House or Location - Which Matters Most?
Today I was watching yet another UK property programme portraying the dilemma of house over location. One young woman had spent a whole year living with a family member because she couldn't find a house she both liked and could afford in the 'right' area. For her, location was perhaps the most important part of the entire house buying process - as it is for many people. But sometimes something has to give. Unless the funds are available to purchase the right kind of house in the desired area, a lot of potential house buyers find they are faced with a big decision - to buy a smaller property in the area they like, or look at compromising on the area and probably getting a bigger house for their money.
Buying a home so often comes down to a choice between these two very important factors - dream house or dream location. The most popular locations usually come with an elevated price tag (sometimes a lot higher, so you won't get anywhere near as much house for your money). By moving slightly out of your preferred location, it is often possible to obtain a lot more space for the same budget, making it more possible to achieve your idea of a dream house. You might get the big garden for the kids; the space to entertain. The big question is, when it really comes down to it, what matters the most - dream house or best location?
The truth is that men and women very often view this dilemma differently. Men - typically logical and practical by nature - are much more likely to want to spend hard earned cash on the house itself. The amount of square metres inside the house will often matter more than the streets outside. A house is a tangible asset, a solid building that you can own and alter. Outside space, garages and off road parking are big plus points. Women can think quite differently, which can be a source of great contention. Men sometimes can't understand why their partners put more value on the location of a house, than on the house itself. Women, however, are often coming from a different viewpoint altogether. Mothers, inparticular, like to see the wider picture - nearby amenities for the children that they can get to without driving, good schools that are in the catchment area and the general quality of the neighbourhood itself.
House or Location - Our Experience
I decided to write this article because the matter of house or location was a dilemma we faced as a family last year. We already lived in an area we loved and I had no desire to move away from it. However, after living in the same house for fifteen years, and following the birth of our second child in 2008, we had to accept that we had long outgrown it. During the week it was actually not too bad, because my husband was at work and my eldest child was at school. Weekends were another story - we all seemed to be on top of each other, with no space to breathe. What's more, we had acquired extra furniture (mostly for necessary storage) and more toys for our youngest. Our beautiful period house, that had once looked quaint and interesting and even tidy, began to resemble a cluttered bric-a-brac shop. Half an hour after getting up in the morning, the whole place looked like it had been hit by a tornado. It made everyone grouchy - we needed somewhere new.
In the fashionable area where we were living, house prices have always been around 20% higher than in other parts of the city. On a bigger, more expensive home, that can amount to a big leap in the mortgage (in our case, about £50,000). We saw a financial advisor, then spent almost every evening excitedly searching for the perfect family home on the internet. I had strict boundaries in mind - basically, I barely wanted to move any distance at all and I certainly didn't want to move out of the catchment area for the excellent local school. I liked the convenience to the centre of the city, I liked the 'feel' of the neighbourhood, almost everyone I knew lived in the same area and, to put it bluntly, nowhere else fitted the bill. The truth was, that if it wasn't for the fact that we desperately needed to move, I would have preferred to just stay put.
The perfect house is hard to find. Presuming you have a limited budget, it is not often that a house comes up with everything in your 'wish list', in the right area and at the right price. We searched within a very limited area and, even taking account of our increased budget we struggled to find any houses at all which had enough extra space to warrant the extra £50,000. Mostly, the reception rooms were of a similar size to the house we already lived in, and the extra bedroom we were looking for was usually tiny. Not to mention the gardens - in seemed finding a reasonable sized, family garden in our chosen area was a challenge in itself. One of my neccessities in any new house was that the garden would be big enough for a football goal for my son and also suitable for holding barbeques with friends in the summer. My husband wanted off-road parking, after years of maneouvering our car into tiny spaces halfway down the road. That was quite limiting, considering we lived in an area dominated by period terraced houses, built a long time before cars monopolised the roads. There were houses that fitted the bill, but they belonged to the better-off.
No Houses in Our Favoured Location
To put it briefly, our search revealed that none of the houses for sale in our restricted location and with our limited (but reasonable) budget matched what we were looking for. It also brought up several houses a little further afield that appeared to be ideal family homes. The only problem was, these houses were out of the main 'sought after' area. We drove past some of these houses, but immediately discounted them due to 'being in the wrong area'. The school catchment was also wrong. We made appointments to view a couple of houses that were within our preferred location, but none of them felt like the 'right' house for us. They were also extremely expensive with no off-road parking, reception rooms that were exactly the same size as in our current house and gardens that were small and impractical for a family.
