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Category: Owning a home

Home buying: The first visits

We’re currently in the look-at-all-the-homes-all-the-time phase of home buying. There are a handful of neighborhoods where we can afford many homes, a few where we can afford some homes, and many neighborhoods where we can afford the occasional home. This weekend we learned a little more about what that spectrum means. We looked at six houses this weekend. Two in East Denver, two in North Denver, one in our neighborhood, and one in West Denver.

East Denver is where we see the occasional home, and many of the newer neighborhoods east of Monaco Parkway seem designed against walkability and architecturally exclusive. It feels suburban and disconnected. Limiting our search is another decision we’ve made in balancing our desire to live in a diverse community with our ability to experience the city. I’m starting to worry that it will also mean we simply don’t get to buy a home.

We visited two homes in East Denver and learned that, with our budget, it might be hard to find a livable home in those neighborhoods. We also learned why our realtor told us not to trust photos in the REColorado listings. The first house we visited here had been staged for its photo shoot. All but the kitchen appliances were different in the photos from what we saw in the house.

It was hard, stressful even, to tour houses like that and not wonder about the lives of the people living there right now. Do they own or rent this house? How many people are living here? If we buy this house, what will happen to them? Will they be displaced into housing they can afford? How often does that happen to this family? Many of the homes have appreciated eight to ten fold since they were last sold, is that money going to the family living here or a building manager who is kicking these people out to make a windfall? If they’re moving, why? Did someone lose a job? Did several people lose jobs? What does their leaving mean for this house? For this neighborhood? For Denver?

We looked at a couple houses where it looked like ultimately the house would be either flipped or demolished and rebuilt.

We also saw a few homes in West Denver including one in West Barnum we were interested in after our bike journey. Ultimately, it was really hard to imagine living there. Sure we could turn the yard into a small farm, but there was either a living room, or a dining room, and the kitchen was remodeled in a really strange way. We’re glad we saw it, though, because it’s one thing to see a home from the outside and imagine living in a neighborhood by biking around it. We learned that in West Denver, we’d want to be east of Federal Blvd., otherwise we feel too disconnected from the rest of the city.

North Denver is another neighborhood where we see an occasional house. These neighborhoods, also called the highlands, have developed fast in the last couple years and, like East Denver, most of the homes for sale are far outside our price range. One of those homes was a tiny house in a neighborhood we already know we love. In some ways it’s just as removed from the rest of the city as neighborhoods we’ve ruled out, but it also has a little village nestled into the city with accessible amenities nearby.

Nevertheless, we left our Saturday of looking at houses with mixed feelings. We had three (of six) homes to watch and the remaining ruled out. One of the three has already gone under contract, which is honestly kind of a relief because while it was really nice, the location wasn’t our favorite. I think we mostly feel really stressed out at this point. I found a house yesterday in Ruby Hill, a neighborhood we’re interested in but haven’t really explored yet, and it already went under contract.

A friend of mine gave us the advice to approach this experience with a little spiritualism. There will be plenty of houses we like, plenty we want to offer on, and plenty we will offer on, that will be scooped up from under our feet. Thems the breaks, in a seller’s market. It’ll be important for us to  keep that in mind as we search, and take plenty of time for self care.

What we’ve learned shopping for a home

We bought a car last year and it was basically the dumbest thing ever. Sure, we got a car but we felt swindled. The dealer didn’t take the time to explain anything to us and we ended up getting a good but no great deal.

So far buying a house has been different. We’re barely beginning in the process but we’ve learned a few things:

  • There’s a thing called a “jumbo mortgage” for really big expensive houses. They cost more and have higher rates!
  • Most houses out there are expensive enough for a jumbo mortgage (compare standard and jumbo searches on Zillow).
  • First time home buyers only need 3% for a down payment. And sellers should be OK with it, no matter what you put down.
  • Everybody talks about the down payment but closing costs are just as much, if not more, than the down payment. This includes things like appraisals, sewage system and home inspections, and fees paid to the lender.
  • We already knew we should shop around, but start with your credit union or local bank. Our credit union had great rates, and fairer closing costs.
  • The CFPB is an invaluable public service. (OK, I kind of knew this one already, too.)

There are a few other things we’re only starting to learn. One of those things is gentrification. One thing we’re looking for in a neighborhood is bike-ability. We really don’t want to buy a second car. We use ours right now primarily for one thing: Getting to the mountains. Without it we’d be spending money renting them or on a car share program and we’d probably be spending about a car payment every month. Anyway, we don’t want, or need, a second one.

The problem is, while Denver is a great city to bike in, some neighborhoods are more bikeable than others. Many of the neighborhoods we can afford are in West Denver, the neighborhoods west of I-25, and south of Highway 6. We biked through there this weekend and they are decidedly less bikeable than where we live now, just on the other side of I-25.

Two neighborhoods we can afford are Barnum and Barnum West. Taken together, they make up a 1.32 square mile neighborhood bounded by three streets that are dangerous, and one that’s illegal, for bicycling. Getting into Barnum from the east means riding on a narrow sidewalk, waiting at a long crosswalk, and then riding a sidewalk again once across. Anything we’d access on these streets we’d have to access by car. According to Google Maps, there is one grocery store accessible without crossing one of those streets.

A map of the Barnum neighborhoods showing the single grocery store in the center

Though it’s possible to access nearby places like Viet Hoa, or the Westwood Food Cooperative, both require car. The final option is to bike into Central Denver, adding two miles, and a steep climb, to the journey. The next neighborhoods south, Westwood and Athmar Park, have similar problems.

Grocery stores aren’t everything but the subtext here is that these neighborhoods are also poorer and that’s part of why the houses are cheaper. Gentrification brought more grocery stores, bike lanes, access to health care, and other amenities to neighborhoods like those just on the other side of I-25. It’s also what raised rent prices and displaced people who lived in those neighborhoods.

One of the attractive parts of living in Barnum or Barnum West is the opportunity to live in a majority hispanic community. Less than a quarter of the population in Barnum and it’s western neighbor are white people. We hope to have kids and hope those kids don’t grow up surrounded only by people who look like them but we also don’t want to be part of the problem of displacing people who have lived in this neighborhood for a long time.

How do we think about our privilege in a housing market like this? Moving to Barnum feels like we’re sacrificing some of our amenities on the bet that those things will show up soon. That feels like exploiting a system of housing discrimination that has existed for decades. Moving into a neighborhood that is actively gentrifying might give us the right balance between diversity and access to the rest of the city but feels like we’re part of the problem displacing families from a desirable part of town they can’t afford. Moving to an already gentrified (read, “desirable”) neighborhood feels like giving up. It’s also not something we can really afford.

Maybe displacement isn’t the right way to think about gentrification. Denverite’s Erica Meltzer notes that the link between gentrification and displacement is actually pretty hard to make.

Most neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 are still poor, and chronically poor neighborhoods have lost 40 percent of their population in the intervening four decades. That is, people who can get out, do.

(See also: Joe Cortright’s Lost in Place, City Observatory, which Meltzer cites.)

Part of our privilege is that we aren’t being forced anywhere, we’re choosing to buy, and we have greater than 1 neighborhoods to consider in that choice. We’re only scratching the surface now, but as we learn more and talk to people about their neighborhoods, we’ll be thinking about the social consequences of the biggest economic choice of our lives.