Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Most Exciting Blog Post Topic Evar!

That's right! We're going to talk about packing!

Steven and I are notoriously bad at packing. We've moved a bunch, so when it comes to packing we like the grab and stuff technique because we put it off to the last minute, which while it has never ended in broken items, it has resulted in a lot of stress. Fortunately, we have 15-30 days to move out of our apartment after we close, so we'll have plenty of time for last minute packing but we're trying to be proactive and be packed and ready to go before we actually move.

Part of the packing for us is purging the unnecessary items we've accumulated. Usually per move we can get rid of at least two or three boxes worth of storage, but we're hoping for even more for this move. We bought a paper shredder and started in on our "important papers", which let me tell you, weren't so important. I found bills from 2008 in there and a pay stub for Steven from 2003. I think we're paper hoarders.

Because bubble wrap is absurdly expensive, I had an idea to use the shredded paper as packing materials. Example one:

It seems to be working so well. It condenses easily to provide stability for the items in the box and cushions those air pockets you inevitably get when packing items.

We did end up buying the aforementioned absurdly expensive bubble wrap to wrap up our "fancy dishes". I will say, we have only used about a quarter of the bubble wrap, but I have a lot of breakable art to wrap and 175 sq. feet just isn't going to cut it.

No really. We have a lot of art. This isn't all of it either. I left most of the art up in the bedroom because it looked so orange without it.

Now we're going to spend the weekend primarily destressing, putting together some more DIY projects and I guess pack/declutter if we find time. I think I might try to convince Steven to go out to Leesburg where they have lots of excellent antique shops and a Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel outlet!!!!!!

In the meantime, here's Neptune, our lady cat surveying the mess that is our apartment:

Forget "Design on a Dime"

We're designing on a nickle! We have this pretty horrendous bathroom in our new house. To refresh your memory:

Ceiling fan? Lolwut.

Sorry for the bad picture quality. Not only was it monsooning in Baltimore that day but we only had the iPhone because I left the camera at home.

I know some people go gaga for the old bathroom look, and while I'm not a fan of brand new, soulless bathrooms, I pretty much hate subway tile and (at last that kind of) basketweave tile. For the time being though, I'm going to leave it alone (SIGH) and just concentrate on making it pretty, until we can invest a good weekend in just the bathroom.

First thing, first: Paint. I've had about 15 different paint ideas for this room, and thankfully it's small enough that if we really hate something, we can easily change it. I think we have finally settled on a pretty mauvey-lavendar that we found for $5 in the cast-off paints at Lowes, my favorite place to shop for paints.

Because there's so much black and white, we're going to try to go for the whole Hollywood glamor look. I have an aged mirrored mirror (I'm sure there's a term for this but I can't find it), that looks very glamorous, is about the right size for that room and was only $25! We're also building a copper pipe towel rack and I may spray paint it silver or gold. I guess it just depends on what it looks like when it's complete, and we compare it to the mirror and paint. From the extra bits we're going to build a hand towel rack as well.

The mirror kind of looks like this, only it's aged with pewter not gold.

Finally, we're going to bring West Elm into the loop with this beautiful, reasonably priced bathmat (sadly, replacing my beloved Anthropologie one that is just not the right color).

We'll be getting black. With two dogs, two cats and two humans that don't mind getting dirty (did I mention we'll be gardening) it doesn't make sense to go with white.

Unfortunately, there's no shower in the bathroom, so we're going to try this nifty extension that Amazon sells for $13. I have a feeling it's not going to be the best thing ever, but installing a built-in shower system is probably going to run us about $200 and we will probably wait a couple months.

In addition, there's no storage. We found a cool under the sink storage system for pedestal sinks and we'll be adding in shelves. I have a fondness for West Elm's lacquer shelves but will probably splurge for the boxed mirror shelves to replace the medicine cabinet, reflect more light and get more storage. Because we'll have so much to do right at the beginning, the shelves will probably wait with the shower system.

Also, that ceiling fan has to go. I have no idea what I want to replace it with, besides a chandelier. I'll probably craigslist one. Maybe something super girly to annoy Steven! Sadly, purple doesn't do the trick because Steven loves purple. It makes him feel royal or something. I guess, in the end that's ok though because I love purple just as much.

