The Ordeal of searching

Granny's House

We started looking for a house last December, 2007. My girlfriend had been bugging me, and I had recently gotten a raise at work, so we felt we could afford it. I'm kind of slow, and a bit lazy for such things, and was not really in the mood, but with her gently pushing me, we both got into a routine of looking at houses for sale. (sioux: i was probably nagging!) By February, we had seen a bunch of houses, and had our eyes set on this cute old 1920's house, which had most of the original brown-finished woodwork, and didn't seem to need a lot of work at all. It even had a virtually perfectly intact slate roof. The House was like a trip back in time. It looked like everyone's grandmother's house, with wallpaper, curtains, and even appliances from the 1950's or 1960's. The stove on one floor was clearly an antique style, but it was so clean that it looked brand new.
We affectionately called it "The Granny House".

Our first roadblock

We put an offer down on the house on February 7th, 2008, and the next day, I went to work and got laid off by surprise with hundreds of other people. We never saw it coming, as the company had kept a tight lid on the rumor mill. The company had suffered as one of the first victims of the Sub-prime Mortgage and lending crisis, which finally hit big-time in September, 2008.

So I called my girlfriend up, and told her to call the realtor, who we have nicknamed "Uncle Ken", to cancel our offer. Uncle Ken is not related to us, but he is a nice older gentleman who has a great sense of humor, and a charming, avuncular demeanor, hence the nickname.

Out of this was a lot of great news. Since I was among the first to get laid off, my company offered us huge severance pay. We got a full whole month of pay, and all of our accrued vacation and sick pay (3 weeks for me). On top of that, George W. Bush had sent out an "economic stimulus" check to people. I got about $x00 in a government check. All the severance pay, the vacation pay, and the government stimulus check went straight into my savings account. On top of that, I had a new job working for a hospital in just 3 days. The job payed me about $8,000 more per year than the job I just lost. I was out of work for only 3 days, and saw no lapse in my weekly income! By the end of the month, I had over $x,000 in my savings account.

So my girlfriend and I kept looking for houses. Unfortunately, when we were about to make an offer on the next house we liked, the lender told me that since I had just started work at my new job, and was not going to be permanent (I started as a temp, going perm in 90 days) for a few months, that they couldn't lend me the money. They said I'd have to wait until about a month after I was officially permanent. It would be around June when we could get a loan. So back to square one!

We continued looking. By June, we had looked at a lot of houses. One of the big themes we saw were houses that had been ruined by greedy, and arguably idiotic owners, by making them into modern day flop-houses. A lot of really nice looking houses have been modified to allow as many people to live on each floor as possible. It is patently illegal to over-occupy a house, but the local authorities really can't enforce housing regulations to that degree. In some of these cases, the owner made every room a bedroom -- large closets had doors with locks put on them, storage rooms were converted into bedrooms, back and front porches were enclosed and used as bedrooms, living rooms and dens were chopped up to make extra bedrooms.

House of Shame #1

We went to visit one house, and when we reached the top of the stairway to the second floor, we were faced by a wall of unfinished drywall that almost blocked the staircase; it was a tight squeeze to walk around it without falling down the stairs. Originally, it was supposed to be a living room and dining room area, but the owner erected a series of walls in the the room, and made 4 tiny bedrooms out of it. The kitchen was cut in half by another wall of unfinished drywall. We counted about 10 bedrooms in what was supposed to be a 2-bedroom apartment. There were at least 12 people living in this tiny space. It really disgusted me, because it was an otherwise nice house that had been ruined by a ridiculous and patently illegal construction.

House of Shame #2

Another house we saw clearly had about 4 different families living in a 2-bedroom apartment. Though no extra walls were erected, and no extra rooms constructed, you could see clearly that the 2 legal bedrooms had several beds in them, including cribs for a baby. There were people living in closets, on the back porch, and in the basement. We were all set to make an offer on this house, but someone beat us to it.

House of Shame #3

In Chelsea, a house we saw had the most outrageous and poorly executed renovations. They wanted to make the rear entrance to the basement a walk-in, instead of the bulkhead that was there originally. So they literally just built a large structure around the bulkhead. They paid no attention to the fact that a Living room window was sealed off by this project. They actually left the window in place, and when you looked out of it, all you saw was the basement entrance. It was pretty ugly. They wanted to convert the attic into living space, but there was no stairway to get up there. So they retro-fitted a long, narrow, steep set of steps up to the attic. It was all done wrong, and kind of roughly. The steps were not all even, and it was a serious hazard. Because of the badly designed staircase, the bedrooms at the top of the stairs were a step up from the end of the stairs. (sioux:such a sad house, they took out the center fireplace without propping up the basement and they kept the HUGE marble mantels...the whole house sunk towards the center.)

