Seattle Real Estate 2014
This Must Be the Place
When my marriage ended in spring 2013, I was dragged into one of the most turbulent real estate markets in recent memory. Through the tears and heartache, I learned a lot about buying and selling houses but even more about finding home.
Where do I go now?
I didn’t have a destination in mind when I slumped, dazed, behind the wheel of my white Civic at ten o’clock that drizzly Friday night last April. I just knew I had to go…somewhere. My house in the Gatewood neighborhood of West Seattle, which my wife and I bought four years prior, had, in an instant, become a place of devastation. And the car was an escape pod. Where it took me was irrelevant—Portland, Spokane, the bottom of Elliott Bay—so long as that end point was far away from here.
Fifteen minutes earlier my six-year marriage had, for all intents and purposes, ended. Sarah came back from a weeklong trip that night and informed me that she was “on a new path” and that she didn’t see room for me on it. We sat across from each other at our dining room table, less than two feet apart, but the force of her decision made the space between us break open and spread so wide that we might as well have been in two different places.
And we were: She floated in a bright future, calm and resolute, while I sank into the past, weighted down by desperation and self-doubt. We sat silently, without tears or raised voices, looking at anything but each other. It was so quiet, we could hear the soft snores of our three-year-old son as he slept in the next room, clutching a Batman action figure under Batman sheets.
There wasn’t much to discuss; divorce had lurked behind the couch and under the bed and in the cupboards for so long that when the smug little bastard finally sauntered out into the dining room and pulled up a chair, it was too late to try to shoo it out of the house. The place suddenly felt crowded and hollow at the same time, so I did what I’d always done when I couldn’t reason my way out of an emotional thicket: I left. Just got in the car, pointed it toward the water, and drove. I ended up on Beach Drive, where we used to take meandering, late-night car rides when our son was still just a baby and cutting teeth. I’d steer with my left hand and Sarah would pull the other one into her lap, clinging to it; we were each other’s tether to sanity when the crying jags seemed never ending. And when our son—let’s call him Little Batman—finally stopped crying and dozed off, we’d both exhale (quietly) and nearly shed our own tears of exhaustion and relief.
Back in the present, as I drove farther from home, the stress of those nights, which had been overwhelming at the time, seemed…pedestrian. I wanted that stress, and I found myself fantasizing about being stuck in a car with my wife and a screaming baby. When I came to, I was on the West Seattle Bridge headed toward the city. My subconscious had taken over and was leading me to the only place I could go. It was too late to call one of the few friends I would have felt comfortable imposing on, and the thought of spending money on a hotel when I was staring down the barrel of a potentially costly divorce made me ill. So I went to my office, where I crashed—shivering despite the hoodie I was wearing—on the couch I’d bought at a yard sale for $50. Embarrassing as it is to admit now, that was the only place in the city that felt remotely like home. Because my house felt like anything but.
My real estate agent was the fifth person I told about the divorce, after my parents, my brother, and my best friend, but before the rest of my family or my coworkers. Kristen Meyer, of Sweet Living, held Sarah’s and my hand when we bought the house in Gatewood—our first—in late 2009, and we’d kept in touch ever since, firing snarky texts back and forth or trying to gross each other out with stories of our young kids’ various viruses. But when I emailed her last spring I was all business. Fiscal pragmatism was a nice diversion from the daily long-distance phone conversations that I’d been having with my dad about counseling and custody and tomorrows that would never be.
“The way I see it,” I wrote, “we’ve got a couple options: 1) We just sell it and hope we can recoup our down payment. 2) Have it appraised, and one of us buys the other out of their portion, and then refinance the loan to make it more manageable on one income. 3) Burn the effer to the ground and walk away with the insurance money.”
The last option was less of a joke than it sounded. We bought the three-bedroom ranch with a partially finished daylight basement in October 2009 for $371,000, after talking the sellers down from $400,000 and squeezing them for our closing costs. By the spring of 2013 I’d come to believe that about $325,000 of that was for the lot, which was on a quiet cul-de-sac two blocks from Gatewood Elementary and a five-minute walk from Lincoln Park, where we’d spent summers. If real estate really is about location, location, location, we’d scored on all three counts.
