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"The Energy in the Room Was Strange"

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This morning, we'll be hearing from first-time buyers whose home acquisition process didn't go quite as they expected. At 1 p.m. the polls will open, and Curbed Philly readers will vote for the story that's most horrific. That story will go on to compete on Curbed National with other regional winners for a chance to win a $2,500 home store gift card—standard contests rules apply).

This is the story of a 300-year-old magnolia tree, a 200-year-old federal-style colonial home, two artists, their cat, and a slippery slope. Sure, the place needed work, but the Snow Queen Southern magnolia tree and double stacked back porches beckoned. The mystery of a home built before the country was declared independent was enticing. The close proximity to Center City but faraway-glen feeling of the place created a magical dichotomy. This was it. Divided into two apartments, the place sat on the market for a year, confusing would-be buyers. On our second visit, the tenant who lived downstairs scowled icily at us and slammed doors. Her dogs yipped at our feet.

The seller owned quite a few properties around the city, many with unpaid property taxes and water bills. His insistence that we use “his” title company was a bit suspect, but he brushed it off as “they handle all of my deals”. It’s illegal for the seller to deny a buyer’s right to choose their own title company. We found this out later. When inspection rolled around, we all realized that the water meter had been mysteriously shut off and the basement was full of an asbestos-like material that would have to be professionally removed. Also, there were no visible pipes to indicate the plumbing system. Our midweek request to have the plumbing “scoped” (an additional expense from a hired plumber) from inside the property was denied on a Friday afternoon. Time was getting short for us to wrap up the inspection process ... it was due Monday. The seller would not grant an extension. The contract would be void and deposit forfeited. To move forward without knowing the details of a MAJOR artery of the house would be absurd. We started calling plumbers. We prepared to walk away. Finally, we found one who after hearing the details said he could probably scope it from the street and wouldn’t mind going out on a Saturday morning. It worked.

We requested that the house be vacant upon our moving in, and the seller refused. If something were to happen to compromise the deal, he would lose rental income, he reasoned. He would give notice to the upstairs tenant only, and we would have to become landlords to the first floor tenant. If we wanted to “kick her out” that was up to us. We had lived in an apartment before, and the upstairs was slightly bigger than our old place. We would make do. I went to the library to get books on tenant-landlord rights and regulations and to Staples for a prefab month-to-month lease. “Inheriting” a tenant, our realtors said, “is never recommended”. We conceded.

We pushed closing back in order to give the upstairs tenant two additional weeks to move, as only 30 days notice is not much time. We reserved a truck, promised family and friends snacks and showed up on time for the “final” walkthrough the day before closing. The upstairs apartment was as full as ever. The woman who lived there was kind towards us, but irate toward the seller, her landlord. Evidently she had only been notified days earlier that the house was sold and she would have to move. My stomach turned and heart began pounding. I felt horrible, embarrassed and truly at a loss. We thought she’d been given six weeks notice. Our realtor said the seller would have to force her out by the agreed-upon date. That sounded like a nightmare. No way, we resolved; imperialism be damned.

After a conversation with this lovely woman, we found out she was moving across the street (therefore becoming our future neighbor). An apartment had opened up yesterday, she said. She’d just need a bit more time. We realized that the seller wanted to continue to collect rent checks as long as possible, and giving her proper notice would impede that ability. Ugh. Closing was pushed back, our family and friends called off. We were now closing in on the week we had told our landlord that we’d be out of our apartment. Continuing to live boxed up, scanning each and every corner for a sign of a return of an insect infestation we had battled for a solid month, playing Tetris with moving boxes and generally feeling homeless was wearing down our spirits.

Meanwhile, the local branch of a large, national bank had “lost” several thousands of dollars in U.S Savings Bonds that we had deposited weeks earlier (when the seller demanded that our downpayment be provided in escrow weeks before the closing deadline). The bank manager noted that they have proof of the deposit, but they were never entered into the account. Perhaps the teller “just didn’t know what to do with them”. Panic. We had quickly become good at recording names, dates and times of calls with various customer service representatives. It would have to be sent to the nebulous realm of “research”. For a week we waited, called, faxed and followed up. Just in time. We vowed to break up with them as soon as all of this was over. The bank verified the deposit and issued us a cashier’s check. and we arrived at the closing table triumphant, ready to put away all of the smoke and mirrors and monkey wrenches of the past few months.

The energy in the room was strange. Our realtors/mortgage representatives sat at either side, and the seller, his realtor, and title company rep all sat together, whispering and showing one another messages on their phones. We flew through our paperwork, as we had read everything over the past few weeks that we would be signing at closing. Avoiding eye contact, the seller said they were trying to “tie up loose ends” as they took turns stepping outside to make phone calls. We sat in an awkward silence for more than a few minutes and then realized that this deal was not going to happen today.

Evidently, the seller’s loan had been sold—two days ago. He didn’t know who owned the loan or if he had the authority to sell the house. Leins, judgements and other skeletons in the closet caused the bank to call his hand. He claimed ignorance, requested that we push back closing again while it all got sorted out. The title company refused to let this slide and insure the title, as they would be making a risky decision should any of the leins go unresolved. They needed concrete answers. Our month of transition time had evaporated with all of the delays. We were only able to be in our apartment for a few more days. We had to move. We had been in the closing room for almost three hours at that point.

Our realtors pulled us into the hallway to discuss our options, and luckily their broker had practiced real estate law for a number of years. He recommended that we work out a “pre-settlement occupancy” where we live in the house (upstairs) without owning it or paying rent while the seller sorted out his bank information. The new bank may not agree to “release the loan” from the bundle, in which case our contract would be void and we would return to square one—exhausted, defeated and temporarily homeless. But they might, our realtors said, and because all of our paperwork was in order, they probably would. They negotiated strongly for us, and the magnolia tree still called our names. We took the chance. We signed a one-month lease. The rent? $1.

Friends and family switched schedules around to help us move on a hot Tuesday afternoon. Our parents had difficulty understanding what went down (and so did we). We unpacked, craving a sense of home even if we had to pack up in a month. Avoiding attachment while falling in love with the place exhausted our minds and hearts. Advantages included really being able to assess the rooms and make plans for rehabbing them without spending money or being hasty, saving money for said repairs or the yet to be determined Plan B, meeting the neighbors and hearing their crazy tales of the seller and his antics.

One such story included mention of an easement that ran from the adjacent vacant property next door across our yard to the neighbors property line as a “driveway” included on all of the deeds, including ours. The seller had previously owned four adjacent properties (three houses and a lot) and had used this potential driveway as a selling point. Being that our place is in the middle and would be driven across, he did not mention this to us.

Because we were not owners yet, we brought this to the attention of our realtors who went over the deed through their own title search and verified that yes, language was included that allowed for neighbors to cross over the property for “engress & egress” forever. There was no driveway, but the threat of one loomed in the distant future. Three and a half weeks into our stay, we got a call that the loan had been released and we could move forward. We assembled in the same room, this time with a different rep from the title co., and were told that the easement was nothing to be concerned about and that technically it primarily involved the lot next door, not the property we were settling on. So we let sleeping dogs lie, signed the papers and our realtor smiled and handed us the keys, with more relief than triumph.

Now to return home to officially start tearing apart ceilings, insulating the roof, repairing broken windows, mucking chimneys and refinishing floors. You know, the easy stuff.