Then we saw a house on RightMove that really caught our eyes. It was detached, with (what looked like) good outdoors space. There was an extended reception room large enough to be used as a lounge/diner, with glass doors leading out onto the garden. Plus, there was another reception room as well. Altogether, the ground floor provided a large living space which we had not seen in any other house within our budget - and yes, it was within our budget and actually cheaper than most of the others we had viewed. The downside was that it was slightly out of the all-important location and, although the street the house itself was situated on was very nice, it was close to a busy road that I didn't like at all.
We decided to view the house anyway. It wasn't that far away. And looking doesn't cost anything. The lack of internal photographs on the website left us clueless as to what it was really like inside. Of course, the omission of any photos made us suspicious that the house was not in great order. But we would never know if we didn't at least look.
Standing inside the 1920s property, we could see that we were right about the interior. The house had been somewhat neglected, but it seemed mostly superficial. Inhabited by students (who, afterall, have a reputation for skimping on the housework and never opening the windows) it needed decorating from top to bottom. But it had a lot of potential.... In fact, this house turned out to be the only one that all of us could envisage as a good family home. My oldest son was very excited about it and planned his bedroom. The children liked the garden. They decided it was 'the one'. But it wasn't in the right area...
Right House, Wrong Location
To cut to the chase, we ended up putting in an offer for the house, even though I wasn't entirely convinced due to the location. Everyone else seemed so excited about the opportunity and I knew that if we didn't move fast we would miss out. I, the woman of the house, was the only one of us who was unsure, but also I didn't want to miss our chance if it was the right thing for us as a family. I was also concerned that we would be moving during the school application process for my youngest child. Giving the choice, I would have preferred to wait until after he had started school, because this new house was out of catchment. We might still get in, but we might not - this was a school heavily oversubscribed. But on the other side of the coin, home life is just as important, and the extra space, both inside and out, would enhance our family living. I had visions of the children in and out of the garden, with the aforementioned football goal and perhaps a slide or trampoline. I loved the fact that the garden wasn't overlooked because it backed onto large allotments. The garden had a sort of country, wildlife feel to it, and that is quite hard to come by in the city. But time to spend thinking was not on our side, since someone else also put an offer in at the full asking price. In the end, we got the house.
Thinking Outside the Box
Sometimes, I think, you really do have to take a risk if you want to move on in life. If you are looking for a property and can't find one within budget in your desired location, you might have to think outside the box a bit. If you don't, perhaps nothing will come up for months or even years - particularly if you are not being wholly realistic about your circumstances. Plenty of people don't want to budge when it comes to their list of criteria - but if you don't budge even a bit then you might find that you spend a huge chunk of your life just waiting and thinking and not living in the best way that you could be. I must admit that I would have been perfectly happy staying put for evermore - but I had the quality of the children's lives to think about as well. They deserved not having to trip over each other every time they moved. I wanted to see them enjoy a garden that was bigger than a postage stamp. And of course, nothing has to be forever - if you choose a house that isn't exactly where you wanted it to be, you can always move again if your personal circumstances change. It's not easy, but you have the option.
Giving it Time
When we first moved into our new house, I will admit that I didn't feel even remotely excited. Prone to nostalgia and emotional attachment, I liked where I was and only felt an overwhelming sense of sadness when I saw the removal van parked outside. It was also the middle of a very cold winter, so we couldn't even take advantage of the new garden. I didn't like the new streets I had to walk down - I only missed the old ones. I didn't like the longer walk to preschool or to the city. Everyone else embraced the new house (although my preschool child missed the girl from next door) but I kept thinking it had been a mistake to move away from the location I loved.
However, as the days turned into weeks and months, I began to change my mind. Almost half a year later, I am wholeheartedly glad that we moved because our initial hunch was right - the new house offers a better lifestyle for the family as a whole. Sometimes, things just need a little bit of time to get used to. We are on the periphery of the area that I adore; so close that we can enjoy every aspect of it whilst living just outside, thus taking advantage of lower property prices. We are literally across the road from the fashionable area with the sky high prices we couldn't really afford when we needed to move up the ladder. Now we have the space we need to breathe and still spend most of our time doing the same things as before. Our new location is not quite as convenient as our old abode, but it still is fairly convenient as locations go. I don't even mind the busy road I didn't like - I can't see or hear it from the house, and I only use it to cross over when going other places. We bought bikes, to help us deal with the extra distance without relying on the car. I love cycling, but our old house didn't have the space to store the bikes. We have fox cubs in the garden, an exciting and very special event that we would never have experienced if we had not moved. The neighbours are very nice and also moved away from our old area. As some doors close, others open, so to speak. Even when you have your mind fixated upon a certain location, it is possible to consider a wider area and to end up just as happy.