So, if we break down the total costs of what we're buying/implementing right away it comes out to:

Paint: $5
Shower extension: $13
Bathmat: $29
Towel racks: $50
Spray paint: $3
Mirror: $25
Under sink storage: $30

Total: $155!!!!!!!!!!!

Yay savings! And that's definitely a total I think Steven can live with, even if I'm dragging him to West Elm after work today to buy that beloved bathmat.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Keeping on Top of the Little Things

For first-time home buyers, the stress and entire process of buying a home can be fairly overwhelming. There are so many little things that have to be done in order for it all to come together in a 30-60 day period, and unless you have a good buyer's agent, most of these things are not exactly clear to the home buyer. Additionally, these requirements can vary from state to state.

So, this post is two-fold. On the one hand, it is an ode to our wonderful buyer's agent, Wayne Curtis, who has kept us on track and we may even be able to close early because of him. On the other hand, it is an attempt to create a comprehensive, one-stop shop for all things you have to do when buying a house.

Wayne Curtis, of Charm City Real Estate, has been exactly what a first time home buyer (really, any home buyer, but we'll stick to the focus of the blog) needs. He is patient and has no problem explaining the reasoning behind a certain inspection or point in the process. He pointed out possible problems in houses we looked at, and never once tried to push us to putting an offer on a house we weren't 100% sold on. In fact, he didn't push at all. Most importantly, he has been communicative and diligent in keeping us on track and doesn't let us forget little details.

All along, Wayne has done exactly what a buyer's agent should do: keep his client's best interests in mind and make sure they stay on track. When we were having the aforementioned issues with the loan officer, we asked Wayne what our options were for finding a different lender so late in the game and since it was too late to switch, Wayne stepped in and we think, put the fear of god into our loan officer. He's certainly been a lot nicer, after they talked.

When you, the first time home buyer or even the home buyer, starts looking for a house, sign on with a guy like Wayne (if you're in the Baltimore area, sign on with the dude himself!). References are always a good way of checking to see if the buyer's agent is as good as they claim they are, and any buyer's agent worth their salt will provide that information up front (Wayne gave us a whole folder with his bio, references, information on his company, Charm City Real Estate, etc). And even if their references are good, if you're not comfortable with the idea of spending 60 days of your life with the person, don't go with them. If they give you the creeps and you can't even stand looking at a house with them, don't go with them. If they're pushy and disrespectful, don't go with them. In the last two months, we've talked more often to Wayne than we have to our families and some of our friends. Buying a house is a very involved process and choosing the right buyer's agent is almost as important as choosing the right house.

This is a good lead in to the second portion of the blog: my attempt at a comprehensive list of things you have to do when buying a house. So, here goes:

1. Choose the right buyer's agent. Before you go out, interview people or look at a few less prospective properties with the agent to get a feel for who they are and what they'll bring to the table. Ask questions and see how knowledgeable they seem. If you look at properties, see if they're pushy or if they point out possible problems.

-- We can safely exclude "find the right house". You'll know it when you find it. Like love, only you usually pay less for a house. Haha.

2. Inspections. My god, are there a lot of inspections. Here are the most recommended:
a. Home Inspection - don't buy a house, even a brand new one without an inspection. $275-$500 is nothing in the long run if there's a serious error with the house. And just because there's a serious error, don't discount the house right away. If you love the house, ask the sellers if they'd be willing to pay for the repairs.
b. Radon Inspection - Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that develops in basements. If you have a basement or a large crawl space, it's a good idea to pay for this. It ranges from $75-$175. If your basement has an above-normal radon amount, the mitigation system is not overly expensive to install and most sellers will pay for it to sell the house.
c. Pest Inspection - $65 and you know for sure you don't have an infestation of centipedes, cockroaches, stink bugs, wasps, bees, etc. Pretty much the best $65 you can spend, IMO.
d. Lead Paint Inspection - any home built before the 70s is likely to have lead paint. It's a costly thing to remove, though some cities have programs that help offset the cost. It's not really necessary unless it's peeling something crazy or if you have young children. The important thing to remember is that if you don't eat the paint, you're going to be OK (the have a pamphlet about this. It cracks me up)

3. Pick a lender and loan officer.

4. Square away any debts that are going to have a major impact on your credit score or debt/income ratio as soon as you can. It slows down the process something fierce to have to take care of those issues.

