You know how the Terminator can scan a room and make risk assessments?
When you become a parent, you gain that ability. I mean, you can’t look at a kid and know, "Oh, that kid will grow up to be a rebel leader who will save the world." (Though you do kind of gain a sense of "Oh, that kid will grow up to be a jerk".) But you can enter someone’s home and immediately assess toddler risk.
There’s an 80% chance of a toilet dive through the open bathroom door. There’s a 2 to 4 minute window before a finger is pinched in those cabinet drawers. The open floor plan of the house means that not one minute of your evening will include adult conversation (unless another adult is willing to follow you following your child as you try to prevent disasters).
Honestly, from the time your baby can crawl until she understands that eating electricity is not a good idea, it is exhausting to go to other people’s houses. But your house shouldn’t be exhausting. Your house should be set up so that you can make dinner without chasing your children away from the stove and so that you can spend alone time in the bathroom without piling your kids in with you for fear of what they’ll do in the house without supervision for two minutes. Your house should be a safe, relaxing place where you and your children can have some freedom.
But what does a safe, relaxing, childhood freedom house look like? If you don’t have kids (but think you want them eventually), it’s hard to know what you’re going to want out of your biggest lifetime purchase when you’re a parent. Even when you are already a parent (as I was) when buying your first house, it’s hard to know what you’re going to want when you’re a parent of two or three or as your kids grow.
Here are some things to consider, compiled from my experiences and those of my friends, when buying a house with kids in mind.
1. Don’t make any sudden moves.
Do you really need a new place to live? Don’t feel pressure to buy a house just because you’re planning to have kids. Plenty of people make it work in one-bedroom apartments or living with family while their children are little. Maybe that’s not ideal, but the stress of living in a small place is better than the stress of paying a mortgage you’re not ready to pay. Kids are expensive and stressful and wonderful and buying a house is expensive and stressful and should be wonderful. Maybe your family doesn’t need to take on both at once. You can buy a house and move after you have a child. Really! We bought our first house when my daughter was one and I was pregnant with my son. We all came out of the process (mostly) unscathed.
2. Take baby steps.
Kids love stairs. It’s one of the instincts they’re born with – obsess over the steps. Of course most stairs can be gated off to prevent kids from easily getting to the steps, but those gates also keep adults from easily getting to the steps. Which may be a good thing for all ages. My sister fell down the stairs as an adult while carrying a cat. Cats always land on their feet, babies don’t.
3. Layout a plan.
I learned two important things about layout when looking for a house. First, you’re going to want your kids’ rooms close to you. What? Is that painfully obvious to everyone but me? We got a little over zealous and put an offer on a house (which we luckily did not get) with two bedrooms at the front and the master in the back. That’d be a lovely layout in ten years when we don’t want to hear our teenagers in the middle of the night, but we’d kind of like to hear our toddlers raiding the fridge at 2 am.
Second, it’s not about the amount of square footage, it’s about the use of that square footage. I knew we could only afford a small house, so I assumed that meant a two bedroom – which we would have outgrown before we even moved in. But we found a small house with enough rooms for each of us to have our own space. Could our three-year-old and one-year-old share a room? Sure. Of course. Plenty of kids share rooms. Is my life much, much easier since they don’t share a room? Yes, I believe a third bedroom has added years to my life and my sanity.
4. Open up.
Our house doesn’t have the open floor plan I thought I wanted. The kitchen is closed off to the living room except for a narrow pass through, the living room can be closed off to the rest of the house by closing a door, and there’s a long narrow hall leading to the bedrooms. Guess what my favorite features of our house are now that I have two toddlers? The kitchen I can close off with a small gate, the living room I can close off with a door, and that long narrow hallway that my kids run laps in.
