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BUYING A HOME DURING COVID, Part I – Why We Decided to Move & House-Hunting Experiences

Posted by Haley M

tiny house

Hi everyone! Today I’m sharing the story and overall experiences that my husband and I had house-hunting during the COVID-19 pandemic and some tips that we picked up and lessons we learned along the way. In the next few blog posts I’ll share our experience with getting our own house ready to sell and what packing & moving was like during these crazy times!

First things first – I do NOT recommend moving during a pandemic, haha. Moving by itself is waaaay too much work and is stressful enough on its own without adding a crazy buyer’s & seller’s market and all the extra hassles of navigating the early rules of COVID. But, let me start at the beginning.

First, some background on our last home: My husband Nathan lived in our last house in suburban Ohio for about 4 years, and then when we got married I moved in, and we lived there together for another 9 years. Beatrix the cat came along in about year 2 or 3 of me living there. We loved a lot of things about that house – it was built in 1953, so it was pretty solid and well-built and we had very few issues with the house itself in all the years that we were there, plus a lot of it worked for our needs. I in particular loved the yard – we had about half an acre and shared a property line with a large park, which meant TONS of wildlife! Every animal native to Ohio that you could imagine frequented our house: deer, foxes, raccoons, rabbits, birds, squirrels, groundhogs, chipmunks, cats, dogs, skunks, possums and more, and I befriended them ALL, and I gave many names and they would even come to me when I called them or when I made a particular noise that they recognized! It was basically my own backyard paradise.

Our old house:

 old house

A backyard friend:

deer at old house

Beatrix the cat:

Beatrix the cat

Nathan and I had on occasion talked about moving someday to a different neighborhood though, since crime in the area was steadily getting worse (sadly the police were at various neighbors’ homes often for noise complaints, domestic disputes and/or animal abuse, and one morning even the U.S. Marshals came knocking on our door to ask questions about the whereabouts and behaviors of our next door neighbor!). But the conversations about moving were still pretty casual - it was always “maybe someday”. Then in the late winter/early spring of 2020, COVID-19 appeared.

At first it wasn’t too bad – I worked from home anyway so I was always there, but then gradually….so was everyone else in the neighborhood, whether it was from lockdown, schools closing or people losing their jobs. This led to A LOT of extra noise and an increase in crime and police activity too. One of our neighbors played loud music alllll hours of the day and night with a lot of bass, and I have very sensitive ears and can hear things on a very low frequency anyway and every day it felt and sounded like jackhammers were constantly going off in my brain. It got to be so bad that I could still hear it in my head even when we WEREN’T at home and it was beginning to drive me mad! The conversations about moving suddenly became urgent and then they became definite. Lockdown happened around the beginning of March, and we started our house-hunting towards the end of that same month.

I have never house-hunted before and my husband had only done it once, so there was definitely a lot to learn along the way, and we needed to learn a lot of it pretty quickly. We contacted the same real estate agent that my husband used when he bought our house and then we got a rough idea of our budget and our price cap via our loan pre-approval. We made a list of the nearby suburbs that we were considering since we didn’t want to stray too far from Nathan’s office and started making a list of our needs and wants in a house (some of these changed along the way, haha). Because of the neighborhood that we were currently in, we knew that we wanted a quiet street and nothing too close to our other neighbors’ houses. I likes my space!! We also wanted a 3 bedroom so that we could have our bedroom, a guest room and then office and storage space for me and my vast shop inventory and shipping supplies. We also needed some kind of an office space for my husband (especially with COVID as he was now working from home on occasion). Nathan and I are both vegan and therefore do a lot of cooking at home, so I wanted a bigger kitchen with more countertop and cupboard space (one of my main complaints about our old house – a lot of our kitchen stuff was stored in our basement and I never had enough prep area!), and we also wanted an outdoor space that we could actually use in the form of a patio, deck, or sunroom. There were a lot of other things on those lists, but if you are looking to move I definitely recommend sitting down and coming up with a list of your own since everyone’s needs and wants are different.

Since Nathan was deemed an “essential” worker at the time and still had to go to the office every day I ended up seeing a lot of houses on my own with the real estate agent and if there were any that I thought might work we would just go back when Nathan could come. I/we saw a lot of houses. A LOT. Because there was such a lack of inventory at the time and a growing necessity to just get out of the neighborhood (my sanity was rapidly slipping away!) we ended up seeing a lot of houses that didn’t quite fit what we were looking for and some weren’t at all what we were looking for. This was good though because with each house I learned more and more about the market, what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I was able to get in a lot of practice, so to speak, and to exercise my brand new muscles of discernment. Meanwhile, we kept hearing the stories that you’ve probably all heard by now – how it became a real “seller’s market” out there and that houses were receiving all-cash offers and/or multiple offers, all over asking price, all on the first day of showing, etc, etc. And let me tell you – these stories were all very nerve-wracking and very true!! We lost out on even SEEING so many houses in person because by the time our scheduled showing was supposed to take place they had already accepted an offer from earlier that morning. Sometimes this was fine, other times it hurt quite a bit because we lost out on some beautiful homes at the lower end of our budget. One of the main issues we were running into had to do with the cities and suburbs we were considering – we had a lot on our list but two of them had school systems that are ranked among the best in the state, so we had a ton of competition from people with children who were also looking to move into those areas. We don’t have kids or ever plan on having them so that definitely was not a concern for us, but we quickly learned that parents will fight HARD for their kids, haha.

It was funny learning that my husband and I had VERY different approaches to looking for a house – aside from assessing them with our list of needs & wants overall, mine was very much based on feelings (could I picture us living here? Does this place FEEL like home?), while roughly EVERY house we went into he would immediately start arranging our furniture inside of it. I lost count of the number of houses that I looked at either online, in person or both (probably several 100 at least) but I got that feeling for maybe only 10 of them.

One of them was a ranch with a beautiful kitchen, a nice & open layout, a great laundry room (something on my list of wants was that I no longer wanted to do laundry in a dark & dank corner of a basement, so I am definitely a sucker for a pretty laundry room, haha), and it had a cute courtyard patio. We saw it a total of 3 or 4 times and even brought my parents in to take a look since we were considering it pretty seriously. If you can, I recommend doing this if there is time and especially if you know someone handy or has a lot of experience with owning a home or homes – they’ll be able to see things that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of and a fresh pair of eyes never hurts. We ultimately decided that it was overall too small for us and we couldn't really work with the layout as-is, so we had to pass.

A shot of the kitchen - love the built-in bookshelves too!

 possible house #1

Another shot of the kitchen - so open!

possible house #1 kitchen

Here are a few angles of the pretty courtyard (I may have also been swayed by the vintage patio furniture...can you blame me?)

possible house #1 courtyard

possible house #1 courtyard shot

The open layout:

possible house #1 open layout

possible house #1 open layout shot

And the laundry room...swoon! (for a laundry room anyway, especially compared to what I had been using at the old house):

possible house #1 laundry room

There was another one that had been recently remodeled and the kitchen was GORGEOUS (we still talk about that kitchen, haha) and it had a really funky layout to the 2nd story that was kind of a mother-in-law suite that I loved but Nathan couldn’t really wrap his head around. However, it was riiiiiight next to a freeway - as in you could see it above you from the driveway and from a few windows in the house as well - and you could definitely hear the noise inside the house and for sure outside the house, which would forever ruin every nice relaxing evening on the porch. It was also on the high end of our price range, so it was easier to rule out that one as well. Here are a few photos of that house too: 

This. Kitchen. It was even prettier in person!

possible house #2 kitchen

The front entry & living room, and such a pretty fireplace and stone wall:

possible house #2 downstairs

Here's the upstairs mother-in-law suite and large adjoining room with French doors to a balcony:

possible house #2 mil suite

possible house #2 mil suite room

Another one that we fell in love with had so much going for it! The kitchen was pretty but it was roughly the same size or even smaller than our current kitchen, so it wasn't my favorite aspect of the house (unfortunate since kitchens were one of my top priorities), but it also had a nice open layout, good size bedrooms, a multi-layer deck that we both loved and was on the quietest street that we had visited yet (yay!). We had my parents come and look at that one too and they also loved it. We ended up making an offer…

possible house #3 layout

possible house #3 layout fp

The open layout, and right next to the front door was a beautiful office for Nathan with French doors!

The kitchen was pretty and open but was lacking in counter & cabinet space especially:

possible house #3 kitchen

And an overhead photo of the multi-level deck, though it was even better in person!

possible house deck

Anyway, we put in an offer and...we lost the house. I was depressed, mostly because of the way that we lost it. I wasn’t aware that there are real estate agents out there that will turn down a great offer just to sell it to someone else that they are also representing (possibly even at a lower price), meaning that they get the full commission since there is no other agent to share with. I was angry and sad, and this led me to stop our search for a few weeks since I felt pretty dejected and was worried that we wouldn’t find a house that we loved as much as that one. It’s funny – I had a lot of mixed emotions about moving and house-hunting because I didn’t actually want to move. Again, I loved our house and I loved my backyard animals. The only thing that I needed to get away from was the neighbors and the neighborhood. I was also angry about it since it was solely due to other people that we even had to move in the first place - it kinda robbed us of the choice and forced us into this position. After the time that we went to look at that house again with my parents as soon as I got into the car with Nathan to head back home I burst into tears, because it all suddenly became REAL. We wanted this house. We were going to put in an offer, meaning that if we got accepted that this would then be our house, and we would be moving soon after. I wasn’t ready, but it was real and it was happening. That house ended up not working out and it was for the best, but it was interesting going through the range of emotions and learning these things along our journey.

I eventually started looking online again and we picked up our in-person search again too, mostly because I was getting more and more desperate to get out of our current living situation. It was now June of 2020. We found a BEAUTIFUL home that was built in 1854 and it had sooo much character. I love a house with character and there were a lot of homes we saw that were lacking it. It was currently being used as an Airbnb and had a beautiful and spacious layout, hardwood flooring throughout, lots of outdoor spaces and gardens, a sunroom, and the backyard dipped into the woods of Ohio’s park system. The cons? The taxes were high – like, really high – and did I mention that it was built in 1854? Nathan and I are not handy at all and were very much afraid of all the things that could go wrong in a house that was over 150 years old. The woman who owned it took VERY good care of it and a lot of updates had been made over the years, but still…we were nervous.

One of the outdoor spaces, and there were about 5 or 6!

1854 house outside

The kitchen and dining room - the kitchen was a little small for me, but I love how it opens onto a porch, and check out those hardwood floors! The dining room is connected to the sunroom, which also could have been used all year round.

1854 house kitchen 2

1854 house dining room

The upstairs bathroom...so pretty and cozy, and look at that bathtub!

1854 house tub

And probably my favorite room, the master bedroom - it had a chandelier, a fireplace and built-in bookshelves and then a wall of closets on the other side with a separate sitting room and also opened up into a patio:

1854 house bedroom

I mean how could you not want to wake up to that??

The 1854 house had been sitting on the market for a while, which was pretty unheard of at this time as houses were “flying off the shelves” as soon as they were listed. We were discussing the 1854 house and were THIS CLOSE to putting in an offer, but it would’ve been under asking price so we weren’t sure that we would even get it. I was in love though. I mean, most of the items in my shop are vintage or antique – how could I possibly not fall in love with a house like this, right?! While we were preparing to put in the offer, a couple of great houses that seemed like a good fit for us came on the market on a Thursday. We made an appointment to see them the next day and then I saw it – a gorgeous recently remodeled house listing popped up on the real estate website. I texted my husband immediately with the address (all of the house listing websites were basically open all of the time on all of our devices, haha) with something along the lines of “LOOK AT THE KITCHEN!!” and “A sunroom too! With a hot tub!!” We added that house and one more to our appointments for the next day on Friday.

The first one we saw that morning in person was the kitchen-sunroom-hot tub house. We only spent 20 minutes there searching the whole thing top to bottom inside and outside twice. We were always under such a time crunch since there were ALWAYS tons of other people looking at the same houses, plus we had 3 other houses to look at that day! Well, we fell in love with this house. We went to the next 3 houses and they all ended up being pretty great too…things were looking up! We told our agent that we would talk when we got home and would be making an offer on one. But WHICH one? We ended up not liking the yard or overall location of one of them and the other one we ruled out because of what we deemed to be a problematic layout despite all the other things it had going for it, so we narrowed it down to two. We made a super quick pro/con list for both of the remaining houses that we loved and decided to make an offer on the kitchen-sunroom-hot tub house. Later we found out that the owners of the other house we were considering had accepted an offer *while we were inside the house* for OUR appointment to see it, so we knew that we had chosen the right house to make an offer on since we would’ve lost that one anyway, haha.

A few shots of the kitchen-sunroom-hot tub house...(by the way, we had actual names for these houses and they were usually just the street that they were located on but I don't want to get too specific here since other people are now currently living in these homes!)

The living room with gas fireplace with sliding doors to the sunroom:

house great room

The laundry room (sooo bright and open and on the 3rd floor - no dingy basements!)

house laundry room

The sunroom, with hot tub - the sunroom was divided into two rooms for some reason but they were only separated by a wall of screens with sliding doors:

house sunroom

A shot of the finished attic (we joked that our imaginary teenage daughter would be using this as her bedroom):

house attic

And many, many shots of one of my favorite kitchens:

house kitchen 1

house kitchen 2

house kitchen 3

house kitchen 4

It's not a super open floor plan but it was definitely open enough with none of the rooms feeling too "boxy" or too small, and I liked that the kitchen was central and was connected to so many other rooms - the living room, a hallway, the dining room, the garage, a bathroom, the door to the basement AND the sunroom are all accessible from the kitchen. The upstairs is arranged in a similar manner where there's a wide space (not a hallway) and from there you can access all 3 bedrooms, a bathroom and the laundry room, and then the attic has a door to the upstairs from the laundry room. 

We put in our offer that Friday afternoon and in what was one of the longest weekends ever, we waited to hear. Part of the wait involved hearing from our bank and the lenders. See, we ended up learning something the hard way – the entire time that we were house-hunting we were shopping with a conservative pre-approval figure and didn't really know what our max price cap was. We needed to offer more than our pre-approval for this house and so we inquired about our maximum pre-approval amount. That number was quite a bit higher than what we thought, which meant that we could’ve been looking at even more houses as options this whole time and we would’ve also known exactly how high we would’ve been comfortable going in this market in order to “fight” for a house that we really wanted. In other words, we most likely could’ve gotten that first house that we lost.

To back up though, while we were waiting on this information from the bank we were also waiting to hear about whether or not our offer would be accepted. By this time I had also memorized everything about the listing photos and the house itself, haha. We got a call from our agent to let us know that we lost the house to a couple that made a higher offer. I was DEVASTATED. I kept telling him “well see if you can stall him – we’re still waiting on our numbers and we might be able to come back with a better offer!” But did you know that banks and lenders don’t really work on the weekends, lol? Meaning we’d have to wait until Monday to hear anything or DO anything. I told you it was a long wait! We started searching in March and it was now June and the market was just getting crazier and crazier, which really worried us. We kept hearing stories about houses selling for $20k-$50,000 and more OVER asking price, people purchasing homes without even seeing them in person…it was nuts. One house we went to see our agent warned us ahead of time that they were expecting multiple offers and after seeing it we decided that while it was gorgeous it wouldn’t really work for our needs so we didn’t bother with an offer (we were 100% likely to lose it anyway). That house ended up having TWENTY-TWO offers at the end of the weekend, most of them cash, and all over asking price!! It was basically the wild west out here. Normally 4 months is definitely NOT a long time to spend looking for a house, but with our neighborhood noise getting worse and the market only getting crazier and more expensive, it was only going to get more nerve-wracking. We were very concerned that we’d have to come in even higher than we originally planned on the house that we wanted.

Anyway, Monday rolls around and we finally hear back from our bank with our new and more specific numbers. I immediately call Nathan and then our agent and he submits our pre-discussed slightly better offer on the house. I get a call from our agent a little while later telling me NOT to get excited (lol) but that we might get the house after all! I don’t know what happened with the other couple and in the end it might have just come down to money, but I think part of it might’ve been that we gave the homeowner a better story – we were the first people to see the house at the first appointment of the first day that it was on the market and we were the first ones to make an offer. I mean I think it’s a pretty great story, right?! We got the call at around 5pm on Monday that the homeowner accepted our second offer and that the house was ours. I was happy and relieved, and yes, a little sad because moving out of our current house was now a definite.

Our new home was built in 1994 and had one owner until she passed away – it was purchased about a year or so before we bought it by a guy who flipped it. It ended up having 18 out of the 21 items on our “need” list, only falling short of being on a quiet street (though the house is set back from the road) and still being too close to our neighbors. However, in my opinion pretty much every house everywhere is too close to neighbors, haha. It also doesn’t have sidewalks, which wasn’t a huge “need” but definitely would’ve been nice for walks. The house also has 11 items from our “want” list, including a sunroom and gas fireplace, but overall most of the items from our “want” list were cosmetic anyway and could just be added later. As of this writing we’ve been living here for about a year and a half and have so far only made a few changes. We had some concrete work done adding a turnaround in the driveway, a step to the front porch and poured a new back patio. We also installed a new HVAC system since the previous unit was original to the house and wasn’t actually large enough for the home since the previous owner finished the basement and attic, therefore increasing the square footage. We had the roof completely redone thanks to some bad storms, wind damage and an insurance claim, and while they were up there we had them install 3 skylights to the sunroom. Currently the big project is redoing the sunroom and turning it into more of a 4-season room, since it started off as an outdoor deck that the original owner then had walls built around it, so the floor was basically wood slats and let in all the heat and all the cold. We also got rid of the hot tub, deciding that we weren’t really interested in having one in a room that was connected to the house and possibly letting in a lot of chemicals directly into the kitchen, haha. I’m not really a hot tub person anyway! Now that we’ve lived in the house for a while I’m starting to feel ready to think about paint colors and décor and moving forward room by room. I am overwhelmed, terrified, and excited by this! So that’s our home’s story. I still miss my animals from the old house, but I’ve made lots of new animal friends here too.

By the way, I am occasionally a little sad that we didn’t move forward on the 1854 Airbnb house…it was just soooo pretty and charming, haha and it captured my heart. It’s actually nearby and we occasionally drive past it on our way to other places and we always look over at it and wave. I know that we ultimately made the right choice (those taxes – yikes!), but hey – a girl can dream.

Thank you for reading along with our house-hunting saga! I hope you found it helpful and informative or at the very least, mildly entertaining. Pouring over the real estate websites became both a job AND a hobby...here it is over a year later and I still look at the houses in my Zillow alert every day! It's kind of fun. For a summary of this post, click here to read the next blog entry where I share my 10 House-Hunting Tips, Tricks & Lessons that I picked up along the way, and stay tuned - in the next few blog posts I'll be sharing our experiences with getting our old house ready to be listed on the market along with some tips that I learned there, plus what it was like to pack and move during the pandemic. 

 

Much love, 

 

Haley

 

 

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