Buying A House in Jersey City and Making It A Home

Today we’re happy to welcome Kristen Scalia as a contributor to JCI – she will be sharing her experience of purchasing and renovating a row house in Jersey City. You can keep up with more of her story on her blog rowhouserenovation.com. Enjoy!

I didn’t expect to buy a house. I mean, I was looking to buy a house. I just didn’t think it would become a reality.

It wasn’t that I was new to the Jersey City real estate market. I’d lived downtown for almost ten years and operated my small business Kanibal Home for the last five. I’d watched the market crest and dip firsthand. I also was fluent in architectural house voyeurism. For example, I was known to reply (often too enthusiastically) to casual real estate listing conversations with, “On Montgomery? I know! The crown moldings and ceiling medallions are definitely original” or “Doctor’s Row? I know! Someone I’m friendly with bought a huge Colonial over there for a steal a few years back.”

It’s just that my real estate prowess could be compared to a dieter going to an ice cream parlor just to smell the waffle cones being prepared. Looking back, it was inevitable my boyfriend and I would buy a home. At that time, though, we were still hesitant but a few daily inconveniences combined with a friend’s perfect timing quickly bumped us from the renting to owning category.

First off, we didn’t want to become the type of people who took walks at dusk, when the light is brighter on the inside than the outside, to casually glance at the magnificence of a stranger’s parlor room. We wanted to be the people inside, shutting the blinds and settling into the evening with bourbon and a bowl of ice cream.

I had been living in the same one-bedroom apartment in a converted monastery since graduating college. It was close to the Grove Street PATH for my boyfriend Pete’s commute and walking distance for me for work, but the apartment was small. I had to open the refrigerator to get into the oven and Pete kept his clothes in the hallway utility closet outside the bathroom.

In the past two years Jersey City’s real estate market has garnered a lot of attention. Its diverse landscape, vibrant communities, and close proximity to a major metropolitan hub made Jersey City an ideal and unique place to invest in property. I felt the window of opportunity to find a home shutting but, unlike traditional investors, I didn’t want to buy into just tangible goods like bricks and sheetrock and roofing. I wanted to invest in our future and find a house that could become a home.

Enter: Handsome Dan. My longtime friend and work-neighbor who also happened to be a real estate agent. He’d pop in on a regular basis and indulge my voyeurism with talk about grand Victorians and quaint Colonials being listed around Jersey City. More recently, though, I was seeing less and less of Handsome Dan. He’d zip in, grab a closing gift for a client and disappear.  One day I commented on how busy he’d become.

“The availability of listings is limited but the demand is incredibly high right now,” he said. “Homes aren’t lasting more than a week on the multiple listing service (MLS).” I pictured my dream fixer-upper being snatched away by a monster made out of dollar bills. He must have seen my eyes widen because, as he walked out the door, he said, “When you’re serious … take a walk across the street and we’ll find you your home.”

That night I went back to my apartment and Pete was in the kitchen prepping dinner. I watched him scoot the dog off the kitchen mat so he could open the refrigerator to get to the oven while propping a fork under the stove’s burner to level a frying pan.

The next day I emailed Handsome Dan and told him we were looking to buy. Scratch that. We weren’t looking anymore. We were ready to own a home.

From that point on the buying process was pretty straightforward:

Step 1: Get finances in order.

Step 2: Work a real estate agent to identify a list of items you’re looking for in a property (much like a genie granting wishes, except instead of gold coins you get debt.)

Step 3: Hit the pavement and view properties, then edit the initial wish list.

Step 4: Find a mortgage broker and get pre-approved.

Step 5: Fall in love with a house and put in a bid.

Step 6: The best case scenario = the bid is accepted.

Step 7: CHAOS!!! (Oh, and lots of paperwork.)

Step 8: The contract enters attorney review.

Step 9: Mortgage paperwork and the home inspection happen simultaneously.

Step 10: If everything goes smoothly then at this point you proceed to THE CLOSING.

Here are some of the people people I worked with during this process that I found very helpful: Handsome Dan (weichert.com), Jim Ruppert (guaranteedrate.com), Tali Bashani (tablawfirm.net), and Inspex Building Inspections (inspexbuildinginspections.com). Be sure to check around and get other recommendations from people you know until you find a fit that is good for you and your needs.

Pete's Lions

Pete’s Lions

Besides looking at a major fixer-upper that I was convinced was haunted, we really had a low-key home buying process. Handsome Dan wound up showing us a row house a few doors down from his own that was staged beautifully, but needed a lot of updating. The downstairs bathroom stunk of mold and when I opened the door flies pelted my glasses in a mad dash to get out. The kitchen was spacious, but was also occupied by a bold bunch of roaches that leisurely crawled across the countertops. We fell madly in love.

It took us just shy of three months from walking into Handsome Dan’s office until closing to turn the keys in the front door of our row house. We packed up the apartment, where we had a ridiculous amount of boxes labeled KITCHEN for the size of the kitchen, and moved out of downtown and into the McGinley Square section of Jersey City. Pete said he knew this was the right house for him when he saw the stone lion on the façade of the row house, but I know he fell in love for the same reason that I did: this slightly ramshackle row house felt like home.

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Kristen Scalia

is the owner of Kanibal Home, a lifestyle store in Historic Downtown comprised of refurbished vintage furniture, found objects & new home décor, apparel and gift items. She’s also co-owner of The Jersey City Project, an event management company. She can be found running around town, in the shop, or writing about renovating adventures on her blog Row House Renovation.