Sunday, November 22, 2015

Apparently we aren't buying a house

Readers, I return to you from a three-week bashing in the wilds of suburbia.  I am bloody and not all that unbowed.  I am beaten and bruised.  I am traumatized in ways that may require a very long recovery time.
It should never have come to this.  

In short, we were trying to buy a house.

You might think that two intelligent people who want to buy a house and have the money to do so would certainly be able to buy one.  And yet, we put FOUR offers on houses.  We were in contract on one.  At the end of it all, we are here at the old address.

I am a ducks-in-a-row kind of person.  Before looking at our first possible house, I made sure our financing was in place.  I talked with our loan officer at length.  I obtained prequalification letters in various amounts so that if and when we wanted to write an offer we could submit the letter with the offer.  (Submission with the offer is not required here, but I wanted to make our offer as strong and obviously serious as possible.)

We also had discussed the type of house we wanted - size, features, location, age, etc.  We realized our needs were fairly specific, and that the time of year didn't favor our search, and we were realistic in all things.  Above all, we were willing to compromise.  And negotiate.  Here are our house-hunting experiences:

When We Found Our First Agent

We responded to a listing for a house before we had an agent.  That house wasn't for us (too teensy tiny) but we liked the agent, so we asked her to work for us.  In retrospect, more conversation was warranted.  We should have asked questions like "How long have you been doing this?" and "How many houses did you sell last year?"  (Actually the second answer would have answered both questions, as she hadn't been in business for a year, despite being quite mature in years.)  I should have told her that in any deal we drive the bus, because it's our bus, and so on.  I should have mentioned that the idea of handing over major decisions to someone we just met seems insane to me.  I know those things now.  She showed us the first two houses we submitted offers on, with other sad houses slotted in between.  

House One - The Stinky Colonial

I found the Scented Wonder online.  (From start to finish, I cruised and Estately like a madwoman, It's what I do: if I'm in, I'm all in.)  The Stinky Colonial was Colonial only in decoration,
Pretty hard to see past this crap.  
but in this regard the word "only" doesn't do it justice.  It was necessary to look beyond all of the huge antiques the owners had stuffed the house with, to the point that it was difficult to walk from room to room.  Moreover, they used scented candles and potpourri and various toxic-fume-emitting machines as if they were covering the odor of an open grave (they weren't).  The Stinky Colonial still seemed very close to perfect for us.  All floors were wood (we can't do carpet), nice shutters on all windows (privacy) and it was in the right location.  Also pretty much the right price.  In retrospect it might have been a bit too small, but we're willing to downsize.

It also had a sunroom, which is a bonus.  The cats would love that.  I discounted the tiny kitchen with formica counters and the gold-framed shower doors.  I decided to have all of that replaced.  So we put in an offer.

A few hours later we got a call from our weepy agent (are her tears something I should have to deal with?) The owners had received our 97% asking price offer and immediately taken the house off the market!  Apparently they were two very old people who didn't realize they didn't want to move until they got an offer.  Reality was too much for them.

Prior to our offer, according to our agent, they had been bemoaning the fact that no one wanted their house.  Despite very much wanting to sell (they thought), they refused our first two requests for viewings.  I should have taken this warning seriously.  We made a request to see it at 5:45 on a Friday, to which they responded "That's our dinner time."  Our second request for a Saturday viewing was met with "We're having guests this weekend."  Both of these responses would have been fine if they had put them in the agent's notes, as in "do not show between 5:30 and 7:00," and "weekend showings are rarely possible," or some such thing.  Still, being me, I persisted, and we finally had that viewing.  By the time we saw the place in the flesh, I had viewed it so many times online that I practically lived there.  All our furniture was in place.  And then.

So scratch that.  I found myself comforting our agent on the phone, telling her that "things happen for a reason" (yeah, the sellers have dementia) and that she shouldn't be upset because she hadn't done anything wrong.  What was wrong with this picture?  Wasn't she supposed to be comforting me?