House of Shame #4

Possibly the worst house we saw was one that we like to call "The Crackhouse". It was a cheap house (2 family, with a 2 bedroom apartment on the first floor, and 4 bedrooms on the second and third) at $235,000. We drooled over the price. When we got to it, we were shocked. A good half the windows were broken. One of the doorways was clearly broken into. The building had been unoccupied for some time, and was most likely lived in by squatting homeless people or drug users. The wallpaper in the house was very old, stained badly, and peeling. The whole house smelled of urine. The carpeting was all stained and frayed. There was junk everywhere. One room had an old console piano in it that had been all smashed up. the kitchen looked like a fire had taken place in it. As we got to the entrance of the second floor, we could smell a strong odor of fuel oil. Apparently, the gas tank in the basement leaked, and the smell permeated the house. The second floor was more in tact, but that's sort of relatively speaking. There was a bedroom that had large holes in the walls, revealing the slats through the plaster. The room smelled strongly of urine. We left the house, disgusted and a little bit annoyed that any realtor would show this to anyone but a developer or wrecking crew. There were lots of non-English speaking immigrants being shown the house with us. Some seemed to think it was not such a bad place! I guess if people came from a country where a house like this is seem as a mansion, even though it's got problems, it's only good for the neighborhood, since they'll likely have enough money to fix it up after buying it at that low a price.
(sioux: at first, Dave said the 3rd floor smelled like animals had been living there, I replied that the animals were people with the emphasis on pee.. .eeew! Too bad, it had great potential--multiple fireplaces, great staircase and woodwork, but it was a TOTAL rehab. job)

The Mansion

We saw a gorgeous, classic, gigantic old turn-of-the-century Victorian house in Chelsea. It had high ceilings, was skillfully converted into 2 apartments, had only a minor amount of ugly renovations (all of which were cheap to remedy), but it had no kitchen on the first floor. The other problem was that all the rooms were huge, and the house would have been expensive to heat. It had 3 floors, with an attic. The 3rd-level of the turret was accessible via a secret crawlspace in the attic, which I thought was kind of cool. A lot of the original woodwork and the bathroom fixtures and tiles were still there. The hardwood floors were original, and had intricate patterns. It had several awesome fireplaces. The asking price was just within our price range, and we knew that we could low-ball it get it for possible $50K less, because of the work that it needed -- work that we could easily do ourselves. We really liked it and thought we could get it, but the lenders told us no -- because it needed so much work, and was being sold as-is, they didn't want to risk it. Curses, foiled again! (sioux:still on the market, nearly 4000sf, every architectural detail you want...grand curved staircase from 1 to 2, original Chelsea tile on the fireplaces, pocket doors, a couple of gorgeous stained glass windows, round turret, huge windows, big yard as well. and a $500,000 price tag to bring it back to real glory-labor not included)

The game we invented

While seeing all these over-occupied houses, we sort of came up with a little game we'd play. While driving to go see a house, we'd take a guess about how many people lived in it. While we toured each house, we'd count the number of beds we saw, how many rooms had locks on them, and the most telling sign -- how many name tags were on each mailbox. We saw some houses with about 8 name tags per mailbox. In Everett, there is a huge old victorian house that was not for sale, but we'd drive by it when going into Everett. When you pass by it, you can clearly see what looks like about 20 separate mailboxes on the front porch.
(sioux:winner edith st. we're pretty sure there are 24 people there. legally 5 bedrooms. sold at $20K over asking. we were thinking of offering $30K below on the day we first saw the house we're buying)

Another close call

We found a house that had most of what we wanted. It had a turret, and classic victorian looks, so we decided to take a look at it. It was clearly used as a flophouse, with every possible room turned into a bedroom, but none of them were done in a way that damaged the original floor plan. The back porch was enclosed, and you could see that it clearly was a bedroom. We thought it would be pretty cold there in the winter (not that we'd be using it as a bedroom), but we saw an innovative use of home appliances to make up for it. The dryer vent from the laundry room (which was not turned int a bedroom, thankfully) was vented to the porch, and we figure that it was heated in part by that, and also by electric heaters. It had a nice built-in china cabinet, and marble fireplaces. We made an offer on this house, too, but someone else beat us to it. Another one right through our fingers!

Needs a little work...

We saw this beautiful red victorian mansion in Chelsea, that was being sold for only $295,000. This was cheaper than the previous mansion in Chelsea, and when we saw it, it was gorgeous. The front entryway was all original woodwork, and the owner had it all decorated with (incredible) antique furniture. It was skillfully converted into 3 apartments. The basement was totally finished, complete with tile floors and woodwork. The first floor kitchen was fitted with expensive restaurant-quality appliances. The second floor apartment was not bad. There was a third floor apartment, but it was not legal. The people living in it had a makeshift kitchen on a folding table. The owner clearly was trying to maximaze his rental income by over-occupying it, but it was not done in a destructive way. We really thought it was nice, but the bad news was that the city told him that he had to build a legal second-floor egress. He only had one legal means of egress on the second floor, due to the fact that he didn't want to modify the grand-looking entryway in order to separate the first and second floors properly. It would have been pricey to re-configure things,(without ruining the overall grandness of the house-it really should have been a single, all 4500sf.) plus the first floor would have been made smaller as a result. We passed it, but grudgingly.

The one?

By August, 2008, we saw a house in Everett that seemed to be pretty good. It had only one closet/storage room converted into a spare bedroom (I'm telling you, this phenomenon of over-occupying houses is rampant in the area, and it really annoys my liberal sensibility), and seemed to not be too bad. We looked at it no less than 3 times, once with a building inspector. The inspector gave it flying colors. Though it needs a lot of work, most of the individual jobs are inexpensive and not time-consuming. The first floor is beautifully finished and recently renovated.(I'll disagree here-orange counters peach toilet--can you say 70's?) We can easily get a tenant to move in. We would live on the second floor, and use the third floor for storage and office space. The most expensive project will be making the stairway to the third floor, a proper staircase. The owner had built a rather steep, dangerous stairway to the third floor, and you have to duck to avoid smashing your head on the door-frame as you descend. We figure that paying a contractor to build the frame of the staircase in the correct position above the second-floor staircase will not cost too much, and we would finish it off ourselves to save money. The bathroom on the second floor was a bit ugly, and the kitchen small, but we've both lived in worse places. We could easily add more cabinets to the kitchen, and fix the ugly parts of the bathroom. We made an offer on it for about $1000 more than the asking price. This was done near the end of August, 2008.

But wait, there's more...

So we waited, and waited.(and waited and waited...) August and September went by, without a word from the banks. The Sub-prime Mortage crisis hit in mid-September, and there was all sorts of talk about banks getting bailed out by the government, the next Great Depression, and all sorts of gloom and doom. Our realtor and lawyer kept calling the bank to find out what was going on, and not a word. My girlfriend kept checking, and found that the house was still being listed as on the market. October came, and was almost over, then we heard word from our Lawyer that the bank owning the building said that they were expecting an offer for $310,000 (much more than the asking price) on it soon.

Just a little bit more...

I was really pissed, because we had seen so many houses get sold for low-ball figures that we could easily have afforded, but due to circumstances beyond our control, we never had that kind of luck. I thought that the bank was just trying to jerk us around and see if we'd offer more money, by making up a phoney story. So we started planning on looking at more houses. On November 6th, the bank called our lawyer, and said that our offer was highest. They asked what our minimum and maximum offers were. I immediately thought that they were jerking us around again, trying to see if they could squeeze more money out of us. My girlfriend and Uncle Ken agreed that we should offer a little more, to make sure we make the high bid. I still felt bitter about the whole process, and felt that if the second-highest bid (about $20K less than our offer) was as low as it was, then that's probably the maximum that the other buyer could afford. (sioux: that other lower offer was higher than number we started at for this house before we heard there were multiple offers. I figured if we were willing to go up $26,000 why wouldn't someone else, but this number was our max) I didn't think that anyone would jump and offer more than $20K more on a house than the asking price, especially in this market. I grudgingly signed a new offer for a higher amount, with my girlfriend and Uncle Ken, and waited to see what happened.

We got it... Almost...

We heard back from the bank, and our offer was (finally!) accepted! So we now have a house -- almost. We still have to close the deal, and sign a zillion forms. Hopefully, nothing unexpected will happen to take this one away from us. If all goes well, our next post will document the current state of the house, and we will start fixing things.


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  2. I may have been bugging him to buy a house at that point, but he started asking me to move in after a couple weeks of dating...it took a couple years for the bugging to kick in!