We sold our Florida house in October and now that it’s no longer fresh, I feel like I can finally discuss it. It was on the market for over four months. It sold for under asking and the whole process was extremely stressful. Going through it, I vowed to never buy another house again until we are ready to settle down for good. I’m sure that won’t be the case but in the thick of it all I could think of was how much I never wanted to do this again. As a military family that moves every three or so years, it’s difficult to know what to do for housing. With six duty stations under our belts, we’ve done it all and I have some thoughts on navigating military housing options and knowing whether to try living on base, renting in town, or buying a property.
Military Housing Options: Living in on base housing, renting in town, or buying a house.
Living on base, renting in town, buying a house, are the usual housing options for military families. Over the years, we’ve done all three. It’s a personal decision for sure and it varies depending on location. In our 14 years of active duty, we’ve purchased (and sold) two homes, we’ve rented in town twice, and lived on base five times. Looking at those numbers, it’s clear that living on base is probably our favorite option but it doesn’t come without its flaws. We always approach the decision on where to live with an open mind but I do have a list of sorts in mind that I’m looking for in a new home.
Things to consider when deciding whether or not to live in base housing
Community | When you’re time is limited at a duty station, you want to immerse yourself in the community as quickly as possible. Military base housing can offer a built-in community that you won’t get anyplace else. It’s usually a lot of kids playing and you feel very connected to your neighbors.
Schools | This wasn’t always a consideration for us but it’s a huge one now. I scour neighborhood pages for opinions and reviews on the neighborhood schools. I look at GreatSchools.org but take their ratings with a grain of salt. This research always strongly guides our decision-making.
Dwelling | If you’ve spent any time on this blog at all you know that the actual house matters a lot to me. I care very much about having and creating a beautiful home. In some areas, military housing nails it and you can really do so much with it. In others, it’s very outdated and you get more for your money renting out in town/buying.
Expense | Money is definitely a factor when deciding where to live. Sometimes living on base is a no-brainer because it’s simply too costly to rent or even buy out in town. Other times, you can see a clear money-making opportunity by renting in town or even buying. Crunch the numbers and figure out the best option.
There are a dozen more factors to consider but these are the main ones for our family and we start to decide from there.
What it’s like Living on base
How much we love living on base depends very much on the base itself. Having lived on base five different times, we’ve seen it all and have loved it and hated it at times. When Matt and I were newlyweds, we lived on base in Hawaii. We really enjoyed that experience. Hawaii is expensive and Matt was a junior enlisted sailor with a paycheck to prove it. Finding a home in Hawaii out in town comparable to on-base was impossible. We lived blocks from the beach, had many friends in our neighborhood, and felt very connected to the community.
On the other hand, we started out living on base when we moved to Jacksonville, FL. Jacksonville is a very spread-out city and we were very unfamiliar with the different neighborhoods. We knew that we had an interest in either buying or renting in town but we wanted to get to know the area first. This is definitely something I recommend. If you are serious about buying at a duty station, find either a short-term rental or consider a six-month lease on base so you can learn which neighborhoods you’re most interested in living in. A few months into living on base in Jacksonville, we knew that we wanted to buy. We were paying $600/month more for base housing than we would for a mortgage.
Fast forward to now, we are living on base in Twentynine Palms. After living in our own home for four years, I was pretty certain that I did not want to go back to living on base when we moved. After researching neighborhoods and determining expenses, we surprisingly opted to live on base again. Since Twentynine Palms is a small, rather remote town, there are very limited options for off-base rentals and the ones that are available are significantly overpriced.
I am so glad we decided to live on base here. It’s been my favorite experience so far being so close to neighbors and friends. Since it’s a small town base, the community here is very tight-knit which makes living in a remote place much more bearable overall.
Lastly, I really enjoy living on base because it feels much more secure. Something about living behind gates guarded by sentries makes you feel safe. Especially if you are in a season that requires your spouse to be away a lot, knowing that you are on base, with other people living a similar life to yours is very comforting.
The Case (or not) for Renting in Town
Renting in town is probably my least favorite option for military housing. I always think, if I’m going to rent a home, I might as well stay on the base where I usually feel more secure anyway. That being said, renting in town has been the best option for us in the past. When we lived in the Washington DC area, we didn’t have children and we wanted to be close to the action so we chose to rent an apartment instead of living on base. Our apartment rental experience was a lot like living in base housing. There are maintenance people on standby for anything you might need. Typically, when you rent a house you are responsible for more of the property (yard maintenance, pest control, etc.) than in an apartment or base housing. It’s a good idea to scope out sites like Ahrn.com and militarybyowner.com to find military-friendly properties to rent.
Should you buy a house while in the military?
There are a lot of opinions on whether or not it’s a good idea to buy a house while on active duty. I appreciate that many of those opinions are based on experiences good and bad. We’ve purchased two houses while on active duty now and we’ve had one great experience and one that was just okay. From my perspective, buying a house while on active duty can be a sound financial move but it comes with some risk.
I would only consider buying if you have significant cash in savings that you can use during the buying process. Even with a VA loan, there are expenses like binders fees, home inspection fees, etc. Additionally, you’ll have home improvement expenses once you get into your home. Even if it’s just purchasing paint, it adds up quickly.
I would also make sure you have an exit plan before you buy the home. Will you rent it out and become a landlord or will you sell? You should make yourself comfortable with both options because even if you prefer one over the other you may be stuck doing the other if certain circumstances.
We bought a house in our hometown of Las Vegas about 10 years ago. When we moved out of it, we rented it out for several years before selling it. That worked out well for us. It rented quickly and sold without being on the market for too long. Our Florida house, on the other hand, became a bit stressful at times because it took months to sell. We ended up taking an offer under asking because we were ready to move on.
That being said, I would not have changed our decision to buy if we could go back in time. I loved that house. I loved our neighbors and cherish our time there. It just put a bit of a sour taste in my mouth and will definitely carry more weight when, if ever, we have to make a decision to purchase again while on active duty.
If you are military or even if you aren’t I’d love to hear from you. What factors go into your decision making when selecting a home in a new place? Let me know in the comments below!