Our First House: An Introduction

February 2013

As I covered in our house hunt up to this point, our budget in the competitive Seattle real estate market wouldn’t buy much unattached house. After hesitantly increasing our budget to find something more habitable than the veritable health hazard foreclosures we initially toured, we began touring…nicer foreclosures. Which was deflating because all we had seen were homes in terrible condition. But we decided to take a look at what was available because houses would only get more expensive as the market continued to boom. Today, I’ll focus on the exterior and the rest of our buying story.

First Impressions

When we drove up to the house, it was on the left. Our first impression was that this was a boring and dated but perfectly adequate looking garage. A snap from street view lets you experience it for yourself:

cream garage with driveway and trash can

What a lovely place to park. The location actually was great – a 20 minute commute for Sean. 10 minutes to the waterfront in Kirkland – excellent date/coffee/hangout locale. The house was just a little bigger than our apartment, at around 1100 square feet. So not a lot more to clean, and plenty to be entirely responsible for in our first go as homeowners. 

I believe this was just the second house we saw after upping the budget (this was 7 years ago now, so I may be mistaken). A bright spot in the trying landscape of Eastside house hunting. Rather, a beige spot. With two bright white spots from the blinding brand spankin’ new garage doors.

A cheery green front door was revealed around the side of the garage. So, like just about all the other foreclosures we toured, it was another property you had to capture at just the right angle to make it appealing, but here nothing was offensive upon first glance. (Yet! I said to myself skeptically). It was just in need of an eventual paint job, as it was starting to peel in a couple small patches on the clapboard siding. But at least it was beige peeling paint and not gray, so it didn’t blur into the sky most of the year. Though, the amount of natural light dramatically changed the color of the house on any given day. Observe below the beige siding with beige-r trim, here in the evening.

cream house with green front door

Here’s another shot from the day of the inspection. It’s not re-painted here I swear, just photographed on a typical cloudy Seattle morning. See how the siding looks much more cream? It looks totally different.

cream house with green front door and small tree on cloudy day

I called this a ranch-style house. In the Pacific Northwest, I was mistaken. No ranch homes in these here parts, pardner. This is a rambler. Don’t ask me why. 

The house looked to be in good shape overall. If the paint was fresh it would’ve been – dare I say – charming! Okay, maybe if the floodlights were replaced. And the garage doors not so blindingly white, and they had painted the space between the doors to match the rest of the house. I considered that brightening up the house color to off-white or cream paint would help, whenever we got to taking care of the exterior paint job. Real potential.

The house was set back nicely, creating a front yard large enough to, as evidenced below, drive onto (?). There was a random large patch of mulch by the front walkway that was a remnant of a past garden, and a funky little tree by the front door. I commented we could either plant things or re-seed to fix the lawn. I said this like I was good at landscaping. Ha! As if I’d ever even had a houseplant, let alone a yard my Dad didn’t take care of.

notes on first house picture showing winterization signs mulch skids marks

Notice the signs on the door and the window? They let us know it was a foreclosure, and winterized. No water running to test the plumbing during tours, so as to protect the pipes. More on that in a bit.

The fence on the each side of the photo extends to the end of the shot – that’s about where the property line actually ends, it’s not cropped out. As a girl from the burbs in Pennsylvania, I was disappointed by the lot size, but it looked a lot tighter from the front than it actually felt once we got back into the yard. It actually extended about 20 feet in each direction from the house, which was centered smack in the middle of the lot – creating a u-shaped, or technically, n-shaped yard. I wished it was set off to the side for a larger gathering area on any one side, but it did give a nice margin for air flow around the house, for grilling and any potential neighboring cigarette smoke to dissipate, which was critical for my asthma.

cream house with sliding glass doors and concrete patio

This is on the side of the house that was on the left when you’re facing it from the street. The sliding door on the left leads to the master bedroom, and the one on the right leads to the kitchen. The patios both had cracks in them, but were a decent size for some furniture – I want to say maybe 8×8’. I considered that perhaps they could be connected into a larger connected patio one day. So a small-ish side yard with two patios wrapped around the house to reveal…

cream shed with tan trim in yard

…a shed! In matching cream-beige with beige-er trim. A mini-me of sorts. How cute. It was in the far corner of the yard – at the top right of the “n”. Then, turning the next corner, there was…a shed! An old large shed in the corner. Deja vu.

satellite view of our first house notating shed locations and property lines

The previous homeowners had a landscaping business, and needed a lot of storage, evidently. There was also a fenced in storage area next to the garage. It was winter, so there wasn’t much growing for us to assess garden maintenance, but there was a large tree in each back corner of the lot, which were key to making the yard not feel like the boring box it was, sandwiched in with 5 neighboring properties surrounding it.

