Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The unbelievable story of how we got our house


The Neighborhood
Even before we left Chicago, before My Guy had ever set foot in Austin, before I knew what the city looked like outside of lively 6th Street and the lake because that’s all I remembered from my visit 19 years ago, we had already chosen a neighborhood to target for house-hunting. It met most of our criteria - top schools, rolling hills, mature neighborhood with trees that are older than us, easy access to many of the things we love, namely food.

When we finally arrived, we drove around this area that we only read about and knew, without a doubt, that this was where we wanted to be. We left Chicago to experience something radically different, and we also wanted to leave the noisy urban life behind and spread out enough so we can’t watch our neighbor’s TV from our own living room window. We knew we couldn’t get that living close to the heart of the city so we chose a more residential area, 20 minutes away. I hate to admit it, but you might as well call it a suburb, despite its Austin address. BUT. The beautiful, hilly landscape and the serenity more than make up for it. We couldn’t have everything after all. At least not in our budget.

Our agent warned us that the homes in our price range in this area were older and smaller, unlike the contemporary ones with colossal columns and a room for every need. But we were okay with that. We’ve seen many HGTV’s “House Hunters” episodes where people walk into a grand foyer with ballroom staircases and just “fall in love” with the house. We aren’t those people. 

He also warned us that, because of our budget, we would be getting the “entry-level” homes in a pricey neighborhood where McMansions were common. He tried to steer us towards other areas, where our money would actually get us a home twice the size, on the other side of the highway or on the south side of the city, closer to downtown. But they wouldn’t have these hills or the schools. After years of living in a pancake-flat city and making the decision to move here for great public neighborhood schools, not ones she has to test into across town like she did in Chicago, I wouldn’t compromise on either of those.

The Search
Once the location was decided, the hunting began. We looked at four homes the first evening with our girls and they were excited by all of them. They’re so easy to please. A house! A yard! We’ll take it! We were a little more picky. While they were excited by the space, we saw things that turned us off: too much carpet (we didn’t want any), too little light, a weird layout, repairs that would bankrupt us, too close to the highway.

And the smell. We found that the older the people who lived in the home, the mustier the scent and those with pets were worse offenders. One seller chose to use incense to mask the animal scents of one of the houses, but the perfume was so vile I nearly gagged. The animals themselves would probably have smelled better. Even though the house had potential and it came with a pool, I couldn’t see past my nose. I wanted to get out of there. Stat.

It wasn’t until My Guy left town for work that I walked into a house that I really liked. Of course. And because he wasn’t here to help me make the decision, I hesitated on the offer and apparently, in this market, sleeping on it overnight meant losing your chance completely. Once we decided to make an offer, our agent said they already had multiple offers and accepted one within 24 hours of being on the market.

It was heartbreaking. Naturally, because I couldn’t get the house, I obsessed over it. I called it the house that got away. And I kicked myself for not acting quicker.

Then we saw a few more houses that either fell far below our expectations or had perplexing features, like the one place that had its own sauna. In Central Texas. Where they could’ve saved money and achieved the same effect just by not turning on their AC.

But one issue we kept encountering was that, because we wanted older trees in a mature neighborhood, the trees, as majestic and gorgeous as they were, often towered over the homes and blocked out the light. I would walk into a house and feel completely underwhelmed by the darkness of the living room.

I’m all about light. A sun-drenched home is very high on my criteria. It wouldn’t be a problem in most newer homes with the grand foyer and cathedral ceilings as developers in the last two decades figured out that natural light would add to the appeal, but not so with the older homes. And that was a huge challenge for us. I could not live in a house with a perpetual need for artificial light.

The House
So, on that fateful day, when we walked into a house bathed in light, I was smitten. It was not perfect, but it was a great start.

Let’s back up. It was the middle of the afternoon, the girls were in preschool and My Guy was just getting over an ailment that had him down and out for three whole days. Our agent had a list of four houses to show us so My Guy took some medicine, and we made our way to the appointment. A house popped up in our email while we were at our first showing; it just came on the market. We asked to see the place, and our agent made the call. Then he warned us that it was a “For Sale by Owner”, which meant no seller’s agent, which also meant the owner himself would be showing the place.

After four places – all underwhelming, all with some kind of major issue we had to fix – we made our way there. It was at a location that we hadn’t considered because it was a little off the beaten path. Same schools, but just further away. I wasn’t a fan of not being able to walk to school, but when we had to drive through pretty scenery, up steep inclines that ended at a cul-de-sac, my heart was racing. It was already promising. The location certainly felt right.


on one of the routes to the house


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we also drive along a winding road, past barns with horses and cows and through a canopy of trees



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the hood


And when I walked into a sun-drenched living room, I could barely contain my excitement. Light! Light! Light! my heart sang. The kitchen was completely updated, as was the master bath, even though the home was nearly 30 years old, and as people who aren’t handy with DIY projects, we knew we weren’t up for fixer uppers. And most of the major renovations were already completed in this house. A big plus. Then we walked into the yard, and that’s what sealed it for us. The landscape, the pool-- we had to have this house.

