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A home is a big part of life for most of us. Where we live impacts our lives every day, and most of us dream of living in a bigger, nicer home.
Housing can also be a huge expense that takes up a large part of your budget.
A few years ago, my wife and I bought our dream house. While I love a lot of things about the house (and I consider it a blessing to be able to live here), if I could go back and make the decision all over again, I don’t think I would buy my dream house. The few years that we’ve lived here have taught me a lot, and some of my priorities have shifted.
The Back Story:
In 2010, my wife and I bought our first single-family home for $230,000 in rural Pennsylvania. It was a new construction 4-bedroom home (2,300 square feet) that met all of our needs, and most of our wants. We didn’t have any kids at the time, but we planned to eventually have two kids, and this house had plenty of space for a family of four. In 2012, our daughter was born, and our son followed in 2015.
After a few years in that house, I really started to hate the neighborhood. We had a 1/4 acre property with a decent-sized backyard, but from both the front yard and backyard, all you could see was endless houses. It was the typical newer development with houses lined up fairly close together. To make it worse, there were very few trees because the land had been a farm before the houses were built.
There was no privacy. I didn’t like being in the backyard because people in so many other houses could see right into the yard.
During those first few years in the house, my income was increasing quickly. I had a blog that was doing well, and in 2013 I sold the blog for $500,000. In 2014, my wife and I decided to use some of that money to pay off our mortgage after living in the house for four years.
At some point, my wife and I talked about moving to a house with a bigger property and more privacy. Our financial situation had improved a lot since we bought the house in 2010, and we started to think about what we might want in our dream house.
After selling that first blog, I had a photography blog that was doing really well, and my wife and I had an Amazon FBA business that was making a low six-figure profit with part-time work. We had a good start to our retirement savings, had no mortgage on the house, and we felt like we could upgrade to a bigger property and nicer home.
Buying Our Dream House:
In 2016, we started looking at houses more seriously.
After a few months, we found the house that we’d been waiting for. The lot wasn’t as big as we wanted (it was 3/4 of an acre), but it backed up to wooded State Game Lands, there was a lot more space between houses, plenty of mature trees, and it was on a very quiet road. Even without a large property, it had a lot of privacy.
After a small amount of negotiation, we bought the house for $417,500, and we paid cash in order to avoid going back to a mortgage.
Although the property and privacy was the main thing we were after, the house itself was really nice as well. It was built in 1989, so it was 27 years old when we bought it. Only one family had lived in the house and they took incredible care of the home and the landscaping.
Here are a few details of the house:
- 4 bedrooms, including a huge master bedroom
- 3.5 bathrooms, all with high-end finishes
- 5,000 square feet, including the finished part of the basement
- A beautiful kitchen with custom cabinets, high-end appliances, granite countertops, and a massive island
- An office (which is important since I work from home)
- An exercise room in the basement, connected to one of the full bathrooms
- Huge family room on the main floor
- Another huge family room in the basement with a walkout to the patio
- A wine cellar
- Large laundry room on the main floor
- Many large windows, especially at the back of the house with a great view out into the woods
- Big deck out back, and a hot tub on the deck
- Screened-in room connected to the deck
- Incredible landscaping with stone retaining walls and stone walkways
- Sprinkler system for watering the lawn
- On a very quiet street with almost no traffic
- Natural gas backup generator
The house was bigger than we wanted, but we felt that the space is used well and there is no wasted space that doesn’t have a purpose. We really loved the property, the layout of the house, and how well the home had been maintained.
I can’t overemphasize how well the house was maintained. At settlement, the sellers gave us a 4-page document listing all of the people who provided some sort of service for the home (the landscaper, the guy who maintained the sprinklers, the cleaning lady, the people who serviced the furnace and the generator, and many others). The document also explained some of the features of the house and things we needed to know. They even gave us the original blueprints for the construction and a photo album of the house being built.
It’s been about 2.5 years since we moved into the house. I’ve been planning/hoping for early retirement for several years… long before we bought our dream house. Although I’ve had my sights set on early retirement for a while, my sense of urgency has increased just within the past 1-2 years. If we were to buy a house today, I’m pretty sure this is not the house we would buy. Instead, we’d go with a cheaper home that allowed us to save and invest more money.
I wanted to write this article to share some of the lessons I’ve learned through the process.
Lessons Learned from Buying My Dream Home
1. What Feels Important to You Today May Not Be Important to You Tomorrow
We thought and talked about our dream home for a few years before we moved. I looked at houses online almost every day for a year before we even went to see a single house. We made a wish list of things we wanted, and it was a pretty big list.
We were happy in our previous home, and we liked the house itself, but not the lack of privacy. We didn’t want to move unless we got a house/property that we loved.
