Well, I did it. I bought my first home during a pandemic.
I’m writing to you from my new, mostly empty living room. (A sofa’s coming later this month. Deadly viruses create furniture shortages, apparently.) The home is the first listing I toured when I initially started my homebuying journey. I liked it much better when I saw it a second time, after my agent opened up the blinds and let some light in.
I’ve learned a lot throughout this process, some about myself and a great deal about how the transaction process works, and how I wish it worked.
I needed the right agent for me
I went in search of an agent the old-fashioned way, by asking for recommendations. I asked on my personal Facebook profile, on a popular Facebook page for my town, and on Nextdoor. I knew that because I was a first-timer and was searching in the lowest of price ranges that not every agent would be keen to work with me, so I explained my situation and asked that interested agents comment with their email address so that I could send them questions.
Six agents ended up replying and I sent them each 61 questions. Yes, 61. This was deliberate. I am a very detail-oriented person (just ask my editors) and I needed someone who could deal with that and take my questions and concerns seriously. Not everyone did. One agent made fun of me for all the questions, but also told me he would use my email as a template to give to clients when they first meet to set clear expectations and guidelines. Confusingly, he did not actually answer my questions. Another agent told me “I am too busy to answer interview questions for a job that does not exist.”
Three of the agents at least took a crack at answering some of the questions, two of them fairly thoroughly. I chose to meet with the one I thought had been most thorough, had received the most recommendations, and whose reviews indicated she might be able to scare up some inventory. When we met she took the time to educate me on the market without being pushy or condescending. She also told me that she took my questions as a sign of a serious buyer. We hit it off and the rest is history.
I was lucky — but the process was still stressful and cumbersome
My real estate agent, the loan officer and the title company were all professional and competent. My transaction went smoothly, all things considered. But it was a LOT of work and worry and project management on my part even with all of these people working for me. Over the course of two months, emails from these companies and their assistants would crowd into my already overcrowded inbox and ask me to fill out this form or sign this document or upload that financial statement.
Dozens of documents. Thousands of pages to read and try to understand. Why weren’t these all on one dedicated platform to help me keep track of them? That would have made the transaction linear, more efficient, and less stress-inducing. Uncertainty is a soul-sucker during a home purchase. Having everything on one platform would have helped me know what happens next, what I was supposed to do, what others are supposed to do, what’s done and what needs to be done. Detail-oriented, remember?
If you don’t want buyers to fall into a pit of despair, please create some FAQs
After going under contract, my agent, my loan officer, my title officer and the co-op I was buying the unit from handed me document upon document without the least bit of explanation as to what was important about them and what I should watch out for.
Yes, they were all available when I inevitably had questions. But I, unlike any of them, had never done this before. The sheer volume of disclosures and other documents — some of which asked me to sign away everyone’s liability but my own — was overwhelming. At one point I wondered why people even bought homes after reading all the terrible things that could go wrong and ruin one’s life.
It also felt oddly like a power imbalance. After all, if I didn’t sign, I wouldn’t get what I wanted most: the house. I had to tell myself that I should try to understand the best I could what I was getting into, whether I liked the terms or not. But I wanted to know off the bat what was worth freaking out about and what wasn’t.
Sure, every buyer is different, but I’m betting there are at least some questions that come up again and again and some details you think are super crucial to be aware of. Save buyers the pain and show off your expertise with some FAQs. I promise they’ll be grateful.
For the love of time, sanity and trees, make all but one piece of paperwork digital
Because my agent used DocuSign, I was able to sign quite a few things electronically, which was amazingly convenient. But for most documents the lender, the title company and the co-op required wet signatures and I subsequently either had to scan and upload the documents, physically go to the title company office, or physically hand them over to my agent. My printer was never busier. I could practically feel my time and money draining away with the sound of ink hitting paper. This felt anachronistic, inefficient and just plain annoying.
There was one piece of paper that I was grateful for, however. I have been hearing about wire fraud since I have been covering real estate. I was terrified it would happen to me and I would lose the bulk of my life’s savings and my dreams of homeownership in one fell swoop.
But my title company handled it very simply. I went to sign the closing documents at the title office, which involved 90 minutes of in-person signatures and stamps with both I and the title officer wearing masks and applying hand sanitizer. At the end, the title officer gave me a piece of paper with the wiring instructions and told me to take it to the bank to make the wire transfer for the down payment and closing costs. That way, there was no chance that someone would spoof an email and send me the wrong instructions.
I still checked that I had filled out the wire instructions correctly about six times before submitting the form to the bank, but it all went off without a hitch, to my immense relief.
Homeownership is work, but I love having my own space
The day my agent handed me the keys, I wanted to give her a giant hug and told her so. We’d done it! But we refrained, pandemic and all. I thanked her and later posted some five-star reviews instead. But I had to break quarantine in subsequent days. As a car-less household of one, I needed help moving. So for the next few days my brother-in-law and my sister helped me paint the new place (dark, depressing “light truffle” became bright and airy “Swiss coffee”) and move in my things.
Over the last several weeks I’ve been touching up paint, buying and assembling new furniture and household items, and slowly making the place mine. I now own six Allen wrenches and my first drill and tool set. I worry when the refrigerator makes clicking noises of unclear provenance and I wonder if I should do something about the moderate unsightliness of the water heater.
But I have nearly twice as much space, in-unit laundry, and a backyard that feels like a bit of peace in an otherwise troubled world. Turns out my story did have a happy ending.