Looking to buy a home in Appleton or the Fox Cities? What does a home buyer need to know before selecting a home? What do newcomers to the area need to know before they start shopping for a home? To answer some of these questions, I interviewed a leading realtor and home builder in the area, Bradd Syring of Syring Construction. I asked Bradd what home buyers new to the area need to know as they search. Here is a summary of the information extracted from Bradd, with a few tips of my own thrown in. The result is a list of "The Top Ten Things that Fox Cities Home Buyers Need to Know."
The Top 10 Things Home Buyers in Appleton Need to Know
- Affordability: Homes in the Fox Cities are highly affordable compared to the rest of the country
$80,000 can get you a decent home in a nice neighborhood and in a thriving economy with good job prospects. There aren't many markets that can do that for you. It's one of the more affordable housing markets in the nation. And there is a large range of high-quality homes below $200,000 suitable for families.
Appleton and the surrounding Fox Cities are remarkably safe communities. Appleton has received national recognition for being one of America's safest communities. It still makes sense to always be on your guard, keep your doors locked, and so forth, but when you move to Appleton from many other parts of the country, chances are you're coming to a safer place with a high quality of living.
- Taxes and services: On the high side (cost and quality)
Property taxes in the Fox Cities range from about $22 to $27 per $1000 of value. Thus, a $100,000 home will cost you $2,200 to $2,700 a year of property taxes. That's higher than many parts of the country. It's mitigated by the affordability of homes here, but it's something you need to know up front. The tax rates depends on your school district and the services that are provided in your county and utility district.
Many Wisconsin folks feel that they get a lot for their money in terms of good schools, good services, great parks, reliable snowplowing (and frequent snowplowing some years), and so forth. One can debate whether the taxes are too high or the services are cost effective, we do have some great things out here and a tremendous quality of life.
If you're looking for the lowest taxes in the area, you can get lower property taxes by moving into a home in one of the "towns" such as the Town of Harrison, Town of Clayton, Town of Buchanan, or Town of Grand Chute. Homes there will typically lack gutters on the streets and come with additional user fees for waste disposal, municipal fees for parks. Another factor that makes a difference in taxes is the fire department: full-time professionals versus volunteers. That brings us to an important point: Consider your fire department.
Menasha has higher taxes than a number of smaller communities, but they also have a full-time fire department. The Town of Harrison, with lower taxes, relies on a volunteer fire department. When there is a fire, you should get much faster response times from the full-time professionals. That's a factor you need to think about.
Jeff speaking here: I've visited the fire departments of Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, and Grand Chute, and have high regard for these professionals. Personally, I prefer to live in a community that offers this service, and suggest you find out if the area you're considering has full-time fire fighters available to help protect your home and family.
- A tradition of high quality construction by local craftsmen
One of the great things about this area is the high quality of construction in the homes here. Walls are made with 2 x 6 boards, not the 2 x 4s that are common in much of the country. That's partly to provide more insulation against the challenges of winter, of course, but the homes here are of high quality in other ways as well.
An important factor behind the high quality of homes here is that nearly all homes in the Fox Valley are built by local craftsmen, not my national companies focused on mass production. The big home builders like Toll Brothers, US Homes, and Centex do not operate in this area. Our builders are non-corporate, homegrown builders with high expectations who care about their local reputation. The result generally is that we have higher quality homes with more of a personal touch.
Production building by the mass home producers tends to result in many cut corners, in contrast to the higher level of attention to detail and quality that characterizes many homes in the Fox Cities area. In fact, this is generally true of Wisconsin overall. Almost no mass home producers operate in the state of Wisconsin.
Brookstone Homes of Racine did make some production homes in a northern part of town, resulting in construction with 2 x 4s and other lower-cost components. Those homes did not sell well and that builder left the area.
When buying a home, make sure the home you buy was not made with 2 x 4s. Go with 2 x 6 construction.
- Unusual interior trends: sand texture and plastered walls
Homes here generally have plaster instead of drywall for the interior homes, and the plaster is finished with a rough sand texture. It looks nice, but can be rough on the knuckles and difficult to clean. Some newer homes are using more standard drywall construction, especially when the design calls for advanced touches like rounded corners or other customized designs.
The traditional walls in this area use two coats of plaster. It makes the walls thicker and deadens sound well. Underneath the plaster is a panel similar to dry wall but known as "rock lath" which is made for getting wet with plaster that it then holds in place. ("Lath" refers to the old use of lathing - thin strips of wood or metal nailed in rows to framing supports as a substructure for plaster - but the term "rock lath" doesn't involve lathing, just a drywall-like board for receiving plaster.)
Wall paper is not used much in this area, though Bradd's wife sees a resurgence in wall paper. For finishings, faux painting is very hot. Tinted plaster is also becoming popular. Tinted plaster is sometimes called "Venetian plaster." A variety of nice products are available.
