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Only Fools Fall in Love (with a House They Can’t Afford)

You found “it.” You know, the one. The house that you’ve been looking for that is just “perfect.” And you are totally in love with it. That’s fantastic news, in theory. In practice, that’s only great news if you’ve already established that the house is within your budget—not that larger number the bank is happy to loan you, but the realistic number you’ve agreed with your partner is reasonable and within your means. It’s great if you’ve crunched the numbers and remembered to give some cushion to replace the things that won’t survive your HHG shipment. If you’ll be able to put aside money to make repairs on the things Murphy will destroy minutes after your significant other leaves the country for a deployment. If you’ve had difficult but important conversations about how you’ll manage the mortgage payment in the event of an illness or government shutdown or other such extenuating circumstance.

If you’ve got the financial means to buy the perfect house and still cover most contingencies, that’s fantastic. Otherwise, you literally and figuratively cannot afford to fall in love with a house outside your means. So how do you avoid the pitfall of falling in love with something you can’t buy while house hunting?

Consider this a business transaction. If you look at this as an investment—because it is—it’s easier to view your home search through the lens of what makes most financial sense for your family and your situation. That equation makes it less personal. How much can you afford? What other expenses are unique to the new geography? Will both of you have to work full-time to cover the mortgage payment? These questions will lead to a decision that’s thoughtful rather than emotional. Can you be happy with a house? Yes. Should you put yourself in a bind because you like the house that much? Not for a minute.

Agree to look only at houses that are within the budget you’ve set. Communicate your budget and your commitment to staying within that budget to your real estate agent. Make it clear that you’re not interested in seeing “what just a little extra can get you.” A good agent will be respectful of the parameters you set and work with you to find something that you can afford and that meets your family’s needs. Save the dream houses for Pinterest or that vision board you’re working on for when you can buy your forever home. See something you love that’s not in your price range? Make note of what was special about it on your future wish list and carry on with looking at the houses you can make happen today.

Keep in mind that it’s temporary. As a military family, you’ve got an advantage here. Unless you’re looking at your forever home, in which case dream a big (responsible) dream, wherever you next live will most likely be temporary. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to safely accommodate your family for however long your orders last. If it can do that and also check off a bunch of the items on your house wish list, that’s a bonus.

You can make it your own. Falling for a much bigger house than what you may need means you’ll also have to figure in the expense of extra furniture to fill the space. A luxuriously designed home may be an ill fit for the banged and dinged house furnishings that have already survived two PCSes before this one. Ignore the siren call of the perfectly coordinated colors and finishes of a house. You can adapt wherever you live to make it uniquely yours. You can paint the walls, lay down rugs, swap out the hardware on the cabinets, and in many ways large and small bring your own aesthetic to the space.

Remember what is most important. Home is, after all, not an address but the place your loved ones stay (or return from deployments and trainings). It’s where the combat boots leave their muddy trails and the Velcro from uniforms makes everything in the washing machine stick together in a tangled mess. It’s where care packages are mailed from and reunions are held and where love is about the people on the journey together. And no built-in closets or customized flooring or special features are worth more than that.

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