When Shirley Wasco, 67, and her husband, George, 75, saw the prospect of another long winter in northern Montana ahead of them last fall, they decided to make their move.

They’d been thinking of buying a second home in a warmer climate for the past three years and the low prices in the Sun Belt states told them it was the right time to buy. And they knew they would pay in cash.

"We didn’t want payments and you can strike a better deal and a faster deal in cash," Shirley said. "We were losing money where it was invested."

When Shirley Wasco, 67, and her husband, George, 75, saw the prospect of another long winter in northern Montana ahead of them last fall, they decided to make their move.

They’d been thinking of buying a second home in a warmer climate for the past three years and the low prices in the Sun Belt states told them it was the right time to buy. And they knew they would pay in cash.

"We didn’t want payments and you can strike a better deal and a faster deal in cash," Shirley said. "We were losing money where it was invested."

George retired from his position as service representative for IBM in 1987. Shirley retired in 1997 from the public school district in Libby, Mont., where she was a secretary.

She was in her 50s at the time, but suffered from multiple illnesses she said were caused by living in a polluted area in California for over a decade. Around 1998, she received a monetary award from an environmental lawsuit.

Because she had to sign confidentiality papers prohibiting her from divulging the amount she received, she asked Inman News not to reveal the name of the company involved.

"(It was) enough to make my life comfortable with proper money management," she said.

The Wascos planned to use those funds to buy their second home in a warmer place, where Shirley would be more comfortable. She suffers from lupus, fibromyalgia, Raynaud’s Syndrome, and sleep apnea — all of which are exacerbated by Libby’s freezing temperatures during the winter.

"When we started looking for property in Arizona it was prompted by my wanting to spend the winters in a warmer climate and the fact that there were so many foreclosures and, therefore, good prices for houses. We weren’t getting a good return on where we had our monies invested, so it just made sense to switch to investing in property," Wasco said.

They considered both the Las Vegas and Phoenix metro areas, and quickly bought a home in Henderson, Nev., in November 2009. Still, the Phoenix area was 10 degrees warmer in winter than Henderson and they each had relatives there, so they kept their eye on the Phoenix market.

Shirley looked up real estate agents in Phoenix and came upon the website for Thompson’s Realty. She called the office to inquire about seeing some properties and got the agent on floor duty, Michele Guss.

Guss is one of the brokerage’s 18 agents, and, like all the brokerage’s agents, works from home. She authors the Phoenix North East Valley Real Estate blog.

Wasco said she "lucked out" with Guss for always "going the extra mile" over what turned out to be a months-long, tumultuous process.

"Michele will go miles (for you)," Shirley said. "I mean, she lives over an hour away from where I was looking at property but she went ahead. We started out with condos and went to townhouses."

At first, the Wascos were interested only in the cheapest condos available in the area.

"They had read in the news that condos were around $50,000, so they had that number stuck in their heads for awhile. Everything I showed them on the east side (of Phoenix) was horrible in the $50,000 to $60,000 range," Guss said.

"After their initial visit they decided to look on the west side of Phoenix where prices are lower. They changed from a condo to a townhouse or single-family (home), concentrating mostly in Surprise, Ariz. (west of Phoenix)."

Foreclosures alone made up 50 percent of all sales in Arizona in the first quarter of this year, according to foreclosure data site RealtyTrac (see related story).

According to the Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service, which includes properties in and around Phoenix, 41 percent of the MLS’s transactions since the beginning of the year through May were in cash, compared with 29 percent financed with FHA-insured loans and 25 percent with conventional loans.

The Wascos made four trips to see homes in Arizona, re-evaluating and increasing the amount they were willing to pay each time, Guss said. She submitted several offers for them: four on short-sale properties and one on a bank-owned property (REO).

The bank countered the Wascos’ offers on two of the short sales with amounts both higher than the listing prices and still higher than the couple was willing to pay. A higher bidder with financing snapped up the REO.

The Wascos were in a backup position on one of the short sales when they realized they wanted to live in a particular gated community with amenities, Guss said. In May, Guss had shown Shirley 14 homes in Arizona Traditions, a retirement community for seniors age 55 and above, where Wasco’s cousin rented a home during the winter.

The complex included pools, a golf course, walking paths, and a community center.

Late on a Saturday night, one particular 1,528-square-foot home in the community came on the market. Wasco received an auto-notification and called Guss about it early Sunday morning. By noon, Guss had rushed off to take pictures of the inside of the home because the listing agent had posted only one shot of the outside.

"It pretty much fit our total wish list. The square footage, the selling price … being in the 55-plus place. Two bedrooms, two baths, and having both the living room and family room and an office as well. And a large patio in the back," Shirley said.

The house was listed for $165,000. That Sunday night, based on Guss’ photos and recommendation, she and Shirley put together a cash offer of $158,000 and asked the sellers to pay for the $500 home warranty and about $375 in homeowners association transfer fees.

Wasco was in California due to a family illness, so she drove over to see the home on Monday. That night, they submitted the offer. The sellers accepted the offer, without countering, the next day.

"I suspect it was because they did not have to deal with waiting for loan approval and an appraisal," Guss said.

The house closed on June 30, less than a month from the listing date.

The cash offer meant the transaction could close relatively quickly — and the sellers could move to Florida to be with their son.

"We came in under the asking price, but (the owners) wanted to get to Florida, so they took it. They were happy to have it go fast," Wasco said. "And we’re renting it back to them until they find a place in Florida."

Wasco anticipates it will take the sellers one or two months to find their new home and, in the meantime, the rent will go a long way toward paying the property’s insurance and taxes, Wasco said.

After months of work, Guss was glad her buyers had found their place — in a traditional sale, as opposed to a distressed sale, no less.

"They ended up spending $158,000 to get exactly what they wanted in the exact subdivision they wanted. It just took a lot of time to get there!" Guss said. And if the Wascos end up reselling, there’s little doubt who they’ll call upon again.

For the moment, the Wascos plan to winter at least three months in Arizona and either rent out or spend a month out of the year at their Henderson getaway.

In five years, they’ll re-evaluate their priorities and see if sale prices have improved in the Phoenix-area market, Shirley said.

"My husband is 75 and I am 67, so in five years we may not be up to traveling. We don’t anticipate living there year-round, as we’ve lived on the desert before and understand the winds and high temperatures," she said.

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