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Two months in house-hunting hell

When my husband and I finally decided to buy a home in the Los Angeles area after renting in various cities for so many years, we were genuinely excited. But we weren’t prepared for the two months of drudgery, desperation and downright insanity that came next.
Can a photo of a cute baby help you buy a house? Jacqueline Stenson and her husband found out it can.
Can a photo of a cute baby help you buy a house? Jacqueline Stenson and her husband found out it can.Jacqueline Stenson /
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When my husband and I finally decided to buy a home in the Los Angeles area after renting in various cities for so many years, we were genuinely excited. More closet space! No more white walls! A backyard for the baby! But we were not at all prepared for the two months of drudgery, desperation and downright insanity that came next.

We knew we would not get much for our money in L.A.’s super-hot housing market. Still, we were surprised at just how little we would get. Tiny run-down homes — more like glorified boxes — were going for considerably more than half a million dollars. But sticker shock was only the beginning of our house-hunting hell.

We also were stunned at just how slovenly people can be when they know that no matter how terrible their house looks — or smells — they are going to sell it for far more than they could have dreamed even a few years ago.

I’m not just talking about a few breakfast dishes in the sink, but last night’s dinner mess piled high. And crayon markings on every room in the house, like cave drawings. And a cat litter box on the living room carpet, next to the couch. And so much clutter we actually had to step over piles of dirty laundry to get through the bedrooms.

A few homes were welcoming to guests, and it was refreshing to be in them. One woman even offered us fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.

Some homes were neat and clean but just out of date. And that’s OK. We realize grandma doesn’t decorate like we do, but the house with the overgrown doll collection freaked out my husband.

Clearly, many sellers have never watched the HGTV show “Designed to Sell,” because if they had they might have gotten even more outrageous sums for their ridiculously expensive homes.

One big bidding war
Of course, everything is not like it is on TV. I had become a fan of “House Hunters,” where buyers choose among three houses and seem to easily get the one they want. So it was more than a little shocking when the first house we bid on had 50 other offers.

Yes, 5-0, for a two-bedroom home listed at $549,000.

That is not what you want to hear when you have grown weary of house-hunting. We had been searching for nearly two months in two neighborhoods (chosen for their great public schools, which are uncommon in L.A.), looked at more than 60 houses (with baby in tow) and pored over dozens more listings on the Internet.

We had pretty much ruled out a large master-planned community north of Los Angeles where the homes are bigger and have great features like cathedral ceilings and spa tubs. Many even have three-car garages (perplexed by this, I asked around and learned that the third space is for storing junk).

One woman told me the community was a great place to raise kids. But she joked that some women feel like Stepford wives after they move there. After looking at dozens of virtually indistinguishable homes, I knew what she meant.

We decided to concentrate on finding a home in a neighborhood closer to Los Angeles. The drawback was that homes in our price range were smaller and, for the most part, rather unsightly.

That is why we were so completely taken with a charming old English Revival with lots of curb appeal and a good-size backyard. It even had a Hollywood connection. One of the former owners was actor Lew Ayres, who appeared in "All Quiet on the Western Front."

We loved this house from the moment we saw it, and even more when we stepped inside. It had hardwood floors, a cute little breakfast nook and lots of character. It was only a two bedroom/one bath. But after seeing so many undesirable houses, we knew we could live in this one.

So we decided to write an offer on it. But for how much? The great guessing game began. We looked at the comps (the selling price of other homes in the area) and quickly learned that the house we wanted was dramatically underpriced. Why? Probably because the sellers or their agent wanted to get a bidding war going. And a bidding war they got.

We decided to offer $81,000 over the asking price, not because we had money to throw away but because we wanted to be competitive. At our agent's suggestion, we also enclosed a short letter about ourselves accompanied by a darling photo of our baby with pleading eyes. My first reaction was that writing this letter was a little, well, third grade. But apparently it's not that uncommon to try to sway sellers this way.

The next evening our agent called and said we should sit down. There were 50 other offers. But the good news was that seven potential buyers were being given a chance to offer even more money with a second and final offer — and we were among the Chosen Ones.

So again, the guessing game. What would other buyers offer? How much was just too much for a 1,319-square-foot house?

We raised our bid several thousand dollars more.

The call we did not want came on a Sunday night. Well, our agent said, we gave it a very good shot. We came in second — out of 51. The house went for $670,000 — $121,000 over asking.

We were in backup status on the house — in case the other deal fell through, which of course we hoped it would.

Still searching...
It didn’t, and we kept looking.

At this point, I was resigned to the fact that I would either become a Stepford wife or the owner of a glorified box.

Then we heard that a Spanish home just a few blocks over from the English Revival was on the market. Hope anew!

I liked this house even better than the last one — and it was bigger. So was the price tag, but we figured that we would not need to add on, so in the long run it was a better buy.

The house was old and needed work inside. But we could see past the rather eclectic decorating scheme to the beautiful coved ceilings and arched front window and doorways. There was lots of room — three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, a breakfast nook, den and even an office. Under the worn-out carpet were the original hardwood floors. And there was even an orange tree in the backyard. (We’re from the Northeast, so we still marvel at orange trees.)

We knew within 10 minutes that we wanted to bid on it and we did. There is no time to waste in this market where homes can sell in a day.

This time the house was priced better, so we bid only $16,000 over the asking price. We included the lovely letter about ourselves and another baby photo.

Schmoozing at Stonehenge
Meanwhile, the sellers’ agent mentioned to our agent that there was an open house that night at the neighborhood elementary school, which his kids also attended. They both thought we might want to go and check it out.

It is not an overstatement to say that by now, we were desperate to stop the insanity. So I called my husband at work to suggest we go to the school, where we might bump into the sellers' agent, which might give us just enough of an edge to get this house.

My husband was dumbfounded. But after muttering something about stalking being against the law, he agreed to go.

I applied just the right shade of pink lipstick and put on a skirt, sensible heels and a sweater set. I dressed my little darling in his best bug shirt (he’s a future scientist, of course). And when my husband came home from work, I dressed him, too. Off came the jeans and Bruce Springsteen T-shirt, and on went khakis and a button-down shirt.

We looked like we were trying too hard, which seemed to be the point. It felt very "Desperate Housewives." Perfect.

Then my husband and I paraded ourselves and our 8-month-old into what would hopefully be his elementary school in about five years. As planned, we ran into the agent in the sixth-grade classroom, next to an impressive papier-mâché replica of Stonehenge. The agent seemed like a nice guy, and we chatted for a few minutes about the school and the wonderful principal. (No, we did not plead and beg for the house). We bought some cookies at the bake sale and went home. Was it worth it? Maybe.

The next afternoon our agent called to say that if we raised our offer another $7,000, the house was ours. The sellers were debating between us and another couple, but they liked us!

So we raised our bid, because if you want to play in this market, you play by the seller’s rules.

Game over. Thank god.

All in all, we’re happy about the house. Of course, we wished we’d bought nearly four years ago when we first moved to Los Angeles. But at the time — just after 9/11 — we were getting bad vibes about the economy and the housing market (as in, “How much higher can prices go?!”). If we had bought one of the three-bedroom townhouses we considered back then, we probably would have made $200,000 or more.

I’m trying very hard not to wallow in my renter’s remorse, which I suppose could quickly be replaced by buyer’s remorse if the housing bubble bursts.

But if it does, I’ll sit under my orange tree and ride it out. After all, I could use some R&R.