Part 1 in a weeklong series about the bleak homes we toured in our brief home search hat pointed us to “the one”, the other “one” I wish we’d given a chance, a problematic realtor, and how we
beat out other offers on our dream home – in 72 hours
Well, this post started out as an intro to our yard since that’s what we’re focused on improving this summer, but as I reminisced about our home search it evolved into a 4 part narrative about said home search leading up to finding and falling in love with our house. I’ll show you what we almost ended up with before coming across our current house (you can see shared posts about it here), and at the end of the week I’ll give you a tour around the outside our home.
When we moved back to Pennsylvania from the Eastside (Seattle ‘burbs) several years ago, we had visions of a home with abundant Northeast character, a yard with space to play – but nothing too big. We used phrases like “adequate,” “has character,” and “simple, but interesting.”
This would be our third house, and the first we purchased after my thyroid cancer diagnosis. We moved right after my weeklong isolation for radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment, my thyroid meds still way too high, and I was basically useless physically. We were awaiting news on whether I would need a second surgery (I did).
So, we needed a place to live when we moved back to PA.
The Location & Our Wants/Needs in a New Home
The search included the Main Line and any other suburbs that provided a good commute into Philly for my husband. I don’t want to get more specific than that. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, that means the search spanned 3 counties surrounding the city. This account on IG has a good sampling of what the area has to offer.
Our goal was to tour as many houses as possible and just pick one that had what we needed and move on with our lives. Emotionally, we needed to be settled in our new home. Quickly. We were burned out after an extremely stressful couple of years.
We really were trying to be as un-picky as possible. In fact, after the dearth of traditional charm in west coast architecture I’d been surrounded by for years, I expected to fall head over heels with multiple properties and have our offer sail through since there is no shortage of beautiful houses in the area.
But – nothing requiring too much maintenance. Move-in ready, perhaps with options to upgrade down the road. Good public schooling would be ideal.
We had a plenty healthy budget. We needed and wanted just enough space to live well and not be on top of each other or our neighbors. A yard that gave us space to not be overwhelmed by neighbors outdoor fires was important, because of my asthma. And burn bans of yard waste are pretty much everywhere, but good luck finding a neighborhood where everyone, or even a majority complies. Unless you’re somewhere more conscientious of these things, or somewhere uppity – but those neighborhoods tend to have smaller lots than we wanted, about .3 acres. The house above in the intro was of that sort – really charming, but about .25 acre lot. So many beauties sadly had to be passed over for more acreage.
Lots tend to be generously sized in the PA suburbs (.5 acres in not uncommon) unless you’re right on the edges of the city, so we had high hopes.
We were hoping for around an acre to have enough space around the house that fire pit smoke or wood burning fireplaces/piles wouldn’t be too impactful. This ruled out a great majority of listings within commuting distance up front – unfortunately including some beautiful stone houses in the city. These come for a really cheap asking price compared to their size usually, because of the upkeep. None on suitable lots were available when we started our search. Actually, there was one I absolutely loved in listing photos…and then we realized it was a half a block from a fire station.
But the details are unparalleled in these grand old homes. Take a look at this one:
Why, yes, I’ll take magenta counters in exchange for that millwork, thank you! But we didn’t, because of the lot size. Womp womp.
Beauty is subjective, of course. When I say beautiful, I mean traditional, ideally with classical details. We were willing to take anything from new builds, to historic properties, to somewhere in between as long as they had “good bones.” Well constructed and designed. I wanted crown molding, hardwood floors, hopefully a bit of a quirky layout. Big old windows would be wonderful. Something to make a house have a personality.
Also, nothing too close to highways or trains or busy roads. We were moving out of a house that was close to the highway. It was a great house, but there are studies that the ambient baseline of noise is stressful and obviously living next to a major roadway has more pollution to breathe in.
Interested in more on that? Here are some links:
Research Paper – The Adverse Effects of Environmental Noise Exposure on Oxidative Stress and Cardiovascular Risk
But I digress.
The Market Climate & Strategy
After the trials we encountered in the Seattle housing market, we expected our short but specific list of wants would be easily and affordably obtained. The Seattle market was extremely competitive and expensive. On the Eastside, the market was so hot offers were 50k+ above asking even on total pits. Spending the time making an offer every weekend wasn’t a hobby we wanted to take up. We adopted a patient strategy of keeping an eye out for foreclosures and rejects that had sat on the market for months to eliminate competition.
