Buying a House During COVID-19
How we beat out the competition and found our dream house in Lake Tahoe
A few weeks ago, we moved into our dream house in Truckee, California, just north of Lake Tahoe. It almost didn’t happen. The rush of city dwellers looking for more space, more greenery, and an escape from the confines of their apartments was an unexpected consequence of months of sheltering-in-place. The competition it created in places like Lake Tahoe impacted many families and almost derailed our plan. But thanks to a great team helping us, and some tips and tricks we’ve picked up along the way, we were able to beat out the competition. We are very fortunate to have been able to purchase a house amidst everything going on in the world right now. This is the story of how we navigated the competitive market and ended up with an incredible house we plan to live in for years to come.
Our grand plan for 2020 was to move from San Francisco to the Tahoe region. This was all pre-COVID and intended to be a life reset type of move. I had left my job and planned to explore new opportunities, leveraging the flexibility of an Internet connection. We owned a small condo in Truckee already, so had planned to sell our apartment, and then eventually upgrade to a larger place, once we were sure we liked living up in the mountains. I’m a city kid originally (born and raised in NYC) so wasn’t sure living in a remote area would be long-term for me. But this was the year of exploring new passions and professional pursuits, and financially, it made more sense to live outside the Bay Area to have a lower cost of living. This was the plan, but then COVID-19 happened.
The first few weeks of shelter-in-place starting in March were surreal, as I’m sure they were for most people. But up in the mountains, we still had access to the outdoors, and not many people around us, so it felt safe(ish). We had planned to list our apartment the weekend that shelter-in-place went into effect in San Francisco, but decided to put it out hold until there was more clarity on what activities were still allowed, and what the impact would be on the real estate market. We continued to look at houses in our new mountain neighborhood online, but our plan to learn the market was sidelined by the ban on open houses. Everything was on pause.
March turned into April, which turned into May, and we started to grow nervous. We hadn’t intended to carry the city apartment this long and the monthly charges kept coming. As the real estate rules during COVID became more clear — no open houses, but private showings could occur — we decided to officially list the apartment and see what would happen. We know now the real estate market in many areas of the US is hot, particularly suburban and rural areas, but in May, we didn’t know what to expect.
To our surprise, and good fortune, there was interest and found a buyer quickly. It turns out that even despite an exodus of people from San Francisco, there was still a shortage of apartments and demand exceeded supply. We were feeling good, for a few weeks at least, now that we knew we were on our way to selling.
Things up in Tahoe started to change around Memorial Day. We had been tracking several houses closely and seeing that they were selling, but not exceptionally fast, and things were selling generally at or right under asking. This all went out the window in late May as an influx of buyers descended on Truckee and the surrounding Tahoe region. Suddenly, houses were going into contract only a day after being listed. Multiple offers were being submitted and bidding wars were happening. According to our agent, this was unheard of in the area. We had officially entered the market as buyers in this time period, feeling confident about the closing of our apartment targeted for mid-June, which would give us the funds to buy our next place. We put in multiple offers but lost all of them to higher bids, all offers that far exceeded asking prices. Suddenly it was a seller’s market and we were in a bad position — having to compete against others, mostly from the Bay Area we suspected, that had big pocket books and money to burn.
We tried not to get discouraged, and kept a close eye on new listings as they came on. Being up here full-time allowed us to move quickly and see places the first day they were listed. Appointments were being scheduled for showings, but there were multiple occasions where we would show up with our agent, and the house had been double, or even triple booked! There were other agents showing houses via Zoom meeting on their phones to clients that couldn’t be there in person. I could never imagine making one of the biggest purchases of my life without even seeing it in person…maybe that’s just me.
And then, at the end of June, after losing several properties and starting to feel discouraged, we saw a listing that caught our eye. It was the perfect size, in our price range, filled with light, and with views for days. I tried to temper my enthusiasm. I wasn’t keen to be in another bidding war, and was close to saying let’s put this search on hold and look when things calm down. We made an appointment to visit the property.
We arrived at the house for our scheduled showing, masked, gloved, Purrell strapped to us like a gun on the hip. I could tell two things immediately — I was going to like this house, but also that it was going to be a messy visit. Not only were there two other agents already there, one doing that video tour thing, but the owner was there as well! There’s a reason why real estate agents exist. Having an owner present while doing a tour is awkward and highly unusual.
We did our walk through the place and my premonition was correct — this was the place for us. But how to win it when we could already tell, this house was popular and would go into contract immediately? I decided to buck convention and engage the owner directly with questions and to let him know how much we liked his house. I had heard a bit of the backstory from our agent. He had built the place with his wife 20 years prior. She was recently deceased, he was almost 80 and no longer wanted to deal with the mountain winters, so was moving to Monterey.
