Breaking My Rules

Jonathan Clements

I’M ABOUT TO MOVE OUT of my home for four or five months. Yeah, this takes some explaining.

In February 2020, when I was planning my move to Philadelphia, I wrote down 10 criteria I’d use to pick my new home. I recently re-read the article—and realized I broke the final two rules I’d laid down for myself.

To be sure, the home search didn’t go quite the way I planned. For starters, there was this little hiccup called the pandemic. Then the buyer for my New York apartment dropped out. Then another buyer dropped out. Meanwhile, the real estate market went bonkers.

I looked for a place in Philadelphia for almost a year and was outbid on the first four properties that I made offers on. By the time it came to the fifth property, I knew I needed to be more aggressive. I offered the asking price and was told two others had bid the same, so I reluctantly upped my offer by 2%. I won that bidding war—by a whisker.

On the year-long journey to that home purchase, my parsimonious nature and my persnickety criteria slowly relaxed, as it met the reality of Philadelphia’s frothy property market. Result? I not only paid slightly more than the asking price, but I didn’t get quite the home I wanted.

I knew that was a risk. Indeed, in my February 2020 article, I mentioned that, “Even if homebuyers draw up [a] detailed wish list, there’s still a danger that—in the heat of the moment—they’ll make some snap judgment that overrides the rules laid down earlier by their calmer self.”

So, what were my final two rules? No. 9 stated that, “While I’d remodel the place if I had to, I’d rather not. I’ve overseen enough remodeling projects in my lifetime. I don’t want the disruption and it isn’t how I want to spend my time.”

Meanwhile, rule No. 10 specified that, “I’d rather not have a basement or, failing that, a finished basement. I realize my aversion is somewhat irrational. But to me, basements mean vermin and possible flooding. What if the basement has French drains? Puh-leeze. That’s just an admission of defeat.”

The house I bought doesn’t have a finished basement, but it does have French drains. Still, since buying the place, I haven’t had a problem with water in the basement and I’ve never heard the sump pump kick into action, so I’m not quite sure why the French drains were installed. The upshot: While I broke rule No. 10, I’m inclined to cut myself some slack.

Rule No. 9 is a different story. Amid the craziness of 2020’s housing market, I had just 30 minutes to look over the house before making a bid. Everything seemed to my liking. But once I moved in, I found the kitchen to be somewhat dated and dark, and I started mulling some cosmetic changes that would make the place more to my liking. Long story short, those cosmetic changes ballooned into a full-blown remodeling, including a reconfigured kitchen and new, expanded windows upstairs and down.

Over the years, I’ve heard all too many homeowners justify their remodeling projects as an “investment.” I’m under no such illusions. I figure that, if I sold my house the day after the remodeling is done, I might recoup 60% of the money I’m about to spend, and perhaps far less. Make no mistake: What I’m doing here is spending money, which is not my favorite thing to do.

Still, with these improvements, I’m hoping to make the house a place where I’ll happily spend the next 15 years and perhaps longer, depending on my health. Thanks to the reconfigured kitchen, I’ll be able to sit at the breakfast table, look out on the postage-stamp backyard, and merrily write and edit HumbleDollar articles.

But to turn that vision into reality, I need to decamp from the house. I toyed with trying to live here through the renovation, but it would be simply too hard to work with all the noise, plus—without a kitchen at my disposal—I’d likely end up eating all the wrong things. The upshot: I’ve booked an Airbnb for the next five months. That might sound like a costly proposition. But going that route turned out to be 40% less expensive than the cheapest sublet I could find.

When is it worth remodeling a home? Offer your thoughts in HumbleDollar’s Voices section.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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