5. Get estimates for a title company and chose one. Make sure the cheapest one includes all of the right services -- sometimes title companies will give a low estimate and tack on charges in the back end. Shady as all hell but your buyer's agent should be able to tell you if the charge list is comprehensive.

6. Make sure you have housing until you close. Most apartment companies will give you a month or two extra on your lease if you're moving after your lease has ended. On the flip side, make sure if you're renting you have approval BEFORE YOU SIGN AN OFFER to sublease or break your lease early.

7. Make sure you or your loan officer arranges for an appraiser to come out. The appraisal is a huge portion of final loan approval. The cost ranges. For our FHA it was about $450. For FHA, it's returned at settlement.

And this is where I hit the wall. I'll probably edit more in the next day or so with extra things to take care of, but these are the big ones.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Sacred Trust

So, not too surprising, in our adventures in home buying, we've had some bad experiences. I think it is inevitable to be completely happy with the home buying process, if only because it is so stressful. Between breaking leases, meeting closing dates, the stress of inspection, appraisal and final loan decisions, it's a tough process. However, one thing that seems to be a reoccurring issue, at least for us, is bad loan officers/mortgage brokers.

The first time we looked at buying a house it all fell through because of a bad mortgage broker. She grossly exaggerated my husband's income and gave us pre-approval at a much higher amount than we could actually be approved for. Of course, we didn't find out she did this until we had settled on a house and went in for final approval, but suddenly, it all fell through.

Like I said though, this wasn't the worst thing that could have happened. We ended up moving to Baltimore about 6 months later and I think we would have been unhappy in that area.

Now though, that we're reasonably assured that we're going to happy in our chosen area and we have found a house we absolutely love, any hitches in our plans come at serious stress. And once again, the biggest stress has come from a loan officer. There is, at heart, a sacred trust between you and the person who is handling your future. When that trust is violated, by say an unethical, unprofessional moron, it's upsetting. And that's exactly what happened today.

I'd like to refrain from too many details, especially because (after about 5 hours) I'm only just now finally cooling down enough to talk about it calmly, but it boils down to this: When a customer -- a customer forking over a huge amount of money, might I add -- has an issue with your level of customer service and/or quality of work that you're providing, you don't immediately jump to the defense and ignore any and every legitimate concern they have. And when they push back against your arguments, you give them the opportunity to speak, not interrupt them every three seconds and do not threaten to cancel their loan, just because you're too afraid to deal with an angry customer.

That all being said, we should have done our due diligence and really spent time interviewing loan officers. I think we rushed into the process and while that can be ok, we should have spent more time. So that's my kernel of wisdom: interview potential loan officers/mortgage brokers. Get references. Look at their history/how long they've been with their company and if there are any complaints against them. It will save you a lot of stress, heartache and windows in the process.

P.S. We're still on track for the house. It took several phone calls back and forth but finally the loan officer apologized. Too little, too late in my opinion, but Steven gets the fun task of dealing with him, so I suppose that's good enough for me.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Saving Money

Saving money is hard. Saving money is even harder when you live close to Home Goods, Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel and West Elm. Of all the things I like to blow our money on, it's clothes and stuff for the house. When we found the house we wanted to buy, we realized that suddenly we had to buckle down and put every extra penny in our savings account. Then we realized that, even though we do need some furniture for the new house, the big purchases are going to have to wait so we can focus our efforts on renovating/updating the house. We have been painstakingly number crunching the last few weeks to see just how much we can spend per month on renovations. I'm fairly positive Steven will be sick of looking at budgets by the time we close.

On top of figuring out how much money we can spend, we've spent a lot of time thinking about how much we can save. Renovations are expensive. Saving any bit is good, because that means that extra goes in the "West Elm has a new product line, omgI'msoexcited" fund. So, the purpose of today's blog is to talk about different ways that we've found to do this.

Blog-o-Sphering to Find DIY Solutions

The "Blog-o-Sphere" (my favorite, stupid term) is full of house renovations/DIY/Arts and Crafts blogs. After spending two weeks slodging through a ton of them, I've narrowed my reading down to a few select, really good blogs. It's not to say there aren't more great ones out there (and in fact I left a few off the list), but the ones mentioned below have a very thrifty but very chic attitude that's perfect for a future home renovator.

