dream house: a few things i’ve learned.
by victoria comment

3/26/15

dream house: a few things i've learned / sfgirlbybay

i don’t know how many of you have purchased your own dream homes, but those of you who have, probably know that it can be a truly challenging process. there are soaring highs — when you find a home you really love and decide to make an offer; and some pretty low lows — when you get outbid or lose a house for any number of reasons. it’s a process i’m learning to be patient with. and regardless of the ups and downs, i am learning a ton, and it makes me feel a new sense of confidence about being an adult. i’ll be honest, i’ve never been really great with money. i’m a hard worker, but i’m not sure i’ve ever made my money work hard for me — so learning about the home buying process is empowering to me and makes me feel like i have more control over my future. and that feels great.

dream house: a few things i've learned / sfgirlbybay

i’m learning a lot from trulia where i keep track of the current market on daily, even hourly basis if i really go on a mad house hunting binge. the power of internet sites like trulia have been invaluable to me, especially house hunting from a distance — i’m here in san francisco, but moving to L.A. means i need to be as competitive as i can be, and watching the housing market and keeping track of what houses are going for in the neighborhoods i like has been really helpful when it comes to making an offer and knowing the value of homes in the surrounding neighborhoods. if you’re looking to buy a home, and especially your first home, here’s a few things i’ve discovered along my way:

1. keep track of the houses you’re interested in online, and even ones you’re not — knowing what ‘comps’ (comparable houses in real estate lingo) in the area are going for is really helpful when it comes to making an offer on your dream home. you can keep track anyway you like on trulia’s boards and i keep track of homes i’m following by neighborhood, and even when they’ve got offers pending i can watch and see what they ultimately sell for.

2. find a realtor you trust. one that you have been referred to by friends in the area, and one you have a comfortable and honest rapport with. it’s important because, trust me — you’re going to be driving them nuts with questions and you need someone who keeps you sane, and is patient and kind — never pushy. i love my realtor and i joke that he’s almost like my therapist, always there for me when i get panicky about making offer, or seeing a house that’s just come on the market. they will be your trusted advisor, so be sure you feel good about them. good communication and mutual understanding and respect is key.

dream house: a few things i've learned / sfgirlbybay

3. your realtor should also have a good relationship with other realtors in the area — after all, they all work together to make the sale happen. your realtor’s relationships with listing agents can be so helpful when it comes to making an offer on a home, and getting that offer seriously considered. it can also be very helpful in getting the inside track on how high your offer should be, so you can stay competitive in the real estate game.

4. get pre-approved for your home loan before you even start the hunt. this is a big one, because in certain markets things happen fast. if you have to wait to get approved for a loan you could miss out making an offer. my realtor referred me to a home loan officer who worked with me to get me pre-approved for my loan very quickly. so get your ducks in a row — have your financial papers, like your current bank statements, pay stubs, last two year’s tax filings ready to present (PDF’s are usually fine these days), and anything else your loan officer needs to get you approved to start getting serious about buying a home.

dream house: a few things i've learned / sfgirlbybay

5. write the sellers a letter. a very personal one — tell them why you love their home, why you should live there, and a little bit about yourselves. whether it be sharing your family, pets and life goals with them — get honest. i’ve created a pretty PDF with photos of myself, my pup Lucy and my interiors — I want to demonstrate to them just how much it means to me to buy their home. selling your home is emotional, and buying certainly is, so i think it’s important to make yourself ‘real’ — not just a dollar figure on an offer. it might not always help, but it can’t hurt, either.

