Monday, April 20, 2015

House-Hunting: The Learning Experience, Part 2

More clarity gained from exploring the purchase of the Newton House:

Much as we crave a patio, garden and/or some outdoor space, we do not want a big yard.

We had this idea that, if the right house came with a large plot of land, it would be okay. We know better now. The Newton house had a big corner lot — plenty to mow and shovel, but no privacy unless we had it fenced. It was useless land: we have no kids or dogs to frolic on a lawn. I'd be the one doing most of the work. I was not enthusiastic. (My husband is an overworked academic; I'm the underemployed housekeeper.) When I'd worry aloud about the yard, people often said we could pay someone to do the work. But it makes no sense to pay for maintenance on top of a bigger mortgage and higher taxes for land we didn't want.

I'm more suited to container gardening, and maybe a small bed or two of flowers, tomatoes and herbs. Possibly a few rosebushes or shrubs. I'd be delighted with a small garden, not a field.

* * *
I'm more focused on thinking small about indoor space, too. This house was about 3,100 square feet on three stories. Plus a creepy basement that creeped us out. Creepily. With its decrepitude.

The third floor, a very basic au-pair suite, could be minimally heated, closed off, and used as an attic. That would leave about 2,600 square feet for two people.

Such a big increase in our living space (currently < 800 square feet) seemed exciting at first. Room to roam! We've seen many good-sized houses and big apartments that can't hold my husband's scholarly library or our larger pieces of furniture. Often, there are so many windows, doors, stairs, and built-ins that there aren't enough bare, wide walls for bookshelves. In the Newton house, the third floor would have held a lot of bookshelves, with many more scattered around the house — almost anywhere one would fit.

Urban townhouse condos often work better for books because the windows are only across the front and the back, so there can be long walls and high ceilings in between. City condos that we can afford tend to be smaller and more efficient than houses. This week I realized that I vastly prefer compact kitchens to big, fancy ones. I can reach anything in my tiny kitchen in three steps or less. This pleases me inordinately for reasons I don't understand... except that I've always been something of a "domestic engineer," and I love saving time and energy when I'm doing a chore like cooking. (In the Newton house, the fridge was two rooms away from the stove and sink, and it would have killed me. I would have needed roller skates to cook.)

* * *
It's looking like perhaps we should continue to be city people. We both love the beauty and fabulous "walkability" of our neighborhood, and my husband loves his easy commute. The trade-offs are less privacy and more noise, secondhand smoke, and craziness from neighbors. And we'll probably never get a decent little patio or deck. Plus our cats will be an issue for many condo associations, limiting our options. (Not that I will ever regret having these cats.) It's a tough choice.

In the city, we might be barely able to afford about 200 square feet more than we have. Yet many big, pretty, and relatively affordable houses are for sale in the suburbs. We're finding that a big house is probably not sensible for us at any price. At the home inspection, we finally saw some numbers for heat and other expenses. The inspector helped us understand how much it costs to run a house. We've never paid a heating bill in our lives. We just pay the condo fee and crank up the thermostat as much as we want.

We like to be very warm in winter: our condo is somewhere in the mid 70s day and night. And we still dress in layers and huddle under throws because we're cold. The owners of the Newton house kept it at 60 during the day and 50 at night. (We'd be hypothermic.) Even so, their bills were daunting.

We always wondered what it would cost to keep a house at our preferred temperature. Now we hope we never find out.


  1. This post and your last one are very interesting reading. The whole process seems to have been worthwhile in the knowledge you have gained. I have difficulty imagining keeping a house at 60 daytime and 50 night. I keep my 12 year old house at about 68 daytime and 65 or so nighttime. My winter gas bills vary but can be over $100 a month (Cdn $). My previous house was a 1954 bungalow and did cost more to heat. Had to keep it about 72 to be comfortable.

  2. First of all, this is a very well written piece. Bravo! Second of all, I feel exactly the same way about land for us. As you say, land is a pretty good thing to have if you have dogs or kids. We have neither and have no plans to have any. Plus, we're both indoors and both working a lot. Still, we are not rich and can't really afford someone to take care of it for us.

    Miriam Burke @ HS-RE


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