Why the term “Starter Home” should bother you

By Mark
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    Why the term "Starter Home" should bother you.

    We have 4 kids.

    Our house is 1,850 square feet and was built in 1914.

    There is only one full bathroom.

    Yes, it can get a little crowded at times. And while we have made many improvements to our house (like a new front porch, new paint, a finished attic), we get the itch to move every once in a while. Not only that, we could afford to purchase a much bigger and newer house.

    And last week, we were *this* close. We looked at several houses in our city, and fell in love with one. It was perfect – an open floor plan with 4 bedrooms plus a large office right off the master bedroom.

    This was it – we were finally gonna move.

    But we had a quick change of heart… for 2 reasons. I'll start with the first one.

    Just a couple nights ago, we had the realtor come over to our home to give us a sense of what we could list it for. He loved our home and the improvements we had made, and thought we would have no problem selling it at around $125k – $130k. Not bad. He began talking about my neighborhood in a very positive way… and that definitely made me happy. My neighbors and I have tried hard to make our street one of the more desirable streets in the city.

    And he referred to the homes on my street as “starter homes”. I didn't really hit me right away. Of course I know what he meant… a home in this price range is very commonly referred to as a starter home – it's inexpensive and very easy for a young person or couple to buy as their first home. But later that night, I couldn't stop thinking about that term…

    Was the thought of my home being a “starter home” a reason to leave? I'm sitting here in my mid-thirties with 4 kids, I can afford something nicer and bigger, so surely I should upgrade from this starter home, right? After all, I'm not “starting” anymore.

    But the more I thought, the more that term bothered me – in 2 different ways:

    1. What about all the families who will never be able to afford anything more than a “starter home”?

    Imagine a family living in a small apartment for years… and finally they save up enough money to put a down payment on a 100 year old 3 bedroom house for $90,000. It's perfect for them – truly their dream house, and it's the most they can afford. Oh… what a nice “starter home” they bought. Surely they will upgrade from this “starter home” later on – to something nicer and more appropriate.

    Or what about families around the world who will never be able to enjoy anything close to what we consider a starter home? The average size home in China is 600 square feet.

    What about families born to abject poverty? What's a “starter home” to them? Ok – I did't want this to become a post about how much America has vs. the rest of the world (even though it's true). But it wouldn't hurt to take a moment and think about your current living situation to a mom trying to care for her children in Kenya.

    Wondering whether to get your house sided with vinyl or to get it painted One option is much more affordable AND more beautiful!

    Here's how my starter home allows my family to live:

    • The temperature inside can be 68 degrees year round!
    • Only 2 of my kids have to share a bedroom (and those 2 little girls wouldn't have it any other way).
    • With a flick of the wrist, I can get water (even hot water!!!) in every room that I would need it.
    • I have a separate space for my office.
    • In addition to the bedrooms and office, I have one room devoted to just cooking, one room devoted just to eating, and another couple rooms that are just for hanging out.
    • My neighborhood is safe.
    • I have a spot to park my cars (actually 2 minivans – yes we are “those” people)
    • 308 square feet or living space per person!

    When you think of it like that, it's kind of amazing. But since it's merely a “starter home”…

    2. It assumes that I will upgrade later.

    Am I merely starting with this house? And later on I will upgrade a bigger, better, and more expensive home?

    Does the term insinuate that the house isn't quite good enough? There are better things to come, right?

    Apparently, I'm just getting “started”. To be a “proper home”, it also needs the following:

    • A private bathroom with a really big bathtub attached to a really large bedroom with a ceiling slightly higher than the other rooms on the second floor. And I will use this huge bathtub 4 or 5 times a year.
    • Each child needs their own bedroom.
    • A living room to be used twice a year is an absolute must.
    • More stuff to fill more rooms.
    • It needs to have been built in the past 10 years – better yet, I should have it built brand new.
    • The houses next door need to be much further away.

    If I had that house, will I have “arrived”?

    Search results didn't yield much when searching for the etymology of the term “starter home”, but I have my suspicions. I'd be willing to bet that it was invented by the real estate industry. Every time a home changes hands, a 6-7% commission is earned on the transaction. The more often people sell their homes and buy another one, that's more commission to be paid*.

    Think about it – if you just purchased what you consider to be a starter home, then you've already bought into the idea of upgrading later. The real estate industry can count on you for another $10,000+ a few years down the road.

    Here's a thought – have you ever consider NOT moving?

    Just think – what if the house you live in will be your last house? That's the way things were done in my grandparents' time.

