Back when I still threw my money away on cable television, I used to watch HGTV quite a bit. In particular, I would spend hours upon hours watching shows like Property Virgins, My First Place, House Hunters, or Property Brothers: 30-minute shows (usually produced in Canada) of people looking at three houses, and then trying to pick which one of the three was the one they were going to buy. So I started off the house-hunting process with what I thought was a pretty well-founded idea of what buying a house was going to be like.
I always believed that it was the job of the buyer’s agent to help the buyer find potential houses. Perhaps this is true for some agents, especially back when the Internet was not so pervasive, but it wasn’t for my agent. We didn’t meet to talk about what I was looking for in a house. Instead, she just sent me a login to their online house-hunting system. A preliminary search had been set up for me, and it was my job to go through the hundreds and hundreds of houses to find the ones I was interested in viewing. I thought I was going into the process with a pretty good idea of what I wanted, and I had a good sense of where I would be able to afford the kinds of houses that I wanted to own. But I probably spent 20-30 hours combing through listings, searching in different areas, and putting together my short list.
I was mainly looking for houses in the Renton, Issaquah, Snoqualmie, and North Bend areas. I would have loved to stay in Redmond or Bellevue, but I just couldn't afford a house in those areas. And I couldn't justify buying a condo or townhouse. I wanted to get away from neighbors. I wanted to be able to sing at the top of my lungs at 1AM if I felt the urge. I wanted some land to look after. Plus, HOA fees around here are ludicrous. For an extra $200-$400 a month, you can afford $30,000-$50,000 more house. It had to be a standalone house for me, so it had to be south and east of my current location. I also looked around a few areas in south and west Seattle as well, just for comparison. On the Friday of my week off, I drove to Snoqualmie and and North Bend to get a sense of the area and to look at houses for a while, just to get a sense if I would be interested in living in such a remote, small place. The answer was a resounding no. (Also the only houses I was interested in ended up being smack dab in the middle of a massive flood plain.) I also realized that I wasn’t interested in living in one of those “master-planned” communities where you’re technically buying a house, but you’re really buying a standalone townhouse.
The following Sunday, my agent, my friend Hannah, and I all hopped in my agent's car, and drove around to 6 houses that I had shortlisted. I was relatively unfamiliar with the Renton area, so I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. It was…well…it was eye-opening.
The first house we went to was a decent little house. It was in the $260k range, older in build, and completely original–but not in the trendy midcentury modern sort of way. It was on a quiet cul de sac, and had a decent-sized yard, but the yard was surrounded by giant trees, and the whole place was dark and a little depressing. I liked the idea of buying a house with good bones and fixing it up, but I knew I didn’t have the money to do the work I would want to do to make this the kind of place I wanted to live. I put this house in the maybe pile.
House #2 was whacky. The whole house was surrounded by a chain link fence (the kind with the vinyl strips running through at a 45 degree angle). There was no front yard, and the house was in a pretty run-down neighborhood. They had converted the garage into a “bedroom,” but hadn’t done it with permits, so who knows how it was done. The back yard was AMAZING, with a ton of space and a huge garden. They had giant sunrooms built off the back of two of the bedrooms, but one of the windows in the south sunroom had been completely smashed in. One of the windows in the kitchen had a bullet hole through it. There was a box of old checks in the unpermitted fireplace. Everyone living in the place was sleeping on air mattresses. I was SERIOUSLY not feeling it. Off the list.
House #3 had a rather inauspicious beginning. When we pulled up to the house, I wasn’t particularly sold. There was no garage, which I didn’t love. You could tell the house was recently re-done, and it looked nice, but it was small. My agent scraped the bottom of her rental Jaguar on the curb trying to pull into the driveway. “We don’t have to go in if you don’t want to,” she said. “Eh. We’re here. Let’s just do a quick once-through.”
All of my reservations about the house melted away pretty quickly once we opened the front door. The house had been completely remodeled on the inside. New oak hardwood floors, new cabinet, new granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances. Crown molding, new windows, a new roof, and a new fence for the massive back yard (with fruit trees!). The kitchen was huge. There were two bedrooms with en suites. And I wouldn’t have to do any major remodeling. The only work that needed to be done was the gardening and landscaping, which is something I can do…and over time. It was beautifully done.
There were a few things that stuck out to me about the house, but I liked it a lot. So did my agent and Hannah. Everyone kept saying what a surprise the interior of the house was, and how much potential there was on the exterior as well. Unfortunately, it was 12:35 when we left the property, and the agent was hosting an open house 25 minutes later, so, despite the fact that I really liked this house, I was concerned that I would lose it to someone doing the open house. But, we had other houses to see, and I didn’t want to put in an offer until I had a chance to look at a few more houses. But, this one felt like “home” almost immediately upon walking through the door.
House #4 was nice, and in a very nice neighborhood, but the owner of the house wouldn’t actually leave the house while we were touring it. It was really uncomfortable—particularly since he was particularly unfriendly. The house had a really weird layout, and felt super-cramped, even though it was the largest of the houses I looked at. (It was also the most expensive.) The yard was also completely shaded by large trees which would have made gardening difficult. It was also the most expensive house I looked at…about $20,000 over my max budget.
House #5 was perhaps the strangest house of all. It felt like a cross between a lodge, a log cabin, and the set of a horror film. For starters, the house was situated very close to a gun club, and when we went to visit the place, it sounded like I had been dropped in the middle of a war zone. It was so bad that there was even a note immediately inside the door that said “GUN CLUB SUMMER HOURS: 11AM-6PM WED-SAT” and the owner had written a note trying to tell potential buyers how awesome the place was, despite the incessant gunfire and hunting club vibe of the property. The bedroom didn’t have a closet, but instead, a MASSIVE built-in wardrobe that looked like a bad knockoff of a black forest cuckoo clock, blown up to 12’ x 9’. The bathroom ceiling sloped and I couldn’t stand up to pee without having to crook my neck to the side. The basement/back door didn’t have a doorknob, and instead just had a latch with a padlock. And the hatch to the “crawlspace” was officially the creepiest thing I have ever seen in real life. When my agent saw it, she said in her most chipper voice, “And here’s where you can store your dead hookers…” (which, considering my love for dead hooker jokes, really won me over.) This one was a big fat NO.
House #6 was another remodeled house. It was a sort of a split level house. You had to go up a large flight of stairs to get to the front door. Then, going inside, you either had to go straight up more stairs to the living room and kitchen, or straight downstairs to the “basement” which is where the bedrooms were. The backyard, which was flat, huge, and rather empty, was fully fenced, but someone had driven into the back yard and done donuts in the grass. The house had been remodeled, and seemed rather nice. I probably would have considered this one had it not been for the fact that it was out in the middle of NOWHERE. As in, “I’m sorry sir, but we can’t provide internet access to that address. You’ll have to get dial-up.” And for me, that’s a deal-breaker. That and I don’t want to have to drive 30 minutes to get anywhere, or deal with neighbors who do donuts with their pickup trucks in the back yards of neighbors houses, or who honestly think that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim. My ability to live in a neighborhood is inversely proportional to the percentage of people in that neighborhood who believe Fox News is a valid source of political news and information.
There were a couple of other houses on my short list that we weren’t able to visit, because we couldn’t get ahold of the occupants for a showing, but by that time, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what was available in the market in my price range. If I wanted a house (and I did), then my options were limited. All three of us agreed that house #3 was the right house for me. So, I decided to put in an offer.
Coming up: The bargain, the inspection, and the worst refinishing job ever.