As you may know by now, Carolyn and I have been living in Baltimore since September, in a little apartment in the lovely neighborhood of Mount Vernon. We love the place; we love Mount Vernon; we love everything about where we are. That said, as has been the plan since before we moved in (as a matter of fact, since before we got married), we are now looking to buy a home.
In the abstract, the path from humble renters to mortgage-holders is both thrilling and daunting. In practice, it has at times seemed like a grand adventure, fraught with dangers (shady real estate agents; the problem of discerning between neighborhoods on the “up-and-up” and neighborhoods slowly turning to ruin; navigating a volatile market) and rewards (the dream of buying bookcases for every nook and cranny of our new home; painting the walls our favorite colors; simply being able to say that we own our own place). The search has also occasionally been tiresome, with hours reserved for poring over online listings and debating the pros and cons of having two instead of three bathrooms. (Although depending on our mood, this stuff can be fun, too.)
The first house we looked at was right up the street from our current place (with Carolyn’s commute, being near the train station is a deal breaker), on a beautiful historic side street crammed with quaint old rowhouses. The house looked promising from the outside, lined up next to the other lovely homes. But the inside was a disaster: crumbling floors, a kitchen and bathrooms in need of complete reconstruction, a warped deck, and myriad other problems. Pretty much everything in the place was just a total mess. But while the house left a lot to the imagination, it was certainly possible to picture a beautiful restoration. And there was something undeniably romantic about the idea of spending long summer evenings and weekend days slowly restoring our very first house into the most beautiful home Baltimore had ever seen. The location was perfect, and it was selling for cheap.
Eventually, we realized that it probably wasn’t a good idea to buy an epic fixer-upper on our first try (especially as neither of us have any construction acumen, a’tall). So we kept looking. We got in touch with two different real estate agents, and toured a few other town houses and condos. Some we liked more than others; none were ideal. One condo, in a beautiful section of the nearby Bolton Hill neighborhood, had a huge living room with large windows, but the kitchen was cramped and in need of an upgrade. A rowhouse for sale in Station North, across the street from a newly built school, was tantalizingly close to the train station but suffered from a tiny living room. As we calculated the numbers, complications arose when we tried to nail down prices and potential mortgage arrangements, which were often too contingent to allow us to make solid judgments one way or the other.
Throughout this journey, we’ve stumbled our way into some of Baltimore’s most beautiful neighborhoods (at least the neighborhoods that are close to the city’s two main train stations)—neighborhoods like Bolton Hill, Station North, and Old Goucher (all near Penn Station), and Ridgley’s Delight and Pigtown (which are near Camden Station, closer to downtown). On the weekends we take long walks around town, and we have fun checking out houses, speculating about prices, discerning the prevalence (or lack thereof) of unsavory characters, and the proximity of grocery stores (a crucial, frequently overlooked detail). The result is that we have become more attached to the city in which we live.
More abstractly, house hunting has helped clarify our future. It’s a bizarre feeling to realize that we’re not only house hunting for ourselves, but for our future kids, as well. Whenever we tour a house we have to ask ourselves loads of unfamiliar questions. Is this the right size room for a kid? Would the kid even like it? Are those steps too steep for toddlers? Will we hear the baby crying in this room from our bedroom or from the family room downstairs? What about in this room over here? Is there an elementary school nearby? Is it any good? Will we feel safe enough to take the kids to play in the local park? These are questions we haven’t fully fleshed out yet; house hunting pushes them to the surface.
A couple weeks ago, we came upon a rowhouse that looked promising, a few blocks north of Penn Station. This is currently our favorite house, and we are excited about it. It is more than big enough—four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a sizable living room, and lots of large, airy windows—to suit our needs. It’s close enough to the train station (.8 miles isn’t ideal, but it’s within the one-mile radius we’d staked out). And it’s affordable.
The problem is the neighborhood. Although the street the house is on is very nice, a mere two blocks east and you’re pretty much in the hood. The first time we walked the neighborhood, on a beautiful—albeit cold—afternoon, there were no neighbors out, and it was eerily silent. There is a large green park a stone’s throw from the house—that too was deadly quiet. We liked the house. We liked it a lot. We knew we had to get our questions answered. But we were apprehensive of what the answers might be. Was the house affordable because it was smack in the middle of an infamous Baltimore heroin depot?
Last Saturday, we walked the neighborhood for the fourth time. It was cold—Baltimore, like much of the country, has been in the midst of a winter chill—and, like our previous reconnaissance missions, there weren’t many people out and about. For every hopeful indicator there was a warning sign. A Baptist church across the street appeared well-kept and inviting; a boarded up storefront down the block was foreboding. A community garden plot nearby cheered our spirits, but a few abandoned lots and homes gave us pause. When you buy a house, you invest in the neighborhood—in large part, you’re paying for your surroundings, too. We’d heard stories of people who bought houses in dodgy areas of Baltimore, only to be forced to sell them a year later because of unanticipated crime or decay. How could we know whether this particular area would be worth it? How could we be sure?
Towards the end of our stroll, we noticed an open house, and decided to investigate. A kind-looking realtor greeted us at the door, and led us into the kitchen. There, we spoke with three people who had moved into the neighborhood the year before (it turned out the selling realtor had brought in to tout the virtues of the neighborhood). They were friendly and happy to talk to us, and they seemed smart. We asked questions. They answered. They told us that they absolutely loved living there. They told us about community gatherings in the summer; about the strength of the neighborhood association; about Johns Hopkins-funded developments nearby, and the green space which would fill up with people in the summer; about an old-fashioned theater that was opening up a few blocks away. They told us that they walked to Penn Station every morning, and had never felt the least bit unsafe. They gave us, in short, a glowing review.
We’re new at this house hunting game. We’ve learned that when you’re buying a house, you need a lot of information. I’m not sure if we have all of the information we need. There are many, many hoops still to jump through. But we’re getting closer. And ever since that Saturday open house, it has been remarkably easy to imagine ourselves living in that ambiguously dodgy neighborhood, playing with our kids on the green, and making friends with all the neighbors. We’re not there yet. But we might be getting close.