Waiting is the hardest part

The next few weeks after the inspection is complete and the Purchase and Sale is signed are tedious. First you apply for a mortgage, then insurance, and finally you wait…for a long time. Time that feels endless. Time you wish could be spent doing something constructive. Tearing up floors, cleaning, and painting. Or at the very least, planning the new space.

We were directed to a lender by our real estate agent, who told us he was the best. I, becoming the ever picky buyer, was not impressed by his email demeanor. For one thing, his organizational skills left something to be desired. When we first reached out to him about increasing our pre-approval limit he somehow misplaced the email containing our bank statements and pay stubs, forcing us to resend our materials. Then, after we forwarded him the signed P&S, he sent us quotes showing the wrong down payment.

Given that this was the biggest purchase either of us has ever made, and I was not feeling particularly confident in our lender, I asked if we could meet in person to discuss our options. After reading a long list of articles about mortgages in preparation for our meeting, I was feeling rather puckish the day we walked into the bank.  I figured with our credit history we could probably negotiate some of the closing costs. Unfortunately, he shot me down immediately and said their prices were as low as we would find and that he could offer no wiggle room. My response was to basically pout during the rest of the meeting while he pointed out why each and every fee listed in his breakdown was required when buying a house in this state.

That night, my husband diligently sought out offers from other lenders (and unsurprisingly, what the first lender said turned out to be true, his bank was the cheapest), but we were pleasantly surprised the next day when our lender, the same one who told us the day before that we were getting their best offer and had 24 hours to lock down interest rates, emailed to say he could drop the origination fee completely. Turns out, my stubbornness and ability to give stink eye for an hour saved us almost a grand!

Next, we had to apply for homeowner’s insurance. We reached out to three different agents recommended by the lender. The first was shot down immediately for being too aggressive and asking for details from our inspection we weren’t comfortable sharing while the other two sent in offers so different from one another that we had to spend a few hours reading about deductibles and replacement costs to make our final selection.

As the deadline for our mortgage approval closed in, we sat diligently by, waiting to send in our updated bank statements and pay stubs, careful not to spend any unnecessary money, hoping that all would go smoothly and we’d be able to close on time. We’ve been back to the house a couple times since our first visit, for the inspection and to do some measuring, and each time we’ve fallen more in love with the place.

Now that our mortgage has been approved, all that remains is to wait. We don’t close on the house for another two weeks. That’s two whole weeks where we are trapped in our current apartment, unable to make future plans for the house or spend money. Two weeks before we throw down the last big payment and they hand us the keys. Then we need to renovate, ripping up carpets and painting the walls. It will still be another month and a half before we will be ready to move completely into the house. Because it is my natural state, I of course am spending that time the only way I know how, worrying and stressing.

As excited as I am about owning our own home and about the house itself, I’m still ambivalent about moving out of Somerville. I’m excited, scared, frustrated, and sad. I want to be in our house right now and at the same time I want the sale to fall through and force us to sign the lease on our apartment for another year. I listen to our upstairs and downstairs neighbors, the traffic from the street below, and I think, yep, time to go! Then I hear the distant beat of a drum as a marching band walks down the bike path or listen to the cluck of somebody’s chicken on a quiet Sunday morning and think I’m not ready to leave this place.

Why would I want to give up late night walks to JP Licks or last minute tickets to a show at the Somerville Theatre? Is it worth it to have a porch, to be able to paint or redecorate whenever we want, to have no upstairs or downstairs neighbors, no barking below or arguing above, no strange laundry left behind in the washing machine, no grumbling about how tall the grass is or how nobody takes out the trash or shovels in the winter. I know the answer. I do. I’m still sad. Somerville has been my home for 9 years. It will be hard to leave it behind (though, as my husband points out, it is still just a bus ride away).

Yesterday I started going through one of our closets to prepare for the move, but I got weepy every time I thought about leaving. Today, I sat in one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants, annoyed because I’ve eaten the same three dishes here the last six times we’ve been, yet I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes as I realize that we won’t be coming here nearly as often. Soon, storefronts will change and I won’t notice right away. Then, I’ll decide I’m not up for the bus ride to Davis Square for ArtBeat or Union Square for What the Fluff. We’ll hardly ever eat at Painted Burro, Posto, or Saloon. Lord knows if I can’t get myself out for the farmer’s market or Union Square Donuts now, how am I ever going to do it when I’m two towns away?

eecards-pity-partyI’m not going to wallow in this self pity any more tonight. For one thing, this is not really an occasion for sadness; it’s exciting because we are almost done buying a house, and that does not warrant a pity party. Unless something major happens in the next two weeks, you’ll not hear from me again until we actually close on the house. Then you’ll get to hear about renovations. Won’t that be fun?

