The Cost of Helping My Sister Go House Hunting
Part 1: The nine questions to ask before you buy.
My little sister is buying a house. It seems impossibly adult for her because in my head she’s eight years old and not 30 next month. She’s been living in the first floor of a split-level home, much like I did until I moved in with my boyfriend, Lukas, last year. Her landlords are a nice, quiet couple, she’s a nice, quiet young woman, and they co-existed peacefully and they charged her minimal rent for a 2 bedroom, 1 bath for the last four years. She lives close enough to my house that Lukas and I can easily jump in the car and come get her for car troubles, or if I made extra portions of vegan brownies. I’m beyond happy with my house, and she seems happy in her place. The whole arrangement worked out for everybody, until October 2016 when her landlords put the house on the market.
The problem with dirt-cheap rent is there’s no motivation to buy until rent starts going up—at which point you’re probably priced out of a house. She loved her place and it was so cheap for so long, but the next thing we knew, starter homes in our neighborhood were over $250,000. My sister took this as a sign to finally buy a house. Rent ain’t gonna get cheaper—and with our family visiting annually, and a serious relationship in the works, she needs more space to house everybody. So my sister texted me about buying a house, and since I’m a bossy, know-it-all big sister I took the reins in her home search and crafted a plan to get her the Best House Ever!
If you pay attention to the news, you know that Seattle’s real estate market is too hot for its own good. We live close enough to Seattle that the housing market in our previously uncool hometown is booming. Everyone who got priced out of Seattle and the always moneyed Eastside is looking at the Southside.
How bad or good is the market (depending on who you ask)? A 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom starter home in a not-so-safe part of our hometown on a busy street with no parking is $275,000. To compare, a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom starter home on a congested two-way street with no parking in a desirable Seattle neighborhood is $425,000. I don’t care how many avocado toasts I don’t eat; I won’t be able to buy a house in my hometown of 15 years. I could possibly afford a condo, but—last I checked—a 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom condo is in the $180,000 and above range. Lukas’ parents bought their starter home in a nice Seattle neighborhood for something like $40,000. The times, they are a changin’!
The first order of business is to find more affordable real estate. I’m glad we have Redfin now because it’s been a time saver for everyone involved. We all have full-time jobs, and we all know house or apartment hunting is a full-time job on its own. We narrowed our options down to Kent, Maple Valley, Puyallup, Covington, Auburn, and even far-flung Milton, and searched Redfin tirelessly.
Lukas and I drove to all the houses my sister and I liked on Redfin and checked out the neighborhoods. We gave her the low-down on what we saw, and my sister contacted her realtor to tour the homes that sound promising. (Lukas and I go during the days, and my sister goes after office hours. That way we get a daytime and nighttime perspective on each property.) It definitely pays to have a landlord boyfriend; so many things I never thought about are now part of the house hunting equation. House hunting is so much more than this house is cute and I can afford it!
Questions we ask ourselves as we go house hunting:
- Is the neighborhood safe? Are women and children walking around by themselves?
- Is the neighborhood accessible and shopping-friendly?
- Is the next city or town over a livable, thriving city?
- Is the city investing in infrastructure?
- Can my sister afford the house, in both fat and lean times?
- Are there sketchy people milling about?
- Is this house a lemon and potential money pit?
The first city, Covington, was clean, family-friendly and a couple of years away from becoming inaccessible to most people. My sister wanted this city as her next hometown, and we did too. The city and the houses answered yes to questions 1–5 and no to questions 6–7, which are exactly the answers we wanted. But apparently everyone else wanted these answers too; starter homes were going for $250,000, and anything beyond a starter is closer to $300,000 and above.
House hunting on Redfin is a lot like online dating; they look good online but not so great in real life. We saw three starter homes we liked, and my sister and I argued over which house was the best option. I like tiny homes with minimal upkeep. She wants a big house with a bigger yard, to which I replied “Sounds like a nightmare.”
As Lukas and I were pulling into a potential starter house, we saw another starter home literally go up for sale, the sign taking its ceremonial place in the front yard. We stood between the houses, checking them out, and one of the neighbors drove by and glared at us. I texted my sister to cross house XYZ off the list, because one of the neighbors was a creep. It was a house-hunting question we had forgotten to include: how are the neighbors?