We saw a few more houses.  Nothing special.  Nothing we wanted to live in.  And then we saw:

House Two - Big House on the Prairie

Our agent actually sent this one to me.  It was a big big house.  It was relatively new.  (Newness is one of our requirements.  We replaced the roof here last year and the process aged me several years.  I'm not going through that again.  Suffice it to say that Mr. Sprocket is not real good at handling workmen and I would kill them for the things they do if I were present, so I had to go to a motel.  It was a very traumatic process.)

I soon nicknamed Big House on the Prairie "B-HOP."  (Further note:  as with strays of any kind or farm animals you plan to eat one day, it's not good to give houses a nickname, for all kinds of reasons).  It was and is a gorgeous monstrous amazing cavernous multi-volume-ceilinged place of magic and wonder.  Furthermore, it had a whole lower floor that had been immaculately finished, complete with full kitchen including stove, dishwasher, microwave, and a full bath.  In fact, I'd have to pay to have the carpet removed down there, but it was going to be one kick ass studio!  Upstairs the kitchen was gargantuan, with endless cupboards with sliders inside, a gas stove, top-of-the-line appliances, double oven, and so on.
I'm a sucker for clerestory windows.

B-HOP was also at the very upper end of our comfort budget.  Our banker had told us to go ahead and just buy what we wanted, but what we really wanted was to not be in further debt, and since the plan was to sell our current residence next spring to allow for easy overlap and work at both places, we also wanted to eat in the meantime.  So we had a high number in our heads.  With renovations (mostly painting and carpet removal) B-HOP was at the limit.

We made a generous offer.  It was something like 98% of asking price.  Our contingencies were the standard - loan approval and inspection, with the one thing that we will never negotiate on - possession at closing.  Apparently, since we last bought a house, possession at closing has been something only really bad, bad, evil buyers ask for.  Our agent reacted with horror when we told her no way was anyone going to live in our house for even five minutes after we bought it.  She simply did not understand our concern.  "But it's done all the time," she whined.  "Not by us," we said.  (By this time I'm wondering exactly what it is that makes her our agent, because she never seems to be on our side.  But of course we had signed a contract with her for exclusive representation, so I waited for her to represent.  And waited.)  "But what if they agree to everything but they need to stay?" she asked.  "They can stay in a motel," we replied.

Let me say here that she also failed us in allowing us to make such a high offer.  The house would never have appraised at that offer.  The asking price was at complete variance with all comps in the area - not that I'm so very fond of comps, but appraisers are.  She should have recommended that we come in at a much lower price.  If she had done that, we would have quickly found out how inflexible the sellers were, and all the subsequent trauma would not have happened.  But she didn't.  Her only response to my offer amount was "Oh, that's a good number," as if she was playing the lottery.

The sellers politely ask for more money.  
So we put in this offer.  The next day the response was that they wanted MORE money, and they would be staying the house for FIVE DAYS after closing.  They wanted closing to happen in three weeks, which is unheard of in these parts.  They also made the contract continent on some performance of the people they were buying a condo from, which was utterly unacceptable.

I looked at this counteroffer and was instantly stuck somewhere between fury and heartbreak.  This was a mugging, not a negotiation.  They left us with no room to maneuver.  We were not going to give in on the possession, we had already offered enough money, and no way was I going to be held hostage to third-party performance.  Why would we give two cents about their closing on their condo?  I honestly didn't care if they walked out of the room the minute after our closing and disappeared forever.  This was business, not a slumber party.

So our response to that had to be "no sale."  No response at all.  Whereupon our agent went ballistic.  "WHY won't you let me negotiate for you?" she wailed.  "Negotiate what?" we asked.  She had no answer to that.  In her book - and she told me as much, we didn't "trust" her enough to let her negotiate for us.  This was a surreal moment for me, in which I realized it was all about her.  It was as if we were on the Titanic and she was crushed because we wouldn't let her negotiate the whole iceberg thing.  She honestly felt that she had the power to turn things around, when it was clearly an unredeemable cluster hump.

At this point I sat our agent down and had the "What you expect and what we expect" conversation, which should have happened at the beginning.  It was hard for me to do this, just because it's not easy for anyone to be this real.  She nodded and said she understood, but she really didn't.  She subsequently made it perfectly clear that I might as well have been speaking Martian.

