A truly interesting real estate experoence:
I figured that New Jersey would be full of discounts, and that I would be able to drive a hard bargain. I soon found out that wasn't necessarily so, at least among houses near commuter-train lines into Manhattan.
We had two agreements to buy houses blow up. We lost one of those houses when we decided we didn't want to participate in a bidding war. And we weathered a mini-marital crisis when I resisted buying another house apparently owned by, of all people, a marriage counselor.
This is the fifth move I've made for the Journal since being hired in 1989. So my wife and I know the drill. Figure out the community where you want to live. Study listings of homes for sale. Hit the ground running.
We set our sights on three or four leafy towns that are a 30- to 40-minute train ride from Manhattan. Clarissa arrived on a Monday afternoon in late July for a weeklong house-hunting trip.
We must have seen a dozen houses on Tuesday. Some were in appalling shape, considering they cost upward of half a million dollars. But one interested us: a three-bedroom rock-and-wood-shingle house only half a mile from the train station.
After viewing the house, we learned of a weird twist. Another buyer had signed a contract to buy it, contingent upon selling his house. The real-estate agent representing the sellers assured us they still had the right to sell the house to us because of the contingency. Our agent, Rick Lodato, thought it sounded highly irregular, but we decided to go for it.
Raising Our Offer
The house was listed at $599,000, and it had been on the market for about a month. I figured the owners were getting ready to discount, so we bid $565,000. The seller countered with $595,000. That wasn't much of a drop, so we decided to look at other houses. But we soon decided the rock-and-shingle house was still our best bet. So we returned to the table, and negotiated a deal to buy it for $585,000.
Phew. We had pulled it off again.
There was one complication. The sellers needed to send out a letter rescinding the first contract with the other buyer, and then they would sign our contract.
As a precaution, we looked at a few more houses. Still, we went so far as to show our new house to our daughter, a recent college graduate, who was visiting us for the day. And we emailed a link with pictures of the house to our 16-year-old son back in Dallas.
On Saturday afternoon, Rick, our agent, got a terse call saying the sellers had decided to go with the earlier offer instead of ours. The sellers' agent later explained that the first buyer had agreed to drop the contingency clause from his contract, and it then had been accepted instead of ours.
It sounded as if we had been used to force the first buyer to cough up the money. Lovely.
Back in the Fray
We had two days before Clarissa's house-hunting trip ended, so we threw ourselves back into the fray. We began focusing on houses on the other side of the railroad tracks, farther away from the train station. There was a bigger backlog of homes there, prices were lower, and owners
were doing more discounting.
Clarissa became quite taken with a sprawling five-bedroom stucco house there. A huge office had been added to the side of the house. Marriage-counselor and sexologist diplomas were mounted on its walls. Clarissa thought the office would make great quarters for our elder son, who planned to stay with us for a bit. And it had a huge yard -- a big plus for Clarissa, who loves gardening.
I was getting a queasy feeling. The house sat on a busy street. It was nearly a mile from the train station. Plus, I thought the two halves of the house looked like they had been put together with pliers. I worried all this would make it difficult to sell in the future.
"I don't think I can do this house," I told my wife. Clarissa lost it. She reminded me that I had dragged her all over the country for my career. And now I was backing down on our agreement that she would get to pick this house, the one where we might live for many years. She started crying as we drove back to the hotel. "Just pick out the house you want," she told me. "And I'll sign the paperwork."
I decided I was better off buying a white elephant than upsetting my wife. "OK, I'll do it," I told her.
I went to sleep that night resigned to living in the stucco house. Clarissa stayed up surfing the Internet and reading up on sexologists. When I woke up in the morning, Clarissa told me that she didn't want the stucco house after all.
The next day, Clarissa got on the plane back to Dallas. For the first time in all our house-hunting trips over the years, we had failed.
"Where will we live?" she asked. "What do I tell the children?"
We spent the next few weeks continuing to study New Jersey listings. I decided we would have to move up in price to $650,000, or even a bit higher, if we wanted to buy a home before the school year started. So I scraped together every dollar I could.
We arrived back in New Jersey in early August. We booked ourselves into an extended-stay hotel with our two sons and three dogs, motivated to do a deal as quickly as possible.
We took a hard look at three houses the day after we arrived. The first one charmed me, but Clarissa didn't like the open floor plan, and it had a steep staircase that might be problematic as we got older. The third one simply bored Clarissa.
But she loved the second house, a three-bedroom Tudor selling for $675,000 only a third of a mile from the train station. It was different. It had a stucco-and-stone exterior and a prominent wood-shingle roof.
I had some reservations, but fewer than I did with the sexologist's house. There was no denying it was in a lovely neighborhood, and it was about as close to the train station as we could possibly get. I agreed we should put in a bid for it.
The house had been on the market for about a month, and I was once again inclined to offer well below the asking price. Rick thought that would be a mistake in a tight market. He suggested we bid $660,000, and predicted the buyers would go for it. He was right. That night we signed a contract.
At that point, the home went into attorney review, where lawyers make sure everything is kosher. The contract isn't really binding until it clears this process. During the go-go years, buyers would routinely lob in higher bids and wrest away properties.
That's exactly what happened here. On the second day of attorney review, the sellers' agent informed Rick that her clients had received a substantially higher offer -- she wouldn't say how much. Were we interested in raising our offer to try to keep the house?
Rick thought we would have to go up to $680,000 to beat the other bid. But could we afford that much? I had gotten approval to borrow up to $417,000, the maximum amount you can get without getting a jumbo loan. We had more than $200,000 in equity, but not enough to get us to $680,000. The only way to get there was to borrow money from my parents, and repay that money in the next year or two.
Even at $660,000, I would have had a monthly house payment over $4,100, including the hefty local property taxes and insurance. Now, on top of that, I would have to repay money to my parents. But I loved the neighborhood, and we needed a house now. I steeled myself to raise our bid.
'Stretching Too Much'
Clarissa, to her credit, said no. We would already be stretched with this house, and having a side agreement to repay my parents was too much, she said. "Everybody has been stretching too much to buy houses," she said. "That's why this country is in trouble." She was right.
The next morning, I called up Rick to tell him to give our best wishes to the sellers, but we couldn't raise our bid. We had to find another house.
Lucky for us, we knew that a couple of days earlier, Rick had been contacted by the real-estate agent representing the rock-and-wood-shingle house we had tried earlier to buy for $585,000. She told Rick that the other buyer had failed to get a mortgage. Were we still interested in the house at the same price?
With the other deal evaporating, we were still interested. This time, the deal went through attorney review without incident. We met the sellers, who turned out to be sweet people. Last week, we took possession of the house.
Now, for those showers.
Write to Neal Templin at firstname.lastname@example.org