Finding a Starter Home That's Also a Forever Home

By Kentin Waits on 15 July 2013 (Updated 8 July 2014) 1 comment

Most folks seem to approach home-buying with generally the same logic. It goes something like this — our first or "starter" home will be a modest bungalow or condo that will serve as our entry into the real estate market. Our second home will probably be located in the suburbs and be much larger to support our growing family. And of course, after the kids are out of the nest, it'll be time to downsize to a small townhouse or home in a 55+ community. Those are three real estate transactions driven half by peer expectations and half by marketing. But is it all necessary? (See also: What You Need to Know Before Buying Your First Home)

My grandparents bought one home 10 years after they were married, and they lived in it until the day they died. Granted, with today's more mobile society, spending 50 years in the same state, let alone the same town and house, is a rarity. But, all else being equal — are we buying and selling out of need or by suggestion? And, after we pay for movers, finish remodeling, buy new furniture, and pay for closing costs and higher property taxes, are we coming out ahead?

I think there's a better way — a way to balance changing needs without uprooting ourselves and stressing our budgets. If you're considering buying your first place, why not rethink your approach and choose a starter home that has the potential to be a forever home?

1. Ask Yourself the Right Questions

As with any house-hunting project, finding the right place starts with asking the right questions. Understanding your needs now and gauging your future needs is half the battle.

How Much Space Do You Really Need Now?

What are your current space and size priorities? What rooms do you spend the most time in? Are cozy bedrooms okay, but large and spacious kitchens an absolute must? Consider how your lifestyle can inform reasonable compromises.

How Much House Will You Need in the Future?

What size of family do you expect to have? Would you like each child to have his own bedroom, or do you think sharing builds stronger bonds between siblings? Is there a chance that you'll be a primary caretaker of a parent or in-law down the road? Review your philosophies and anticipate how probable life changes might affect your needs 10 or 15 years down the road.

How Much Time and Money Can You Devote to Maintenance?

More house typically means more maintenance. What size of a home or yard can you handle and still have time for a little R&R on the weekends? How will the maintenance costs differ between the homes you're looking at?

2. House Hunt With an Architect's Eye

Reworking a home's entire layout can be considerably more expensive than making modest revisions to an existing floor plan. Before you buy, consider a home's orientation. Is there only room to make additions on one end of the house? Would an addition fit into the existing floor plan, or would it require a complete remodel? Are there special design features or historic details that will need to be carried over into the new structure?

3. Understand the Neighborhood

Every neighborhood has its own unique personality and it's important to respect the aesthetics and the norms of the homes around you. Do you want to be the guy who builds the first four-bedroom, three-car garage on a street filled with quaint pre-war bungalows? How might future plans for your home be received by your neighbors and fit in with the overall look and feel of the street?

4. Survey the Lot

Unless you're adding stories, lot size determines how much a home can physically grow to meet your needs. As you house hunt, examine how the home's footprint fits on the lot. Is there space to add another bedroom or bath and still be well within property line limits? How will future expansion affect the flow of the outdoor space? Are there geographic features you'll have to contend with to make future additions?

5. Review the Codes

Every municipality has slightly different requirements that limit house size, height, how close you can build to property lines, etc. Some historic neighborhoods even have restrictive covenants that regulate acceptable architectural styles and paint colors. If you want to make sure your starter home can evolve with your family's needs, review the local codes that might directly affect your ability to make changes later.

In the end, finding a home that meets your needs now and is perfectly poised to grow as your family grows, is entirely possible. With realistic expectations, the right planning, and a little creative vision, that quaint starter home can be all you need it to be.

Are you in the market for a "starter home"? Are you planning to move up? Or will you keep it "forever"?

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Guest's picture

Great advice. Many people who think they'll make a huge profit when they sell their house don't remember that you have substantial closings costs in every transaction.

If you can be happy in one home, you're cutting out lots of fees that are eating into your profit when you actually are ready to sell many years down the road.