We looked at a few more houses.  Unfortunately we were now comparing them to B-HOP, which meant they all appeared dark, dank and tiny.  We tried to not compare, but B-HOP was in our heads.  And our hearts.

I woke up several days later realizing I really really wanted B-HOP.  I mean REALLY.  So I cleared it with Mister Sprocket and called our agent and said we wanted to put in another offer.  I had called our loan officer and asked him about the three-week closing date and he said he could actually do that for us!  So we submitted offer number 2, which was FULL ASKING PRICE (I know, someone should have stopped me.  I should have stopped me, but since I was clearly too far gone, someone else should have tripped me and held me down until I came to my senses, but that didn't happen.)  We also said we'd close in their time frame.  We refused their request to stay longer.  And we waited.

They accepted!  Yes, they grudgingly accepted a full-price offer.  And this was to be the theme from now on:  Their grudging acceptance of everything they wanted, and their utter outrage in response to anything else.  (I want it noted for the record here that these people had Bibles and crosses strewn all over their house.  It was like they'd been raided by vampires at one point.  So I kind of expected them to be christians, because they were advertising it in big flashing neon lights.  But they had apparently never gotten as far as the New Testament.)

But who cared! We were in contract!  There it was on the online listings:  "Contingent on finance and
inspection."  And that was US!!!!  Whee.  And yet not whee, because now we had to get the loan process started.  Luckily for Mr. Sprocket, Ms. All-Ducks-In-A-Row had already gotten all the required papers together.  All we had to do was visit our friendly loan officer and apply.  That went swimmingly.

We also had to have the inspection.  We lined up a company to do it.  It was the company recommended by our realtor, which is a thing a buyer isn't supposed to do but they all do anyway.  Fortunately it all went well.  Our inspector was, in fact, fabulous.  He was professional, calm, and gave us the most thorough home inspection anyone could ever hope to have.  (And afterward, his company gave our contact information to everyone on Facebook, and we were barraged with phone calls, emails, etc. from all kinds of related services.  I had to threaten them with the Attorney General before they stopped.)

Yes, the inspection was thorough. And it revealed STUFF.  Far too much stuff.  There was a hole in the roof above the master bath.  Some ridge shingles were missing (obvious to anyone who looked up) and rain had gotten in.  The water was puddling above the master bath ceiling. The whirlpool tub not only didn't work, but it smoked and smelled like burning wire when it was turned on.  (Our inspector flipped the GFI for safety, and our agent later made it seem the owners were about to blame us for breaking their whirlpool.)

More than ten windows in this house had broken seals, and would have to be replaced.  And since there's no way to get a perfect match and the other windows were probably failing right behind them, that meant all new windows.  Massive expense.  The grading was wrong and was letting a bit of water into the foundation.  Another massive expense.  The gas line wasn't grounded - danger.  The house needed repainting, desperately (which would cost $4,000 - I got an estimate).  Various other bits and things.

Heartbreak.  I wrote up our list of remedies.  I did this very carefully, because although I was heartbroken I still wanted the deal to go through.  I wrote and rewrote, being very precise in regard to nuance, order of requests, etc.  And I listed the repairs we would make, to show that we were in the game just as much as the sellers.

I asked them to foot the cost of repainting.  It was in such bad shape it was listed as a repair on the inspection.  I asked them to fix the roof, the electrical issues, and the whirlpool, although I did say they could replace the whirlpool with a regular tub of the same size and quality if they wanted to. That would have saved them lots of moolah, and I don't have any use for a whirlpool anyway.

I told them we would take care of the grading and the windows.  We would take care of all the other things the inspector found, as well.  I felt we were meeting them more than halfway.

I sent this to our realtor and for the first time I got a call from the broker, who we'd never met.  Our agent called and said "Bob is on the line too.  Is that okay?"  Was I going to say no when Bob was already on the line?  Of course not.  I fumed.  He's immediately telling me "We're going to ask for money and not repairs."  I told him we were not asking for money except in the case of the painting, because that could not be done in cold weather and would have to wait until spring.

