Monday, March 30, 2015

The Price is... A Mystery

If there's one gripe I have about the building process with Ryan Homes, it's that they make it very difficult to price out what your home will cost you with the upgrades that you want. There were certain upgrades where our sales rep had immediate prices for us to review, even prior to signing the purchase agreement (the extra cost of buying an end unit lot, adding extra recessed lighting), but there were other upgrades where they couldn't be specific (adding hardwood).

I understand the options and availability of upgrades differs based on the house model you choose, but I hate that it's a total mystery to consider how much various upgrades will cost. As someone who really likes to research and comparison shop, it definitely disadvantages the home buyer making an informed choice. If they really wanted to make the process user friendly, each model should have a website -- heck, even just a binder -- that has a menu of how much it costs to add each upgrade. Oh, you want to add hardwood to the main level of the Matisse? It costs $X dollars. You want the french door fridge instead of the side-by-side? It costs $1,195 (as I discovered by emailing the SR).

One of our appliance handouts. Nary a price tag or upgrade cost to be seen anywhere.

If you did new construction, were you aggravated by this too? Or are other builders more transparent?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Purchase Agreement Meeting

Ryan Homes Homeowner's Guide The deed is done: we've signed the papers for our first house!

I was initially a little nervous because I wasn't totally sure what was going to happen at the meeting -- were we picking finishes and appliances? -- and I hadn't had a chance to do any research at all. It turns out I had no need to be nervous; we just signed the purchase agreement and various county and municipality assurances (deferred water and sewer, etc).

One piece of advice I'd seen elsewhere on blogs is to ask for the purchase agreement in advance so you have time to review the document before signing your life away, and I found that to be super helpful. Our sales rep gladly emailed it over, and I was able to really look it over for myself instead of just relying on the SR's summary. (I should add that I think our sales rep is fantastic, I just like doing my due diligence.) I also asked for the HOA and condo CC&R bylaws, but because there are so many documents, Ryan Homes gave them to me on a flash drive. (You can take a look at the documents here.)

There weren't many surprises in the purchase agreement. There is a clause that the square footage may differ from the model, but that's because items like kitchen islands or bumpouts can cause the square footage to vary. You also get one quarter of one percent tax credit if you're a first time homebuyer -- no big shakes, but hey, I'll take it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

House Hunting: Ryan Homes Matisse at Greenbelt Station

And, finally, what probably drew you to this blog: we checked out the Ryan Homes community at Greenbelt Station. There were two models in our price range, the Matisse and the Picasso, both of which are townhome condos. The Picasso is a great size at 2,600 square feet, but we ruled it out for the same reason we nixed the nice condo in Rockville: too many stairs. So, on to the Matisse.

The Matisse clocks in at 1,642 square feet, with 3 bedrooms, and 2.5 bathrooms. It has a reasonable condo fee of about $250, which takes care of snow shoveling, mowing, and landscaping around the community.

The Pros:
  • Under budget & closing assistance
  • Safe neighborhood
  • Home would be under a 10-year structural warranty
  • Home would be energy efficient
  • Lots of natural light
  • Less than a mile to the metro & MARC trains
  • Community includes plans for a 2 acre park
  • Garage for the car
  • Inside the Beltway
The Cons:
  • In a struggling school district
  • The Matisse's first level doesn't leave a lot of room for a dining table
Obviously, a big plus was the price tag, especially with how expensive the DC Metro area is. Buying a place under-budget gives us the breathing room to save for house repairs, furniture, or just paying down the mortgage faster. It also means we have the flexibility of going out to eat every once in a while without feeling like we're breaking the bank.

Beyond the price tag, though, we loved the home's design. Each room receives a huge amount of natural light, and the master bedroom is enormous, with two separate walk in closets. We liked that the laundry was upstairs, convenient to all the bedrooms. We also liked that the home came with a lot of luxury items standard: double sinks in the master bathroom, granite in the kitchen, stainless appliances, etc.

We took a while to make our decision, but the combination of having a great house, Metro access, and under budget makes it the perfect fit for us.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

House Hunting: The Tired Townhouse

Another option we checked out was a colonial-style townhouse very close to the Wheaton metro, which was 3 bedrooms and 2.5 baths, and 1,408 square feet. This house was offered at $318,000, and had a monthly condo fee of $260. Wheaton has seen a lot of growth and development recently, and it's a pretty neat neighborhood.

The Pros:
  • Under budget
  • Close to the Wheaton metro
  • Nice neighborhood
  • End unit townhouse
  • Fenced backyard
  • Huge space in basement
The Cons:
  • No natural light, despite being an end unit (no windows on the side)
  • Outside of the Beltway
  • Carpeting on the main level
  • Standard apartment-height ceilings
  • Parquet floors (I know this is nice for some folks, just not our personal style)
For how close this place was to the metro, this was probably the best value we saw, from what we could tell without an inspection. Although it felt a little dated in places (mirrored closet doors, parquet flooring), it seemed like it was in pretty good shape. With a dog and a kitty in the family, we weren't crazy about the carpeting on the main level, although that was certainly fixable. More problematic is that despite being an end unit, it had very few windows, so the place felt super dark to us. The apartment level ceilings made a nice-sized townhouse feel smaller than it was.

