When Mr. Wetzel and I were looking to buy a house, we were on a shoestring budget, but there were several things we expected to find if we were going to take the plunge and make a purchase. So, we sat down and made a list. We didn’t have the financial flexibility to dream up the perfect house and then search until we found it. Instead, we looked at houses online and took a couple tours, and we talked constantly about our impressions and what key things we were attracted to in each house.
At first, our list looked something like this:
TOP PRIORITIES (Things we wouldn’t compromise on)
- An extra half bathroom (1.5 total bathrooms)
- At least 3 bedrooms
- A good heating system, preferably forced air heating
- A wall that would fit our big bookcase (we’re avid readers)
- A garage
- A neighborhood that would be safe
HIGH PRIORITIES (Things we were still looking for, but if we found a perfect house with one or two of them missing, it wouldn’t be a deal breaker)
- Vinyl windows
- An outdated kitchen (I dreamt of remodeling the kitchen)
- House built in the 1970s (we tended to prefer the layout of the 70s style)
- Open living area
- Near parks
- Good walking neighborhood
- Close to the freeway
THE ICING (Things we weren’t looking for, but when we found them in a potential house, they made it even more attractive)
- Wood floors
- Fruit trees, fruit vines or the like
- Established trees
- Attached garage
- Laundry in the garage
At first, I excluded any houses from my online search that did not meet the basic “3 bedrooms, 1 ½ bathrooms” criteria. I didn’t bother to check on house listings in areas of Tacoma with which I was unfamiliar. I made sure any houses with “baseboard heating” were excluded from my searches, and I always started my searches by looking at houses built from 1965 to 1985.
Some of my instincts were good, but others were simply prejudices. As time went by and deals fell through on the first two houses that we wanted to buy, I learned a lot about what we were really looking for in a house, what would be the kind of house that would be good for us, and what criteria were markers of that kind of house.
HOUSES BUILT IN THE 1970s
Mr. Wetzel and I are not skilled enough to fix up a turn-of-the-century house, and we quickly learned that these old houses that had been well maintained or restored were too expensive for us. Newer houses were also too expensive, so we were looking at midcentury houses, from roughly the 1940s through the 1980s. Homes built earlier tended to have boxed off rooms, and as we looked at more houses, we came to love how the open concept design made a small house feel roomier and more social. Once the 1980s hit, however, homes tended to add elaborate features to the private living quarters: Master suites started to have walk-in closets and bathrooms. If we were going to own a certain amount of square footage, we wanted to have it in the public areas, where we could spend time entertaining, chatting, meeting with church, family and friends.
We quickly learned that the 1970s were the sweet spot for what we were looking for: big, open social areas and smaller private areas tucked into the back of the house. If we were going to get the most bang for our buck, the 1970s were where we would most likely find it. The fabulous rambler we ended up buying was built in 1971.
I would often run a search for homes right after work, and then drive around Tacoma to see what the neighborhoods were like and what the potential homes looked like from the outside. This helped to eliminate many homes right away, but it also helped me to become with little neighborhood pockets that I was unaware of.
In some cities, there is a clearly defined “good area” and a clearly defined “bad area.” Not so in Tacoma. The good and the bad are all intermingled; one street may have cute, well established neighbors, and a few streets over there might be a few run-down houses with a suspicious looking crowd. Welcome to urban life! The only way you knew what the neighborhood would be like is experience.
I also did searches for registered sex offenders and crime rates in each area whenever we were seriously considering a house, and that became an insightful barometer for judging the relative safety of different Tacoma neighborhoods. Many US cities have this data available online and readily searchable.
As it turns out, our home is in a neighborhood with lower crime than just about any other neighborhood we looked at in Tacoma (even the areas we dreamed about where all the houses were at least $100,000 out of our price range). We’re on a dead in street, on a quiet road, right off the freeway, and surrounded by trees. To top it all off, the city and the local Puyallup tribe are doing a major project this year to re-pave our street and put in sidewalks…at no expense to us; thank you Federal Stimulus Bill!
FORCED AIR HEATING
This, I knew, was a luxury; however, I was sick of the baseboard heaters in our apartment. They did not warm anything, and they were expensive. I often would search for homes regardless of the heating type, because I realized that many house listings got this detail wrong! The online listing would say “baseboard heating,” but the actual house would have a different system entirely. Because I was willing to look at some homes without my preferred heat style, I was able to discover this anomaly.
The house we bought was listed as having baseboard heaters. Not only did it NOT have baseboard heaters, it had Central Air. What does that mean? Both “Forced Air” and “Central Air” describe a system where there are grates in the floor and a unit pushes the temperature-controlled air throughout the house. With “Forced Air,” there is only heating involved; “Central Air” also includes cooling. It is very rare for a Washington house to have air conditioning, and it is a major luxury. I couldn’t believe it was not listed as a feature online, but was thrilled to discover it in the house that we now own.
PLACES TO PEE
If you’ve ever lived in a house with 1 bathroom and more than 1 person, you’ve run into the “I gotta pee” scenario that Mr. Wetzel and I were hoping to avoid. We came to realize, however, that while we wanted an extra half bathroom desperately, it was something we had lived without for our married life and that we could live without for a bit longer. If it wasn’t for this concession, we wouldn’t have bothered looking at this house, and this is the house that is perfect for us.
HOW DID WE FARE? Here’s how the house we bought measures up to the hopes and dreams that we had when we were looking for a new home:
- 1 Bathroom
- 3 Bedrooms
- Central Air
- A wall that fits our big bookcase
- An attached, 1-car garage
- Laundry in the garage…as well as lot of storage
- Safe neighborhood
- NO Basement (Oh well!)
- Vinyl windows, relatively new
- An outdated kitchen (Yay! I get to remodel!)
- Built 1971
- Open living area
- Near 2 parks
- After the road construction and imminent sidewalks, it will be a great walking neighborhood
- 2 minutes off the freeway
- Laminate wood floors in the public areas
- Apple tree, Rainier cherry tree, 2 grape vines (green & purple), rhubarb plant, strawberry patch, lavender, tons of roses and a raised garden area
Beyond our expectations!
It took us over a year to finally find the house that was right for us. Take your time. Be willing to change your opinions and to compromise. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Look at things you never thought you’d want, and look in places you never thought to go. Finally, have fun and be willing to fall in love with a house. The more experience you have searching, the more sure you’ll be when the right house comes along.
*Photos courtesy of Justin Higgins