Homeownership + History
I’m over at Porch.com today, sharing some important questions to ask yourself during your house hunt! For us, homeownership wasn’t just about buying a house, but also about joining a neighborhood community.
Doing some in-depth research to find a location that would support our young family’s lifestyle helped us discover a great neighborhood that’s been perfect for us.
How did you decide where to live? What do you like about your neighborhood, and what would you change about it?
Today we’re sharing the story of how the Rather Square house became our home!
While buying a house is a different process for everyone, we wanted to talk about our own experience with this major life event, since we feel like we learned so much along the way that might help others who are considering a home purchase. You’ve read a brief account of our house hunt before, but below is the detailed story of our journey to home ownership. It involves an equal balance of uncertainty, frustration, and discouragement with hope, perseverance, and a little sprinkling of luck.
This story begins a few years ago, when John and I were living in a two-bedroom rental apartment on Chicago’s north side with our new baby daughter E. While we really liked our urban neighborhood, we didn’t see ourselves staying in the city permanently. We dreamed of buying a house someday in a good community where we could settle and grow roots. But we wanted to stay near Chicago as well, to be close to our jobs and our families.
One area we both really liked was the village of Oak Park, a suburb just outside Chicago’s city limits. It’s not an inexpensive place to live, but the schools are excellent, and it’s a very active and tight-knit community. And its rich historical and cultural background fascinated us (Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway were famous Oak Parkers).
It also has multiple mass transit options (one commuter train line and two branches of Chicago’s public transit system) for getting to and from the city easily.
It sounded like a good fit for us, but we wanted to be sure before committing to buying property there. So we found a two-bedroom apartment to rent within walking distance of Oak Park’s lively downtown district and signed a one-year lease. This way, we could spend some time getting to know the area and exploring our surroundings without feeling like we were locked in permanently.
We chose our rental apartment for its location near the center of the village, because we initially thought we’d want to settle in that neighborhood. But during the year we lived in that apartment, we came to the conclusion that while we loved Oak Park, we wanted to be in a different area of the village. Being close to the downtown district – within walking distance of major shops and businesses – turned out to be not a high priority for us, and more of a hassle than an advantage, with difficult parking and traffic. We realized that we ultimately wanted a quieter neighborhood to settle in. And since Oak Park is only about 5 miles square overall, we could drive or bike anywhere in the village in a matter of minutes from wherever we chose to live.
As our one-year lease came to a close, we debated if we should continue renting or take the plunge into homebuying. And then we were informed by our landlady that she would not be offering us a lease renewal – she was planning to rent our apartment to family instead. This brought our musings about buying a house into sharp focus. With home prices and mortgage rates at an all-time low, it seemed like the optimal time to buy. We’d already been scoping out affordable listings in more residential areas, and there seemed to be a lot of properties with potential in family-friendly neighborhoods.
But our timeline was short – we had three months before our apartment lease was up to find a house, go through the financing and closing process, and move in. I didn’t know if we could pull it off (and even our realtor was crossing her fingers). If we didn’t find a house in time, we’d have to move into a short-term rental in the interim – something we were definitely trying to avoid.
Over the next three weeks, we went to many open houses and viewed a lot of properties. At first, it was discouraging because the houses we liked were out of our price range, and those that we could afford were generally in need of serious repairs that we didn’t feel we could take on. 75% of the homes in Oak Park were built before 1960, and many of them still have original features that sometimes haven’t been maintained well or updated to modern standards or building codes. With a young child and two full-time jobs, we didn’t want to take on immediate major renovations. Our house had to be livable while we worked on any updates a little at a time on our own.
We did see a few places that seemed to have good potential. We made an offer on a ranch house with a full basement, but were outbid. Looking back, that particular house had an awkward layout (like kids’ rooms off the kitchen) that would have been problematic for us, so it was good that we didn’t get it. Then, another house we initially liked (a two-story house on a cul-de-sac) went under contract before we had a chance to bid. But that was another “not meant to be for us” home – it would have needed all the electrical and the windows replaced, and the location was not ideal for our needs. Neither of these homes felt quite right.
Seeing all these “not quite right” homes was discouraging, but it actually helped us get a good feel for the local housing market and what kind of home we could realistically expect to find in our budget. Still, our available window to find a “just right” house was closing fast, and we were getting nervous. I started checking out short-term rentals as a backup plan.
Then John found a listing for an upcoming open house that looked interesting. The list price was a little high, but the property had a lot of promise – great location, hardwood floors, landscaped yard, workable kitchen. The open house was scheduled for the following weekend, but we contacted our realtor and asked to see it before then.
As soon as we walked into this house, we knew it was the one. While it was just as old as many of the other houses we’d seen, we could see that this home had been loved and taken care of over its lifetime. It needed repainting and and other updates – projects we could mostly take on ourselves – but no major renovations right away. It wasn’t perfect – the main floor lacked a bathroom, the garage looked a little shaky, the kitchen was outdated, and the carpeting was old and worn. But it seemed structurally sound and the floor plan layout was ideal. It felt like a natural fit for us.
