How do you pick a house?

Background: My husband and I have jobs that are pretty far apart (35 miles, to be exact). There is a city between his job and mine (Washington D.C., if you must know), which poses a couple problems: (a) One of us would have to commute through city traffic every day, and (b) Any midway point would be pretty expensive for not a whole lot of living space. Neither one of us want to quit our jobs, and we’d like to live in an actual house (i.e., not a condo or townhouse).

Current dilemma: What we’re doing right now is looking at all kinds of houses that are various stages of compromise - close to my job but far from his, close to his job but far from mine, kind of midway but still a bad commute for both of us and with tiny lots and cramped living space, far from both of ours but in a nicer neighborhood, further away but more likely to be driving against traffic. And so what we end up doing is comparing all these houses with disparate elements, trying to decide which one is best, and ultimately not being happy with any of them.

So my question is: When you realize that you can’t find a house that had all the criteria you want, how do you select the most important criteria?

The main thing I see you 2 having to decide upon is how you feel about commuting. Some people don’t mind a long drive at all. If so, get the house closer to the other person’s work. Or is one commute far easier. An hour at the speed limit is far different than an hour of stop-and-go. Also, how secure/portable are your jobs? Could one of you work from home some days, or look for work nearer the other?

I know a few couples where they each have a long commute. Personally, I don’t understand it. In my mind, no house is worth it, if both people have to spend large amounts of time in unpleasant commutes. I’d imagine figuring which of you has the better long-term job, or which is best able to get other employment that makes the commutes better.

Our personal situation was that I worked downtown, so we bought our first 2 homes in the suburbs where my wife worked, within walking distance of the commuter line. But doesn’t apply to you.

Good luck.

Our strategy was to keep looking until we fell in love with a house. If you just love the house, you figure out real quick which of your criteria were actually important. Yes, this is making decisions with your heart, but I think that’s fine in situations where your head can’t make everything work anyway.

That is something we’ve considered. His job is more secure than mine, though mine is fairly secure as well (I work for a government contractor, and we still have several years left on the contract). I also might be able to get permission to work from home, though I’d rather not, as I don’t think I’d like going entire days with hardly any human contact.

For a while, our plan was for me to move out closer to his job and either get permission to work from home or quit and find a new job. But I like my job and don’t want to leave it. Also, our relationship is set up such that we contribute to household finances equally, so if I were to quit my job and look for a new one, that would be a serious adjustment for both of us. Not impossible, but uncomfortable.

So to summarize, what you suggested is an option we have given very serious consideration to. In fact, when we put in an offer for a short sale last year, the home was twice as far from my job as it was from his. But I’d really like to see if there’s an option that doesn’t involve me having to leave my job.

That’s our strategy, too. We first started looking in November 2012. How long did it take you guys?

Thump it with a finger. A good house sounds hollow.

There is location, and then there is a house in that location.
Besides the points already made, if you have kids or are thinking about having kids the quality of the school district is very important - not just for the kids, but for property values.
You might also see if there is public transportation available for at least one commute.

Once that is done, one way of sorting the properties of a house are by what can be fixed easily and what can’t be fixed. It is easy to fix the carpets, not so easy to fix the number of rooms and if the house is next to the train tracks. Do you want to save money with a fixer-upper or want something that will do right then. Open floorplan or rooms? Size of the lawn/yard. How close the neighbors are. How close stores and restaurants and hospitals are. One story or two. How efficiently is the area used? Old house or relatively new house?
Finally, be on the lookout for staging tricks. We walked through some new houses a block from us, and since we weren’t the slightest bit interested in buying I could pay attention to the tricks. They put a small bed in all the bedrooms to make it look like there was more space. They took a bunch of doors off for the same reason. They made the bathroom look sunny and attractive by very light curtains - unfortunately it looked over a liquor store, so this wasn’t to be very practical in real life.

Good luck! And always go back again - at night and perhaps during the rain to check for leaks.

We bought our current house during a house hunting trip paid for by my new company. This was 20 years ago, and it took a week, all we had. Back then houses weren’t on-line so you could probably be more efficient now.
It wasn’t our first, which helped. There are a few things I wished I had noticed, but all in all it was a good choice, and far better than our other possibility.

For me, commute was a primary factor in home selection. Having done the compromise when working out living situations with one or two housemates prior to that, I learned quickly and thoroughly that I don’t like having a lousy commute.

Would you mind sharing the locations of your jobs? Depending on how they straddle DC, it might be possible to cobble together one or two routes (from a strategic home zip code) that avoid the worst that the Beltway has to offer.

Does either of you have the option of working off-peak hours? One of my colleagues would have a pretty bad commute except she works 10-7(ish). Her drive isn’t skittles and beer, but it’s much better than it would be during rush hour.

I live in Tysons and have been in the DC area since 1983. I have lived in Adams Morgan, Beltsville, White Oak, North Bethesda, and now Tysons. I have worked in DC, Silver Spring, Greenbelt, Gaithersburg, New Carrollton, Rockville, and probably a couple of other places.