The house itself? To say it needed work is generous. Built in 1948, it was 1,800 square feet, which was a nice size for our needs. But it looked like something you’d see in one of those renovation shows on HGTV: The kitchen appeared to be original, with cabinets covered in a lifetime of grime and counters that were too shallow to accommodate a dishwasher. The bathroom tile (also original) was an unholy mix of peach and pink, and the porcelain bathtub (also original) was stained yellow and smelled permanently of mildew. The pipes (yep, original) were virtually corroded shut. The basement flooded every winter. The bedrooms were tiny. The two-story deck out back was quite literally falling apart.
Unlike the couples in those HGTV shows, Sarah and I had no money in the budget for knocking down walls and laying eco-friendly bamboo flooring and installing granite countertops. We’d barely been able to scrape together the $18,000 we needed for an FHA loan. And it didn’t take long for the home to expose the cracks in our relationship. We’d always butted heads about even insignificant issues, but we’d learned to just avoid the most combustible ones. The house, though, was unavoidable. And it consumed us.
“This place is a piece of shit,” I’d growl as I crouched under the shower head that was mounted five and a half feet off the floor of the tub and tried to rinse off with the trickle of water that squeezed through the pipes. “Why did we buy it if you hate it so much?” Sarah would reply, exasperated, as she put on her makeup in the gold-trimmed, three-piece mirror that served as the doors to our medicine cabinet.
To be fair, she hadn’t exactly had to twist my arm. We were, on balance, happy back then. She was four months pregnant, and I had sepia-toned fantasies of playing catch with Little Batman in the yard. She wanted—and got—some space to garden with him when he was old enough to get excited about eating carrots he’d planted himself. And let’s not forget, this was a year after the real estate bubble burst. Prices were tumbling, interest rates seemed to hit a new “historically low” level every month, and the feds were dangling that $8,000 tax credit to first-time homebuyers. (Which we used to replace half of the windows in the house; yes, they were original.) There was a frenzied get-in-now-before-it’s-too-late mania that was easy to get swept up in.
You know what happened next. In May 2009, the median price of a house sold in West Seattle was $367,900. A year after that it was $345,000. A year after that? $276,600. The greater Seattle area fared quite a bit better, with prices only edging down 3.5 percent, but that didn’t matter. The numbers were still moving in the wrong direction, and that was all I needed to see to start losing my damn mind.
By the summer of 2011—just as home values were cratering in West Seattle—Sarah was itching for another baby. I wasn’t, but only because I couldn’t see past the fiscal implications. Another baby meant we needed a new home; our third bedroom was in the basement, and that meant we’d have to sleep downstairs and leave an infant and toddler unattended upstairs, which was ridiculous because who does that, so we’d probably have to remodel the basement, but we only had a little in savings, so maybe it would be better to try to sell, but we couldn’t because we were underwater, and who would be willing to buy a place with a 1950s kitchen, a tiny peach-pink-tiled bathroom, and a deck that was about to fall down, so I guess we have to stay and try to make it work, but our already precarious financial perch was only going to get more precarious with another kid, and, oh yeah, there’s retirement savings to think of and…holy shit.
It’s possible I was overthinking things.
Kristen, my agent, talked me down from my arson plans and came over for a walkthrough in mid-May. She saw what I couldn’t because I was obsessed with the house’s faults: The living room had tons of natural light, thanks to our huge east-facing windows. The hardwood floors, which were refinished before we moved in, were in pristine shape—no small feat when you’ve got a toddler flinging toys around all the time. The deck, which could be replaced for a couple grand, had a great view of the Olympics. And we’d taken care of the leaky basement by installing a costly French drain. (Having grown up in the Midwest, it never occurred to me that a drainage system could be a major selling point for a home.) Aside from the deck and a couple cosmetic fixes, she thought the house could go on the market as it was.