Bob the Blowhard Broker
Then he told me he'd have to "re-word" some of what I'd written because "it won't all fit on the form."  That excuse was absurd and I nearly started screaming at him.  Who the hell did he think he was, I wondered?  He proceeded to tell me who he was.  He was very, very experienced, he was oh so good at what he did, and he certainly knew how to get this deal done.  I told him I hadn't just fallen off the turnip truck either, and this was our deal so the response was going to be exactly as I had written it, unless I'd put in something illegal.  I told him to use another sheet of paper if he needed to.  Bob's problem was that I had met him before, under different names, and I was not interested in his act.  Even across the phone line and without meeting him, the reek of Blowhard was difficult to take.

He agreed to submit the form as I'd written it. Then when he sent the form over he had substituted the word "qualified" for "licensed" where I had said all repairs were to be done by licensed contractors.  Qualified, my ass.  The sneak.  We had that changed.  I told our agent "if you want a form that we will sign, these changes will be made."  I don't want to have to be such a hardass, and I get cranky when I'm forced into it, but I'm not backing down.

So we submitted the remedy list.  I thought they would come back with some other stuff, then we would come back and we'd meet in the middle.  I thought we'd probably split the cost of painting, and maybe let the little repairs go.  They clearly weren't repair people, or the house wouldn't be in such a state to begin with.

The response was this:  "Our roofer and electrician will make roof and electrical repairs and we will do nothing else."

So that was that.  These people who had been so eager to close early were turning down a full-price offer by refusing to negotiate.  And I felt like a big fat fool, because I had known, deep down, who these people were when they responded to our first offer.  They were douches.  Another Mr. Big Man who had to "win" no matter what and was willing to sabotage his own goals to prove a point.

Our theory now is that their condo buy fell through - no doubt due to their shenanigans - and they wanted us to back out of this deal.  They certainly didn't use any language that indicated they were trying to negotiate or reach a compromise.  They wanted an excuse to take their house off the market, and because they just couldn't be honest about it, they tortured us into making it happen for them.  An hour after we failed to answer, they took the house off the market.  I hope they're very happy with their leaking basement and ungrounded gas line.  Maybe their windows won't all fail this winter.

We were aching with grief.  I still am, to some degree, even though I'm glad we don't have to replace all those windows.  These people simply would not negotiate, and there was nothing we could do.  The more we gave, the more they took.  And that's a horrible feeling.  We felt/feel used and degraded.  Nothing good happened in that episode, because the sellers were not decent folk.

I called our loan officer and told him if he ever had a problem with deals going through too fast to contact us, because we were apparently the Typhoid Mary of the real estate deal.  Somewhere between Typhoid Mary and the Flying Dutchman, actually.  Maybe the Typhoid Dutchman.  People didn't simply refuse our offers - they took their houses off the market after dealing with us.  That's how terrible we were to deal with.  Apparently.  And yet we'd done nothing wrong.

I also asked our loan officer if he had a good agent for us, and he said he did.  So I proceeded to fire the one we had.

I tried to do this painlessly.  I wrote to her and thanked her for all her effort on our behalf, then told her we'd be represented by another agent in the future.  I said of course we'd work with her to tie up loose ends like return of earnest money, etc.

And immediately the phone rang.  The agent screamed at me.  "WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?  TELL ME WHAT THIS MEANS?"  Apparently she was farther gone than I'd thought if the words didn't make sense to her.  "EXPLAIN YOURSELF!"  she roared.  How very distasteful.  How unprofessional.   "No," I responded.  (I tend to not explain myself on command.)  "WHAT DO YOU MEAN NO?"  She howled.  "What part of no do you not understand?" I said, and hung up.

I was so shaken by this grossly unprofessional behavior that I had Mr. Sprocket call her.  He told her very calmly that "raised voices will not be tolerated," and so on.  He said this instead of my preferred "How dare you yell at my wife?" speech, but that's about as angry as he gets with anyone except me.

House Three - Slime Pit from Hell

We met our new agent at another listing I wanted to see.  She is very professional, outgoing and friendly, and she has been in the business for long enough to know how to get things done.  We liked her immediately, and we still do.  The online photos of the Slime Pit had been bad, but by this time we knew to discount photos.  (Except for this - agents who take bad photos are not professional.  Sellers who allow bad photos of their house to remain online for five minutes are also crappy.  Those two points are worth remembering.)