6. try to remember that you’re buying a home to suit your future needs, not just your current ones. look for homes that you’ll be able to grow into or shrink into as the size of your family expands or contracts. consider other factors such as maintenance, HOA fees, your commute to work, school districts, yard size, neighborhood safety, walkability, and yard maintenance. maybe you don’t need a yard today, but in a few years, maybe you’d like to adopt a dog or plant a big garden. for me a yard for lucy (and myself!) is crucial, especially in L.A. so that factors big into my considerations. think about what you really want out of a house. it’s a big investment, so you should get what you want without too many compromises. every house has its positives, and its drawbacks. find a good balance.

dream house: a few things i've learned / sfgirlbybay

7. lastly, and this one is so very tough for me, but try not to get too emotionally involved with a house before it’s yours. i’m so guilty of this, but i’m trying really hard to learn from the heartache that can cause. finding a home that’s right for you takes time and it’s best to try to keep slightly detached. me — i like to decorate and remodel the place before i even move in, and that’s a lot of head spinning in the middle of the night that’s really not necessary. yes, it can be fun for a bit, but i recommend trying to keep a practical and healthy distance if at all possible. and if you can’t — well just comment below and we’ll commiserate together. xo, victoria

• photo credits, top to bottom: my lovely things; studio karin; elle decoration uk; stadshem; lauren bramford photography.

This post made possible in partnership with Trulia but all opinions and thoughts are my own. thanks for the supporting the brands that make sfgirlbybay possible.

27 responses to “dream house: a few things i’ve learned.”

  1. Hi Victoria –

    I too live in a very, very competitive (and expensive ) real estate market and have gone through all of the same emotions.
    It’s very humbling buying a home because there is a huge disconnect between what you really love, aspire to and want…and what you can afford. The true heartbreak comes when you find all of those and you lose in a bidding war.
    But, I have two take aways from the process:
    One is that there is ALWAYS something better coming along….even if it doesn’t feel like it.

    Two – and this is not as positive – be really honest about your finances. You can have a huge downpayment, but the true cost of owning a home on your own can be crippling. I speak from experience here!

    That said, it’s still so fun and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing it!
    Good Luck and remember, that all of these steps are leading you to your dream home!!

  2. The key thing is knowing what is a deal breaker and what you can live with until you can change it. Personally, I can live with and adapt to almost any interior conditions as long as I have a nice yard and a fence for my dogs. If it doesn’t have a fence that would have to figure into any offer I make. Maybe I am so adaptable because I grew up as a military brat and we had little choice about where we lived. But we had pets and picniced often so good outdoor spaces are essential. I think about you and your mom and your home search often and I just have faith that this is all leading to the perfect place for you, Lucy, and your dear mother.

  3. Point #7 has also been a tough one for me too. Luckily, me and my partner have recently signed off on our house and will be getting keys soon… but we definitely did fall seriously in love with at least one place before. I think it’s rather inevitable, but for us it was part of figuring out what and where we wanted our future home to be. It’s maybe part of the experience before honing in on the one(s) to try for.

  4. Writing the sellers a letter is how we got our dream house! We were up against a couple of cash offers, since the house hadn’t been updated in 70 years so people wanted to flip it. We told them how much we loved the house, and how we wanted to start a family there and restore it back to it’s original glory. They had lived in the house for 45 years, and ultimately they gave it to us because we loved it as much as they did.

  5. I would add:
    -don’t let looks deceive you
    -expand your horizons
    -get others involved
    -budget for reno, if you can

    We bought our home back in November and I am in love with the property. I loved the “feel” of it back then, but my husband thought it was not the home for us because he couldn’t look past the appearance and need for cosmetic stuff. (He didn’t say that until after we put down earnest money and paid for inspections.) Ultimately, we bought the home. We never would have found it had I not shared a link with my mother; when she saw we had raised our price point a little, she offered up a home in a different zip code that I had forgotten about in my search! We have painted the exterior and some of the interior and have made over our garden and screen porch- it doesn’t look like the same property. My husband is in love with it now and is so glad that I was adamant about the “feel” being right.

  6. Wow- literally all of these are so, so true. We are in the process of buying/building, and so many of your feelings we experienced as well. It is truly exciting now that we are in the right place, but it was completely terrifying to start the process as FTHBs. Best of luck with everything! The right thing will come along soon!