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Caught on the Hook

Nearly a week had passed since my husband and I toured the house when the time finally came for our offer to go in officially. We had immediately told our agent that we wanted it, and the next day we filled out the offer, vowing next time to give ourselves 24 hours before expressing interest so we could temper our enthusiasm with a little bit of contemplation. We then took a train to New York and mostly forgot about the house for the weekend.

2015-04-23 21.49.16I was torn as the deadline passed and our offer became binding. Did we do the right thing? I barely remembered what it looked like. The price was right, but the pictures from the listing didn’t help. All I could remember was that the exterior was cute, with two porches and a small back yard, the kitchen was stunning, and the second floor was the main reason the price was so low. It had a carpeted “second bathroom” with brown paisley wallpaper and two bedrooms that hadn’t seen an update in at least 20 years. I also wasn’t keen on its location, in a town that was my least favorite of the three we were searching, blocks from a stadium, and not far from the site of Boston’s future casino.

My heart stopped when I saw the email the following day. Our offer had been accepted! I think I blacked out for a bit after that. The train had left the station and now it was up to the inspection to derail this purchase. My husband called up the guy our real estate agent recommended and set a date for the inspection on following Monday.

Meanwhile, I fretted about making the biggest, most expensive mistake ever. I panicked about leaving Somerville to buy a money pit in a dead-end town we’d never bothered to explore in our 10+ years of living in Boston, facing larger costs that come with owning rather than renting, being isolated from the city and our friends (who I decided probably wouldn’t want to drive or take a bus over to visit us in our new place–they will), and a plethora of imaginary scenarios that triggered my fight or flight response. He tried to calm me, saying that if the house was really that bad, the inspection would highlight the major problems and we’d have a way out.

We did not have a way out. Our agent warned us on the drive there that typical inspections are scary. These guys rarely have good things to say about a place, as the purpose is to point out all the defects you’ll need to fix and the future problems that need to be prevented. As soon as we got there, we knew this was going to be a different kind of experience. Not only was our inspector the same one who spoke at our first time home buyers class the year before, he was elated to tell us the exterior was in fine shape.

In the basement, he pointed out a few things that would have to be addressed before winter and a couple others we’d need to keep an eye on, but overall he seemed impressed by the workmanship of the plumbing and electrical systems. His excitement continued as he inspected the kitchen, living room and dining room. We were happy to see that the owners had already cleaned the place out, and that they had left the nice new appliances. This purchase was looking better and better.

Upstairs, reality struck. Here is where we needed to put in some work before moving in. The carpets had to be replaced with new flooring, since they had at least two decades’ worth of grime driven into them and the material underneath didn’t look much better. Since this wouldn’t be cheap or easy, we were going to have to live with painting over the existing wood paneling until we had the time and money to do more work. However, as far as the inspector was concerned, this house passed the test.

In a whirlwind five days, we contacted a lawyer, completed the purchase and sale agreement, and forked over the remaining down-payment. It’s official. We almost have a house. Now we need to apply for a mortgage.

More on that in our next installment

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The Pain of Defeat

I found this while collecting memes to tease a coworker of mine whose wife is having twins. The image seems well suited to the home buying market.

I found this while collecting memes to tease a coworker of mine whose wife is having twins. The image seems well suited to the home buying market.

I was distracted all day at work, waiting for 7pm when the offers were officially due, knowing that it would then be another hour before we could expect to hear from our real estate agent.

We were completely shocked when she told us we were one of five on the shortlist, out of 14 potential buyers. Now they wanted our highest and best offer by 9pm. It didn’t take long to decide. We’d already figured out our limit, taking into account the down payment, closing costs, moving expenses, and how much our budget could accommodate owning a home alongside our lifestyle. We’d figured out long ago the number we were comfortable with, so we called back with an offer only $5K more than our original bid.

That next hour was going to be torture. I called my artist friend from Minnesota. He is calm, intelligent, and rational, and every time one of us calls the other, we spend roughly one hour on the phone. Because he has been through the home buying process twice and is such a great conversationalist I knew I could count on him to distract me.

By 9:30 we had the news. We’d lost the house. To be honest, we knew someone would have to offer more than us. Just as planned, we began talking about how great the next one would be. How this one was just too perfect for us. We needed a house that was a little scraggly like us. What were we going to change with this one? The paint? No, the next house was going to be a project, something for us to work on and improve together.

“It’s going to feel like you’ve been dumped.”