Bloggers Sherry and John, at Young House Love, have a ton of excellent tips on how to DIY a lot of renovations. They're so awesome at DIYing and writing how-tos, their full-time job is now blogging about renovating their house. Which, I have to say I'm particularly grateful for because I can't get enough. Their "projects" section is full of goodies that are relevant to most people who buy "fixer-uppers" and it has everything from "How to check if your furniture has lead paint" to building a patio to money saving tips. It's a great resource.

Design*Sponge has an excellent interior design DIY. They're where I found the how-to for creating my pimp fake capiz-shell chandelier.

The Art of Doing Stuff is one of my other favorites. Karen, the blogger, is an intensely funny writer and makes even the most mundane task (like cleaning out a grill trap) seem fun. She has a ton of practical blogs about fixing things around the house that would result in costly repairs if done by a professional.

House Tweaking is a good resource for some really cool DIY projects (Dana's sliding barn door will be in my house probably within a month of moving in) and she's currently moving her family to a cheaper house to downsize so she can quit her current job and go into interior design full-time.

Un-Plugged Savings

When talking about materials, I have three current favorite choices: Second Chance, The Loading Dock and Craigslist. While the first two are Baltimore specific resources, most cities have reclamation warehouses now. The Green movement has been very good to us cheap renovators.

Second Chance is four gigantic warehouses stuffed with reclamation items. They have literally everything you could ever need to put in your house and tons of stuff in between.

They have a lot of beautiful architectural elements from torn down buildings all over the country

..and then they have things like this

But they have tons of hardware, windows, doors, sinks, bathtubs, lighting fixtures and furniture in another warehouse

This is me trying to be cute.

And here's a view of just one corner of one of their gigantic warehouses.

All-in-all, it's scavenger's heaven. I've already found about 50 things on my list of things to buy for the house and the best part is the longer it's there, the cheaper it gets!

The loading dock is just one warehouse, and there aren't as many interesting architectural element, such as the Tiger's Blood shower door and stained glass windows, but it does have interior and exterior doors for $5 and plenty of slate roof tile, bathroom tile, linoleum, carpet, hardwood, etc to renovate an entire house on a limited budget. They even have discounted paint! On top of this, they do bi-weekly classes on things like plumbing, drywalling and gardening for the less hardcore DIYers (we're doing Plumbing 101 tomorrow, in fact).

Then there's Craigslist. Craigslist is the best online source for cheap furniture and random things you might need for a DIY project/renovation. I'm not sure I really need to break this one down. It's a free classified page used by millions of users, everything can be found on there and the Craigslist Killer is a rare result of the website. That's about it!

If I can figure out how to write it without sounding all materialistic and furniture mad, I'll write a post on the best strategies for getting deals at furniture stores.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Art, I love it. Sometimes it loves me. My house is filled with art. Photography, canvas, actual paintings (that I did even!), name it, I probably have it -- except Watercolor. I could never get into it. My grandma does some awesome watercolors so maybe I'll beg her for some, but I digress.

I'm not sure if you noticed, but we're buying a house and assuming all goes well, we move in April 29th. (I guess maybe the 30th, but I'm pretty gung-ho about this whole thing.) But that doesn't stop me from arting up our apartment, much to my husband's amusement/chagrin.

Here's my latest wall of art:

Favorite part is the Corgi Deer Hunter. I love Corgis. They're my absolute favorite dogs (sorry Klaus and Nyx). They nip at children's heels and herd them. What's not to love about that? Plus they're adorable. Steven once promised me that we could get a Corgi when we bought a house....Guess who never forgets that kind of thing? I'll give you one hint: ME!

Here's a close-up of the Corgi Deer Hunter. Isn't that a hoot?

Klaus is sad that I love Corgis. Nyx is sad too, but she runs away when the camera comes out.

So anyways, back to art. The silver letters are from Anthropologie, as are the sweet ass animal prints in faux-old frames. The gold one way up in the corner has a cute owl print and it and the Corgi print are from Urban Outfitters and shockingly inexpensive. Like, $20 for a 14x18 fairly high quality print, and shipping for the two was $5. I r impressed Urban Outfitters, as a cat would say.

One day, I'm hoping to have real art though. Like the kind in my grandma's house. She has an epic 10ft tall painting by an artist in the Smithsonian. SMITHSONIAN. Given that, I'm pretty sure we know who to blame for my love of art.

Edit: The letters look crooked. And they are. Everything in this apartment is crooked. The house was built in the 1800s and is sinking into the backyard. One day, before we move, I'll take a picture of the sinking corner in the second bedroom.

Designing for Resale

I think this is a good opportunity to address the name of the blog. Staying put has been our unofficial motto for the last couple of years, or rather it's been my husband's motto. You see, we (I) like to move. I grew up as a navy brat, and we moved around a lot and I think I lived in 10 places before I was 10 (nice symmetry there). When my dad got out of the navy and we settled into my "childhood home" we still traveled all over the place -- probably because my parents picked the place furthest away from our extended family to live. When I got to move out on my own, I went away to college in Massachusetts, and since 2006, I've lived 8 places. Steven's been with me since the second move and for someone who stayed in the same area for most of his life, I imagine it's been hard, even if it's been exciting.

Personally, I just thinks he hates moving our 1000 million books.

So, when we moved to Baltimore, Steven kept saying "This seems like a place we can settle down in for a couple years. Maybe stay put in one place". So, yay logical blog name! I'll admit, I wasn't sold on Baltimore for probably the first 6 months, but Baltimore has a way of growing on you. It's very fungus like.

Now that we're buying a house, and a house that needs some pretty significant updates/renovations, I keep thinking about how we have to design it for ultimate resale value. Because it will be our first house, we're unlikely to stay here for more than 5 years. I give us 3 tops, but that number upsets Steven, so I'll go along with the 5.

I have all of these grand, awesome ideas for the house that will (hopefully) make it very -- everything, but most importantly, very us. But I'm well aware that a lot of the big things I want to do such as open shelves with awesome sliding doors, like the kitchen below, will be "too" contemporary for most buyers.

Picture from Dwell

So how to design with resale in mind? I'm going to start with paint -- I love bright, bold colors but I'm not painting the house that way (with the exception of the peacock blue dining room with glossy white wainscoting. I have to have it. It's not a desire. It's a need.) It'll be all soothing grays, cremes, and blues. I have some plans for some other colors, but I'm going to keep the palate light. However, I'm going to accessorize with color, Jonathan Adler style. I've already started. Check out this sweet ass lamp I got from Home Goods.

I think the house is going to be a compromise in what we want and what will make it easier to resale whenever we decide to move on. I hope that obsessing over this before we even move in will save us money in the long run. I also think that Jonathan Adler's "Happy Chic Colors" is going to be my bible for the next couple of months.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

DIY Weekend and Gettin' It Done

So remember when I posted that it's a good idea to be reasonable on your offer so that if there are things you need the seller to take care of in the back end (like a roof repair), they will be more inclined to do it?

Well, I was right! We heard back last night that our sellers have agreed to a complete electrical system overhaul and roof repairs because we were reasonable about the asking price. I suppose they could be desperate, but ego-boosts by being right (or thinking you are) are always nice.

To keep our minds off the ever approaching deadline for when we needed to hear back about repairs, we spent all weekend DIYing.

From Design Sponge, we found a DIY for a faux-capiz shell chandelier. Having wanted one of these for the last forever, I was pumped to make it.

Here's the link:

Here's what ours looks like:

Isn't it pretty over the Irish bouquet? We did a couple things differently. 1. I didn't pay attention and got a basket without those cross sections, so I glued my ribbon to it in an effort to keep them in place (then unglued them all to get them back to where I actually wanted). 2. I didn't use parchment paper at all but rather an extra sheet of wax paper.

We also started building a copper pipe towel rack. I'll post DIY instructions when we're complete. We've had some issues getting the pipe cut....we bought the wrong type of pipe cutter at first, but had an excellent ghetto DIY session in the parking lot of Lowes.

So we have a Mini, and bought two ten foot sections of copper pipe and for whatever reason they wouldn't cut them in half in the store, so we did it in the parking lot! But remember! Safety First!

That's all for now -- time to be productive!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

General Contractors - What a Waste

Until yesterday, we had been planning on doing an FHA 203k or the aforementioned Baltimore City program to renovate the house. We want to change that god awful kitchen and add in a half bath (the current second bathroom is in the unfinished basement. I don't know about you, but I'm not all about doing my biz in a dark, damp space like a bat). We were also going to tear out the basketweave tile, subway tile, and put in a claw foot tub and shower enclosure in the upstairs bathroom and put in a privacy fence in the "back yard" (it's tiny and concrete, hence the quotes).

As part of these programs you have to get general contractors out to do estimates and all of the work has to be done by a licensed contractor. So, we got estimates.

First off, let's talk about professionalism. Some tips for you general contractors that might be reading this:

1. Don't show up in sweatpants. It does not inspire confidence and it does not make you look like you know what you're doing.
2. If you have to cancel, cancel. But call first. No one wants to waste their time waiting for someone who's not going to bother to even show.
3. If your prospective clients do not have the same last name, respect that and put both names on the correspondence.
4. Be polite, ask questions and show up with your portfolio if it's requested. Also, taking pictures is a nice touch. One contractor did that and my husband can't stop talking about them. He's so impressed we may use them for work even though we're not doing the renovation loan. They also didn't show up in sweatpants.

As of right now we only have two/three estimates back, but they are breathtakingly ridiculous. Sweatpants sent a word document, without an itemized list of what each thing we requested would cost and a ball-park figure. Without materials, we were looking at roughly 30k (our entire budget) for just demo and install.

Space-Case (the nickname for another nice, albeit spacey contractor) came back with 60k including materials. He did send out an itemized list and was very interactive with us in putting it together, but 60k?

Here are some of my favorites on the list:

Install trim in the kitchen: $690 -- I'm not sure if any of you have ever done trim work, but it's maybe $50-$100 at Lowes to buy trim and paint and another $15 for hammer and nails. You can even have Lowes cut the trim for you if you bring in the measurements. If you want to go crazy, you could throw in the cost of a nail gun, which at around $100 brings the grand total to $165-$265.

Turn sink 90 degrees: $450 -- I'm at a loss. We're already going to rip up the floor, so the cost of flooring isn't factored in, and to adjust the plumbing we just need an elbow joint (or whatever the real term is -- a plumber, I am not).

Both contractors estimated about $300-$400 per appliance to install. Having helped my parents do this when they renovated their kitchen themselves, I'm confused as to why plugging in an appliance and pushing it into the cabinet requires 400 dollars.

My biggest problem is that inherent in the inflated figures is the message that says "Because you're young and it's your first house, we're going to inflate the figures because you're too stupid to know what this really costs". Joke's on them. I was raised on this shiz. Most children have fond memories of the park or fairs or whatever, but my fondest memories are going to Lowes every weekend, hitting the Williamsburg Pottery (which sadly now, as one friend put it, looks like something out of a Stephen King novel), and playing on those gigantic, awesome carpet roles (I have to contain myself when we go to flooring places. I still want to climb all over them, but now that I'm actually an adult, I can't get away with it).

Poor Pottery. I bet there's a creepy clown hiding in the building.

Speaking of creepy clowns, this jewel was at Second Chance, Baltimore's amazzzingggggggggg reclamation store.

So moral of the story: Unless you're messing with plumbing, electrical work, or doing something so far beyond your realm of capability, general contractors are a waste of money. My husband did point out that they're good if you want to get the work done quickly, because they can dedicate a month straight to a project, whereas most people cannot. I'll cede that point, but grudgingly.

I wish I could have more sage advice, like how to get them to bring down their prices, but we're scraping this and doing most everything ourselves. We're even going to take a class on plumbing so I can figure out if an elbow joint is really called an elbow joint!

Buying a House: Some General Tips

I've been trying to think of some tips for first-time home buyers in case magically someone stumbles upon this and they too are looking to buy a house for the first time. I have a few, and they're listed below in some semblance of an order.

First thing's first: budget, budget, budget. Don't bother looking at houses above what you can afford. A. they're probably not worth the extra money if you're capable of making cosmetic repairs and B. you'll just make yourself sad if you find something you LOVE but would have to beg family members for money just to cover the closing costs/down payment.

Not being ones to listen to our own advice, we looked at houses we couldn't afford and you know what? They weren't impressive. A lot still had changes we wanted to make and the price + changes would have put us in a bad situation money-wise. Stick to what you're comfortable with.

