Buying a Home During a Pandemic

My Dad has always said that people move for only six reasons (in no particular order): (1) Family, (2) Friends/Social, (3) Jobs, (4) Geographic Points of Interest, (5) Healthcare/Medical Needs, (6) Weather.

If you are part of the small circle of TIRL readers, you know that we have lived in New Orleans for close to 10 years. Cody and I met in NOLA, and Dexter (our fur baby) and Jack (our human baby) were both Bayou-born. But towards the end of 2020, we started to feel that it was time for our NOLA chapter to come to a close and started looking towards what adventure was next.

If we go off of my Dad’s list, our move was prompted primarily by #1 and #3. Some of the other reasons came into play too of course, but at the end of the day, Cody had a great professional opportunity outside of NOLA, and we wanted to be closer to (at least one of our) families. The timing seemed right too (and we all know timing is everything!). On one hand, life as we know it looked very different in 2020. COVID dealt us (along with all of you) a challenging year and we were still facing quite a bit of uncertainty heading into 2021. But on the positive side, a hot real estate market was coinciding almost *perfectly* with an opportunity to move to another city.

Well, we were right about being able to take advantage of the selling side of the market (cha-ching!), but we were also about to blindsided by the insanity of the buying side. Thankfully we had a place to stay while we house-hunted because what started as a holiday trip turned into a 5-months long relocation to Arizona. Speaking of, I have to give a huge shout out to my parents who kindly put up with us and the circus we dragged along behind us. I know they’ve loved the time with their grandson, but I also know that they are ready to not have to sweep sandbox sand off of their pool deck for a while.

While everyone had their ups and downs in this challenging season of life, this was one of the bigger curveballs that were thrown our way. I know many families faced much, much worse, and we are so thankful that we have all stayed healthy. Because if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that your health is all that really matters. Although (on the lighter side) having a house to live in certainly doesn’t hurt!

The Tech

This IS a tech blog, so it only seems appropriate that I start here. To be honest, there isn’t a hugely meaningful tech tie-in to this topic, which is why I’m housing it (no pun intended) in the “Behind the Screen” section of TIRL. However, squeezing in a mention of Zillow and Realtor(.com) DOES give me an excuse to share a really funny Saturday Night Live skit (video below). When I browsed the Zillow and Realtor mobile apps in the past it was basically for what I like to call “house porn”. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I love looking for the most expensive homes in an area and examining every detail of the listing as if I’m a serious potential buyer.

Do you know when you DON’T want to be browsing these apps? When you’re frantically looking for a home because you’re living with your parents (and “you’re” = a husband, a dog, and a 1-year old), working from home (in any space that is not occupied by said husband, dog, and 1-year old), and navigating general day-to-day life during a global pandemic! But despite the fact that these circumstances didn’t provide the most pleasant scrolling experience, I’m pretty sure I used these apps more over the past few months than I used all of the other apps on my phone combined (including social media!). It truly became an obsession.

As a result of the aforementioned obsessive usage of these apps, unfortunately, I also became all too aware of their weak points. Here, IMO, are the three biggest pain points of these “real estate apps”:

1. “Contact Agent” Trickery – both Zillow and Realtor have a “Contact Agent/Send Message” feature at the bottom of each listing. Call me crazy, but to me (and I would think to any other reasonable person) that means, “Click here to contact the LISTING agent on this specific property.”

Sadly, my friends, it does not mean that. Instead, it means, “Click here and once you enter your information you will be immediately contacted by ten different buyer’s agents looking to take you on as a client.” You will receive texts, calls, and emails one after another, after another. It’s relentless. The only thing worse MAY be political fund-raising solicitations, and that’s saying something. In the agents’ defense, I know they are just doing their job, and I applaud the hustle. I take more issue with the lack of transparency offered by Zillow and Realtor. Internally, they must know that the wording is misleading, yet someone (or more than one someone) continues to give it a stamp of approval.

2. Lead Distribution – This one is related to pain point #1. While Zillow and Realtor should absolutely make the “Contact Agent” action more clear, if they only gave each “lead” (prospective homebuyer) to a couple of agents, buyers wouldn’t be as overwhelmed by what comes next. But here’s where more Zillow and Realtor shadiness comes into play.

Agents pay Zillow and Realtor for those leads and the companies tell them that they only give the leads out to a couple of agents. In reality, the leads are given to a much larger pool of agents, which creates a lot more competition to win the buyer’s business. Our agent was actually the one that mentioned this to me and she said that agents are just as annoyed by this as buyers are. So while I don’t have first-hand knowledge of what Zillow and Realtor promise or don’t promise, it seems like another way that they mislead their customers.

