, many were poorly constructed -- all 'style' and little practicality! (Ask the Wright owners in Oak Park.)

Still, if that's what you want and you will live there a long time, go for it. I'd find a good 'gardening' lot with a nothing house on it where you can tear down and build new.

Since you are childless, you might want to look where the schools are not tip-top -- as they are in the New Trier area where you are looking.

Hmmm...that sparks a thought about big lots and small, inexpensive homes in an *unincorporated* area where you'd have no big teardown fees: Northfield, in the Avoca school district, bordering the forest preserve. Oh well, you've probably already thought of THAT!

I was going to go on to mention the Village of Golf -- poorly rated schools.

There are still all those lots IN Chicago itself with dinkum houses...??? Edison Park? Norwood Park? There have been a LOT of foreclosures and short sales. Maybe you don't want to be in the City.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2010 at 5:43PM
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In thinking about remodeling older houses (say mid-1980s and before) you also need to think carefully about things like lead paint and asbestos. The presence of these things (which is common) can vastly increase your cost of remodeling.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2010 at 10:52PM
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we are basically rebuilding a house here in NY, I think it was the best solution for us as most of the houses that were nice, people wanted an outsized fortune for, and those that were big enough were all pricey for being in such bad shape. So we bought a small house in a great spot and took it down basically to the foundation.

it does work for us, we're still in the thick of it, but we are definately seeing cost overruns from the budget, and ultimately since we made the budget and we are the general contractors on the deal, its us that is on the hook for it. We accept that, if we had a turnkey remodel, we would have paid more. Its a real danger on remodeling to run up a large tab due to the costs that are underbudgeted, unexpected, or overinduldged.

    Bookmark   August 16, 2010 at 5:17PM
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Chisue, we had friends who raised their kids in Golf. That is a really lovely suburb, or it was way back when with nicely wooded, large lots, etc.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2010 at 5:41PM
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"I urge you not to buy (or build) more house than you need. You'll be paying extra to repair, furnish, decorate and insure it. You'll be paying extra taxes on it. "

Good advice.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 11:54AM
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sheilajoyce -- We looked there while we rented a townhome in Glenview. DH took the train from the Golf station. It was a cute little place. I think most of the revenue came from the lone cop ticketing people driving faster than you could walk! We finally decided there was no 'there' there. LOL

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 12:19PM
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Given your age, you might consider a smaller home rather than wait till your 50;s to downsize. I had smaller homes then upgraded to this home, 2200 sq ft, but once the kids are gone, I want a smaller home to save on costs, maintenance. Also, don't under estimate the "repairs" to an older home.

    Bookmark   September 4, 2010 at 6:29PM
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I appreciate the responses. We decided against this house, mostly because of its size. On with the search!

    Bookmark   September 5, 2010 at 7:16AM
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You know what we did when we were searching. I posted an "wanted" ad on Craigslist for the home size, location and got 6 responses from people considering selling their homes but had not listed them yet. There are people out there, older usually, widow etc..that just need a "nudge" and might not want to pay a realtor to list their home to save the cost which for some retired people is a big deal. You might get one of those people and just hire a real estate lawyer to handle the paperwork. Just a thought...

    Bookmark   September 5, 2010 at 2:52PM
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