We made an offer that afternoon because we knew that the upcoming open house would probably attract other interested parties, and we didn’t want to miss this chance. We even wrote the seller a letter introducing ourselves and telling her why we wanted to buy her house. The next morning, we got wonderful news – our offer had been accepted!
We went under contract and began the closing process immediately. Luck was on our side – we had less than 90 days between our offer being accepted and our apartment lease ending, but we were able to get everything squared away within that timeframe. Our home inspection went pretty smoothly as well – while a few concerns came up (like the deteriorating condition of the garage, the old furnace, the outdated electrical wiring), there were no glaring red flags that would make us walk away. The house was in great shape for its age and had been relatively well-maintained over the years.
On closing day, we signed a lot of papers and got the keys to our new home. But we didn’t move in right away. We wanted to get some larger tasks out of the way while the house was still empty (so we wouldn’t have to live amongst the mess). So we packed our furniture into a portable storage unit, crashed with our families nearby, and spent the first twelve days of home ownership tackling several house projects.
Some of the things we worked on in those first twelve days were:
- painting over red and yellow walls in the living room, dining room/office, entryway and hallway
- painting over peach walls in the master bedroom and kids’ bedrooms
- removing wallpaper
- fixing the electrical and asbestos issues
- tearing out the old red carpet and installing new carpet
- painting the wood paneling in the playroom
- customizing the built-in bookcase
And of course, since those first twelve days, we’ve taken on many many many more home improvements, DIY projects, room renovations, appliance and system upgrades, landscaping, and a variety of other house-related updates. We’re keeping track of all this on our House Tour page, if you want to follow along.
Almost two years after our home ownership journey began, we’re still so happy with the outcome and our 92-year-old “new-to-us” house. We definitely feel like we ended up with the home we were meant to have. It’s far from perfect and we’ve got at least 20 years worth of projects on our to-do list… but we’re having fun making it our own.
Hopefully sharing our house buying story will help others – it can be an intimidating process, but we survived, and even feel like we gained a better appreciation (no pun intended!) for home ownership along the way. It’s a big investment of time, money, energy, sweat, and patience… but (for us, at least) it was all worth it.
For more of our thoughts on how to choose a neighborhood that’s right for you, check out my article on Porch.com!
Do you have your own home ownership story, or any advice based on your particular experience? Maybe you’re thinking about buying your first home and have more questions about what’s involved? Please share in the comments below. Thanks!
As you know, we’ve been slowly renovating our 1920s house for over a year now, doing most of the work ourselves. Throughout this process, we’ve discovered some fascinating hidden treasures that may provide clues to how our house was originally decorated and used. So we thought we’d share a round-up of some of the strange-but-cool things we’ve come across!
Bathroom tile and stamped plaster
As we were working on our budget bathroom update project, John removed the access panel to the bathtub plumbing at one point (which is located in our linen closet). In the space behind and between the walls, he found a few interesting remnants of past renovations.
It looks like our bathroom once had a hexagon tile floor and a stamped plaster wall. We’re not sure if these elements were original to the house when it was built in 1922, but it’s a good bet since those features were common back then.
Since we want to redo the bathroom floor one day (right now it’s covered in an ugly cheap-looking vinyl tile), these finds are inspiring us. We had been considering installing cork floor tile, but maybe we’ll go the hexagon route to bring the bathroom back to its origins?
The previous owner mentioned to us that there had been wallpaper in most of the rooms when she bought the house in the 1990s, and she had removed it and painted instead (red, yellow, and peach). So only a few walls still had wallpaper (the dining nook and the entryway and stairs) when we moved in. In the course of our renovations, we’ve found evidence of old wallpaper, but we’re not sure when it was used.
I mentioned in an earlier post that we had found some red-and-green wallpaper pieces in the living room, as well as some nautical-themed wallpaper scraps in two of the upstairs bedrooms. Were previous owners using these bedrooms for children, like we are? Seems likely.
When we were moving things into our kitchen, we also got a glimpse of what that room may have looked like decades ago. We know that the wall of pantry cabinets isn’t original to the house – they were added sometime in the last 20 years. But before this wall was built out with the cabinets, it must have been wallpapered, because we found evidence of it way back inside some of the cabinets and behind a connecting bulkhead.
Looks like there were actually a few layers of wallpaper back there – a global-themed herb-and-spice pattern (with metallic glitter accents!) on top, along with a couple of others peeking out behind that. Again, we don’t know how old any of it is, but the “spice” wallpaper evokes the 1950s-1960s to me. What do you think?
It’s kind of fun to envision what these wallpapered rooms may have looked like once upon a time!
