Want to Buy Your Childhood Home? Be Careful.
Returning to the family manse can evoke wonderful memories, but it is wise to rein in your emotions, talk with your family and hire a good inspector
When Anne Fisher moved into her childhood home in the Philadelphia suburb of Saint Davids, Pennsylvania, as an eight-year-old, she never thought about what it would be like to live there as an adult.
After her father died in 2010, the large house was too much for her mother to handle. Fisher and her husband bought the home two years later, and her mother moved into the carriage house.
While I have good memories of the home my parents bought when I was three, I'm not interested in moving back. But others, like Fisher, 51, can't ignore the nostalgia they feel as they walk through a place filled with fond memories. So, long after leaving, they're buying, remodeling and settling into the house where they grew up.
Buying the house where you were raised sounds like a happy ending all on its own, but it is not always so.
Buying the house where you were raised sounds like a happy ending all on its own, but it is not always so. Homes often come with sad memories as well as happy ones and can blind some buyers to the cost of restoring an old house to the condition they remember as children. Before taking ownership of your childhood home, consider these expert tips and insights.
Discover Why You Want to Move Back
Why would someone want to unpack boxes and, in some cases, the emotional baggage they've carried around since they were children in a home they left years or even decades ago? David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Center for Anxiety, sees moving back as an opportunity.
"Sometimes, issues that people are facing or have faced from childhood are coming back and haunting them in ways they don't realize," he says. "Going back to those memories can help us to deal with them head-on and actually move past them."
Even if the house was a gift or priced significantly lower than others in the neighborhood, Rosmarin recommends speaking up if you have doubts. Start an honest conversation with your partner before you pursue buying your old home. He points out that not everyone feels comfortable sleeping in their parents' old bedroom or living in their parents' shadow.
Determine Your Parents' Plan
Asking a parent what they want to do with their house after they move away or die can catch them off guard. But planning in advance — making sure your parent has prepared a will that clearly states who will inherit the property — can minimize arguments among siblings or other family members about who is entitled to your childhood home.
"If you don't have a will, it costs a lot more money to straighten out titles and an estate," says Craig Penfold, a real estate lawyer with Chicago Title in Dallas. "In those cases, you have to rely on the laws of the state to determine what should happen to the assets rather than the decedents."
He suggests finding out if your parents have a will. If they do, determine whether they've already designated someone to inherit the home or made other plans for it when they pass away.
Invest in an Inspection
Although you may think you know the condition of your family's house, there could be unforeseen issues you'll want to discover before, not after, you buy the property. Uncover them by hiring an inspector.
"There's a big difference between a home inspector who's going to look through things casually and one who will go in-depth," says Andy Apter, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. "It can take half a day or an entire day for someone to go through a house and do a thorough report."
Potential problems, especially in older homes, include an insufficient electrical system, old plumbing and a cracked, uneven or waterlogged foundation. Also, an older home could contain lead paint and asbestos. Apter stresses that these things are expensive to remediate and should be considered when purchasing a house because of the life safety issue.
Take Emotion Out of the Decision
Before making an offer on your parents' home or beginning negotiations with your siblings or other relatives with the same goal in mind, set your feelings aside, carefully review the inspection report and, perhaps most importantly, consider the information as if you have no attachment to the house.
Apter advises viewing the purchase as a business proposition. "If you put emotion into it, then you're not going to be able to make clear decisions for yourself," he says.
"My dad was very sick for most of my life, so there were a lot of sad memories there."
When Samantha Getsinger's mother mentioned she was going to sell her Bellmawr, New Jersey, home, Getsinger, 30, said, "You have to give it to somebody in the family because this was grandma's house, and then it was yours, and we have to keep that going." Knowing that her father grew up in the house made her sentimental. She had to own the home.
Soon after buying it and settling in, Getsinger's mood changed. "I was depressed being there," she says. "My dad was very sick for most of my life, so there were a lot of sad memories there."
Along with the emotional aspect of buying her childhood home, finances were challenging for Getsinger and her husband during the pandemic. Two years after moving in, they sold the house.
Get Bids for Repairs
While the inspection report will give you a better idea of the amount of work the house requires, you'll still need to know the rehab budget. That's where a licensed contractor comes in.
A complete rehab of an older house is likely to be expensive, so it is especially important to find someone you can rely on to handle the entire job and keep it on time and on budget.
Industry groups such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and the National Association of Home Builders offer directories of their members. Reach out for referrals from friends and family, especially if they have recently had similar work done. Local businesses, like paint stores or lumber yards, can provide names of reliable painting contractors and carpenters. You could post your request for a contractor on NextDoor or other local social media.
In any case, take the time to check references — Apter encourages asking for names of current clients, not ones from years ago.
Calculate Maintenance and Hidden Costs
Initial repair costs are only one part of the purchase equation. The next is the amount you'll need to maintain the home — utilities, property taxes and unexpected repairs. Even if your parents leave you their house in their will, or it's part of the family trust, determine whether you can afford to live there.
After Shannon Elder's husband retired from the military, the family hoped to move back to her hometown of Littleton, Colorado, but homes were out of their price range. About the same time, her parents decided to downsize. "They offered to sell us their house at a decent price, one that we could afford," says Elder, 47.
They bought the home in 2019, knowing they had to make the basement an open living space for their three kids. "We've been saving up and making little changes here and there," she says.
"I have no intention of leaving. I would love to pass it down to one of the kids if they're in the area and if that makes sense for them."
Fisher found little ways to help her mother overcome the massive change of relocating to the carriage house. They added two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an elevator. Then, they moved most of her furniture, drapery and other items to make the living room and bedroom look the same as they did in the main house.
The dining room was the one change she didn't make. "My parents bought this house because of the dining room," says Fisher. "I felt like I would be haunted by my dad forever."
If your childhood home evokes vivid memories, from chatter-filled family dinners to rowdy Super Bowl parties in a paneled family room, it's easy to get caught up in the dream of moving back. Living in my childhood home wouldn't be a fit for me, but Fisher couldn't imagine letting go of the legacy.
"I have no intention of leaving," she says of her forever home. "I would love to pass it down to one of the kids if they're in the area and if that makes sense for them."