This post was written by Ben with commentary from Mindy.
Where we left off: After returning to NYC and visiting a number of homes, we decided to leap for a mid-century classic in Connecticut — the Johansen House. The only thing left was to seal the deal.
How to buy a house
Mindy and I have been renters our entire adult lives. Rental stock in cities has always been sufficient for our needs, and we never felt particularly optimistic about real estate as an investment in NYC or the Bay Area.
When we found our dream home one hour outside the city, we needed to learn how to buy a house — and quick. For folks who haven’t bought a home before, a quick introduction:
The traditional way to do this is to hire a broker. The broker helps you find properties that match your taste and needs, schedules showings, and facilitates negotiating an offer. Compensation is market-dependent, but in Connecticut the seller pays all broker fees (typically 3% for seller’s agent and 3% for buyer’s agent).
The challenge with a broker is that they usually sell in a specific region or county. We were going broad geographically (anything within 2 hours of New York City), so it didn’t make sense to use a broker.
Instead, we decided to manage the process ourselves.
The protocols for real estate are different in every locale (i.e. the protocol in New Canaan is different than the surrounding towns). First, you must give and have an offer “accepted” (usually in written form). At this point, “traditions” diverge.
In some places you sign a “binder of sale” which binds a seller to sell to you unless your inspections cause you to back out—but these aren’t actually enforceable legal documents.
In other places, you might go “direct to contract” where you negotiate the Purchase Agreement up front, which specifies representations of the seller and contingencies if inspections reveal Bad News or if your mortgage broker decides they won’t loan you enough money. In some states (Connecticut included), you are legally required to hire a lawyer to basically do nothing and “OK” the documents the realtors take from templates (although sometimes they act as an escrow later in the process).
Next it’s time for inspections! You can negotiate for specific ones (i.e. radon testing) or for a generic clause for “whatever [you] deem sufficient”. Then you typically hire someone who goes around and tells you about all the broken stuff in the home you’re about to buy and you make the seller fix it or give you a discount. If it’s really bad, you can back out.
If you’re getting a mortgage, your bank will also have someone look at the house and appraise it. If that appraisal is wildly different from your purchase price, then you might not get the mortgage.
If everything checks out then a bunch of documents are notarized, money is escrowed and keys are exchanged. You now own a home!
A.K.A you can never tell if an offer is accepted until you get keys to the house.
The Johansen House was priced slightly above our budget. We told the seller’s agent (let’s call her Sal) when we saw the house on a Friday that we were likely to make an offer but we’d like to take the weekend to see a couple other homes and decide on a price. We also told Sal to let us know if there were other offers so we could make sure to get one in before the seller made any decisions.
Monday morning came and I talked to Sal:
The owners accepted an offer on Saturday, but nothing is signed and I’ll convey any offer you have to the owner.
Huh? I don’t think “accepted” means what we think it means. This was our first hint that shenanigans were afoot.
Regardless, it seemed like there was a window for us to get in on the deal. We made an offer via email within hours above asking price and asked for a fast answer. 24 hours passed and we got a call from Sal.
It’s crazy out there, we’ve got multiple offers so we’re asking everyone to submit their last best offer by tomorrow at noon and we’ll decide from there.
The competition was on. We upped our offer (15% above asking).
The next day:
You are the lucky winner! Let’s get inspections scheduled ASAP so we can get moving quickly.
Wow! We got it!
I went ahead to find a home inspector. I looked on Yelp and found the best one around, who had reviews that mentioned “Real estate agents hate this guy because he finds everything!” It was like one of those “Doctors hate this one simple trick to drink glue to cure a cold!” ads but actually real. I like competent people, so I booked him for the following week.
Trust but verify
Meanwhile, I sent along a couple questions for the home owners. They had been nagging at the back of my mind. Since they had verbally accepted our offer, now seemed like a good time to dig into the details.
First, when they replaced all the windows, why didn’t they bring them up to code? Why would they go with single paned class, which is almost unheard of in modern construction?
[The owners] were fine with the previous windows [before the mover walked through them] and they were worried about the weight of additional panes.
Huh? Glass is heavy, but not that heavy. A piano is more demanding than an extra layer of glass. This felt fishy and made me worry that the house on stilts may not hold up well.
Second, the realtor mentioned that they had to “shore up” the deck after they bought it. I asked: Were there structural issues with the home?
The home owners never had any structural analysis done, so we’d have to wait for our inspectors to investigate the site and flag any issues. In the meantime, I was working with our lawyer to draft purchase contracts.
After a weekend of stonewalling from Sal (during which we waited with bated breath and slept horribly), we received a phone call on Monday morning.
The owners were concerned about your additional questions so they have changed their minds and are going with a different party who will do their own inspections. They’re more familiar with mid-century homes and what that entails in terms of caring for them.
What. The. Hell. The schenanigans had come for us.
On the phone, we desperately asked: “Is there anything we can do?” But there wasn’t. The owners felt more comfortable with the other deal.
After hanging up the phone, Mindy and I deliberated frantically. In a last-ditch, Hail Mary effort, I emailed Sal asking if the owners would consider an offer with zero inspection contingencies.
Doing this made us nervous, but I preferred to make the final decision rather than have it made for us.
A few hours later:
The owners will accept your offer [at your highest offered price].
We were back in the game!
I informed Sal that, given the risks of waiving inspections, we’d do it at the original offer.
She replied saying that this was different from her understanding of what we had implied. They were going to with the other party after all. It was either our highest offer with zero inspections, or we lost the house.
This was a painful decision. But we weren’t willing to concede everything—above-asking price and taking on the risk of waiving inspections—and potentially getting played. We stuck to the lower offer, and the other buyer won.
Now that we know the final price the home sold for—the seller ended up going with a 10% lower offer in exchange for more lenient inspections. Perhaps we dodged a bullet.
Mindy and I are both romantics. We love to tell ourselves stories about living happily ever after. Amidst the pandemic, the appeal of leaving NYC to live in an icon of mid-century architecture was too great to ignore.
Although I don’t regret applying the level of scrutiny to the home that I did, I felt that I had let Mindy down. She had expressed a near-spiritual connection to the space and I failed to deliver. Add on to that the exhaustion of negotiating in a seller’s market and the frustration of dealing with constant condescension from the seller’s agent (normally filtered through your own agent). I was pretty miserable, but Mindy was worse.
Mindy cried on and off for days, subsumed off of ice cream and mourned the loss of the deal as if she had just ended a romantic relationship. I needed to find her a new dream.
Mindy’s commentary: This description makes me sound like a nightmare, and it is warranted. Looking back, the heartbreak came from two places: first, I had become attached to the home and the potential it held for our future. Second, the pandemic had left us with little to look forward to. The Johansen House was a glorious, beaming ray of hope in a dark time for the world. The sense of loss was especially acute.
I felt guilty about the strain that the home buying process put on Ben. Negotiating with someone you distrust is absolutely miserable. And I could see the paranoia building in Ben—coupled with the fear that he’d disappoint me. He couldn’t sleep. He lived with immense anxiety.
Truthfully, Ben could never let me down. At the end of the day, we’re partners and we make shared decisions. There is no “me” or “you” in a partnership, only the ups and downs that we experience together—all part of life’s adventure. And that true partnership means every step we take together is exactly the right one.
The Johansen House wasn’t meant to be. The buying process had been so fraught with drama and opaqueness that it shifted our energy about the home. By the end, we felt differently about it. It honestly felt like a breakup (but with an inanimate object): something we were so starry-eyed and idealistic about was now steeped in bad memories.
Next up: If you can’t buy it, build it. How we meandered our way through Pinterest to find our dream architect who called us within an hour of reaching out.