- Basements: We have them - get one!
Most of the Fox Cities area is suitable for basements, and many homes have them. Bradd recommends getting a home with a basement. The basement will usually be where the furnace and utilities are located, in contrast to a main-floor closets in homes that lack basements. The basement doesn't add a lot of expense to a home and gives you a lot of extra space for storage or an area you can finish into usable rooms.
If you want to add bedrooms in the basement, make sure you understand requirements of local codes regarding escape routes for bedrooms. A basement whose only escape is through the stairway to the main floor won't be suitable for bedrooms. The small windows that may be present are generally too small to serve as acceptable escape paths, but local services can extend these into a larger well. This may result in challenges with drainage - i.e., water may accumulate in the well and leak into the basement if proper precautions are not taken.
Some areas in the Fox Cities have elevated radon levels that may pose problems with reselling, especially if you are transferred by a corporation. Corporate relocation programs often avoid potential radon liability issues by requiring you to pay for remediation to get the radon level down to an acceptable level. This happened to us when we moved away from Appleton once. I suggest that you have radon testing done before moving into a home with a basement, and if you're having a new home built for you, go ahead and have a radon mitigation system built in for security. Given the questionable link between radon and health problems, one can argue that the money for radon mitigation is wasted, but it is money that may need to be spent anyway.
- Garages: Get a three-car stall if you can
Three-car garages are becoming a hot item for home buyers and strongly affect the resell value of the home. It's not because everyone is getting three cars, but because most people have two cars and a lot of other stuff they want to put in the garage. And with teenagers, plenty of people are facing three or more cars in family.
- The climate and geography: Landscaping issues and more
The Fox Cities are in a Zone IV climate, which means we're in a harsher, colder region where some popular plants are challenged. Azaleas, for example won't do well here.
Bradd recommends that you consult local landscaping shops to get plants and trees that do well in this climate. What is sold from the garden shops of nationwide chains like Home Depot or Shopko, for example, may not always be well suited for this part of the country.
In the Appleton area, we tend to have heavy clay soil. Soil preparation is important if you want the lawn, plants and trees around your home to thrive. Sometimes builders do the bare minimum, so keep your eyes on their work and be clear about what you want. Consulting with local landscapers and greenhouses can be helpful.
For our home, we found that initial grading of the yard was too flat, resulting in inadequate drainage away from the home. I had to bring in a lot of additional soil to redo the grading around the home and improve the drainage. I also found that top soil had a lo of rocks in it. It took a lot of work to get rocks out and improve the quality of the soil to support a healthy lawn. Would have been better to have had that done up front by the builder.
There are some positive aspects to a cooler climate. Here's one of the most important: fewer bugs (though yes, we have mosquitoes in the summer). And when it comes to fewer bugs, the most important benefit of all may be this: no termites!.
Termites cause massive destruction of homes in warmer parts of the country. That's one problem you won't have to worry about here. There are some positive aspects to a cooler climate.
The cooler temperatures mean you will want good insulation and good windows. They are generally standard for new homes here, but it's good to check. For windows, double panes are pretty standard and do a great job insulating - the benefit of triple panes might not be worth the expense. The frame around the window is important for preventing drafts. What brand windows should you look for? Anderson, Pella, and Marvin are three big names in windows and are all good choices.
- Location: Some tips on picking your neighborhood
Nice neighborhoods can be found all over. For example, there has been a misconception that Menasha is a lower quality area to live in, but it has some outstanding neighborhoods. There are great areas in all the communities of the Fox Valley. But do some research and see if the details of the community and neighborhood fit your needs.
Bradd suggests that if you are moving to the area as result of a corporate transfer and expect to only be here for two or three years before being transferred again, then pick a new, trendy neighborhood - but recognize that turnover tends to be high in these neighborhoods, so the neighbors you get to know might not be there long. If you want to develop some roots here, pick a neighborhood that might be a little more stable.
Of course, always consider the school system, distance to the school (school buses might not be available in some places), and other factors. The schools here are generally good, but there can be significant differences to consider.
For peace, quiet, and high resale values, you may wish to stay away from highways and high-traffic areas.
When I say traffic, I mean more than just cars and trucks. If you are moving to Appleton or any of the Fox Cities, I suggest you pay attention to where our local trains are. Appleton's rich industrial heritage is built in part on a backbone of iron rails. Train traffic comes through town frequently, and when it does, it can be noisy. It's not just the rumble of heavy wheels for homes right next to the tracks that can be annoying - our trains blow there whistles long and loud when they approach certain intersections, often at midnight or 4 a.m., so make sure you not only know where the train tracks are in your neck of the woods, but what kind of traffic patterns and noise levels are associated with them. Ask the neighbors to find out (best), or camp out near your prospective home for a couple nights if you're too shy to ask (especially challenging in winter). Remember this important tip from Jeff: don't forget the trains!
