Right after we got married, my husband and I bought a starter house. At the time, we didn’t have much in savings (or in income), so it wasn’t our dream house. But it was our house, and that was enough. Coming from the tiny apartment where we started out, this three-bedroom, one-bath Cape Cod on a quiet street seemed like a dream. Our plan was to stay five years, tops, then sell it and move on to something bigger and better.
That was 12 years ago … and we’re still here.
At first, our long stay in our starter home happened purely by accident. We had two kids in quick succession, and I’d made a career move into an unsteady field. We were just too busy (and to be honest, too scared) to make the leap.
A few years ago, however, we decided we were ready to enter the real estate market once again. Financially, we were comfortable, and we were rapidly outgrowing the house that had once fit us perfectly. Time to move on!
But that’s when it hit us that the real estate market had changed. A lot.
In Lancaster, OH, where we lived, we quickly came to realize that a seller’s market reigned, filled with ambitious sellers and vicious buyers who often pounced before a “For Sale” sign was even planted in the ground. We fell in love with three homes that went into contract before we could even make an offer. When we did manage to make an offer on two other homes, we were outbid each time.
That kind of letdown was heartbreaking. After we had pictured our family in that kitchen or our cars in the driveway, it wasn’t easy to trudge home in defeat to a place where we no longer wanted to live, again and again.
In short, we were stuck in our starter home … and, lacking any other recourse, I decided to change my way of thinking.
As bad as I wanted a new house, I also knew we weren’t willing to overpay. So instead, I decided to take another look at our humble home and, rather than focus on its flaws, wonder we could turn it into the forever home we’d been searching for everywhere but here.
From starter home … to forever home?
There are so many projects we dreamed up for this house when we bought it, and then brushed aside because we didn’t plan on staying. I can’t count how many times we said, “If we were going to stay here, I’d love to…” followed by some totally doable project we’d certainly get to with the next house.
For instance, we wanted to paint, but surely the new owners would have other colors in mind. We wanted a new couch, but figured we should probably wait until we move so we could pick out one that fit in the new house.
Finally, we realized that we are staying here—at least for now. Why should we wait? This old house has been good to us over the years. It’s where we brought home our babies and watched them grow. I learned to cook in this kitchen. I got my career off the ground at my little desk in the corner of the dining room.
I realized this wasn’t our starter home—it was just home.
So this summer, I took the plunge. I took our sad, grungy, enclosed patio, and transformed it into a glorious summer retreat. New paint, new furniture, and good bit of elbow grease gave me a place I actually enjoyed sitting to watch my kids play.
Something about that first project—even though it was a small one—made me realize that we had been approaching this all wrong. The heartbreak of not getting a house we loved didn’t sting quite so much. The prospect of staying here wasn’t so bad.
I kept up the momentum. I replaced our big, hulking black fridge (I promise, they were somewhat in style in the early aughts) with one made of shiny stainless steel. I hung some new shelves in my kitchen and bought new rugs. Not a big change, but the room felt fresh to me.
I wasn’t sure where to go next, but this old house led the way. An overflowing toilet led to the discovery of a rusted-out pipe under the floor. Rather than try to make the fix with minimal damage, we ripped out the old bathroom and created a whole new one that we love. I still wish we had more than one bathroom, but the one we have is pretty now, so it’ll be just fine.
Next came the couch. I was all too happy to pass that 12-year-old beast off to a happy newlywed couple and buy an overstuffed sectional I’d been eyeing for years. Suddenly, my living room seems like the perfect place to get cozy and relax.
I hung new pictures. I potted succulents. My dad helped me landscape the overgrown front yard. Last weekend, I picked up paint samples.
At first glance, it may seem like we’ve given up on our dream, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We still pore over real estate listings, and we still go to open houses. We still talk about buying a new house—”someday.” And of course, all these changes will be a major advantage when it’s finally time to list this house.
This probably isn’t our forever home. Nonetheless, taking the time to change the things I didn’t like about it have made it a great place to be right now. Now, when my husband and I check out the newest listings, we don’t complain when nothing seems to fit. We just sit back on our brand- new couch, look around the house we love, and know we’re happy right where we are.
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