3. Accuracy of the Listing Information – this one isn’t necessarily Zillow and Realtor’s fault since the listing agents are the ones that control the information that appears on these sites. But we noticed that more often than not the agents didn’t provide accurate or timely information. I can’t tell you how many times we would find a house that looked available and have our agent reach out only to find out that it was already under contract. And many of them seemed to purposely fail to mark listings as “pending” or “under contract”. We had our theories on WHY they did this, but I won’t bore you. But overall this behavior was even more annoying given the current market, where having the most up-to-date information was absolutely critical to being able to act quickly on an available house.

What We Were Up Against

It doesn’t matter what city you live in, what kind of house you’re looking for, or what your budget is – the U.S. housing market is absolutely bonkers right now. Let me put it this way: global pandemic + low inventory + historically low mortgage rates = horribly desperate buyers (us included) willing to do everything short of selling their soul to find a house. Word to the wise: if you’re house-hunting right now and willing to enter the gauntlet, just be prepared to shed a few tears.

Here are just a few insane and totally unreasonable things expected of a buyer right now:

  • Buy a house sight unseen.
  • Waive all contingencies (appraisal and financial).
  • Zero-day due diligence period (traditionally this has been at LEAST two weeks); with this, you’re basically buying a house “as-is”.
  • Close as quickly as possible, but then allow the seller to stay in their house for 1-3 months – for FREE! Because, surprise, now THEY need time to find a house to move into.
  • Pay anywhere from $10,000-75,000 over ask (and in some markets I’ve heard this is even higher!).
  • Bad seller’s agents playing all kinds of games – not responding to texts/calls, creating bidding wars, double-booking showings, accepting offers before open houses, accepting offers before even allowing all offers to be submitted – you name it, we saw it. Look, my grandmother could sell a house in this market, and she passed away six years ago (love you, Joy). So I wish all of these awful agents would stop acting like they actually possess any skill and just play the game fairly. After all, when this madness finally subsides, most of them will go back to selling 1-2 houses a year to family members that are too cheap to go out and hire someone they aren’t related to.
  • Make one of the most important decisions of your adult life in < 12 hours because most houses go under contract within a day (and some within a few hours!).
  • Due to ridiculously low inventory levels, battle the same desperate families for the 1-2 houses that come on the market each week.

But have fun out there!

Tips

So after reading about all of the craziness, the big question you are probably asking yourself is, did good conquer evil, and did they finally find a house!? The answer is (thankfully), yes. We did. How, you ask? Some might say it was just a matter of time, and being patient finally paid off. Some might say we honed our strategy over the course of our 4-month search and eventually discovered the secret to success. And some might call it plain ol’ luck. Truthfully it was probably some combination of all three, but let’s be honest, it was mostly luck. In any event, here are a few hard truths and lessons we learned along the way that will hopefully help some of you on your quest to attain the American Dream!

1. Find a Good Agent

Unless you’re prepared and equipped to jump into these shark-infested waters alone, a good agent is a must-have. In our case, we were trying to buy a home from across the country, which made it impossible for us to go it alone. However, if you’re savvy enough to be able to go through the process without an agent, the ability to be able to offer the selling agent a double commission, or simply save the sellers the additional broker fee might work in your favor. Shameless plug #1 for our amazing agent, Andrea Williams. She was willing to take extensive videos of homes we couldn’t see in person, learned and pivoted with us throughout the process, and communicated so well and so frequently that we never felt like we were 1,000s of miles away. If you’re house-hunting in the Atlanta area, she’ll take care of you!

2. Get Pre-Approved

This is a no-brainer. If you need a mortgage, get pre-approved before you start your house hunt. If you don’t, any offer you make will be sent to the bottom of the pile. I’ll throw in shameless plug #2 for IBERIABANK Mortgage since I’ve worked for IBERIABANK for the past 6+ years. If you live in the Southeast, you really can’t beat the high-touch, relationship-driven service that you’ll get from a smaller bank like IBERIABANK. Our loan officer was amazing and when we were pressed to close in < two weeks, she really stepped up to the plate and got it done.

3. Be Prepared to Pivot

We went into the process with a clear strategy and were forced to pivot several times before we finally landed our house. This type of market definitely rewards flexibility, and if you’re NOT willing to adjust your approach you’re likely going to be house hunting for a very long time.

4. Know Your Limits

I know I just said being flexible and willing to compromise is key – which is TRUE for many parts of the home buying process. But at the same time, you need to know what you’re NOT willing to compromise on, and when to walk away. Even if you think you’ve found your dream home. For example, we were not willing to compromise on a yard. It was an absolute must-have, and any home that didn’t have one was crossed off of our list immediately. And although we did shift our budget a few times in order to stay competitive, once we agreed on the number we stuck to it and didn’t get reckless and try to win an insane bidding war.