Monday, March 9, 2015

House Hunting: The Stairmaster Condo

Another option we checked out was a condo development in the Rockville area. The condo was 2 bedrooms and 3 baths, at 1,331 square feet.

This condo ranked as one of the furthest from downtown DC, but it was a really nice community in a charming neighborhood, so it was worth checking out. The only significant downside is all the units we saw in this development were the top units of stacked townhouses, so in order to enter the unit (or, bring your groceries/babies/pets in), it means climbing up two floors.

The Pros:
  • Great neighborhood
  • Loads of natural light
  • Fireplace to keep toasty in the winter
  • Nice condo amenities, like the pool
  • Nice, safe neighborhood
  • Good school district for resale value

The Cons:
  • Right at the top of our budget -- so no money to make any cosmetic changes
  • It's a stairmaster condo -- you have to walk up two floors just to get in
  • Over three miles from the metro, so if you come home late at night after the buses stop running, you'd have to Uber it
  • The metro stop is across a busy road, Interstate 270, so it would be a difficult bike ride
  • Two bedrooms, not three
  • Far away from downtown DC

Here, the dealbreaker were those stairs. We just couldn't imagine lugging our groceries and walking the dog up to the third floor on a regular basis. What if you rolled your ankle? On top of that, this condo sat at the top of our budget, and had a pretty significant condo fee at $370 per month.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

House Hunting: Gangsta's Paradise

One of the very first homes we toured was a Ryan Homes community in Capitol Heights, MD. They're building Schubert models, which have 2,522 square feet and 3 bedrooms for about $310,000. There is just nothing not to like about the design of these homes -- they are stunning.

The Pros:
  • Tons of space
  • Lots of natural light
  • Inexpensive for the area
  • Close to the metro stop
  • Close to downtown DC
  • Planned community park across the street
The Cons:
  • Crime.
  • Crime.
  • Crime.
In the end, this is what made our decision for us, from Trulia's crime mapping tool:

Especially in the winter when the days are short, I need to make sure that I can safely walk from the Metro stop to the house alone, and I didn't feel confident I could do that in this neighborhood. The community doesn't have a walking path to the Metro, it's just regular sidewalks, not all of which are adequately lit. Safety was my biggest concern with this community.

The other thing about this community is that there are zero amenities. It has a Safeway right down the street, surrounded by various check cashing places. Further east towards the Beltway, it has a Home Depot and Bed Bath and Beyond. We also did a casual Yelp search to see what kind of restaurants are around, and they're mostly chicken joints. We're dog owners, and right now there are no nice green spaces or parks to enjoy. The county has said they plan to put a park in, but it's not guaranteed, and there's also no timeline for completion.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The House Hunt Process, Part II

Once we had our wish list in hand, we started looking in earnest and visiting lots of houses. Although we did research on our own, we were glad to have a realtor with us: she brought us to communities we hadn't considered, and also pointed out potential flaws. We had a budget of $350,000, although we saw several places that cost a little more in the hopes that there was possibility for negotiating down.

Here are just some of the houses we visited, mapped out relative to the Metro system lines. Although we do own a car, being close to public transit was really important to us since that's what we use to get to work in downtown Washington every day. In a perfect world, we'd love to be closer to downtown, but wallet-wise, our budget wouldn't have put us in neighborhoods or spaces that made us happy.

We really liked several of the neighborhoods we saw, but virtually all of them had things we'd need to change - nasty carpeting, bizarre kitchens, doll sized sinks, etc. Carpeting and sinks are cosmetic fixes, but when the places are already at the top of the budget, who can afford the fixes?

If you're unfamiliar with the DC metro area you might wonder, as we did, how the townhouse in the Greenbelt area (yellow marker on the map) could be so affordable relative to the rest of the places we saw. The short answer is that Montgomery County is, by and large, more thoroughly developed than Prince George's County. Another significant factor is that the Montgomery County school system is leaps and bounds better than PG County, as you can gather from this WaPo article.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The House Hunt Process, Part I

When I started to research Ryan Homes, I came across several blogs out there detailing the building process and design choices, but there weren't very many posts that talked about how they came to choose a new home vs. one already on the market. So, I thought it might be helpful to discuss what we were looking for in a home, and how we ended up choosing Greenbelt.

Our House Hunt Wish List:

  • An attached or semi-detached style like a townhouse or rowhouse.
  • Close access to a Metro stop, ideally less than two miles.
  • A place with lots of natural light.
  • At least two bedrooms.
  • Allows dogs - woof!
  • A safe neighborhood.
  • A place to keep the car.
A townhouse or condo isn't for everyone, but we lived in a rental townhouse for several years and loved the energy efficiency and the relatively low maintenance. In the DC metro area, you also seem to get more buying power if you're willing to look at attached housing instead of tradition single-family homes.

We were also willing to live in a home zoned to not-so-great school districts since we don't have children, a factor that gave us a lot more flexibility in our search.