When the Not Boyfriend and I decided that it is (almost) time to take our relationship further and that we'd like to move in together (eventually), the first thing we did is list out all the things we'd hope to find in a home for the three of us - the minimalist bachelor guy, the clutter magnet-shoe hoarder lady and my son, collector of buckets and buckets and bins of small plastic thingies. Because we want to stay together once we share an address, we decided space was most important. I added a yard, he hoped for a dining room big enough to hold a large table and many friends on Sunday nights.
Then I did something really radical when it comes to hunting for somewhat-reasonable, pretty spacious, earth-accessible real estate: I decided it needed to be close to my son's school. Preferably, walkable.
That shrunk our hunt for a new home down to about six to eight city blocks. That inflated our monthly rent or mortgage budget by a thousand dollars. That has made our real estate agents nuts and Craigslist our nemesis.
We've considered buying, but are now opting to rent, and in the process, have seen dozens and dozens of apartments, condos, duplex-down units, houses, places with "vintage charm" and those with high-end, super-new finishes. We've walked through homes that have not been worked on since the mid-60s and had to put our imaginations to work in units that were stripped down to the studs (but ready to rent tomorrow!). We've considered smaller places that would require us to rent a storage unit and larger places with full basements for stress-free storage. We've seen a house with a library, a penthouse with a private roof deck, and a middle-floor unit with an elevator that opened right into the living room, like something out of Silver Spoons.
We've also high-tailed it out of a home where doors were mysteriously locked and which housed a huge bucket of wild-bird seed blocked the front door. There have been places that were mehhh, a few that have been ohhh, and one that smelled a lot like R. Kelly's sheets might smell like.
During this exhaustive search, we keep ending up standing in the middle of the perfect (PERFECT!) place for the three of us that stands in the center of a neighborhood that's too far or too iffy, or holding applications for homes that are OK (just OK) exactly on the block where we want to be.
Forget the rent-or-buy back-and-forth. More than the yard or the office or the storage or the budget, we've debated: House vs. Neighborhood.
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Here, the crowd-sourced responses to the age-old real-estate debate on where to move. What advice guided you in the last home you bought or rented? Did you make the right choice? And what would you do all over again? The bossiest people I know didn't hold back when I asked whether the 'hood or the home is the priority. Here are their best pieces of advice:
Location. You do not want the best house in the worst 'hood.
This is a great consideration if you're buying, but what if you're leasing a house or renting an apartment in a building for a few years? Would it make you sigh with relief or smile ear-to-ear to walk up to an adorable place in a neighborhood full of run-down houses or sad-looking complexes? And would you feel the same pride stepping into a simpler, smaller or less-McMansiony home on a block full of fancies? I bet Pema Chodron has an answer for this, and that it has nothing to do with the front door that won't shut and crap landscaping.
You don't want to live in an amazing house in a sketchy neighborhood. You could end up feeling like a prisoner.
Isolation is a big old trigger for me, and I've lived in neighborhoods where I was too far away from the things I wanted to do, the people I wanted to see and the places I wanted to be. And I lived in those places without a car or access to reliable public transportation. I didn't realize how much that trapped feeling still lived in me until we saw a fabulous duplex-down apartment with an amazing secret garden-like backyard, oodles of space and the nicest-guy landlord -- just tucked into a pocket that's 12 long blocks north of anything I know. The Not Boyfriend was ready to throw all his books on Zen and Ayurveda and military history into a box and go, but I panicked. The lesson for me? A neighborhood doesn't have to be sketchy at all for me to feel like it's jail.
If the house is great enough, certain neighborhoods are worth considering even if they were not meant to be on your list of preferred locations.
A vote for the house! That fabulous duplex-down in the neighborhood that was too far north that induced a panic attack for me? I've reconsidered it many, many times even though the voice in my head says, "RUN! Run fast. Run far. Or at least the 12-15 blocks to a cute little boutique and a wine bar one neighborhood over." And the reason I've pushed past my caged-animal instincts is because I really could envision the three of us living there, and I really felt like we would love it. As soon as we stepped in the door. Plus, I felt like I had to give the place a fair chance because my love loved it. In the end, the 'hood was beyond the boundaries of "preferred location."
Don't let it be a question. ONLY look in neighborhoods where you want your family to live.
You've got me on this one. Now someone please tell the real estate agent. Oh, and maybe conference in the person in charge of sketchy Craigslist apartment postings that sneakily list every trendy neighborhood in the city even though the unit is located somewhere in Kansas (no offense to Craigslist Kansas).
Please go with neighborhood. I live in an adorable house and have to drive 20 more minutes to school.
To many people (ahem, those who do not usher children back and forth to academics and activities), 20 minutes seems like nothing. But if you're a work-at-home parent who drives a stretch to school, back home, then to school and back home PLUS any after-school commitments, meetings or instances of forgotten lunch or uniforms or sanity, adding even a half-hour can feel like hell. Hell in a car with Carly Rae Jepson on repeat. And if you'd like to discuss this further or argue your side of the commute debate, feel free to jump on in to the back-and-forth the Not Boyfriend and I have about this on a weekly basis.
You can fix up the house, but your son will be growing up in the neighborhood.
Fair point. When the Not Boyfriend and I were first looking at houses to buy, we fell madly, instantly in love with a recently gut-rehabbed, gorgeous bungalow. I stood in the room that would be E's and cried. He rushed through every bathroom, walk-in closet and bedroom at least three times. It was our house. But it was far away from our neighborhood. The dream starter home was blocks from a strip club, in the center of a flood zone, and cited for too many crimes and too much gang activity for us to move in with a boy who will, soon enough, be a teenager. We've compared every house and apartment we've seen to that near-perfect place as the gold standard of where we want to be and also where we don't want to be.
How nice is the house? Maybe it's time to be adventurous, to step a few blocks from your comfort zone.
In my 20s, when I took an apartment in a secretly Section 8 complex and ended up living next door to young man who was regularly staring in my front window when I opened the blinds in the morning and around the way from a vet with a lumberjack beard who rode a pink girls bike covered in severed doll heads -- now THAT was adventurous. Adventurous and $250 a month (I moved out when the rent was raised to $300 because...OHMAHGAW 300 @$%&* DOLLARS FOR AN APARTMENT?!). Now I am a mom who works who works from home and adventurous feels more like giving in to radiator heat rather than having central air. How far - in blocks and crazy neighbors - are you willing to go outside your comfort zone these days?
You can paint walls and rearrange furniture. But neighbors stay too long and the neighborhood is permanent.
YEAH! NEIGHBORS! Come over one day and I will introduce you to my downstairs neighbors, Angry Kate and Snoring Stompy Greg. Then let's head over to the Not Boyfriend's place for a rousing game of not-sleeping at 5:30 a.m. while the little boy upstairs repeatedly bounces his ball in the bedroom and the parents later let him wail for an hour out in the hallway. I would really, really like to paint these neighbors out of the picture. Now if only there was some way to guarantee that even the residents of the neighborhoods I want to live in would be jerk-free. Who can help me find that apartment-renter app?
-By Jessica Ashley
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