Elise Kaplan: Upfront: Finding right house takes timing, support -- and luck

·5 min read

Jun. 27—ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In my first 10 years in Albuquerque I lived in eight different homes — ranging from a one-room studio tucked into a University-area backyard to a two-bedroom rental with a basement, a garage and a large yard.

It was in the latter place, thank God, that I spent most of the pandemic. And it was during the months of lockdown — between obsessively tending to a garden, working from home in a spare bedroom and taking meandering walks around the neighborhood with our good-natured pup — that my fiancé and I decided maybe we should try to buy a house.

Easier said than done.

When we started looking in November, one of the first things our Realtor told us was it was an incredibly difficult time to buy as there were far fewer homes on the market than usual.

Still, we figured we'd start looking.

We quickly ruled out almost every listing on Zillow and Redfin. Houses that looked promising online were quickly struck from our list after we looked at them.

There was the place with an unfinished bathroom, a gaping hole in place of a toilet. The house that smelled so strongly of mold it permeated our masks and lingered in our nostrils for hours.

There was the sweet adobe house with a great deck and spacious kitchen ... but the ceilings that were so low that, by the time we drove home, we were convinced we would have to stoop to avoid hitting our heads.

We learned, the hard way, that if we did spot a house online that we liked we should drop everything and go look at it immediately. By the next day it could already be under contract.

Commiserating with friends, co-workers and our Realtor, we heard horror stories about people getting outbid by $10,000 or $20,000. We heard rumors of a stuntman from Los Angeles who was buying up homes to sell to people coming to work at Netflix and I pictured him as an old-timey villain twirling a comically large mustache with a maniacal glint in his eye.

I read countless national stories about people waiving inspections and forming long single-file lines for an open house and worried that was in our future.

Then our landlady informed us that if we could move out before our lease was up, she'd give us the equivalent of two months rent and our deposit back. Turns out, she too wanted to sell — though not to us, since she was going to ask quite a bit over our price range. We needed the money, but it meant we were caught trying to decide if we should move into a cheap apartment on a month-to-month lease and hope we could find a place quickly, or find a better place in case we didn't.

The dilemma had consumed all of our conversations by early March when we spotted a house with a large living room, cozy wood stove and a backyard shed that could be turned into a casita.

This was it!

While I — the Journal's criminal justice reporter — kept one eye on a virtual federal court hearing and my fiancé poured beers at the brewery where he worked, we scrambled to put in an offer. It had been less than 24 hours since the house hit the market. Flying high, we promised each other we wouldn't say anything to anyone so as not to jinx it. Then we promptly told everyone.

But we weren't the only ones interested. The seller had received another offer — $2,000 above listing price with an escalation clause up to $11,000 over.

Despair settled in and we bitterly convinced ourselves that the house was not that great anyway.

Less than a week later, while working on a series of stories about the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 coming to New Mexico, I happened to call Pilar Martinez, a Journal business reporter who I'd hardly seen over the past year.

As it turned out, her landlord was preparing to sell the house she had been renting for the past couple of years — a house she loved dearly in the very neighborhood we wanted to live in. She said she was bummed to have to move, and she wanted it to go to someone she liked.

How about me?

Pilar sent us pictures and, trying not to get our hopes up, we went over the next day to meet with the landlord. As he gave us a tour, we exchanged glances and smiles and by the time he asked what we thought my fiancé eagerly exclaimed "Yes! We love it! We're interested!"

Soon after, we put in an offer at list price and the seller accepted. After a period of time that was both interminably drawn out and very rushed, we closed on the house in mid-April. We began moving in that weekend, clearing the way for our own landlady to begin rehabbing the rental.

Now as we walk around our new neighborhood, begin planting veggies in the gorgeous backyard, make repairs and talk about paint colors, we stop periodically and think about how fantastically lucky we are. We're lucky to have found this lovely home in a grueling housing market, lucky to have talked to the right people at the right time, lucky to have help and support from our parents and lucky to be able to stay in the city and state we love.

If you, too, are slogging through trying to buy a house, feeling discouraged and miserable I hear you and empathize.

People will tell you "everything happens for a reason" and "things will work out" and while those platitudes may feel woefully unhelpful when you're in the thick of the ordeal, now that I'm on the other side I too want to tell you everything happens for a reason and things will work out.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Elise Kaplan at ekaplan@abqjournal.com .

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