5. Cash is King

If you’re in a position to make an all-cash offer, you’ll have a huge advantage. And when I say “all-cash” I mean having enough money in your checking/savings account to pay for the house with no additional financing. I think cash offers are attractive in ANY housing market, but even more so in the cutthroat version we’re living in right now. I realize this is likely NOT going to apply to many of you – it certainly didn’t apply to us. However, in certain markets, it may even be worth LOWERING your budget to be able to make this kind of offer. We lost out to several of these types of offers (rich people, argh!), and for obvious reasons, sellers jump quickly at them.

6. Leave Your Emotions at the Door

I’ve always been told that when you’re going through the home buying process, you should never get too attached to any one individual house. And I think that applies even more in this crazy market because anything can (and will) happen. Seriously. We experienced some of the wackiest things during our house hunt, and witnessed scenarios we never imagined could happen. Ultimately this piece of advice is easier said than done and we found it REALLY hard to remove all emotion when we found (and then lost) what we thought was our dream home.

7. Swallow Your Pride

Sadly, in this market, buyers have absolutely no leverage. So as much as it pained us to not be able to negotiate AT ALL, it really is a game of “who can make the seller the happiest”. That will be accomplished in different ways depending on the specifics of the seller’s situation, but be prepared to cater to their every need (and generally ignore your own).

8. Be Prepared to Lose (and maybe more than once)

I think it’s safe to say that almost anyone looking for a house right now is going to lose out on at least one house (and potentially many more), so it’s important to know that going in and temper your expectations. I’m sure there are those unicorn families that get the first house they put an offer in on, but I think that’s much more the exception than the rule.

9. Don’t Give Up Hope

We honestly had some dark moments where we weren’t sure we’d ever find something. While not life-threatening, it was extremely stressful. Yes, there are MANY worse things in life than not being able to purchase a nice home in a nice city, but with the cloud of the pandemic looming over us, a small child, and a new job, it all felt really hopeless at times.

In closing, if you’re in the thick of it, hang in there. Get a good agent, and get creative. Do whatever you have to do (within reason), and be prepared for a little bit of heartache. I know it sounds cheesy and cliché, but it will all work out in the end.

And now, on to unpacking and house projects – oh, the joy of home ownership!

THE HOUSES

If you’re interested in the full saga, I’ve outlined each house we put an offer on (and in many cases, detailed the agony and heartbreak of losing out on them!). A “B” next to the house name means we were the official backup offer. Apparently a back-up offer is a real “thing,” and sometimes it even works out if the primary offer falls through. Sadly, it never did for us. As I liked to tell Cody, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”

Culworth (B)

This one was at the start of our journey where we were still foolish enough to think we would get a house for under asking price. The asking price of this house was a bit over our budget, but we gave it a shot anyway. Ultimately we were outbid by a full-price offer. Out of pity (because we wrote a nice letter to the sellers) they made us their backup offer. Interestingly enough, we found out a couple of months later that their primary offer fell through and they decided to pull the house off of the market for a while. We don’t know why, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise!

Buck Hollow

We actually had this one under contract in DECEMBER (which seems like 57 years ago at this point). We offered slightly over ask to show we were serious, and once again our personal letter seemed to be the thing that sealed the deal. At the time, Baby J had just turned one and the current owners had moved into the house when THEIR son was one. How sweet! Sadly, after going through the inspection we discovered too many deal-breaking (read: expensive) issues that needed fixing so we backed out before the due diligence period ended. Luckily they had a long list of backup buyers waiting to snatch up the house and it went back under contract a short time later.

Hampton Bay (B)

This situation may go down as the craziest of them all. Let’s just say that when the seller is also the selling AGENT, things can get a little hairy. This owner/agent strung us along for several weeks and had us thinking we were shoe-ins to get the house. It turned out she wasn’t just emotionally attached to her house, but she was also a tad bit nuts. Needless to say, we didn’t get this one. Still breaks our hearts to this day!

Farmbrook Lane (B)

This was the one that got away. The one I fell in love with. I mentioned never letting yourself get emotionally attached to a house (a lesson I learned from HGTV, of course), and I think this applies 10x in this market. When this house came on the market we hadn’t quite realized JUST how crazy things were going to get, which gave me a false sense of confidence about our chances with this one. Ultimately we lost out to an all-cash offer. The house ended up selling for ONLY $5,000 over ask; if we had the benefit of a crystal ball we would have offered $20,000 over ask and been done with it. I also may or may not have reached out to the other buyer’s agent asking her if her client wanted to flip the house he just bought. Sigh, the things you do for love.