Our house has a lot of the things that were on our wishlist. Aside from privacy, that includes things like:
- Brick exterior (partial)
- Large family room
- Large master bedroom and bathroom
- Nice kitchen
- Dedicated space for my office
- Guest room
- Hardwood floors
- Separate laundry room
- And more
Now that I’ve lived in the house for 2.5 years, I can say that many of the things on our wishlist are no longer important to me.
It really doesn’t make a difference that the kitchen and bathroom countertops are granite instead of the builder-grade countertops at our previous home. Our master bedroom is way bigger than we need. The nice, big tub in our master bathroom has been used twice so far. I no longer care that our floors are hardwood and tile instead of cheaper options. I don’t care that the outside of the house has brick instead of all siding.
If we were to move today, these things would not be on my wishlist and we’d probably get a cheaper house. These things matter a lot less to me than I thought they did.
2. High-End Finishes Lead to More Expenses in the Future
The previous owners of our house had expensive taste. Their realtor was quick to point out the $10,000 Turkish rug in the dining room. They had a Porsche and a Mercedes in the garage. All of the kitchen appliances are high end.
Of course, the rug and the cars went with them, but the appliances and the high-end finishes throughout the house stayed. These things are nice, but they’re also expensive to maintain.
Last year, the wall oven stopped working and it cost $2,000 just to repair it. The parts had to be shipped from Germany, and instead of simply reaching behind the oven it had to be completely pulled out of the wall.
We thought about replacing the oven with a more reasonable brand, but there is a matching microwave/convection oven above it and a matching warming drawer below it. Replacing only the oven with a different brand would leave an awkward mismatched wall that looks out of place in a nice kitchen. Replacing everything would require work to the cabinets that hold the appliances, and a lot more money. We decided to just pay the $2,000 to fix the oven.
Even bigger expenses are likely to come up when we eventually have to update the kitchen and bathrooms. I know we won’t go with the same high-end appliances and materials used a few years ago when everything was re-done, but we’ll be faced with the decision of just how much to spend. Going too cheap could hurt the value of the home, and I don’t think we’ll do that.
3. The Small Things Can Make a Huge Difference
I’m surprised by some of the things I love about our house. I mentioned earlier that things like granite countertops and hardwood floors don’t do that much for me now, but there are several small things that I really love about this house.
One of my favorite things (and it’s definitely one of my wife’s favorites as well) is the laundry room. At our old house, the clean clothes were always in the guest room. The washer and dryer were in a closet in the hallway, just outside of the guest room. The bed in the guest room became the place for folding and sorting laundry, and it was pretty much always covered. Now we have a nice laundry room with plenty of space.
Another thing that frustrated me at our old house was the entrance from the garage leading into the house. When you came in from the garage it led straight into the family room. That area of the family room always had shoes and backpacks sitting near the door and I hated how it cluttered up the family room. Our current house has a small hallway that leads to the garage. There are two big closets and plenty of room for shoes, coats, and backpacks.
The next time we move, whenever that may be, these are the things that will be on my wishlist.
4. Some Things Are Worth Paying For
My experience living in my dream house has led me to the conclusion that there are a lot of things about a house that probably are not worth the extra expense. However, some things are worth the expense. Everyone will have their own opinions about what is worth the money and what is not, so it’s really a personal preference.
For me, the privacy and natural beauty of our property is definitely worth paying for. I love being able to look at the backyard and see nature instead of seeing a row of houses. I love living on a quiet street with almost no traffic. I love living in a neighborhood filled with mature trees.
I don’t think these things are absolute must-haves for me. I could live in a house like our previous home, but I do love the quietness of our home and the nature that surrounds it.
5. The Functionality of the House is Important
For the most part, I think our house is very functional. I mentioned earlier that it’s big, but there really is no wasted space. We looked at some homes that had rooms that I don’t think we’d ever use. That’s not the case with our house.
The one area that really bothers me in terms of functionality is my office. In our previous house, my office was in the basement. Some people wouldn’t like working in the basement, but I loved it. There was a window that let in some natural light (although it had absolutely no view), but what I really loved was the privacy. I could hear a little bit of noise from the kids upstairs at times, but I felt very separated, which made it easy to work.
In our current home, my office is on the main floor, right next to the front door. The doors to the office are glass and they provide no privacy and they do nothing to break the sound. I hear pretty much everything that happens on the main floor of the house. It’s SO much harder to get work done than it was at our old house.
If we were to buy another house, there is no way I would go with a main floor office. I wasn’t crazy about the office location when we looked at the house, but there is always going to be some compromise.
6. Maintenance Costs Are Important
When we bought this home, I underestimated how much it would cost to maintain it. I knew our utilities would be higher with a 5,000 square foot home, but there were many other things I hadn’t accounted for.
