This is the first of a four-part series for the Appeal on a first-time home buying experience in San Francisco.
Up until college, my family and I moved quite a bit. After an interstate move followed by several house flipping ventures and my parents’ divorce, I lived in nine different houses by the time I entered college. The term “home” never had much meaning for me: it was a place that my family and I lived in for a few years before packing up and moving, whether it be a few blocks north or all the way across town.
So last year, when my husband and I marked our eighth year in our one-plus bedroom rental just north of the Panhandle, it hit me. This top floor, back-unit apartment has probably seen more of me than almost anyone (minus my main squeeze). And I loved it. Or at least really, really liked it.
Our building provided a place of solitude, away from the hustle and bustle of the daily commute and work hours. The backyard “cat traffic” and flurry of scrub jays, hummingbirds, orioles, and finches added a “wildlife” factor. Our bay window opened to a peek-a-boo view of the downtown skyline, and a breeze filled the back rooms on a nice spring day. The electric and gas bills stayed fairly low thanks to the building’s unpredictable steam heat, and the many windows provided us with copious amounts of natural light. And for the most part, we liked our building mates: they were sturdy, dependable, and just plain good people, and all but one apartment had the same tenants since we moved in in 2003.
But our unit had some major electrical issues, ones that our landlord didn’t seem keen on fixing any time soon. There were leaks downstairs and our bathroom, closets, and bedroom walls required frequent bleaching to keep the greenish-black mold at bay. Our petite kitchen made sous-chef delegation a challenge. And I wanted room to grow and the ability to personalize the apartment.
Buying property isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. While those “House Hunters” marathons may inspire you to dream big, purchasing a home takes significant amounts of time, research, and above all else, the money to do so. It isn’t right for everyone. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched “House Hunters” (or any of the similar knock-off shows) where I’ve found myself yelling at the TV, “Why don’t you just rent?”
As a home owner, there are risks involved that you normally wouldn’t incur as a renter. For instance, owning your home means you’re responsible for the crumbling roof. Or if someone is injured on your property. Or if you can’t pay your mortgage.
Owning your own home comes with extra costs like insurance (for example, home and earthquake coverage) and property taxes. The joys of being a renter, where you can let someone else deal with the hassles, nooks, and crannies? These become your responsibility as soon as you sign on the dotted line (multiple times, over and over, until you have a crick in your wrist).
The costs of renting aren’t cheap either. Perusing Craigslist, I realized that because we’d been in a unit under rent control for eight years, had we wanted to rent a slightly nicer place in a similar neighborhood, we would easily be doubling our monthly rent. Yet if we wanted to buy one of those improved-upon units nearby, the cost could be, under the right circumstances, almost equal. Would it be advantageous for us to graduate from long-term renters to property owners? In the end, the rationale for the decision was as much emotional as it was logical. Being a homeowner was a dream of mine, and the timing seemed right.
After twelve years of renting, my husband and I decided it was time to declare San Francisco our permanent home. We discussed our options. We took a hard look at our finances. We created budgets and spreadsheets with various scenarios. We gathered quotes (including interest rates and any other costs) from several mortgage lenders. We researched the different kinds of loans and talked to family and friends, asking for candor about their own home buying experiences.
At the same time, we began going to Sunday open houses. We wanted to survey the city’s housing market and find out what was out there and what we actually liked. What were our “need to haves” , where we could compromise, and did we have any dealbreakers?
In the end (spoiler alert), we found an apartment that we love, in a desirable location, that matched our budget. But the process itself was bigger and more complicated that we had expected.
We started our search at our fingertips, looking for online assistance or stories of other people’s local home buying experiences. But we ended up at the hands of internet forums filled with agents clamoring for our business or anonymous people hiding behind pixilated avatars and screennames like “Not4ClosedYet098.” So while we had incredible support from our agent, family, and friends, being able to refer to someone else’s not-made-for-HGTV experience would have been helpful, too (especially at the onset).
In this series, I will share my recent first-time home-buying experience. If you have questions or comments, please leave them in the comments section or send your inquiries to me via becca[dot]klarin[at]gmail[dot]com.