...because home doesn't happen overnight.
Confession: we’ve been trolling house listings since last fall. We knew that once our mortgage was paid off, we wanted to seriously consider potential investment properties. Initially, several scenarios came to mind: 1) Buy another fixer-upper to renovate and live in, and sell our current home for a profit. 2) Buy a rental property and rent it out while living in our current home. 3) Buy another fixer-upper to renovate and sell for a profit while living in our current home. We spent a lot of time studying the local real estate market, researching feasible real estate investment options, running the numbers, talking to realtors and seasoned investors and figuring out exactly what we wanted to gain from our investment. A new home? A sizable, one-time payoff? Steady, long-term additional income? A new experience? A challenge?
We looked at a ton of houses – online and in person. I can’t even make a guesstimate. A TON. We looked at all kinds of properties: foreclosures, short sales, HUDs, for sale by owner, sheriff sales, real estate auctions, old houses, new houses, big houses, little houses, estate sales and plain ol’ houses just, you know, for sale. At one point, we were this close to purchasing a parcel of land in a neighboring city and building an Airbnb first, then eventually adding a home for ourselves, but were stopped short thanks to zoning restrictions and a questionable lien on the property.
We discovered pretty quickly that it was going to take a property with loads of potential at a great price and some proper star alignment to get us to leave our current home. We’ve touched every surface, made it ours and own it outright. It’s the ideal setup for us at this stage in our lives. Plus, I think there’s something to be said for living in a home for a while after the renovation dust settles. So many homeowners move on to bigger and “better” things when their house is done, but we feel like, “What’s wrong with staying put even if it’s not our forever home, our dream house?” In reality, we’re very much enjoying the freedom our home has given us. That’s not to say we wouldn’t be tempted if the right house came along – at the right price, at the right time, in the right location. But, so far, it hasn’t and we don’t see any reason to force it. So we ditched option #1…for now.
Regardless of our living situation, Steve and I have been itching to take on another project. Home improvement is something we both enjoy. It’s a fulfilling outlet for us. We know houses are just things, but we can’t help seeing the potential in even the worst ones. And if we can turn a profit doing something we love, then heck, let’s try it! But not on TV. (Yes, there have been television offers but that’s not us. Props to the people who do it though!)
So as soon as we paid off our mortgage, we took out a home equity line of credit in order to make a cash offer on and renovate a fixer-upper. Mere days after we opened the account, we found the perfect investment property in a highly sought after local neighborhood. I toured it the day it went on the market while Steve was at work. (Scouring new listings had become part of my morning routine.) The minute I stepped in the door, I knew it was the one. Immediately after the showing, I called Steve and we decided to make an offer. We were actually driving up to Michigan for spring break later that evening and communicating with our realtor via phone to put in an offer. Sadly, a few hours later, we learned that there was a clause in the contract requiring owner occupancy for 12 months. Basically, we were required to sign a contract saying the house would be our primary residence for the first year. We had no plans to live in the house, and our realtor advised us against lying due to legal repercussions. So we had to let it go. Even though it was perfect.
Fast forward two months, a nearby dilapidated ranch caught our eye. (Sound familiar?) It was an estate sale to be sold in as-is condition and was located in a township void of pricey city taxes and within an excellent school district. (We had learned from months of research that “as-is” listings can be great investment opportunities.) Steve called our realtor to schedule a showing, but while we were waiting to hear back I noticed the listing had already gone “pending” online. When our realtor called back, we fully expected him to tell us the house was under contract, but instead he said we were good to see it that day.
“It’s listed as pending online. Is that not the case?” we asked.
“No. The listing agent said it’s a mistake. There have been major issues with a new listing database. There’s no contract,” he answered.
We saw the house later that day and made an offer that evening. Our lowball offer was accepted (most likely because we were paying cash, could close quickly and beat other buyers to it thanks to the lucky “pending” slip-up) and…SURPRISE!…we closed on the house last month. Since no liens, loans or in-person sellers were involved, it was the fastest closing ever. It went something like, “Sign here and congratulations.”
