Home sweet home: house hunting in Southern California

Home Sweet Home

There are some things in life that make you unequivocably grown up — joining Costco, bringing wine to dinner parties, yawning at 11 pm, buying a car with automatic windows, asking for household appliances for birthdays, waking up with a creaky back, seeing high-school kids in the mall and thinking “They’re so young/immature/stupid/fill-in-the-blank with a cranky adjective here”. The pinnacle of grown-up-ness, for me, perhaps beyond joking to my parents that we need to consider which raisin ranch we’ll put them in when they’re too old to wipe, is buying a house… or at least trying to.

First there’s the nerve-wracking stage of pre-approval, where your financial documents are meticulously scoured, every transaction, deposit and discrepancy painstakingly analyzed and explained. “Oh yes,” I said, “I do remember buying that belt at Fashion Bug,” as you rationalize the outstanding balance of $7.96 on your credit report, and then try to explain that you never received the bill and THAT’S why there’s a blip on your credit score. No, no… you would never forget to pay a bill. Of course you wouldn’t! Cough. This process is full of little holes to fill, reassurances to be made that you’re a secure, sound, responsible adult and you would NEVER dream of using your full-time income to do something like buy Coachella tickets or eat leftover movie theater popcorn for dinner. None of those things which I’ve ever done, of course. Cough. I’m still getting over that cold.

Once you’re pre-approved and still gasping at the amount a low-budget house turns out to cost you in monthly mortgage, you begin the hunting process. At first, your head is filled with dreams of things that your house will be — granite counters, shiny wood floors, charming Spanish archways that fill the house with quaintness and character. You don’t imagine carpeted bathrooms, popcorn ceilings, the swarms of termites lying in wait. The neighborhood of your dream has wide, slick asphalt, perfect sidewalks and pathways, mature trees and beautifully manicured lawns. These things are not reality, of course — they’re hopes, dreams, thoughts for the future. You realize with some glimpse of reality that you’re dreaming, but in life you know it’s wise to be optimistic, right?

Home for sale in Pasadena. Currently priced at $975,000.

The first house you really fall in love with is like your first highschool boyfriend. Sure, he’s got braces, bacne and loves Phish, but he’s got CHARACTER. He might be a fixer, but with a little bit of work, he could be perfect. You agree to date (write an offer) and after one date (the offer is reviewed), he makes some weird, offhand comment about how your sister has nicer boobs (they want a counter to get closer to the other buyer’s all-cash offer). You’re aghast, but surely, you’re new to this whole dating thing, so that’s how it goes (you write a higher offer). After a few more dates (a few more days waiting), your highschool sweetheart breaks your heart. “I have a thing for your sister,” he says (the other buyer got it). You’re mad, hurt, but oh well, you didn’t reaaaaally like him, anyway, right? He had bacne, braces and liked Phish! (Carpeted bathrooms, popcorn ceilings, wood paneling in the living room. You keep looking).

A few days go by and some potential suitors interest you (one with a beautiful bay window that looks out to the hills, but hasn’t been updated since 1949). Then there’s the one you fall hard for. The floors gleam like honey in the sunshine. Even though great Auntie Edith died in the guest room at age 103, you feel warmth, not a hovering ghost of sellers past. So what if there’s no central air in 103 degree Southern California? There are beautiful oak trees towering over the house in the backyard, and the 1950s kitchen has adorable little latches on all the counters. You imagine raising your kids there, crossing the threshold with a bundled newborn baby in your arms, hosting Thanksgiving dinners for your inlaws. You envision birthday parties and Christmas, smiles, memories, family warmth. Then you go outside and see the homeboys ride their bikes past your lawn, hear the sirens in the distance, ask the realtor about the neighborhood. “Well” she says with a sigh, “I’ll be honest.” You know right then that the dream is shattered. After all, what’s a home if you can’t sleep soundly at night? So what if the windows are dual-paned when they’ve been broken into twice before?

Sometimes you fall in love, but the person you’re buying the house with doesn’t. Then you have this weird halfway conflict of interest, where you want the other person to be happy, but you’re not really SURE if you want mayonnaise on the sandwich you’re about to share, you know? Then, your marriage becomes even more solid and secure as you spend hours analyzing the cost of ripping out a countertop stove, or explaining why you really couldn’t deal with the carving of the horse etched into the ceiling. These thoughts creep into the free-space in your head, and suddenly, at red lights, you’re dreaming of trips to Home Depot, replacing the yellowing formica with sparkling granite countertops, the kind with rainbow flecks that shimmer in the light. Eventually, you reach a mutual decision and move on with a sigh of relief, back to Trulia, RedFin and Zillow you go.