Our maintenance costs include things like:
- Monthly subscription for pest control services (necessary with lots of bugs being in a wooded area)
- Lawn treatment for weeds (not necessary)
- Treatment for the many trees on the property
- Removal of dead trees occasionally
- Materials for staining the deck and stairs (I do the work myself)
- Mulch (I do the work myself)
- Service for two furnaces, tankless water heater, backup generator
- Gutter cleaning
- And many other things that come up.
Even though we have no mortgage on the house, the maintenance costs add up.
Honestly, this is the biggest factor that impacts my opinion of living in this house. If the ongoing costs of maintaining the house were lower, I think I would probably be much more content with our decision to buy this house.
→ Related reading: The True Costs of Owning a Home
7. Older Homes Require Much More Maintenance and Upkeep
Our previous home was new construction. We lived in it for six years, so it was still relatively new when we moved out. That house required very little upkeep and it was awesome to not spend time or money on maintenance. We had one small repair to the furnace, but that is the only thing I can remember fixing during the six years we lived there.
Moving to a home that was getting close to 30 years old, we knew that more upkeep would be involved, but it’s been more than we expected. To be fair, a big part of that maintenance and upkeep is related to the property and the landscaping, but the house itself has had some needs as well.
It’s mostly things that you would expect to happen when a home is 30 years old, but it’s a big change from living in a new home.
8. Even Well-Maintained Homes Need Upkeep
When we first looked at this house, everything was immaculate. The previous owners did a great job of keeping up with the house and they didn’t mind spending the money to have people do the majority of the work for them.
The house was in such great shape that there was nothing we needed to do to it. We chose to paint and remove some wallpaper, but that was just a preference.
I think one of the reasons I underestimated the necessary upkeep is because the previous owners had the house in such great condition. It was presented so well that I overlooked some of the maintenance that would be needed.
9. Don’t Underestimate Landscaping Costs and Time Requirements
Prior to this house, I’d never lived in a house that had much landscaping. At our old house, I mowed the lawn, but that was about it. A few shrubs out front needed to be trimmed once a year, but we didn’t do any other landscaping. I didn’t even own a rake because the only tree in our yard was just planted when we moved in, and the few leaves that it dropped would just blow away.
Now, I spend many, many hours on landscaping and yard work. I stay busy on the weekends with things like:
- Spreading mulch
- Trimming plants
- Pulling weeds
- Pressure washing the patio and sidewalks
Leaf cleanup is almost a year-round job, with the fall and spring being especially time-consuming.
I knew this yard would take some work, but I severely underestimated how much. The good news is, we’ve spent much less money on landscaping than we anticipated. I’ve been able to do most of it myself, and I wanted to spend more time outside, so this definitely makes it possible. As our kids get older, I think our weekends will get busier with activities and I will probably have to pay other people to do most of the yard work.
10. Those “Features” Can Be Expensive to Maintain
The more stuff you have, the more things can break. Our house has a lot of features that are nice, but it just creates added expenses when they have to be fixed.
Before we moved in, the previous owners told us that the range vent (it rises up out of the island) and the trash compactor in the kitchen needed to be fixed. They took care of both, so fortunately we didn’t have to pay for that. We don’t even use those things, so I don’t really want to pay to fix them.
But we have spent money on:
- Repairs to a leak from the hot tub
- Repairs to the sprinkler pipes that had an underground leak
- Repairs to the ice maker on our fridge
- Repairs to the fireplace
- Replacement of the hose on our tub that we never use (that was broken by our kids)
Not only have the repairs cost money, but we’ve also paid for routine maintenance like having the sprinklers and hot tub winterized.
The whole-house backup generator is nice, but it needs to be serviced every now and then.
All of these features can be nice to have, but they’re also an added expense.
11. Simplicity is Underrated
I love a lot of things about our house, but our previous home and property were so much simpler.
Simplicity requires less time and money. I knew that when we moved, but I didn’t fully appreciate it.
Simplicity really appeals to me now.
12. Cleaning a Big House is a Lot of Work
This one is pretty obvious, but it’s true. Our 5,000 square foot house takes a lot of time and effort to clean. Vacuuming is practically a part-time job, especially with two young kids in the house.
13. Moving Frequently is a Bad Idea
When we bought this house, our plan was to live here until our kids are out of the house (our son had just turned one when we moved in). I’m not sure if we’ll be here that long, but I kind of doubt it. I would consider moving now, but moving is expensive and inconvenient.
I love living in our house, but I don’t love the time and money needed to maintain the house and property. But considering how much it costs to move, I really don’t want to sell the house just a few years after buying it
I wouldn’t say that I regret buying this house because we took our time and made the decision that we thought was best at the time (plus, I love a lot of things about the house). But, if I were to go back and do it all again, knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t make the same decision. I would decide to either stay at our previous house or move to a different house with more privacy, but one that would not take as much time or money to maintain.