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Reflections on House Hunting

Friday, January 7, 2011, 18:39 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Home for saleFriends and attentive readers know that I started looking for a house to buy last May. I really didn’t think I could afford to own a home, but a few persistent people suggested I inquire to a mortgage lender and undergo the pre-approval process. The worst that could happen is that my fears would be confirmed and I would continue to rent. To my surprise, I found that I qualified for a certain type of low-down-payment mortgage and that based on my income and credit report, I could actually get a mortgage for way more than I could actually afford if I ever wanted to take a modest vacation, go out to eat, or have cable TV. I looked at my finances, came up with a realistic price limit taking into account my actual lifestyle and the cash I had for a down payment. Once I decided I was ready to become a first-time home buyer, I hit the internet.

What did we do without the internet? Prospective home buyers went to a real estate agent, discussed what they were looking for and what they could afford, and then waited for the agent to call with suggestions of houses to see. Occasionally, a buyer would drive by a house with a “for sale” sign in front or perhaps hear about an available property by word-of-mouth, and the agent would arrange a showing. But for the most part, the buyer waited for properties to be brought to him or her.

Now, thanks to Al Gore, we can go online to any number of real estate agency web sites and search properties for sale in the Multiple Listing Service. And that’s what I did. I came up with a list of houses that fit my basic criteria for price, living space, lot size, number of rooms, and other features (anything with electric heat or an unpaved driveway, for example, was out from the start). I was pathological about it, creating a spreadsheet with all the pertinent information and updating it as I went along. From that list, I started looking deeper, running directions in Google maps to get a sense of commuting times to my office, doing drive-bys, and/or having my agent gather additional information to determine if a property was worth seeing. Then we made appointments to see what had survived the preliminary level of scrutiny.

After seeing several houses that first day (a warm and sunny Memorial Day weekend, it was), I made an offer on the first house I saw. It was a short sale, as was much of what I looked at, and unfortunately the sale fell through when the seller’s bank nixed the deal. After seeing lots more property, I made an offer on another house, also a short sale, in August. After much waiting, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, that one was approved a week before Christmas. I hope to close before the end of the month.

Last night, I met the listing agent at the house and did some measuring and other note taking about things I had missed the other times I was there. As I did, I remembered that I still had my property spreadsheet on my flash drive.

Looking at the spreadsheet again after several months was like a comical stroll through an old photo album. Reading my notes, I was able to call to mind a surprising number of the properties and laughed at some of what I saw. There was the antique colonial that reminded me of the house in which my father grew up, the 1950’s ranch with the kitchen that looked like it hadn’t been updated since it was built, the ranch/contemporary with the illegal apartment in the basement, the bank-owned split level that had six inches of water in the lower level from when the water tank leaked and there was no one there to notice, the otherwise charming house whose renters used one of the bedrooms for their various pet birds and let them fly free around the room (yes, the hardwood floor was as disgusting as you’re probably thinking).

The more I remembered, the more I wondered what happened to these houses. In my price range and for what I wanted, almost everything I looked at needed work, and with a glut of inventory on the market, some of those houses threatened to sit unsold for a good long time. I went back to the online MLS database to see what the status of all those houses was now.

What I found was that a surprising number of them had sold, most for under the listing prices (which had been lowered several times in many cases before they finally sold) but a few for a little more than what was asked. The latter group were mostly foreclosed properties that had to be rehabbed and might have had multiple investors outbidding each other. One sold for $55,000. I didn’t actually see that one, but I did a drive-by and it was in a lousy neighborhood. Still, how bad must it have been inside to go for $55,000 in the year 2010?

Several properties were taken off the market, probably because the owners didn’t really have to sell and weren’t willing to lose a bundle or because they were short sales that the mortgagees wouldn’t let go for such low prices. The status of one house was listed as “killed/removed,” which got me wondering who or what was killed and by whom. A few are under agreement and a few more are still available.

The remarkable thing I realized is that I looked into or at a sh!tload of houses, 129 total in one way or another. I did preliminary inquiries about 32 and went no farther based on what I found out. I drove by and eliminated 74 others that were in lousy neighborhoods, had unmanageable yards, or showed visible signs of poor condition. And I had full viewings of the remaining 23 properties. And that’s without ever considering a condominium, duplex, or multi-family house. No wonder I found the process so exhausting.

If everything goes as planned over the next few weeks, I won’t have to look at any more houses. There is even a chance that this first house of mine will be my last. And that will be just fine. I’ve had my fill of house-hunting, thank you very much. If I ever have the desire to relive the experience, I’ll always have my spreadsheet.

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