I have decided that buying a house in a seller’s market is like dating. It challenges your willpower and your stamina, and makes you question all that matters to you.
A house search in an inventory-strapped city like San Francisco or Los Angeles can be an especially torturous exercise. I know because my husband and I have been looking for a house in L.A. off and on for over a year. The open houses every weekend. The daily scouring of real estate websites. The emotional highs of finding two (maybe three, if you’re lucky) properties in your price range. And the lows of getting out-bid on a property you love, multiplied by the number of stomach-churning million-dollar fixers in your neighborhoods of choice. And then, there is the constant resetting of criteria and second-guessing of your decision-making skills. Should we just buy a condo? Should we move to the suburbs? Why are we the only ones who can see the cracks in the foundation (literally) in this flip house? Are we in another housing bubble? Argh….why can’t we just settle for something and pull the darn trigger already?!! Because a house is a long-term commitment, much like a partner. Who — or what — you decide to tether yourself to for the next 5-7 years (or a lifetime) is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make. On the Westside of Los Angeles, where I live, the pickings are slim. Prices are at record highs. Nearly seven of 10 properties for sale in California now receive multiple offers. The choices for hard-working, non-all-cash buyers in urban centers are generally bleak. We are told to reset our parameters by well-meaning realtors and friends. We are told to settle for less — whether it’s square footage, bedrooms, quality or location because “everyone is making concessions in this market.” It’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re paying near or over a million dollars for a starter home. It takes patience and determination—and sheer bullish will — just to stay in the game in a seller’s market. But it also takes hope. We are hopeless romantics with Zillow profiles. We will find “The One”… one day.
“The One” gives me pause. Knowing the challenges of buying in an ultra competitive housing market, a friend of mine recently worried that my husband and I had set our expectations too high. “There is no perfect home,” she reminded me, not unwisely. Then she sent me a link to a recent New York Times op-ed written by Alain de Botton called “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” In the article, Botton concludes that there really isn’t a perfect person to meet all of our needs, so we must learn to tolerate differences and imperfections. “Compatibility,” he concludes, “is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.” My friend compared the search for a perfect partner to our house hunt. “Compatibility can be achieved over time in a home as you make it your own,” she said. I cannot say she was wrong. But I’m waiting for a sign.
How do you know when you’ve found “The One”? How do you know when you’ve found the right house, the one that you’re willing to make your own, to commit yourself to for 5-7 years, imperfections and all?
At the risk of cliché, I think you just know. I remember when I finally met my husband. I was in my early 30s, and I was tired of dating. It wears you down after a while — all of the dashed hopes and bad timing, all of the wrong that is out there for singles in the city. I read Lori Gottlieb’s 2008 case for settling for Mr. Good Enough in The Atlantic, and I briefly thought, “Could I…should I?” But dating had also conditioned me to think differently about my future partner. By the time I met my husband, I had completely grown out of the romantic illusions of finding the perfect person. I wanted real. I wanted authentic. I wanted right. When you meet the right partner, his imperfections have a way of blurring into the background, becoming part of the unique fabric of who he is. You look at the whole, not the parts. Wishlists become obsolete. You realize your trail map for navigating the twists and turns of urban dating (which had also saved you from a few frogs) is now completely ill-suited for guiding you through the rough-and-tumble journey of love, compatibility and long-term commitment. Your intuition is your only real compass.
And so it is with homes, I believe. People tell you that buying a house is an emotional decision, but it’s also intuitive. Wishlists, comps, economic reports, settling — even cash or a stomach to pay 20% over asking price for two-bedroom fixer — will only get you so far. The rest, I would say, is following your own inner voice.
How will my husband and I know if we have found “The One” in the middle of this crazy California urban buying frenzy? We will just know. When it happens, we will be able to look past its imperfections and past our wishlists to see not just a house, but a home. Maybe the location isn’t totally walkable, or maybe it doesn’t have a brand-new kitchen, or maybe we will end up paying HOA dues — but it will be OK, because we will know intuitively that it is the right house for us at this time. We have called it quits on our house hunt on more than one occasion, only to dust ourselves off and try, try again. Call us dreamers, or call us hopeless romantics. But one day, I promise — you will call us homeowners.