Buying a house vs. buying a house AND a life

Buying a house vs. buying a house AND a life

We’re house hunting right now.

One of our long-term goals has been to move from our starter home into a place with a little more space–and more importantly, more than one bathroom–before our kids hit the teen years. I love my starter house, but it’s time to start looking.

I haven’t bought a house (or moved!) in over a decade, and I have a newfound respect for those of you that have. The hunt has been an education (and we’re not done yet).

We’ve been going through the stages of what I suspect is a very typical home search. We thought we knew what we wanted: a cute home with good bones and character, that was close to move-in ready, in one of the nearby neighborhoods we love and are familiar with. 

But we quickly figured out that those modest-seeming homes go for 30% (at least!) more than we wanted to pay.

I’d envisioned raising our family in one of those homes, and it was easy to tell myself that ponying up the big bucks would be worth it in the long run. Big numbers don’t sound like a huge deal when amortized over 15 or 30 years. It’s hard to feel the emotional impact of paying 30% more for a house–even when that looks like tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s a common weakness: money is just a number, and while those numbers remain abstract, we’re unable to make intelligent decisions about money. (That link is worth your time.) I’ve been wrestling with ways of turning our abstract house numbers into something concrete by applying those principles to our house hunt.

house-on-the-lake

I finally landed on a few things that are helping us frame our decision.

We could pay the big bucks for the perfect house (not that there is such a thing, but work with me), or:

  • We could spend 80,000 less, and take the whole family on a two-week European vacation with the savings–four times.
  • With $50,000, we could fully fund a missionary for a whole year.
  • With 25,000, we could take the whole family to visit some of our favorite people on the West Coast–five times.
  • With $15,000, we could replace both of our old cars with pretty decent substitutes.
  • With 5,000, we could fund our daily latté habit for 4 1/2 years.
  • With $1,000, we could buy the most expensive bouquet Trader Joe’s has to offer, every week, for over 3 years.

When our realtor asked us how much we could spend, I tried to explain the difference between what we wanted to pay (less) and what the mortgage company thought we could afford (more). I rambled on, not sure if she’d get it. She works on commission, you know.

She got it. “I understand completely,” she said. “You don’t just want a house: you want a house and a life.”

Exactly.

I hate making big decisions–including big decisions about money–but framing the conversation in these tangible terms is making deciding a little bit easier.

All the Money in the World

P.S. Another book that’s helped change our paradigm and frame our big decisions about money is Laura Vanderkam’s All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Wealth. (Spoiler: you’ll be happier if you spend less on your house and cars, and more on experiences. See why I like it?) Highly recommended.

 

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59 comments

  1. This is such a great post, Anne. We’ve been having a related conversation over here. We don’t own a home yet, and up until recently, it had been next on our financial goals list after becoming debt free and saving an emergency fund.

    But then we realized: our overhead is lower than it will ever be, my husband has summers “off” as a professor, my work is flexible and mobile, and we don’t have children yet. This combination of factors seems to lend itself to fulfilling a dream of living abroad for a couple months.

    The wheels are spinning: what if we save for that trip before we save for a house? What if we prioritize an incredible experience over an extra year or two as homeowners, in other words.

    • Jacey, do it, do it! Seriously, the one life regret I have (besides the ones that involve forgetting to take home leftovers :)) is that Ryan and I didn’t live overseas before we had kids.

      Sure, we did travel and we still travel now, but I would have loved to have spent a few months or even a year or two abroad before our options were more limited by different jobs, a house, and kids. Our “limitations” are also blessings but there is something to be said for taking advantage of the unique season of life you’re in now. Because it is unique 🙂

    • Kim says:

      Are you familiar with the blog Married with Luggage? The couple had a major shift in attitude and plans, and became world travelers in 2008. However, they did just buy a house in Spain. The story is interesting, both on the travel and how they came to be home owners again. You may find inspiration and encouragement there! Married with Luggage. com. Good luck!

