Monday, October 1, 2012



Spoiler version: a tale told in tweets

  • [Wed Sept 12 4:15 PM] Hey, we just saw you / and this is crazy / but here's our offer / so own you, maybe?
  • [Wed Sept 12 6:40 PM] You have to weigh the cost of a house vs the opportunity costs. I mean, that's a LOT of mochas & cookies worth of money we're talking about...
  • [Thur Sept 13 1:35 PM] So yeah, it turns out that it's really hard to concentrate on other things when you're expecting to hear back about your house offer... :P
  • [Thur Sept 13 4:53 PM] Our offer was accepted!! (contingent on inspection, of course) And our "personal letter" with this photo helped get it!
  • [Fri Sept 14 7:06 PM] I'm making up a list of home maintenance tasks. OMG how is there so much to dooooooo? *whine*
  • [Sat Sept 15 5:58 PM] Alrighty. That's enough drooling over garden ideas for one day. ;)
  • [Wed Sept 19 12:15 PM] The sellers agreed to ALL our repair requests! We'd been warned how difficult it could be, but buying this house has been great so far. :D
  • [Wed Sept 19 3:38 PM] Since we're pretty sure we're going to close on this house without issues at this point, I feel okay sharing photos!
  • [Wed Sept 19 6:28 PM] Suddenly I am like, SUBSCRIBE TO ALL THE HOMES & GARDENS.

The long story...

"Just looking," ha ha

On September 8th, while I was visiting Forrest in Seattle for our 1-year anniversary, we decided to look at some houses for sale. It was mostly on a whim; while we'd be watching the market closely for an entire year, and we did have our down payment ready, we didn't think we were quite ready to actually buy a house. But going to open houses and touring some others with a Redfin agent sounded kinda fun, so we just went ahead and did it.

This was, of course, a dangerous idea.

Among the eight houses we looked at, we saw one that we actually really liked. It was a beautiful house with a huge, open, airy second floor addition. It had mature pear and apple trees in the front yard. It had a generous first floor with a kitchen that was well-connected to the living and dining rooms. It was the only house on the tour that we really liked, and that excitement was hard to ignore.

It had some issues, though. For one thing, the basement was practically inaccessible. The sellers had built this big backyard deck built of Trex — but they built it on top of the basement door. They had this cellar door type access to it, but without hinges — you had to lift the two doors up and set them aside, then drop down vertically to the basement door underneath the deck. Since Forrest wanted a workshop, we would have to make the basement access more sane, which would probably involve tearing out the nice, obviously new, deck.

The backyard was a little small and right up against a busy street. The noise didn't really bother us, and I told myself that bigger yards really didn't exist this close to downtown Seattle... The half of the yard that wasn't taken up by the deck was covered with paving tile. Yet another thing we'd want to tear out.

A third problem was that the house was heated with oil. We wanted a gas stove, and gas lines to the backyard for brewing beer. That would mean converting the house from oil to gas, then properly decommissioning the oil tank.

The fourth, and major, problem was the foundation. It was post and pier construction, which does not do well in earthquakes. In fact, our Redfin agent told us that some insurance companies won't even sell you earthquake regular homeowners insurance if you have that type of foundation. It was enough to make these two native Californians nervous.

Updated, Oct 2: Forrest corrected me that the insurance situation was even worse than I had realized.

Almost making an offer

But before we had really thought through all of the above negative points, we were just excited, liking the rest of the house. The master bedroom really was amazing, with very high, sloping ceilings and a balcony with a view (if you craned your neck ;)) of the snow-covered Olympics. So we told our agent that we wanted to put in an offer.

Our Redfin agent was really great, both in telling us exactly what we needed to do to aggressively move forward with a competitive offer (there were already other offers on the house), who to contact to get pre-approved over the weekend (since we didn't think we were really looking at houses, we hadn't bothered to get pre-approved), and then was extremely kind and understanding when we woke up the next morning, freaked out, thought better of the whole thing, and decided not to put in an offer after all.

The very fast-paced almost-offer did help us out a lot, though. First, it clarified for us what was actually important in a house (we hadn't realized that an accessible workshop and a better yard were really dealbreakers for us) and what was merely optional (the decor was nice, but it didn't make up for the other things). Second, it made us get all our financial documentation in line, since we had forwarded it all to the pre-approval guy.

We decided to take it more slowly, now that we knew what we wanted and now that we had all our papers ready. There would be other houses.

Second time's the charm

Wouldn't you know it, "other houses" showed up as Forrest was driving me to the airport on the Tuesday after our weekend of open houses. This new house looked good on paper, and it had an open house the next day, mid-afternoon. Forrest agreed to check it out. (Because we had agreed on virtually everything about every house we looked at together, we were both comfortable with Forrest "ruling out" houses that I didn't need to bother seeing and letting me know if he found a house good enough for me to fly up to see.)

This is how I ended up buying a last-minute ticket back up to Seattle less than 24 hours since I had return to the Bay Area.

The Wednesday "open house" that Forrest had attended wasn't a normal open house, but rather a "brokers' open house", technically open to the public but scheduled midday and midweek and specifically meant for real estate agents. We didn't know this at the time, of course; the house showed up on Redfin and Forrest wandered on in. The brokers' open house explains why all the other "buyers" he saw there were dressed in business suits, and why the listing agent's assistant seemed surprised by Forrest's presence. ;)

The house turned out to be even better in real life than on paper, so Forrest wanted me to see it and then make an offer. We contacted our Redfin agent, to whom we apologized for having cold feet on the last house but this time we're sure, we promise. She arranged for us to see the house bring and early (read: 9 AM) on Thursday morning.

