Offbeat House Hunters: Our experience home shopping on a budget

Guest post by Viviane Brock
Who here loves HGTV’s “House Hunters”? Let’s play the Offbeat Home version with three houses for $150,000 or under.

Whenever I watch reality TV shows about purchasing a house, they seem to be geared to a price point that is completely unattainable to my family and me. While people have “budgets” they are more like “responsibly within our range of affordability” type budgets rather than “family of three living off of $44,000 a year” type budget (our situation).

While we had managed to save up enough for a down payment, with a series of contract jobs, my partner and I felt like a string of apartments was all we could look forward to in the future. While this wasn’t terrible, the real estate in our area meant that paying monthly rent was often the same as a “starter house” mortgage, utilities, insurance and incidentals of owning a home.

Then I became pregnant (surprise) with baby #2, and at the same time (even bigger surprise) was offered a full-time permanent job. We had a four-month window where we could purchase a house, or wait at least two years to qualify for a mortgage. So we went house hunting, for a house $150,000 or under.

When considering what we wanted in a house, we made a list of what we were looking for based on our lifestyle:

  1. Walking distance from my work and the main bus terminal, so we didn’t have to be dependent on a car
  2. In “move in condition,” any cosmetic renovations (ie: painting, drywalling, tiling, refinishing floors) were fine, but we are expecting baby #2 in the near future so we were not looking to do any major DIY fixes (roofs, windows, basement, foundation etc)
  3. Outdoor space appropriate for children to play in

  4. Two-to-three bedrooms
  5. Good storage space
  6. Finally, a kitchen that allows you to see into the living room (so we can cook and clean while keeping an eye on our toddler)

While we looked at many houses, I will compare just our top three…

House #1: The lowest price range, quirky. surprise house

House 1

This house ticked many of our boxes on paper. At $129,000, it was well within our price range. It was about a 30 minute walk from my work, had a decent size yard, and an excellent wrap around porch, as well as great lighting throughout. I can honestly say I walked into this quirky home and was rapidly falling in love with it. The crazy wrap-around stairs! The all cedar master bedroom! The 1930s kitchen! I couldn’t get enough, around every corner was a surprise, and I could feel my inner DIY’er who loved a challenge start making the house my home in my head.

My husband however, was seeing the number of renovations we would have to make just to bring the building from “quirky and a giant baby deathtrap” to just plain old quirky. Neither of us was impressed with the strange kitchen with stair leading into the basement. Being kitchen-lovers ourselves we could see how user unfriendly the set up would be.

Still, we had hopes that perhaps, if nothing else turned up, we could still find a quirky house in our price range.

House #2: Upper end of our price range, estate sale, carpeting (bleh!)

House 2

We looked at this house only because it fit with our price range and it was in the area we wanted to live. Neither of us were really jazzed by the photos on the real estate site, and both of us were grossed out by the peachy beige carpet we saw in the living room.

When we got to the house, we realized how close it was to our public library, and three of our friends with children the same age as ours. The location was closer than the first house and the yard fenced in — all these things very much in its favour.

When we got inside, we were all quiet for a bit as we walked around. Then we started getting less quiet as my toddler tore around like she owned the place. It was spotless. There were no weird cracks, or renovations needed, or structural defects we could see. The kitchen was central to the main floor of the house, looking over the backyard and into the living room at the same time. When we hit that carpet in the living room, we tugged up the corner and revealed the original hardwood underneath. The house came with fridge, stove, freezer, washer, dryer, dishwasher, snowblower, lawnmower, curtains: everything apartment dwellers with kids need but don’t own.

Our real estate agent revealed it was an estate sale, the same couple had lived in the house for more than 30 years, and had died recently. Their children were selling. Which meant one of two things — either they would be emotionally attached and not want to sell, or they would take less than they were offering. We were understandably excited and glad we checked the place out. But onto the next!

House #3: Upper end of our price range, newly renovated, and across the street from our kids’ school

House 3

This house had my fingers crossed and triple crossed. It was the shortest walk from my work, was in the newest, renovated condition (the last house was very much stuck in the 1970s) and had just dropped in price by $20,000. New roof, new windows. Could this be it?

One definite fallback for this property is that was occupied when we looked at it, with three lodgers, who were filthy. It is really hard to get into a house that covered in filth and has people who wish you would get the hell out of it. The first thing we noticed was that to get into the house, there were about 40+ outdoor (unshoveled) steps you had to walk up up the side of a hill to get to the front door, from where you can park. For people in Northern Ontario, Canada, this spells “winter shoveling nightmare.” The backyard was also set into a hill, so in reality only had the space of a small walkway and porch. The outside, while well landscaped and newly spruced up, was very user un-friendly for people with children.

Inside was all well and good, until we hit the kitchen. The floor was questionable and spongy under our feet. When we headed down to check the basement it was a dirt floor nightmare. It seemed like the renovations to the rest of the house were hiding the fact that the floor was experiencing moisture seepage, and possibly issues in the foundation. Pretty on the outside, crummy at the center. One look at that basement told me all I needed to know: No, thank you.