A week later Kristen sent us her market analysis, a 46-page PDF that went into exhaustive detail about comps in our neighborhood. Between December 4, 2012, and May 10, 2013, eight homes sold near us. The sale prices ranged from $345,000 to $517,500. And based on the pictures, they all looked nicer than ours. Our location trumped them all, though, and Kristen suggested listing our house just north of $400,000. If we asked for a little less than we thought we could get for it, we might spark a bidding war.
Let’s do some quick math: Subtract 6 percent for realtor fees and another 2 percent for settlement costs (title policy, excise tax, etc.), and that gets you to $368,000. Take away the $341,000 that we still owed on the note, and that brings you down to $27,000. Factor in the $2,000 we’d end up paying to replace the deck and the $18,000 we put down originally, and you get $7K—of which we’d each only get half. Without question, it was better than having to bring cash to the closing table. But it was a sobering realization for both of us that after a decade together we’d be starting over with only slightly more than nothing.
We needed (maybe I needed?) more to show for our relationship, so we told Kristen that we wanted to list it for $425,000. She balked but relented, agreeing that there was a chance we could get it if we were lucky. We touched up the paint, had a cleaning service give the place a thorough scrub, and hid the pictures of our honeymoon and Little Batman. Kristen posted laminated signs throughout the house to point out its features (“New, high-end stainless steel appliances”; “French drain installed, Fall 2011”) and a box of booties inside the front door so potential buyers (and our nosy neighbors) wouldn’t track mud across those hardwood floors. On June 5 our listing went live.
And then we waited—Sarah in the master bedroom, and I in the basement.
I didn’t know this last spring, but we picked the best time to get divorced—at least from a real estate perspective. Not that that knowledge would have substantially softened the blow of watching my marriage implode. But, hey, silver linings, right?
“It’s crazy out there,” says Febe Cude, a real estate agent with Redfin. She went into spring 2013 expecting it to be a tricky environment for buying and selling homes. But she had no idea just how tricky it would be.
The real estate market is a complicated, fickle beast. Supply and demand play huge roles, obviously, but so do consumer confidence and interest rates. Home values in Seattle bottomed out in early 2012 and started creeping back up the next spring, which meant that—barring some economic disaster—buying was no longer the risky proposition it had been even two years earlier. But prices weren’t skyrocketing, either, so they weren’t so high as to be prohibitive. Couple that with the fact that interest rates had dipped below 4 percent, and it was a prime purchasing environment for first-time homebuyers and the huge influx of transplants moving here for jobs at places like Amazon and Starbucks. “By the time that 2013 rolled around, a lot of people had gotten the picture that something was different, that the market had changed,” says Tim Ellis, the editor of the stats-heavy real estate blog Seattle Bubble. “They were looking at the trends and saying, ‘Wow, now’s the time to get in.’ ”
But then there’s supply. Real estate types track it with a statistic called months of supply: Take the number of homes on the market in a given month and divide by the number of homes sold that month. In a balanced market, you’ve got about six months of supply. Between October 2012 and August 2013, there was never more than two months’ worth in Seattle. See, prices started climbing, but for many who bought prebubble, their homes hadn’t recovered nearly enough value to sell. So even though there were buyers beating down their doors, those homeowners weren’t budging. And those who did move—maybe they needed more room or wanted to take advantage of the market—were choosing to rent out their homes rather than sell.
All of which is to say, if you had a halfway-desirable house that you bought postbubble and you needed to move (Hi!), you had buyers in the palm of your hand. In fact, our agent went so far as to set a date to review bids—one week after the house went on the market. Sarah and I were leery about essentially telling buyers to wait to make an offer, but Kristen assured us that the strategy had become commonplace as inventory dropped. The thinking being, create a sense of competition from the outset and buyers will bring their A game. And it worked. We only got one offer, but it was for full price—and each of us walked away with $23,000.