When I saw the house, I completely agreed with Forrest: this house would be a great fit for us, and the price was right.

One thing that was unusual about viewing the house: the sellers were still living in it! They had cleared out the vast majority of their possessions, but we found their microwave hiding in an out-of-the-way closet, clothes in the master bedroom's closet... and the sellers themselves camped out in the basement, trying to stay out of our way as much as possible!

I think our agent was a little worried about them being there while we looked at the house. But they turned out to be very friendly, nice people. The woman reminded us of one of Forrest's aunts (in a good way). In some parallel universe, where it wouldn't be excessively weird to socialize with the previous owners of your new house, I wouldn't mind hanging out with her. Anyway, I chatted with them, pet their three cats, told them about our two cats, and asked for advice on how to maintain the garden. Later, our agent said she was quite pleased with how the conversation had gone. :P

After we were done looking around at everything, we walked from the house to a nearby cafe with our agent to put together our offer! There had already been two other offers, so we knew we had to be aggressive. We took our agent's advice in writing the offer (because really, that's what she was there for).

Then I mentioned that I had heard of people writing personal letters to include along with their offer. Forrest had never heard of it and thought it sounded a little weird. Our agent had definitely heard of the practice, though, and said that it couldn't hurt. So we went home to write a personal letter while our agent finished getting the rest of the paperwork in order.

Updated, Oct 2: Apparently Forrest had heard of these personal letters before. My memory is of him being reluctant about the idea of writing one, but he says he thought they were a good idea. Not sure how to reconcile our opposite memories except to state both our memories. :P

Waiting is soooooo hard

We wrote up a personal letter talking about how much we loved the wood throughout the house, the intact period character, and the yard. We included photos of us and the cats. We saved the letter as a PDF so it would withstand whatever forwarding shenanigans it might go through, emailed it to our agent at 12:30 PM, and then we waited.

We were technically back at work by this point, but neither of us could really concentrate. We kept checking our emails and our phones for any contact from our agent. We pointlessly speculated. We called our respective parental units to share our nervous excitement.

Finally, at 3 PM, we got a good news / bad news call from our agent. Bad news: there was a higher offer. Good news: despite the higher offer, the sellers wanted us to have the house! But only if we were willing to match the higher offer. The way multiple bids work (at least in the Seattle real estate market) is a little like eBay: buyers submit their offer, their highest price, and the increments by which they will "automatically" outbid other buyers up until their highest price. The higher offer had pushed us to our highest price, then gone up by an increment to beat our price. The sellers counteroffered us, saying that if we would go up one more increment to match this higher offer, they would sell the house to us.

We thought about it briefly, but we were pretty comfortable going up one more increment (because we had previously been firm about not putting our "highest price" automatic bid number higher than we were genuinely comfortable with). We agreed to the counteroffer. The house would be ours — pending contingencies!

We later found out that the exposed wood trim, which we had complimented in our personal letter, had originally been painted when the owners bought the house. They had spent three years of their own time meticulously stripping the paint. So we suspect that they especially liked us calling out that detail in our letter. What luck! :)

Inspections go well

We had a general inspector out the next day, Friday, to look over everything. He said that when he looks at old houses, he usually has bad news to tell the buyers, but in our case the house actually looked in good condition. We were so relieved to hear that; I had been psyching myself up for multiple tens of thousands of dollars in terrible repairs, something bad enough to make us walk. But nothing like that was found!

The only major issue with the crumbling mortar of the chimney in the basement. But when we had the specialist chimney inspector come out to look at it, he said the rest of the chimney was sound. Only the obviously crumbling section needed to be tuck-pointed, and then it would be fine.

Even more exciting, the sellers agreed to all of our (intentionally modest) list of repairs to be completed or credited against the purchase price. At this point, there is really no reason for the deal to fall through!

The house itself

The house is a 1925 Craftsman, with beautiful wood floors and wide exposed wood trim throughout. It's not too big — 980 square feet — and has a room layout that makes the most of the square footage. The previous owners didn't do any remodels, so it's kept its period character; and they did appear to do regular home maintenance, so it's in good shape.

It's technically a 2-bedroom house, but the front room adjacent to the living room will be a reading room (and sometimes guest room). I have always wanted a reading room (not a library; you're allowed to talk ;)). The other bedroom — or in our case, the only bedroom — is in the back of the house, next to the kitchen and looking over the garden. In between them is the one bathroom in the house; luckily, you don't have to go through either bedroom to get to it. The rest of the house is a large living/dining room open area, which includes a fireplace.

It has an attic and basement, both unfinished and — happily — dry. So we have lots of expansion possibilities if we ever want more space, but really, the main level is all we really need; we would be content to always have just that floor finished. But it's good to have options for the unforeseen, right?

The backyard is a pretty good size (again, for the area; one-acre lots like where I grew up just don't exist). It already has mulch down everywhere, so that should buy us a good amount of time to figure out what we want to do with the yard without letting the weeds take over in the meanwhile. We'll probably leave the fruits & vegetables in the raised planter boxes as they are. Mature tomatoes and thornless raspberries sound good to us. :)

Location-wise, the house is between the centers of Ballard and Fremont (1 mile from the former, 2 miles from the latter, and essentially flat to both destinations). It's half a mile from a grocery store, 1 mile from a close friend's place, and around the corner from a cafe, pizza joint, and some bar & grill type restaurants that look good. It's on a major bus line, so getting further afield without a car is easy too. We also have easy street parking, should friends who do drive want to visit.

But the key take-away is this: we're really excited/scared/excited ;) about buying a house! It's going to be AWESOME.