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The Saga Continues

Episode V: The Counteroffer Strikes Back

(note to those not up on pop-culture-literacy: we're making an obligatory Star Wars reference during the pre-Phantom Menace hype.)

(This is from an email Dan wrote on Sunday, May 16, 1999.)

Well, we've made an offer. As I write this (4:38pm PST, Sunday May 15, 1999) we are waiting to hear from the sellers after 5pm. So we could be just minutes away from home ownership.

Let me back up a few days.

If you've read our first househunt update, you know about the first few houses we looked at. Since we've been busy, we haven't done much in the way of hunting or journaling in the past few weeks. We did go drive past several dozen houses, mostly in the First Hill / Central District / Madrona area, with a little Ballard and Phinney Ridge thrown in for good measure, but didn't see much that excited us enough to bother with a showing. You may recall that our plan has been to start looking in a leisurely manner (as we do most things in a leisurely manner) until Melissa's quarter ends in June, at which point we'd ratchet up the search. The point of the initial looking has been to familiarize ourselves with the market, and get used to looking at houses with buyers' eyes.

Of course, we did our homework and got preapproved for a loan, both to have our ducks in a row and just in case we found a terrific place before June rolled around.

In the past few weeks, there has not been much activity in our price range & preferred neighborhoods. We've really grown to love this part of Seattle over the past four years, and really wanted to stay here. But if you look at this article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer you can see that it's exactly the close-to-downtown, old neighborhoods of Seattle that the demand is craziest in. All the driving we did a few weeks ago gave us hope that we would be able to find a home close to our current location, instead of having to move out in the boonies (anywhere that's more than a 20 minute bus ride from downtown is the boonies, in our oh-so-urban-mindset). But we hit a bit of a dry spell--there were actually a few weeks where there were no new listings in our price range in Madrona or the Central District.

Then, on Wednesday May 12, Mike sent us a few listings that had just come on the market in our area. We didn't love them (they were adequate, nice even, but not great) but around the corner from two of them, we found two other houses for sale. Later that night, we emailed Mike to ask him to check them out - we had done that before, and usually found that the houses were way over our price range, or they'd already sold and the database hadn't been updated, or they WERE available yesterday but sold today. So we didn't expect too much, just to hear what the prices were for houses that looked like that. One of them really intrigued us, since it was a cheerful bright yellow house on 21st Ave (we live on 15th, remember) and we could see that it had a very large (for Seattle) backyard which was fenced and nicely decked. There was another house on 20th that looked nice enough from the street, so we asked about that, too.

On Thursday, May 13, Mike sent us the info on the two places we asked about, plus one more in the area that'd just come on the market that day. The two places neatly bracketed our price range, which explains why Mike hadn't found them for us earlier...one was $10k over the top of our range, and the other was $5k under. And they were both still available! So we had Mike make arrangements for showings for Saturday afternoon.

Why not show on Friday night? We went to see John Mellencamp at the Gorge in George, Washington on Friday night! A great concert, and a wonderful natural amphitheater overlooking the Columbia River in central Washington, it's about a three hour drive (especially if you count getting into and out of the parking area) and worth it. The concert was excellent - the entire crowd stayed on their feet for the whole show, and we danced as best we could on the steeply-sloped lawn above the stage, watching the sun set behind the music. But we didn't get home until about 3am. We grabbed some sleep, woke up, took the cats for a vet appointment, dropped them at home, and went to meet Mike.

Now, Mike had let us know that the less expensive house had already sold. But we managed to get ourselves confused reading the descriptions (both of them talked about a rear deck), and ended up thinking that the bright yellow house on 21st was the expensive one, and the other house on 20th was the less expensive one. In this perplexed state, we were actually confused about which we were supposed to meet Mike at! We drove by both, not seeing "sold" signs or Mike's car at either. At this point, we were rooting for the yellow house on 21st to be the remaining one, since we liked it better at first glance. Returning to 20th, we saw Mike pulling in, so we parked and went to see the house, only a little disappointed that 21st was the one that had sold.

This house is on a quiet, tree-lined street which is narrow enough that when cars are parked on both sides, there's only room for one car to drive down the street. It's one house away from the corner, which instead of being a 4-way intersection as are most in that part of Seattle, is two offset T-intersections, since the cross-street takes a jog over.