Also pay attention to the water. Some people are anxious to get a home near a lake or river, perhaps not always aware of some of the tradeoffs that nature offers us. Lake Winnebago and the Fox River offer some marvelous views and recreational opportunities, but they also offer something else a couple times each year: massive hatches of the Lake Winnebago Fly, a delicate and beautiful non-biting insect that can fill the air with billions of their bodies for a couple weeks each year. It can be rather traumatic at times, so be sure you know what you are getting into. Also find out if your area faces any unusual challenges due to ice build up in the winter or water accumulation during the big spring thaw.
- What to look for in a realtor - and the challenges of "for sale by owner"
I asked Bradd what people should look for in a realtor (apart from someone with Syring as a last name). Bradd said that it's important to find someone who is personable and who understands what you're looking for. They should be willing to meet your needs and not just push homes that are for their own benefit. There are many real estate agents and agencies to choose from. Bradd noted that a bigger agency is not necessarily a better agency. Some real estate agents might only show homes that their office has listed, a practice that might not be especially helpful for the home buyer. Your real estate agent should be willing to show you whatever homes are most likely to meet your needs, regardless of which realtor they are listed with.
I asked Bradd about the "sell by owner" route. There seems to be an increasing number of people in the Fox Cities who attempt to sell their home this way, and some do manage to save some money. However, Bradd notes that Wisconsin is one of the better places to rely on professional realtors, for regulations here require real estate agents to be especially well trained. "We're in one of the most highly regulated real estate industries in the nation." That means lots of training and continuing education requirements, resulting in higher quality real estate agents in the area. Wisconsin's real estate agents tend to be high quality professionals with the skills and experience to really help both sellers and buyers.
There are several online resources for selling homes by owner. These include ValleyByOwner.com, HomesSoldByOwner.com and AssistToSell.com. Selling homes yourself is becoming less risky, but still faces the drawback of limited success. As a test, Bradd listed one of the homes he built on ValleyByOwner and received 1300 hits on his listing, That seemed impressive, but he only got two calls on the home. One came from someone in Madison who never called back, and the other call came from someone who drove by and responded to the sign in front of the home rather than the online listing. Bradd feels that sellers will be better served going with a real estate agent.
Other Notes and Tips
Based on my experience and input from Bradd Syring and others, there are a few more tips for home buyers and home owners that I offer, for what they are worth.
Hardwood floors are very popular. Ceramic tiles are also popular. If you go with ceramic tiles, it's best to have heated flooring (low voltage electric mats under the tiles) to keep feet comfortable.
If you are adding ceramic tiles to an existing room in your home, the typical approach is to keep your linoleum or other flooring in place and to add a thin layer of subflooring and the tile on top of that, often adding nearly an inch of height to the floor. If you have this done for bathrooms and you take the low-cost route of removing and re-installing toilets, be sure to consider the impact of the new elevations. You'll need an extender kit for the wax seal and the bolts, and will need to use a flexible hose to connect to the water inlet line. The changes in elevation can also affect the transition to other rooms that might be at a different level now. Also, make sure that the grouting around the tile goes all the way to the wall - watch out for gaps under baseboards that might not be sealed after tile is installed. You may need to remove the baseboards yourself to caulk up the gaps.
Water and Plumbing
The Fox Cities have hard water, so some homeowners may wish to install water softening units. According to Bradd, a water softener can dramatically increase the life of your fixtures and water heater by reducing the formation of harmful deposits. Without a water softener system, water heaters might have trouble after about 10 years.
The water quality in the area is relatively good. (Jeff says that Appleton has the best tasting water in the area, and taste as good as you'll find among the tapwaters of the nation.)
Bradd notes that whirlpools are still popular, but many homeowners see them as wasted space that they don't use often. Many would rather have that space be available for bed room space or other purposes. Ceramic tile walk-in showers are growing in popularity, being efficient in space and attractive.
Granite countertops are the rage. Many homeowners, though, are surprised to find that the caulk seem around sinks used in some installations can become a long-term problem. It can become dirty and unattractive and, in some cases, become a maintenance nightmare. Bradd recommends going with an under-mounted sink so that the caulk seem is not visible. Be sure to check into this issue if you are installing a granite countertop.
We recently had a granite countertop added to our kitchen. We went with the popular black Uba Tuba granite that has beautiful lighter crystals in the black matrix. Our provider was Darboy Stone and Brick. They seemed to have the largest selection of granite to choose from and an impressive shop for fabricating the stone to your specifications. Installation was rapid and well done. We were pleased with the good value we got for our money.
