So you think you want to buy a house?

You’ve heard it before — buying a home may be the biggest financial decision you ever make.  So it’s imperative to approach it with solid budgeting principles. And at Goodbudget, that means we start by budgeting with a why.

Our desire to own a home can stem from many places, whether something deep within ourselves, messages from the media, or the influences of people around us.  And those desires shape our picture of what it means to own a home — what that home should look like, what kind of neighborhood it should be in, what that home says about who we are.  But before taking concrete steps to buy a home, it’s important to take a step back and ask ourselves what’s most (and least) important.

Ask yourself, what’s your ideal home?

  • If you were to imagine your ideal home, what would it be like?
  • Where would it be?
  • What and/or who would be nearby?

Right now, we’re just trying to figure out what we might want as a starting point.  Don’t get too attached, though, because we’re going to peel this apart in the next steps.

When my husband and I embarked on buying a place in our city, I think my ideal home was something like a 2-3 bedroom cottage that didn’t need much maintenance and had a garage and a thriving sunny backyard garden.  And in my imagination, it would be in a tree-lined neighborhood within a 5-minute walk of our closest friends, an organic grocery store, great transit options, and plenty of hiking trails.

(You can probably start to see where this is going… that’s not the house we ultimately bought.)

Why is that your ideal?

  • Why do you want to buy a home like that?
  • Why do you want to buy a home at all? Is this your goal? Or someone else’s dream?

Buying a home can surface a lot of wants that we might not have known we had or just don’t say out loud in daily life.  Sometimes those are smaller preferences, but sometimes those can be deeply connected with something that’s close to home (ha!) for us.  And sometimes, we might even find out that what we thought we wanted turns out to be someone else’s dream and not on our own. So asking why helps us start to sort out the difference.

For me, a lot of what was in my imagination describes things I enjoy — a garden, trees in the neighborhood, access to the outdoors, tasty cheeses at the grocery.  And then there were things that I’d find convenient — low home maintenance needs, a garage so we wouldn’t need to look for parking, walking everywhere, taking transit.  And when I looked closely, I noticed things that are deeply important to me — while we didn’t have kids at the time, I’d hoped to raise a family and could see living in a 2-3 bedroom house until the kids were grown, and I very much wanted to live in the same neighborhood as friends so we could live some of the practical rhythms of life together.

Why did we want to buy a home at all?  At the time, Bruce and I had lived in our city for a combined 16 years, and we had made a long-term commitment to this place.  To us, the place was filled with a web of relationships in our church community together with workplaces where we engaged in meaningful work.  Buying meant stability in a housing market that was likely to get more expensive over time, and it would give us the opportunity to become part of a neighborhood by staying put on one block instead of moving every couple years when rental arrangements were shaken up.  Especially in the context of a big city, we wanted the chance to get to know our neighbors well enough to stop for a long chat when we walked down the street.

Go deeper with your why.

  • What’s *most* important to you in a home?
  • Why is that important to you?
  • What location would you want your home to be in?
  • How is that related to what’s most important to you?

When I looked at my various why’s, it was clear: the most important thing was being near our church friends.  They were a big part of why we were in the city to begin with! Why buy a house based on other people? Well for one, they’re just really cool people, but more importantly, we became friends in the first place because they were looking to live out similar values to as what we hoped for ourselves.  We’d seen them treat other people’s children as their own, open their homes to welcome others, and budget as if they weren’t the only ones who had a say in their money choices. And we knew that if we wanted a chance to live like that, we’d need other people around us who were trying to do the same.

While not all of our church community lived in a single neighborhood, there was a cluster of folks who did live in a single neighborhood at the time, so that was a big factor in us choosing the neighborhood where we ultimately ended up.  Real estate agents emphasize location, location, location, and I’d agree 100%. For me, that’s because your home’s location will affect so many details of your daily life that you’ll live with every single day, day after day. We looked at location not in terms of someone else’s definition of desirability or “home value”, but our own.  We considered things like — how easy would it be to see our friends and loved ones? What would our commute to work or school(s) look like? Where would we get groceries? How much would we walk, bike, take transit, or drive? Where would we get exercise? Intellectual and cultural stimulation? We didn’t get everything we wanted, of course, but it was helpful to be aware of these things that would become aspects of our daily life.

Flip the script. What’s least important?

  • What is less important to you in a home?
  • What is less important to you in its location?

These questions are just as critical — because at some point the homebuying process you’ll need to make some tradeoffs.  So it’s good to know early on what you’re willing to let go.

For us, the garden was not a must-have.  Both of us grew up in place with much larger lot sizes, so we knew what it would have been like to have a big backyard.  But ultimately, we could live without it. When we needed our fill of the outdoors, we tended to get out and hike or bike anyways.

And a lot of the neighborhood characteristics I’d imagined just weren’t that important — a tree-lined neighborhood with an organic grocery store would have been nice, but weren’t a top priority.  I guess I’d say that living in a nice part of town with good schools was less important to us. Because our definition of a nice neighborhood and good schools is simply different than what the market would assume.  And these days, when I happen to crave tree-lined streets or French-style bakery treats, I just take a longer-than-usual walk a couple neighborhoods over and soak it in for a bit.

So where did we end up?

We prioritized being with the people who’d help us live out the values we hope to espouse, and we let the rest fall to the side.  In our case, we chose to live within walking distance of many friends, within biking distance of church, and within a quick transit ride to work.  And now that we have kids, we walk to the elementary school, the park and the library too. While others might look down on our neighborhood as gritty, we experience it as a beautiful place where folks teach our kids the meaning of true grit.  We’ve gotten to know the families of teachers, nannies, designers, house painters, and nurses alike. And neighbors often say hello in at least four languages when they spot our kids on the street or at the discount grocery store. And we love it!

But notice how I didn’t really talk much about money and budgeting at all?  That’s a whole other blog post!

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