Buying a home in Seattle was the hardest thing I’ve ever done
In many ways, it’s never been easier to move through the home-buying process, given the tools and resources that are now available. At least personally, though, it was also the most trying few months of my entire life.
When my wife and I decided it was time to be homeowners, a million different pieces had to fall perfectly into place. We were both extremely lucky and privileged to be able to do this in the first place, so keep in mind that the typical experience of home-buying can be more difficult than what I’m about to describe.
The lease on our apartment was almost up, and the market was slowly shifting away from “oppressively difficult and insanely expensive” to “a normal amount of difficult and slightly less but still significantly expensive.” Essentially, it was the perfect time to buy in Seattle. According to a recent Redfin report, just 12 percent of offers on Seattle homes faced competition in 2019, a massive drop-off from 2018, when that number was as high as 50 percent.
After meeting with a banker and receiving a veritable deluge of information on the intricacies of home loans, we set up an appointment with a realtor for a massive 101 explainer on everything we didn’t know about home-buying (hint: It was a lot). Through all that, I remember thinking one thing to myself: Why did no one teach me about this?
Between the six or so math classes I took between high school and college, somebody, at some point could have taught me the relative advantages and disadvantages of going with a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage over an FHA loan. Maybe there could have been just one day in class devoted to teaching us about how long it it takes to recoup our money buying down points on an interest rate.
For the uninitiated like my wife and I, we were basically subject to a crash course from our bank, realtor, and the internet that highlighted the million different things we didn’t know. That had us stuck wondering if we really should send that eighth email to our lender in a single day because we still couldn’t quite wrap our heads around something. Meanwhile, all this was happening on a hyper-rigid timeline, where a hundred different things going wrong could have sent us all the way back to square one.
Eventually we did get a better understanding, but that came about largely at the expense of hundreds of questions over text, phone, and email to people familiar with the home-buying process — our lender, broker, and homeowner friends.
Unless you’re working somewhere in the real estate sector, you’re stuck learning some of the most important information of your life for the first time, just as it comes up.
The questions persisted all the way until we signed the final papers on closing day. That’s when we made our way through three quarters of a 70-plus page stack, only to have our notary inform us that because we had used two different colors of ink, we had to start over. Halfway through the second round of signing, the notary then saw fit to let us know that if our signatures drifted too far off of the line into the left margin, we might have to repeat the whole ordeal for a third time (mercifully, we didn’t).
All of this is universal for whatever market you’re buying in, whether it’s Seattle or Nashville. Enter into the equation buying in one of the nation’s most difficult, competitive, and expensive markets like Seattle, though, and it’s clear why some assistance is needed to come out the other end in one piece.
That’s where the resources available to buyers now give the modern buyer a huge leg up. Back before the age of Redfin, Open Listing, and Zillow, it was you and your broker against the world. They would have a list of houses, you’d hop in their car, and you’d hope to God something you saw was remotely appealing.
“The big change is that data is now in the hands of the customer,” Redfin broker Jessie Culbert notes.
Today, available technology makes it so you can book virtually any amount of tours day-of, and sort by specific parameters you yourself get to dictate.
And sure, we were happy with our end result that had us directly benefit from those advantages: We’re now homeowners in a competitive market, and we were fortunate enough to even be able to buy at all.
But still, even with more tools available for the newest generation of buyers, there’s a chasm-sized knowledge gap the average person simply can’t bridge without a significant investment of time, energy, and sanity.
So with that, a few very simple tips should you decide to embark on this journey yourself:
- Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions: The people you enlist to help you along in the home-buying process are quite literally paid to provide you with information. That said, they won’t offer that information unless you’re asking them the right questions. If you’re ever uncertain about anything — no matter how small — just ask, and they’ll be more than happy to answer.
- Get advice from friends and family: Outside of professionals that actually get this process moving, the best input you can get is from people who’ve gone through this before. Talk to the people in your life who have actually bought a home, ask them what they wish they had done different, and learn as much as you can from their experiences.
- Assemble a trustworthy team: You need two things to start this process in earnest — a realtor, and a lender. Talk to a realtor first. Typically they will recommend a few knowledgeable lenders for you to choose from.
- Understand what you want: Know what you absolutely need in a house, versus what you want. Maybe a two-car garage and a gas range isn’t a necessity, but don’t budge if a house in the Sea-Tac Airport flight path is something you really can’t live with.
- Understand what you can afford: Once you start shopping above a certain square footage, prices start to jump up. Understand your absolute limit, and then be prepared to exceed that slightly.
- Budget for more money than you think you’ll spend: When it comes to home-buying, costs will almost certainly rack up. Set aside more money than you think you’ll need, and then be at peace with ultimately being forced to spend it.