Compass, an online service that helps people find their soul-mate neighborhoods, invited me to write our Starter Story for their series of the same name. Compass started matching apartment hunters with NYC neighborhoods based on personality and interests, and now they are doing the same thing for DC.
When we first started looking to buy a house, I didn’t like the term “starter home” because it sounded like an apology, like telling the audience you’re a bit sick before you start singing. “Sorry, this is our starter house. Our real house is going to be infinitely more amazing, and I want you to picture that one instead of what I’m about to show you.”
We made our first foray into house hunting in 2007 in the DC area which would have been enough to give us or anyone sticker-shock-induced gastroenteritis for days had we not moved here from the San Francisco bay area. We needed some decent square footage because, although we had no children or pets at that point, we did have five pieces of intricately carved Balinese furniture with massive footprints that have always dictated where we can and cannot live.
I told our realtor I wanted a house with “character”. So after banging our heads on the stairways to many a basement in pokey houses with water damage and other interesting personality traits, it became clear that when I said “character” what I really meant was crown molding. And that is the story of how we started looking at townhouses.
I had been to Vienna several times because I had a voice teacher who lived there, and I loved the town. The Washington & Old Dominion trail runs right through its charming downtown, the people drive well (compared to Laurel, MD), and the town is pretty without being snooty (I’m lookin’ at you, McLean!). We chose a particularly nice townhouse complex situated between the Metro and the projected site for the (now built and fabulous) Mosaic District– which made our entire life seem pretty walkable. We made offers on three of the units in the complex before we got one.
I remember so well opening my eyes the first morning in our new house to see the vaulted ceiling of our master bedroom all lit up by the morning sunshine streaming in through four big windows. I
nearly cried. Oh how I loved that house! We had prioritized light and height, and our end unit had both. The rooms were bright, the ceilings were high, and the acoustics were top notch.
At that point we were childless and carefree (or childfree and careless) so we gave 20x more thought to whether the home was conducive to hosting fabulous parties than which school districts we were in.
The first thing I did was rainbow-ify the place. The sellers had neutralized everything before putting it on the market, so Heather Craw, the anti-beige, had much work to do. I painted the dining room red, living room a very light yellow, the family room green, all the bathrooms blue and the nursery violet–oh, and the Master cream. You thought I was kidding about the rainbow of fruit flavors didn’t you? Note the absence of orange in this rainbow. I hate orange. I recognize its right to exist as part of the color spectrum, but that’s about all. Like The Wizard of Oz or Pleasantville, I had taken a black and white movie and Tecno-Colorized it.
Of course, a red dining room doesn’t actually go with all parties, so for several of them, I temporarily wallpapered over it with gift wrap. I also installed shadowbox wainscoting in there, but that’s another DIY story entirely.
Over the years, I had to change the nursery from Violet Butterflies to Nautical Delight,
and the catch-all guest room to a pink Princess Room. This is still one of my favorite rooms right down to the rosettes I hand painted for the wall panels I had installed. I assume I’ll continue to miss this room until I finish Flufferella’s Princess Suite in our new house. That’s my next move!
We replaced the carpet in the basement with hardwood and replaced the floors in the whole main level with wider width oak. In the kitchen, I ripped out my Corian countertops and replaced them with Colonial Cream granite and had the island refinished.
I also had the master bath re-tiled, had the vanity refinished, put in Bianco Antico granite, and replaced the mirrors, faucets, hardware, and light fixtures. General contracting our whole renovation was really hard, and (like almost everything I’ve ever done) made me want to slit wrist right until the moment that it came out amazing and I started vowing to do it again.
Since I was doing granite around the house, I had the green marble around the fireplace replaced with granite at the same time. Then I spray painted the brass fireplace surround. The spray paint worked surprisingly well and made a big difference. And yes, I tired of the green down in the family room and changed it to someting more neutral.
Then I promptly rainbowified the playroom half of the room. Muahahah!! Color, color, color!
When the twins were born, we went from a 3-person family in a 3 bedroom townhouse to a 6-person family overnight (live-in nanny). That would have been fine, except during that time, all our other 1-child friends had also kept on procreating so that our holiday celebrations with our family friends were starting to feel really cramped. When we first bought the house, the only permanent piece of furniture in the family room off the kitchen was a baby swing. (Note, none of these people is me or Kent.)
Now we had to do “kid tables” and make chicken nuggets as one of the side dishes at Thanksgiving. Eeek!
I started dreaming of “doing a teardown”, finding a nice spot in Vienna with a crappy little house we could demolish to make way for a custom home with a mudroom, a music studio, and a 10’+ dining table rather than a plastic folding thinger from Costco Frankensteined onto our 6′ one.
Whenever we think of our starter house, we feel like we hit the jackpot. We loved that home, loved our neighborhood, and made money on our investment. You know you made a good housing choice when you feel great driving up to your neighborhood and can’t wait to invite your friends over. We couldn’t quite stay there forever, but our lovely townhouse was a great place to start.
Thanks for ruining my eyeliner with the trip down memory lane, Compass. Where are the tissues?
You can read all about how we got the house ready for the market, made good money listing it For Sale by Owner, bought a teardown property with a non-traditional realtor, and built a custom home with Classic Homes on my Adventures in Real Estate series. You can find more home pictures and snark in our house tour on Design Mom.