Lost in translation: buying a home in the US is a whole other ballgame
Property buying and selling is very different Stateside – it even has its own vocabulary
Clodagh McCoole: An Irish buyer needs to learn a new set of terms – faucet, garbage, closet, etc– and cope with many other cultural differences, when buying in the US.
Paying to water the grass is the hardest thing I’ve experienced as an Irish homeowner in Connecticut. But after five years of re-seeding burned patches of lawn, I gave in and paid to install an irrigation system. It was just one of the many adjustments I would have to make as an Irish homeowner in the US. On top of the initial adjustment to the process of buying from renting, an Irish buyer must learn a new set of terms – faucet, garbage, closet, etc– and cope with many other cultural differences.
My first experience of house-hunting in the US is fresh in my mind, although it was more than 10 years ago now. We had been renting for around five years in Darien, CT, a leafy town about an hour from New York. Rents were high and we finally decided it made more sense to buy.
We met our realtor outside a house she described as a “fixer-upper”. She marched through the dilapidated Colonial house, pointing out what she thought we should do – put up a portico, take down a wall, butler’s pantry here, Jack-and-Jill bathroom there, while we stood open-mouthed, barely understanding what she was talking about.
Out back I struggled with her description of the grassy lawn as a yard. I listened to the not-so-distant hum from the highway while she rattled off all the tests we would need to do – termites, lead, radon, asbestos. It all felt very overwhelming.
My husband was more concerned about where he would put the pool of his dreams but even his enthusiasm was curbed by the news that there were zoning setbacks and possible wetlands which might result in more setbacks and no room for a pool. I remember going back to the rental house thinking that we would be better off just renting.
The overriding novelty is often the sheer size of everything
We did eventually buy, falling in love with a location and a kitchen. We paid for an appraisal, carried out all the tests and were relieved when everything came back fine. We went to the closing with our realtor, the seller’s realtor, and two attorneys and before we knew it we were homeowners. It’s a heady feeling buying property, putting down roots; essentially committing to calling another country home.
We now had a house with an open-plan kitchen, a family room with a cathedral ceiling and a fully finished basement. My mother’s reaction to this space was that it was like another whole house underneath the house. Initially it seemed to be an obscene amount of space and we certainly had no furniture to fill it. But a few trips to Costco and we were well on our way.
Having grown up with six people sharing one bathroom and a toilet downstairs – pretty normal in Ireland at the time – we now had five sharing two full bathrooms and two half-baths or powder rooms. That certainly felt like luxury.
There are many cultural differences to come to terms with as an Irish person buying in America. One Irish buyer in Connecticut said what struck her most when she moved into her house was that there were no doors on the ground floor. Everything was open. Another surprise was the lack of curtains on the windows.
It’s almost invasive, the litany of questions you have to answer on some of the application forms
Another Irish buyer said she had to adjust to there only being lamps and no overhead lighting in the bedrooms, bug screens on the windows and often no fences around the “yards”.
Culturally, though, the overriding novelty is often the sheer size of everything – bigger washing machines, bigger dryers, bigger fridges – and, ultimately, bigger bills. The maintenance on houses in Connecticut tends to be a lot higher than in Ireland. Outside maintenance – lawn care, spring and fall clean-up of leaves, fertilisation, pest control such as tick spraying, tree pruning, window-cleaning, gutter cleaning, and snow clearing in the winter – can add up. Inside the home, the oil fired-furnace and the air conditioning units have to be serviced before every season.
Another key cultural difference for Irish people is getting used to the public access to what they might consider private information. Sold prices are public as are all mortgages, loans and liens on properties. Anne Flanagan, an Irish agent working for Berkshire Hathaway New York Properties, says she finds the biggest issue for Irish people renting or buying in New York is the level of information required.
By the time I was ready to list our own house, I had learned enough American real estate vocabulary to describe our flat back yard with its newly installed irrigation system
She says Irish people will want “to run for the hills” when faced with questions on an application form for a Co-op, such as what alumni networks you belong to, what foundations you support and what stocks and bonds you own. “It’s almost invasive, the litany of questions you have to answer on some of the application forms,” Flanagan says, “but on a positive side it’s very streamlined and protective.”
Real estate licence
In 2017 I got my real estate licence in Connecticut and listed and sold our house. The process of buying and selling a house in the US differs from that in Ireland because the buyer is represented by one real estate agent and the seller, in theory, by another. (Connecticut does allow dual agency where the same brokerage can handle both sides of the transaction.)
The seller pays the commission, which is generally split between the two agents, while the buyer pays nothing. The process is designed to protect both sides, with each having access to a professional who will represent their interests.
Today, the search for a house begins online and most properties will have a lockbox containing the key, located on the premises, which can be accessed only by licensed realtors who are members of the Multiple Listing Service. The process makes it easier to go to see houses but can make the homeowner feel more exposed.
By the time I was ready to list our own house, I had learned enough American real estate vocabulary to describe our flat back yard with its newly installed irrigation system. I pointed out things that had once seemed utterly alien– such as the his-and-hers walk-in closets and the wet bar, the garbage disposal system and the laundry chute. I had even added a portico (otherwise known as a porch) for the kerb appeal.
Clodagh McCoole is an Irishwoman and real estate agent living in Connecticut
Lost in Translation – agent speak
Garden: Vegetable patch
First floor: Ground floor
Jack-and-Jill : Bathroom shared by two bedrooms
Siding: Material on the side of the house
Washer: Washing machine
Walk-up: Attic accessed by stairs
Pull-down: Attic accessed by ladder
EIK: Eat-in kitchen
Setbacks: Minimum distance from neighbour
Butler’s pantry/Wetbar bar: Drinks area with wine fridge
Crown molding: Cornices etc
Farmhouse sink: Belfast sink