House Hacking // What to Look for in Your First House

Over the past 10 years, Garrett and I have purchased 6 homes on our journey to become landlords, house-hackers, and early-retires. But we started out like many 20-somethings back in 2008, buying our first home in Seattle to build our life around.

the Dexter House renovation // front of house

The Wallingford House was an 1000sf fixer with 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom and all of my heart. We bought the house for $445,000 and with only $12,000 down, our mortgage was over $3,000 a month. Eeek! Honestly, we had no business buying a home that expensive (and, in fact, that’s the most we’ve ever paid for a home). We had no cash reserves, no room in the budget for saving, and zero financial foresight. I’m pretty sure we even borrowed part of that $12,000 from our parents. But despite our ignorance, there were a few reasons why that home turned out to be a smart buy for us.

So today, with the benefit of hindsight from 10 years of purchasing, renovating, and renting out houses for financial gain, I wanted to share 7 things we would look for in a first home. Let’s pretend Garrett and I are first time homebuyers again, but this time with knowledge of house hacking and financial independence. This is the list we’d give our real estate agent of ‘must haves’. For reference, this list is specific to our experience, which is in a major urban city (Seattle) with high demand for rentals and a quickly-appreciating real estate market.

the Dexter House // adding back door

One // Fixer

Finding a home that needs work is number one on our list. We’re elbow-grease kind of folks and renovating can add equity into the property. Increasing the value of the house allows the owners to resell it for a profit, rent it out for increased monthly income, and/or refinance for better loan terms. In fact, that’s exactly what we did at the Wallingford House. After renovating the home and adding 2 more bedrooms and a bathroom, we increased the value enough to qualify for a standard 80/20 mortgage, which allowed us to remove the mortgage insurance, and eventually rent the home out. Like Thomas Edison said, opportunity comes “dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Two // Price

Lots of financial-savvy people will tell you to buy a home that’s worth only half of what the bank qualifies you for. And while that’s smart advice, Garrett and I have never followed it. Ever since we started looking at homes as investments, we’ve used two rules of thumbs to determine what we’ll pay for a home. First, we have to rent out the home for the cost of the mortgage payment (principle, interest, taxes, and insurance). This is a safety net that means if things don’t go as planned (like for instance, a recession hits) we’re not losing our shirts every month. Second, we want the projected, post-renovation annual rent to be greater than 10% of the cash we have into the property. For example, if we bought a home for $300,000 and put $60,000 down and spent another $40,000 on renovations, we’d have $100,000 cash invested in the property. We’d have to net $833/month after expenses to make $10,000 per year or 10% on that cash, which would make the rent upwards of $2500/month. There are lots of other rules of thumb out there (I like the 1% rule too), but these have done well by us.

the Porch House renovation // dining room

Three // Old homes with Original character

This is a bit of a personal preference, but we like old homes. I keep a filter on Zillow and Redfin to search for homes built before 1950, thus making sure to see only the oldest of homes in our area. We do this for a few reasons. First, old homes with original character are inspiring, interesting, and unique. Second, old homes were built to last. They used real materials back then (no particle board) and were created by craftsmen. It would take a fortune to recreate some of the molding and built-ins that were standard to this vintage of home. I’m not saying we’ll never buy a home that’s newer than 1950, but that’s another rule of thumb we use.

the Dexter House renovation // backyard

Four // Location

This is a non-negotiable item on the list. We look for homes close to downtown, mass transit, and schools. And we make sure those homes are in safe neighborhoods that we would want to live in. Over the years we’ve found that properties that are close to parks, grocery stores, and restaurants/bars tend to always be desirable and thus a good long-term investment. Many of our homes are on busy streets too, which we’ve found make great rentals because they cost less to purchase and command similar rent to homes on less-busy streets.

Five // Unfinished square footage

Unfinished square footage – usually basements – can provide a nice equity bump when finished. Not all of our homes have had tall enough basements to finish, but we love it when they do. Finishing out a basement costs much less than adding on and can really increase the enjoyability and value of a home.

the Ravenna House // basement

Six // Zoning

If at all possible, look for a home with zoning potential. Could you convert the home to a duplex? Triplex? Add an apartment over the garage? It’s not always easy to predict what you’ll want to do with the property in the end, but having flexibility in the zoning is nice. The Wallingford House had a rentable backyard cottage, which was the only reason we felt comfortable buying a home that expensive in the first place.

Seven // Passion

We look for properties that we’re passionate about. That can be hard to quantify, but for us it often means lots of natural light, cool original details, and connection to the outdoors. But whatever floats your boat, the bottom line is that you should be excited about the home. Whatever you plan to do with the home – live in it, renovate it, rent it – properties are hard work and that work is much easier to do when you love what you’re working on!

The Porch House Renovation (featured on HGTV’s Master Plan)

The market has changed a lot in the decade since we bought our first house. But even so, these rules would drive our search today for a first home. I’d love to hear if you guys have any other criteria for buying homes or thoughts on these rules.

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  1. Miranda says:

    I know this is incredibly random to be commented on this post in particular, but because you used a photo of the backyard of the Dexter house, I figured why not.

    Did you ever do a post about how you guys did the fence? I had always assumed you two did it yourself as fellow elbow greasers, but I realized that there was never much mention other than how you put it in and made it as tall as it could be to make your own little paradise. 🙂

    We are in the market for a fence on our 1907 victorian and this is the type of fence I want to do to keep my neighbors out (seriously, it’s like parking lots on all sides) so we can make our own oasis. The simple style for the last 2′ at the top is perfect. So I’m curious – did you guys DIY or did you hire? Pros/cons?

    • We did it ourselves. We’ve put fences in at most of our properties and it’s become Garrett’s own personal art projects 😉 Seattle allows for a 6′ fence plus 2′ of arbor above so that’s how we got it that tall. We used cedar for everything except the fence posts which are pressure treated

  2. Confused Megan says:

    Please help!! I REALLY don’t understand this sentence!
    “We’d have to net $833/month after expenses to make $10,000 per year or 10% on that cash, which would make the rent upwards of $2500/month. ”
    What expenses, and how do you get to $2500/month rent??

    • Possible expenses would be mortgage P&I, taxes, insurance, possibly utilities, maintenance, property management, etc. For this scenario, we had $100,000 in cash in the property and 10% of that is $10,000 per year (or $833 per month). To get to the rent we’d need to charge, I assumed: $1500 mortgage + $166 expenses + $833 profit = $2500/month rent.

  3. When I look at listing photos online, I look through the windows and ideally do not see another house. With strategic landscaping, our current place has no direct views of other homes. Our last home had only one window with a direct view of another house. (both in the Seattle suburbs)

  4. Jamie G says:

    This is a great and useful list! We are really itching to invest in real estate but the Seattle (and most surrounding areas) market is kinda crushing our investment dreams!

  5. Love this post, thank you for sharing! My husband and I are looking to invest in property so this is perfect timing.

  6. Thanks for this post! I love learning about the numbers and financials behind all your properties.

    Do you tend to find properties that meet your financial criteria in, or right outside, Seattle proper? Or do you have to look in the farther-out suburbs to get the sale-price-to-rental-income ratio you need?

    I’m curious because I live in a large metro area with a high cost of living, and while I’m not in the city itself, I’m fairly close to it. Small, old, not-updated single-family homes in this area go for anywhere from $600K to $1 million or more, depending on the neighborhood. As far as I know, rental costs have not kept up with those sale prices, so when I think about investing in a rental in my area, I can’t imagine how the financials would work in my favor. That makes me wonder if some cities are just better for that than others, or maybe I haven’t hunted creatively enough!

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