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“Must Haves” and “Nice to Haves”

There are (or there should be) two houses in your head when you’re picturing where you’ll next call “home.” One is your dream home, the one with the gorgeous center kitchen island and the water feature in the backyard that leads into a scenic forest where you can see deer frolicking in the woods from your bedroom window. The other is the house that will get it done for you as a safe and comfortable dwelling for however long the military tells you this zip code is home. Then there are the two same (although potentially totally different) homes in the minds of anyone else who will be sharing the space with you.

You will likely not live in any of those exact homes. Instead, you’ll find that you have to combine your intentions with what’s available where you’re being sent and what your financial situation will make feasible. The smartest thing you can do to save yourself time and sanity is to work out what features of a house are “must haves” and which are “nice to haves” before you even think about touring houses on the market. Having clarity about your needs versus wants, both your own and your partner’s, will make it possible for you to communicate effectively with your real estate agent. With that information available, your agent can use those parameters when screening potential houses, making sure every home you visit or consider is a viable prospect for your family.

Plan a time to sit down together with any other adults who have decision-making rights for this upcoming house purchase. (If a deployment or training operation makes an in-person meeting impossible, you can do this by video or phone call as circumstances allow.) Pull out a notebook or your favorite note-taking app and create two columns. One will be the must-have column and the other will be your would-be-nice column. You can either start this conversation after you’ve each independently made your respective lists or you can work on your list together.

Must Haves—What are your needs or nonnegotiables? How many bedrooms will comfortably accommodate the members of your family? How many bathrooms will ensure no one is late getting to work because the bathroom line was four people deep? Do you need a fenced-in yard to safely contain small children or pets? Does anyone have a mobility issue that requires a one-story house? What makes for safe travel to/from school for children or a feasible work commute? If you are sharing use of a vehicle, what needs to be within walking distance for whatever adult spends the day without the vehicle, or is public transportation available?

Your list of “must haves” should include anything pertaining to the health, safety, and security of your family members. If it’s helpful, go through a sample day in your mind and think of all the ways you would typically interact with your home and its surrounding community. Where do you go? What do you need? What should be accessible to you/for you?

In theory, with few exceptions, yours and your partner’s list should be similar when it comes to the bare-bones necessities for your family. Where you’ll find more variation is when you introduce each of your “wants” into the equation.

Nice to Haves—This category can be very broad as it covers everything from the things you could survive without but that would make life oh-so very much calmer to your big pie-in-the-sky dreams for a house that makes you joyful. For example, a cul-de-sac would make it possible for your kids to ride their bikes where you could keep an eye on them from the house—not a necessity, but it would be wonderful, right? And a man cave or she shed would be magical (but may need to wait for your forever home).

You can have as much fun with this “nice-to-have” column as you’d like, if you remember that you’re not likely to find it all in any one house when you’re limited by where you must live and what your budget permits. Perhaps create a third column for your one-day forever home and dream to your heart’s content in that space.

Fine tuning your “nice-to-have” list into a manageable one that considers everyone’s wants and wishes is going to be a bit trickier, particularly if one partner’s wants are the opposite of the other’s. A way around this issue is to assign priority to your “nice-to-have” list and have your partner do the same. Discuss (and hopefully agree on) the most necessary of the unnecessary features and then, if you’ve got financial wiggle room, you can move to the more “wouldn’t-it-be-nice” items. Prepare to haggle if necessary. For instance, “If I can have a garbage disposal, I’ll agree to you having an outside workspace.”

When you’ve had this conversation, or series of conversations if that’s what it takes, you should be prepared to provide this information to your real estate agent, differentiating what elements a house needs to include vs. what you’d like for it to. And your agent will be better positioned to show you the properties that are the closest fit to what works for your family.

Be open-minded, too. You may find that what you thought you wanted is less important if you see a house that has a feature that you hadn’t considered. Revisit this conversation as often as necessary when your wishes/circumstances change.