Three houses, purchased in 5 years, on two different coasts.
A retrospective narrative that covers our house hunting experiences and shows how the spaces in each of our homes have evolved over time and been made uniquely ours.
I’ll be walking through how I approached designing each space in our homes, and how my process changed in each house. I’ll share my regrets and how I would decorate them if I lived there now. I’m excited to go back and revisit the whole process again and see how our tastes have evolved from young contemporary west coast design to eclectic traditional in our current house.
You’ll see that each house we’ve owned are very different architectural styles from one another – an 80s rambler (that’s Seattle speak for rancher), a 90s contemporary traditional (you’ll see, it’s hard to define), and a 60s half-cape colonial revival. It’s been really interesting to look back and see how we’ve used our furniture in each of these very different houses and consider how we made those decisions.
We’ll be starting with our first house, and how it came to be ours.
Hello, West Coast!
After we got married, my husband, Sean, and I moved from Pennsylvania to the Eastside of Seattle (the burbs) for his job. I’d never been to the West Coast before, and Sean had only previously made the trip just to interview. We were green college grads and newlyweds, and Washington was greener. Captivated by the mountain vistas, we embarked on our adventure, in a new place and new chapter of our lives that was just us.
On our first day of apartment hunting, we found a really great apartment with picturesque views of some of the smaller mountains in the area. Its best feature by far was its view from our dining room – see above. I mean, COME ON. There was nothing like waking up and sipping our coffee overlooking that valley.
At 950 square feet, the apartment was much larger than the dorm rooms we had become accustomed to. It had 9 foot ceilings, and a nice open layout with more than adequate space for just the two of us – and a dedicated office. Then the bedroom, a large bathroom, and a laundry closet. The price when we moved in was great. We even had a garage, which was rare among the apartment complexes we toured. The positives outweighed the negative, for a while. The view itself added about 1000 points. But after just under a year and a half, we were growing tired of the limitations of apartment living.
The location was scenic, but the Sean’s commute was unpredictable. Some days it was 30 minutes, others an hour. We had a balcony, but we never used it because there were several prolific smokers in the surrounding apartments, so we couldn’t even open windows. Sean’s also a guitar player, but he never felt comfortable playing and disturbing the neighbors. But it was our first place, and it did serve us well for the most part.
Then we got a notice that the rent would jump the next year by $500.
While we had known our initial rent wouldn’t stand in the rising Seattle housing market, the jump made us resent spending so much more money on something we didn’t even own. I wistfully hopped online to Zillow to see what a real, detached house would cost.
It began as a daydream as I perused local listings. Then I saw that some estimated mortgage payments were similar to our new rent! Could house hunting be this easy? I came across a listing for a very Pacific Northwestern contemporary home in the middle of the woods, halfway between where we were and Sean’s work. I imagined it could one day look like this much more luxurious cabin.
Half the commmute! So much carpet to (one day) replace with hardwood of our own choosing! Privacy and fresh air! A treehouse for grownups! I immediately contacted a realtor from a firm we selected only because we often drove by their prominent offices. Can’t say I recommend this approach in retrospect.
We had a brief introduction with our realtor. She called a large man with a tiny calculator into the room, and we were met with a harsh reality: Zillow’s monthly mortgage payment estimates at the time did not include estimated taxes and insurance. Our budget would be much smaller than I initially thought. I shot Sean an apologetic glance. With student loan payments taken into consideration, our new max purchase price would be almost 40% less than I anticipated when ogling our lovely contemporary fixer.
Reality check completed, we decided it was still worthwhile checkout out what was available since we weren’t happy in our apartment. We set out to see houses, touring with our agent over several weekends.
A short time later, neighbors spotted a mother bear and her cubs by the dumpsters in our apartment complex – and we’re talking about in a high traffic area. There were news stories over our years in Washington of bears roaming around neighborhoods not even close to woods. There were definitely bears roaming through the backyard of that dream treehouse we found.
This is an actual bear in the backyard of a house nearby that treehouse for grownups. Look at him guy trying to Goldilocks this place. No. No thank you.