    Lauren and I are really considering making this our last house. We could have it paid off in 9 years, and be done with a mortgage for good.

    But who knows… we may still move a few years down the road. But it certainly won't be because our current house was just a “starter home”. We will always love this house.

    For us, choosing what house to live in needs to start with contentment. If we are happy and content with what we already have, then the choice to move or not to move will be based on the right reasons. But don't we all struggle with contentment in our culture? It's this lack of contentment that has fueled our country's consumer debt crisis and the financial meltdown in 2008.

    None of us are immune to discontentment… not even a frugal living writer. Even if we get that “dream house”, if we aren't content, we will get the itch to upgrade again. This time, I had my 10 year old son to bring me back to what matters.

    This was the real reason that we decided not to move – our son. Our 10 year old son. He REALLY didn't want to leave this house and this neighborhood. He LOVES it here. He has friends here, and he gets to ride his bike around in the summer and go to the park whenever he wants. He's truly content here.

    To him, it's “our home”, not a “starter home”.

    So he prayed, and he truly believed that God spoke to him and told him that we shouldn't move. He wasn't sure if he actually heard from God, or if his mind was merely telling him what he wanted to hear. So he asked us to pray too.

    We did. It turns out that Andrew heard correctly.

    *I have no qualm with real estate agents and have gotten fantastic service from the agents I've used. I also think that the 6-7% commission structure is fair, given the service they provide and the value of the MLS listing.

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    COMMENTS

  • […] √ Article on “Starter Homes” […]

    • Oh my word! I just happened on your blog. I can’t tell you what a blessing it was to read this. Thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking and honestly what my husband has told me already.

  • You said exactly what I have been trying to find words for lately as we almost jumped at an opportunity for a new house. Something told me no even though a lot of factors (temptations) pointed to yes.

  • I agree with everything you said, however, starter homes can mean so much more than just a smaller more affordable house. Many starter homes are located in neighborhoods that are less desirable to raise children in – not a good walking neighborhood, close proximity to heavy traffic or commercial establishments, not many neighbors with children, smaller yards that offer no space for play, etc. The other big factor is schools. Many starter homes are located in school districts with inferior educational systems. Quite often that’s what makes many smaller homes so affordable. It’s a great choice for singles and young couples who don’t have children or have children who haven’t reached school age yet. It’s also a great opportunity for young people to transition to “adult” living, rather than renting a house with four other guys or living in the party complex. It helps them adjust to being responsible for more than just paying the rent each month. They need to manage all of the bills (mortgage, taxes, utilities, etc.) and maintenance that come with home ownership. And don’t forget space. Not everyone’s starter home is 1850 sq. ft.with three bedrooms. Some are 800 sq. ft. with two bedrooms. For a growing family with two or more children that can quickly get tight. For these reasons starter homes can be just that, a great place for families to get their start. I think you are just fortunate that your starter home offers most of what you were looking for in your dream home. Just because it’s your first home doesn’t necessarily make it a stater home. You may have just skipped that stage and gone straight to a good family home. Perhaps it’s more about perspective. 🙂

  • Great article! I’m in this Texas heat! I’m wondering how your house stays at 68 degrees year round? My house was a six year old when I bought it now it’s a 12 year old. Thinking about selling and using the equity to purchase a 70s built home fixer upper in cash and be mortgage free. Same nrighborhood. I’ve been skeptical about the 70s construction being to old. When I hear you say 100 year old house I’m just thinking wow! Things are so different down here.

  • Any commission more than 5% is a rip off. IMO, what realtors do is not worth a % at all, its worth a flat fee, because the work is the same regardless of the purchase price.

  • Although we moved once, we are now in a forever home, which most people in their early 30s won’t agree to. Our 1800 sq. ft. house is big enough for our 4 kids (all boys 14, 9, 6, and 4). We actually just turned our office into a bedroom so all the kids could have their own rooms.

    Last week we were talking about the “what ifs” if we won the big lottery jackpot of $700 million or so. Of all the fantastic things we would do with the money, moving was not one of them. Without hitting the lottery we will mist likely be millionaires several times over, and will not move out of our neighborhood (coincidentally enough an area where the average home is worth around $130K)

    I’m with you, I absolutely believe that the real estate industry has sold the American people on the idea that we need to move every 6 – 7 years (which is what my parents did). While they were mostly really smart with money, those moves were costly. They weren’t in each house long enough to build any equity, and when you add in carrying costs and closing costs on both ends of the transactions, throughout over 2 decades of home ownership they didn’t build any wealth through their homes. If more people could learn to be content with their first home, or even their second, the American people could build a lot more wealth.