Location is Still Important
Even though we did end up purchasing a property outside our preferred location, that does not mean that I don't think location is not an extremely important factor when searching for a house. On the contrary, I think it is essential that you are at least reasonably happy with the world outside your front door. During our search we came across a huge amount of properties that, from the point of view of bricks and mortar, seemed like the perfect family home. For the most part, they were crossed off the list in an instant, the reason being that they were too far away from where we wanted to be. They were too inconvenient; too far away from the people and places that were part of our every day lives. I think that if you are set on purchasing a home in a particular location, but find that you can't afford what you require without stretching your finances so far that you will simply be working to pay the mortgage and little else, then exploring streets just outside your ideal area could provide you with a solution. Of course, another answer would be to redirect your search to another location altogether. If you have already placed roots in a certain area this might prove more difficult due to work, schools, etc. However, if you are ready for a fresh start then there are usually plenty of respectable locations with cheaper housing that are simply further away from the city/town centre.
Schools and Location
In hindsight (and from personal experience), if you live in the UK and have a child about to start school, it is a really bad idea to move out of a school catchment during (or before) the application process if the school you have in mind is oversubscribed. We were incredibly lucky - we managed to scrape through by the skin of our teeth. Should that not have been the case, we might have ended up with a school that we didn't want at all - because we didn't check the catchment of our new home properly before we applied. We thought we would be in the catchment of a school that wasn't our first choice but which still had a good reputation. However, unbeknown to us, another school lurked down residential streets that we had never seen or heard of - and that ended up being our catchment school. It wasn't a good one. We didn't want to wait to move after seeing the house we really liked, since we had already been looking for a while and thought it was a rare opportunity. We did take a bit of a risk and others might not have been so lucky.
Making a Decision
In my opinion, if you are struggling with the typical house-over-location dilemma, looking at bigger houses very close to your ideal area can definitely be worth it. Of course, if you are looking for a house to purchase as a single person, or even as a couple, a smaller house in a desirable location can definitely work. Our old home, situated in an area I didn't really want to move away from, was certainly small yet suited us perfectly when it was just the two of us. It could be cleaned from top to bottom in a couple of hours, which was a definite plus point. We bought it when we were quite young, and spent a lot more time outside of the house. However, in the end we outgrew it by a long shot and to buy the kind of house we were looking for in the same location was a bit like walking down a quick path to financial collapse. Just remember - a house, whilst important, is still only one factor of a happy life. If you can't envisage being able to afford a holiday, days out or anything new for well into the foreseeable future, it probably just isn't worth it.
House or Location - What Does Matter Most?
To sum it up, I would conclude that it is the house you buy that matters the most, but that you have to consider location at the same time. You might have to budge on the location a little bit, but that doesn't mean that anywhere will do. Think about the convenience of the area - there's little point in considering places that are further out if you like to walk everywhere or you can't drive. (Relying on public transport is ok if frequent, but if you are not used to that it can seem like a real bind. On top of that, it is quite expensive if you have to use it a lot or there are several of you.) If you have children, it's a good idea to research the local schools in the catchment of any properties you are interested in before you put an offer in - in certain places, competition for good schools is now so fierce that you will be unlikely to get a place if you are out of catchment. It is much worse than it was even a few years ago.
If you have children who are growing up and becoming more independent, it is also useful to consider whether moving to a new location will restrict their freedom. When we moved, we considered the time it would take for my eldest son to walk to school, whether he could still socialise easily with his friends outside of school, and whether he would still be able to get about as he reached his teens without having to ask for a lift everywhere he went. Whilst purchasing a house is essentially the decision of the grownups in the family, it certainly helps if everyone is open to the idea, as much as possible.
With a little bit of give and take, it is possible to find a house you really love in a location that you like - but sometimes you have to divert your attention to streets and areas you hadn't initially considered.