Lake Mist Cove and Torrington

Both of these listings were being handled by the same ridiculous agent. And I use the word “ridiculous” in place of something much stronger and probably not appropriate for this wholesome blog. To give you an idea: one of the houses was on the market for eight months and the MINUTE our agent tried to schedule a showing the selling agent declined the appointment and said the property was under contract.

This was an example of a bad agent not doing his job and keeping the public-facing listings on Zillow/Realtor updated. Oh, and he ALSO told us that they had an above ask offer AND an above ask backup offer. Fast-forward a few months and we found out that BOTH of these houses sold for UNDER ASK! We obviously don’t know everything that happened in between, but our theory was that he was trying to bait us into making an above ask second backup offer, and then *poof!* miraculously the other offers would have somehow fallen through. Btw, if you couldn’t tell by my excessive use of ALL CAPS, this process made us both very cynical. But it’s also true that this guy was a total clown.

Laconia Lane (B)

This one was over our original budget, but as time went on and we slowly increased what we were willing to offer, it got closer to our target price. I won’t say that decision was made so much out of desperation as much as it was us coming to the harsh realization that we were going to have to move our budget up to get something we wanted. But maybe also a little desperation?

The initial contract fell through and the sellers actually DROPPED the price when they put it back on the market (which was very rare). The big downside to this one was that it was in a neighborhood we weren’t familiar with, so we wanted to make sure we saw it in person before making an offer. Unfortunately, this market waits for no one, and before we could get to Atlanta to see it, it was already under contract again. We did manage to score yet another backup offer (yayyy…), but we didn’t hold our breath.

Bethany Creek

Because I wasn’t entirely familiar with the Atlanta suburbs, I made one trip to Georgia during this whole process so I could get comfortable with the different areas we were looking in. It was almost certain that we were going to have to put a house under contract before seeing it in person, so at the very least I wanted to get a feel for the neighborhoods.

I had to re-schedule my trip once because our agent had COVID issues in her family, but was excited that my new trip date aligned with us finding a house that we thought we loved and were ready to strike on. The timing seemed perfect. I was going to be able to see the house in person BEFORE making an offer! It seemed like a great house, was in one of our target areas, and the price was actually fairly reasonable. There were so many positives, which made the fact that the house turned out to be a pretty huge dud even more soul-crushing. You’ve heard pictures don’t lie, right? Well, that doesn’t apply to professional house photos posted on Zillow. Those pictures? They most definitely can, and do, lie. However, keeping with the insanity of the market, this “dud” sold for $65,000 over ask.

Hampton Bluff

I really felt like this was going to be the one because it initially wasn’t even on our radar. While I was in Atlanta driving around with our agent, we toured a neighborhood that was absolutely gorgeous. And gasp(!), there was actually a home for sale in said neighborhood! Unfortunately, when our agent tried to get us a last-minute showing, the schedule was completely booked. I checked the photos on Zillow and wasn’t entirely impressed, but was still disappointed we couldn’t see it in person. However, as luck would have it, someone failed to show up for their showing appointment and we jumped on it!

The stars seemed to be aligning – finally! We offered $10,000 above ask and felt REALLY good about this one. But yet again, the market flexed its muscles. The seller’s agent came back to us and told us that our offer was good (price-wise) but the sellers wanted to stay in the home for three (yes, THREE) months – for FREE! That was a deal-breaker for us – so it was on to the next one.

Treyburn Run

This one was slightly out of our league, but it was in our favorite neighborhood, so we decided to stretch for it. We had adjusted our strategy a few times over the past several months as we saw what worked and what didn’t, and we were confident that shooting for a house at the very top of our price range was the way to go. And honestly, if we had taken that approach at the beginning of our search, I think we’d be settled in Georgia right now. But timing is everything, and unfortunately, the timing didn’t work in our favor with this one. I’ll add that the agent on this house was also kind of snooty, and the overall approach she took didn’t work in our favor. In the end, we were one of twelve offers and walked away empty-handed once again. Oh, and we found out recently that this one sold for $100,000 over ask!

The One

After months of riding this rollercoaster (and almost being thrown out a few times), we finally found our home. Ironically it ended up being only a few houses down from one of the other houses we put an offer on – funny how that works. Our search came to an end in a fairly anti-climactic way, due mostly to the incredible family that we bought the house from. They saved us a lot of drama and have been so helpful since our closing. I don’t know if I believe that everything in life ends up going the “it was meant to be” route, but after all the ups and downs it certainly felt like we were meant to buy THIS family’s house. I’d like to think we have many years of wonderful memories ahead of us, and that someday we’ll be able to look back on this process and laugh about the absurdity of it all!

Hero Image by Joey Kyber on Unsplash

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