More buying and selling

Mar 06, 2000

The idea came to me at 3:50 p.m. on Sunday, January 2, 2000. It was a balmy afternoon here in the Boston area— temperatures in the 60s, sunny and bright. I took out my wife’s Yamaha Riva 125 scooter for a short ride, since the weather was so nice and my motorcycles were winterized and stored away. That’s when I got my flash of inspiration: It was time for us to move. We’ve been thinking of adding a barn and a master bedroom addition to our house. It’s a nice house— we’ve totally renovated and customized it. But after living somewhere for a while, it’s not hard to get critical. “The bathrooms are too small,” my wife says. “The garage is too small,” I say. “We need more space for a riding ring and paddock,” my oldest daughter says. “I want to go to a different school,” my youngest daughter says. “I want a pool,” I say. “I want to be farther away from my neighbors,” my wife says. “I want more phone lines,” my oldest daughter says. “I want a bigger bedroom,” my youngest daughter says. The immediate support I got was almost scary! Though we had not once discussed it seriously since moving into our current house almost four years ago, the whole family was ready to start looking. So that’s what we did. First stop, the Internet. We did a home search in our price range in two towns, Sherborn (my current location) and Dover (the town next door that we share a school system with). We found a few places we thought we might be interested in and called a family friend who is a successful residential real estate broker. The next night, she had us looking at houses— three the first night and three more the night after. We blew through a couple more later in the week. By week’s end, we were homing in on a house— a big old place on six acres. It had only one owner, the fellow who designed and built it more than 30 years ago, and was being sold by the executor of his estate, a Boston attorney. It was a white elephant if there ever was one. The property needed everything and then some, but the location was great. We decided that before making an offer substantially lower than the listing price, we’d do a little investigation and arm ourselves for the ensuing negotiation. We asked our broker for the name of the home inspector who blows more sales than any other, and she gave us the perfect fellow. He spent four hours checking everything that could possibly be checked and submitted a 30-page report to me via e-mail and hard copy. We hired an appraiser, and I pointed out every single thing that would reduce the value of the place. We got a renovation contractor to give us preliminary cost estimates for the projects needed to bring the old house back up to a fitting standard. We talked to the Culligan water people, installers and maintainers of the water system. We called a swimming pool expert to find out what it would cost to get the pool going. We called our surveyor. We met with a wetlands consultant to determine whether we had a suitable barn site. Since the property is near the Charles River, I spoke with the Dover building inspector and the Dover Conservation Commission to get their reads on site-related issues. We then wrote a letter to the attorney representing the estate. I explained how we really liked the house, appreciated the thought that went into its design, and as experienced home renovators, were the perfect buyers for a place like that. I also wrote that we could not, however, pay anywhere close to the asking price, and justified our lower offer with the results of our investigation. The sellers came back with a counter offer. And we countered the counter, telling them “that’s it.” They accepted. All that was left to do was sell our house, since we didn’t include a contingency making that a requirement to close! Our broker had someone draw up the existing floor plans. She took photos. She hired a video crew to do a film for the local home tour program on Sunday mornings. We hired a septic system consultant and got a clean bill of health under Massachusetts’ Title 5 law. We had a contractor come in to fix a few cedar shingles and repair the drywall around the new basement windows we’d cut in. We had our painter paint two of the bathrooms and touch up virtually everything else. We cleaned like the devil. I wrote up a three-page treatise in “realtor-speak,” using phrases such as “child-safe street,” “sprawling, rustic shingle-style home,” and “country living with suburban conveniences.” Our broker assembled everything— the photos, floor plans, description, subdivision plan, plot plan, and more— into a neat little brochure and sent it out to real estate offices in neighboring communities that might have an interested client. The house was officially listed on Sunday, January 23. We had to clear out from noon to 3 p.m., leaving every light on, a fire glowing in the fireplace, and the living room stereo playing classical music. We took our pair of barking, smelly Labrador retrievers and our yipping, jumping Cairn Terrier with us so the broker could hold an unadvertised, unsigned open house. At 3 p.m., I got a call on my cell phone asking us to stay away a bit longer as several people were coming back for a second look and another couple was coming down from Maine at 4:30 p.m. At 5:30 p.m., people were still there. My wife, kids, dogs, and I drove up and down the street in two separate vehicles, impatiently waiting to get back into our house. It was Sunday night. We were all tired and hungry, and the kids still had homework to do. By 6:30 p.m., the people finally left. Our broker told us she’d be back in an hour— she had told everyone who had come through that we would examine offers at 7:30 p.m. Sure enough, the doorbell rang at 7:30 p.m. She had an offer for close to listing price. The buyer was pre-approved for financing and had no house to get rid of. An avid cyclist, he thought it was a good omen that he walked in and saw an antique bicycle with wooden rims hanging above the living room fireplace! We countered at 99% of listing price. He accepted. He even agreed to close on the house and rent it to us for a week so we wouldn’t be rushed getting our stuff out. Twenty-one days from start to finish— idea through reality. A lot of people would say we got lucky on this whole deal, that things don’t normally work out this well. Maybe they’re right. Certainly, luck played some part in it. On the other hand, a lot of it came about because we were thinking and acting, visualizing what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it. We locked in fast to the house we wanted. We did our homework, risked some money (inspections, appraisals, and consultants), and spent the time required to investigate our target and get our house ready for sale. Attention to every detail at every step along the way paid off. We had a quick sale of our old house at a record price (99% of listing price and about 125% of the norm for my street) and got a better than good deal on our new house (83.33% of listing price and well below norms for the area). It’s all just business to me. Whether you’re buying and selling a house or running an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm, the process is the same. Know what you want, have a plan, do what it takes to put the plan into effect, be unemotional, and you can make things happen. Short cut the process at any step along the way, however, and luck is all you’ve got to pull you through! And who wants to rely on luck? Originally published 3/6/00

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