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Finding value when buying your first home


Buying your first home isn’t easy. Granted, I’ve only purchased one of them, and what good thing ever comes easily, right?

But in a part of the country where we are the one percent — at least when it comes to paying property taxes, according to the Brookings Institution — when my wife and I bought our first home, getting the best bang for our buck with this purchase was possibly one of the most important decisions we were ever going to make.

So where to find the most value when making that right decision? That’s the ultimate question for any homebuyer. And for each one, any real estate agent will tell you that “value” has a different definition.

Is it location, location, location? Is it a style of home, or the need for a pool, or an open floor plan that’s driving your purchase? Maybe, for you, finding a big oak tree to put a tire swing on brings a lot of value to a property.

For Ashley and me — at the time, a couple in our late 20s — where, exactly, the home was located wasn’t a huge deal to us, though our hearts were in Riverhead. There was, however, value in buying a home that needed a little work and fixing it up with our own hands.

The house we ended up buying in Wading River was nice when we saw it, sure. But carpet in the kitchen? A forest, literally in the front and back yards? Pink paint on the bedroom walls — and pink tile in the master bathroom? We probably could have done without that. But, we told ourselves, ‘We can fix all that.’

And so, over the past couple of years, we have — or, at least, we’ve started to. But it’s not like we’re the only ones out there doing it.

Valerie Goode, owner of Colony Realty in Jamesport, said most homebuyers are getting a precise idea of what they want before they go see a house these days. While it used to take buyers six months to a year to find their home, with apps like Zillow and Redfin, “within 60 days they’ll be buying,” she said.

Maggie Olsen and J.R. Manarel had looked at so many homes online that by the time they visited their home on Howell Court in Riverhead in person, they knew it was the one. They had looked into going the foreclosure route, but banks can be hard to deal with, particularly if you’re not going with a conventional mortgage.

Manarel is “extremely handy,” Olsen said, “so we knew we could get a fixer-upper. And we were willing to do and learn.”

So, a fixer-upper they got.

“When we looked at the house, it was a disaster zone,” Olsen recalled. And the month after their closing in March was a whirlwind.

Mounds of dirt that had been excavated by the previous homeowner — and then later left to attract weeds — were put to grade in the backyard. Mirrors were ripped off walls, spackle was put down and paint was applied throughout the house. Fixtures, of which there were none, were added. Molding was ripped off. Floors were stained. Countertops were re-done.

On her 31st birthday, Olsen moved into her new home.

Ed Oakes and his wife, Crystal Possehl, took a different approach. The couple, who had been living in Hampton Bays, were looking for a home on the South Fork. But it quickly became clear they could get much more bang for their buck by going north.

“I was looking at a lot of fixer-uppers in other towns. When I saw one in Southampton or Hampton Bay, I realized I’d be spending almost as much for a turn-key home in another town,” said Oakes, 33. “There was this one in Bridgehampton; it was a total disaster.”

Instead, the pair settled on a lovely three-bedroom ranch on Witt Lane in Aquebogue. They moved in mid-June, even though it means Possehl has a longer commute to her job as a nature educator at the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center in Bridgehampton.

For Ashley and me, change has been slow. While we moved in right away, for the most part we’ve taken it one small thing at a time. A new door frame here, a paint job and some new screens there.

The yard itself has been the biggest bear. Not that I’m complaining, but after two years of living here, we finally had to hire a crew to come in and clear close to two dozen trees (yes, there are still some left) just to get adequate sunlight on the ground — for that day when we do plant grass seed. But there’s still brush to be cleared and grading to be done.

At the end of the day, though, the work on this house has so far been worth it. We’re in a quiet neighborhood that we are able to enjoy, walking our dogs and newborn around pretty much every day. The house has good bones, so we’ve come across barely any minor fixes we need to make. And small piece by small piece, we’re making it our own.

So where should the value rest when purchasing your first home?

That’s a decision as personal as the home itself.

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Photo Caption: Maggie Olsen and J.R. Manarel in their home on Howell Court in Riverhead (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)