My husband and I waited quite awhile before buying our first home. We had lived in NYC for 11-years, and it was the norm to rent. In fact, “how much is your rent” is a common question asked in the first five minutes of meeting anyone in NYC. It’s more common than asking someone what they do for a living.
We saw the housing bubble pop (even in NYC) and prices go into free-fall. And we still didn’t buy. We were just not interested, or not on the same page when the other one of us wanted to buy, or truly felt that home ownership isn’t the bargain everyone claims. We’ve also been self-employed the majority of our careers, and that adds a whole other variable to the home buying process.
But when my daughter was in PreK, we decided it was now or never. Our rent in Candler Park, Atlanta was going up by nearly 10%, we wanted to finally settle into our life with young kids, and we knew it was only a matter of time before getting priced out of our neighborhood. In reality, we were pretty much priced out by the time we started looking, and just managed to get lucky finding a townhouse in our area we could afford.
What I quickly realized is that we waited until the NYC real estate followed us to Intown Atlanta, landed on us, and lauded its misery over us. We found same day, multiple all cash offers was the norm around Atlanta, and that we had waited until the absolute worst time of the year to buy: mid-April. We also found out that Atlanta has the worst housing shortage in the entire country – even over NYC and San Francisco.
So despite all the stress and being convinced it was more feasible to just move back to NYC and buy there, we figured it out. And we ended up with a great townhouse in Lake Claire in the general community we were already a part of, and very walkable and bikeable to nearby neighborhoods like Little Five and Decatur.
Here’s what ultimately made it work for us, or what we wished we had done the first time around.
I’m going to assume you’re not filthy rich with endless pricing options for your Atlanta real estate search, or you wouldn’t be reading this. So by far the best thing we did in our housing search was stayed ridiculously flexible.
It didn’t really occur to us we would even find something big enough to house us in our budget around Candler Park and Lake Claire, and while we kept an eye on it (and ultimately found something), we primarily looked in areas in Druid Hills, near Atlanta Station and in Buckhead. There were several meticulously maintained townhouses complete with pools and playgrounds in the East Chastain area off of Roswell Road that were zoned for great schools. The same went for the area along Lenox Rd. near Phipps Plaza and Lenox Mall.
In reality, we did NOT want to move to these places. We loved our community in Candler Park, and I really didn’t want to uproot even to go across town. But I knew that to stay within our budget, this was a very real possibility. I also applied to all of the Atlanta charter schools to give us options beyond neighborhoods in good school districts. We didn’t get into any, but were in a decent spot on a wait list at Westside Charter School in Atlanta.
We were also really flexible about our actual housing options. While we both work from home, we knew that a 3-bedroom was our most realistic bet. We won’t perish without a home office, and there are plenty of coffee shops and co-working spaces to land in. We’re also use to fitting our family into creative, small spaces and making it work.
Ultimately we did find a townhouse in Lake Claire, Atlanta with 3-bedrooms and an office, but we had to be flexible on the layout. The bedrooms aren’t all on the same floor, which makes it tougher with kids. And there’s no yard space, but it is close to a great playground. The upside is it’s roomy, in a great school district, in our current community and below our budget.
Part of staying flexible is getting creative. When we found our townhouse in Lake Claire, we were getting a great location, amenities and schools but a bit of an awkward layout for a family. For instance, there is no yard space, which I really struggled with. I wanted my kids to have access to fresh air and a special place for them.
My real estate agent suggested turning the tandem garage into a play area. We’re a one car family, and we have our own little driveway, so this was a good option. The garage isn’t insulated, but there are french doors leading to a tiny outdoor, fenced area. We installed a baby gate on the inside near the garage door that would normally open to let a car in. This keeps the area secure so we can open both ends of the garage and let in air in.
We essentially use the garage as if it were a covered patio. We also laid down interlocking mats and painted the garage a beautiful sky blue, and hung some decorations on the ceiling to make it look more like a kids room. A small Step 2 Playhouse with swingset, balls and ‘outdoor toy’s turns it into a kids’ space.
It’s not completely ideal, but it works for us.
You may need to do something similar to make a house work, or let go of certain expectations like having a basement or more storage or an over-sized yard. Unless you have time and resources to spend, you’re probably going to be in a position to get creative with what you find.
Hone Your Connections
The best way to find a house to buy in Atlanta is to snag it before it ever hits the market. I was actually really furious when I heard this. It just seemed insane to need to convince someone to sell you their house before they even listed it. It somehow didn’t seem fair or like an even playing field. Ultimately we found our townhouse on our own. But once my anger subsided, I saw the sense in needing to really grow your network and let them know you’re looking, and wish I had done this sooner.
