Trivial Pursuit?

Buying a Home During a Pandemic Is an Exercise in Perseverance

Low inventory and interest rates. Deep-pocketed competitors. Prepare to lose—often.

By Benjamin Cassidy July 8, 2020

Cape Cod house

A Cape Cod in Wedgwood.

If all goes well, Jessica Brown and Jonathan Childers will close on a Cape Cod in Greenwood early next week. But you can forgive them if they aren’t exactly popping champagne just yet—or at all.

The single-story home was the eighth (yes, eighth) the couple had pursued in recent weeks. The defeats still sting. In Licton Springs, a bidding barrage quickly ended when an offer came in $150,000 above the list price. A property in Maple Leaf—one with a low list price and “kind of out there,” Jessica recalls—didn’t make it to the offer review date; someone had called in a number the seller couldn’t refuse. A different house in Greenwood looked great and affordable—too good to be true in a seller’s market, Jonathan thought—until an inspection revealed a depressing amount of unpermitted work in the basement that undermined the foundation. The couple’s hopes, and funds, were sinking too. “Every one that you lose, you end up spending a ton of money on too,” says Jessica, citing inspection costs, among others. “It's not free to lose a house.”

Others across King County and the Puget Sound region have undoubtedly felt this wallet wallop. Extraordinarily low inventory and interest rates, combined with high demand from deep-pocketed competitors, has made acquiring a home an exercise in loss during the most recent weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. “Multiple offers are back with a vengeance as buyers are handicapped by having only about half the inventory of a year ago,” Dick Beeson, managing broker at RE/MAX Northwest in Tacoma‑Gig Harbor, said in a statement released with Northwest Multiple Listing Service’s latest numbers rollout. “The refrain, ‘Sorry to tell you, but the seller has accepted another offer,’ is heard with regularity.” 

NWMLS’s numbers offered encouraging numbers for sellers. New listings, pending sales, and median prices of single-family homes and condos were all higher in June 2020 than a year earlier. Many of May’s sales in progress did indeed close in June; that number was down just 8 percent year-over-year compared to May, when it was 41 percent below its May 2019 figure.

Still, amid social distancing and health concerns, sellers are often hesitant to part with single-family homes. “If you are still living in the home, it is a huge risk to list it,” notes Kim V. Colaprete, the managing broker of Team Diva Real Estate at Coldwell Banker Bain. “This means you and your family have to move out and find a place to go for two weeks or more. Many sellers might want to sell but just can't move out or don't feel comfortable selling at this time. That means even less homes being listed in a market that normally has low inventory.” 

Jessica and Jonathan are currently renting a house in Greenlake. They’d been saving up to buy their first home together once their lease was up at the end of the summer. But the historically low interest rates available right now prompted them to accelerate their plans. They worked with a Team Diva broker, Roy Powell, who recommended they make a list of important qualities and “guardrails” to steer their home browsing. One of those non-negotiables was finding a house near a fairly direct route to school for Jonathan’s children. “Walkability” was another important factor.

The war box the couple ultimately settled on meets both of those standards, but they had to part with others. “The size, location and condition were all not as ideal as we hoped they would be, but workable,” says Jessica.

The couple is grateful that their commutes to jobs at Sound Transit and Port of Seattle are both manageable, and they understand that others are enduring greater struggles than house-hunting at the moment. But buying a home during a pandemic still broke their hearts. “You have to believe that it would really be possible to live there,” Jonathan says. “So you've envisioned it, and then the whole thing just disappears in ways that are unexpected. Pretty, pretty crushing.”

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