It’s officially spring, which means it’s time to go buy a house. Buying a home can seem like a daunting process, one filled with a forest of decision trees and, in certain suburbs, trees. But there’s really a simple procedure that applies whether you’re a first-timer finding a Fenway fixer-upper or a Back Bay banker seeking a Boston bargain. Yeah, I know a lot about real estate, and I learned it all from watching HGTV’s House Hunters.
First of all, you may be under the impression that you need to look at dozens of houses before you make an offer. Actually, you only need to look at three. One will be inexpensive but infested with squirrels and technically condemned, one will be within your budget but have some minor flaw, and the third will be perfect but priced a little bit out of your budget—and whoops, sorry, that’s Tom and Gisele’s house.
Speaking of budget, you’ll need to decide what you want to spend so that you’ll have a firm number to totally exceed when you actually buy something. If your budget is comically low, then you should be extremely picky about everything—as a general rule, the less money you’re spending, the more particular you should be about every detail. You should roll your eyes and say things like “Gold fixtures? Who decorated this place, King Tutankhamun? I’m not spending a fifth of a million dollars to live in a sarcophagus!”
Regardless of how much money you’re spending, you should direct plenty of withering criticism at each property. When we put our Southie condo on the market in 2008 (and didn’t sell it then, thankfully), we got to hear all of that firsthand. One broker walked in and said, “White cabinets? That’s so early 2000s.” This woman acted like white cabinets were a passing fad that belonged to a very specific era, which at that point was only three years earlier. It was only after she left that I thought of a witty comeback involving the term “shelf life.”
Things are different now that it’s more of a seller’s market, but that doesn’t mean that you, too, can’t be an annoying buyer, House Hunters-style. One great way to be obnoxious is to have a particular fixation related to your job and bring it up every time you look at a place. Like, if you’re a sea captain, you should look for a house with a widow’s walk and constantly reference that requirement. You’d say, “This place is nice, but Bonnie likes to gaze at the sea, looking for the first hint of an exhaust funnel o’r the horizon, so we’d really like to get that widow’s walk. I know that right now we’re standing in line at McDonald’s, but I just talk about widow’s walks all the time because I’m a sea captain, as I’ve mentioned.” If you’re a dogcatcher, you might say, “Oh, I love this backyard! I could really catch some dogs back there.” And if you’re a hydrologist, you should be vigilant about avoiding houses that are too close to streams, which can flood. That one is an actual House Hunters example, by the way. That woman looked at a house that was probably a half-mile uphill from gently babbling brook and, with terror in her eyes, declared, “I said no streams.”
More guidelines: If you’re house-hunting with your significant other, one of you should be laid back and the other should be uptight. One of you should want a view, while the other prefers to be closer to town. One of you should insist on a house with crown molding, while the other had his entire family kidnapped and held hostage by crown molding. The only thing you should have in common is a complete lack of imagination, a profound inability to envision any change, no matter how trivial. For instance, if you’re looking at a condo that comes furnished but doesn’t have a coffee table, you’d just stare at the space in front of the couch and say, “There’s no coffee table? I’m not sure that’s gonna work for us. I don’t see any solution to this problem. I guess we’d put coffee and magazines on the floor?” Paint color is obviously a huge issue, too, because once a wall is painted, that’s the color it is, forever.
Ultimately, you and your house-searching partner will have to sit down at a local restaurant to reiterate the pros and cons of each option before settling on the one that was slightly imperfect. Congratulations! Before you know it, it’ll be two months later and you’ll have a bunch of weird people over to drink wine and act like they’re your friends. And maybe a few more years down the line, you might be ready to move up. Then you’ll face another big decision as you stand on your widow’s walk, gaze out at the sea and ponder whether to love it or list it.