Glimpse into the Horror of House Hunting

If you’re new to my blog, fair warning: some posts have almost nothing to do with writing. But writing about life is still writing; thus, I periodically take a break from exploring my experience as a new author to write about the day-to-day whatever-comes-to-mind.

Today, I’m compelled to write about our house search -- mostly because it has been a saga, friends. And I imagine some of you out there might be in the same boat.

When Andrew got a job last November, the realization hit us: we can finally sell our condo and buy a house! The dreaming began. I spent stupid amounts of time on Zillow and, prematurely (and foolishly) beginning our hunt for our dream house. We made our wish list of “must-haves,” which I probably set on fire at some point in the last six or eight weeks. The spring peak selling season was fast-approaching, so we launched into action with fervor.

In my opinion, there are many real-life obstacles for the romantic/idealist, but the real estate process is at the top of the list for me based on our experience. In the last few months, we have held on for dear life while the real estate roller coaster of emotions bucked us around and shattered our housing hopes. After a while, the beast strangled our dream, and we were more or less just pleading for it all to be over so we could get our lives back and move on.

Exaggeration? Nope. If you think I’m being melodramatic, you clearly have not be involved with the St. Louis housing market recently.

Sure, our condo sold in four days and we had multiple offers. But the selling process is still a bear, and as a rookie home-buying romantic, I was unprepared. In my imagination, it was as simple as “Hi realtor! Here’s my condo. Can you put it on the market for me? Yeah? K thanks. Let me know when someone buys it and then give me the money.”

Ignorant? Yes. But dang it, there has to be a better way!

Regardless, we painted our old white walls a neutral, trendy greige. We replaced our carpet (long overdue) with some affordable but gorgeous laminate. We stored our extra cluttery junk in friends’ attics, basements, garages, and spare bedrooms. And in the end, we felt pretty good about how the place looked and how quickly it sold.

But then we started looking for our new house...and we got angry, y’all. Legitimately pissed.

Yes, a “seller’s market” is a thing, and we should know that the winds are not in our favor as buyers. But if I have to spruce up my condo to sell it for $175K, it seems pretty insane that Joe Seller in Trendy Desireable Neighborhood gets to sell his dated, dirty, cramped little 1500 square foot home for $245K. Where is the JUSTICE in that?!?

But the bleak bang-for-your-buck reality was not nearly as depressing as the competition. Fair warning, St. Louis dreamers -- the real estate market here is a straight-up, kill-or-be-killed Shark Tank.

Open houses were the worst. Early on, we liked them because we could wander around from home to home without our realtor and be more spontaneous about what we wanted to see. But that preference faded quickly as we attended more and more open houses.

Let us jump aboard the imagination train….

Close your eyes. Imagine that you’re in the car with your spouse, headed for an open house. You’re excited, of course, because the photos for this home looked gorgeous, the floor plan looked relatively open, and there was at least one bedroom big enough to hold your king-size bed. And best of all, this home is in your preferred neighborhood! You drive along, admiring the area, grinning like a fiend because the neighbors are actually waving at you as you drive by. It’s like stepping into Pleasantville, but with freaking amazing restaurants in walking distance, and hipsters with dogs.

You turn the corner and spot the open house sign in the front yard. It’s about 5 minutes till the open house begins, so you get out of your car and check out the street: the yards are well-maintained, kids are giggling as they play in their yards, and birds are singing.

Then, a strange sensation slithers up the back of your neck. You sense a presence nearby, and narrow your eyes.

Casually, you glance behind you. Another young, white, middle-class couple has rolled up and parked behind you.

You pretend you don’t see them and smile at your spouse. We can take them, you tell yourself. No big deal.

The hum of another engine catches your ear. Then another. And another. You’re completely surrounded, and you’re confident that at least three of those vehicles are twice as expensive as your Camry.

With effort, you hold back a territorial growl as you approach the front door. It’s one minute till...if the realtor isn’t ready now, that’s on them. You keep your chin up, and try to pretend that you’re not intimidated by the fact that the list price is at the top of your budget; the others don’t know that, and it would be foolish to show your weakness.

You poke your head in the front door and make sure it’s alright to come in thirty seconds early, just to be polite. With a charming smile, you shake the realtor’s hand and try to look calm. You nod to your spouse, and you head to the kitchen, scanning your surroundings and trying to look interested...especially if you’re not sure you like the place.

You elbow your way past a family of four as you squeeze down a hallway to the bedrooms. A tall man glares at you as he inches by with his wife: it’s to be expected, of course. Kill or be killed. Smiling pleasantly, you saunter past, feigning self-confidence.

As you enter the master bedroom, you notice cracks in the walls, and wood flooring that is in serious need of refinishing. That can be managed, you tell yourself. We can always throw a rug over it. Your soul dies at the sight of the tiny closets and barely-big-enough rooms, but you don’t let your face fall.

We can make it work, you say.

But as you continue on your prowl, the list of needed repairs climbs. You doubt that the seller will take care of much of it for you, since so many of your competitors are waiving their inspection rights. You know that your budget can’t accommodate the repairs on top of the list price of the home. And know it will sell for at least $10K over the list price. At this point, you’re wondering why you bothered to come and see this home at all.

Suddenly, you feel as if you’ve been thrust into a foreign landscape, and you’re surrounded by stronger, faster predators. They have their eyes on you, and they lick their chops, anticipating the savory goodness of your shame and defeat.

With another knowing nod, you and your spouse squeeze your way out of the densely packed living room, shouldering your way past four couples with babies, practically flinging yourself across the lawn to your vehicle.

Your hands begin to shake, and you slam the door, begging your spouse to get moving.

Nobody speaks for a few minutes. The experience hangs over you like a shroud.

We could make it work, your spouse says. Trying to be positive, always the pillar of support.  

You shake your head, and the tears start to fall. You don’t want to make it work. Even after 35 open houses, the predatory stare-downs, and the shoulder-to-shoulder walkthroughs, you’re not ready to give up on your dream.

The worst part, you manage to whisper, is that I didn’t like the house at all.

I wish I could say that this is a fanciful, fictional depiction of our experience...but it isn’t. Every Sunday, we headed home after a handful of open houses and I cried my eyes out. We didn’t think our parameters were that narrow, or that we wanted too much for our budget. But after weeks and weeks, we started asking ourselves, “Are we doing something wrong? Do we want too much?”

So we took action. We expanded our parameters and included homes with one bathroom. Sure, it would be a downgrade, but we could do it. We started looking in neighborhoods we swore we wouldn’t move to, because the school districts are so shoddy. Our kids don’t even exist yet, so why worry?

Now that we’re on the other side of this battle, I think settling is bogus. Yes, it’s a seller’s market, and that comes with its own set of reality checks. Yes, the neighborhood you want is stupid-trendy and impossible to get into.

But none of that equated to us settling for something less than our list of “must-haves”, for significantly less than our maximum budget.

We went under contract for our new home about two weeks ago, and I still hardly believe that we found it. Our new home isn’t perfect; it isn’t in our most-preferred neighborhood, and it doesn’t have quite as much yard as Andrew would prefer. But you know what? Our new house meets every single checkbox on our must-have list, and then some.

Was it worth the craziness? Probably. Ask me in a few weeks when I’m sitting in the sunshine on our back deck, enjoying the privacy of our very own home for the first time. Until then, all I can feel is relief, and gratitude that the icky part is finally, finally, mercifully over. If you are in the middle of this process now, take heart, my friends: your house is waiting, and it might just take longer than expected to find it.