Glass bottle in plaster
John was re-plastering our basement walls recently and came across this strange piece of glass embedded in the old plaster.
Someone must have put a glass bottle in the plaster when the house was being built. Was a worker taking a beer break during the building of the foundation? Was it a remnant of the Prohibition era? We’ll never know.
National Geographic maps
When we were customizing and painting the built-bookcase in our living room, I found these old National Geographic maps stuck behind the drawers – they must have fallen back there at some point and been forgotten.
They’re dated 1978 and feature historical details and geography of the Middle East. I’m pretty sure the people that owned our house in 1978 did a lot of traveling, so it’s not surprising they’d have these maps around. I wonder if they ever ended up taking a trip to this area of the world?
As John was starting to dig up our front yard and take out the giant yew bushes, he found this plastic figurine buried upside down in the dirt. He took it out, cleaned it up, and realized it was a tiny statue of St. Joseph.
We thought it was kind of funny and kitschy, and had no idea why someone would bury it in the front yard. But a quick Internet search revealed this interesting factoid: burying a figurine of St. Joseph in your yard is supposed to help sell your house!
Apparently this practice was common in the 1980s and 1990s, but our house wasn’t for sale during that time period. It changed owners in the 1950s and then not again until the 2000s, and then we bought it in 2013. So our best guess is that St. Joseph was put in the ground for the 2000s listing. Well, it worked!
Have you discovered any weird/interesting/historical items around your house? Tell us in the comments!
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Today I want to wax poetic for a bit about the importance of having an emergency fund when you’re a homeowner.
Actually, most financial experts (if not all) will tell you that EVERYONE needs to have an emergency fund, regardless of whether or not they own a home. An emergency fund is simply an account where you save a certain amount of cash to be used for unexpected life expenses. It’s something that you can access easily if you need to, and use to pay for large necessary purchases without incurring credit card or other debt (and therefore additional interest costs).
There are different arguments for how much you should have saved in an emergency fund (anywhere from $500 to a year’s worth of living expenses/salary), but the basic idea is to have something set aside for those times when a sudden financial emergency occurs so you can be prepared. (For more reading on this subject, check out these articles from Get Rich Slowly, Kiplinger’s and GoGirl Finance.)
When you own an old home like we do, having an emergency fund is even more important. During our home inspection, even though our house is in relatively good condition for its age and had been well-maintained over the years, the inspector pointed out several issues that would be expensive to address. Our garage, for example. Even though it has a new roof, it’s not as structurally sound as it could be, and the cement floor is heaving due to old tree roots underneath.
The inspector also pointed out that our furnace was very old and would probably need to be replaced sooner than later. And the electrical system throughout the house was a mixed bag of wiring and grounding and circuitry, and would have to be updated as soon as possible.
John and I had been saving money toward future house expenses even before we bought our house. We strive to live as debt-free as we can, and our practice has been to to actively put a certain amount each month (we even have an automatic deposit set up so that we don’t forget) into an all-purpose savings account. We’ve been able to fall back on this cash reserve in the past – for example, during my income-less maternity leave, and when John was laid off from his job while we were engaged – so we know how valuable cash savings can be.
With some of the money in our savings fund, we were able to address some of the house’s inspection-report issues right away, such as having the electrical and asbestos problems fixed.
We also replaced things like the non-working dishwasher, the worn and germy carpet, and the old laundry machines that came with the house. But other things we decided to try and live with as long as possible, such as the old but still-working furnace and the old but still-standing garage.
While we also did a lot of cosmetic improvements to the house after closing, we were very mindful of being frugal with these updates and holding onto as much cash as possible in the event that something bigger and unexpected might happen. To keep expenses in check, we did all the painting ourselves, DIY customized our built-in bookcase, and bought secondhand furniture. John even installed a security system, smart thermostat and humidifier himself.
By being frugal and thoughtful with our lifestyle, we were able to build up a pretty healthy amount of savings in our emergency account. And then recently, that emergency account suddenly became ever so necessary. One cold winter night last week, our furnace broke down. And the next day we found out it couldn’t be repaired and we’d have to pay for a whole new system.
Among our first reactions to this news: “Thank God we have an emergency fund!” Heating and cooling systems are not cheap, and it’s not a project you should DIY or skimp on. These systems cost a fair bit of money because they are integral to your home’s wellbeing. You could even think of a furnace being the heart of the house, pushing warm air through the ductwork “arteries” to each room and keeping the home livable. So when we were put in the position of hastily researching a new system and getting several estimates, we felt fortunate that our careful saving habit kept us from being stuck with the cheapest (in price and quality) option. We were able to think long-term and invest in a upgraded system that’s efficient and the best fit for our particular needs.
