A first-time buyer goes through a day of socially distanced showings and wonders how to make the right choice.

I arrived at the listing a few minutes before my Realtor did. I surveyed the outside of the home and then sat on the front steps to put on my face mask and sanitize my hands. There was a chair on the porch, but I didn’t feel right about touching it. The evening before, on Saturday, my agent had sent over “Coronavirus Property Entry Advisory and Declaration” forms for the listings we would be seeing, and I had promised to follow social distancing rules.

For more than a decade, I’ve covered news stories about multiple listing services, Realtor associations, lawsuits and myriad other topics in the real estate industry for Inman. Now, for the first time, I have joined the ranks of prospective homebuyers. My timing is impeccable.

I applied to a down payment assistance program for low-to-moderate income households in my county at the end of January. I was accepted, and earlier this month, the clock started: 90 days to go under contract, or present two rejected offers to get a 90-day extension.

I, like 36 million other Americans, live alone. The beautiful San Francisco Bay Area town I moved to for work 10 years ago is a place that truly feels like home. Its neighborhoods are walkable, vibrant, safe — and breathtakingly expensive with a median sales price of $1.2 million. The pickings in my price range of $400,000 to $430,000 are slim during a normal market; during this pandemic, they’re almost non-existent.

As I waited for my agent on Sunday, I pondered the fact that even with the down payment assistance, there were a grand total of five active listings I could potentially afford in town. I would be seeing four of them that day. The fifth was occupied and therefore off-limits for in-person showings. There are no detached single-family homes I can afford, so all properties in my price range are in multi-unit buildings that demand HOA fees.

My Realtor arrived. Her mask was already on. We said hello and stayed six feet from each other. She opened the door while I stayed on the sidewalk. She went inside for a minute and then came out and told me that I should put on the gloves and booties the listing agent had left out.

Before seeing the properties in person, this first listing, a one-bedroom listed for $439,950, was my top choice, even though it was a co-op, and therefore ineligible for the down payment assistance program. I’d have to dip into my retirement funds. From the listing photos, though, it looked like it had almost everything I wanted: a yard, in-unit laundry, hardwood floors, updated bathroom and kitchen fixtures.

But when I stepped inside, I immediately realized that the listing agent had used a wide-angle lens for the photos. The living room was tiny. I’d hoped for something a little bigger to invite over family or friends. Part of me realized that the room also seemed smaller because of the unfortunate decision to paint it gray instead of a brighter color. The other rooms were smaller than expected as well, but the features I wanted were there. The private yard was smaller, but I liked that because it had looked a little too big in the photos.

The narrow hallway held a surprise: a hot water heater. Not in a closet, not covered, just there, exposed in a corner of the hallway. “Uh, what is this doing here?” I thought.

Everything felt surreal. I’m fairly tall, 5’ 8” in sneakers, and I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland in a hobbit house, shuffling around in booties and wishing I could open cabinets and closets. I tried to keep the mask out of my eyes without touching my face. I felt very conscious of being in someone else’s space and the possibility that they could make me sick or I could make them sick.

When I went outside, my Realtor’s eyes looked at me expectantly. “It’s very cute,” I said, and then told her about the things that gave me pause: the size of the living room and the hot water heater. She said that I might be able to move the water heater outside since the yard was so spacious. “I’m sure that will cost a pretty penny,” I thought. I was disappointed because the home wasn’t what I expected. Still, it felt more like a house than the apartment I live in now, so I resolved to keep an open mind.

I took a Lyft to the next listing because my agent was not allowed to drive me under social distancing rules. I kept my mask on and put on more hand sanitizer. We saw two one-bedroom units in one building, one updated and one not. The condo complex was in a better location than the first listing, but the HOA fees were higher and the building’s hallways were so poorly lit that some unit owners had installed lighting strips next to their doorknobs to insert their keys.

Both of the units in the building were roomy, which I liked, but the non-updated one, listed at $399,000, would need some work. Doors were missing, the countertops and carpets looked old, and my agent pointed out a popcorn ceiling. The updated one was much nicer, and more expensive, asking $459,000. From the photos, I hadn’t understood why since it was actually a little smaller than the other unit, but I could see now the care that had been put into the upgrades.

I walked to the next listing, dodging other humans as they walked and ran by, some trying to stay away from me and others who seemed to not care that I was a potential disease vector. It was a warm, windy day, so after a few minutes I took my mask off, but put it back on when I saw my agent waiting from afar.

More hand sanitizer, and then we walked inside. We walked to the laundry room, which had been nice in the previous complex, but this one was cluttered and there was a puddle of an unknown yellow liquid on the floor. I hurried out. The unit itself was nice: a third-floor, two-bedroom with hardwood floors throughout. But I knew I almost certainly couldn’t afford it. Both the list price, $499,000, and the HOA fees were higher than any of the other listings.

My Realtor and I debriefed. She asked me which listings I wanted disclosures for and I asked about wiggle room on list prices. Normally, most homes in town sell quickly and for over ask — often by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. But now, who knows. She’s been seeing sales prices all over the place — some higher than list price and some up to 15 percent lower. If we decide to make an offer, we’ll make it lower, she said. Why not? If it isn’t accepted, we can use it to extend my deadline. If it is, all the better.

I walked home with my head swimming, feeling overwhelmed. There’s just so much going on. On the way, I stopped by the market on my street to buy some groceries, feeling both guilty and grateful as I greeted the clerk, who goes to my church and has two young kids at home.

That night I made a pros and cons list for the listings I saw. None of them were perfect. I didn’t instantly fall in love. I wanted more options.

More than anything, I wished I wasn’t making this decision by myself. During what I now think of as The Before, I didn’t mind being alone most of the time. I’ve worked at home for years. I spent evenings teaching karate, going to church events, seeing friends and family. But now all of those things have gone virtual and I haven’t touched another human being in more than a month.

Everyone says buying a home will be the biggest financial decision most people will make in their life. At this time, I wish I had someone to hold my hand or give me a reassuring hug, to ground me. It is very isolating to be doing this in a bubble. How will I know when I’m doing the right thing?

Monday morning, I woke up and the one unit I hadn’t seen, the one that was occupied, had gone contingent. Someone had apparently made an offer without seeing it in person. Down to four listings, then.

But real estate is unpredictable. Another potential listing could go on the market tomorrow, or next month, or the day after I close. Or the ones I like now could go under contract.

There is no crystal ball. I just hope there will be a happy ending to all this.

Email Andrea V. Brambila.
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