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Nest House Hunt: The McLellans

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Sarah McLellan and the family dog
  • Sarah McLellan and the family dog

If you're starting to think about getting out of that rental and buying your own home, our House Hunters just might have some eye-opening tips for you. There's a learning curve, complete with near misses, drama and mystifying paperwork along the way.

When Nest first spoke to Sarah and Sam McLellan last October, the couple had recently moved to Burlington from Boston and were, in Sarah's words, "leisurely" and "super casually" starting the house-hunting process. But by January, their home-buying timeline had "jumped to immediate," Sarah says. What changed? Their first baby, a boy, is now on the way, scheduled to make his big debut this July.

"We weren't feeling too stressed at the time, and then winter came, and we found out we're adding to the household," says Sarah. "And we're like, Oh, shit! We gotta get out [of our rental]."

Sam, 32, works for the federal government and was transferred to Vermont last March. Sarah, 31, followed him in August, after completing her year as a preschool teacher. They moved into a month-by-month rental that Sarah describes as "retro" — there's not even an oven. "We've been doing OK with our toaster oven," she says, "but it's not the same."

She observes that rentals here are slightly more affordable than in Boston, where the McLellans had lived for the last two and a half years. There, "we were paying a whole lot of money for a place with mold in it," she explains. But when it comes to buying, they've struggled to find a decent home in Vermont, too.

"It just seems like there's a whole lot of demand and not a lot of supply," Sarah says. "And what is out there is really not great, especially for a young family." They've looked at homes that smelled like cat pee, she notes, adding, "My friend found a place where there wasn't any heating, and the [owner] didn't seem to care."

"At this point in our lives, we're looking for something a little bit nicer," she says.

Ideally, the couple would like a home in Burlington's Old North End, where they can easily walk to downtown. A near-to-town location is their No. 1 concern. "We saw this really lovely house in the New North End, and it was beautiful," says Sarah. "It was this cute, tiny house with a great yard for the dog. But I couldn't walk to a coffee shop in 20 minutes. It was a little too suburban for me ... Especially now, knowing that I'm going to be in a house with my infant for a while, I need to be able to get out of my house quickly and just go for a walk."

Other than walkability, the McLellans aren't picky. They're hoping to move back to Boston in a couple of years, so their only other main criterion is that the home has good resale value. With that in mind, a real estate agent friend told them, "It doesn't need to be your dream home. It doesn't need to be perfect. It just needs to be something attractive." So Sarah and Sam are looking for at least two to three bedrooms, something big enough to entice a broad range of future buyers.

As Nest goes to press, the McLellans are under contract for an older Old North End home with a small backyard that's very close to downtown. "It really matches my one main priority," says Sarah. "It's so exciting but also still so very much up in the air." The sellers won't close until they've found suitable housing, so Sarah and Sam aren't moving forward with inspection or appraisal until that's been resolved.

In the meantime, says Sarah, "We'll also continue looking around, just in case."

Top Tips

The McLellans offer the following advice for fellow home buyers.

Narrow your price range. Initially, Sarah and Sam were looking at homes ranging from $150,000 to $450,000, because they didn't agree on how much they wanted to spend. "My price range would be, ideally, under $350,000," says Sarah. "He was willing to go a lot more than that." Trying to compare homes of such different values was challenging, Sarah explains. She suggests having a serious budget discussion from the get-go. She also notes that looking at the monthly mortgage with the addition of regular bills, property taxes and other expenses helped them find their comfort zone.

Mind the parameters on your property-listing cart. "Unless it's really, really a dire need, don't put it as your parameter," advises Sarah. At first, on their Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty cart, the couple ruled out any homes with fewer than 1.5 bathrooms. "But that wasn't really necessary, and it was cutting out other places that were wonderful," Sarah says.

Take a home-buying class. Sam attended a Seven Days House Party when he first moved to Vermont and connected with their real estate agent. "He brought me to [a House Party] later, and ... it was a really excellent way to learn the lingo and ask questions," says Sarah. "I definitely felt far more confident after."

When the McLellans move into their new home, we'll be giving them a housewarming present: a four-hour home-design consultation and $100 gift certificate from Stowe Kitchen Bath & Linens.

Would you like to be the next Nest House Hunter? If you're a prospective home buyer, let us share your progress, learn from your experience and, ultimately, help you celebrate with a gift to "warm" that new house. All you'll have to do is keep a few notes, check in with us once a week and send photos! Contact us at nest@sevendaysvt.com.

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