Grading homes: The system I used when picking a new place to live
This morning — because the sky was clear and I hadn't anything better to do — I let the dog lead me on a six-mile walk. For two hours, we wound our way through the streets of Corvallis. We sniffed drains, barked at squirrels, and in every way had a merry old time.
If I'd allow her, Tally would spend hours every day sniffing drains around the city.
As we walked, I reflected on how fortunate Kim and I were when we decided to move here. We were deliberate about our choice, sure, but it was still something of a gamble. Sometimes research and experience don't align. In this case, they have.
Why We Love Corvallis
After four months Corvallis seems like a perfect fit for us. There's so much we love about this place, such as:
- The downtown remains vital and whole. Kim and I spent three months this summer exploring dozens of towns in western Oregon and Washington. We discarded many strong candidates because their downtowns were either decayed (often due to a freeway having been built a couple of miles away) or, worse, bisected by a busy highway. There is a highway through downtown Corvallis, but traffic is managed sensibly for pedestrian access. The freeway is fifteen minutes away. As a result, the central business core seems to be thriving.
- The city is great for biking. Portland has a reputation for being a top U.S. cycling city, but Corvallis is actually ranked the best biking town in the state of Oregon. (Portland has a Bike Score of 82; Corvallis has a Bike Score of 84.) The cyclists here like to complain that things could be better (and that's always true), but the reality is that bike lanes are ample and wide, cars seem to respect cyclists, and many residents opt to commute by bike.
- Corvallis is even better for walking. In 2017, long-time readers chided me when I moved from a walkable riverfront condo to a rural home in a hilly suburb. I love to walk. I get cranky when walking isn't easy. Well, here in Corvallis walking is very easy. The city is relatively flat. The sidewalks are well maintained. Downtown is great, as I mentioned, but the neighborhoods are designed to make walking for errands relatively painless. My favorite feature? The city has deliberately incorporated “active travel corridors” into neighborhoods: short paths that cut between properties in order to connect streets, parks, and so on.
- The city is surrounded by endless hiking trails. There are so many trails, in fact, that I cannot find one website that lists them all. (Here are the trails I hike most often. Here's another set of trails I've been exploring with Jeff, the Happy Philosopher.) Now that the weather has turned cold and soggy, I'm spending less time in the forest, but when the sun returns to this part of the world, the dog and I will walk in the woods nearly every day.
- The city loves reading. This is no surprise, I suppose, considering Corvallis is a college town. Oregon State University is the city's largest employer (contributing a whopping 27.6% of all jobs in the area). This has some interesting side effects, and one of those is books books books. Residents love the public library, yet they also support three local bookstores. Best of all, there are 144 little free libraries scattered throughout the city. (And after I finish writing this article, I will order my own little free library kit so that I can add #145.)
- The restaurants are better than we expected. It's no secret that Kim and I enjoy dining out. Portland has a great restaurant scene, and we'd become spoiled by easy access to great food. We were worried that Corvallis would disappoint us in this regard. And while there's no doubt that our options are much more limited, we've still been able to find several places that we enjoy. (Top of our list is a joint called Cascade BBQ, which has great food and great beer.)
There's so much more we love about Corvallis: the traffic (or lack of it), the people, the parks, the wildlife, the culture, and more. Plus, to balance things out, there's another town of similar size (Albany) just twenty minutes away — and that town provides some of the things that Corvallis doesn't (Costco, etc.). Suffice it to say that we feel like we made the right choice when we elected to move here.
My System for Grading Homes
During this morning's dog walk, I also recalled the rating system I developed during last summer's home search. I had intended to write a GRS blog post about this in July, but then got distracted by the actual process of, you know, buying a house.
Here's how my system works.
When evaluating a potential home, I rate it in five categories: region/city, neighborhood, property, structure, and “other factors”. These categories are very much subjective. And, in fact, your personal preferences might change over time. (Mine sure have!) I score each category with a letter grade: A, B, C, D, or F.
- First, there's the region and/or city in which the home is located. Kim and I like to believe we could live anywhere — and we probably could — but there's no doubt that we prefer some places to others. Portland once earned an A from me. Now I'd rate it a B- or C+. Cities like Orlando or Houston earn an F from me. I know many people love these places, but I hate them. Corvallis rates a solid A.