The house is up off the street; there's a gentle stair to climb up from the sidewalk, which was punctuated by a trellised portal that let the stairs pass through the low, white wooden picket fence that belts the front yard. The stairs continue up to a porch/landing outside the front door. As Mike tried to coax the realtors' lockbox into giving him the keys, Melissa and I turned, leaned on the railing, and looked down onto the neighborhood street. It was good. I could imagine coming out to get the paper in the morning and seeing the morning sun coming through the trees as it got out of bed.

It turns out the owners were home, and they opened the door just as Mike convinced the lockbox to give him the key. Or maybe that's not how it happened, but I wasn't paying that much attention. We walked into a small living room, which the front door opens directly into. On our right was a small wood stove/fireplace, sitting on a stone perch a foot off the ground, with a stovepipe running up to the ceiling as its chimney. Ahead of us was an archway leading to the house's largest room, a central, informal dining room with newly-done hardwood floors. To the left, a small office space which could be closed off by wooden doors with small glass panes running the entire height of the door. I'm told that's a French door, but it didn't look French to me. A Craftsman interpretation of a French door?

The feel of the house was immediately cozy; the ceilings were lowered in all but one room sometime in the 50's or 60's to save on heating. The total square footage is only 1130sf, but the people who've owned it for the past 7 years had clearly gone to a lot of trouble to make it a very comfortable, well-done place.

Walking on into the dining room, we saw that all the rest of the rooms in the house are off of it, with the exception of a back bedroom that is around a short corner. The table in the dining room had the look of a place that kids would run in circles around while the "grownups" had coffee after dinner.

A bedroom off to the side of the dining room was the only place in the house to see the original high ceilings. It also has a massive, built-in wall storage unit, that reminded me of some of the built-in storage we saw in many older houses in St. Paul.

The bathroom, straight in the back of the house, had been redone; not extravagant, but nice. The bathroom also has a laundry closet. No going downstairs to change the laundry! No quarters!

The kitchen is not a big improvement from our current one, with two exceptions. Or maybe three. You count, I'm writing! The countertop is wood; maybe butcher-block; I don't actually know what that means so I'm not sure if that's what it is. There's a dishwasher, which makes me really happy, although Melissa has never lived with a dishwasher, so she doesn't see what the big deal is. Call me spoiled by technology; I'll get over it. Lastly (for now) the kitchen has windows on two sides, which is a giant change from our current kitchen, which has a window that's buried in a 6-foot deep fire escape, which really cuts down on the amount of sunlight that manages to make it down the 4-story-deep, 10-foot-wide alley.

The rear bedroom, which we're thinking we would use, is smaller than our current bedroom, but it seems to have enough room for our bed and a dresser. And there's also....

The back yard! We stepped out of the French doors in the bedroom that opened onto a low deck that runs the width of the house, and extends about 8 or 10 feet before you step down to the lawn. The kitchen also has a door that opens onto the deck. There's a arbor over the deck, too. The backyard is, as the owners described it, "an urban oasis". It's sheltered from the neighbors, and wonderfully landscaped in a not-at-all fussy fashion. There's a little rock pond with a trickling waterfall. There's a wooden toolshed against the back of the yard, and two parking spaces with low fences around them (the owners have two dogs, little Pugs, and they wanted to let the dogs run around in the back yard without worrying about running them over). The entire back of the house really feels connected to the backyard, which faces west to get the incredibly long Northwest summer sunsets.

As we were in the back yard, we chatted with one of the owners. He was doing a little garden work and talking on the phone.

We wandered around, stunned and almost afraid to say anything because we were afraid we'd blurt out something like "we'll take it!" on the spot. Heading back inside, we took a second lap around the place, and didn't see anything we didn't like. We ended up in the dining room, and the other owner came over. We started talking, and he told us how they'd done tons of work, but were leaving to go to Palm Springs; they've already purchased a condo there, where they'll live while they figure out where they want to buy a house. He showed us their photo album of all the work they've done on the house, with before, during, and after photos. Clearly, this house was a labor of love for them. The hardwood floors in the dining room were a present from one owner's brother, who did the work while they lived in the house. They built the deck, did all the landscaping, designed the front stairs and new porch, and converted the original porch into the front office space.

We had fun talking with them, but needed to get out to have a little perspective. Mike suggested taking a look at some other houses we'd seen that he knew were empty and available for drop-ins. We took his advice, and went with him to two other places. One was new construction, just a few blocks away. It was typical nice new construction, with a very modern kitchen open to the living/dining room on the spacious main floor, with a garage, two bathrooms, three bedrooms, and electrical outlets every four feet or so. Very nice. But it didn't really get us excited; it was just adequately nice. As we went outside, we tried calling some friends to get them to come see the house on 20th with us, but we came up empty.

