Househunting and Tradesman’s Posh Digs

by Sandy L on April 1, 2012

You may or may not have read in previous articles that I’m doing a little house hunting of late.  It’s not that we’ve outgrown our home, but we feel it’s a good time to invest in the real estate market and trade up to some digs that are big enough to house babci someday, and maybe some chickens as well. After figuring out how much we can safely borrow, I have taken the plunge and started looking at homes that are a couple of notches up from where we are at today.  After my first couple of rounds, I am now focused on places that have a bit of land.  Space. It’s such a beautiful thing.  I am not in love with big houses, but homes with a bunch of land do tickle my fancy.

Anyway, I have an awesome realtor. I really want to have her babies, she’s so good.   One of the things she does aside from being super responsive is she has a TON of information about the sellers of a property before we even step foot in a place. She’s got a good memory and has lived in this area her whole life, so she seems to know everything about everybody. “This couple is getting divorced. They are motivated sellers.  They own 5 other properties across the Northeast, the husband does this profession, and it goes on and on.”  It’s awesome information to have as you go into negotiations.

What struck me most as she is rattling off these professions, is that the nicest homes at the top of my price range are all trades people.   Think about it. They all have great do it yourself skills. They barter with each other on home improvements, they get paid really well, they didn’t have to take out $100,000 in student loans to learn a skill, and many of them started working full time years before we did.  After about the 5th gorgeous house  owned by an electrician, plumber or a glass cutter and listed at 3x of what my current house is worth, I asked my realtor:  “Tell me, why again did I go to college?”  The photos in this post are all from the same property owned by a tradesman.  And you know what..this place is priced way above what I want to spend. Although it would be nice to have goshen stone walkways, a gorgeous pool, fire pit and an htgv-esque outdoor kitchen, and about 20 other things, it’s too rich for my blood.

Well it seems like 101 Centavos was reading my mind because just the other day he was talking about labor shortages and the lack of skilled tradesman around.  Well, from my little microcosm of house hunting experience, I can concur that there is plenty of money to be made in those professions because a good number of the trades people in my neighborhood are living large.

The second thing I learned from all this is that it’s really hard to get rich by working for someone else.  Those cost of living raises just don’t move the needle like having a good year as a self employed person.  Most of the really high priced places I looked at are all business owners and not necessarily doctor’s either.  In fact, my primary care physician lives one street over from me in a very modest sized cape cod home and raised 3 children in it.  Being good at selling yourself and your personal skills is invaluable.  Great lessons are coming out of these house  hunting sessions. Now if I only did something with this information. I guess the best I can do is keep my eyes open for an opportunity to invest in a side gig.  Eventually, an idea will present itself I’m sure.

Did you think the 1% was Joe the plumber? I certainly did not. Lesson learned indeed.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicoleandmaggie April 2, 2012 at 8:04 AM

Just because someone has a fancy house doesn’t mean they have a lot put away for retirement! We don’t really know what’s in the Jones’s private accounts.

Not to say that tradespeople with their own businesses can’t get wealthy, of course they can, just that you can’t necessarily judge someone’s total net worth by what they’re living in or the car they drive.

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Sandy L April 4, 2012 at 4:25 AM

Nicole – It’s definitely true that someone’s home is only part of the story and it’s likely that a self employed person might have more of their net worth tied up in real estate given that they don’t have the same kind of 401K options that working for someone else has. Nevertheless, it does seem like a lot of these people can afford homes that are equal to 2 engineer salaries. Just because we choose not to spend all our income on housing doesn’t change the fact that these tradesmen are earning a pretty darn good living. I was chatting with another friend of mine who lives in an expensive McMansion area in CT. They are a dual income engineer family as well, although the wife is now an executive. Most of their neighbors are “contractors” or small business owners of one kind or another with spouses that don’t work.

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oilandgarlic April 2, 2012 at 4:03 PM

I never thought about it that way. I do know some tradespeople who eventually running their own business and these did make a lot of money. They still had to become the boss to make the big bucks though. I do think many skills that are valuable for home ownership such as electrician, building, plumbing etc.. can pay off in saving money on home improvements and upkeep.

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Sandy L April 4, 2012 at 4:27 AM

Oil and Garlic – yes, you touched on a key point there. The trademen who work for themselves and managed to grow to the point where they needed extra help and hired other people to work for them are the ones in these expensive homes.

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retirebyforty April 3, 2012 at 4:45 PM

I think working for someone else isn’t the way to these nice houses. It’s much better to work for yourself and keep what you earned. Or better yet, have other people working to make you money. :)
Nicole might be right about the fancy house syndrome though. I wonder what their bank and brokerage accounts look like.

