Six tips on how to stay organized when buying a house

When I was organizing my office the other week, I came across the binder I made when we bought the farm. This thing was my bible. I thought it might be helpful to share how I stayed organized during our relatively complicated house closing.

How I stayed organized when we bought our house

1. Come up with a system capture the paper work and information that comes with selling and buying a house.

You want to have all of your information in one place that’s easily accessible. For me, this system was a binder that I carried everywhere for about three months. For you a file folder might work. You might even be able to set up an electronic file on your computer, tablet or phone. In my experience, buying a house comes with a lot of paperwork, so having a paper-based system worked for me.

2. Once you capture all of the information, keep it organized.

I used dividers to categorize information in my binder.

How I stayed organized when we bought our house

You’ll have your own categories that work for you, but the ones that I used were mortgage broker, mortgage provider, mortgage quote, life insurance, house insurance, lawyer, storage, eco-energy audit, geothermal, insulation, water, internet, home inspection, property taxes, finances, offer, move-in and “fun & plans” (more on this one later). Sections were a mix of information we needed to complete the purchase of the farm and the sale of our first house, along with the fixes we planned to tackle first.

3. Keep track of everything

Make note of every conversation, every contact, every transaction, every flyer. You never know what you’ll need some day. I found it was particularly important to have a photocopy of our official offer and all of our financial information that I could quickly refer to.

Here’s the first page in my “lawyer” section. I have everything from appointment times, notes on title insurance and land transfer tax, even the scrap of paper where my dad first wrote down the lawyer’s contact information (which I’ve blurred out) stapled onto the page.

How I stayed organized when we bought our house

Other sections have written quotes from insulation contractors, flyers for rural internet providers and business cards from other contacts. Our water section had the reports from all of our initial well inspections, but then it grew to include research that I gathered on different water treatment and pumping systems, estimates from contractors and other notes as we went through the process of installing our new system.

4. Keep a calendar

There are lots of things to remember when buying and selling a house. A calendar or schedule is essential to keep things on track. I made a customized calendar that showed the two months from when we purchased the farm to after we moved in all on one page. The front cover of my binder had a plastic sleeve, so I slipped the calendar in there, where I could always see it at a glance.

How I stayed organized when we bought our house

5. Make sure your system is flexible.

In order to work throughout your whole house purchase, your system will have to grow and adapt and travel with you. Part way through the closing, I bought a second package of dividers and doubled the sections in the binder. As new information came in, I could write it down or print it out, punch holes in it and slot it into the appropriate section. Wherever I was, I could whip out the binder to access information or jot down a note.

6. Make room for some fun.

Buying a house can be stressful. Often, it can seem that you’re spending all of your time with depressing inspection reports that show everything that’s wrong with your house, exorbitant contractor quotes that show you’re never going to be able to fix your house, or complicated legal and financial forms that make you question if you’re ever going to be able to actually buy your house. Occasionally, you’re going to need some help to look on the bright side.

The final section of my binder was called fun & plans.

How I stayed organized when we bought our house

This wasn’t a huge section, and I confess it didn’t get a ton of attention, but it was a spot where I could do things like this.

How I stayed organized when we bought our house

Or this (pre-Pinterest).

How I stayed organized when we bought our house

Our two-month closing process was a little complicated because we were dealing with a country property and a fixer-upper, but I think a binder like this would be helpful no matter what kind of house you’re buying. It can be scaled and customized for whatever you need. And its usefulness continues after the sale closes. It’s been two years since we moved to the farm, and I still pull out this binder occasionally to find a contact or double check some information.

Now it’s your turn. Anyone have any tips on how to stay organized when buying a house? Are you a paper or computer person?

Bidding war

Anyone curious how the farm auction turned out? You’ve already heard about the auction on the farm and my good fortune in finding the items I thought I’d lost. But what about the auction of the farm?

Remember I mentioned that the whole property–the stone farmhouse, the big barn and all 17 acres–were going to be sold? The big day was a week ago.

Stone farmhouse and red barn

I’ve seen one house sold by auction before, but never a whole farm. Auctioning a property is a bit different than other auctions in my experience. Terms are spelled out very, very carefully before any bidding starts. For this sale, the only thing up for negotiation was the price. The winning bidder was making an unconditional offer to purchase the farm–no home inspection, no financing, no sale of their own house, no negotiation on the closing date. And they had to hand over a $50,000 deposit as soon as the auction was over.

Once the sale got going, things moved much more slowly than a typical auction. The auctioneer of course started high. He got no action and slowly lowered the price until people started bidding. He stopped the bidding a couple of times–he’d given us a heads up that he was going to–giving people a chance to talk things over and hopefully talk themselves into bidding.

Matt was not one of those people. He spent the whole auction trying to stand completely still and not make any motion that could be construed as a bid.

Crowd gathered at a farm auction

As the numbers climbed, it got down to just two bidders. Finally, the one shook his head. He could go no higher. Having lost a few farms in more traditional bidding wars, I felt badly for him, knowing how painful it is to come so close but still walk away farm-less.

