House hunting: Why and how it went down

posted by harlie in home, shopping

As you know, we bought a house (holy crap!). We had been looking for a house for the last few months. And, for those who don’t know: house hunting is hard. Those of you who know how true this is are sagely nodding your heads or are thinking, “No shit, Sherlock.”

We long ago narrowed it down to a few neighborhoods. The many of the schools in California are in dire straits, so we had a pretty good idea of the handful of communities we wanted to move into. That is, the ones with strong school districts. We’ve been living in Oakland which is, sadly, NOT one of those communities. Not by a long shot. This was disappointing because whatever you may have heard about Oakland in the news, it’s not a terrible place to live. Yes, it has terrible areas, but it also has some really wonderful neighborhoods that are pretty much free of violence. Neighborhoods where you can walk to the store with your kids or stroll down to the corner sidewalk cafe and enjoy lunch or just an ice cream cone before heading to see a movie at the local theater.

This is the kind of area where we’ve been living and we love it. Our walk score is 97. Seriously. It doesn’t get much better than that. It’s awesome. When I was on maternity leave, I never had to worry about anything being too far to get to. Grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, gyms, salons, hardware stores, day spas, craft and fabric stores, a theater…all within a few blocks of our house. But it’s still the city and it’s still Oakland; we have people digging through our recycling, pickpockets, car break-ins, muggings, addicts in the street, and the very occasional shooting. Whoa. That sounds really bad, but it’s not. I promise. Our personal track record: one stolen purse (my mom’s), one pick-pocketed wallet (the Mr’s) and one broken-in car (mine). But all of that is something you can recover from if you act quickly. Just…don’t walk down dark street after sundown and don’t be hanging out on the street at 2am and you’ll pretty much avoid the rest. And if you’re like us, you don’t really want to be doing any of that anyhow because Lil’Man’s bedtime is before sundown (during the summer, anyhow) and once he’s asleep, you want to get as much prepped for the next day before diving into bed yourself. Especially when he has started waking up at 1AM wanting milk and/or hugs.

Anyhow, I promise it’s a nice place to live and it’s especially a great place for a street-wise adult. We are going to miss the convenience of all the shops and restaurants being nearby. Forgot eggs or ran out of milk? No problem, the store is 5 minutes away if I walk. Craving some artisan gelato? It’s right down the street. Broke a needle on your sewing machine? That shop is open late on Saturday. Craving French burgers Vietnamese Ethiopian tapas just about anything? I’ll go grab some takeout. We have gotten so spoiled here, it’s not funny. But it’s not the kind of place where a kid can roam and explore and it’s just not where we want to raise our son.

Both the Mr and I grew up in semi-rural areas (him more rural, me more suburban) and we want that experience for our kids. We want a place where he can walk out the front door and play basketball in the driveway. A place where he can bike around the neighborhood without most motorists speeding down the street and where there aren’t cars lining both sides of every street and possible on-coming traffic just around the bend. We want him to have his choice of trees to climb and dirt to dig in. We want an area that encourages being outdoors with parks and hiking trails. And as parents, we also want an area with great schools.

Sometimes it seems like an impossible list to fit in our budget.

We interviewed a few realtors and all of them warned us: we could fall in love and buy the first house we saw or it might take a year or two to find just the right one. They warned us that the market is crazy, even now. I had a co-worker who made offers on twenty-six homes before his offer was accepted. Yikes! And because the market had stabilized some, more and more people started looking for homes just as sellers (particularly banks) started to hold onto homes a bit longer because they saw prices rising again. Buyers with deep pockets who had been waiting for the market to bottom out were entering the market with all-cash offers. So, yes: still crazy and quickly becoming a seller’s market.

Well, we didn’t fall in love with the first house we saw. Or the second. Or the dozens after that. But after looking at what felt like a couple hundred houses, we put in an offer for a house that we felt needed a lot of updating, but also had a lot of potential. Sadly, we didn’t get the place (as I posted before), so we kept looking.

A few weeks later, we visited another house. It had been on the market for over a month and I’d bookmarked it in my browser weeks before. I hadn’t pressed our realtor to go see it because 1) it was at the very,very tippy top of our price range, 2) it was a two story, when we had been focusing on ranch homes because: stairs, 3) the backyard photos showed a lot of slope with not a lot of useful space, and 4) the “remodeled” kitchen had the fridge sitting in front of a window. A SOUTH FACING WINDOW! It’s right there in the listing photos. Just completely blocking a window and exposing the condensing coils to a plethora of thermal load. I mean, who pays out big bucks to remodel and doesn’t properly account for the fridge and what other impractical weirdness have they inflicted on their home? I ask you. Seriously…who does that? If nothing else, I had to see the horrid craziness of this house.

But, fridge weirdness aside, it turned out to be a great house! The yard is sloped, but it’s not as steep as the photos made it appear. And while we had been leaning toward getting a ranch home, this home was laid out in such a way that we wouldn’t need to be trekking up and down stairs all the time. So, we made an offer. Since the home obviously needed some work *coughthekitchencough* and it had been on the market for over a month (highly unusual and a possible red flag since homes around here often sell with multiple offers within the first week or two) we sent in a lower-than-asking bid to the selling couple and waited.

Apparently, the wife looked at our offer and balked. She didn’t even want to dignify it with a counter-offer. Fortunately, her husband is a realtor and wasn’t too surprised. We counter and counter-countered for a while. After a bit of back and forth, we were close. We verbally asked the sellers if they would reduce the price 1% more (that sounds small, but house prices are insane out here and it still comes out to a good chunk of money) and have a done deal. But then another potential buyer came into the picture. His realtor was out of town, so he requested 24 hours from the sellers if they got another counter from us. Having researched the trends in our area, we knew that most bidding wars ended with the sales price either being higher than asking or with an all-cash offer. We weren’t able to do either. The last counter to us was higher than we wanted to pay, but they had offered to complete a good chunk of the work that an inspector had designated as needing to be done ASAP. That was going to save us money, but also time that would need to be spent dealing with the contractors. If we accepted their offer, we’d be paying more than we’d hoped. We were ok to get a slightly larger loan and could afford the increase in payments with some budget tweaking. If we let another bid come in, we could potentially lose the house. We weren’t ok with that. We swallowed hard and signed their last offer.

We were finally under contract for a house. Yikes!

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