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Sandy L April 4, 2012 at 4:54 AM

Rby40- I’m going to make a sweeping generalization here, but for the most part, the technicians at work drive much nicer cars than the cheap-ass engineers. I think in the blue collar world there is a general desire to show that one’s “made it” by showing success through a person’s standard of living. With college educated people, they automatically get more respect (deserved or not) by having a degree, so there isn’t as much pressure to show your doing just fine for yourself financially.

That being said, I know people from all walks of life who are great and terrible with money, and it’s easy to just assume these guys must not have any savings because they are tradesmen and that’s the only reason they can afford these houses. See, we are still subconsciously disrespecting how far they’ve come in life. I’m glad I have a degree because I’d hate to have people always assuming I’m not that smart and the only reason I have a nice home is because I’m house poor. My degree was worth every penny. People always assume I’m smart when they hear I’m an engineer. I’d much prefer that stereotype vs the alternative.

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Little House April 4, 2012 at 10:44 AM

When I read The Millionaire Next Door, the authors pointed out that a lot of the “millionaires” were trades people. Now, the sad thing about this is that education (I’m talking about prior to college) is really pushing for “all people must go to college” and I just don’t agree, even though I’m in the education field. People with valuable skills can make a lot of money and are needed. Yet, most high schools are cutting out those classes that offer trade skills. I think there’s this huge emphasis on “Ya gotta go to college or you can’t make it to the top” that’s being pushed on all students though many of them will have to go into deep debt to get there.

I’ve been searching for a teaching job lately, and one charter school’s motto was that 100% of their students would attend a four-year college. This charter school was located in one of the poorest areas of the city and I just thought to myself, “I don’t agree. Sending these kids to college and making them take out loans to go just isn’t right.” So, I didn’t apply since I disagreed with their philosophy. But this is another example of where our educational system is not on the right path.

Sorry I got off topic. :)

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Sandy L April 11, 2012 at 4:32 AM

Little House – I totally agree. I’m actually on the board of an education committee locally and one of the things they are discussing is bringing back a trade school to the area. They did away with it years ago and now are realizing this was a big mistake. Tradespeople earn very good livings. It’s a great step for people to climb out of poverty in a frugal fashion (vs taking on a ton of college debt). The plus side though, is there is a ton of financial aid available for people in that income group (I know because I got it), so if they really do want to go to college, it’s achievable.

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Andrew @ 101 Centavos April 5, 2012 at 7:21 AM

Speaking of houses and tradespeople, here’s an anecdotal snapshot. My parents know this immigrant couple from Naples, came to the US 10 years ago, Atlanta area. Husband is a tile and flooring installation contractor, wife stays at home (or works in the home, if we prefer). The two kids work in the business. Their paid-for home is indeed in a very nice neighborhood, with a backyard kitchen (tiled, naturally) that could probably feature in Architectural Digest magazine.
(Thanks for the mention, by the way.)

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Sandy L April 11, 2012 at 4:34 AM

Andrew – I think everyone has examples of this. The hardworking tradespeople do very well for themselves. I’m not talking about the people who work for themselves because they couldn’t hold a job otherwise…the guys that don’t roll into a job til noon. (they definitely aren’t doing well financially because they don’t work that many hours). I’m talking about the ones who really bust their butts all day and get er done.

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ShortRoadTo April 5, 2012 at 7:02 PM

People who work in trades don’t “waste” 4 years and $100k in college. For the majority of college grads, they will leave college with a $30k a year job, and will be paying off student debt. People in trades will have 4 years of experience under their belt, no debt and will be well ahead of the average college grad.

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Sandy L April 11, 2012 at 4:38 AM

Short Road – you’re right, there are only a handful of majors that really pay well from the get go. I scratch my head at why anyone would ever go into a ton of debt to major in humanities, but that’s my practical side talking. A college Education was not a rite of passage for my household, it was just a means to an end.

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eemusings April 5, 2012 at 7:16 PM

One of the nicest (and biggest) houses I ever visited was a childhood friend’s, whose dad was a builder. Her mother didn’t work. They had five kids. But they’re very well off.

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Sandy L April 11, 2012 at 4:36 AM

eemusings- thanks for yet another data point.

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Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog April 9, 2012 at 5:23 PM

I think about this about 1 time per month now, and it’s when I pay my student loan. I always wonder why I didnt go do something in the trades like plumbing or electrician, because I may enjoy it more and would always learn something. For me, this looks like the easiest route to go down if you want to start your own company – you already have skills that someone’s willing to pay for, all you need is the equipment and a plan.

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Sandy L April 11, 2012 at 4:41 AM

Jeff – you’re so right. From a business model standpoint the start up costs are pretty low. You need a vehicle, a license, insurance and a bag of tools…oh and your vehicle is 100% tax deductible.

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