Sunday, March 28, 2010

Breaking the (By)Laws

One of the things I constantly bemoan as a condo owner is the inability to grill out. We have a deck, but we aren't supposed to have grills. However, the weather in the Twin Cities has been unseasonably warm, and I was craving some freshly grilled brats for dinner.

We dragged out the smokey joe, and grilled on our teeny little deck. I spent the whole time pacing the halls, just waiting for the association president to come knocking on our door. Or the police. Okay, I'm a little neurotic.

In the end, no one found out, and we had a delicious dinner of jalapeno and cheddar brats, with grilled asparagus and tomatoes. But, I'm not sure we'll be grilling again. I'm a stickler for the law, and our condo rules are in place for a reason. I was just to nervous about it to really enjoy it. Just one of the many reasons I'd probably be better as a homeowner instead of a condo owner.

Have you ever broken the rules in a condo or apartment?

Our Home: A Tour

The goal of this blog is to turn buyer's remorse into love for my condo through the power of positive thinking. And what better way to stay positive than to show you all the hard work we've put into our condo so far?When we bought our place, it was a sea of beige and orangey oak. There was nothing stylish about it, and it lacked personality. I still have some issues with our condo – namely the layout leaves much to be desired, and the living room is downright awkward. But when you compare how it looks now to how it looked the day we got the keys, the difference is night and day.

Come on inside! We had a month of overlap where we still lived in our apartment, but owned the condo. So there were many days, nights and weekends spent putting in new floor, painting walls and trim, and stripping wallpaper to whip this place into shape before we moved in our furniture. We even added a personal touch to our front door. Matt bought me a door knocker in the shape of a cat from Restoration Hardware as an early birthday present. He installed it while I was at work, and when I came to the condo after work to do some painting, I saw my gift. I like the way the door knocker plays off the letter of our unit, "C." It gives it a little personality. Thankfully, our association doesn't mind a little personalization.

When you first step into our condo, there's a small front closet and space to take off your shoes. The previous owners had white Berber carpet here, which was very dirty and made no sense next to the beige wall-to-wall carpet.

Here's what some butter yellow paint and 20 square feet of wood laminate from IKEA did to the space.

To your right, there is a formal dining space. The previous owners were using it as an undefined office area/catch all for clutter and junk.
We painted a yellow accent wall, added a chandelier and returned this space to a dining area. This is one of my favorite changes. Now that we're parents of an 11 month old, though, we might be making the formal dining room over into a more multi-functional space. As much as I like displaying my grandmother's crystal, my son might have other plans for it!

Through a small doorway from the dining room is the kitchen. This kitchen is mainly why I agreed to buy our condo. It needed the most work of any room in the house, but it's the room I now love the most.
Ugly wallpaper, ugly linoleum, ugly cabinets.

Oh yeah, and a super ugly light fixture!We spent most of our month-long renovation fixing up the kitchen. We tore down the wallpaper, which took us forever! We had to scrape off the top layer using a knife, then remove the second layer with fabric softener. We made MANY gouges in the drywall while scraping, so we then had to patch and sand.
We painted the walls a cheery red, and then tackled the ugly oak cabinets, painted them a creamy white. We also swapped out that ugly brass light for a square, funky IKEA lamp that we rewired.

A few fixes came later – namely the wood laminate floors we put in this past winter – but we think the results were pretty dramatic, don't you?
The rest of the house might not seem so dramatic after that, but we did do some fixes.

The living room was bland and white.
We painted it a pale green.
This is where we will be focusing our attentions in posts to come. I have visions of painting the fireplace white, purchasing new, more grown-up furniture, and working on the layout.

Down the hall, and to your right, is our bathroom. This was another selling point of the house for me. I loved the deep whirlpool tub.
We painted a light blue and gave this bathroom a Hawaiian theme, based on my love for the islands.
Across from the bathroom is my son's nursery. It's gone through a few changes, from a boring bedroom when we bought it, to an office/guestroom to a cheerful little boy's room.

