When not even the buyer knows for sure

#331 in a series of true experiences in real estate
July 2000, Hills Newspapers

Buyers usually begin with something like this: “I need three bedrooms. I’d like to be in North Berkeley, and I can afford $600,000.” So far, so good.

“I don’t want to have 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 can only tell what he knows right then.

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. 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. There will probably be a lot of competition for this house and I’ll have to decide how high I can bid.” 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, thinking that he must have noticed more than an hour before how many garages this house has.

“Oh, yes. Well, I collect vintage cars and, you know, I can’t leave them outside. They’re in storage now, but I’m going to need space for at least five cars.” 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 in their price range in areas where this family wanted 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.”

But after about the first 15 houses, they’d decided they would need two existing 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 go up another $100,000 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.”

More difficult still, three of the bedrooms had to be on the same level. Also, they did not want to pay extra for a Bay view. They’d rather have hardwood floors.

In the fifth month they were out looking on a Sunday and went into one home they liked very much except that they could not afford 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, was priced beyond their ability to pay.

All houses after that came up short. The search was expanded to other cities; the features list grew longer. 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,” she said. And they wanted an original structure, not one that had been added on to. After seeing a house with a large recreation room addition, he made a most mysterious comment: “We don’t consider that room to be useable space.”

We thought about 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 wondered, of course, if they were real buyers, but they seemed in earnest, seemed to expect that they would be buying before long, and we were certainly curious to see if they actually would. In case it ever happened, we wanted to be there to see what kind of house they’d buy, not to mention that we would get paid.

In the seventh month we heard about different houses that they were not big enough, had no office space, even “too much space.” We were also told that one house was dark, another had 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 room 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 the phone. 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 they might be an earthquake. I think we’d better think this through some more.”

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