ATLANTA – Eighty houses.
In about a year, my wife and I had toured 80 homes – hundreds more if you count online searches.
If you're not an insurance salesman, cat burglar or (like us) first-time home buyers in a wacky Atlanta housing market, you've probably never skulked through so many strangers' living rooms in 12 months.
On a rainy Tuesday in March, we toured Nos. 79 and 80.
We were exhausted.
Elizabeth and I had made our fifth offer on a property (tour No. 78) just days earlier. It was a brown brick Dunwoody, Ga., ranch with a manicured yard and screened-in porch that reminded me of my late grandparents' home. The first day it was on the market, we scoped it out along with at least six other couples.
"Is this your house?" I asked Elizabeth.
"I don't know," she said. "Is it your house?"
Elizabeth envisioned children – those we one-day hope to have – building forts in the backyard and chasing geese around a nearby pond.
We knew the house was hot, and we made an audacious bid – $8,000 above the asking price. But we lost. Our Realtors said it was likely to a hedge fund, private investors scooping up homes.
We were crushed.
Home price forecasts and economic reports show the metro housing market is on a tear. As a business reporter, I've covered the fall and rise of Georgia real estate. But I hadn't really understood how insanely tough finding a home can be.
We'd had two previous houses under contract last year and bailed on them both after the home inspector we hired raised too many red flags for our comfort.
When we set out to buy a home, we thought it would be easy. Foreclosures were everywhere, and buyers could seemingly name their price.
But we've witnessed the housing market rapidly shift from buyer's paradise to seller's rebound. And the dynamics are off-putting.
Supply is at an all-time low, according to real estate data firm SmartNumbers. Much of what is for re-sale isn't pretty. Basic upkeep is lacking, as many sellers hunkered down in the recession. And where we wanted to live, we couldn't afford to buy a new house.
There's also another dynamic at play: Wall Street.
Big name funds backed by millions of dollars are not only buying foreclosures hawked from county courthouses across the region, they're bidding against traditional buyers for single-family homes they plan to fix up and rent.
We've lost to them at least twice.
I've reported about hungry investors, but now I was competing against them.
The inventory was so disappointing, and the market was moving so fast, one of our agents told us that we should knock on strangers' doors and ask the homeowners what it would take to get them to sell. A top editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently sold his house after just such an unexpected offer.
You never forget your first love, and our first was a brick two-story traditional in Sandy Springs, Ga.
We found the house last June when our homes-toured tally was still in the thirties. The home stood on a leafy street and had a new kitchen and master bath. We knew it needed some love. The garish ochre and purple paint in some of the rooms needed to go, but beyond some interior cosmetics and a total overhaul of the yard, the house was perfect.
Elizabeth thought about new paint and furniture. I plotted a man cave. We both had visions of hosting dinner parties and Thanksgiving gatherings.
Then came the inspection.
Like falling in love after just one date, we had glossed over a lot of flaws.
The report was 30 pages of bad news: Electrical, plumbing, roof and structural problems. We might need to re-brick the entire facade, my real-estate savvy parents said. A moisture problem in the crawl space would be pricey to fix, my father said.
We had to love it and leave it.
The second house we had under contract was a brick split-level in another Sandy Springs subdivision.
We weren't as thrilled about it as we were with the first. The bathrooms were lacking, but the place had its charms, including an enormous kitchen and hardwood floors in almost every room.
But it inspected nearly as poorly as the first house. Hairy mold covered floor joists in the crawl space. We were concerned about rodents, the roof and questionable repair work throughout.
Elizabeth wanted to buy. I wanted to pull the plug: It was too much work to fix.
Plus, I thought we could do better.
First-time buyers are often picky – I'm told they usually tour dozens of re-sale homes before they buy. We're probably pickier than most.
On most visits we carried a hand-written checklist of at least two dozen items we wanted or wanted to avoid. Yes, to a flat yard. Freeway noise was a no.
We needed a break. Aside from a few showings, we took much of the winter off. Our agents Jana Kreisberg and Barbara Gardner urged us not to give up.
We reasoned that the spring buying season would come, and there would be better-looking houses to see.
There were. But investors were back, and houses were snapped up in days. It was a feeding frenzy.
We bid on a Dunwoody two-story and lost out. Days later the house was back on the market, but we were beaten, again, by another cash buyer. We saw other houses get contracts the same day they were listed.
The market seemed like it was back to the go-go days before the housing bust.
On that rainy Tuesday in March – after reaching the 80-house milestone – Elizabeth and I were sick of looking.
No. 80 was a ranch with the right price, but the wrong everything else ... especially the smell.
No. 79 was a cute, buttercream split level with a sun room and spa-like master bath that was near the top of our price range.
Elizabeth was in love again. I was, too.
The split-level had everything we wanted: four bedrooms, a level yard, a walkable neighborhood full of young families. We'd have nothing to do but move in.
I fretted over the price. After losing No. 78, the Dunwoody ranch that conjured memories of my grandparents' place, the thought of putting an offer on yet another house sickened me. But I could picture tears of frustration welling up in Elizabeth's hazel eyes if we didn't try. And I couldn't stomach walking into another stranger's home.
"All right," I said, "let's make the offer."
Days later, I followed our inspector around the house like a skittish puppy that had been kicked before. We were used to 30-plus page inspections. This one was thinner by half.
On Wednesday, we walked into a law office for the closing. The sellers, a doctor and a construction manager, seemed reluctant to let the house go.
After we finished signing stacks of documents, they told us we'd love the neighborhood and would make fast friends. I told them they'd see this article about our journey, including pictures of "your house." "It's not 'their' house anymore," the couple's agent said. "It's yours."
Once in the car, Elizabeth threw her arms around my neck. "Can you believe it? We finally made it."
Finally, we're home.
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