We toured the rest of the house. The only startling moments were the 1/2” spider in the hall bath shower (though this surprise was present in 80% of our tours of vacant homes), and the floor in the master bathroom.

Making it Ours

We decided it might not be so bad to live there. The pragmatism of the decision startled me. I had always envisioned a resonance of some kind when you found “the One.” But this was instead very “the Only One that wasn’t horribly neglected or in need of major construction so we should probably grab it before someone else does and we have to continue the horror show of house touring in this market.”

It had very little character, but it was one of only two houses we saw with window grilles, which spoke to my East Coast roots. And we could make it our own however we wanted to.

So we decided to make an offer. Our realtor said foreclosures aren’t typically negotiable, since the bank has a firm bottom line to recoup its money. Besides, everything else in this price range was a health hazard or total gut job so we probably wouldn’t get anything shaved off in negotiations. 

We did the things you’re supposed to do – we visited again, we tested Sean’s commute. Then we decided to move ahead with an offer, pending inspection. I think we came in about 8k under asking, citing the lack of appliances and insulation and the exterior paint condition and they gave us 3k off, so that made us feel a little better about being over budget – but that small of an adjustment didn’t affect the down payment by much to cover the basics that needed doing.

To our surprise, there were no major problems revealed on inspection day. This inspector was experienced, and that meant he was (thankfully) able to give us rough numbers for costs of projects, which we had no concept of in the local market as east coasters, and what with only one of us having a formal design education (me, from HGTV & Bob Vila). Painting an 1100 square foot house would shockingly be about $5k ?!?!?. Maybe we’d undertake that ourselves, we’d painted a house in New Orleans together.

The roof had been replaced within the last 5 years (whew!), windows were old but “high quality,” though one bedroom exterior pane was cracked. We knew the cracks in the patios and entry way were minor tripping hazards. The crawlspace checked out great, with some ductwork requiring new insulation, and no recent pest activity. The water was turned on for the inspection, and all was in working order. Most everything had been updated, except the furnace. And there was no fridge, and no laundry machines, but we knew that from our tours. And there was no A/C – quite typical in smaller homes in the Pacific Northwest, since the weather doesn’t do anything too extreme, except for about a week a year, but we knew we might need A/C, because asthma.

The inspector also dug up an original photo of the house (80s) which shows the proximity of the house behind ours, and revealed the reason behind the mulch patch – 2 trees! I can only imagine how big they would be if the were still standing. And how little light there would be in the living room.

black and white picture of house behind tree
The original photo dug up by the inspector revealed two large trees overshadowing the entryway

With the inspection confirming the house’s habitability, we decided to move forward, and signed a bunch of paperwork that the bank reps seemed irritated we insisted on reading. And so we bought a house. It was only about 30 days start to finish because the bank didn’t want it anymore, and we had no house to worry about selling before we could finalize the mortgage.

We closed with some time before our lease ended – I think about 10 days. So we were able to get appliances delivered before actually moving in. Sean dropped me off at the house one weekday after closing, and headed off on his way to work in our shared car, leaving me with just my phone and measuring tape as I awaited the imminent kitchen appliance deliveries. I beamed with pride and soaked in the details as I took a look around our house, and really started picturing what we’d do with it. The appliances were behind schedule. Eventually I needed to either refill my water bottle or use the bathroom – I don’t remember the need, just that whichever the need it required water.

Water. Winterization. Uh oh. I ran from tap to tap, confirming my fear: the house had not been de-winterized. No running water or functioning plumbing. I called our realtor who said she had made sure that would be taken care of! …Or had she?

She couldn’t remember for sure (!). She said she’d call someone to see what could be done. I fretfully awaited an update, which probably took about an hour. Finally, news! …Nothing could be done. Perks of buying a foreclosure: the bank really doesn’t care as long as they’re paid. I’d have to turn the water on. She did call our inspector, and he told me where to find the water main. 

“No problem,” I thought, rallying in the face of my first trial of homeownership. I’m basically savvy on plumbing matters, as my practical Dad had taught me what he was doing as he took care of the house I grew up in. So I set off down the driveway to turn on some water. Except they had really winterized that knob. With real tools, of which I had none. I glanced around, hoping a neighbor might be visible. No one. No one even appeared to be home. I knocked on a few doors, and no one answered.

As I hunched in public on our first front lawn (in leggings as I didn’t plan for this ugh) and struggled to turn on the water, all pride I had as a new homeowner metaphorically washed away (not actually because no water HA). But with no tools, I had no chance. I begrudgingly admitted defeat and called Sean, who returned home when he was able to eventually. And with one turn of his man-hands (UGH) he reinstated water flow to the house.

orange pink and purple sunrise behind evergreen tree silhouettes

Goodbye apartment. Hello, home ownership. Let’s take a look at that view from our apartment dining room one last time.

Maura



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