Looking to buy? Can you describe what you really want?

#643 in a series of true experiences in real estate
June 2012, Hills Newspapers

Buyers usually begin with something like “I need three bedrooms, I’d like to be in North Berkeley, and I want to pay no more than X dollars.” So far, so good.

“I don’t want to do any work and I really like older houses with unpainted wood trim and hardwood floors.” More difficult, but maybe. “I want a panoramic bay view, a level yard, and I’ll need five garages.” Whoops. What this buyer wants just went beyond possible.

Usually though, the buyer doesn’t tell all of his requirements at the start. Although the agent asks questions, the buyer’s first list is often short and broad, sometimes because he doesn’t yet know what his own refinements will be.

It often takes several weeks and many houses before the agent has gathered enough information to take the buyer to a house that she thinks will surely work. She waits patiently as her client looks long and carefully at the house. Together they walk around the outside, look at the basement, inside all of the closets, and discuss the attic access.

The buyer is thoughtful. He says, “The kitchen is on the small side but I think I could live with that. I don’t like the garden access but maybe I could change that.” The agent nods. “But there is a problem,” the buyer says. “This house won’t work because it has only one garage.”

“Do you need a double garage?” the agent asks wondering why she’s never heard this before. She thinks he must have noticed more than an hour ago how many garages the house has. “Oh yes,” he says. “I collect vintage cars and I can’t just leave them outside.” This is when the agent shoots herself.

We had clients once who started off describing something we thought we could find. Maybe not a snap but already we could think of several houses priced right in areas where this family would like to live.

We were glad to hear that they had fixed up their present house and could do work on the new one. “For example,” they assured us, “we could buy a house with one bathroom and add another later.” After about the first 15 houses, they’d decided they would need two baths after all, a remodeled kitchen, and they didn’t want to do any painting. They would also need a level yard.

After three months and countless houses they said, “We can pay more if that’s what it takes to get a decent house.” Good. “But we have to have a family room and a guest bedroom and bath for our parents when they visit.” Also, they did not want to pay extra for a bay view. They’d rather have wood floors.

In the fifth month they were out looking on a Sunday and went into one home priced higher than any they’d looked at before. They liked it. “It isn’t perfect,” they reported. “But the floors are wood, the kitchen is new and pretty and the layout works.”

It really didn’t matter that there wasn’t a level spot for a play structure and that there were a number of stairs to the front door because this house, the best they’d seen in all this time, cost considerably more than they could possibly pay.

All houses after that came up short. The search was expanded to other cities, the list expanded further still. They didn’t like paneling. “What is that stuff on the walls?” she asked. “Do you think it could be painted?” She wasn’t going to live in a house with outside doors in any of the bedrooms – “not safe for kids.” And they wanted an original structure, not one that had been added on to. “We don’t consider that room to be usable space,” he mysteriously declared after seeing a house with a large recreation room addition.

We considered telling them it was impossible. But we’d spent so much time with them by then that we hated to admit defeat. Also, although we found their house needs increasingly puzzling (the picture never did get clearer), we liked them.

We did wonder, of course, if they were real buyers, but they seemed in earnest, seemed to expect that they would be buying before long. In case they did, we wanted to be there to see what kind of house they’d choose, plus we’d get paid.

In the seventh month, we heard “not big enough,” “no office space,” even “too much space.” We heard “it’s dark” and “there are too many steps up to the front” and “I don’t want the laundry in the kitchen.” One house was out (we couldn’t bear to ask for clarification) because “there are several spots for a dining table.”

We were spending hours every week trying to find whatever it was they wanted, wondering why we were still at it, when we called them to describe a new listing we’d seen. The man answered. He waited until we told him about the house before he delivered the death knell.

“I’ve been looking at the earthquake maps,” he said, “and I feel like I really don’t want my family living where there might be an earthquake.”

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