Bradd said that Fox Valley Stone and Brick is an excellent choice to consider. We toured their facility also and saw a wide variety of beautiful stones in their yard.
In choosing granite, recognize that some granites will have large scale patterns that might present unexpected aesthetic results. Choose your piece of granite carefully and watch for unusual markings or flaws. Also ask about porosity and maintenance of the granite, for not all granites are created equal. We liked Uba Tuba granite because it offered high strength, low porosity, a beautiful finish, and yet is on the mid-to-low end of the price spectrum.
I was surprised at how fast installation was. Of course, the key is all the work they do at the shop before they bring your granite to your home. When it shows up, the granite should be just the right size and shape to fit your kitchen. Arrange for a plumber to come the same day to install the sink. We selected a stainless steel sink purchased through Darboy Stone and Brick and have been very happy with it. There was one surprise: new sinks may be installed with water-saving features that cut the maximum flow rate of your water by about half. We just thought it was a high-flow resistance system and were disappointed for a couple of days, until we called and asked and learned that there was an insert in the line that can be removed. We took it out and whoosh, got a decent flow rate back. That was a relief.
Bradd notes that standard asphalt base shingles have given way to multilayered "architectural style" asphalt shingles. Ceramic roofing materials are rare in the area. Though pretty, they are pricey. Wood shakes are also rare.
When buying a used home, be sure to check for past hail damage. It's not often, but heavy hail storms may strike every few years and can sometimes damage roofing and siding (and ding up your automobile - a good reason to keep it parked in the garage during summer's hail season). It's happened to parts of the Fox Valley twice in our 12 years here. High winds can also damage exteriors, so be sure to check. Naturally, hire a reliable inspector to examine a home, especially a used home, before you enter into a contract.
Maple cabinets are the rage in the Fox Valley. Historically, though, the area has been dominated by oak, a material indigenous to this region and readily available here and often less readily available elsewhere. But now the clear grain of maple is the hot trend in new homes. Cherry wood is also becoming popular.
Bradd sees a resurgence in wood burning, partly driven by high energy costs. Wood burning fireplaces as opposed to natural gas fireplaces are growing in popularity. Bradd also sees increasing use of wood burning stoves, corn burning stoves (designed to burn feed corn that is abundant in this area), and highly efficient pellet stoves. Pellet stoves are fed by wood pellets that come in 50-pound bags. When burned, a bag of wood pellets might result in just 1/4 cup of ash.
Woven Berber style carpet is on its way out. Frisee, a form of shag carpet, is becoming popular in this area.
The key to good carpeting is the pad underneath. A high quality foam pad makes a huge difference in how your carpet wears and withstands traffic. In general, get the best quality pad that you can afford.
Bradd notes that carpet is getting expensive here. M any carpet mills on the Gulf Coast were affected by hurricanes in 2005 and have suffered a decline in production. The hurricane damage has also resulted in declines in foam pad production that are still being felt. High oil costs also play a role in the increased cost of carpeting and carpet pads.
Brick versus Siding
Bradd sees a trend toward slightly fewer brick homes in new construction due to higher cost, though brick and cultured stone exteriors remain popular. Brick, of course, is a tremendous asset for a home. Itís a low-maintenance exterior that adds value to a home. The brick homes in the area tend to have very little wood trim on the exterior.
Why the high cost? First, the Fox Valley is relatively far from the major brick manufacturing sites. Transportation costs the brickyard to the home represent a significant cost, making brick relatively more expensive here. Second, brick construction is labor intensive, and our limited warm season reduces the amount of time that laborers are available to build brick homes. And the labor in the Fox Valley tends to be more expensive compared to areas with higher populations of immigrant workers. A third factor increasing the cost is the stronger foundation that needs to be provided to support the high weight of brick walls.
Siding in the Valley tends to be vinyl. We had aluminum siding when we moved into our home in 1994, but we had to replace it after some hail damage (oh, right - this area can get hail damage - something to look for on the roof of an older home). We found that aluminum siding was hardly available anymore in this area. We went with a vinyl siding that had foam insulation underneath. Insulated siding is more difficult to install, but it adds a valuable layer of insulation that can make a noticeable difference in your heating bills. Vinyl is also less likely to be damaged by hail. It's more flexible and can take hail impact without suffering permanent dents like aluminum.
With the generally pleasant summers we have here, many home builders in the past did not see a need to add air conditioning. In newer homes, though, it has become fairly standard and I think it's a good idea to have A.C. in your home. There are usually two or three weeks where you really need it, with temperatures approaching or getting into the 90s combined with high humidity, and it can add to your comfort through longer periods of our summer.
If you'd like to contact Bradd Syring of Syring Construction, call him at 920-722-8055 or email him at [email protected]