Having an emergency savings account can have a domino effect of saving you even more money as time goes on. In addition to avoiding interest payments (that we would have incurred if we’d used credit to pay for our new furnace), we will be paying less on a monthly basis for our energy costs because we’ve now invested in a much more efficient heating and cooling system. And by having enough funds to pay for this large purchase up front, our monthly expenses won’t increase (in fact they will probably decrease because of the lower energy costs).
The only real financial pain we’re feeling from this major event is the depletion of our carefully hoarded savings account. It will definitely take a while to rebuild it back up to the nice cushion it once was, and we’re evaluating our finances and expenses for the near future to accommodate this. But the bottom line is: our emergency fund did its job. We literally could not stay in our house for about two days while we were between furnaces because the single-digit winter weather made living conditions too dangerous. This was a real emergency, and we were fortunate to have the resources to address it quickly and correctly.
Now if the garage can just hang together for a few more years… fingers crossed!
What about you: do YOU have an emergency fund? Or have you ever had to use yours for an actual emergency?
(linked on Remodelaholic)
As part of our frugal living philosophy, John and I don’t buy each other Christmas presents – instead, we either invest in something practical (last year we sprung for much-needed new tires) or we treat ourselves to an experience (a few years ago we went to the opera). This year, though… we bought a car!
What does buying a car have to do with this blog about our house? Good question! Some backstory: We’d bought a pre-owned Subaru Impreza from Carmax a few years ago and have loved driving it ever since. It’s been our only vehicle and has held up well for road trips, daily toddler-transporting, and getting around during the notorious Chicago-area winters (it’s never gotten stuck in snowdrifts or spun out on icy roads). Here it is on the day I bought it – it was the first car I’d ever owned!
But since we now have a house (instead of an apartment), and projects that require occasional hauling of materials (like lumber or furniture) that don’t fit in the Impreza, it was time for something bigger. In the last several months, we’ve had to borrow larger vehicles from friends and family as we move things like bookcases, tables, and large cuts of wood either to or from our house. Also, the toddler isn’t getting any smaller, and with her car seat and her assorted books and toys for in-flight entertainment, the backseat was getting pretty crowded. It was time.
We wanted to stay in the Subaru family, so we decided to look for a pre-owned Forester SUV as our next car. Why pre-owned? We feel that buying a new-to-us-but-not-new vehicle is a better investment of our money. In addition to a lower purchase price and less overall depreciation, we like the idea of driving a perfectly fine used vehicle rather than adding a brand-new one into the world (the same philosophy we followed when we found treasures in our back alley). And we’ve had a great experience with our pre-owned Impreza – it was four years old when we got it and we drove it for three years with no issues.
So John did a lot of research over the course of a few weeks to see what kind of pre-owned Foresters were available in our area, and how the numbers would crunch out for our car payments. Since we’ve been able to get by as a one-car family so far, we decided we would sell or trade in our Impreza as part of the transaction. Not only would this save us money (we’d only have loan payments, insurance, maintenance, and fuel costs for one car instead of two), we could put the money gained from the sale of the old car toward a down payment for the new car, further lowering our monthly payments and taxes.
We found several good Forester options at local dealerships the weekend before Christmas, and went to check them out and test drive them. Even though we knew we’d be buying a used vehicle, we still wanted something in good condition and well-maintained, since we plan to drive this car for a long time. In the end, we went with a dark gray 2011 model with toddler-friendly leather seats and low mileage (under 3K). And the back seats fold down to create a big open space for transporting any large items we may need for the house. We were able to get the purchase price down to our target budget (after some tough negotiations), and the car was ours! Here it is in the dealer’s parking lot, mere moments after we signed on the dotted line and all ready for us to drive off into the
Luckily, the Forester is the same length as the Impreza, which means it fits in our detached garage. Very important when you live in the Midwest – digging your car out of the snow and scraping ice off the windows every morning is not fun. Our garage is old (it was built at the same time as our house) but it keeps the elements out.
We decided against using the Impreza as a trade-in for the Forester, and instead arranged a private sale. I’m sad to say goodbye to my first car, but the good news is that we’re selling it to a family member, so I’ll be able to visit it whenever I want. We’ve already brought the Forester to visit the Impreza in its new owner’s driveway.
We’re hoping and planning to drive the Forester for many years to come. Maybe we’ll even use it to teach the toddler how to drive in about 14 years!
Since the timing of this purchase coincidentally came right before Christmas, we’re calling it our official 2013 family present (even though it didn’t quite fit under our mini DIY tree).
As you may have heard, the Chicago area has been slammed the last week or two with heavy snowfall and below-zero temperatures. We’re happy to report that the Forester has been a powerhouse on the slippery and icy roads, and we’ve been able to drive through high piles of snow (especially in our back alley) without getting stuck. Take that, winter!
We’re excited about our new-to-us-but-not-new car, and imagining how much it will help us both get around and with future house projects. What are you driving these days?
(linked on Remodelaholic)