  2. Thanks for the All the Money mention! As you guys are homeschooling, you can also be more flexible in the district you buy in — that might be an option for getting a lower price on a home too. I’m also convinced, by various HGTV shows, that renovation is a smart bet. Yes, it’s a pain, but since you’re not selling your home, you don’t have to move into a home that’s being renovated.

  3. Molly says:

    Thank you for posting this. We will be looking to buy a house in the next couple of years (provided the planets align). We have been casually visiting open houses for a while now, and the numbers involved boggle my mind. This way of looking at money helps put things in perspective. I want the house AND the life experiences. I’ll have to take a look at this book before we dive into house hunting full force.

  4. kelly says:

    Bravo! This is how we’ve been living…but for having to be in what’s considered a good school district. We’d much rather have experiences with our children and each other than have the “extra” bits of house, new fashions, or new cars.

  5. Amy says:

    It was just announced yesterday that Paper Towns is getting a movie by the same people that did TFiOS – picking that one up today!

  6. Kristen says:

    My husband and I just had this discussion…our dream house went on the market, but it was $200K more than our current house.

    Which, ok, we could afford if we looked at the monthly payments, but that doesn’t change the fact that that’s $200K more that we have to pay before we are mortgage-free. And that just is not worth it to us.

    So, we’re staying in our current house.

  7. Heather says:

    I love the point you make here, Anne. So important for people to consider their broader values, if you will, when buying a house. We’ve been doing the “Dave Ramsey thing” for years but without a house and on a missionary budget. Now that we’ve moved back to the US and hubby has a job (and I’m on the hunt), we’re thankful to have no debt and an almost fully-funded emergency fund as we begin saving for a down payment. We’re even moving into a smaller, cheaper apt. to save more money – which seems crazy to people, since we can afford more. I’ll pray that you find the perfect place, for the right price, for your family, Anne!

  8. Sheila says:

    We’ve purchased two houses now, and “underbought” based on what the mortgage companies said we could afford both times. This has been one of the best decisions ever for us – the extra flexibility it allows for our monthly budget is so helpful.

    I never thought about it as far as the total purchase price vs. what else we could do with that money as you did above, but we typically looked at the differences in monthly mortgage amount, and what else we could do with that money on an ongoing basis. I love the idea of FOUR trips to Europe though – how amazing would that be?

  9. Betsy says:

    Excellent, excellent post! Thanks for this.

    We’ve been struggling with this exact issue, and you’ve put it so succinctly for me: we have the house we can afford, but we want to sell the house we can afford to buy the house AND a life.

  10. Kim says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I think this needs to be practically screamed from the rooftops. 🙂
    You want to live IN your home, you don’t want to live FOR your home.

    We just finished our latest incredibly intensive search and moved into our new home a few weeks ago. Like you, it had been years. The biggest struggle, of course, was holding the line on spending.
    If I may, I’d love to invite you to read it: Setting Priorities to Find a Home You Love at Too Darn Happy. com.

  11. Faigie says:

    Just make sure you get the space you need in the house. It makes a world of difference. When we bought our house years ago, I looked for a place for the kids to play, a photo studio for me as I was doing photography at the time and a study for my husbands work. My good friend looked for a house with wood floors and lots of sunshine. she ended up with a tiny house and little space for her kids

  12. Corrie Anne says:

    Love this. I think in latte math all the time! Mostly in smaller terms, but the same idea. Good luck finding the perfect place!! I definitely understand the need for more bathrooms. It’s just two of us so far, but we have a LOT of company (people love to visit Colorado) and it gets crazy fast! But then again, my husband always reminds me that I grew up in a house with 6 kids and one bathroom and somehow we managed. I actually get ready a lot more quickly in the morning than he does. 🙂

  13. Cori says:

    I really appreciate this post, but…we did the opposite (kind of). We bought a house that we knew we could stay in “forever.” We wanted a house big enough for teenagers to run around in and a yard big enough to create a play haven for kids of all ages. Our kiddos are still 5 and under, but we knew we didn’t want to keep moving as our family grew. With interest rates being historically low and our house in the perfect location, we see our mortgage as another forced savings plan (just like our automatic savings to 401K, Mutual Funds, college savings, etc…) That’s not to say

    • Anne says:

      Is that the opposite? Maybe what it all comes down to is finding a good value for your wants/needs/hopes, and not regretting the opportunity cost. It sounds like you all made a great decision on both counts.