We’d been in the area for almost a year and a half, so about 1.5 rainy seasons. Having the view from our apartment took the edge off the gray. So, a view, or a pretty yard were on the list. We didn’t wan’t our neighbors to be able to hear our every move or see us from every angle, so we needed some margin for privacy. Also enough space that any potential neighbors’ smoke wouldn’t be triggering my asthma, which was poorly controlled at the time.
Natural light was important. Without the sun 8 months of the year, having natural light coming in was very important to us, and having living spaces that didn’t cut off the light also mattered. I didn’t have a specific vision for layout, just that it needed to not feel closed in.
We’d need a dedicated office. We didn’t mind sharing, it worked fine in our apartment. I was already working from our apartment, designing cameo illustrations (they’re here now), scrapbook papers and wedding invitations in my Etsy shop.
We didn’t require much else: a good commute, and an extra bedroom should we decide to start a family.
Some character would be nice, but I knew this would be hard to find. Much of the houses on the Eastside were built quickly from the 80s on as Microsoft grew. Any houses at the “starter” price range were ubiquitously boxy with straight lines and very undersized side-sliding windows. And sooo many split levels. Tri-levels abound as well.
Here’s a pretty typical example, though this one’s in Oregon. So maybe it’s a Pacific Northwest phenomenon, not just the Eastside. I actually quite like the interior layouts of split-levels, though I prefer tri-levels since split-levels tend to have cramped entryways. I’ve just never been on board with their weird exterior overhangs and oddly proportioned windows. This one’s got personality though, and sort of looks like it’s got a little octagonal nose and red tongue sticking out. Do you see it?
If you wanted a newer house (unless you had more money) you’d also get an extra 10-14 minutes added to your commute. And it would be a drab gray cookie cutter house with no yard. Hardly better air circulation than our apartment. And again, what’s up with the windows? Sidebar: a longer commute = closer to wilderness. We saw what I swear was a wolf crossing the road in front of our car in a development like this. He was not intimidated.
At least there’s a sidewalk? I swear, these master planned communities and all the postage stamp lots everywhere are the reason behind the Seattle freeze phenomenon. The source for that photo is a brutal but very accurate article talking more about the housing in the area. It’s worth a read.
We were okay with improving a place over time in order to get what we wanted. I didn’t mind buying a house that was dated, to both have projects to do and to not feel guilty about ripping out new things for no other reason than they just weren’t “us.” I expected we’d see a lot of contenders that were ugly or dated with basically safe living conditions. How wrong I was.
A Sad and Bewildering Start
The realtor and calculator-wielding man warned us, with very serious expressions on their faces, that our budget was firmly in the “starter house” end of the spectrum. “No problem,” we thought – we didn’t need much. Our budget wasn’t even that tiny – just tiny for the ever-inflating Eastside/West Coast tech hub market. We quickly discovered exactly what that market looked like on the Eastside of Seattle: dire.
We began house hunting in late January (a perfect time of year to assess interior lighting beneath winter clouds), with our only location restriction being commuting distance. Not because we wanted to be cool and flexible about it, but because there were just a handful of detached houses in our price range and we didn’t have the luxury of being picky. Turns out people don’t sell houses in the Winter, even less so than in other parts of the country. Everyone waits until Spring. This surprised me, given the temperate climate. I learned when we sold our first house it’s because the Spring greenery really impacts the first impression on gray days, so it’s more critical to sell in Spring and Summer. I think the seasonal scarcity greatly exacerbates the area’s ongoing seller’s market. We’re talking maybe 2 or 3 contenders max listed per week to tour, among 4 sizeable towns.