5. Prepare to be floored.
I’m always teaching my kids that there are two types of people in the world, those who prefer carpet and those who prefer hard wood (or laminate or brick or tile…ok, there are five types of people in the world.) If we didn’t have to keep our laminate floors clean while two toddlers conspired against us, my husband and I could save about four hours a week, 224 hours a year. I could write 56 more blogs or exercise 896 times (15 minutes is my limit). I can’t imagine trying to keep a carpet clean with kids, but I certainly know some little skulls that would appreciate the cushion.
6. Have a seat.
Decorate your house with kid friendly furniture and paint. If you ever plan on having children, do yourself these favors: Paint your walls with semi-gloss paint (it cleans so much easier). Don’t get any furniture made of glass. Buy couches and chairs that can be easily cleaned and avoid light colors and most especially white. Get sturdy furniture that can take a beating and make sure you can secure any taller items to the walls (which you have painted with a nice semi-gloss paint). Get cabinets that can be locked (even if it’s with a zip tie) and drawers that don’t slam shut so you can save little fingers. Avoid sharp corners where you can.
7. School your neighborhood.
Apparently, school is a thing and it’s important and you want your kids to go to a good one. So either pay a little (or a lot) more to move to a neighborhood with good public schools or research all your options; private schools, magnet or charter schools, home school, etc.
You pretty much know immediately if a house on the market is assigned to a good school because it’s one of the first things the realtor will advertise. If the seller’s realtor can’t even tell you the name of the assigned school, there’s an excellent chance the assigned school is not good. Check the school district’s website to find out what school is assigned to the address you’re considering. With minimal research you can get information on faculty, find out test scores, read parent reviews, etc. and search for other alternatives in that area.
8. Park it.
Yes, you should live in a neighborhood that holds your heart. Do you know what I heart? Easy parking. If you live in a city and own a car and you’ve ever had an apartment that was street only parking in a busy neighborhood, you know that you don’t ever want to endure that with kids in tow. Also, if you ever want friends with kids to visit you, they’re going to need easy parking too. And your babysitter appreciates easy parking.
9. Run free.
Our fenced in yard is the best parenting gift I ever gave myself. The first house we lived in with my daughter had a front yard but no fence. So it was a good running space but it was not a relaxing space. It was a must-stay-within-an-arm’s-reach-of-my-toddler space because the street was right there. With a fenced back yard, I can see and hear my kids at all times while I sit on the porch with a cup of hot coffee and write this article. An enclosed outdoor space of any size makes a big difference in your family quality of life. A neighborhood playground with a fence or a condo patio where kids can play cars and enjoy the sunshine works well too.
10. Wash up.
Fancy walk in showers are lovely but bathtubs are so very much more lovely for kids. As with everything, you make compromises and you can make anything work, but a tub will make life with children easier.
11. Find a location that suits you.
I saved the most important consideration for last. There are the obvious things to think about with a neighborhood and kids like safety and good schools. But it’s also important to make your lifestyle and interests a priority (unless your current lifestyle and interests involve clubbing all night and trying to remember clubbing all night the next day).
Do you love walking to get coffee or a glass of wine in your neighborhood? Do you enjoy having friends over? Is it important for you to live in an artistic community or have like-minded neighbors? You don’t have to move to the suburbs just because you want children and you think children need a bigger house and a yard. Children can grow up in artistic communities, they enjoy walking to get coffee and wine (though they are hopefully partaking of milk and juice), they love growing up around friends and family and like-minded neighbors.
Being a new parent can be lonely and you don’t want to move further from your people at a time that you need them the most. And a longer commute means more time away from home when you are more wanted and needed at home than ever before.
Being a new parent can also lead to a temporary loss of personal identity. Yes, kids change you and your priorities but you are still you. Don’t forget your essence when you pick a neighborhood.
Share the lifestyle you love with your child. He won’t notice that the condo in the city is smaller than a house in the suburbs. Or he’ll love the big yard in the suburbs and never know that he’s missing out on the wine bar in the arts district.
Your child will be happy where you’re happy.
Image: Tony Guyton