Then we went to see another place, which from the sound of the description, was a fixer-upper that still needed to be finished, but the owner/renovator had run out of money. When we arrived, I began to question whether the renovation had started at all! Well, ok, the kitchen had been updated, but there was a LOT of work to do before the place was even livable. With the way our lives are right now, there's no way we could handle doing that kind of work. It was a huge house, though.

We couldn't decide whether we wanted to make an offer on the 20th house. We were tempted, yea, verily we were tempted. Mike suggested we sleep on it, since it was already late on Saturday and there was not much danger it would get snatched up before we could do anything the next morning. He went back to the office to check on "comps" for the house. (Comps are comparable houses in the neighborhood that've sold recently or are on the market; it's how you check if a house is priced correctly.)

We had lunch at The Attic. Mike paged while we were there, and gave us the scoop on the pricing. It looked fair enough, perhaps a little over-reaching. Mel and I had spent enough time talking about it, and we told him to let them know we wanted to make an offer. We agreed to meet at Mike's office at 9am to put together the offer.

We went home to our cats and our apartment, and couldn't stop thinking about the place the whole time. We were sketching out how we'd use the space, and double-checking our feelings against what we knew we needed from the house, and kept surprising ourselves that despite being small square-foot-wise, not having an upstairs/downstairs (or even a basement), not being a big improvement in kitchen space, and being at the high end of our price range, everything about the house felt good, and even better than we'd been hoping we could get.

Getting to sleep was not easy Saturday night.

Neither was waking up Sunday morning.

But we did manage to make it over to Mike's office in Ballard, not too late, and we went over the comps. With Mike's help, we decided to offer $10k under the asking price, betting that they had priced it $10k over what they thought was reasonable in case they found some suckers (or the market went through another mini-inflation period, as it does sometimes).

Much initialing, signing, and explaining later (Mike is very thorough and answered all our questions) we had an offer ready! We took off to let Mike present it to them.

As we were driving back, Mike paged us. We hadn't made it home yet; we were still in Wallingford. We tried three payphones before finding one that worked. The sellers' agent was in California, but Mike spoke to the sellers. They were fine with our offer, but another agent called to say that her clients would be making an offer as Mike was on the phone with them. We continued home.

Once we got home, we waited for a bit, then got another call from Mike. He talked to the agent, and was told that the owners liked us, and we got our foot in the door first, and they'd give us a chance to counter-offer if the other offer was better. We jumped around the living room, singing "They like us best! They like us best!"

We went to lunch, were joined by Patrick (who just came back from E3 and called us) and drove by yet again. We stopped by another open house, and said, yeah, that's nice, but not our place.

We went back home and waited.

Around 4:30, Mike called us and relayed the status. The other agent had faxed the offer, but she'd put the offer in the machine UPSIDE DOWN! So they received a stack of blank pages with the agent's fax number and page numbers, and nothing else. The sellers had been calling every number they had for the other agent, and couldn't track her down at all. They told Mike that if they didn't hear by 5, they'd accept our offer.

We waited. I started typing this to funnel off my nervous energy. As you can tell by the length of this update, I've got quite a bit of it...

Finally, a little after 6, Mike called. "Well, I wish I had good news for you, but I don't." The other buyers must have gotten their act together and figured out how to use a fax machine.

This is an example of how the Seattle market is. The offer that beat us was:

* over asking price! (we didn't find out how much over, but keep in mind that we determined, and the sellers agreed that the asking price was about $10k over what comps indicated)

* not contingent on financing (which means they're probably paying cash)

* and not contingent on an inspection!!!

So, we got beat fair and square. That doesn't mean we're happy about it, but what can you do when faced with rabid house-buying nuts like that?

We're off to lick our wounds, and prepare ourselves for someday looking for another house. Mike's going on vacation this week (he'll be in Boston and Martha's Vineyard--his wife has family in MA) so that will give us a bit of a breather. Sure, another agent will keep an eye on listings for us, but I think we could use some downtime after the emotional whirlwind of this weekend.

We'll take some pictures of the place and post them on our website as soon as we can bear to drive by it again. Sniff.

-Dan

6:40 PM
Sunday, May 16, 1999
Seattle, Washington

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