Although, the congratulations part felt laughable to us. “Congratulations! You just bought a second house! It needs a ton of work and smells like cat pee!”
As far as plans go, we’ve decided to fix it up and sell it as opposed to rent it out, although both are viable options. If it doesn’t sell (fingers crossed it does), we can always rent it out even though it’s not our first choice. (We’ve learned that we need a Plan B in case Plan A doesn’t work out.) Why sell? First, if renting the house were our primary goal, many of the improvements we’d like to make wouldn’t happen. Making improvements to appeal to renters is not the same as making improvements to appeal to buyers. Sure, we could go in and clean it up a bit and make a few so-so repairs and rent it out, but that’s not something that sounds too enjoyable or fulfilling to us. We like a good challenge. Second, the house is in the same township we live in, so we’re all for renovating it to maintain (and possibly increase) home values. Finally, we aren’t entirely sure where we’ll be living 10 years from now, and we don’t want to invest in a long-term rental and be responsible for it remotely.
I’m hesitant to call what we’re doing a flip even though, let’s be realistic, that’s what we’re doing. However, we have no plans to install the cheapest granite countertops we can find and slap down a bunch of carpet in a matter of weeks. Yes, one of our goals is to make a profit, but we don’t want to completely sacrifice style in the name of dollar signs. We love the idea of a thoughtfully designed, budget-friendly flip, and we’re fully prepared for it to take a little longer than the average flip. Is there such a thing as a careful real estate turnover? On the other hand, we also realize we’ll have to make some compromises since we’re not renovating the house for ourselves. We’re confident we can find a sweet spot between cheap flip and dream remodel.
I’d like to mention that we chose not to share our plans and house search in detail in real time on the blog because we wanted to be sure our decision wasn’t swayed by outside influences. We really wanted to stay true to ourselves and our personal goals. I hope you understand! The good news is I plan to document our flip experience much like I did our downsizing journey. If anything, we’ll all learn something, right?
So, yeah, we bought a house. It reeks of cat piss. And we couldn’t be more excited. Or scared. House tour coming soon! (Two words: pistachio walls.)
image: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking
We have a teensy strip of concrete just to the right of our front door. Porch? Patio? Sidewalk tangent? I don’t know what to call it.
I put a bench there a few years back, but we never really used it. The kids and neighbor kids tend to congregate on the planter-turned-storage-bench instead. Then I spotted Acapulco chairs on a recent trip to HomeGoods. (I had gone in for discounted hand soap. That’s how stuff like this happens.)
I wasn’t immediately sold on them. I loved the design but questioned the comfortability. I didn’t have any measurements of the porch on me (a true sign of just how much I shunned the weird, wasted space), but I guessed it could handle a pair of chairs and a small accent table. At $60 a pop, the price was right. Typically, Acapulco chairs go for $225+. I snatched up two of them and told myself I could always return them if they didn’t work out.
But as soon as I got them home, I knew there would be no return, no refund coming my way. They fit the space perfectly and are surprisingly comfortable in a lounge-y sort of way. They’re constructed of a rust-proof steel base and vinyl weave. After a month outside, they’ve proven to be super durable. They look brand new even after several significant storms. Severe thunderstorm winds haven’t moved them. They’re sturdy. Layne made me promise not to add pillows because he likes them just the way they are. He’s totally right, of course.
I had fun searching for a side table. I wanted something substantial that would stay put and hold up to the elements. It needed to be roundish, too, to wedge between the chairs. I probably looked at hundreds but ultimately ended up with this gem-shaped, concrete table. The reviews aren’t great, but after reading them I realized it was because the product image doesn’t show the handle cutouts and kinda blows out the color of the concrete. So I took those observations into consideration and decided to spring for it. I was able to use a coupon which brought the price under $100. It arrived in mint condition and looks as expected. I like how the concrete finish ties in to the concrete windowsill (shown in the first image of this post). It’s heavy!