My friend gave me great advice. He said, “It’s going to feel like you’ve been dumped.” Meaning, the next few houses would be rotten. And he was right. We saw some really strange houses, including one that we jokingly referred to as the B&E House because it was unlocked and unoccupied when we walked in (and every corner we turned we expected someone to come out screaming at us to get out). We also saw several depressingly beautiful homes that would go well past our highest offer. Still, a string of losers made us ready for the next good house that came along.

The next one we decided to bid on was a surprise. Because we were going away for the weekend, we decided to see a cute house in Everett. That morning I noticed three houses in our price range show up on the MLS. Our agent was able to get us into just one, so we were going to have to accept missing the other two because we’d be in New York during the only open houses. Turns out, it didn’t matter. The first house we’d planned on seeing was totally wrong for us. Its layout was awkward, and we couldn’t get past its lack of closets or outdoor space.

I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful about the next one. The listing only had a few images, and we had to wonder why the price was so low. There were none of the typical indicators that this house was best suited for Contractors, or mentions of elbow grease or TLC in the listing to warn us of major work being needed. It did, however, say the house came “as is.”

More on our offer in the next installment 

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Playing the Game

Not the house. This is the smallest house in Savannah, Georgia.

Not this one. It’s the smallest house in Savannah, Georgia.

After a few weeks of searching, we finally put in our first offer on a house.

This one is fantastic! It meets all of our criteria and has several little touches that make it perfect for us. We sat with our real estate agent and settled on a number, picked out key dates, and signed our names. This morning I wrote a heartfelt letter to the homeowners, explaining why my husband and I are the right people to own this house.

Now we wait…

My husband and I recognize how much of a long shot it is to get the first house we try for. Cash is king, especially in this market, and that is something we do not have a lot of. If we tie with the highest bidder, we’ll likely lose because of our low down-payment. No letter, no matter how much it strokes the ego of the former homeowner and assures them that the house will be well taken care of, is going to beat the all mighty dollar.

We know this, and we are preparing for the inevitable heartache of losing this house. I’ve put together a list of every negative I could come up to act as a salve. If our offer is not selected, we’re going to have to jump right back in the market and see many more houses. It will mean more weeknights and weekend days taken over by the hunt. My only solace will be that list of problems and the knowledge that, no matter what, another “perfect” house will come along.

Next up, the results

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Getting the Finances in Order

Best sight ever!

Best sight ever!

I finally did it. I paid off my student loans, and I am now officially debt free! Cue confetti and horns, a congratulatory message from my loan company’s…nope, just a reminder on the website that I can continue to make payments if I so choose. Thanks, but no thanks.

My student loans have weighed on me since I was a teenager, so I’m a little bit out of sorts about no longer owing money. I am thrilled to finally be through with this expense, and I am proud that–aside from a couple checks my dad wrote for my self loan when I was still in school and he didn’t know I’d received and paid the same $125 bill–I was able to dig myself out of debt completely on my own. I started out with one large federal loan and five smaller self loans. Those self loans had to go first, so I consolidated and paid as much every month as I could afford. Five years ago, the private loans were gone, and it was just me versus the federal loan. I took what I was sending to the self loan and added it to my monthly payments for federal, increasing the amount as I found better jobs that paid me a higher salary.

Step #5 (Should be Step #2) Know Your Budget

When my husband and I started talking seriously about marriage and buying a home near the city, my main goal was clearing out the balance and building up my savings to cover a down payment. Last spring we’d visited our bank to get pre-approved for a home loan, and the number we were given shocked us. Because we both have good credit, the amount was higher than either of us expected. We calculated the minimum down payment required for a house in the range they told us we were qualified for and realized that unless we wanted to completely upend our lifestyle we needed to lower our price range and expectations. My husband signed us up for the first-time home buyer’s course, and we figured out a realistic price range for a house that could meet our needs.

Using that number, I calculated how long it would take me to pay off the remaining balance if I raised my monthly payments, and I set up an automatic transfer from my checking to savings account to build up enough money for a reasonable down payment as well cover moving costs, household purchases, and an emergency fund. We developed a timeline and decided to start our house search fresh in the new year, after my loan was paid off and we’d made it through the dreadful Boston winter.

When we went back to the bank this spring, we had a more realistic number we wanted to be pre-approved for, and that’s the number we gave the lender. Little did we know, this plan would immediately backfire. After reviewing our notes from the first-time home buyers class, we realized that the loan our bank could offer us was the one we were expressly told to avoid, then our real estate agent suggested we reach out to lender with a better reputation, and now three of the last four houses we’ve visited were priced higher than our pre-approval would allow, negating any chance we could place a bid.