  14. Heather says:

    We are in the process of moving right now. We are taking a different approach and moving to a city that is much cheaper than the one that we currently live in. I know that this isn’t possible for everyone because of jobs or being near family, but we want to be financially independent sooner rather than later. We will actually be upgrading in the size and property of our house for half the cost of what our current house is worth. We are excited, but it is sad to be moving away from all of our friends. BTW, if you have time there is a great blog called Mr. Money Mustache that talks all about money and how to spend money wisely http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/ that has helped my family out a lot.

  15. We’re explaining the same thing to a realtor and mortgage companies right now 🙂 In the course of our marriage we have moved many times and owned several of those houses but always choose something way less expensive than we could afford according to the mortgage company. Now that we are moving somewhere I hope will be long-term I am working on finding a middle ground…maybe going up a touch to find the home that my kids could be teenagers in, but not too much that we can’t do anything but sit in the house! I think the might be my perfect house!

  16. Leanne Penny says:

    I love this, it’s so helpful and a great reminder for us as we try to figure out what we want and what we want to spend. Thank you for this, you put words to this feeling I’ve had going on for a while now.

  17. Shelly says:

    Your realtor said it well. Having a house AND a life is so important for each and every one of us. I would rather put up with my minor inconveniences like having only 1 bathroom and no dishwasher if it means that we’ll be able to live life to the fullest. Have fun house hunting!

  18. Anne says:

    Word.

    We are looking for another home, too. It’s fun to watch the market pick up now that it’s spring. We are trying to figure out deal breakers in the midst of what you write about. I’m glad your agent gets you! Hopefully, homeschooling does indeed make you feel freed up a bit more. We bought at the top of a bubble in a highly desired school district in 2005 not knowing we’d prefer 1) homeschooling and 2) a private school back up plan. Live and learn, I guess! 🙂

  19. Grace says:

    Great post! My husband and I are in our mid 20s now, so friends are starting to purchase their first homes and people are starting to ask when we will be. It’s been a struggle for me because it’s really not a priority to own over renting for me right now. Where we live in Canada housing is really expensive compared to most of the rest of the country and the States. We’re always going back and forth trying to decide if we move away from friends and family to a more reasonably priced city. I guess it all comes down to priorities and values. I’ll definitely have to check out All the Money in the World.

  20. Rachel says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes!
    Have to point out: it’s not just the $80,000 more for that home, it’s $80,000 plus whatever you’re paying in interest. So it’s even more than most of us calculate.
    We’re currently renting while we live overseas and have rented out our home in our home country. By living in modest and small-ish homes we’re able to travel more, stress about money less, give more to charity and pay off our mortgage sooner. We want the house and the life as well.

  21. YES to this! I am such a fan of thinking about money in those kinds of terms. Also (and this works better for smaller purchases) how many hours noah has to work to pay for something AFTER taxes.

    Ps- did you like Paper Towns? I read it after The Fault in Our Stars and was kind of disappointed.

  22. This is us! It’s taken us many, many trial and error residences (this is our 14th home since marriage), but we’re finally at a place where we have a modest home we can afford. We don’t have granite countertops, but we’ve traveled 3 weeks in the last few months and we’re going on another 2 week vacation next month. Totally worth it.

