Wednesday, May 2

The Challenge of Buying Less

The home I bought last year is not the home a real-estate agent would have picked out for me. I am reminded of this because a co-worker is buying a home and has already gone through one round of falling in love with a house just beyond his means and not being able to pull it off. What is it with agents only showing us houses that max out our borrowing capacity?

I have a hunch this is why every agent I've talked to has sent me to their mortgage person first... so they can get a picture of absolutely how much we have to spend. But maybe what we have to spend will buy us lots of things that make us less happy.

When I bought my very first home -- an 880 sq ft condo in a depressed area -- more than 10 years ago, I ran across Hugh Chou's financial calculator page. At the time he was posting mostly real estate calculators, and in the middle of the calculators, he posted this article on how much house one really should buy. I also had a good friend who was stretched to the breaking point to make the payments on her suburban home and then had a surprise baby. Another friend had to sell her family home because a business deal gone bad.

So, betwixt and between, I became convinced that I should shop for the house I want, at a price I'm willing to pay, and that my agent is really just there to do the research and to make sure the paperwork protects me. And I think there are agents out there who view their job that way. But lots of agents, and lots of agents I've worked with, seem to view their job as selling me the best house they'd live in for the money I have available.

My ex bought a house through an agent who specialized in a tony part of town. After we'd met and gotten serious, we started looking at houses and found one that was four bedrooms, a nice community, had a full shop built in the back, and was half the price of the house we were in. She exclaimed, "Where was this house when I was shopping before? How come I didn't see things like this?" The answer has to be because she was able to buy something in a community her agent knew, she got shown the things in that community.

When I was shopping last year, I was very intentional about looking for these things: an existing house so that I wasn't sending waste to the landfill; a connected house to increase energy efficiency; a modest house that used space well, that could be shared with other adults without a lot of space or noise conflicts; one that was close to the things I cared about; and one that didn't need a lot of effort in things I'm bad at (like yard work). I found one... and for about $30,000 less than my previous agents would have started me at.

I didn't have an agent when I found it, so I sounded out a friend at church about representing me. He started back at square one of the traditional route... "let me give you the name of my mortgage broker so we can see what you can afford, then we can start looking around." I'm still amazed that our realities are so different. Why isn't buying a house like buying a car? You find something you like for a price you're willing to pay, you take it to the shop and have it checked out, you run the VIN, you make a pitch to the bank, you buy it. What's the great mystery about real estate that you have to pay as much as you can possibly afford to get something you like?

I have a hunch, but in the spirit of trying to keep the things I write here in the voice of my best, most optimistic, playful self, I'll just skip over that and say that shopping and then buying has worked out fine for me. This is my third house, I am happy, and I am not house poor.


P~ said...

I cannot agree with you more on this Anne. I think it is a general mindset. It is in the same realm as why people always look to what they can buy rather that what they can reuse. It is a status, and status quo issue in a lot of ways. My wife and are different that most of our friends in that we have essentially the same standard of living, yet manage to do it on one income. We can only attribute this to decisions and living with the bounds of our financial reality.
Very good post.

Anne said...

Hi p~, I like your suggestion about status quo... I think it's easy to get entrenched in ways of thinking about things and to forget to ask whether the circumstances that created that habit still warrant it.

Unbox Videos


NotSoBigLiving is the story of a woman inspired by Sarah Susanka, Bill McKibben, Airstreams, Tumbleweed houses, Mennonites, Jimmy Carter, hippies, survivalists, Anasazi, Pema Chodron and Joko Beck, Scott Peck, Buckminster Fuller, and Al Gore to see what she can do to reduce her carbon footprint in her mid-80's suburban townhome. Strategies include roommates, alternative travel, organic eating, planting a victory garden, mindfulness, and a belly full of laughter.