there’s no place like home

If I ever found myself trapped in a Technicolor dream world and needed to tap my shiny shoes to get home, I can’t be sure where I’d end up. See, I’ve occupied 24 homes in my life. At my age, that means that on average, I have moved every two years among Ohio, New Jersey, Arizona, Ontario, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and back to Pennsylvania. As an adult, my husband and I have bought or rented homes ranging in architectural style from a school house loft to a McMansion to a crumbling Dutch colonial to a beach house. Currently our family of five shares the too-cozy quarters of a Cape Cod in Sunset Hills. We hope to upgrade to a place near Uptown next year. We probably ought to heed the advice of Coldwell Banker’s Julie Christie. “Many first-time buyers need to be cautioned not to make an emotional and financial investment in a house which they might quickly outgrow. Once spent, the closing cost money is not easy to replace.”  I can attest to that, but still some finials and fireplaces just beg me to jump houses like trains.

Why the wanderlust? Some people just love houses and the adventure of change. My parents jumped the map in pursuit of higher education for themselves and at times were impractical, even whimsical when it came to moving. All I know is that I hated being pulled from school to school. So it is kind of strange that I would grow into one of those restless house hunters. But as they say, “not all who wander are lost.”  The average U.S. resident will move a total of 16 times in a lifetime. And just for fun, each time someone moves, they’ll pack an average of 50 boxes (source:

Our recent moving history has been confined to Mt. Lebanon zip codes in an attempt to keep our three children in consistent social and educational circles. Unfortunately, we haven’t quite had the magic combination of luck, time, money and paperwork to land exactly where we want to be yet. We call it the search for our Forever House. Many people who live in Mt. Lebanon are intimately familiar with driving down certain streets or by houses to longingly imagine a “for sale” sign sprouting up.

If you are thinking of planting a sign in your own front yard, Betty Christopher, an associate broker with Berkshire Hathaway Real Estate recommends doing so in the chilly days of January. “Since people’s rental agreements end around April 30 or May 31, it’s best to list your house in the winter, believe it or not. This is because it takes people time to look, to get financing and to close in time for their leases to be up,” says Christopher. Since she started in the business in 1969, she says the whole home buying process is different. “People can look on the Internet, so they come in with a good idea of what they want, but we still play a major role in assisting them in the many negotiations that are part of a sale.”

Certainly is an oft-visited site for dreamers and serious buyers. A voyeuristic habit for me and many friends, it is the best way to see what you get for your money and stay on top of the inventory. But working with an agent gives you insight to what is about to come on the market—an especially critical edge considering the competitive nature of Mt. Lebanon home buying.
Howard Hanna agent Vera Purcell has been working long days, in part, she says, because people expect record-low interest rates to rise. Aside from the math, to her its that we are just plain fabulous:”Real estate is on fire here!  We can walk everywhere, take the T to a major league game; we are safe and we have a new high school. That’s why [real estate] is like playoff season during football all the time in Mt. Lebanon.”

The following is a snapshot of this writer’s real estate resume between 2008 and today (and this doesn’t include homes we looked at and passed on):

  • Rentals Pennsylvania Boulevard, Driftwood Drive, Hazel Drive.
  • Rent-to-Own Deal Fell Through  Florida Avenue, Hazel Drive, and Orchard Drive.
  • Didn’t Bid Fast Enough  Rae Avenue, Marlin Drive, Academy Avenue, Kenilworth Drive, and Mabrick Avenue.
  • Bid to Own and Lost  Ordale Boulevard, Baywood Avenue, Florida Avenue, Park Entrance Drive, Main Entrance Drive,
  • Hazel Drive, Castle Shannon Boulevard, Baywood Avenue, and Cedar Boulevard.
  • Lusted at the Open House  Jefferson Drive, Jefferson Drive, Jefferson Drive, Rockwood Drive, Sunnyhill Drive, and Royce Avenue.
  • Bought Milbeth Drive.
Writer Jennifer Rignani and her daughters, Lily and Sofia, 13, and Violet, 8, were cleaning out their Sunset Hills garage when the photographer arrived. Perhaps that gritty task is why her husband, Jay, avoided the shoot, arriving 12 mintues after the photographer l
Writer Jennifer Rignani and her daughters, Lily and Sofia, 13, and Violet, 8, were cleaning out their Sunset Hills garage when the photographer arrived. Perhaps that gritty task is why her husband, Jay, avoided the shoot, arriving 12 mintues after the photographer l

So with my back story, and some expert opinion from other buyers and real estate agents, here is a Mt. Lebanon take on the Seven

Stages of Coming Home:

APT_5202STARTER  Whether you rent or buy, these tend to be smaller  (apartments, condos or two-bedrooms) and sometimes impractical (traffic, noisy neighbors, etc). You’re on a tight budget, no kids yet and heading upward in your career. Important question: How close are you to the major arteries into the city? More important, can you walk to The Saloon?

RENTTO-OWNRENT TO OWN (optional) You’ve outgrown your first place but don’t have the down payment to buy just yet. Still, you find a house you like so much that you negotiate a rental payment bound to an agreement that you intend to eventually buy it, and the monthly payments are to be considered cash toward the down payment. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. Not overly common but worth a shot.

_MG_5109FIRST “REAL” HOME This is the wild card. School proximity starts to figure in along with safety. Yard size matters, and you have a little more money to spend if you’re lucky. Many people stay in this home until children go to college. But one lost job, job transfer or promotion, and you’re outta there. This also requires all of the stars to be aligned to secure a mortgage.

AverageMIDDLE HOME These are a short or long list of houses that vary in size and level of upgrade. This move can involve heated discussions about outrageous moving costs to relocate three streets over (or talk about maybe moving to another part of town). Factor in hours of input from the children, who will either be happy to walk fewer steps to school or sad that they will have to schlep a little farther to the pool.

_MG_4949FIX-UP/ADD ON  Renovating is a bug, and once you catch it, it’s hard to shake. A few hardy folks constantly look for diamonds in the rough they can purchase, fix up, flip and move on. Most of us are too comfy where we are, however, so we add or subtract portions of our houses, reinventing them to suit our evolving lifestyles by taking out walls, finishing basements, turning attics into an office or exercise room and re-doing kitchens and baths. This is dusty, exhausting and usually more expensive than you thought it would be.

Dreamhome-1DREAM HOME Most of us never get here. Marry up. Win the lottery. Invent a neutral solution to the Marcellus Shale.





Downsize2EMPTY NEST At this point, you’re either tired and broke or you have earned you way into comfort and peace. When the last kid slams the door, you may want to stay put and wander the empty rooms, marveling at the lack of dirty sneakers strewn about. On the other hand, you may be yearning for a condo or a townhome. These are scattered throughout Mt. Lebanon from Connor to Washington to Beverly roads, but as Coldwell’s Christie says,  “The options for a single, single-level/low-maintenance lifestyle are extremely limited within the community. Many residents age in place rather than leave Mt. Lebanon. One of my clients spent three years actively looking for alternative housing ‘close to home’ before selling her two-story Colonial and opting for a carriage home that would accommodate family visits but not take her too far away from friends, activities, favorite events, trusted professionals, airport access, public transportation and countless other attributes to which she was accustomed.”