  23. Holly says:

    I think this SO depends on your lifestyle. We just built our dream home and while I’m sure I gave up several trips to Europe and maybe one to Fiji- I get to enjoy this house every single day. Both my husband and I work here and due to our jobs, unless God has some majorly different plans for us, we are tied to this exact location. And the reality of it is, I think trips are fun to dream about but they are so much harder to pull off- more due to scheduling than finances. And I’m a homebody who loves to very casually entertain others in my home. So I guess what I’m saying is- sometimes when you put it down on paper, you think yup I still want to spend this money!

  24. Julie says:

    Love this post. My husband and I have taken this approach and try to balance practicality with fun. We bought a small, comfortable house. We drive older, reliable vehicles. We are currently saving at a good percentage for our retirement. We also have a hit our goal of an international trip every two years (hoping to make that every year soon) and a trip within the States every year. We also have fun on our motorcycle. I wouldn’t trade our relaxed financial lifestyle and memories of experiences for anything.

  25. Vanessa says:

    I adore houses. I like the buildings, the location and the land that comes with it. We’ve never had anything truly fancy (my idea of a dream home is the first photo you posted) but I like to make the most out of what I do have and am usually pretty happy with it by the time we sell. I (almost) always sell for a profit – it’s a working hobby for me. My suggestion is to keep your first home and that will be a passive income stream for you at some point. We just paid off one of our rentals and it’s better than a part-time job. Be sensible and kind and things will usually work out. It’s a little extra work but not much.
    Good luck!

    • Anne says:

      Thanks for the tips! (We’re keeping our first home. It’s taken us forever to save up a down payment for #2 but I hope it will be worth it in the end. Your advice to do just that is encouraging.)

  26. tacy says:

    Wow, this was such a good post, and all of the comments are right-on. After buying our own first home, and living frugally for almost 7 grad school years (my husband’s, not mine), we took a plunge to buy a home. We loved it because it was everything we needed- enough space for all 6 of us, nice big backyard, in the same neighborhood as our church, near all our favorite coffee shops, near our daughter’s school, and right smack dab in between our parents’ homes (they both live in our area). God blessed my husband with a good job about the same time we took the step of faith to buy. He is such a faithful God and we could not be more thankful- wouldn’t trade it for all the trader’s joe’s bouquets or kids clothes or toys in the whole world!

  27. Kelly says:

    This was such a great post, Anne. Timely, too. No kidding, my husband and I traveled to Italy for his Spring Break (after scrimping and saving for about a year), and then the next weekend we moved into a new house.

  28. Heather says:

    I knew I would be able to empathize with this post. Imagine having to buy a house after only looking (in person) for ONE week! It was a touch decision, I THINK we made the right one, but now I just cant help but wonder…was it worth it? I am looking into that book as well…so thank you… again! 🙂

  29. Alyssa says:

    What a great post! This totally resonates with me as we just bought our first starter home. It was important to us that we not buy a house that would become a burden due to an overwhelming mortgage. Our little house is perfect for us and we don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck just to live here! That book rec sounds very interesting….might have to check it out!

  30. M. Everly says:

    Thinking about tradeoffs in tangible is terms smart strategy to keep on track! From experience, several actually, I can attest that there are house purchase compromises that are not worth making in order to pay what one would prefer to pay. A bad kitchen or old flooring maybe, if you have the ability to remodel someday, but in my experience compromising on neighborhood for price is a mistake. Poor schools, a busy street, or a run down house next door can make your daily life miserable and or impact your ability to sell when you want to. Better the small house in a great neighborhood than a ‘good value’ in an area you won’t love in 5, 10 years. I am not saying just give up and spend an extra 30% for ‘cute’ just don’t short change your future self on the quality of life attributes of a long term purchase.

  31. Chenay says:

    I know this is an old post, but it’s new to me and very timely. We’re considering moving closer to family and buying a house with a mortgage payment that will be less than half of our current payment! The only issue is that my husband will have a 40 minute commute to work, whereas my commute will be lessened. Decisions, decisions, but I really do think that having more income and being closer to my sister outweighs the commute, and my husband can always find a job in the new town;)

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