"Is there any way out other than the main stairs?" I asked.
My husband, our real-estate agent, the seller's agent and I were standing in the finished basement of a home in Owings Mills. It was a vast space: a nice bathroom, a media room, a room big enough to waltz in and another room with hidden panels in the walls for stashing who knows what. There was even a fireplace at the bottom of the stairs, creating a spa-like atmosphere.
But no, the selling agent said that there was just the one staircase, noting that some people like having only one way into the basement because exterior doors attract thieves.
I am not one of those people. I am one of those other people who see the potential for a fire and my loved ones trapped in a vast basement with only two tiny windows, one inaccessible behind the heating unit and one blocked by a back deck.
The agent suggested that perhaps we might think about creating an exit where the window under the deck was, causing my husband and me to ask what we asked in every one of the 200 or so houses we looked at with agents or at open houses: How much do you think that will cost?
Two hundred houses is apparently a lot to look at. People seem shocked when we mention this figure. As the owner of the studio where we take ballroom dance asked us: "What's your problem?"
Our problems were multiple: 1) We have champagne taste and a beer budget. 2) We knew nothing about Baltimore when we moved here, so we wanted to see all of the city and county before we made a decision. 3) We had time — we had a year-long lease in a rental home. 4) We are garage people — the kind who put cars in the garage.
In our hunt, we learned a lot about the area, but we also learned about real estate lingo and how to interpret a selling agent's description of a home. Sometimes it's what's not said that is important: There is a ginormous cell phone tower in the back yard, or the view from the living room faces the back yard of someone who collects rusted machinery.
Here were some of our favorite things that we read in descriptions, and what they turned out to mean:
Possible 4th bedroom: An odd space, probably without a window. Perhaps even a landing leading to the basement stairs.
Convenient to everything: You will hear noise from the Beltway while you are standing in the kitchen with the windows closed.
Just listed: Just relisted after sitting on the market for a year.
Original details abound: Original plumbing, too.
Desirable neighborhood: This house may have issues, but it's in a great place.
Two-car garage: Well, it was until the owners built a room over the garage and had to add a support pillar and stairwell so now you could squeeze one Mini Cooper into the space.
Lots of parking: No garage. Lots of asphalt.
Carpet allowance: The owners won't take the time to replace the stained pink shag carpet. Or, they finally realize it wasn't a good idea to build a big sunroom with a plywood floor.
Bring offers: Expect the worst. For example, a Graceland-like time capsule with furnishings from the early 1960s, kitchen cabinets still stocked with food and closets and drawers stuffed with belongings as if the owners went out for dinner and never came back.
Your updates will make this a beautiful home: Whatever the selling price is, you will spend just as much on renovations.
Updated kitchen with double oven: The only update is the oven.
Unique floor plan: Just try to find the front door.
Fantastic retreat: Your neighbors will have chickens and let their dogs run free.
Owners will help with closing costs: Don't ask them to budge on the selling price.
You'll feel like you're on vacation every minute of every day: Because you are hemorrhaging money to fix up this very tired house with a great view.
As is: Don't even think about it.
Despite our pickiness in insisting on a place where I didn't envision loved ones trapped in an inferno, we did finally find a great house. We now have a two-car garage, and we're in a desirable neighborhood.
And yes, we're having some work done in the kitchen, but we're happily keeping that updated oven.
Catherine Mallette is a senior content editor in The Sun's features department and the editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun