Saturday, January 3, 2015

House Hunters vs. Home-Buying Reality

The other day I woke up thinking about my mortgage, drowsily dreaming up ways to pay it off early (freelance jobs, MacArthur Genius Grant, selling my organs). Suddenly I had a woozy, out-of-body feeling: Whoa, I thought, I own a house. It’s been more than three years since I got the keys to my cozy little townhome, but some days it still hits me like that. I’ve never gotten used to the fact that I actually marched out into the world and bought a house.
        But the truth is, I didn’t just march out and do it. It took me years to screw up the courage—years and a lot of homework, including watching many, many episodes of House Hunters, the HGTV show where they track a homebuyer through the process of buying a house. Before I even started looking at houses, I watched that show every night for months, studying every phrase and nuance in each homebuyer’s quest. And even though some savvier part of my brain understood that it was just a TV show, for chrissake, I still felt that it would give me a better understanding of how things would go when I was out looking at houses for real.
        Of course it didn’t turn out that way. House Hunters did provide me with some inspiration and confidence, but most of the big, iconic scenes you see all the time on that show—those watershed moments of house-hunting mythology—never happened when I was shopping for a house.

1) The “tell me your dream” chat with your agent
On House Hunters: Before your house-hunt begins, you’ll sit down with your real estate agent over a cup of coffee and talk about everything you want in a house—stainless steel appliances, the extra bedroom, the man cave, the commute. Your agent will take notes on his laptop. You will both be well dressed.
In real life: Not only did I never have this conversation with my real estate agent, I never even met him in person until the day we started touring houses. Our first encounter was over the phone, a hurried and hushed conversation that we were both cramming into our busy days. (I had to sneak into a conference room at work to call him; he was on his cell phone in a noisy car.) He just asked what my budget was and what towns I wanted to look at, and within an hour he’d e-mailed me every listing in my range. It was up to me to pick the ones I wanted to tour. This was much more self-serve than I’d pictured, but he turned out to be one of the kindest, most easygoing people I’ve ever known—which was lucky since, little did we know, we would end up spending more than a year looking at houses together.

2) The three finalists
On House Hunters: After looking at a handful of houses, you will narrow the field down to three. You’ll weigh their strengths and weaknesses and eliminate your least favorite. Then you’ll use some emotional, alchemical formula (“it just feels like home” or “I love the pool and didn’t even know I wanted a pool”) to decide between the remaining two.
In real life: This one’s obviously cooked up for TV drama*. For me, there was no “narrowing down”; I had no timetable, no crazy gotta-move deadline, so I just looked at house after house after house for months on end, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. I learned a ton about houses as I wandered through dozens of them, going “Nope,” “Not quite,” or “Eww**.” But saying no to so many houses—more than 40 of them—made me wonder, after a while, whether I was actually ready to be a homeowner. But just when I had that thought, I saw a house that was the right size, had a good yard, and had a price that didn’t scare me. The market was slow and no one else seemed interested in it, so I took my time and mulled it over (probably maddening for my agent). After a few days the idea still didn’t creep me out, so I put in an offer. So rather than “It just feels like home,” my alchemical formula seemed to be “It doesn’t make me puke with fear.”

3) The back-and-forth, the dickering, the stress
On House Hunters: You and the seller will battle through some fierce negotiations. You’ll ask them to cover the closing costs; they’ll be insulted by your offer. You’ll find dry rot; they’ll leave a dirty hibachi on the balcony. You’ll end up paying more than you wanted to, but the thrill of buying your dream house will make up for the stroke you almost had.
In real life: I paid list price because it was reasonable. I asked the seller to fix the dryer vent, and he did. The bank found our deal so boring that they let us close a week early.

4) The happy dance
On House Hunters: When the seller accepts your offer, the realtor will meet you at a restaurant, where he will give you the big news over a tall glass of iced tea. You’ll jump up and give him a high-five and say, “I bought a house!” Later, at the title company, you’ll sit at a shiny table and sign approximately 1,600 trillion papers. Then a well-dressed person will hand you the keys and you’ll blush with pride. You did it!
In real life: This was the part that really didn’t go as seen on TV. And I also had this vision in my mind, which didn’t happen either: I thought I’d sign all those papers, get the keys, and think, “I am now a homeowner! I can buy paint and a nail gun and do anything I want to that place!” I figured it would put me on a higher plane, that, somehow, it would make me a different person—bold, in control, grown up.
        But the reality went like this: During our many months of searching, my real estate agent and I had done so much business via e-mail that he’d lost my phone number. So when the seller accepted my offer, my agent e-mailed me with the good news (and an apology for not calling with it). I happened to be home from work that day, sitting alone at my computer. And I’ve got to say, when I saw that e-mail—that moment in House Hunters where they say, “The house was hers!”—I didn’t feel excited. Or anxious. Or anything, really. My brain could not process the information; I literally didn’t know what to think. And then, moments later, I got sucked into the riptide of all the tasks that had to be done—inspection, insurance, title company (which did have a shiny table, and where I did sign 1,600 trillion papers), flooring company, plumbers. It was a jam-packed three weeks of escrow, with little time for me to stop and think about whether I felt changed. By the end, I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. Completely drained. All I wanted to do was take a nap.
        The business with the keys proved to be one of the silliest moments of the adventure, and one of my favorites. I went to my real estate agent’s office for that ritual—the keys! The moment when the place is really mine! He and I sat down at his desk, and he pulled out a small manila envelope that the selling agent had dropped off for me. He opened the flap, upended the envelope, and a single key dropped out—dink—onto the desk. Surprised, he puffed the envelope open and shook it to see if there was anything else inside. There wasn’t. We burst out laughing. He shrugged and handed me the single, modest key, and we were done.
        That bold, in-control, grown-up feeling never came either. Instead, on those surreal mornings when I wake up and realize I bought a house, the feeling I have is more a sense of stewardship, of having a responsibility and privilege to take care of a house and piece of ground that require careful tending. There’s also a feeling that I made a sound financial decision, that I’m no longer bleeding out rent money to pay someone else’s mortgage. The thought of retirement still frightens me (that, folks, is another topic) but the housing situation now makes pretty good sense. And I guess I’m just the sort of person for whom “pretty good sense” is as close to the happy dance as I’m likely to get. And with any luck, it will last longer.

* Oh, the exposés of this show! According to some reports floating around the internet, House Hunters is “somewhat real” but back-engineered: The producers find a person who’s just made an offer on a home, and then recreate the house-hunting process using, if possible, some of the houses the buyer actually looked at. (That part is tricky, since the owners of the rejected houses don’t always want their bad remodels and plumbing problems aired in public.) And there’s talk that some of the episodes are less “real” than others.

** While looking at houses, I constantly thought of that Star Trek episode “Return to Tomorrow,” where Kirk and Spock and Diana Muldaur let aliens inhabit their bodies so they can build android bodies for the formless aliens to live in. Spock (as the alien Henoch) shows Diana Muldaur (as the alien Thalassa) the female body he’s building for her—this unclothed, clammy-looking dummy that probably smells like rubber, that she will be stuck inside for eternity.*** She’s horrified; she visibly shudders. That’s exactly how I felt, looking at all those damp ’80s carpets and crooked doors and kids’ bedrooms with a thin coat of paint that didn’t quite cover up the polka dots underneath. Diana Muldaur’s voice kept coming back to me: “I cannot live in that…thing!”

*** At which point he utters one of the creepiest Star Trek lines ever: “Once it’s occupied, I'll add female features and some texturing.”