Finally, we come to the master suite. We have a huge space here, which is great, and sometimes annoying too. I'd probably trade a bigger master bedroom for a bigger, less awkward living room, but at least we have the space to add a window seat and little office area, now that we lost our office to make room for the nursery.

When we bought the house, this was yet another boring white room. The seller was keeping bunnies in the master closet!

We cleaned up and painted a rich pumpkin orange color. Our d├ęcor for this room was sort of Moroccan inspired.
I used to really love it, but I'm starting to grow a little tired of this room, and want to lighten it up a bit. But do I want to go through the hassle of repainting such a dark color? Right now I'm leaning toward trying to make the orange work by adding some lighter accent pieces, like artwork and linens.

And finally, our last room on the tour, the master bathroom.
Sorry to disappoint, and end on a low note, but I hate this bathroom. We've tried to give it a face lift by taking down the grungy shower doors, giving the cabinets a fresh coat of white paint and putting in a new light fixture, but it's still just bad. You can't see the shower in this photo, but that's the big problem area.

Some day we will put in new tiles. Someday.

So that's it! That's the place we call home. We've tried to make it seem like a spacious house and not a smallish condo, but there's always room for improvement. But when I think of where we began when we were on our journey as new homeowners, we've come a long way!

Adventures in Vacuum Shopping

A couple weeks ago our vacuum started shooting sparks at us (yes, sparks), so it was time to buy a new one. I can be a bargain shopper to a fault, and am often drawn in by what is cheap, only to find out that cheap things are, well, cheap.

So we decided to bite the bullet and splurge on our vacuum this time. After all, we do have wall to wall carpet in our condo, and a little boy who loves to find the one thing the vacuum left behind and put it in his mouth. We set our budget at $200. No $40 number from the Target for us this time. A local radio station I listen to is always running ads for a local vacuum shop, so we decided to check it out.

We were originally interested in purchasing a reconditioned Dyson there, for $199. We were aiming for quality, but we have a budget too, and just couldn't afford a brand new Dyson at $300 and up. We test drove the Dyson, and the salesman directed us to the Riccars, a simply designed, made in the USA vacuum. They had a range of prices, from $199 on up to $800. We tested the Riccar, and it picked up dirt just as well as the Dyson. Even though I've always been a fan of Dyson's sexy designs, some reviews I've read say they're a bit overrated. The Riccar didn't look as fancy, but that was what intrigued us, especially my husband. We tend to like things that are simple without a lot of bells and whistles and useless buttons. The Riccar had a hose attachment, and that was it. The salesman gave us an extra year on the warranty, and an extra filter. The service at the local place was really great.

We plunked down our cash card, and are now proud owners of a high quality vacuum. I've been giddily vacuuming everything.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Green Eyed Monster

Today has been a tough day. I just started this blog, and it's actually been making me a tiny bit excited about rediscovering our condo and tackling some projects. I was beginning to think that this experiment could be crazy enough to work, and that writing about my house might make me learn to like it more.

But then I've spent nearly all day hearing a friend' new house. They had the offer accepted finally, after a long short sale process. I'm totally happy for them– they're some of my favorite people. However, it is so hard to hear people talk up their new real estate deals when I'm feeling so desperately underwater on our "investment." Their new house is LESS than ours was, but it's a four bedroom house with a basement, and ours is a two bedroom, one level condo. And it's in our same neighborhood.
That's part of the reason we didn't buy a single family home when we bought – they were completely out of our price range. We could either buy a house in a sketchy neighborhood, or a condo in a good one. We chose the condo. And not to say that was a bad decision at the time… I think it was the right one. But lately all I hear about are the deals people are scoring now. If we had just waited, we could have bought a place twice the size of what we have, with some land. Hindsight is 20/20, but I wish all the time we'd waited.