If I had to do it all over again, I would use a realtor that specialized in the areas we wanted who had endless connections. I also would have told everyone and their Mom that we were looking to buy and to spread the word. We could have saved ourselves some grief this way. My friends who bought houses in Atlanta before they went on the market experienced less stress, avoided bidding wars, and didn’t have to deal with a depressing house hunt.
Right-Size Your Expectations
In a dream world, we probably would have lived in the City of Decatur where we could truly walk everywhere from fine dining to bars, enjoy a ‘Brooklyn of Atlanta’ feel to satisfy our homesickness for NYC, and still have plenty of great schools in our district.
And we did put in a really solid, ambitious offer on a 1,500 square-feet in an older townhouse community. We were still outbid by a long shot, and the other buyer even guaranteed to meet the appraisal price. I was incredulous, but ultimately was like “That’s done. What are we going to look at next?”
We ultimately determined we could keep an eye on the real estate in our dream neighborhoods, but also stay realistic. If we had waited to only buy in the City of Decatur within our budget, it may have taken months, if not a year. Stories of families holding out only to be outbid over and over again were rampant and heartbreaking.
Of course, if you only want to live in a specific Atlanta area neighborhood, then hold out for it. Just know that you may need to rent indefinitely, have an iron constitution to navigate the real estate market, and stay flexible or compromise somewhere. That compromise might be the housing size, location within your dream neighborhood, or amenities.
Stay Away from Bubbles
Is Atlanta real estate in a bubble? Experts say it’s not because the city has a strong industry, is attracting upwards of 2.5 million newcomers over the next few decades, and housing is in short supply. But that’s how the situation looked in NYC too, and the housing bubble still burst anyway. I saw it happen. The difference is NYC recovered relatively quickly in comparison to the rest of the country.
My (non-expert) gut tells me we are in somewhat of an Atlanta real estate bubble. So we were determined to stay within our budget and stay mindful of what we were getting into. For example, we knew once we bought a house in Atlanta, we would likely not leave in any foreseeable future. We have no real interest in buying bigger and better properties as time goes on. And our monthly payments are now slightly lower than our monthly rent was. If and when the bubble does pop, I feel fairly confident we’ll be around long enough to see it recover and at least break even.
I also felt that it was necessary to buy in a good school district in this crazy real estate market. The primary reason is, of course, that my daughter was starting Kindergarten and we preferred not to neighborhood hop. But there are two other reasons.
A big reason was considering the rental prices. Rents seem to be continuing to go up everywhere in Atlanta, and are very unlikely to go down for the type of property size we would prefer living in. The other reason was about bubble recovery trends. Neighborhoods with poor school districts, crime, and a lack of amenities like restaurants and shopping don’t recover very well after a bubble pops. I also did a lot of research and found that Atlanta only has a handful of great public school districts. Combine that with a housing shortage in Atlanta, and it’s probably a decent bet to buy property in neighborhoods with good schools and plenty of amenities and walkability.
I’m not suggesting you stretch your budget to make it work in a neighborhood outside your reach just to avoid a potential housing bubble. But where you’re buying is something to consider. Really think about the bigger picture and how it will impact you if the housing market falls flat again.
Ask for the Comps
Your real estate agent should really offer this anyway, but always ask for the comps. When we put in offers over asking price (which is now the norm in Atlanta) we figured out a plan of what the comp price was. This gave us an idea of how much we could realistically go up and what the house was worth.
Putting in high offers is common in a hot real estate market, but still needs to be done strategically. We put in a high offer on the City of Decatur townhouse, but weren’t devastated when someone else put in a much higher offer and guaranteed to meet the appraisal price. At the end of the day, your house is a house. It’s something to live in and enjoy, and not worth being underwater or cramming your family into a small space.
Have a Contingency Plan
You may not find what you’re looking for in your house hunt, and that comes with some tough questions to answer. Are you willing to keep renting? Willing to relocate to a different neighborhood, or even a different city? Are you okay with taking your chances with schools in a less desirable area? Or perhaps rolling the dice on Atlanta charter schools?
Life needs some kind of a plan B or contingency plan to bridge together two situations that may appear less than ideal at the start. But try to embrace it as an opportunity. Staying in a rental comes with a landlord or property manager to deal with ongoing issues. Staying in a less desirable neighborhood gives you the chance to figure out how to fix up your house to make it more comfortable and enjoyable, or seek out friends or fun things to do in your area.
And at the end of the day, buying a house isn’t everything. You can always put your money towards long term investment strategies to keep your funds growing while you wait for the market to calm down. Just don’t lose your freaking mind over it.