  7. Hello Victoria! Long time reader, first time writer… ;)

    I have been so nervous to share in my current house buying experience because I was CONVINCED our 1951 MCM dream house would fall through- there was just too much going against us. The, ahem, ‘eccentric’ seller was delaying contract execution because she had just found one of her (many, many…too many) “cats dead on the living room floor.” This after a whole other week of other less realistic excuses to delay, like how her phone battery died so she refused to sign anything for 3 days, even though she had already given us a verbal offer acceptance… After too many sleepless nights- I did just what you suggested in #5, I poured my heart into a letter. I waxed on about our condolences for her loss, the complex relationships we have with our pets (my little family includes dogs & rabbits) and our best intentions for the home. It worked! She signed the contract after receiving the letter, and just in the nick of time! An hour after the contract was executed a cash offer came in above ours from investors wanting to TEAR DOWN OUR BEAUTIFUL DREAM HOUSE to build sad sad cheap ugly condos. So not only did a measly little letter get us a house, it saved an architecturally significant piece of Houston too!

    So seriously, everyone, write a letter! It may feel like you’re pandering, but it can really make all the difference!

    • Oh, I should clarify, as Jaclyn rightly points out, that we only wrote a letter AFTER the seller had already verbally accepted our offer price. The goal of our letter was to push her along, as she was getting cold feet on signing the contract. It was not a tool we used to negotiate down the price of the home. However, I have had friends successfully underbid others after writing letters, even in the midst of the recent seller’s market here in Houston. I think it all comes down to knowing who your seller is, what their goals are (did they build this house from scratch, raise their children in it and are looking to pass the torch to good owners, or are they just trying to make good on an investment?), and also trusting your realtor’s opinion on whether or not a letter would be appropriate.

      Honestly as first time home buyer, I had no idea that writing a letter was even an option, so the whole thing was a novel idea to me. It ended up being what saved the house for us, so I thought I would share my story in case anyone was on the fence about it!

  8. It’s really really REALLY important to know how your LOCAL real estate market works when handling the house hunt and negotiating process.

    Where I am in New England, if we had written a letter to the owners of the house telling them how much we loved it, that would have GUARANTEED that they wouldn’t budge on the selling price at all thus putting it out of our budget.

    Our market requires a much more objective mindset when buying a house and our agent actually advised us not to remark at all on the houses we looked at until the selling agent stepped outside.

    • Here in Canada, the selling agent is not allowed to be in the house with the potential buyers and their agent. You’d only see the selling agent as a buyer if you went to an open house. In some circumstances only a buying and selling agent can be the same person, but that’s not ideal as it’s hard for the agent to ethically represent both parties correctly.

  9. I agree all of these, especially #6. We offered on 5 (!) homes before getting our first home. Our second, current, home the process went much more smoothly. But I can see the beauty in both.

  10. How exciting! Buying a home is a very emotional process. When I was looking I told myself I shouldn’t get attached to houses until I had keys in my hand but I don’t know how that’s possible. The thought of having your own space and being able to do whatever you want to it is too exciting. Whenever a house didn’t work out, I always told myself that if it was meant to be then it would’ve worked out – very cliche but it helped me get through the lows of home buying. In the end I ended up in the perfect house for me and when I look back, I am so grateful that the other houses I thought were perfect didn’t end up working out. I think the biggest lesson I learned is that being patient pays off big time in the end. Good luck!

  11. This is a great resource, Victoria… I own a home and have been through it. Thank you…you’re awesome! :)

  12. We literally just bought a house on Thursday and definitely went through the emotional roller coaster you’re talking about. When we were putting in our offer we found out there were 3 others on the table for the home and our hearts definitely dropped. We thought we had no chance at getting the property and were pretty honest with ourselves that we weren’t going to get it. When our realtor called us later that evening to say our offer had been accepted we couldn’t believe it. I strongly believe that one of the reasons we got our soon to be forever home was because we included a letter about us and our intentions of living and working in the house for a very long time. I would recommend to anyone searching for a house (especially in a competitive market), to do it. You’re so right, it can’t hurt but it definitely can help!

  13. Victoria – this is so cool of you to share your guidance while you’re still going through what must be sometimes a stressful experience. It sounds like though you really have your head on straight – the right thing is going to work out for you, and you’ll be ready to seize it when it happens due to all your preparation!