A few days later, pretty much beaten down by the Covington market, we drove to the next city, Auburn. Houses in this city are cute, smallish, and a lot more affordable. I keep seeing dollar signs as I saw listings on Redfin (read: more houses for the money), despite Lukas’ warnings that Auburn might not be the best city to live in. I ignored his protests and reminded him that affordable housing in an affordable city is where we need to be.
So we drove deep into the suburbs, past the rich people houses and new developments, and as we got closer to the downtown area, goosebumps popped up in my arms. We drove past empty storefronts and houses in disrepair. I thought to myself: This might not be a good idea. I wasn’t going to admit it to Lukas, but I wanted to tell him to turn around.
But Auburn wasn’t just empty storefronts. There were also cute, well-kept neighborhoods, more Mexican restaurants in one block that I’ve seen anywhere, and multiple coffee stands. I could feel Lukas’ energy flagging so I asked him to drive up a coffee kiosk to get an iced large coffee for him and a small iced decaf for me. We wanted to try one of the restaurants too, but none of them were open—we house hunt early in the day—so we reluctantly turned back and drove home. Later that day, we went to a Mexican restaurant in our hometown. He had a tostada of some sort, and I ordered soft tacos. He ate most of the chips and salsa, while we ruminated about the tough housing market. How does anyone buy a house anymore? I quietly thank the universe that we’re homeowners and we’re not in the thick of this frenzy.
My sister and I had a crush on a house we saw on Redfin. It had everything she wanted: 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom, parking garage, well-kept yard, spacious and well-lit, and below her budget. I wondered why such a keeper has been on the market for months, but maybe, just like people, we just gotta find the right person to love us. So she goes on the tour and falls in love with the house until a dark, ominous vibe overtakes the room. It was like a ghost-haunting, she texted me, like a restless spirit was looming over the house. Maybe the owner died and his/her spirit doesn’t want to sell the house? I texted back. She couldn’t sleep that night. She loved the house, but that dark vibe stayed with her, so she did some internet sleuthing and there it was: dead owner, house on estate, been on the market for months. Another house hunting question to ask: does the house give you bad vibes?
My sister lost one of the cute starter homes in Covington to another bidder, and just as well. It was too small for the price: $250,000 for a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom and no driveway (which means street parking), but the city is clearly where the next housing boom is gestating. It’s an opportune time to buy there, but it wasn’t meant to be. I attacked the home search with increased vitality. My sister will get a house if that’s the last thing we all do.
On a Monday I dragged Lukas to look at a house that might be The One. I kept looking at it on Redfin, but the siren call of cooler neighborhoods lured me away. You know how you meet a guy in school and think he’s cute and nice, but your friend Sarah will like him so much better? Then you get older and wiser and realize he was The One all along? That’s pretty much what my sister and I thought about The House. It’s not in a sexy city, but it has good qualities like proximity to the airport, shopping areas, and family friendly entertainment. The best part is it’s a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom house with a big yard, and it’s cheaper than the Covington “House That Got Away.” Besides, any house within walking distance of a Starbucks and a high-end dental office is a winner in my book.
Who knew house hunting could be so appetite inducing? I was starving after driving around the neighborhood and asking ourselves the now 9-point house-hunting questions, so Lukas and I looked for the closest Panera. I ordered a giant Chinese chicken salad for me and a sandwich/salad combo for him. He paid before I got my cash out, but I slipped him some cash for gas.
My sister asked what I thought and I told her to put in an offer, and to please hire a home inspector. I’ve heard enough bad real estate stories to know that it’s worth the money. She was hesitant because of the cost, but I wired her money to pay for it, because we’re family and we’re in this together.
Home inspection is scheduled, the house status has been changed to “pending inspection” on Redfin, and a closing date is penciled in. Will she get the house of her dreams? I’ll let you know later this week, with the second half of the house-hunting story.
The cost of helping my sister go house hunting:
Lunch in a Mexican restaurant: $26
Lunch at Panera: $44
Home inspection fee: $400
TOTAL: $525 and I’m not even the one buying the house!
Ruzielle Ganuelas is a writer, baker and PF nerd in Washington State.
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