“We heard from a lot of agents last summer that it wasn’t unheard of to have anywhere from eight to 13 offers on a property,” Cude says. “It was like 2005 all over again.” And that short-supply, high-demand phenomenon hasn’t exactly abated since then. Days before friends of mine put their Queen Anne condo on the market in March 2014, they offered $424,000 for a two-bedroom bungalow in Magnolia listed at $399K. The offer was declined; turns out that, even at $25,000 over list, they weren’t the highest bidder. And did I mention the house was 860 square feet?
And yet: The highest bid didn’t (and still doesn’t) always win. The parents of a boy who went to day care with my son moved from West Seattle to Normandy Park last summer. Within two weeks of listing their home at $350,000, they’d received five offers, all for more than asking price; the highest was $360,000. The one they accepted, though, was for $355,000—because it was all cash. The buyer even waived the appraisal contingency and let them rent back the home for 45 days while they looked for a new place.
They were lucky. Thanks to the dearth of supply, last summer turned into a game of real estate musical chairs, with some homeowners selling first and then running, panicked, through the city to find a place to live later. “We had some clients who had to move in with their parents because their homes sold so fast,” says Kafia Hosh, a Redfin spokesperson. “But people were willing to take that chance.”
Others, like me, had no choice.
Which brings us to the issue of where I was going to live. Or more important, where my son would live when he was with me. Sarah and I had agreed to 50-50 joint custody, so starting later that summer, Little Batman would spend every other week with me. Having just turned three, he was still too young to know exactly what was going on, but he crawled into my lap and clung to me when we sat him down on our couch one Saturday afternoon and told him that Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t be living together anymore.
I saw the fear and confusion in his eyes and suddenly I was eight years old again, lying on my bed and crying into my pillow as my dad told me that we were moving from our four-bedroom ranch in Indianapolis—the only home I’d ever known—to a new one in Chicago. It would actually be the third move of my life—the first two came when I was too young to remember—and my dad’s job would shuttle us to four more midwestern cities before I graduated high school. But the trauma of that move from Indy to Chicago was the hardest to bear. My world up to that point consisted of my house on Andy Drive, the homes of my best friends in the neighborhood, Brookview Grade School, and the streets that connected them. It was small and manageable.
My son’s world was even smaller, and now not only was it getting much bigger, but it was bifurcating. I rocked him and told him we’d never stop loving him, no matter what, while silently vowing to myself to find him a new house. Actually, no. Not just a house, but a home—a place of permanence.
On a sunny Sunday in May, I drove aimlessly around neighborhoods—anything just to get out of the house and away from its reminders of what had been and could no longer be—and caught sight of a “For Sale” sign near a P-Patch at the south end of West Seattle. The house behind that sign was just a thousand square feet, but it had been gutted and completely renovated: a decent-size living room with floor-to-ceiling windows in front, three bedrooms in back, and an updated kitchen with quartz countertops and stainless steel appliances. The bathroom, small as it was, felt luxurious compared to my old one, with a quartz countertop on the vanity and white subway tiles in the shower. The asking price was $320,000.
Even with a loan from my parents—I’d contribute everything I made from the Gatewood house, and they’d help me get the rest of the way to a 20 percent down payment—I’d be stretched dangerously thin. I still needed a place to live, though, and I’d be lucky to find a rental for less than the mortgage payment. So on May 29, with help from Kristen and her partner, Jacquelyn Phillips, I submitted an offer of $310,000, contingent upon the sale of my home. The seller, a house flipper who’d bought the property at auction for $187,000, declined my bid the same day, in large part because my house was still two weeks from being listed.
A week later, we resubmitted, this time for full price, and the seller accepted. I was scheduled to close July 12. It was…easy. And it wasn’t until much later that I realized just how easy it was: Because sellers were in such a position of power, it was rare for a buyer to succeed in making an offer contingent upon the sale of their own home. In this case, though, the house was slightly overpriced compared to other homes in the neighborhood. But like Kristen told me at the time,
I paid a little more for the security of the contingent offer.
That night, for the first time in six weeks, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
And then, on July 3, everything fell apart.