  • My starter wife for the last 39 years and I have lived in our starter house for 38 years. I slightly early retired from my starter job after 38 years. While we did cash flow several home improvements over the years, controlling our housing costs and then having a paid for house helped us reach financial independence. I kept working because it was fun, and when that changed I was free to retire.

    • “My Starter Wife” – this made me laugh out loud. I totally understand what you said and since writing this article we should have our house paid off next year. We will cash flow some home improvements and hopefully add a second bath, but we are still content.

  • I had the best childhood growing up in our neighbourhood. So glad we didn’t move to a “better home” until I was a teenager (I was in the moody teenage years anyway haha!)

  • Well put! We bought a “higher end starter home” 10 years ago and I fully expected we’d sell within 10 years to go into something bigger.

    Because, you know, a 4-bed 3-bath home with 2 living rooms probably wasn’t going to be big enough…

    I look back on that mentality and laugh at what I thought my priorities were. Financially, we’ve done well in the last 10 years and could afford a much pricier house but we never followed through.

    My original prediction that we’d sell turned out to be right but for a completely different reason. We sold our house last month so we could *downsize*. We are now in the process of planning out a modest 1000-square foot “forever home” for our family of 5.

    I’m glad we came around 🙂

  • Haha! I remember years ago buying a used Chevy Cavalier and my father lamenting that I bought a “bottom of the line car.” My sister and I just laughed. My commute was 5 minutes. I didn’t need a BMW. Well, over the years I learned that houses are same as cars. Enough is as good as a feast. Thank you for this great post.

  • Dear LG,

    My home is wherever my family is. I would be unhappy without a safe place to live but the size, basic amenities and/or who owns it is not important to me.

    After ten years, we are currently selling our 960 square foot home that houses two adults, two kids and until recently, two dogs and a cat (who have their OWN room!). The house has always been the perfect size for us and we’ve never wanted for anything.

    We are looking forward to the next chapter in our journey where we will rent a house (in Canada) and travel for the other 6 months.

    I wish you much happiness no matter where you lay your head.

    Besos Sarah.

  • My home is a 2BR, 2.5 bath, 1180sf townhouse. I’m a single 34yo male. But my mother talks about this place like it’s wholly unsuitable to raise a family in, nevermind the fact that I don’t date or have any inkling that I’ll ever have children. But I’ll have it paid off in about 7 years and then my living costs drop drastically. Hello freedom! That’s worth more to me than an extra bedroom or 2 and the concomitant ridiculous water/sewer bill and A/C costs here in South Florida.

      • Fort Myers area (Gulf coast, straight across from West Palm). It’s nice and Midwestern here, since everyone funnels down I-75 from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.

  • Love this take! We moved out of our first home earlier this year, and we definitely did not go forward with renovations and improvements because we thought moving to a new house was a possibility.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s necessarily a stigma associated with the term. But I’m going to try to make a conscious decision to use “first home” instead of starter going forward.

  • My parents bought a 1,300 sq. ft. home in the early 1980s, and still live in it. There was only one full bathroom that we all shared (4 people), but it was never a problem. My bedroom was tiny (7 x 11 ft), but it was my own space. Most people don’t move into larger houses because of the number of people, but rather to have a place to put away all their things. Most people could get rid of half their junk and make their starter home a forever home. My husband and I are building a 1,600 sq. ft. house, and plan on making it our forever home. This was a great post!

  • Just came across this blog. Interesting and I agree. The shows on “the home and garden” network all perpetuate the need to renovate home with high end finishes that all end up looking the same: open concept, white kitchen (and they only complain about the before house which is often nicer than my house!!) with the renovation costs often being twice the cost of the home. A few years ago, a neighbor tore down a house here and built a really beautiful big new house. On average, the houses in this neighborhood are 200k and this one has now been on the market at 500k for 6 months. Just because you spend a fortune renovating doesn’t mean anyone wants to pay that extra cost. Anyway, my story is unique. I have lived in the same house for over 30 years but I am only 41 years old. I bought my parents house. I want to move sometimes because there are a lot of things that need to be fixed here, but there would be things that need to be fixed in a new more expensive place eventually. As much as I would like a bigger house than a 1000 square feet, I know this will be a good house for retirement and my teenager will not be living here for much longer. Kids grow up fast and that 3000 square foot home will be too big when they leave.

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