The auctioneer took one more break, but the second bidder truly had reached his limit. When the auctioneer started again, it was to slowly and deliberately say, “I have [magic number] once. I have [magic number] twice. I have [magic number] three times. Fair warning.”

There was no climactic, “SOLD!” I expect that the bid was still under the reserve set by the sellers. Instead, the high bidder went into the farmhouse with the sellers to negotiate a final price–which of course was kept secret. The crowd stuck around until the auctioneer came back out onto the porch to announce that the deal was done.

Have you ever been through a bidding war or seen a whole property auctioned off? Have you ever accidentally bid on something or do you make like a statue like Matt?

Return to the dungeon

I mentioned last week how grateful I am not to be renovating a basement this summer for the first time in three years. You’re all familiar with last year’s long running reno. I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the first basement that Matt and I tackled together. This was at our first house about six months before we sold it.

Our first house was a little one and half story. It was a former rental property and hadn’t been very well maintained (are you sensing a pattern here?). Before we even moved in, we had done a lot of work to make it a home for us, and we continued to work on it for the next five years that we lived there. However, all of our renovations had stopped at the top of the basement staircase.

We didn’t usually let people go down there. It was not a very good reflection of our style.

At the bottom of the stairs, there was a makeshift built-in shelving area complete with a heat register and electrical outlet. Please note how the trim is falling off and the drywall (and shelving) stops halfway down the concrete pillar.

Ugly basement

There were two bedrooms where people actually slept before we moved in. One we called the blue room. It was covered in fake wood paneling that had been painted an eye searing shade of blue. We had added the shelving under the stairs to give us some temporary storage. The “closet” on the right wasn’t deep enough to hang a hanger.

Basement room painted blue

A view of the other side of the blue room. The hot water tank is behind this wall. Accessing it required unscrewing a section of the patchwork paneling. Note the uneven ceiling tiles, the ugly fluorescent light and the bath towels used as curtains (okay, those were our special touch).

Ugly basement

The other bedroom we termed the yellow room. This one was actually drywalled, but then painted an even worse shade than the blue room. Special features to note in this room, aside from the colour and the actual curtains, are the two heat registers within one foot of each other and the half carpet-half concrete floor.

Ugly basement painted yellow

Homey, no? Don’t you want to just move right in?

We were actively looking for our forever farm at this point, so we knew we had to do something about the basement before we could even think about listing our house for sale.

In the next post, I’ll show you exactly what we did.

The farm we almost bought 2

A few weeks after losing our first farm to a bidding war, another farm came on the market. It was just around the corner from the property that we had lost.

One hundred acres of forest, creeks, corn fields, one large barn and another medium, and an old farmhouse with numerous additions. A few features made it particularly notable. First was the pond. Or should I say lake.

Large pond

I still think about this pond. It is massive and made me realize a pond was pretty much a must-have feature for me. In addition, several wide and deep creeks wind their way through the property, flowing to a large river.

Unfortunately, this was not the only water on the farm, which brings us to the second notable feature.

When touring historic farm houses, we were often advised to wear our shoes when we went down to the basements. We’d seen rubble foundations and dirt floors, but we’d never seen what we found in the basement of this house: approximately eight inches of water and a rubber dingy fully inflated and floating around in the cellar. Never mind shoes, we needed high rubber boots!

Aside from the water, the basement was in great shape for an old farmhouse: fairly generous ceiling height and a concrete floor–albeit under water.

Upstairs, the house had original door knobs and light fixtures in a few spots, although for the most part it was characterized by dated 70s finishes and bad additions.

Poorly renovated farm house

Most of the original character had been lost, but the graffiti sprayed on the painted brick did add a certain… something.

Painted over graffiti on brick

It certainly had potential.

We made our offer that day. Believe it or not, we went in at full asking price, and we were the third offer.

We were only competing with two other bidders, which was one less than the last farm. But it was two too many. The farm ended up selling for $82,000 over asking.

We were nearly a year into our search, we’d seen only two farms that we wanted to buy and we’d lost both in bidding wars.

We were a little bit heartbroken–I still think about that pond. We were very frustrated. And we were starting to wonder if we were ever going to find the farm of our dreams.

The farm we almost bought 1

The thing you should probably know about our farm search was that when we started looking, I wasn’t ready. My plan was to wait until we had paid off the mortgage on our starter house. But about five months before that, Matt started spending time on MLS and soon enough he was making appointments with real estate agents.

About a month into our premature farm search, Matt and I drove out to see a property. We were about 20 minutes early for the appointment, and as we circled the rural country roads peering out the car window at the farm I said to Matt, “How did you do it? How did you find the perfect place?”

A long gravel driveway bordered on one side by tall pines and on the other by a manicured meadow led to a small house perched on the top of a rise. Undersized dormers poked out of the roof and the weathered wood of a big barn towered over the ridge line.

Farm house with undersized dormers

The original farm house had been added to over the years becoming a hodge podge of traditional tiny rooms connected to larger open spaces including a big eat-in kitchen and a generous family room with windows on three sides. Bathrooms were classic 1980s: a vintage six-piece complete with pink jacuzzi tub and matching bidet and an avocado three-piece.