- Second, there's the neighborhood where the home is located. I'm always surprised at how my personal experience living somewhere is affected by neighborhood culture. This is something that can be tough to determine when shopping for a home. It's dependent on a number of factors (and those factors differ from person to person). For me, top neighborhoods are safe, walkable, and quiet. The neighborhood we chose here in Corvallis rates a B+. It'd be better if it were closer to more businesses.
- Next, there's the property on which the home is located — the physical grounds. Not everyone cares what kind of property they own, but Kim and I do. We like to spend time outside with our beasts. Plus, we both like to do a bit of gardening. When househunting, we ruled out a couple of places because the yards were too small and/or unsuited to our needs. The yard we now have isn't perfect — too many deer, too much shade in back — but it's nice. I'd give it a solid B+.
- Fourth, there's the house itself. How well does the structure suit our wants and needs? The house we recently purchased seems has been great. Functionally, my only real complaints are that the kitchen layout is funky and that the living room is too large to be cozy. The house itself is huge (especially for two people!), and that may prove to be an issue in the future, but for now we like having separate spaces for everything. The house earns an A-.
- Finally, there are “other factors” that affect the desirability of the home. These include things like the inspection report, the price, the presence (or absence) of an HOA, and so on. This house had a great inspection (and we've seen no problems so far), but it did seem expensive because the current housing market is inflated. Because of the price we paid, I'd give this category a B+.
Once I've rated a potential property in all five categories, I convert the letter grades to a standard GPA. In the case of our current home, the five grades (A, B+, B+, A-, B+) average to an A-/B+ (3.52 gpa). Not bad.
With this system, perfect 4.00 homes are tough to find. In fact, we didn't see a single one during the five months we were watching the market. Part of this was due to price, of course. When home prices are high, it's tough to get an A in the “other factors” category. Even so, it was very rare for us to see a house that had full marks in city, neighborhood, property, and house. This leads me to believe that a “perfect home” does not exist.
Just for kicks, I decided to grade each of the homes I've owned in the past. These grades are based on my experiences living in each place, not on pre-purchase impressions and expectations.
Kris and I bought our first home soon after we were married. It was a solid little ranch house with a good location in my hometown. Our second home, where she still lives, was a hundred-year-old farmhouse in a scrappy neighborhood.
After our divorce, I bought a riverfront condo. That place was fantastic except for the expensive HOA and the lack of a yard for pets. The country cottage that Kim and I just sold had an amazing yard, which was almost enough to redeem the place. Almost.
It's early days yet on our Corvallis home, but so far we love it. The next two years will be telling as we work to upgrade both the house and the yard.
As I used this rating system to guide our search this summer, Kim and I found it useful to take a “top-down” approach. That is, we began our search by looking at the Big Picture, then gradually refined things until we found homes that we liked.
So, for instance, we spent the first three months of the homebuying process driving to dozens of different cities. Our aim was to find places where we really, really wanted to live. By being ruthless about eliminating options, we were able to only consider those towns that earned a grade of A or A-.
Once we picked Corvallis, we spent two weekends down here during which we simply drove around to get a feel for different neighborhoods. We wanted to figure out which parts of town worked for us.
Picking the right neighborhood can be tough. To really know where you should live in a city, you need to spend time there. This fact created a big debate between me and Kim, actually. I was keen on a neighborhood just south of the high school and close to downtown, but she was afraid it would be filled with noisy college students. We never could get a clear answer on the neighborhood's character, so we eventually eliminated it as an option. (And after four months here, I still don't know what that neighborhood is like!)
Once we had some neighborhoods picked out, only then did we begin viewing available properties.
I know this might seem silly to some of you, but this nerdy approach to homebuying really helped me. Combined with my spreadsheets filled with facts and figures, grading properties helped me to keep things in perspective.
Ultimately, we're pleased with the choice we made. Kim frets that we paid too much for this house (but I think she's ignoring the fact that we sold our existing home in the same high market), while I wish we were ever-so-slightly closer to businesses. Other than that, however, I think we made a good choice.
One thing's for certain: The city of Corvallis is almost ideal for us and our family of beasts. I expect us to be here for a long time — perhaps forever.