Knowing the market as it is, we’re trying to be smart about how we approach this intimidating purchase. We know the dollar amount we are comfortable with, but given the speed in which the few houses on the market are being snatched up by desperate buyers, we need to give ourselves an opportunity to climb into the ring when we find a place worth fighting for. Our game plan is to find a house that doesn’t appeal to the crowd that wants to move in right away. This means dated interiors and hopefully ugly listing photos that drive away prospective buyers. Still, it’s hard not to be tempted to throw in a bid for a house like the one we saw this week, one that could be perfect, but will cost us more than we are currently able or willing to spend.

Up Next: We Make Our First Offer

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Touring in Style

I’m writing this post the morning before we head out for our second round with the real estate agent. This story takes place last weekend, when she picked us up and took us on private showings of three different houses. Upon meeting us the weekend we drove ourselves around to the open houses, she said we’d never have to rent a car again as she’d take us to any open house or private showing we wanted to see. That is such a bonus for a buyer without a car.

Lesson #4 – Let the Real Estate Agent Show You Around

The first place we visited was a townhouse, sold “as is.” The townhouse we were there to see, which was in our price range, was unrenovated with winterized plumbing and uncovered fixtures. We stepped gingerly through the unit on rickety floorboards and dingy carpets, up and down shallow, uneven steps, and into the unfinished basement where we had to duck to avoid low-hanging pipes in the basement. It was here that I was reminded of the first rule when touring a house, dress for the occasion. I’m already very tall so adding in 1/2 inch heals and sending me into old homes and over icy driveways in boots with no traction was a recipe for disaster. In fact, the seller’s agent commented on how nervous I looked going down the steps. I blamed it on the small stairs and my large feet (size 11), but the heals are staying home next time.

We went around to visit the adjacent townhouse, which was partially remodeled and also for sale, for $50k over what we could handle. Our agent quietly pointed out the cheapness the new kitchen cabinets and other fixtures. While was interesting to see what could be done with the unit in our price range, we could tell immediately that this was going to be way too much house for us and that it would take, at minimum, if we did the majority of the work ourselves and relied on my connections with the architectural industry for advice, contractor recommendations, and materials, at least $40k worth of work before we’d be able to live in it.

The next place we looked at was located in the same area as the first house we fell in love with, the small home I feared we let get away the week before. The asking price for this house was at the high end of our comfort level, and it was represented by the seller who managed the open house we tried to visit two weeks earlier that drew so many visitors we gave up without ever going inside. This told us that no matter how much we liked the house, we were not going to get it. Still, we wanted to see it, and we were glad we did. It looked just like the stunning photos used in the listing, we could tell the home was well-loved and required little to no work to move in (the owners made such thoughtful improvements the most we could see changing was the color of a couple walls), the asking price was only slightly below the max amount we were willing to spend, and in this market we were positive there would be an immediate and expensive bidding war. We were right; the sale is already pending.

Finally, we came to the house I would tell everyone about at work the next day. This house was located in an area we’d never been to before and had the most delightful and terrifying amenities. First, because it had been empty most of the winter, the deep snow sat untouched so we had to walk across an inch thick slab of ice to get to the door. Inside we were greeted by a dated kitchen and views from the window of a busy commercial road with an outlet mall beyond. We chuckled nervously upon seeing four locks on the inside of the front door. Egads, what went on in here. This would not be the worst.

Exiting the kitchen into what appeared to be a living room, we were greeted immediately by the stench of cat piss. A lot of cat piss. When I was a kid, we adopted an adult female cat from one of my high school friends. We knew this cat was shy, but it didn’t take long for us to figure out that it must have been abused. If someone raised his or her voice around the cat, she would immediately pee. My parents had a somewhat volatile relationship, never violent, and there was a lot of yelling in our house, so I lived with that smell for a long time. She was just one cat, and I still have trouble visiting my parents because the smell is still present more than a decade later. However, this was a home that must have hoarded several improperly cared for animals. My husband and I have two male cats in our apartment, and we knew right away that no matter how much we cleaned and disinfected, ripped up and replaced, that the smell would still be detectable to them. It would not be a good situation.

The fun continued and the smell got worse as we traveled deeper into the house. We saw more locks on the outside of bedrooms and leading to the second level, encountered two safes in different rooms (one a badass large safe), and the grand finale, a server setup in the basement. Later I would look the address up and discover the place was just a failed data retrieval business, but it was more fun to suggest nefarious activities, such as offshore gambling, went on inside. I saw a door down in the basement with a hole cut in the bottom, large enough for an animal. Our eyes all started to water when we opened the door to reveal the source of the strongest odor, the room where all the cats must have lived.

