We Buy a House

Voice Card  -  Volume 33  -  John Card Number 19  -  Sat, Nov 26, 1994 1:38 AM

If all goes according to plan, and it looks all but unstoppable now, Betsy and I will buy a house just before Christmas.

If someone had shown me the above sentence a month ago, I would have laughed it off. Absurd! It's bad enough that, after 36 carefree years, I get an actual job, but to follow it up a few months later with a 30 year mortgage? Utter nonsense!

And yet that is precisely what seems to be happening.

It all started innocently enough, with a weekend drive across the island of Alameda, stopping here and there to look through an open house or two. I admit that we were beginning to think about starting the process of preparing to attempt to begin the search for a house. Eventually. But this particular weekend was only just to get our feet wet: nothing more.

And then, after several truly scary houses which should have been condemned but which were instead selling for the rock bottom price of $200,000, we stumbled into a charming Edwardian with a steeply pitched roof and a stained glass window which read "1816." 1816 Stanford Street, that is.

It's really rather hard to explain what happened at this point. Somehow, we stepped onto a slippery slope and by the time we realized that we were sliding into debt and picking up speed, it was too late. The wily agent convinced us that the house was about to be snapped up and if we wanted our chance at the brass ring we had to lunge for it.

The house had a good feel to it. We both liked it right away: FAR better than all the other $200,000 houses on the island. That night we walked around the neighborhood and got a feel for the place. And the next day, when we returned for the Sunday open house, we were highly annoyed at all the other young couples taking measurements and poking around in OUR house.

There is no getting around the $200,000 part. We both wanted to live in Alameda and we both wanted an old house, a house with history and character, not a prefab condo or a tract home in a pasture next to a thousand identical tract homes. This house definitely had character, including a huge attic with a stuffed lion and a trunk full of old sea charts. But the starting price for such a house in this, the most expensive real estate market in the whole country, is $200,000. The only houses cheaper than that have bars on the windows and leaky roofs and enough termites to wreck a forest. At $199,000 this house was, relatively speaking, a steal.

Now Betsy, at this moment, was pretty close to unemployed, and I had only started my very first real job just two months earlier, and we were out of debt but with almost no money set aside. It seemed to me, then, that we were out of luck. Our clever agent, however, was undaunted and quickly introduced us to an even cleverer mortgage broker. If we could get a loan with only a 5% down payment, and if both parents could kick in a little seed money, and if the sellers could be convinced to pick up, say, the first $8000 of the closing costs, and if we could liquidate our CD and break into Betsy's IRA then maybe, just maybe, we could become homeowners.

The whole thing began gather momentum. Betsy put on her reporter's cap and began digging: prowling through public records, chatting with neighbors, interrogating cops. Soon we knew even more about the house, and the sellers, than even the agent did. And the more we found out, the better things looked.

We both started boning up on adjustable mortgages and buydowns and foundation reports and home owners insurance and Cost of Funds Indexes and minutia and gobbldegook beyond belief. And within days we were up to our eyeballs in fine print.

That's when we started signing things. At first I struggled to understand what it was I was signing. But this was about as useful as dogpaddling in quicksand. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink. I remember my grandmother telling us about the time her dad sold their house for a handshake and one hundred dollars. Those days are gone.

The number of people involved in the selling of a house these days is truly bewildering. You start with buyers and sellers, then add either one or two real estate agents, often a lawyer or two, then a mortgage broker, then a title company, some banks and credit unions, then a mortgage insurance corporation, some credit agencies, appraisers, property inspectors, armies of city, county, and state bureaucrats, an insurance company, sewer lateral inspectors, inspectors to inspect the inspectors, tax collectors, a lending institution, references, the Fannie Mae Corporation, and then, just for fun, nervous parents. The vast majority of these people have their hands out. Everyone gets a cut of the action. And everyone contributes bale after bale of contracts full of fine print which absolves them of all responsibility for anything that could or did happen before, after, or during the sale.

At various points in the process I wondered why we had to go through this very long and very involved ritual. Couldn't we just smoke a pipe or dance around the house three times?

I'm still pondering this one, but I think part of the answer is that they have to break us, just as cowboys have to break a wild horse. Borrowing enough money to wallpaper the whole house floor to ceiling with 100 dollar bills and promising to do ANYTHING, let alone mail off all our money, month after month without fail for THIRTY YEARS, is, in a word, CRAZY. No sane person would sign on for this little cruise. So, in order to keep this whole American Dream thing going, you have to drive people crazy. That's what the system is designed to do. And, in our case, the system did what it was designed to do in less than a week.

So now I'm just plain nuts. $200,000? Why not make it $400,000! New water heater? Sure! Let's get two! Where do I sign?

Escrow closes on December 14th. We've made our bid, received the counter, countered the counter, gotten our pre-approval, signed off on the inspection, locked in our interest rate, and now, unless our lender sobers up, Betsy and I will be the proud parents of a 2000 pound bouncing baby mortgage.

So resigned am I to my fate, that I have placed the new address on all your return labels. Come December, Archipelago Command Central is moving to a new, all-but-permanent location. And as soon as we can afford to buy some furniture, you're all invited to the house warming!