The Slime Pit was indeed slimy.  We were initially put off by the fact that when we arrived for the first showing the owners had not left yet.  When they finally did leave, we were appalled by the filth, the dirt, the nastiness of the place.  The photos were actually pretty accurate!  Still, we thought about things like location, number and size of rooms, and so on.  The kitchen was ridiculously small.  The basement was actually do-able, until I got to the desirable basement bathroom.  Imagine the worst bathroom you've ever seen in the most dismal out-of-the-way gas station.  Now make it dirtier.  The only thing this bathroom didn't have was a dead rat in the corner.  See photo below, if you dare.

Actual shot of the basement toilet.  

The basement was also difficult to look at because this guy obviously spent a lot of time loading his own shotgun shells. Gunpowder and ammo everywhere.  Apparently regular loads just weren't good enough for him.  Which was disquieting, since we knew from the bathroom just how good his aim was.

Upstairs, there was a lot of wolf head wallpaper border, flowered wallpaper and grandma's curtains to deal with. 
Grandma's wallpaper in the laundry room.
In addition, the owners returned too soon and were standing in the yard at the end of our first viewing, with their little dog dressed in a Christmas coat two weeks before Thanksgiving. And the owner was vaping.  Imagine an unshaven, grinning, sloppily-dressed middle-aged man vaping while trying to control a yappy dog in a Christmas sweater.  Yes, these owners were just as appealing as the house they were trying to sell.  At the end of that visit we were strongly of two minds.  One mind said "no, no, no, run, run, run!" and another said "well, maybe."  After sleeping on it, we thought no.  Too much work to do.  Too many cooties to remove.  Spiritual cleansing needed.  Smudging, sage, etc.  Maybe an exorcism.  

But a day or so later I thought we should see it again.  I thought it might look better on a sunnier day.  Also, we were desperate.  Our time window for buying was closing.  (Our plan was to close by the end of the year, spent January and February making improvements on the new house, move in, then make improvements on the old house in March in time for putting it on the market in April.)

The basement cleaned up for showing.  
On the second visit the female owner was actually present on the back deck!  I wanted to walk, but our agent persuaded me to stay.  The owner had just had foot surgery and apparently she forgot how to call a taxi or a friend or her parole officer to get her out of there.  The yappity dog was also out there,  jumping at the back door, trying to get in to defend his territory.  And the male owner came back before the viewing was over, and went to the back porch as well.  These people were inappropriate on so many levels.  It was alarming.

Still, we were so numb by this time we thought "oh, what the hell."  We put in a 95% offer that expired at 10:00 a.m. the following day.  It was going to be hell to wait that long.  As it turned out, 10:00 came and went without a response.  Our agent told me that their agent had said they were countering with a number that was just $5,000 below asking - which, again, the house would never appraise at - and they were not going to bring any money to the table at closing.  In other words, the house was being sold as is.  Which would have been nice to know before we went there.  Twice.  Their offer came in at 12:30.  We were so far apart in this negotiation that they were in a different time zone.

So once again, no sale.  These people seem to be in some dire financial strait which is of course not our concern.  And they are willing to put others through the process of thinking there is a house for sale when in fact there just isn't.  Maybe their Barbieclone agent convinced them they could get full asking or close to it - which, if she did, was utterly irresponsible.

We're done for now.  Just done.  We've had enough insanity and deceptive dealing from sellers and their agents.  Can't anyone just deal directly and honestly any more?  That was a rhetorical question, and it also implies that people could ever deal honestly.  If they could, there wouldn't need to be so many laws and regulations.  If people were straight shooters who didn't pack their own special loads, there would be no need for contracts.  

The arguments involved in these negotiations have also done some damage to our marriage,  We have ended up not liking each other at several points.  We have found that there are weaknesses in our abilities to cope under pressure and to make difficult decisions.  All useful information, probably, but I could have gone a lifetime without having to face it and been perfectly happy.

So, for now, we stay where we are.  We're warm and dry and it's a nice house.  The mystery to me is why we were unable to buy a house.  Other people do it, and we've done it ourselves several times.  On top of being a crap experience, this is probably also a lesson in acceptance.  Color me disgusted.