Our philosophy? Go with something that's below your means. We're reducing our monthly housing costs by between 400-500 dollars so that we have built-in money for all the updates we want to do, and for the inevitable alien invasion or volcano sprouting up in the park across the street that will result in lots of costly home repairs (funny aside, when I was a kid, my biggest fears were volcanoes and aliens. I could take on the creepy porcelain dolls my mom insisted I should have in my room, but watching Mars Attack and Volcano left me mortified.)

Always have WAY more money than you need for closing costs and down payment. We lucked out and found a house that's being sold by a private seller so we were able to negotiate the bulk of our closing costs, but that's not always the case. Sometimes closing costs can run into the tens of thousands, TENS OF THOUSANDS, depending on the type of loan you're getting.

Negotiate closing costs. Even if this means paying a little more for the house, it's worth it. Did I mention these things can run into the TENS OF THOUSANDS? Now-a-days, almost any seller worth their salt will shell out closing costs. Keep your offer reasonable though. Unless the house is legitimately worth 20k less than what they're asking, be fair and don't try to low ball them. The only time I can think of this not being the case is if the house has been on the market for an ungodly amount of time and/or the seller is "motivated". Being fair about your offer means the more stuff you'll get on the back end. For instance, our house needs the roof repaired and an upgrade in the electrical system, and because we kept our offer reasonable, the hope is they'll be open to paying for this.

DO YOUR RESEARCH. Don't rely on the buyer's agent to do this. While many, including ours are helpful, you can move a lot quicker and make your own decisions if you do your research. Know the comps in the area before you look ( is a great resource for this though you may want to double check with the MLS), look at other houses in the area, assuming there are any, and compare what you get almost line by line. For instance, in our hopefully new neighborhood there are five houses, including ours, on the same street for sale. We looked at each one. They ranged from 70k -140k. We looked at how long each had been on the market, what they were bought for, what work had been done in each (or in the case of ours, what HADN'T been done), and came up with our offer from that. Also, know what the house sold for/was appraised for in the housing peak and if that information isn't available look at what a similar house in the same neighborhood sold for. We knew we didn't want to spend 140 on a house in the neighborhood because even in the housing boom the most the houses sold for were 160. While this is likely because most of them haven't been updated in 30 years, it still gives you an idea of what your absolute best resale value is going to be.

Where ever you're looking at buying see if there's a neighborhood loan program offered either by the city, state or county. These are usually gentrification/development loans for low-income neighborhoods or rural areas but in some cases you can find awesome, tucked away safe neighborhoods with these programs. Baltimore City has one that unfortunately wasn't funded in time for our closing date, but had we gotten it it would have been a 3% downpayment, a 4% interest rate and we could add on up to 70k worth of renovations into the house. These small loan programs are just as reliable as an FHA or conventional mortgage and have to be done through a (usually local) bank, but you get a lot of benefits by doing it. Some research can save you hundreds of dollars a month.

There are more, but this should be enough to get you started. We're going through the final mortgage approval process now, so I'll have some tips about that soon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I come from a long line of DIYers. Most of my childhood was spent helping (helping being a very loose term) my parents renovate the house they bought when I was 10. The house is a monstrosity built in the 1970s and when they bought it it still had the original brown and orange shag carpeting and lots of dark wood. The house has since been drastically updated and transformed though it seems like it's constantly being altered by my parents.

Because of this upbringing, it's no surprise that when looking for houses, we chose an outdated "fixer-upper". We had planned on bringing in a contractor to do the big stuff, like put in our new kitchen, but our renovation loan will take too long and the more we thought about it, and the more estimates we received, we couldn't figure out what we were paying 50,000 for when we're more than capable of doing the lion's share of the work ourselves.

Also, 50,000? Are you kidding me. For the work we wanted done, 50,000 is an outrageous amount.

Here's what we're working with (these are the aforementioned pictures)

Here's the "babbling brook" across the street. It's actually very calming, we just happened to be taking pictures at the house on the day most of Baltimore flooded. Thank goodness this is at the bottom of a long hill!

Ceiling tiles! As excited as we were to see these, these will be ripped down within about a week of moving in.

My husband keeps threatening to leave this up. I can't tell if he's joking or not. Unfortunately for him, the eagle (we'll call him Roger), is attached to paneling. Bye, bye Roger.