One small (but really big) issue: It was above our budget. We had no negotiating power because we were already going waaaay past what our max was, but we knew that a house in an ideal neighborhood like this was hard to come by and we had to do everything we could to at least try. And boy, did we.

Lucky for us, the owner was there so, My Guy, being the people person that he is, started a conversation with him. As did our wonderful agent. It turned out that they were all in Austin’s entrepreneur scene at some point. The seller and my agent even knew the same person and exchanged stories. Then the conversation evolved into My Guy’s line of work and the seller was eager to help him connect to the people he knew. We talked about our move here, our family, the schools, our love for our respective communities. We developed a rapport.

Then the seller, who was in his fifties, said the magic words: The price was not as important to him as finding the right people who fit the community and someone who could close quickly on the house because they had already purchased and moved into another home in an airpark. He and his wife were passionate about flying, and moving into an airpark with their own hangar and an airstrip in their backyard was their idea of living the dream, and that’s why, even though they had no plans to leave this home, they had to jump on the chance when it presented itself to them.

We felt the same way. The seller invited us back to see the place a second time that evening with the girls, and so we did. After we placed an offer on the house within two hours of viewing it. He met the girls and sat down and chatted with us some more.

That night, knowing that we would never win a bidding war, I wrote him a letter explaining why we would be the best fit, hoping that the connection we made would give us an advantage. The next morning, to our surprise, he responded. It was the loveliest reply that gave us much hope. He had basically said he loved meeting us and thought we would be the ideal buyers; he had discussed with his wife that they would do everything they could to make sure we would have a fair chance in getting the house. So he gave us a counter offer to meet in a sum that would be fair to them as well.

In this market, a great house would just have multiple offers, and the seller would pick the highest bidder. End of story. The one with the deepest pockets often wins. Ours, as suspected, wasn’t the highest bid. Not even close. We deliberated a little because it was stretching us beyond our limits and then some, but we also knew a chance like this was rare. That we were still in the running at all was a miracle. And so we checked with our lending company, received the green light and placed the counter offer.

It was accepted immediately. HOORAY!!!

But the miracle didn’t end there. Our agent, who continued to work hard for us even after securing an offer, convinced them to leave us the major appliances. He used the “help this young family have a great new start in Austin” speech, and it didn’t take much convincing. As it turned out, they were generous souls in the first place, and in the end, they left us with nearly new and pricey items like the washer, dryer, refrigerator, stove, and even the flat-screen plasma TV above the fireplace! What’s more, we found out later, they also left the outdoor furniture, pool supplies and safety fence, a bistro table and chair set for the eat-in space in the kitchen, and various gardening tools.

It was like we hit the jackpot! We expected to buy all of the items above ourselves (except for the TV) when purchasing a home, and we braced ourselves for a huge financial hit. But all of this that they left us came at the price we offered. They were extras. Perks!

We were agog. Was this for real?

And more than that, we now also have their friendship, evident in our visit to their new home at the airpark. During the buying process, the seller had also met with us, prior to closing, to walk us through the house to help us understand some of the upgrades they made and showed us how to use certain things around the house. He shared with us what he did to maintain the pool, the yard, the house. He even paid for a session of “Pool School” for My Guy so he would learn about pool maintenance.  And true to his word, he sent the names of his business connections to My Guy. He also invited us to a party so we could mingle with our now neighbors and fellow entrepreneurs.

It was - still is - unbelievable.

Especially since, during the week of closing, we found out from our seller that one of the backup offers included a much higher bid than ours and 100K down. Ours wasn’t even a fraction of that. The fact that he chose ours over that was baffling.

But My Guy and I, who live in a world where connections matter more than credentials, knew what we had to do the moment we met the man who would eventually sell us our home. We had to establish a connection because we knew that’s our best (and possibly only) shot.

It’s rare in the home-buying process these days that buyers meet sellers, and I can see why. It’s easier to just go with the highest bidder. Let the money do the talking, and you’ll always come out ahead. But this man and his wife wanted to pick their buyer because they loved this home and they loved this community.

And thankfully, they picked us, the people, not the money. Of course we couldn’t help but have a Sally Field moment, “They like us, they like us, they really, really like us!”

That same evening after they accepted the offer, they gave us their garage code so we could go back to check out our someday home again. It would be our third visit in two days; this time, without his presence, and we were amazed at his trust in us. When we arrived, it took the girls all of two minutes before they were out of their clothes and in the pool.

Their someday pool.

My Guy and I still couldn’t believe our chances that we were watching our girls from our someday patio, at our someday house, admiring (but also a little intimidated by) our someday yard, dreaming about the someday things we could do to this place.

And now that the someday is here, we are immensely grateful and still reeling from this story.

How did we get so lucky?

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it’s a work in progress - we still need to paint the walls and update the built-in cabinets and shelves - but here’s the sun (and the cat) in our living room