Do you compare yourself to others? It's a really bad habit that I have. My husband tells me all the time to knock it off, and I know he's right, but it's hard for me to stop. I also worry that people are judging me. Stupid, I know, but it still happens. Basically, I think that my condo appears like a glorified apartment, and that my friends and acquaintances secretly judge me for not buying a "real" home. Any tips for avoiding real estate jealousy? Do I stop torturing myself by looking at listings? (As a real estate junkie, that would be tough. I love to look at both homes I wish I could buy now, and similar condos in my area to see what they're selling for. It's always torturous, but addicting at the same time.) Do I run when someone wants to talk about their new house? Never help my friends move into their new digs? Or do I just suck it up and deal?

If you're underwater, what do you do to cope in this buyer's market?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

That Sinking Feeling

The news for the past three years has been rife with homeowners' tales of woe. They usually go a little something like this: a family buys a home with no money down. Gets an adjustable-rate mortgage to avoid paying PMI. Plans to sell the house before the ARM period runs out (usually five years). But the market tanks, and so they can't afford to sell. Then the mortgage adjusts, causing the payments to skyrocket beyond what they can afford. So they stop paying. And then have to walk away. Of course, there are a few things going on now that are preventing this from happening as often – the federal fund rate is low, so when the ARM adjusts, it might actually adjust lower. And there are federal programs in place to try and help people avoid foreclosure, usually by offering grace periods on interest, or extending the mortgage to 40 years.

This won't be a post to talk about how I feel about this – was it the shady mortgage companies, the traders selling mortgage backed securities, or greedy homebuyers buying more than they could afford? For those discussions, I've found to be a good source… although a bit of a scary one at times (those people seem to take a great deal of joy in predicting financial Armageddon).

But this is more of a post to talk about where I'm at with all this. And why I have no plans to walk away… even though I currently live in a depreciated asset. First off, we bought it. While I occasionally get bitter about all the advice we were given about how we had to "buy now, or be priced out forever!" we still made the leap, chose the home and entered into a contract. I wouldn't feel right about walking away from my financial obligation. Secondly, while it is not my dream home, there are things I quite like about our little condo. We live in a fabulous neighborhood. It's very walkable, especially for a young family like ours. We live around the block from two well-maintained parks, an elementary school, a pre-school and a gorgeous nature center. We also live close to the main strip with stores and restaurants, and about five minutes drive from downtown. The condo itself is quiet – we are blessed with nice, inoffensive neighbors. And we've put a lot of work into it that I'm proud of. Every time I get the itch to move, I look around at all the things I've put into the condo – the light fixtures, the new washer and dryer, the new floor in the kitchen, and that urge dies down a bit.

Finally, we're just not that bad off, and for that, I am grateful. Our payment is low, and we can afford it. It's never changing; we have a fixed-rate mortgage. And some day, maybe, if we ever do get to move into a single family home, if we have enough equity just from paying down the mortgage, maybe we could break even, or at the very least keep it and rent it out. There's always the chance that we'll continue to pay down the mortgage and the market might creep back up, and we'll be able to meet in the middle and break even. It's just that possibility is likely 5-10 years in the future, when we bought this place with a five year timeline in mind (and are on our fourth year).

So what about you? Are you underwater too? Sticking it out? What are your plans for making the best of your situation?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Welcome to Living Underwater!

Welcome to our blog, Living Underwater: One couple's journey learning to turn their financial mistake into the home of their dreams. Here we will explore a variety of topics - mainly the housing market, home decorating and maintenance and the ins and outs of condo living.

So who are we?

We're basically your average recession story: we bought a condo at the height of the market in 2006, with 0% down. We planned to stay for around five years, but as we're closing in on that time, and our house is worth way less than we paid for it, we're realizing we need to rethink this plan. And, of course, our family has grown in the last year, and we're facing a reality we never really planned on: we might have to raise kids in a two bedroom condo, instead of a single family home with a white picket fence.

And while it can be a hard pill to swallow as we watch our friends buy big houses in our neighborhood for less than what we paid to buy a condo, we know we can make this work. It might take some creative furniture arrangements and space saving solutions, but we can have a beautiful life between these walls. We hope you'll join us!