On buying a house, settling in, and losing track of time

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Has it really been nearly a month since I last posted in this dear ol’ blog? Oh, man. That was … unintentional. I did not intend to stop blogging here, but in reality, this May, I ceased much of my blogging activity as we worked to finalize the sale of our house, move, and settle into our new *first* home. It’s been … a process, and one that has seemingly consumed much of my attention.

Well, to be specific, the first week we were here, it was all about unpacking. Unpacking, unpacking, unpacking. I could not be STILL unless I was opening some other box, putting something away, organizing a pantry, or pestering J into finishing a few outstanding projects so that the rooms would actually, you know, look like rooms. Some things took a little longer (like putting my books on shelves), but that first week it was all go-go-go, don’t stop, all-stress, all-the-time. Clearly, I’m not the sort to live out of boxes, but happily I can say that the main house was all unpacked and generally put “away” by the end of that first week. Yay for out-of-control determination!

Last week, meanwhile, was about trying to slow down and actually enjoy the house, while simultaneously entertaining guests (well, my brother) and then planning for a long weekend trip to Cincinnati over Memorial Day (for my cousin’s wedding). Suffice it to say, in the down time I had, I was more concerned with settling into the rhythms of our new place, figuring out what will soon be our routines here, as well as getting overwhelmed with the idea of PROJECTS and EVERYTHING THAT NEEDS TO BE DONE and MONEY TO PAY FOR THOSE PROJECTS. Also: let’s dwell on all the furniture and fun decorative items I want to buy … and stay on budget! Whee!

Now, I’m feeling a little more in the groove and am ready to start blogging about perhaps the most important thing that could happen to a blog with the word “home” in its name. We’ve only been here two weeks so far, but it’s starting to feel more and more like “home” everyday. In fact, coming back from Cincinnati this weekend was the first time we’ve officially “returned” here after a long trip, and I was surprised at how much I missed being here. Of course, I was also worried about how our cats were faring spending their first weekend home alone, but that’s just me being too emotionally attached to our cats.

There’s so many posts that I could – and will! – write about this house, but I think the best place to start is a reflection on what got us here in the first place: the house-buying process.

Finding the house

The entire month of April was a long string of frustration because while we were under contract for this house beginning March 31, we were both (rightfully) wary of saying anything until the official closing on April 30. That’s an entire month where, even though house-hunting was consuming every thought we had, we couldn’t. say. a. word. Oh, the agony. Our parents and close friends had their fill, I’m sure.

First, I can describe finding and snagging this house in one word: luck. Since we went under contract, it seems that I’ve read dozens of articles describing the bustling housing market this spring, with buyers seemingly coming out of the woodwork, ready to buy with cash on hand. It’s a sellers’ market, they say, and oh man were they right. We didn’t end up looking at many houses before finding “ours”, but I did look at one on a Wednesday – one day after it had gone on the market. I liked it, and told my real estate agent I wanted J to look at it the following evening. We set a time for 6 pm. By noon on Thursday, our agent had emailed us to say the house had already gone under contract.

I’ve been hearing similar stories not only in the Michigan county where we live, but also in surrounding cities. My best friend and her husband are looking for their first home in Columbus, OH – same budget, looking for the same general thing – and are running into one frustration after another.

Which is why finding this home – and then getting it under contract – was so lucky. So, so lucky. If I were religious, I’d say some greater power had a hand in this, but since I’m not, I refer to what my mom always says: everything happens for a reason. In an abbreviated fashion, here’s how it happened:

  •  In early/mid-December, J and I find the house on Zillow as a “Make Me Move” house. “Make Me Move”, for those not in the Zillow-know, means sellers can put their house on Zillow before it’s on sale to see what kind of interest there is. The price they give isn’t the list price, but a suggested price.
  • J and I FALL IN LOVE  with the house because: a) it’s everything we wanted with only a few compromises, b) it’s exactly where we wanted to live, and most importantly, c) it’s in our price range! Even better – it’s BELOW our max! Psyched, we email the seller via Zillow letting them know that heyyyy, we love your house and would love to see it when it’s up for sale. The Zillow listing says the house won’t be on the market until late January/early February anyway, but hey, that’s cool, because that’s when we were planning on starting our search anyway. FATE, I tell you.
  • A few weeks later, the seller actually emails us back (!) and says thanks for the interest, the house will be up for sale early next year, it will be for sale by owner, and hopefully you can take a look at it. Feeling smug, we wait and refer to the house during preliminary searches as the standard by which we compare every other house. In retrospect, we got our hopes up REALLY high about this house, so it’s a good thing it worked out.
  • February arrives, and the house still isn’t on the market, so we’re curious. We email the seller (again, it’s a good thing everything worked out because we could have totally freaked this lady out), and again, shocker, she responds.  She says, oh sorry, I know we said early February, but we’ve got issues of some sort, so it’ll probably be early March.
  • March arrives, still not on the market. We’re getting antsy. We’ve already talked to our real estate agents, set up MLS searches, and secured preliminary financing. We email AGAIN, and she responds AGAIN. Tells us: two weeks, promise. We’re doing some repairs, getting moved into our new house, you know how things go. But hey! We’ll give you guys first looksies, since you’ve been so patient. COMMENCE HAPPY DANCE.
  • Mid-March: HOUSE STILL NOT ON MARKET. Panic starting to set in. We’re looking at houses. I want to look more. J wants to hold out for the magic house. I say, “What if it never goes up for sale? What if the owner changes their mind? What if the final list price is more than our budget? What if, what if, what if????”
  • End of March: J says, please email her one more time. One more time, I say. I email ONE MORE TIME. She responds (!):  well, we were planning on doing a few more repairs in the next 10 days, but if you guys wanted to take a look BEFORE, we could set up a showing for this Friday? Now, mind you, remember: this house is not even on the market. We’ve just been creeping on this lady’s email for three months, throwing all our hopes into this basket and totally not even using our real estate agent. However upon receipt of this email, it’s as if the sun is coming out from behind a cloud and suddenly it feels like ALL OUR CRAZY HOPES MIGHT BE WORTH IT.
  • Also remember: we haven’t even seen the house. But we figure if the house is even a little bit like the pictures, we need to jump on it. Because oh yeah, she’s listing the house at the Make Me Move price, the one that got us all excited in December. However, knowing the local real estate market, we know that if we have a chance to get this house, we have to try our damnedest. Our real estate agent, knowing how we feel, tells us to play it cool at the showing.
  • We try to take his advice but omgosh, the house is perfect and I’m already planning furniture placement five minutes in. Luckily, the real estate agent remembers to be cool and asks some really good questions.
  • After we shake hands and head out to our cars, we tell our agent we want to make an offer. Tonight. We do, asking for the listing price. We leave his office sometime around 6 or 7 pm. By 9 or 10 pm that night, she had accepted.

Under contract

But the process didn’t end there; no, in fact, I’d have to say that the most stressful parts were still to come. If anything, getting our offer accepted almost seemed easy, if that makes any sense. Yes, we worked hard to establish a relationship with the seller, continually showed our interest, and acted fast in a hot market with (what I think is) a sensible offer, but everything happened so fast, it seemed like a blur the next day.

The next month, however, was definitely the pits. As much as I loved finding *our* home, I can comfortably say that I’m OK not buying another house for a long, long time. If there are any first-time home buyers out there, here’s a quick rundown of what to expect:

  • Immediately, you need to get that preliminary mortgage approval turned into an official approval. Then, a week or so later, head into your mortgage office and sign 10,000 papers that effectively detail how your life is going to be tied up in this loan until you’re old and gray (or 30 years, whichever comes first).
  • Suddenly, you need to turn into an expert on home-related professionals. You need to immediately find what will hopefully be the best home inspector in town, and hire him/her for the inspection within seven days of your offer being accepted. Those seven days are the only times you, as a buyer, can make amendments to the final contract – whether it’s the stipulations or price – and it all depends on what happens during this inspection period. If you’re lucky, you have friends who have bought houses relatively recently who can offer you a few names. If you’re luckier, your real estate agent rocks and gives you even more names.
  • During said home inspection, spend the entire time praying that he doesn’t find a nest of termites or major roof damage. Listen to all the terrible things about your house-to-be, and start seeing your carefree renters lifestyle disappearing.
  • Also during inspection time, think about bringing in any other professionals who may be able to tell you similarly heartbreaking things about your house. We had a drain inspection (good), and a mold inspection (not so good).
  • Act like you know what you’re doing and try to “re-negotiate” with the sellers at the end of the inspection period if it turns out you need some “concession costs”. We ended getting $900 in closing costs to pay for some mold remediation in the basement (grumble, grumble).
  • Then, you get to shell out the BIG bucks to pay for a home appraisal. This is where things start getting dicey. So, you’re already set on a sale price, including how much you’ll be paying down and how much you’ll be borrowing from your lender. Well, your lender will only lend you so much, based on what the house is WORTH. So, if you’re buying a $100,000 house, and you put $25,000 down, the bank can lend you the remaining $75,000 if you’ve been pre-approved for that amount. But if the house is only worth $85,000, then the bank will only lend you $60,000. If the seller won’t lower their asking price, you’re stuck ponying up the remaining $15,000 … or risk dropping the deal altogether. I know … STRESSFUL.
  • Meanwhile, you need to be shopping around for homeowners insurance. Our mortgage lender gave us a ballpark estimate of what a year’s worth of homeowner’s insurance should cost, and that’s really the only information I had to go on. In the end, we ended up NOT going with the company where we originally had car insurance. And this month, we ended switching even those policies to our new insurance company, which is all just the biggest headache.
  • Then, there’s closing, but more importantly, the WAITING BEFORE CLOSING. Ahhhh! So much impatience! Meanwhile, you’re supposed to be packing, because now that the appraisal is back, you know you’re getting the house FOR SURE, but man, packing sucks.

And that’s about it. Gosh, does it suck. Add in the hour I spent trying to figure out the math used to calculate our down payment (because I just have to know these things, and of course there were Excel spreadsheets involved), and it’s just one long, stressful headache.

Team awesome

But, in all reality, I can not lie: our house-buying process was relatively painless. Or, it was better than it could have been. Again, I think of luck. A small amount of mold was really the only issue raised during the inspection. The house appraised well. We were able to spend $25,000 less than our original budget limit, which turned out to be best for the bank account. We found pretty great insurance rates, even if we had to switch companies.

And, most importantly, at the end of the day, we bought a house we love, in a neighborhood we adore, and we can’t wait to build our life here. Now that it’s all over, I can definitely say that relaxing in my living room, listening to jazz while a candle burns, is definitely worth the trouble.

I attribute much of that pain-free experience to the amazing team we had working in our corner. As I get older, I realize that customer service plays such a huge role in determining where I do business, and the treatment J and I received during this process attests to that. Even though they were local, I found my real estate agent on Twitter – they (a husband and wife team) were “online acquaintances” that I formed during my time as a small town reporter, and I couldn’t be happier with the experience. Sure, we found the house ourselves, but we absolutely depended on our agent for guidance and direction. And keeping us sane. And responding to our crazy emails at 11 pm.

Even our mortgage lender was, believe it or not, awesome. They were recommended by our agents, so it’s no surprise. J actually contacted two other lenders before – one sent us a general “quote” via email, one said to call back when we were closer to buying. This company invited us to their office to talk with one of their principal mortgage experts, who then proceeded to explain the entire process of financing a house during a hour that was never billed, but graciously done via their good will. A few days after our meeting, we received a follow-up note from them, thanking us for considering them. That was it, we were sold. The women from that first meeting came to our closing (even though she really didn’t have to) and brought sparkling apple cider (it was at 9 am). We really couldn’t have been happier.

I’d even have to say working with the seller wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be. At first, I was worried, but once we were under contract, our agent acted as the intermediary, which made communication very professional and easy. She was also at the closing, and while we signed 10,000 more papers, told us about all the neat bits about our new neighborhood.

But at the end of the day, I am sure glad it’s over. Oh, so, so, so glad. I will admit it’s hard for me to now commiserate with my similarly frustrated, home-buying friends since, like I’ve said, I feel that J and I have been so lucky during this process. However, I do believe in that mantra of my mom’s: things happen for a reason. Yes, looking for a house is hard (and apparently even more so in this market). But you will find *your* home, and it will work out, because at the end of the day, that’s where you were meant to live.

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