The bathroom. I know some people go ga-ga over basket-weave flooring and subway tiles, but ours will be ripped out at some point. I'm just not a fan.

The absurdly large (and wonderful) master bedroom. The inlaid floors are in all of the rooms in the house except the kitchen and bathroom.

Hallway. I love the little jut out of that room. It breaks up the straight and narrow hallway look and gives us more of a separated entry way into our bedroom.

Stairway. Somewhere under the paint and carpet is a beautiful old wooden staircase. I'm hoping to restore it. We looked at four houses on this block, and this is the only one with a painted/carpeted stairway.

The awful, awful, awful kitchen. This is the only thing I hate about the house. That little tiny kitchen is shoved into 7ft of the available 18 feet of the entire room. Despite the fact that there's a 16x16 dining room, the previous owners needed an absurdly large kitchen nook. It also has ceiling tiles (like low-budget office, drop-ceiling tiles). We're going to move the kitchen into the kitchen nook, add a half bath and call it a day. Sounds so easy, huh.

Sunroom in the front. It's not all that sunny, given that there's a large tree in the front and trees across the street and it faces the north, but I'll take what I can get. It will become a pseudo office.

You can kind of see the aforementioned dining room in this picture. View from the sunroom.

Plain and simple front door that's going to be painted when we move in. I'm going for cheery yellow or a light orange. Steven and I both kind of like Red. I guess we'll see what wins out.

As you can see, we have our work cut out for us. Luckily, I've got tons of ideas. I'm just excited to get in and start pulling down ceiling tile, paneling and that uggggggggly carpet. Luckily, the bulk of the work is cosmetic, and what's not will hopefully be taken care of by the sellers.

If I can bring myself to actually sit down and draw them out, I'll post my renovation plans. Now I have to stop procrastinating and finish a mid-term. Have I mentioned hubby and I are both in school/working while doing all of this? Sometimes we have the best timing...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Things I Won't Miss About Renting

As I was laying in bed last night, listening to our (normally) quiet upstairs neighbors stomp around, I started compiling a mental list of all the things I wouldn't miss about renting.

They are:

1. The only arguments I have to listen to are my own. While it can be kind of fun to be the unwitting witness to marital and relationship issues (especially if they're arguing about something inane like peanut butter), it's super awkward and not my idea of a good time.

2. No one gives you a hard time about pets. You can have anything you want (assuming you don't live in a soulless, HOA-nazi neighborhood) and while your neighbors might think you're nuts, you don't have to pay anyone a dime for the privilege of owning ten goats.

3. No one can come in unannounced to inspect anything. My big, 100lb German Shepherd mix, Klaus is especially happy about this one; he doesn't like strangers. He is also happy being the world's largest lap dog:

4. If someone is stomping around upstairs, likely that person is me. Pretending to be a T-Rex. And if I'm stomping around like Scar, I'm not exactly in danger of keeping me awake.

5. I don't have to paint anything back. I can't stand white walls in every room in the house, so we have always painted in every apartment we've owned -- and trust me, that's a lot of apartments and a lot of paint. In half I've had to paint back or get the landlord's permission to paint a quirky color. Well, no more!

There's a crap ton more, but those are the highlights.

Baltimore, Home Sweet Home?

My husband and I moved to Baltimore shortly after we were married in an effort to put some distance between our families, get closer to my work (which at the time was supposed to be moving to Maryland a LOT sooner than it actually is -- we're moving next month, in fact), and to explore a city we've never lived in before. As a big Laura Lipman fan, I was really excited to be moving to Baltimore, despite the crime rates and it's outward ghetto-ness.

We thought we'd only be in Baltimore for about a year, and we would move from there to New Orleans, our favorite city in the whole world. However, things kept getting in the way. Before we knew it, it was time to renew our lease and decide whether or not to stay in Baltimore. We ended up staying, but went with a much more "house-like" apartment in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Baltimore City, instead of our renovated warehouse in the heart of Downtown Baltimore and found ourselves slowly falling more and more in love with "Charm City".

So now, it's been about a year and a half or so since we came to Baltimore, and we've decided to stay put, settle down and buy a house. We've found the house, now we're going through the buying process and hoping that everything goes through. This blog is mostly for historical purposes: to track the experience, show off our house and act as a creative outlet.

Pictures and plans to come!