What My Starter Home Taught Me

When I bought my house, I was certain I wouldn’t live there forever. In fact, I felt quite smart for getting just the right amount of house I needed at the time—at the time a downturn in the housing market had suddenly made a lot of larger homes appealing to my modest budget, but moving from my one bedroom apartment into a petite, two-story cottage already felt obnoxiously luxurious for a single millennial with no practical use for three bedrooms.

Once the keys and deed were actually mine, I soon learned that this whole investment-in-real-estate thing had even more lessons about picking out a forever home—whenever the time came to move on.

I am capable of a lot on my own.

I wasn’t scared about having a mortgage by myself, but when I first bought my house, I was very concerned about safety and living alone. It’s funny now thinking back, because apartment living was actually much more alienating. I never really made much effort to get to know the people living around me. With my house, I know my neighbors, know when and what to expect of their guests, and can easily tell when something’s amiss.

I also learned a lot of do-it-yourself skills I never previously had. Buying a fixer-upper hasn’t always been easy (and with things like leaking toilets, at times it has been downright infuriating), but it’s done wonders for stretching the limits of my expectations for myself. Starting with a small house that I can manage on my own was a good introduction to what challenges I might face in the future. It’s also been a good teacher for growing my can-do confidence.

What I think I want is different from what I actually want … and I obsess about weird things.

When I bought my house, I had three must-haves:

  1. a walk-in master closet;
  2. a large master bathroom (both of which I had in the apartment I already lived in, so I didn’t want to “downgrade”); and
  3. a sizable yard with a fence for my dog.

Now that I’ve had to mow all of that grass for several summers (an activity I realized I loathe in the sweltering heat of Atlanta), I am routinely jealous of other homeowner friends who have less acreage around their homes.

I’ve also developed a strange habit of checking out other people’s ceilings, baseboards, and wall textures (something I would have been completely oblivious to before). These side-by-side comparisons to my own house give me ideas for value-added upgrades when it comes time to sell. I now know more about what I can change about a house, and what I can’t. When I go searching for the next house, I’ll be able to zero in on the tough-to-change details that make my eye twitch (like uneven grout lines) and be more mentally prepared about space planning (like knowing where to move an outlet in the kitchen).

My budget priorities changed.

One of the first big changes from home ownership instead of renting was that my average living expenses actually decreased. One bedroom apartments next to where I worked were at a premium, but a mortgage on a small, conservative house (with a lot more square footage) gave me an extra $200 or so in my pocket each month.

Still, I never really saw that cash as extra spending money for entertainment or indulgences; instead, I suddenly had an overwhelming desire for smarter budgeting. Repair expenses, comparison shopping, and renovations required more thoughtful planning than calling a landlord, and I was now much more interested in the investment of sweat equity.

Once you realize that your money is actually going toward a tangible future goal (like a down payment for your “forever” home someday), the way you view your cash flow changes rapidly.

Keep in mind that the mortgage is not your only cost. You need to factor in taxes, possibly an increase in utilities (if you’re moving to a bigger space), mortgage insurance and homeowners insurance. Nowadays, you can get a quick homeowners insurance quote online for a home you’re considering before you even buy it. Plus, most lenders let you lump all these costs (except for utilities) into one monthly payment.

To create good neighbors, be a good neighbor.

I bought a house that had seen better days: the siding was falling apart, the carpet was matted and old, and my bathrooms needed top-to-bottom updating. Knowing that it couldn’t all be finished at once, I was left with prioritizing each project in order of what mattered most to my daily habits, and the appeal of repairing rotting window trim seemed far less glamorous than the excitement I felt over getting a new kitchen.

As I got to know my neighbors, a sense of community crept in, and I wanted to put more effort into curb appeal projects. This wound up having a sort of domino effect: as we all got to know each other better, we talked more about the projects we were each working on, helped each other achieve these goals faster (lending tools, etc.), and the neighborhood improved as a whole. Values have been going up ever since, and I love how accomplished I feel when turning into my driveway with my new siding staring back at me.

In the end, my starter home would teach me many things about my priorities, my budget, and myself. It has truly become more than “the house I lived in for a while” and more like an old friend!