In light of this scarcity, realtor really tried to get us to check out a few of what on the East Coast we call “townhouses.” There, they are just called “units.” In our price range, unless a listing specifically said detached, it was a unit. And the real estate photographers were very good at taking the exterior shot at just the right angle to make it look detached. This is a trick to help you feel less miffed buying a unit for the price of a detached single family home. We refused to see any units, because we knew we needed a separate house for healthy air flow and for the guitar noise barrier. Also they’re monstrosities:
I did very little screening online and let the realtor run the show for the most part because we were still relatively new to the area. She did what she could, but the selection was grim. I don’t remember going into that many properties. We toured less than ten houses total, if that. I only remember four of the ones we
rejected fled from, so it might have been only four.
The first I remember was a wood-clad structure that was very Pacific Northwest 80s tract home. Boxy, with a sloped backyard and a highly elevated deck with a contorted staircase we didn’t feel safe setting foot on. It would need a paint job, and a deck repair. I remember saying that fell into our minor improvements/reno acceptability range without any practical knowledge of how much a deck that size would cost to rebuild (newsflash: thousands of dollars). Upon entering the home, we were met with clutter on every surface of the house, including literal trash all over the kitchen island. I remembered how hard my parents worked to get our house ready to sell when I was little, and the contrast was astounding. It was as if they didn’t care to impress buyers. Our agent rattled off specs, ending with the fact it was a foreclosure.
Ah. At the time we derided the filth, the cat walking on the countertops, and the diaper pail’s worth of diapers precariously leaning against a full diaper pail. But looking back, it was an extremely sad situation. Were the owners sticking it to the bank by letting their home fall into this state? Buying time by warding off buyers? Were they massively depressed? Probably a ‘yes’ to all three questions.
We continued on to a property with a nondescript and forgettable façade. It was vacant, and another foreclosure (noticing a pattern, here?). Its interior was also in…poor condition. The carpet needed to be replaced STAT. It was a large split-level with a large landing area between at least 4 doorways on the upper level. I assume they were all bedrooms, but we only went into the first one so I’m not sure. Plenty of space for an office or even two! We treaded across the dingy carpet to enter the (admittedly well-lit) bedroom to our left, only to turn and find an enormous (read: 3×4′ or thereabouts) gray-brown stain on the wall. As we fled, we tried not to consider its origins.
Another property we were shown was an occupied foreclosure, from which we also had to flee due to the cigarette smoke permeating every surface.
The grim prospects left us dreading our weekly outings to house hunt. What started out as an idea with so much promise turned into a realization we’d be making some major concessions if we wanted to buy a house. But this reinforced our decision to buy now, as we realized prices would spike as sales picked up in the the Spring. We decided to consider putting less than 20% down to find a habitable home, and we continued house hunting again the next weekend.
On our next tour, I was pleasantly surprised by – gasp – curb appeal! Or at least the potential for an appealing curb view. I was very excited, even though it was just outside of the very tip top of our newly increased price range. It was vacant, but not a foreclosure. Its front yard was a mass of gravel with a little lawn and a couple of mature trees. I could imagine it transformed into a convenient and stately circular drive befitting its brick exterior. With a large mullioned bay window and arched doorway, it was our first tour with any semblance of the East Coast charm I took for granted growing up. Character, at last!
After the dismal homes we had already seen, I was forgiving of the lack of natural light inside. We were met with hardwoods, painted beadboard paneling and nifty built-in cabinets between the studs in a hallway – definite traditional, even cottagey vibes. Take a gander.
Looking at these photos, it made me wonder why we didn’t buy this one, with its obvious potential and existing character. In the kitchen, change out the cabinet doors, add an island. Get new hardware for the basement hallway storage cabinets. What happened to that fireplace? Nothing some paint couldn’t fix. Can you see it? I was in love.
Then I remembered a room off the basement hallway was a completely enclosed concrete space with no windows (okay), an industrial looking sink (maybe they had a dog?), recessed drain in the middle (flooding?) and overpowering smell of ammonia (!!). As we recoiled, our realtor mentioned she thought she had read meth labs might smell like that. Evidently this made it desirable enough to put it about $20,000 above our price range, and someone else scooped it up within the next couple days.
We were ready to give up when there was another foreclosure to see nearby. Why not one more, we said? And then we found our first house.
Next time, I’ll introduce you two.