Purchasing My First Home: The Search

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been in the habit of stalking the Charlottesville MLS for years now. I’ve been dreaming of buying a house since forever, my mom and grandma both used to be Realtors, and I’ve been watching HGTV since before it was trendy to do so (so like, the early 2000s?). Looking at houses is one of my favorite pastimes.

I don’t know whether anyone will be interested in this “Purchasing My First Home” series besides me, but I want to capture as much of it as I can, for posterity, if nothing else.

A timeline seems like a good structure for this particular post.

May 2010: I graduated from Virginia Tech. (Where I began reading design blogs and followed the Blacksburg real estate market somewhat loosely. There were a few times during college where I toyed with the idea of buying an apartment there as an investment property, with help from my dad or grandma. Thankfully, this didn’t happen. It’d be a nightmare to manage a student rental from 2.5 hours away.)

May 2011: I graduated from UVA. (Where I was reading several design blogs daily and keeping a close eye on the Charlottesville real estate market.)

July 2011: I started my first grown-up job.

Early Spring – Early Summer, 2012: I found a condo in an area I was somewhat familiar with (due to a friend living there), which was listed for noticeably less than condos in that development tended to be. I got in touch with my now-Realtor, who is a friend of my grandma. I went through the mortgage prequalification process, and started to learn about how much house I could truly afford (I was surprised to find that it was more than I thought). I learned about things like interest rates, how hard it is to get financing for most condos (there are only about 6 developments in Charlottesville for which you can get a traditional loan), PMI (that’s private mortgage insurance, which you have to pay if you put less than 20% down on a home purchase), and the actual dollar amounts involved in closing on a home. I ended up never actually going to see the condo, since I found out that no one would finance a loan in that development!

Late Summer – Early Fall, 2012: With an eye on the MLS daily, I went to see a handful of properties, but never saw anything that I loved. I don’t think I ever looked at any single-family homes (wait: there was one that had been nearly completely gutted and that would have needed a TON of work), and the townhouses I saw usually came with seriously high monthly HOA fees. That reality scared me a little, and I decided I wanted to give my down payment a chance to grow a bit.

November 2012: My then-company laid off 25% of its employees (me not included), and, though I had been applying and interviewing for other jobs for several months at that point, I seriously ramped up my efforts. I started at my current job the Monday after Thanksgiving. I worried that this would affect my ability to qualify for a loan, as most lenders like to see a steady job history, and are hesitant to give loans to what my dad calls “job-hoppers.” (I’ve since learned that they look for continuity in job history, so, thankfully, since I’ve retained the same job title, I’m good to go.) I carried on stalking the MLS daily.

This is where my dates get a little blurry, because I’ve realized that I didn’t always put house viewings on my calendar. (I wish I had!)

January 24, 2013: There was a snow storm this day, but I was determined to see a townhouse that had just come on the market. It had had significant improvements done, and was in perfect, move-in condition. It was also quite a bit over my comfortable spending limit. I would have loved to live there, but in the end, I’m glad I didn’t put in an offer. In hindsight, it was the stereotypical “best house in the neighborhood,” so there wouldn’t have been room for much value increase. I should also mention here that at this point in my search, interest rates were L-O-W. Like, close to 3%. That, at least, would have been on my side. 

[I think I probably saw one or two other properties in the next few months, also in the same general area of town as the previous townhouse. This is the point in my search where I think I zeroed in on exactly where I wanted to live, and I did a good job of sticking with that from here on out.]

April 18: During my lunch break this day, I met my Realtor to see a foreclosure in the area I liked (hint: this would become “the one;” I just didn’t know it yet), and a much newer townhouse in a newer development on the opposite side of town. I liked the foreclosure. I hated the new construction, even though it was bigger, newer, and more modern. This is where I realized I didn’t want an open-concept, new-construction home. I’m still surprised by the realizations I’ve had throughout the process.

April 21: I continued to think about the foreclosure for several days, and on the following Sunday, I took my dad back to look at it. I wanted his impartial judgement, which I thought would see past the lust that had started to grow in my eyes. He liked it, too. (YES!!!) However, my Realtor tried her darndest to steer me away from it, as she’d never dealt with a Fannie Mae-owned property before. (I mentioned that she’s a friend of my grandma’s, which, I’ve learned, means that she’s a bit old school. I’ll leave it at that.)

sometime soon after that: The foreclosure went under contract. WOMP, WOMP. I had waited too long, and someone else had snatched it up.

May 20: I saw a stinky, old, gross townhouse in an established development that I’d still really like to live in. But the place was built in the ’70s, and hadn’t been touched since. (Many other units there have been renovated and are very nice. I also really love the location.) It probably wasn’t as gross as it is now in my memory, but I think at this point I had become attached to the foreclosure, and was determined to see only bad things. This house would have needed a lot of work, and I just didn’t feel the connection with it that would have been required to nurse it back to health. I left and never looked back. (Also, the HOA fees at this place are like $215 a month, which is insane!)

[Now’s when I should mention that sometime between mid-May and June 22, I had learned that the offer on the foreclosure had fallen through, because the inspection revealed that it would need an entire new roof. The purchaser countered to Fannie Mae for a lower price (or perhaps for them to do the work?), and Fannie Mae said “aw, hell no!” So it came back on the market, with a $10,000 lower price, thanks to the results of the home inspection.]

June 22: I went to see an older townhouse way across town (actually, in the same general vicinity as the condo from Summer 2012). I really liked the layout and thought it was in pretty decent shape considering its age. It would have been immediately livable, although somewhat dated in the kitchen and bathrooms. But I questioned the neighborhood: the rest of the units attached to this one seemed well-maintained, but the row of units next door were definitely sketchy. One had “PRIVATE PROPERTY” signs (yes, two–one upstairs, one downstairs) hanging in the windows, while another had tons of crap piled up in the tiny front yard. Plus, there was a paint contractor’s van parked in the cul-de-sac, on which the license plate tags had expired over a year ago. I took those all to be bad signs, and decided to drive by to scope out the ‘hood at various times during the weekend.

June 24: I thought about this townhouse all weekend, and every time, I was comparing it in my head to the foreclosure. June 24 was a Monday. That morning, I called my Realtor and told her that I didn’t want to make an offer on the house we had just seen, but rather, the foreclosure that we hadn’t seen since April. Then the real process began.

If you just guessed that the next part of this series will be entitled “Purchasing My First Home: The Offer,” you’d be correct. This is where it starts to get really good. Stick around! 

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