This is a photo from the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas

This is a photo from the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas

I’m all for a house that needs work, but this was too much. Structurally, it seemed fine, and surprisingly the exterior and the roof looked great. However, the costs to make this place work would bankrupt us. Someone had messed up both of the fireplaces (I feared what an inspector would say), all the carpets and floorboards would need to be ripped up and replaced, and, despite the convenience, our real estate agent strongly suggested we might not want to live right next door to a gas station. The final nail in the coffin for this house was that it was a foreclosure, which meant auction, which meant a lot of factors we didn’t really understand as first time home buyers.

I’m trying hard not to be discouraged. Not counting our year of procrastination, we’ve only been at this for three weeks. We’ve been to six houses so far, entered five, and today we are looking at four more. This is the beginning of the season, which started late this year because of Boston’s ridiculous winter, but I still know the real estate market in this area sucks due to the large number of buyers and a low inventory of options. It’s early, and we haven’t seen enough places to have come across the right house yet. We’ve entered both pipe dreams and nightmares, but nothing in the middle. I’m hopeful that when the market really starts to pick up we will start seeing homes that meet our basic needs, force us to get creative with the budget we have for immediate improvements, and allow us to finally host more than one person at a time in our living room.

Up Next: Paying Off My Student Loan

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Dipping our toes in

After months of procrastinating and making excuses–and a head-clearing vacation in Colorado–my husband and I finally came up with a plan to move our house hunt forward. We would rent a ZipCar and visit a few open houses on Sunday, my husband would make us an appointment with our bank on Friday to get pre-approved for a number we were more comfortable with, and I would reach out to a real estate agent recommended to me by a colleague.

As luck would have it, she was available to meet with us Sunday morning before we picked up the car. We spent an hour chatting in her office about our wants and needs, and together we looked at a few current and past listings so she could get a sense of what piqued our interest and what made certain properties nonstarters for us. She seemed to understand the towns and neighborhoods we were considering and suggested a few others we hadn’t thought about. Overall we felt pretty good about our meeting. She gave us another name of a lender she thought would be better for us and told us she would follow up with access to the MLS (the preferred way to look for homes) and the names of the inspector and attorney she works with so we could look into their credentials. The three of us would email during the week and decide on some homes to visit together the following weekend.

Lesson #3 Get out and see some houses

After rushing back to pick up the rental car, we drove up to the first open house and witnessed our first taste of real estate mayhem. Because Boston has had a record-setting winter, the snow was piled up everywhere, leaving little room to park on most residential streets. These snow mounds, combined with the low inventory of houses and some pretty stunning photos of the property, created so much congestion on the street that each car had to drive single-file, one at a time, past all the other cars (into a cul-de-sac). Because we knew the asking price for this house was at the high end of our comfort zone for a home loan, we left without seeing the place. Later, we learned that someone put in a bid that was $20k cash over the asking price but it was still “significantly lower” than the winning bid.

We had a couple hours before we’d be able to visit the place we were most excited about so we went to the open house for a condo in Somerville that was surprisingly in our price range. The layout and interior were nice, but upon arrival we knew this was not the right place for us. Still, it was good to take a look and see for ourselves.

Yes, I was taken in solely by the name.

Yes, I was taken in solely by the name.

Not far away from this condo was the Tavern at the End of the World. We’ve driven by this place so many times and I fantasized for years about what it would be like, but we’d never been inside. It just made sense that we should go there to grab a sandwich and a drink. Surprisingly, the interior was pretty nondescript, but it had an decent selection of beers and the food was excellent.

The last house we visited was the one that put our house search back on track. A few days after we returned from our vacation, I received an email from Zillow with this listing and fell in love. It looked like a place I wanted to call home. I forwarded the listing to my husband, which spurred the conversation that led to this weekend’s excursion.

In person, the house was just as was adorable as its photos. The place was very small, but it had little touches that both of us loved, and best of all, the price was low enough we could take the hit of a bidding war. It was a bit too isolated but still close enough to enough bus routes that I was feeling optimistic, and we were delighted to discover that the homeowner was a brewer. I think if that kegerator and beer setup came with the house, my husband would have put in an offer for it immediately. In fact, he did suggest we put down a number, but I thought it was a mistake to try and buy one of the first houses we’d seen, so we let the deadline for bids pass without doing a thing.

I felt weak and kicked myself after the status changed to “Pending” on the first house we both loved. But, it was important for me to remind myself that there were things I didn’t like about the place, despite how lovely it was, and I’d made the right decision. These weren’t tiny aesthetic problems, and I could see big money down the line trying to resolve the issues I had with the place.  Besides our next adventure was coming.

Up next: We go out with the real estate agent

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