  14. Hi Victoria!
    These are great tips- all helped me buy my first home four years ago (#3 especially!). Like you, my mom helped me through the process. While I focused on cosmetic stuff, she pointed out all the costs that add on to the price of a house. Whatever’s on the inspection report, be prepared for surprises (especially those related to climate change)! While we have a major drought in California, most of our rain comes from one or two massive storms per year- a problem if you have a home in the hills. I’ve gotten things under control now, but mom was definitely right in this case :)
    Best of luck to you, Victoria. Crossing fingers and toes for you!

  15. Don’t be shy!

    Ask weird questions.
    I should have asked “Why is the seller only able to communicate via FedEx?” (because he’s in jail for running a chop shop in the backyard) “Where were the current renters found? Where they vetted?” (No, they had been in jail with the seller and he made them a deal on rent in exchange for covering up the flood damage) I still would have bought my 1906 Victorian, but pretty sure I would have paid less and not had to call the sheriff to remove the renters on my moving day.

  16. my advise is to throw your heart into the process.
    if you really want a specific house go into making an offer with good intentions that you will own this house. Light a candle, say a little house prayer. This is LA after all. I know that the disappointment is high when the house goes to someone else, but this is part of the process and you will find a place to call home. good luck.

  17. Hi Victoria – Certainly for me buying a house goes directly to my heart as well as pushes all the ‘buttons’ and ‘insecurities’ that may be lingering around what home means to me. Years ago — shortly after my divource (I was 35 and had been married 15 year), I got into a bidding war on a private sale. I actually outbid the eventual buyers, but was told by the seller that they were concerned that a single women couldn’t keep up the expense of the house. I love the house and the purchase was my first major one since my marriage broke up. Needless to say I was feeling pretty vulnerable. I cried my heart out the evening that I ‘lost’ the house. A few weeks later the house I would eventually buy came on the market. It was right next door to the house that I was renting. Did I love it as much — well, no — but it became my home in a neighborhood that truly cared and looked out for every person that lived there. I have long since moved, but often go on Google maps just to look. I have bought other houses since — didn’t trust my gut on them and while they were fine — they never felt quite like home. Now 20 years after that first house-buying disappointment, I am making a move in the next week to a home that I hope will be my ‘forever’ house — in the little seaport town of Lunenburg, NS. Do I love the house? Well when I made the offer I liked it very very much and certainly could imagine myself living there. Will I love it evenutally? You bet! — the moment I turn the key and walk in the door!

    My very best wishes to you, dear Victoria!

  18. I agree #3 is key!!! You want a realtor that is well known in the area. They know certain realtor’s negotiation styles and this intimate knowledge in invaluable.

    I think another point is to cast a wide net. Look at one bedrooms even when you need three. Often times buyers ignore one bedrooms so they are often easier to get. Sometimes they are large and you can add in additional bedrooms. If you’re planning on remodeling, square footage is more important than bedroom and bathroom count.

    Also, look at as many houses as you can a little below and a little above what you can afford just to educate yourself on the market. Once you find the one – pounce, since you’ve done your research you’ll know it’s the right time on the right house. (And yes, pre-approval is key!)

    Regarding letters, they often can change a seller’s perspective of you, but not always in a good way. I would be careful. I once sold a condo in Cambridge, MA where it is common place to write letters. Being originally from California I was shocked. I thought is was a very easy way to be discriminated against. I would be careful.

    My grandmother accepted an offer on her childhood home in Berkeley, CA because the buyer told her via a letter she would live in it for decades and raise her family there. Two years and a remodel later, it was sold for a hefty profit, which left my grandmother and our whole family upset. So make sure your letters are honest.

  19. I am just starting this process in Philadelphia! I am a late-blooming first-time buyer. Let me say your search is so much more photogenic. The homes I am looking at in my price range are quite ‘interesting.’ I am learning see beyond 70s paneling and crunchy shag carpets. Ha! I am slightly terrified but this is helping. Thanks!!!

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