Which house did they choose?

In the end, we saw several more houses — some strange, some so totally falling apart, that they are not even worth mentioning. We decided to make an offer and do a house inspection of #2. We were able to purchase it for $14000 less than the asking price and were given two enthusiastic thumbs up from our house inspector regarding the structural integrity of the house. With some cosmetic fixes, we are going to have a lovely house for the next five plus years to raise our family in, and best yet, invest money into something we own instead of rent!

Comments on Offbeat House Hunters: Our experience home shopping on a budget

  1. My boyfriend & I just bought our first home, there was very little in the area (being close to work was a high priority) in our budget ($450,000). We knew we would need to be ready to jump as soon as something we liked appeared. The condo we ended up buying went on the market at about 2pm, we looked at it at 5pm, put an offer in at 6pm just to find out there had already been two other offers on it! After increasing the offer a few times it was accepted at around midnight. It was really nerve racking to go take another look at it the next day, but in the end we’re happy with our “impulse” buy.

  2. We are in the process of buying our first house so I loved reading this! The house we found was adorable, well-built and just what we wanted (except that it’s a 2BR instead of 3…but there’s a den that can be made into a room methinks). We’re currently dealing with the home inspection, which found a red-flag basement…but the sellers just agreed to fix it up (and not cheaply!) and no major damage or sponginess in the floors. The home inspector told us, “This is a critical time in the life of this house…if you put a little work into it now, it’ll last a long, long time.” We’re taking that to heart at this point and hope that it all goes down without a hitch.

    Along with picking a house if this is going to be a series, I’d love to see more information about getting through the mortgage-process – what can come up on the bank side (that one payment you forgot to make on your student loans), figuring out a downpayment and PMI and interest rates, VA loans (which is what we’re going through now) and other federal programs, etc. Our bank has been GREAT so far but I think it could be really helpful to have a straightforward rundown of the process, which I’ve yet to find online.

    • I think its hard to find a “straightforward rundown” of the process because the process itself is NOT straightforward and varies completely depending where you are. For example, we are Canadian and in Ontario, so student loans pretty much don’t have any affect on your mortgage getting capabilities. It is considered “good debt”. But if you missed paying your credit card or cell phone bill- RED FLAG! Its also different with the minimum down payment amount (We can put just 5% down, then pay a hefty chunk of extra insurance because of that), whether or not you go directly with a bank or if you use a mortgage broker. Then there is the whole insurance thing, oy! Its best to find a trustworthy real estate agent, person you know who just bought a house or house hunting blog in your region. Otherwise the info just does not apply!

  3. Today is my one year houseversary. Our home buying process was astonishingly easy. We were recommended a mortgage broker who was a “tough love” type who encouraged people to buy within their means. When we showed him the MLS listings for the houses we were looking at, his first reaction was, “Oh good. I don’t have to give you guys the ‘house poor’ speech. You’re actually being really conservative.” He didn’t mind taking hours to answer all our questions. He appreciated that we were taking the process seriously.

    We looked at about 10 houses, but the one we ended up buying wasn’t one of the houses our real estate agent picked out. It was a house I found online and then asked the agent to arrange for us to see. It was literally one block away from the house we’d been renting for five years. I had my heart set on staying in that neighborhood, so I’d been watching the real estate listings for years. I really knew the market. It’s actually a really expensive area (I live a mile away from the governor’s mansion). I knew exactly which section of the neighborhood to watch, which search terms to use, and I had all kinds of crazy email alerts set up, which is how I found the house before the agent did. The price was bang on budget for us. If one of us lost our job, we’d be fine. We’d have to eat out less and drop our cable, but we’d be fine.

    The house is PERFECT. It’s a 1930s bungalow, and I love me a bungalow. It’s exactly the right size for us. Obviously an area we love and know well. The neighbors here all know each other and are super friendly. We’re easy walking distance to a university with a really good basketball team (we’re sports fanatics). It has a two car garage which, for our neighborhood, is a freaking coup. The family that lived in the house before us loved the house and took amazing care of it, so the inspection turned up almost nothing, and the few issues it did reveal so horrified the owner that he fixed them I think as a point of pride more than to make the sale. The only reason they sold it is that they wanted to have more kids, and the house is really only big enough for three. The wife actually cried when they handed over the keys. I don’t blame her. I think I want to live in that house until I die.

  4. This was such a fun read!!! I LOVE house hunting (my husband and I are studying to become realtors), but hate the show because, well, who really has the kind of budgets those people have? And I can’t stand how horrible the people usually are who are looking at the houses “Ugh, I hate the color of this room. We can’t buy this house.” “I have to have granite countertops or I won’t even look at a house.” “This house only has 3 bathrooms – we need 4….” Blah, blah, blah. I like looking at real houses for real people.

    Congratulations on the purchase!!! House #2 looks fabulous and that’s totally the one I’d choose, too!

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