In terms of potential, it ticked the box. My vision for the reno included digging out the basement, building a full second story–complete with properly proportioned dormers, reconfiguring the main floor and adding on a garage.

Outside, acres and acres of manicured grass beckoned family barbecues. Rolling hills hearkened of winter sledding parties. A small creek winding around the house and barn, 10 acres of forest and more than 50 acres of corn fields (of the property’s total 94 acres) were exactly the atmosphere we were looking for. And of course, the big barn with its own fabulous dormer drew us in.

Wood barn with dormer

But they only drew us so far. Though the price tag on this first farm was less than what we would ultimately end up paying, it was so early in our search that it still seemed very expensive. My sticker shock combined with my renovation ambitions–plus some electrical issues, no proper well (cistern only) and baseboard heat instead of a furnace–made us hesitate to put in an offer.

We visited the farm a few times. Talked about it a lot. Thought about it almost constantly. And then we watched the listing expire at the end of the fall.

That whole winter, every night as I walked home from work, I thought about the farm. We decided that if the listing came back up in the spring, we would put in an offer.

We watched MLS, and sure enough a few months later the farm came back on the market. We went and saw it again. The issues were the same, but so was the appeal. We put in an offer.

When our agent called me to say that there were three other offers and we were all being sent back, I was completely stunned. How could this farm that no one wanted to buy four months ago now be selling in competition?

We upped our offer.

And that night as I climbed into bed I felt like we were making a mistake. After about six months of dreaming about this property, it didn’t feel right.

The next day, we found out we’d been outbid. The amount the farm sold for surprised me and was more than we’d have paid. Between the price tag and my misgivings, the loss didn’t hurt too much. Apparently, I still wasn’t ready.

One year ago

A year ago today we saw the farm for the first time.

We’d been searching for our dream rural property for nearly a year and a half. After a very frustrating fall with nothing new coming on market, it had been more than a month since we’d actually visited a property.

Then on Jan. 2 sitting in the living room in our little house in the city, Matt hopped on MLS.

A new farm had been listed.

It was in our preferred area. It wasn’t the type of house we usually looked at, but it had a barn and was a good acreage. It was also over our price range. Matt called our agent, and he made an appointment for us to see it the next day.

Our viewing at the farm was different than the viewings when we first started. The rose coloured glasses had come off.

Which was unfortunate, because we really could have used them the first time we stepped into the house.

Clutter in a messy basement

The good news is the garbage bags turned out to not actually be full of garbage. The bad news was that we ended up buying everything you see when we bought the farm.

No one had lived in the house for a few months, but it was far from empty. Previous owners had left stuff and lots of it. Beyond all of the detritus it was obvious that the house met one of my major criteria. It had potential. Buckets of it.

We toured the barn and fell in love with the historic post and beam construction. We peaked into the driveshed. And that was about all we saw of the 129 acres… because I was so freezing cold.

It was an absolutely frigid day, and standing outside chatting with our agent all I wanted to do was get in the car and turn on the heat. Our agent’s final words as we turned on the ignition were, “I think you could get it for about $100,000 less [than they’re asking].”

And that became the topic of the afternoon. A hundred thousand less than list put it into our price range, but still at the top.

During our frustrating fall we’d had conversations about how we were likely going to have to compromise on something: location, property (meaning acreage, outbuildings, ponds and forests) or price. If we chose to buy this property–which had everything we wanted and was close to where we grew up and where our families still lived–it was clear that our compromise point was going to be the budget.

Matt was ready to go for it. The farm ticked all our boxes… except for price. That night was a sleepless one for me.

The morning of Jan. 4, we called our agent and to his surprise told him to put together an offer. At his office later that day we found out that the buyers had already received other offers. Bad news, we were about to enter our third bidding war. Good news, the buyers were waiting for our offer.

We signed the offer and crossed our fingers. Our agent said he expected we’d hear something back that evening. That night we sat up until midnight, but the phone was silent.

When we finally headed to bed, I slept with no trouble. We’d made our decision and it felt right. We’d done all we could, and it was up to other people now.

First thing the next morning, the phone finally rang. It was our agent. Our offer had been accepted.

Sold real estate sign

Finally farm owners.

As I hung up the phone and told Matt the good news, I burst into tears–happy tears. After a year and a half of searching, we had found our perfect place and it felt exactly right.

Now a year later having owned the farm for ten months, it feels even more right.

Farewell first house

Our first homeThe sale on our first house officially closes today.

We listed the house for sale right after our offer was accepted on the farm, and it sold within three weeks. But due to a long closing date, we’ve technically owned two houses for the past two months.

This house was a great starter home for us. It was the perfect size for two people, and we had plenty of opportunities to practice renovating and fixing up a home.

On my last visit to the house, Matt’s tulips were just beginning to bloom in the front garden that we put in together.

Tulips

The trees were starting to come into leaf.

Maple tree

When we first saw the house, we were attracted by the mature trees in the backyard and were so excited by the fact that we owned them. Now we own hundreds of trees, and we value them just as much.

We knew all along that this house was just the start for us. Our time there made it possible for us to be at the farm now. It was a wonderful five and a half years.