Caitlin’s Roller Coaster House Hunting Saga Continues…
HI, I’M BACK WITH A LIFE UPDATE. Please settle in and grab some coffee because you’re in for another long read! You may remember me from this massive missive, but let me catch you up quickly: in August, I stumbled upon a .68 acre piece of land in the hills of Los Angeles that happened to contain a “teardown” house.
The hill house in question was being offered at $299,000 and let me tell you: that is a GOSH. DARN. STEAL. (I’m about to provide some context below). She had been sitting vacant and unfinished for over a decade so she needed some work – a contractor quoted me $300,000 to $400,000 for a builder-grade renovation – but comparable homes in the neighborhood with *no* views were selling for an average of 1.1 to 1.7 million dollars, so I did a whole lot of mental gymnastics (and math, as detailed here) to convince myself that this was 100% worth pursuing.
And pursue it, I did!!! It’s been two months. She was a diamond in the rough, and I was going to fix her! HERE’S THE UPDATE.
The Honest Numbers
Before I really get into anything else, I just want to have a quick and open chat about the financial situation that brought us to this day. WHAT IS THE INTERNET FOR, if not revealing incredible personal information about yourself and your bank accounts??? If you only care about the house details, you can scroll down to the next section. If you read the last post and you were like, “hey, how the heck are you affording this?,” then this overview is for you!
I’m 29 (as of today!), I’m debt-free (as of August!), I’m single (please send me your cute sons, I’m so tired of Tinder), and I’m looking for a house in East Los Angeles while trying to stick within the $400k to $500k range. (Trying is truly the operative word here. We’re going on a full ride today, folks, and of course it involves going over budget). In a dream scenario, I’m hoping to find a place that’s fairly run down (aim high, everyone!!!) but livable enough that I can manage a $100-200k renovation over a year or two (or three, or four, or forever).
But I know the real question from the last post was “how do you have enough in savings to pull this off?” so I need to digress for a moment and introduce you to my very smart, very fun, VERY FINE mother. You may recognize her from her contributions in the last post – mainly, offering to lend me a bananas amount of money when I couldn’t find a land loan (I later discovered the lovely people at U.S. Bank, who were willing to lend me a bananas amount of money instead! Crisis averted!) – but I wanted to put a face to the name, so here she is. THIS IS BRENDA.
I discussed this a bit in the comments of the last post, but I wanted to put it front and center: I owe literally all of this to my mom’s careful, brilliant planning, to her tireless and incredible work ethic, to just straight up dumb luck, and to some unfortunate losses. I am a lifelong beneficiary of the framework that this genius woman laid for me.
When I was born, my mom started a brokerage account for me to use. FOLKS, DO THIS FOR YOUR KIDS! HURRY! 29 years of compounding interest on holiday gifts, inheritances (a sad personal note that I normally don’t talk about: I got to bury my whole family with the exception of my mom before I turned 17, which was not awesome!), and personal contributions have swelled into around $80,000. There is truly no way on God’s green earth that I would have anywhere NEAR $80,000 if left to my own devices and I still transfer $100 every Thursday into this account. THANK YOU MOM, FOR YOUR INFINITE WISDOM. (Unfortunately, we do have one blind spot when it comes to finance: novelty photos. I cannot tell you how much money we have dropped on these types of photos of us over the years, but I can tell you that we have HUNDREDS. Also, last year we got a little wine tipsy on a cruise ship last year before buying EVERY. SINGLE. PICTURE. they had of us. We are a fun time!!)
ANYWAY – I honestly do not look at this brokerage account and only set up an online login in July, when I started house-hunting seriously. I still have a regular savings and checking account so I love that this brokerage exists separately, particularly because I won’t have that big “holy crap, I just spent *everything*” moment when I put wire my downpayment.
And finally, I just got dumb lucky in the stock market and cashed out a couple thousand dollars of stock to free up extra funds for closing costs. When I boil it down, every $1,000 I put into my portfolio turned into $11,000. I can’t be like, “ah, yes, buying a house is SIMPLE! Just invest in stocks with high returns!!!” but Robinhood – used responsibly, with stocks held for the longterm – really worked for me.
And while sure, I take home a salary and do my best…I really still owe it all to my mom. I wouldn’t be here without her setting me up with solid financial infrastructure or without knowing that I could always go home if I failed miserably. When I wanted to quit an incredible job at Apple to start a startup, she was on board. When I needed a year to recuperate between 4 years at the startup and joining EHD (that sh*t was HARD, y’all!!!), she was always there to give me a pep talk. I’ve been very, very privileged enough to be in a position where I could take fun and weird risks with my work because I knew I could always run back to Delaware, which I realize is SO SO SO SPECIAL. We are pretty stoic in person but I hope she knows that I am absolutely obsessed with her and I gush about her to anyone who will listen. MOM, YOU ARE FUN AND I LOVE YOU SO MUCH. I’m so grateful for you.
Is this an essay about my mom???? No? Should it be??? OKAY ANYWAY THAT’S HOW I’M PAYING FOR THINGS, NOW HERE’S THE HOUSE UPDATE…
Back to business! My favorite comment about the hill house wasn’t even posted on the blog – it was on an anonymous message board. It was biting (albeit accurate, if I’m being honest!), but it ended with a two sentence quip that made me laugh: “The house is clearly a nightmare, and is being left alone for logical reasons. The lady is delusional.”
I had to laugh because this person was so right. The hill house IS clearly a nightmare – it has foundation issues, the neighbors who aren’t thrilled about having her fixed up, there’s not even a road leading to the property, and that is still only the beginning of a laundry list of permitting issues – and because of these things, yes, any logical person would leave it alone! But when it comes to delusional, I’d like to present an alternative…
I think the listing says it best: “MAJOR FIXER, YET DREAM VIEWS ON A DOUBLE LOT NEAR THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN…Yes, the exterior is rough and the interior even rougher and is likely a complete raze to the ground, but priced to sell for an amazing development opportunity that likely only comes around once in a lifetime!”
And admittedly, this house has A LOT OF CHARM. But you know what this house doesn’t have? A ROOF. