This is the second installment of Sarah Buys a House by Sarah DeGiorgis, who's buying a home for the first time. If you have any tips or questions for Sarah, ping our tipline: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve been told that one of the most important things when you’re looking to buy a house is to find a realtor who you like and can work well with. I’m working on that, but last week a two-story house went on the market that I really wanted to look at. It was listed at $150,000, which was cheap for the neighborhood. It had four bedrooms, plus a basement, a garage, nice-sized living and dining rooms, a sun porch and a front yard. Best of all, it was on a nice block with a full alley behind it. No backyard, but I can deal with that as long as I have there's a sizable front yard, which there was.
So I threw caution to the wind and called up the listing agent—we’ll call him D. To D’s credit, when we spoke over the phone, he stressed that the price was definitely not too good to be true: The house needed lots of cosmetic fixes and probably a new bathroom and kitchen. He guessed it would be about $50,000 of work, bringing the total price up to $200,000. Still, not a bad price for the block. So we arranged a time for him to show me the house.
I showed up at the appointed time with my boyfriend and we waited. And waited. And waited. After about 20 minutes I called D’s cell phone, which went straight to voicemail. I left a message and tried calling a few more times, but at 35 minutes past the meeting time we decided this wasn't going to happen and left. D called me back about an hour after we were scheduled to meet, saying he got stuck in traffic and didn’t have cell service. We rescheduled for Saturday morning.
Saturday morning we arrive at the house and D is there—hooray! First obstacle down! Unfortunately, he doesn't have the right keys. We can get into the sun porch but not the actual house. The garage doesn't lead into the house since it was built at a time when cars were still very new and often, well, exploded. There's a back door to the basement but that has a different key also. But in the meantime, this unforeseen (though we probably should have foreseen it) development gives us time to investigate the outside and the sun porch, at least.
The sun porch is pretty – all old paned glass with a nice rounded window into the living room. There’s some water damage in the ceiling that D had warned us about, and it needs some fresh paint. But other than that it's pretty good. The problem, though, is the exposure: The house faces north. Now that’s not a problem for most people – in fact, a sun porch facing south in the summer would basically be a sauna. The problem is that the front yard is also facing north, and plants (especially
vegetables) need full sun—the more sun, the better. Since I want to grow vegetables I really need all the sun I can get. You can shade plants if they get too much sun but that doesn’t work the other way around. Also I’m a little wary of growing food in a front yard – what if dogs pee on my crops?
But let’s get back to D. He’s been on the phone with the owner trying to figure out the key
situation. Finally he goes to his car and comes back—with a coat hanger. “He’s gonna break in!” I joke to my boyfriend. And that's exactly what he tries to do. While messing around with the coat hanger in the lock, D explains that with these old locks you have to line up the pins and then it opens. Fortunately, he does line up the pins (maybe that’s not such a good sign? How many times has he done this?) and the entire lock comes out. The door opens but it won’t open – someone has pushed a large piece of furniture against it. We all try pushing it open with no luck. Okay then.
At this point I begin to wonder: Are there other offers on the house? Is D stalling because he’s waiting to see what someone else wants to do with the house? After all, D is not my agent so he could just be leading me on, so to speak. I don't know. Then, a few days later, D calls again. The key situation has been figured out so we can come by that evening to look inside. And we actually got in this time!
But once inside, we saw that the house needed a little more than just cosmetics. The kitchen was falling apart and it was unclear if the stove, once plugged in to all the lines it needed, would actually work. The worst part was the second floor: There was water damage in all of the four upstairs bedrooms, indicating that maybe a new roof was in order. The master bedroom even had at least five large buckets on the floor to catch the water, prompting D to remark “Hmm, looks like a leak or something.” Um, yeah. I poked around in all the bedroom closets to confirm that there was water damage in those, too. The cost of a new roof was definitely not included in D’s estimate of $50,000 for improvements.
The bathroom was actually beautiful – the best part of the house, I thought, though my boyfriend was weirded out that there was both a shower and a tub with a shower. There was a skylight that made it nice and bright, and although the fixtures needed updating, everything worked and there was an adorable built-in medicine cabinet over the sink. The basement, well, there were some more water issues. D said these were related to the outdated water meter but it looked a little more serious than that. We never did see the garage (nailed shut) but we went around to the back alley. The back faces south but the alley is basically just concrete and cars and the only way out there is through the door in the basement which is kind of a pain. It does face south but my plants would be out in the open with no one watching them. I'm not really worried about people stealing my vegetables (though that happened to a neighbor of mine in South Philly) but I do think that it’s more tempting to steal or mess with something when it at least looks like it’s not being actively guarded. And I’d like to be able to look out and make sure no dogs are peeing on the plants.
In the end, the garden and the interior issues were more than enough to turn me off. And as for D, I’m not sure if this is expected real estate agent behavior or if he was just not very good at his job. He was a nice guy and I’m definitely expecting realtors to downplay the amount of work a place needs but I’ve got the number of a buyer’s agent and I think I’ll be giving him a call.