House Hunting: The Waiting is the Hardest Part

With the home of her dreams chosen, Whitney Carpenter twiddles her thumbs, just waiting for something to go wrong.

The escrow process makes you hate billboards for housing developments. The people on those billboards always look so grotesquely wholesome and content as they hand their giant check to the bowler-hatted banker, who, not to be outdone, is usually armed with a golden key of equally dramatic proportions. The whole transaction seems brisk and solid, easily framed in one image with plenty of room for the company’s phone number and website. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the billboard is lit from behind by the unquenchable force of the American Dream — or five good-sized spotlights, depending on budget. I see several of these billboards on my daily commute from work to the rental that I was supposed to move out of several months ago, and they tend to make me feel a little unhinged.

A house is a solid, permanent thing, but the process by which one buys a house is a minefield of intangible threats and delays. When purchasing a short sale, your initial offer goes first to the primary owner of the property, a spectral someone you might not know but whose underwear you saw in the closet when you were pretending to admire all of the storage space. If accepted, the offer is then considered by any banks holding loans on the house. Contracts — the kind that make no guarantees but commit all parties to a long consideration period — will be signed, then re-signed because of misspelled names, and finally signed a third time under the hawkish gaze of a notary.

Once you’re contracted, you may be tempted to feel something like accomplishment, but don’t be fooled. What follows is months of deadlines set for no apparent purpose; there will be deadlines for appraisals, loan extensions, and extensions on loan extensions, each of which will pass without comment or progress. Your first instinct may be self-righteousness, but you’ve been missing deadlines too: it’s been several months since you sent that email telling your landlady that you and the dog she didn’t know about were moving out ASAP.

For people trying to buy a short sale in an impacted market like Sacramento, it’s understood that the “short” refers to the loss the bank will be taking on the property, not the length of time it will take them to process the offer. And while short sales are preferable to foreclosures, most banks don’t rush to close the deal. Understandably, each bank wants to be sure that they are getting the greatest return (and the greatest possible percentage of that return) on each property. Our real estate agent casually estimated that the average short sale closes 6 to 9 months after an offer is made, with no guarantee of success.

For the prospective homeowner, the technical jargon boils down to a lot of waiting and one incredibly awkward “just kidding” email to your landlady. You’ll wait for the banks to decide how much of the selling price each will receive, and then for the real estate agents to decide who will give up a percentage of their commission to the bank that lost the tussle. While you wait housing prices in your neighborhood will fluctuate and interest rates will fluctuate with them. And though you hate to admit it, there are bad days when your enthusiasm also fluctuates, and billboards for housing developments bring on fits of road rage.

Another remarkable characteristic of this waiting period is the consuming haze of ambiguity it produces. While you wait, everything seems theoretical, from the loan money to the fact that you’ve putting off cleaning your bathroom for months in hopes that you could move out instead. Even the house you’re trying to buy seems indefinite — an appraisal comes back showing that the square footage on the advertisement was a bad estimate. Turns out, there are 50 additional square feet in the house that you might eventually live in.

In the midst of this uncertainty, you may begin to feel a bit despondent. You’ll no longer tell friends that you’re buying a house; you’ll acquiesce, under pressure, to the fact that you may, someday, be moving, if you can find anyone willing to take all of the imaginary money that the loan officers think you’ll have in years to come. When you sign official paperwork you’ll no longer flatter each form with a flourish worthy of the Founding Fathers. After a few months you start to complain of hand cramps and resign yourself to a grim set of initials.

As the months drag on, you can easily lose sight of the fact that you’re in the process of making an important decision. Your role is so passive during this part of the purchase that you’re more likely to feel as though you’re undergoing an obscure form of bureaucratic torture. But actually, as you sit at home wondering whether your landlady is going to kick you and your dog out of the rental that you may or may not be moving out of anyway, you’re being proactive as all hell. And if you’re lucky and patient, maybe someday you’ll get something — a house perhaps — for all of your efforts.

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.