Our buyers were scheduled to take possession in a little over a week; I was supposed to close on my new house the same day. Sarah had already moved out, and most of the furniture was in her new apartment or in storage. Little Batman was with her. And I was sitting on a borrowed beanbag chair, weeping uncontrollably as I watched The Impossible. That’s the one with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, the true story of a family separated during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. As McGregor’s character cried (spoiler alert) tears of joy upon reuniting with his young boys, I was overcome. My shoulders shook, and in between sobs I croaked, I’m so sorry, over and over, to no one in particular.
I wasn’t crying for my marriage. I was mourning the loss of a dream. The family that I’d begun to build and tried so desperately in my own way to hold together was gone. I’d failed as a husband, and I was convinced I’d failed my son—not just because I couldn’t give him a stable home, but also because my hope of finding him a new one was dying.
Earlier that day my mortgage broker had called. Because my divorce wasn’t final and wouldn’t be until later that summer, I couldn’t prove that I didn’t owe spousal support or child support. The bank’s underwriter flagged my file, and the loan was denied. My loan officer at the mortgage broker was terribly sorry, but it was out of her hands.
The process had been, up to that point, simple. It had felt like karmic payback for the emotional ringer I’d been through in the spring. But now I realized how silly that was; all along I’d been at the mercy of market forces and accounting spreadsheets and risk assessment analyses that were indifferent to my plight. I called Kristen, defeated, ready to throw in the towel and look for a cheap rental to get me through until I could find something better. “Let me make some calls,” she said from New Jersey, where she was spending time with her family. Her first would be to the sellers, to explain what was happening and beg for a little more time.
Two days later my cell rang. It was Windy Montero Strauss, a loan officer from Evergreen Home Loans. She was calm as she asked about my divorce and seemed confident that all was not lost. Unlike the broker I’d gone through, Evergreen was a direct lender. Loans are handled in house, so Montero Strauss could walk to the underwriter’s desk, discuss my situation, and find a solution.
Sarah and I had yet to file child-support documentation, but we’d agreed that because our salaries were more or less the same, no one would owe anyone anything. Montero Strauss said if I filled out an addendum to the divorce petition stating that I didn’t owe child support, had Sarah sign it, and filed it with the court, her underwriter would accept it. With her attorney’s blessing—I was representing myself—Sarah signed it. And Evergreen funded the loan. In an interview for this story, Montero Strauss told me she closed 110 loans last year. The average took 28 days. Mine took eight, in part because she put others on hold. It’s impossible to quantify my gratitude.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 19, one week later than scheduled but a whole lot sooner than never, Kristen met me at the house with the keys. We hugged, I fumbled around for the right words to thank her for handling more of the process than she normally would have so I could grieve, and we both welled up. Then we walked to the door, and she stood on the porch as I turned the lock and stepped inside.
If it weren’t for Little Batman, I would have left Seattle. Because leaving is what I’ve always done.
My therapist would say that all of those childhood moves have made it hard for me to invest in relationships. I can’t argue with that. Since high school I’ve packed up my belongings four more times, to transfer colleges or pursue work, and with each move it got a little easier to say goodbye to friends. Partly because I comforted myself with the belief that moving made me stronger, more adaptable to change. But mainly because I’d held those friends at arm’s length.
I always used the excuse that I was following opportunities, but the truth is, I was bailing on situations that overwhelmed me. It’s safe to say the divorce was the most emotionally overwhelming situation I’d ever found myself in, and at times I’d wanted so badly to run. But this time leaving wasn’t an option. This time I had to invest.
I picked up Little Batman from day care after meeting with Kristen, and as we pulled up to the house, the pain of the last three months started to subside. “Daddy, is this our new house?” he asked from the back seat. Yeah, buddy, it is. “Do I have my own room?” Yes, big guy, you do. His world was bigger, sure, but it was the little things that made it feel safe.
He held my index finger as we made our way up the front walk and then let go halfway and went the final few feet by himself. I stopped and watched him climb the four steps to the stoop. He looked up at the front door, then turned back to look at me. And then he raised his arms and flexed in his version of a superhero pose.
We were home.