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Diary of A Fixer-Upper: Checking Out the Competition

People who renovate acquire a lot of obsessions. Or maybe only people with obsessive habits get into renovating.

Regardless, a little OCD comes with the territory: obsessive online appliance shopping; obsessive worrying about dents and scratches in all the new stuff you just purchased; obsessive checking of your account balances.

A terrible secret: Cleaning isn’t one of them. Try mopping the entire house—around all your still unpacked piles of junk—only to find another layer of drywall dust appear an hour later. With dirty dishes in your hands, you longingly gaze at your fancy new dishwasher, which you are unable to hook up until the counters and sink are installed. I’ve mostly given up on trying to keep my fixer-upper clean, and have set aside a stash for a professional house-cleaning when this is over.

One obsession creeps outside the confines of my front door: The need to know what everyone else is doing. I eagerly search the Internet for blogs and photos of sweet renovations, but what I really want to know is: What does the inside of my neighbor’s house look like? Even though I don’t plan on selling for a few years, knowing the comparable listings in my neighborhood has become an intense hobby.

Especially in this crazy market, with some “experts” telling us the crisis is over, while others say it has only begun, it’s hard to know what to think. I may not be anywhere near listing my house, but I want to keep track of the trends. And as a new renovator, I want to make sure I’m spending money wisely and doing a professional job.

In Columbia Heights, even neighboring rowhouses vary wildly in size and shape. Of course, that non-cookie-cutter lifestyle is a big reason why we love it here, but it makes comparing home prices more difficult. There’s a fully-renovated house a block away that’s the exact same size and style as mine. It’s on the market for $100,000 more than what I paid, which is exactly the price I’d eventually like to sell mine for.  I’ve been watching it like a hawk.  If that sucker sells for $400,000 in this market, I see good things in my future.

Last Sunday, I got a little sneakier.  I received a postcard in the mail about an open house four houses down from me. The fully-renovated house is a bit bigger than mine and is going for $500,000. I had to see it.  

The house was fantastic, and I spent the tour comparing its renovations to my own work. The owners exposed more brick than I did (in retrospect, I regret not tearing the drywall off the chimneys in the upstairs bedrooms, something these folks had done). Their backyard was amazing, with a gorgeous deck and beautiful landscaping. I may ring up their realtor to get a contractor recommendation.  

I also gave myself a few mental high-fives. My kitchen has more cabinet space, better appliances, and a better use of space. They bought a very small fridge to save space, whereas my compact but tall fridge, in stainless steel, was the clear winner. The “three bedrooms” were more like “a nice master bedroom and two tiny offices.”  

It’s likely that this house and mine would attract the same type of buyer: a young couple in search of more space. And for that buyer, I think my house would come out on top, with its amenities, space, and $100,000 lower price tag.  Naturally, I do a lot of this mental work to convince myself I’m on the right track.  A little motivation never hurts.

But all that aside—I want that house to sell! A sale at that price would set a precedent for a block that is still very much in transition. So we renovators tend to play a confusing game of competition vs. neighborly support.  As I left the house, the realtor said the phrase all buyers want to hear but that, for once, made me cringe: “Don’t worry, there’s some flexibility in the price.”

To read Heather's home adventures from the beginning, click here. 

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