I asked the owner some questions on how often he had stained the wood siding, how frequent the driveway resealing had been done, and what the neighbors were like. And through conversation, I gave him some insight into us — we lived in the neighborhood, we ran by his house often as part of our regular jogs, and we loved everything about the place. I complimented him on how well maintained the property was and how we hoped to keep it in such great condition too. I tried to be complimentary while also gaining knowledge — it was clear the house had been well maintained and he was a stickler for details.
Immediately after the viewing, we deliberated with our agent on our offer. There is nothing more important than having the right person who knows the market, can guide you on current conditions, and be your advocate. But in real estate, a lot of things matter — the price, the structure of the deal, and navigating the emotions associated with leaving a home and hoping it passes to good hands. It is a surprisingly emotional process.
We decided to offer a price above asking, given what we saw happening in the market, but knew it would still be a competitive situation given the number of potential buyers. We weren’t willing to offer a much higher price, as we were on a budget, but knew we had to offer more if there was any chance of getting this place. We decided to take an additional risk and put more on the line…this was our dream house afterall. To offer a cleaner deal, we offered to remove the normal inspection contingency, which would put our deposit at risk if a major issue was found, like a leak or pest issue, that we couldn’t resolve with the owner. This was a risky move and not one I would recommend normally. But for us, having met the owner and seeing how meticulous he was, and knowing the house was less than 20 years old, we felt this was a calculated risk that we were comfortable taking. The final thing we did was write a short letter to go along with our offer, that reminded him of who we were, what we loved about the house, and how we would take care of it in the future, along with a photo to personalize it. The offer was submitted and then we waited.
And waited. Every hour waiting feels longer when you’re thinking about real estate. You try to compartmentalize in your head and say to yourself, forget about it until we get a response, there’s nothing more we can do. But your subconscious doesn’t rest. You just made an offer for something that will likely be the largest purchase you ever make in your life, something that will be part of your life for years to come. It’s hard to suppress the excitement and nervousness that comes with a decision like that.
It’s standard to put an expiration date and time on the offer, generally 24 hours after submitting it. This puts pressure and an expectation to get an answer back from the Seller. But in situations where there are multiple offers, our experience has been that the expiration date doesn’t hold much weight. And as the expiration time approaches and then is in the past, we found that our emotions about the deal swung wildly, like a metronome swinging from one side to the other. Feelings of excitement and hope quickly turn to ones of annoyance and spite towards the Seller, for being so inconsiderate to not even give any sort of response. Who needs their stinking house anyway? This must be happening for a reason, it’s a sign, this house isn’t meant to be. If they come back with an answer, we’ll walk away and say no to them, not the other way around…screw em. See what I mean about real estate being emotional?
Finally, two hours after the expiration time, we got a text from our broker — can we talk? Hell yeah we can. We get on speakerphone for the update. The house has received multiple offers, no surprise there, and unfortunately, ours isn’t the highest. But, the good news is that the owner liked our offer, liked us, and is feeling overwhelmed by all the interest. Our offer has stood out because it’s low risk to him and because he liked meeting us and likes the idea of someone local buying the place and not turning it into an Airbnb. Our risky move has helped separate us from the crowd. He’d like to work with us, but proposes a counter — if we can come up a little in our price, he’ll sign a contract with us. And in this case, we get extra lucky — the Seller has specified a specific price he would be happy with and is willing to put it into writing. This is better than hearing something like — please submit your best and final offer. As a buyer, you don’t know what your competition will do. In our case, the doubt around what to offer is removed and we know that if we agree to this number, we’ll be in contract. We decide to meet his number and go forward with the deal. It ends up being a little over our budget, but we’re taking a long-term view and know that this is a house we will be living in for years. All that excitement and nervousness can now be officially recognized, now that we are in contract!
We closed officially on our new house at the end of July and moved in shortly after. All our furniture fit through the door thankfully. The process went so fast, I can still remember the feeling of excitement mixed with despair pulling into the driveway that first time and seeing all the other interested parties. Fates aligned to get us into this house, but I like to think that our approach, strategy and team, plus a little luck, helped us win the deal.
The real estate market is hot in many areas in the US. City dwellers across the country have been flocking to new homes for more space and access to the outdoors in this time of a pandemic and sheltering in place. I understand that desire. And for the next period of time, it makes sense, but how long will that be? How long will it be before those transplants miss the convenience of take-out and delivery, and not having to get in the car to go everywhere? Will attitudes change when a vaccine is available and the fear of contagion subsides? I personally think so but we’ll see what the future holds.
For everyone else out there looking for your next home, I’m rooting for you.