The house hunters

Or, how we stopped worrying and learned to love home-buying

One day, standing at the doorstep of the apartment where we’ve lived for the past six years, my husband and I mentally calculate how much we’ve paid in rent at this one spot: $35,000.

Our minds sufficiently blown, we rethink our fatalistic stance that we will never, ever afford to buy a house.

We want to be people who complain about having to work in their yards all weekend, who nail pictures to the wall, who say “my home” instead of “my house.”

We’ve finally paid off most of our post-college consumer debt, and we like our jobs, and Chico.

It’s worth a shot.

First, we go to a six-hour, city-sponsored seminar for first-time home buyers, where we learn about financing, hazard insurance, pests, the escrow process and all the records we’ll need to gather along the way.

We learn that preapproval from a lender is key to being taken seriously by sellers, so we go to a loan officer, who asks about our income, debt and all kinds of weird stuff and also looks up our FICO scores—the holy number of house-hunting, where those missed student loan payments could stand between you and the American dream. We qualify for as much as an $180,000 loan with 100 percent financing. Our interest rate will be 6.5 percent—higher than if we’d had a down payment but still nothing to sneeze at, and we’re happy it’s fixed, not adjustable, so we can lock in today’s low rates.

I get to decide on our real-estate agent, and I pick Brewster Beattie, who this year happens to be president of the Chico Association of Realtors.

At Coldwell Banker Dufour Realty, Beattie goes over the buying process, forms and some stuff about earthquakes, asbestos and lead.

Then, he gives us homework. We spend the weekend driving about Chico looking at houses in our price range that are “sold,” “pending” or “active.”

My husband I have already decided what’s important to us in a house and what we can do without. For example, we don’t mind a small home, and we’d prefer an old Chico neighborhood over a newer development.

Several friends and family members tell us we should wait a few years until we have a down payment saved up and the market “settles down” and we can afford a bigger, better house.

We get zero sympathy from friends who live in the Bay Area or Los Angeles, where they’re paying $350,000 to $500,000 for what would be a $215,000 house here.

The deciding factor, for us, involves doing some math: We calculate what would happen if house prices in Chico go up, not 15 percent like they did last year, but a more modest 5 percent. If we saved $1,000 a month, it would take us three years to save $36,000—enough for 20 percent down on a $180,000 house. But by then house prices would have risen so that a $180,000 house in 2003 would be a $208,000 house in 2006. And we would have paid $25,000 in rent in the meantime. Of course, our friends say, house prices could crash. But we don’t think so. They can be the control group. We want in.

The first house we see the inside of is the first house we try to make an offer on. But before we can write it up, we learn that the seller has already accepted an offer, so we write a backup.

We also learn that just because you’re preapproved for a loan doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing. A seller is under no obligation to accept the first offer, or even the highest offer. Often, he or she will pick an offer with 20 percent down because it has a better chance of going through. Compounding the problem is the fact that every house we like in our price range is being sold “as is,” which lenders aren’t fond of either.

One day, a one-bedroom, one-bath as-is “charmer” in the avenues comes up for sale. It’s cute but about 300 square feet smaller than our apartment. It’s also swarming with buyers.

We drive by another house in our price range and decide we want to see it, but it’s been restricted to one “viewing” a day. If we want to make an offer, we have to do so without seeing the inside of the house. Even with this condition, someone else beats us to it.

I half-heartedly keep up the routine of checking the Multiple Listing Service every morning. One day, a super-sweet house pops up in our favorite neighborhood.

We drive by, separately, on our way to work. When we meet up, we both have the same look in our eyes: This is the house. We have the offer written and submitted to the seller’s agent within four hours.

The three days spent waiting for the seller to look over the offer are very tense. Finally, the seller accepts our offer with the contingency that we get a loan completely approved within a lightning-quick 10 days.

Our agent turns out to be our hero in this deal. He arranges virtually everything. There are dozens of little ways in which the sale could fall through, and several times we’re sure it’s going to.

Meanwhile, we need more money. It turns out 100 percent financing is not, exactly. We have to come up with nearly $4,000 in “closing costs” plus money equal to one month’s mortgage payment. And we have to document where it all came from—no Colombian drug money.

Ultimately, it’s all worth it. We’re very excited, even though we haven’t moved in yet. In fact, I won’t believe it until someone hands me the key.

Since then, I’ve continued to check the MLS, just for fun. In the past month, only one house has come up in our price range. My husband keeps grinning: "We got the last house in Chico."