Experiencing Northern Michigan: Investing in Community as a First-Time Homeowner
For many in Northern Michigan, this area is already the perfect place to call home. With freshwater lakes all around, cute downtowns, farmland galore, gorgeous scenery every season, and more, properties up north have a bit of everything to pique any potential homebuyer’s interest. Spring, typically the real estate market’s busiest time of year, is just around the corner. To prepare for the home buying season and celebrate the one year since my boyfriend and I bought our home in Downtown Cadillac, I’m sharing my experience as a first-time homeowner—with six tips to ease anxieties about the process of purchasing a property in Northern Michigan—and reflecting on the importance of investing in community.
If you’re considering buying a first home, a forever home, a business, a farm, a cabin on a lake, a place for retirement, or any property in Northern Michigan, I recommend looking closely at the potential of lesser-known areas, imagining for yourself the possibilities of what could be with a little tender loving care, and considering the road less traveled. For all the potential homebuyers up north, here are my six tips to help you along the life-changing journey.
1. Decide what your non-negotiable home buying criteria are upfront.
If you were to make a list of everything you wanted in a home, there would probably be a handful of features that you really wouldn’t want to live without. Maybe you won’t budge on how many bedrooms and bathrooms the home has because you want to grow your family and have space for guests. Maybe you spend a lot of time gardening and entertaining outdoors so you really want a big backyard. Or maybe you love historic neighborhoods, original woodwork, and architectural character, so you want to see homes at least a century old. Whatever matters most to you, communicate it and save yourself time by looking only at homes which meet at least most of your criteria.
Knowing where you stand in terms of your non-negotiables going into the home buying process will help you narrow down your search. If it’s still challenging to make a decision, jot down pros and cons after each house showing to help you narrow down your list. You want your house to feel like home, and you want to be confident you made the right decision at the closing table, so be honest with yourself throughout the process, speak up for what you want, and trust your gut when it comes to the house hunt.
2. Location, location, location: investing in a community and a lifestyle.
One of the most vital non-negotiables is location because it can affect almost everything: your job, your commute, your neighbors, the community you support, your lifestyle, where you run errands, your taxes, the schools your kids attend—everything. Personally, I wanted to live somewhere downtown because I love being able to walk to the lake, the park, the farmers market, restaurants, events, shopping, and other amenities while being part of a family neighborhood (living near Downtown Cadillac’s historic district was a bonus).
Whether you’re looking for a charming old house downtown like I was or a large home with acreage or a tiny cottage on the lake with dreamy views, location is about investing in a community and a lifestyle you seek for the benefit of your health, well-being, and/or financial situation. Buying a house is taking a chance on the place you hope to call home, on the wish that not only will the house feel like home, but the community, too, will be where your heart is.
3. Research pays off.
This step for every potential homebuyer—especially first-timers—is crucial because it saves time and money. Take the initiative to research for yourself what housing options are available, check out graphs of home price trends in the areas that interest you, and look at comparable neighborhoods, school ratings, and local events where you want to live. It’s easier than ever to find quality information online, so take advantage of having access to valuable knowledge and absorb as much as you can. Websites like Zillow, Trulia, and Realtor.com are all good resources, and checking your local listings by walking or driving through your favorite neighborhood is another great way to get a feel for what’s on the market. It’s also helpful to look at sales trends across the locations you love most. In the Zillow graph to the right, note how median home prices since 2008 in Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Petoskey, Alpena, and Manistee compare to median home prices throughout the last decade in Cadillac, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Marquette, and overall for the United States.
In 2017, the median home price in Traverse City was $242,919. Compare that (see the Neighborhood Scout chart on the left) to the median home price in Cadillac, which was $98,067—a small town just 45 minutes south of TC almost 250% less expensive than the Cherry Capital. The numbers are so staggering that it’s surprising more people have yet to relocate from bigger, pricier cities to smaller, more rural towns (especially considering the internet age of online entrepreneurship and work-from-home opportunities) for some change of scenery.
4. Seek feedback from family, friends, and experts.
The more opinions, the merrier? Well, not always, but a handful of varied feedback and some intelligent input from family, friends, and experts you trust doesn’t hurt. Even if you’re confident in your decision-making, gauging reactions from others is research, too, and it will help you foresee potential problems and alleviate concerns upfront. Ultimately, trust your gut and do what feels right for you since it’s yourhome buying experience.
If you know people who have experience buying a home in the community you love, reach out for their perspective and ask specific questions that might help inform your decision. Experts like local realtors are also great resources, as they have extensive knowledge of your area’s inventory and comparable listings, neighborhoods, schools, and trends. Searching for homes with the help of a realtor can be wise, especially if you’re a first-time homebuyer or new to an area. It can be comforting to know you have an advocate as you prepare to make such a significant investment.
5. Before closing, get a professional home inspection.
When you love a property and feel ready to make an offer, get a professional home inspection before closing. An inspector will review every nook and cranny of the home and give you a detailed report you get to keep forever. For smaller homes up to 1,200 square feet, an inspection runs about $300 or less. With homes larger than 4,000 square feet, inspections can cost upwards of $500. Whatever the price of a professional home inspection in your area, the benefits and peace of mind that come with knowing everything about your new home is priceless.
After an inspection report is completed, it’s possible to negotiate the home price down or to request seller repairs if serious issues need to be fixed in advance of moving in. You can schedule a professional home inspection before making an offer or during the 30-60 days before you officially close on the house. You never know what invisible problems could be lurking in the home of your dreams, so always play it safe. Spending a few hundred dollars on an inspection could save you thousands of dollars and regret down the line.
6. Celebrate homeownership!
Next to getting your offer accepted and moving in, closing on a house and walking out with the keys to your new place is the most exciting checkpoint in the home buying process—especially for first-time homeowners. It’s a tangible feeling that means everything’s official: you own a home! Homeownership is a big life change, and it’s worth getting excited about. So celebrate! The whole experience becoming a homeowner went more smoothly than I imagined. My main takeaway (maybe we got lucky): the process of buying a home in Northern Michigan is so much easier than I thought it would be.
I realized, too, that you don’t need a realtor (though it can be helpful to have one) to buy a home. We happened to find a property that was “for sale by owner.” When I saw the house online, I called the number on the listing, and the home’s owner answered. I spoke directly with her about our interest, and she set up a time when we could see it in person. We fell in love with the character of the home, the walkable location, and the potential of the neighborhood. So we talked to a local bank about getting a mortgage. We got pre-approved, got a home inspection, made an offer, had the offer accepted, and closed on our house one month later. With the help of family and friends, we were all moved in within a couple weeks.
Maybe most significant to me along this journey, I’ve learned homeownership means so much more than investing in a property. It means investing in a community you love and believe in. Through buying a home, I’ve learned a lot about myself, what I wanted, and what I needed. Moving back to Northern Michigan has been the best decision I’ve ever made. I love how the small town where my boyfriend grew up is now the place I call home. Home is where the heart is, and my heart is here in Cadillac.