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5 Things I wish I knew before I bought my first house and moved my family during a pandemic

Authored By: Chris Cooke on 10/15/2020

Family unpacking boxes with children
When the pandemic first came to a head back in March, I was nearing the end of the interview process at MIT Federal Credit Union. I accepted the position on Friday, March 13th, excited to start working in the new Lexington offices that the credit union had moved into less than a year before. It would’ve been an easy 15-minute commute from my apartment in Cambridge. But the world started shutting down a few days later. My wife started working from home on Monday morning, and we pulled our 18-month-old daughter out of daycare the same day. I started in my new position one week later, 100% remote.

Things escalated quickly, and soon restaurants, retail stores, offices, daycares, schools, and even playgrounds all began shutting down. It was lockdown time, and my wife and I were not prepared for it. Would it be for two weeks? Longer? How long? Nobody knew.

Like everyone else, we found ourselves in a new, hopefully-temporary-normal, and we had to figure out how to survive, thrive, and successfully work remotely, all while taking care of a toddler.

We quickly developed a parenting schedule and worked out 'shifts' where one parent would be working, and one would be taking care of our daughter. It was the only way to make it work, but it made for long days. We're grateful to be counted among the lucky ones that kept our jobs. But it was exhausting none the less.

When schools closed and/or went remote, all the kids that lived on our street were suddenly home all the time. And there were a lot of ‘em. There was a family of four to the left of us, a family of five in the apartment above us, and another family of four to the right of us. While one of us tried to work remotely, the other was with our own crazy kiddo, and all the other slightly older kids were playing in and around our yard. 

Constant childish shenanigans ensued daily, directly outside of our home office windows. To make matters worse, there were also very few options for our daughter. There were no playgrounds, no playdates, and no daycare. We could keep her cooped up inside. Or we could make the best of what we had available – take her to now-empty parking lots to work on her scooter skills or to now-empty athletic fields to run around and get a little exercise. But that was about it.

Between working from home with a toddler, nowhere for our kiddo to play, and feeling like our neighbors were on top of us, 24/7, we started to entertain the idea of moving out of the city and buying our first house. My wife's family was down on the south shore and the Cape and dealing with a grave and sad family matter during the lockdown. If we were going to be getting out of dodge, working from home for the foreseeable future, and living through a prolonged lockdown, we were going to do it near family.

So, we pulled the trigger. We fell in love with a house in Kingston, MA, and after the roller coaster that is home-buying was over, we packed up our stuff and moved into our new home a few weeks later.

I've got to tell you; it was a lot harder than I expected. Between having a toddler stuck at home during the whole process, and the extra layer of difficulty brought on by the ongoing pandemic, it was one of the most exhausting and disruptive experiences in recent memory.

Here are five things that helped us get through the process; a few we learned the hard way:

  1. Start packing and preparing WAY before you think you need to.

    This might seem like common sense, but with the added burden of having our kiddo home 24/7, the constant stress and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, and the fact that every moving related errand was a little more difficult due to closed stores or severely limited occupancy, preparing for this move was harder than usual.

  2. Pack up your workstation last, and pack it well.

    Working from home is already a huge adjustment for many people. Once you figure out your setup, don't mess with it until you absolutely must. Sure, you might technically be able to do your job without your monitor, keyboard, desk light, and ergonomic chair using just your laptop and a milk crate to sit on. But why do that to yourself? You've got enough on your plate, and you certainly don't need the added frustration of working on a compromised setup. 

    When you do finally break down your work area, pack it all in dedicated boxes, label them clearly, and label every cable and piece of equipment, so it's easy to set it back up once you're in your new space. While you're at it, go ahead and get your new cable connection turned on as soon as possible. Unpacking and settling in might be even more stressful than packing. You don't want the added headache of not being able to log back into work after you've moved. 
  3. Get as much childcare as possible before, during, and after your move.

    This is easier said than done during a pandemic, of course. We were fortunate in that we had a few family options to help us get through the move. But it still wasn't enough. Everything is harder, slower, and more complicated with a toddler in tow. If she wasn't sleeping, it meant that only one parent could be packing or unpacking at a time. As a good rule of thumb, determine how much time you think you'll need to unpack and move in. Then multiply that by 5 to get a more accurate answer. If you have a toddler, consider multiplying by 10. 
  4. Limit house guests at first.

    After we moved into our new place, which is now 10 minutes from family, we were excited to guests. We were proud of our new place, and we finally had space for entertaining after moving out of our small city apartment. We made plans almost every weekend right out of the gate. We were cautious about who we invited due to COVID-19. But we had enough family and close friends already in our "pandemic circle" that we had constant visitors. We already had a move-in to-do list a mile and a half long. Add to that hosting dinner and family sleepovers, and it was downright exhausting.
  5. Brace yourself for a major disruption to your life.

    For me, a normally laidback, go with the flow kind of guy, I was caught way off guard by how disrupted my life was by the move. Everything was harder, took longer than expected, and there was no time to relax and recharge. All my routines were disrupted, and now in our new partially unpacked house, I don't even know where half my stuff is. My to-do list seemed to grow exponentially upon moving in, and that was made even more challenging by a steep new-homeowner learning curve. On top of that, I wasn't ready for the culture shock resulting from moving out of Cambridge, MA - the world's coolest city, IMO - to the burbs. All of this led me to a serious bout of buyer's remorse. "What have we done?!" I've talked to a lot of homeowners since we moved, and all of this seems to be the norm. Next time I'll be mentally prepared for it!

All things considered, we’re truly grateful for how things turned out. A great many people have experienced much harder times than we have during the pandemic. At the end of the day, we love our new house, and Kingston is slowly starting to feel like home. The lack of traffic, especially compared to the city, is pretty much the best thing ever. And who knew that grocery shopping wasn’t a full-contact sport outside the city?

But if I'm honest, we've got at least 6 months to a year before we will feel completely settled. Probably longer until we feel like locals. As a new homeowner, a relatively new remote worker, and a toddler's father, trying to move during very uncertain times in the US, this was one of the most stressful periods of my life in recent memory.

So, adjust your expectations. Give yourself PLENTY of time to settle in. Buy more boxes and tape then you think you need. Get WAY more childcare than seems appropriate. And be kind and patient with yourself – your new house doesn't have to perfect right away…or ever! I haven't even mowed the lawn yet, and we've been here for over two months!

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