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When to Laugh and When to Run

Your real estate agent shares with you that there’s a new listing on the market that you should see right away. It’s the right number of bedrooms and bathrooms. There’s a fenced-in yard for your puppy. It’s five minutes from base and in a good neighborhood with well-regarded schools and a reputation for having a vibrant military-connected community. It checks all of your boxes, and you’re excited to meet your agent to check it out in person.

It turns out the listing failed to mention that every one of those bedrooms and bathrooms (and also the dining room, living room, and every other inch of space you encounter) is pink. Nausea-inducing, giggles-producing, Pepto-Bismol pink. Including the high shag carpeting that covers every inch of floor as far as the eye can see.

You manage to get through the tour of the house and (mostly) contain your amusement until you get back out to your car and start hyperventilating because it’s seriously everything you need your house to be and also a color that reminds you of dealing with stomach viruses and chewing on tummy-settlers each time new orders come in and you know you’re about to uproot your life once again.

So how do you discern between superficial problems and real money-pit issues? Should you enjoy a good laugh, or should you run for the hills—or at least as far away from the property as possible?

Is the problem minor or major? There are certain things that you can reasonably predict the cost to remedy. For instance, pink walls? Those are easily fixed with some primer and paint. Unattractive cabinet hardware? That, too, is a relatively cheap and easy fix.

But there are other things you might come across that appear to be an inexpensive fix but could end up costly in the end. Like that shag carpeting. That one can be tricky. It’s easy to pull up old (or offensively colored) carpeting. But what’s underneath of it? If you pull up the carpeting and see that it has been hiding damaged, rotting, or unattractive flooring, then you’re now also looking at the prospect of pulling up floors and installing new ones, and that’s a whole different level of commitment.

The window molding that’s warped? It may have just been poorly installed and might be able to be replaced with new molding. Or it may be warped because there’s a roof or gutter problem that’s directing rain through the window trim, and that will be more than just a minor fix.

Ideally, your home inspection would reveal what are big-ticket items and what are just aesthetic issues. But you won’t typically have a home inspection done until you’re already under contract on the house. So, if you are knowledgeable about such things, assess each point on your list of laughable things about the home. If you’re not, ask your real estate agent or a contractor friend to help you gauge what is easily fixed versus what might end up being a future nightmare.

What can your budget handle? If a potential property “just” needs xyz, something that might seem small or insignificant, but the expense would require you to spend more than you have available (or could readily make available) or would jeopardize your financial situation, then you still should run. If you can’t afford to make the changes you’d need to for a place to work for you, it doesn’t matter if they’re changes that would typically be seen as minor ones.

Having said that, if the cost to paint over hot pink walls is enough to throw you for a loop, you’re likely looking at a bigger mortgage than you should be willing to commit to, even if your lender says you can afford it. There should be wiggle room in your budget for unforeseen and/or minor expenses, and the cost of materials for a small project should not be enough to derail your finances.

What’s your threshold? If it turns out the problems are major things—like you walk into the house and your nose can tell you that there’s clearly a septic problem, or there’s visible moisture in a place that’s supposed to be dry, or anything that suggests systems aren’t functioning properly—keep looking. You haven’t found your home yet. The only exception to this would be if there’s been full disclosure about such problems and there’s a plan in action to remedy them, like a seller stating that the water heater needs to be replaced but there will be a new water heater installed before the final sale. If that’s the case, make sure that’s in writing in your contract if you make an offer.

If the problems aren’t major, or they’re things that you hate but could afford to fix, that’s wonderful. And if they’re things you hate and can’t afford to fix but can live with, that’s wonderful too. Three PCSes from now, you’ll still be talking about that house with the Pepto-Bismol walls and horrendous shag carpeting. And you’ll do it with a sense of nostalgia and a smile.