Sometimes, decisions are easy. The house you’ve absolutely maxxed your budget on has come back with the seller asking for another $20,000, and prior to that, buying this home would mean eating Top Ramen and selling your body by the pound on the black market. You have to regretfully decline. Sometimes, the decisions are not easy. Sometimes, a house has a beautifully manicured lawn, complete with blooming roses, neatly clipped grass, orange trees bursting with juicy, ripe fruit. However, the house also has a frequent visitor in the backyard — a commuter train, a mere 100 feet from your patio set. You could be drinking iced lemonades on a hot summer day, watching the kids play in the sprinklers, at peace with the world until you heard that fateful honnnnk honnnnnk. Then you’d be fearing that the train would one day veer off track and end up in your living room. Despite your agent’s hopeful urging that maybe you future son would grow up to love trains, you know it just won’t work. No, no, that one just wouldn’t work. You will have to choo-choose another.

More often than not you place offers on homes that you don’t love. Your heart doesn’t pitter-patter at the thought of re-painting, re-carpeting, re-upholstering, and renovation, but for your budget, it must be done. You must be confident in your offer that while you may not love the house, you will like it, and when you make it your own, you will love it. You take these risks. You jump in. Just when your hopes are up and you are imagining the dog run you can build in the 9,000 square foot backyard, you get the call that an investor has snatched up your sweet little fixer and will be flipping it into the modern California dream home. You are sad, but back to Trulia, to Redfin, to Zillow you go.

Your weekends become consumed with checking for new listings on Realtor.com, hoping to find that magical unicorn of a listing that isn’t pending, that isn’t a short sale, that has words like “upgraded,” “central air,” “hardwood,” and “over 1,000 square feet”. Friends and family that mean well but aren’t so well-informed of your budget send you beautiful listings for $500,000 in Culver City and Pasadena. You sigh and think, “One day. One day.” You visit open house after open house, learning the lingo. Comp, COE, addendum are new words in your vocabulary. You learn what a Jack and Jill bathroom is. You learn how to scour CityData.com, to compare crime maps with the local newspaper. You are thankful for your journalism education, because you know you can search the block number of any potential address to find recent homicides or break-ins. You compare these iffy neighborhoods to the one you live in now, the one some call the barrio, but it’s been home for four years, and you’ve been fiiiiiiine. Just fine.

At night in your rental home, you think about these things before you go to bed. Do you keep trying and hope that in six months you’re handed the keys to your perfect new home? Do you listen to people’s advice and buy a condo? Do you give up and stay in your rental? Do you wait a few more years until you’ve sold the first book, until the blog is booming, and you have more money to spend? Do you decide to give up all of the conventions of a normal, grown-up life and join a hippie commune in Topanga Canyon where you can walk around in the nude and not care that you’re 80 pounds overweight? These are the things that make you a grown up, that make you confident in your ability to think critically. Granite counter tops. Hardwood floors. Double bathrooms, copper plumbing, porcelain sink. One by one, the features come to you, drifting by like tumbleweeds on a warm fall day. Your thoughts are consumed and your efforts are valiant. One by one, these things enter your mind, and you drift off to sleep, knowing that one day…oh one day, you will find your home sweet home.




13 thoughts on “Home sweet home: house hunting in Southern California

  1. I bought my first house in 2007, when it was supposed to be a buyers market. Short sales and forclosures were making the MN market a mess. I got the 5th house I put an offer on. The experience was indeed stressful and time consuming…and next time I will spend even more time looking cause there is a few things I learned in the process.
    If you don’t really, really like the house, you will never grow to love it. The little things you are unsure about now can become a daily annoyance. I’m not saying be super picky, but it is worth waiting until its right. I’m a single women who has no intersted in being handy, but in the middle of my houseing search, when nothing seemed to be out there, I looked at a few fix-er-uppers, and had grand idea’s of doing the work myself. That was desperation talking, I am so thankful I did not get that house, I would probably still be saving money to pay a professional for the work that was needed.