To our surprise, the houses in PA were going nearly as quickly as on the West coast, only available for the first weekend they hit the market. Apparently we weren’t the only ones that wanted to live closer to my parents.
The pressure was on.
The market did have more inventory, though, and we actually toured new listings. But remember, our requirement of a large lot with a good commute to the city really ruled out a lot of beautiful homes.
There were several beauties that hit the market in the weeks leading up to our return.
A stand out favorite? A beautiful Tudor I loved had an open house the week before we moved back. It sold before we got to see it. There’s a good chance we’d be living here if we’d been back just a week prior.
Unfortunate Homes We Toured
Now, keep in mind these are peoples actual homes we toured. I am not here to mock decor choices – just to illustrate what we were up against in our search for what we needed at the time. It needed to be 1) safe for our toddlers and 2) as close to turn key as possible. We simply didn’t have the energy to put into sweat equity up front, so we needed to rule out anything that would be a lot of work to make homey and livable.
We ruled out anything with visible structural water damage in listing photos, and anything described as needing TLC. High bar we set, right?
And really, the houses on the smaller lots that we ruled out from the start were much more of what we were looking for than most of what we ended up touring. Now, I’m aware that one weekend of search is nothing, but we were shocked by the complete lack of pretty, let alone turn-key houses within commuting distance on a large lot.
Timing is everything in real estate. The inventory simply wasn’t there for what we wanted to find that weekend – except for the one house we picked, which sure made it easy to pick!
I’ll try to include photos where I can without revealing location too specifically. If you recognize a house, please do not share any location information!
These people didn’t choose to share their homes on the internet beyond the MLS. Let’s keep that in mind.
Dialogue of snippets of our actual comments are mixed in for good measure.
We traveled to PA and stayed with my parents (thanks Mom and Dad), and hit the ground running on a house hunt the first weekend back. My parents helped us out by touring a few properties the week before we flew back, but no winners were among them.
Our high hopes were quickly dashed as the list of concessions we were making grew with every house, trying to make any of them feel like a good fit. I present to you real snippets of our conversations in our search.
So many houses were corner lots or with the play areas near roads, even with an acre.
“…at least the yard is level? But, there’s no privacy and it’s close to a road. We could put up a fence…”
Others had little to no play space. A surprising amount were just uniquely conformed to the current owners needs to the point of absurdity.
“Why is the yard so skinny and long? Ohh, the only thing that’s fenced in is a turf dog run. And the rest goes right up to the road. It needs…another fence.”
Many had main living areas that were not great for little kids. Below is a newer listing image from a house that has since been sold again since we toured it, so they had brightened up the dining room with white paint and upped the contrast on the listing image, and blown out the light on the window to try to make this bad paneling and tile playroom less dungeony than it felt in real life.
This house just overall felt depressing, but having the main play area be a dark room with a series of planes that were tile, stone, dingy old plaster with a bound-to-be-neglected empty fish tank just wasn’t going to work.
I mean, what would you do with that fish tank? It could be a huge shadowbox, I suppose; a sort of museum-esque display of cherished family knick knacks and memorabilia. Maybe toss in some garland and picks at Christmas time. At that moment I added a third a minimum requirement: no built-in fish tanks destined to languish in our care.
“It’s dark inside…but paint would help. The stacked wood paneling can be taken down and we could at least paint the built is. The kitchen’s not great. How can you use the banquette with the door where the table should go?” (unfortunately the new owners removed this feature and moved the door so I can’t share it with you)
Also on that house:
“I don’t like that steep hill down into the three-way intersection in the front yard, though…what’s the speed limit?”
[ Actually, now that I think about it, that one might have been the dog run house. It really had everything going for it.]
Not sure why we bothered to tour the whole thing. As we were worn down, there was a lot of the generic, “…well, we can renovate that…eventually.”
We toured a home with a charming exterior, featuring a long drive with a meandering drive and charming bridge over a
mosquito breeding pit manmade pond, and had one major question once we took it all in:
“Why is the upstairs…downstairs?”
My guess is they converted a split level by making the turned staircase into a full flight, so when you walked in you had to go straight upstairs – which gave it an apartment entry feel.