The lesson? READ REVIEWS. Reading reviews is what persuades me to sometimes buy items with two stars (some consumers don’t look at measurements and are disappointed when the item they bought is too big/small) and pass on items with five stars (I look for reviews of verified purchases).
The table is the perfect spot for a small planter and a drink or two. In the morning, it’s coffee. In the evening, it’s coconut rum + pineapple juice. The planter is from West Elm and it’s one of my favorite purchases so far this year. I keep moving it around, inside and outside. (If you’re looking for a succulent that’s easy to care for, I love paddle plant.) The brass coasters are from Schoolhouse Electric. I bought a set for my sister and brother-in-law as a wedding gift this past spring then immediately bought a set for our house. They already have a good patina going thanks to a few spilled drinks courtesy of the kids.
The little outdoor nook has already seen more action over the past month than it has in the entire four years we’ve lived here. It’s been nice to see our house/yard from a new angle. We live in what I refer to as a front yard neighborhood. Most of the front yards are larger than the backyards. All the action happens out front. It’s where the kids play a miniature form of baseball. Neighbors come over to say hi while walking their dogs. A large running group snakes by on Tuesday evenings. I’m surprised the UPS man hasn’t worn a trail directly to the front door. We’re social in the front, private in the back.
Speaking of the backyard, it’s been somewhat of a construction zone this summer. We’re installing shade sails. Can’t wait to share that project!
In the meantime, I rounded up a few of my favorite affordable outdoor side tables in case you’re on the hunt.
Happy porch sitting!
images: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking
A few weeks after school let out, the kids and I spent five days in Michigan City, Indiana. It was such a (surprisingly!) great getaway that I thought I’d share a little more about our trip.
Since it was just me and the kids (Steve couldn’t slip away from work), I was hoping to keep the drive time under six hours. I can’t remember when or where I heard about Tryon Farm, but it was one of the few possibilities that came to mind when I started planning the trip. When I mapped it, I was stoked to learn we could make the drive in less than five hours. (We’re in southwestern Ohio.) You can read more about the green farming community here. Essentially, it’s the real life intersection of nature + modern architecture, and it happens to be located a mile and a half from Lake Michigan in Indiana. It sounded like the perfect spot for an adventure.
Several Tryon Farm homes are available as short-term rentals. We rented the coziest little house nestled among the trees. It was a one-bedroom, one-bathroom modern cabin with all the essentials but nothing over the top. There was no television and no internet service. I loved how all the windows cranked open to get a good breeze going. No need for A/C even on the hottest of days!
The kids’ favorite feature was the triple (!) bunk beds built into a tower hallway between the kitchen and bedroom. A pocket door separated the bunk nook from the kitchen. Each bunk had its own window, reading light and book shelf. A sturdy ladder reached from the floor all the way to the top. The highest bunk even had sliding doors with frosted panels to create a secret hideout. Naturally, the kids fought over it. They ended up taking turns sleeping on the top bunk. A huge skylight in the ceiling of the “bunk tower” kept the space bright during the day. It also acted as a silent alarm clock early every morning, but I actually enjoy waking up early on vacation so it wasn’t a big deal.
Each morning after breakfast we’d explore the farm by way of various trails. There were ponds, dunes, meadows and woodlands. Mabrey loved visiting the chickens. The boys had a blast playing on the tire swing.
I couldn’t get over all the amazing homes and how they were seemingly built into the landscape. Raw materials like corrugated steel and concrete were softened by creeping vines and leafy canopies. My absolute favorite house was a low slung ranch built into a sloping hillside. It had a green roof that you could walk on! (It was empty during our visit.) I loved the juxtaposition of modern lines against the wild landscape.
I used basil and oregano from the community garden to make meatball subs and spaghetti in the kitchen of our little house.
After lunch we would venture off the farm to take in some of the local attractions. Namely, the lake beach. It wasn’t really warm enough to swim until the latter part of the week, but that didn’t stop the kids from getting in – sometimes fully clothed. I decided I prefer freshwater lakes over salty oceans. (Plus, no stingrays. I was stung once as a teenager, and the ocean just hasn’t been the same for me since.)
One windy afternoon we started walking west toward the Michigan City lighthouse. I thought we’d walk to the pier and turn around. But as we got closer, there weren’t any restrictions against walking along the pier. In fact, there weren’t any railings or warning signs or anything. We literally walked out and onto the lighthouse. I’m not much of a helicopter mom, but I was a little anxious trying to keep three kids contained on a narrow pier. Luckily, we made it all the way out to the lighthouse and back with no casualties.
We had planned on taking the train into Chicago one day to visit a museum, but that plan was thwarted by an overly tired and whiny four-year-old. (Just look at her disgruntled face!)
I couldn’t see spending all that money just to make everyone miserable, so we did the next best thing and rode the train two stops west then back again. Everett especially liked the train. The boys later confessed to only wanting to ride the train anyway, so it worked out perfectly.
The highlight of our trip was visiting Indiana Dunes State Park in nearby Chesterton. We completed the 3 dune challenge. The wind was whipping. The sun was beating down. Our shoes filled with sand and instantly became two sizes too small. Everett and Mabrey complained most of the way. I refused to carry them. (I couldn’t carry them.) At one point Mabrey dropped to her knees and raised mini fists to the sky and cried, “I’m soooooo tiiiiiiiiiired!” I had to stifle my laughter. It was like a scene from a movie where the main character is stranded, dying of thirst, in the desert. Only, replace the main character with a preschooler. Who has a water bottle, sunscreen and snacks.
We were rewarded with the most AMAZING view! The kids begged to walk down to a private beach after we crested dune #2. I warned them that it would turn the 3 dune challenge into a 4 dune challenge, but they weren’t fazed. It was the best detour. We felt like we were in a different world. (If you look closely, you can see all three kiddos in the shot above.)
A few other local hot spots that we tried and loved:
*49er drive-in movie theater in Valparaiso, Indiana – Affordable and family-friendly, they play new releases. Named one of the top 10 drive-ins in the country.
*Mucho Mas! in Michigan City, Indiana – Tex-Mex cuisine. Great lunch option.
*Stop 50 wood fired pizzeria in Michiana Shores, Indiana – Probably some of the best pizza to ever grace my taste buds. Get the firecracker appetizer. (Homemade marinara + hot sauce + a dollop of melty goat cheese + flaky breadsticks = fireworks in your mouth.) The house salad is incredible, too.
In the evenings, we’d drive down to the lake and watch the sun melt into water. In reality, I was house-stalking.
On our last day, we didn’t have to check out until 5:00 p.m. We milked every last minute. It was in the 90s, so we spent the afternoon at the beach. It was so hot and the water felt so refreshing that even I got in. (I liken my swimming habits to a rare eclipse.) The kids built sandcastles and buried their feet. Mabrey collected a dozen teeny shells and smooth rocks. A stunt plane practiced its aerobatic routine over the lake directly in front of us, looping, rolling, ascending and diving, leaving its temporary, smoky signature in the blue sky.
As I lay on my towel watching the kids and the plane, an unexpected parenting milestone snuck up on me. I was able to lie uninterrupted on the beach for a full thirty minutes. It was glorious. Well worth the wait ;)
Late in the afternoon we headed back to the little house, showered, packed, locked up and hit the road. On our way out of town, I asked the kids what they would miss most.
Layne said, “The laid-back atmosphere.”
Everett said, “The tire swing.”
Mabrey said, “The chickens.”
I was already missing those thirty minutes on my beach towel.
My only regret of the entire trip was Steve’s absence. Everywhere we went one of us would say, “Dad would love this!” We have to get him there. Soon.
Thanks, northern Indiana, for giving the midwest a good name. Can’t wait to visit again!
Do you have any recommendations for vacation spots in the midwest and/or within a six-hour drive of Ohio? We’d love to add more midwestern cities to our wish list.
images: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking