Several years ago, in late fall, I begged my husband for a mini-vacay to visit our soon-to-be new duty station. A reconnaissance mission, if you will.
We were scheduled to PCS in January and I was dying to visit our new town and scope out housing, schools, and the base without our three children in tow. We had already decided to live off-base, and as a perpetual planner, this just made good sense to me.
But, in the end, we didn’t take the trip. It was complicated with childcare and didn’t make sense financially. So, in the middle of January, we loaded up our cars with kids wedged between boxes and bags and drove 1,200 miles to our new duty station. We were embarking on the great unknown: PCSing without a recon mission.
We took full advantage of the ten days of house hunting leave. Using on base temporary lodging as a crash pad and fueling station, #breakfastbuffet, we madly drove around one million neighborhoods and scheduled showings before ultimately finding a home.
1. Research, Research, Research
In the months or weeks leading up to your move, learn as much as you can about your new location from online sources like pcsgrades.com, for example. Check out rental listings on Zillow.com, craigslist.org, militarybyowner.com and Millie. The online forum, citydata.com, will give you a feel for the town and greatschools.com will help you narrow your housing location search by school rating.
Determine a housing budget by looking up BAH rates at your new duty station. Calculate a price range you are willing to spend on rent or mortgage, if you choose to buy a home. Don’t forget to account for utilities, which can add quite a bit to your monthly housing budget.
2. Hit the Ground Running
A day or two before you arrive at your new duty station, choose a few of your favorite listings and call to schedule showings for the day after you arrive. We were so excited for our first showing, since the house looked perfect on the website and the price was right. Well, in person we could see the backyard bordered an extremely busy street and car dealership. The house wasn’t at all what the online pictures had portrayed. We crossed if off the list immediately and moved on to the next house.
A big part of the house hunting process without a recon mission is familiarizing yourself with a new location quickly. Since our three kids were with us as we drove around our new town, madly looking for a house, we had to take frequent stretch breaks. We stopped and played at neighborhoods parks, taking note of everything from cleanliness to overall vibe. We also drove through potential neighborhoods at night, looking to see whether it was hopping with rowdy partiers or quiet and still. We also practiced the route to what would likely be their new school, getting a feel for our new life and talking with parents at the pick-up gate.
Without a recon mission, you have to maximize every minute of the ten-day house hunting window. Constantly refreshing websites for new listings, driving around hoping to spy “for rent” signs posted in yards, and not hesitating to call and ask for a showing. Rental applications can take a few days to process, so be prepared with references, former addresses and all pertinent information needed to fill one out quickly.
There is really no time for rest, but if you work at warp-speed, your efforts will pay off in securing housing in a neighborhood that fits you and your family.
4. Expect Surprises
In the end, we moved in to a wonderful house that exceeded our expectations in square footage. We had sold couches and living room furniture before the move, thinking our budget would allow for a much smaller home. The big, empty space in our new house? Turns out it’s perfect for indoor soccer and theatrical productions put on by the kids.
The lesson here: Not everything can be determined through websites and virtual visits. Sometimes you will be surprised by what you find in person, and you might want to hang on to all your furniture, just in case.
Do your homework, hit the ground running and take advantage of the house hunting window and base lodging. It will be a whirlwind and you might worry about your kids. Don’t. They will only remember the endless chocolate doughnuts from the breakfast buffet.