We probably should have just waited out the market a little longer, based on what we were seeing. I mean, look at the first floor basement in the upside down house:
But we were determined to just see every house on our list and hopefully find a home.
A really charming little cottage owned by a painter with a great location had hand painted murals in several rooms. That seller’s agent at the open house told us we had to sign in with our email addresses to see the house. I told him we’d be leaving if that was the case. Surprise! He relented. Really charming place, but tiny rooms and the kitchen was basically a passthrough in two opposite corners of a small rectangle though.
No playable yard despite a large lot and no privacy in the yard. And the kicker, a moldy skylight, which the seller’s agent denied even as we looked up at the brown drywall until we insisted. And we still went back for a second tour before having the sense to move on. I was really drawn to the artistic magnetism it had. Look at this mural in progress in the primary suite:
There was a sun drenched studio with paintings shoved in every possible cranny. It was a really inspiring place to visit. Just not to live with small children or asthma.
The Catfish House
Things were really getting desperate by Sunday, when we came upon a grand historical brick house that needed some exterior help but had me at hello:
“Did you see those windows in the front salon! And the ceiling height! Hardwood floors throughout!”
“Babe, how could tearing down that dilapidated carriage house in the back yard cost thousands of dollars?? I don’t think it’ll be that bad.” (it probably would’ve been)
[Eager young couple proceeds through home to back kitchen stairwell. This could be the one.]
“Okay, so the kitchen is dated. That can be updated eventually.”
Here I introduce bad realtor (BR): “Oh, there’s a renter upstairs that wouldn’t leave for the tour. I think their room is right upstairs.”
“Renter.” OK. Awkward. Thanks for letting us know that someone around the corner could hear our whole conversation, BR. We turned to look at the back staircase she referred to.
“Oh, no. Water damage. We can have that taken out! It’s just drywall, right? I mean, it’s just so charming.”
“Ok so it’s a little moldy. What can it cost to renovate a staircase? The kitchen behind needs a total reno anyway, we’ll just do it all at once.”
Let’s take a look at the most obvious problem room since we don’t have pictures of the moldy staircase in action: the kitchen/sunroom. I really liked the kitchen layout with its built-in shelves, quirky window ledges and a wet bar opposite the main work area. But there was no denying a gut job would be in our future. I could imagine a DeVol style painted kitchen in its same footprint to match the grand original house. Oodles of potential here.
Ok, ok I was losing it a little bit. Gambling with visibly moldy walls and what lies unknown beneath is a bad idea unless you’re ready for a reno.
Check out that last pic again. Did you catch the failing skylights (always look at the corners for water damage!), with a c brace and wires featured on the beams below?
A glass enclosed porch upstairs was unsafe to walk on. We called. Ok, I called it at that point. My husband called it way before me.
But, in my defense, look at what we were greeted with:
What a catfish.
It went for 100k under asking 6 months later. Unheard of. It must’ve been a real money pit.
A Really Bad Flip Exterior
By the time we got to the house we were most excited to see based on the interior photos – a large, turnkey, completely renovated house with gorgeous porcelain (realistic even!) marble-look finishings, with a smaller yard but backed by a greenbelt – we just about melted with defeat after approaching the house only to learn it was on a high speed road, one block in either direction from a major intersection with a gas station and a car dealership. I mean, we could walk to pick up a pizza, stop in the rest room if needed at the gas station, then buy a car within minutes if our hearts desired. The kids could even play in traffic while we ran these errands.
Our realtor was floored when we refused to even go in.
[ Oh no I just found it again. It wasn’t even sort of pretty on the outside. My memory was certainly clouded hahaha again this reinforces how much lower our standards had become since setting out on our search, take a look ]
Awning slides out the second story windows? Check. White trim between black door lites? You bet. A concrete shelf preventing the possibility of a charming garden to soften curb appeal topped by stairs that clash with the siding? Love it.
I had notes on the listing: “Hate exterior – paint white, patina awnings; Pretty finishes inside.” So I wasn’t totally deluded at the time.
It had already been on the market for almost a year and the price had come down by 100k by the time we saw it. It sold after the seller shaved another 10k off a few months after we toured.
C’est tout for today, check back tomorrow for listing photos of the one house I wish we had given a chance!