Monday, February 12, 2007

On the hunt

I'm sure it's been said before, and often, but this house-hunting business sure can be fun, exciting, exhilarating -- and exhausting, confusing and frustrating.

We went on our first official searches over the weekend, meeting our realtor for the first time at one house we'd found online that had the necessary requirements (in the price range, low enough taxes, three bedrooms, more than one bathroom, etc.). Despite the rather promising photograph (plus the fact that it was three floors -- having a potentially "mysterious" third floor is something that has always intrigued me), the house sat in an area of a town where a discarded bottle of Mad Dog might appear on your lawn. And it has, at least for this one.

When we walked inside, our realtor seemed disappointed from the start. We passed through the enclosed porch to the living room and continued to the kitchen, where she basically exclaimed, "Hell, no" without even turning on a light. So we spent the next few minutes chatting at the foot of the staircase, merely discussing what Casey and I were looking for with what she said we should be thinking about, particularly in terms of neighborhoods and resale value down the road. After a few more minutes, she dispatched us with a suggestion to check out certain sections of Clifton, Lyndhurst and East Rutherford and said that she'd e-mail us new listings that reflected the changes. Now that she knows us, she said, she'll omit any neighborhoods like the one in which we were standing.

We took to the highways of Northern New Jersey and wound our way through a couple of neighborhoods, joking about all the Valentine's Day decorations on the homes and pointing out gnomes, lawn jockeys and other ornamental flair. One sign advertising an open house on Monday meant we'd be back, and we wrote down other addresses as well so that we could explore those blocks.

On Sunday morning, I was up shortly after 8 a.m., once again unable to go back to sleep when the whitetrash neighbors next door "discussed" whatever lame-assed morning television they were watching at a volume level more suited to a windy day on the beach than a quiet Sunday morning at 7:30. They're as good a reason as any to get the hell out and find a home of our own, and they've got no indoor voices. The fact that we know so much about them -- their names, their sports allegiances (NASCAR, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Florida Gators) -- but have never formally introduced ourselves, shaken hands or said more than five words when passing in the hallways says a lot. As do they, at high decibels.

So I sorted through the listings we'd gotten the night before, comparing addresses with their proximity to bus routes and train stations, finding a few more options beyond those that mentioned the neighborhoods in which they're located. Armed with the list, we set out around noon.

The open house was our first stop, and it was interesting. Home pricing in New Jersey is as much about location as anything else. The size of the structure is not much more important than the location, and if you can walk to New York transportation from a place on a quiet suburban street, you've got a good deal of value beneath your feet. The house, which was about to be reduced by $30,000, the agent told us, was $100,000 more than we are hoping to spend. And it wasn't even the nicest house -- inside, at least -- that we would see that day.

Not surprisingly, each place we saw had its pros and cons. In the end, we toured three of them, with the last standing as the biggest, the cheapest (or about equal with the second one we visited) and with the most inticing option for our respective daily commutes: It was within walking distance of a train station. The first two, within a few blocks of one another, merely sat on a bus route -- a mode of transportation that can be unreliable and more susceptible to the unpredictability of traffic patterns and accidents than rail service is.

A full list of pluses and minuses will need to be written out if we decide to consider a bid, but I'm not surprised that I find myself thinking, "If only this house were in that neighborhood." Of course, if it were in that neighborhood, it would also probably cost $100,000 more than it does, which is $100,000 more than we want to spend.

It's still very early in the game -- in fact, it's still kind of the pregame -- but I find myself both optimistic and apprehensive. Will we find a place that we can't wait to bid on, or have we done that already? And if so, is it too soon for that?

We seem to be in good shape with our realtor, who can quickly grasp what we're looking for and gives us honest feedback. I suspect that having her with us to look at more places next weekend will answer even more questions and possibly clear up some less-than-clear issues.

At least we're at this point already, well in advance of the expiration of our lease. We'll deal with overlap issues if they pop up -- and I said when we moved into our current apartment more than two years ago that I'd be OK with losing some or all of our security deposit, knowing it would be the last time we have to deal with one -- but having enough time to really go through this process deliberately is comforting.

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