If you would like to share your two work locations I may have some specific advice for you. PM me if you don’t want to post it.

Are there any options where one or both of you could commute by mass transit? Not having to deal with traffic would make the commute much easier to deal with compared to driving yourself. I wouldn’t necessarily mind a 35 mile train ride to work since I could read, nap, or work during the trip.

Have you considered a single-family home in DC?

EDIT: More to the point, why wouldn’t a single-family home in DC work for you guys?

Figure out the black and white of what you need and what you absolutely don’t want, and then go look at houses. Worrying about all the grey area stuff is futile, because you’re not going to find the Perfect House. You pick the one with the best Likes to Dislikes ratio.

Once you start looking you’ll get a feel for what’s out there and what you can expect to get for the money. As you go through it as a couple and start talking about it, you’ll figure out what compromises you’re willing to make. Eventually you’ll pick one!

Have you ever owned a house before or will this be your first house?

One of my hobbies was looking at interesting houses and going to opens for houses I would never be able to afford.

But still, when I bought my house back in 1991 (pre-internet search days), I went to approximately 60 open houses before finding the one I bought.

I agree with **Lowdown **above. Decide on the things you absolutely want and absolutely do not want, go from there and be a little flexible.

For example, I absolutely despise white kitchens and have a tendency to click off them when viewing them on-line. However, the other day I ran into a house that had so many other things I liked that I had to begrudgingly admit that the kitchen in this particular house wasn’t so absolutely horrible that I wouldn’t like the house.

We spent a year looking in the Portland area, then a year looking in the Puget Sound area. Turns out we found the house we loooove within a month or two of looking at Puget Sound real estate listings, but we didn’t actually get out there to confirm we loved it for a lot longer. Fortunately no one bought it out from under us …

So, two years.

Maybe both of you could start looking for a job near the other with the understanding that it needs to be a good job–a job that is a clear improvement for the person that moves. Neither of you currently wants to leave your job because it’s better than hypothetical new job. But if hypothetical new job becomes specific exciting career opportunity, that will feel very different. And whenever one of you finds that job, the other stops looking and you start house hunting.

A lot of people in DC commute by rail. Would that be an option for one or both of you?

I work from home, and actually the human contact still tends to come through phone calls, Skype etc. You get more work done as there’s less ‘hey, just come to this meeting’ stuff - plus if I feel like I need other people, I go out and work at a cafe for a few hours just to feel like there are other people around. It’s not a bad option if you can get it.

Also second the idea of considering public transport.

And (not knowing the area) is there an option at the top of the triangle outside the city (i.e. where each of your jobs are at the other points). So a slightly longer commute for both, but not directly through the city?

We were in the exact same position. He works pretty far up into Maryland and any job he gets will always be in that area. I work in Virginia, but may end up downtown sooner than later. I want to metro to work and he wants a reverse commute. Our budget was around $400k, which doesn’t give a lot of choices in the area. He values space and safety, and I value walkability and neighborhood charm. We also wanted a decent public elementary school.

In other words, quite a challenge.

We did a LOT of research on Redfin and Zillow, just scoping out commutes, schools and prices and trying to identify any little pockets where the three came together. We started off thinking big and creatively, and then whittled down to the most realistic options.

Once we had broad areas identified, we started going to open houses casually, casting a pretty wide net. It was a LOT of back and forth and discussion (sometimes pretty heated discussion) as we came to terms with the reality of the compromises we’d have to make (he wasn’t getting five bedrooms and I wasn’t going to be right next to metro). But eventually our ideas of what was acceptable started to converge and some middle ground started to appear-- even if it was mostly “I guess I don’t hate that.”

After a few months of that, we got to know the target areas pretty well, and had a good feel for what the options were in our range. We then got an agent and started looking. And we seriously looked- 5 or 6 houses a weekend, every weekend, pretty much all summer. Even so tightly narrowed down, the range of options we looked at was huge and it was so helpful to know the area inside out. Without that knowledge, we could have easily made some bad choices.

We found a house that was acceptable-ish, and mostly out of exhaustion put in an offer. Then we got cold feet and pulled out (thank goodness- it would have been a huge mistake). We found another house that was GREAT, but got outbid by a cash investor.

Eventually, we toured a house at the top of our price range in a much nicer neighborhood than we expected to be in. It was older and compact, but well constructed and spacious enough thanks to a large ground-level walkout basement. Good commute for him, and not impossible for me. We put in an offer that morning, before the open house even started. The seller was motivated and wanted to sell to a family rather than a flipper, and we got it. It probably helped that the open house was on a holiday.

It’s worked out well enough. My commute sucks-- more than an hour-- but I deal with it, he puts in more work on chores, and hopefully I get downtown soon (where it will be a much easier 45 minutes). His commute is much easier and we are near family.

Our finances are more stressed than I was hoping (though we have raises coming up that will make things more comfortable). But the house next door (same build, just updated) just sold for $80k more than we paid, and unless something crazy happens I suspect we got very, very lucky with value.