    Next time I look for a house, I am going to walk around the neighborhood and see how it feesl, I’m going to go into the local supermarket and see if they carry what I like to eat, I’m going to scope out the gas station and see how often people are waiting in line to get gas…all these things sound minor, tiny in comparision to house itself, but after years of going out of my way to go grocery shopping, the little things can make a big difference in the long term.
    Please don’t be discouraged, for all the time and stress you have now, it will be worth it when you do get the right house. Your house may be the second longest relationship of your life, its worth waiting for. Happy hunting.

    • Kris,
      That’s really great advice. I think it’s so hard when you see houses coming on the market on a Sunday and then being snatched up on a Monday.. and then I get antsy. But those are awesome suggestions – stopping by the local market, gas station, etc. One of our friends also suggested going to the house at night, turning off the car, sitting on the street and just listening. I’ll have to do that very soon ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for reading and commenting!!!

  2. My husband and I are also up to our eyeballs in house-hunting, and your post made me laugh at how true it is. We are on the east coast, (DC metro area), which is also a pricey market. We experience much of the same emotional roller coaster. Looked at a “fixer-upper” that was at the top of our price range (in a neighborhood where the average house sells for $900K – $1M). We would max out just buying the darn thing, and the neighbors would hate us because we couldn’t afford to actually fix the place up. Let’s just say, the smell of cat pee is forever, no matter how large the home, or nice the neighborhood. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Right now we are debating between a house with an architectural style we like better, and is closer to work, versus a home with more space, and closer to an awesome, vibrant neighborhood. No matter your budget, it’s ALL about tradeoffs, isn’t it? Good luck!

    • LOL I know EXACTLY what you mean! It so is about trade-offs. I adored this one house yesterday that hit all of the marks and was right in the budget… until we went outside and really paid attention to the neighborhood. Even more solidified by when we asked the listing agent about the neighborhood and she replied “Well, I wouldn’t want to be home alone here.” Um, GREAT! Best of luck to you in your search!!! I am crossing my fingers!

  3. I know exactly how you feel, and we are just in the pre-approval phase! I feel like I’ve spent hours digging up old financial stuff! The pains of being young & dumb! Plus with my job I see all the houses on the market, every single week. I was having dreams about these houses. And to top it off Blake gets ideas in his head & then gets his heart broken when a house switches to pending! It so frustrating!

    • The pre-approval is definitely tough but there is a light at the end of the tunnel – you will get there! I’m trying to think the same and be optimistic for the actual house hunting part, haha! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Ha. “Your journalism background.” It sure does come in handy sometimes, huh? You’re such a fun writer. I loved your spin here. Looking forward to reading/hearing about the outcome of the journey.

    • Thanks Jess. That fancy j-degree of ours came in handy for something, right? ๐Ÿ˜‰ No, I jest, both of us are making a living writing so we rock!

  5. I’m already looking forward to bringing wine to your housewarming party ๐Ÿ™‚ but seriously, carpet in the bathroom?? why? just why? i’ve never seen that before!

  6. Oh the home buying process. I am going through a bit of real estate fever myself right now. We bought our place pre-collapse in 2007 when the market was supposed to be at its lowest and we were going to laugh all the way to the bank with how much money we would make once we re-sold it in five years.

    .. Fast forward 6 years, we are under water and have outgrown our space with no chance of making any move. Other than set the place on fire.. But I have 3 neighbors attached so they probably wouldn’t like me very much if I did that.

    The only advice I can give is: love your place. And imagine yourself in it for 20 years. If you can’t see it, then dont buy it. And don’t get too excited where you find yourself in a bidding war that puts you outside of your comfort zone. We did that and let me tell you – it’s a bitter pill I have to swallow every.single.day. And in your excitement, remember all the other costs associated with the american dream [HOA fees, water bill, garbage, roof!, water heaters,etc]

    It sucks because pre-approvals dont last very long, but stick to it. I know So Cal can be very pricey but all good things come to those who wait. Good luck!!!

  7. Good luck in your search, your ideal home is out there.
    We own a house in England and it was a real ‘fixer upper’, it was fun but hardwork, we are hoping to finally buy somewhere here in the next few years, occasionally I do browse the market, there is lots out there but it is so expensive ๐Ÿ™
    Keep looking x

    • You know it, Sarah! Can I just buy the house in England? I like PG Tips, Cadbury and British people, so I think it’s a natural fit… lol <3 One day we'll be back up in the North Bay, maybe we can be neighbors!

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