My husband and I have had a long string of, cough, “interesting” landlords and rental experiences over the past decade, but we had never thought seriously about home ownership until last fall. The rental market in Portland, Maine has been exploding, and is hovering around 2% vacancy. Also, our rent just kept going up by $100/month or more every single year. After a miscommunication with our current rental company made us upset, we decided that we needed to at least explore if buying a place would be feasible.
We determined with some extensive budget witchery, including selling some electronics and handmade goods, we would be able to scrape together a modest down payment, and still have a small buffer left over. We set our savings goal, altered our spending, and were off to the races!
Our Goal: We set out to find a cozy, three bedroom house in Portland (preferred) or South Portland, with a small but usable yard space. We both work in downtown Portland and do theater in the area, so low commute time is really important for our quality of life. We weren’t afraid of a cosmetic fixer-upper, but wanted a structurally sound house. We’re pretty creative and handy, so painting/pulling carpet/refinishing floors etc. wasn’t anything that would scare us away. Efficient heating was also high on the wish list — Maine winters can be tough!
Our Style: We both love all things old and all things character — moldings, built-ins, original details, and an overall cozy feel, with a nice living space layout. My mood is very affected by natural light, so we wanted ample windows. My husband is tall and gets claustrophobic, so high ceilings were also on the list. If we couldn’t find a house that had two bathrooms, we were hoping to find one with the space to add one.
House #1: The Flip
This house was located in South Portland, and we loved it as soon as we saw it. We never knew we liked Craftsman style homes with enclosed front porches until we started house hunting — but most of our favorites had the same architectural detail.
This house was being flipped, so a lot of the updating had already been done. The original woodwork had been refinished, there was a gorgeous stained glass window on the lovely staircase, and the living space was beautiful with tons of character. The cons to this house were that it was only a two bedroom/one bath, and that the kitchen was super tiny (and lacked any charm at all).
What we didn’t know until after we were planning to make an offer was that the lot for this house was split apart, and had already been sold — and the driveway was sold along with it! If we put in an offer, we’d have to pave our own driveway. Also, there’d be construction right next to us for the next year or so. Big factors to consider.
House #2: The “it’s prettier on the inside” house
What this house lacked in outside curb appeal, it more than made up for in inside beauty. And space. Oh, the space.
Located in South Portland, it had lovely hardwood floors throughout. It was freshly painted with an uber clean basement. It also boasted great attic space, and large bedrooms with large closets. The best part was the giant living room, complete with two stained glass windows looking out to the enclosed porch. We could imagine hosting Thanksgiving in the sun-filled dining room with the lovely built-in.
The major con with this house was that it was located on a very busy street. The sound of traffic was constant in the house, which was a big bummer. It also lacked any useable yard space, another big con. If it had been located in a better spot, it wouldn’t have been in our price range, so it was a trade-off.
House #3: The “pricey, love at first sight” house
When this house dropped within $25,000 of our max price range, we fell. in. love. Hard. I whined to my realtor (a close friend of ours) about it for weeks, hoping it’d come down into a feasible range for us.
It had essentially everything on our list — fantastic location in Portland on a dead-end street, right next to my favorite running trail along the water. Tons of natural light. Super efficient heating and hot water. Square, mostly fenced in back yard. A detached one car garage in nice condition. Lovely moldings and great curb appeal. There was even a (presently) useless office on the first floor that could be easily converted to a powder/laundry room.
The cons to this house were namely the price, and a whole boatload of deferred maintenance. There is asbestos in rough shape all throughout the basement. The roof is near the end of its usable life, and the house interior was badly in need of heavy-duty scrubbing and re-painting. It also only has one very cramped bathroom, and the layout of the kitchen and bathroom as-is don’t particularly make sense.
So which house did we choose?
The “pricey, love at first sight” house!
After stalking it for a few weeks, we noticed they were having an open house, and we decided to see if it was as great as we thought it was. It was. So we submitted our very best offer, knowing it was a full $25,000 less than their asking price. The offer was unfortunately refused, because the seller owed more than that amount on his mortgage. We stayed hung up on that house as we kept hunting, and our realtor kept in touch with the seller’s realtor (we referred to it as “our house, that he just hasn’t sold to us yet” for this time period.)
Two months after we made our offer, the seller came back and accepted it as written! He had to bring money to the table to sell it to us, but it all worked out in the end.
Now we’re on to the scrubbing, painting, and refinishing to make this house our new home.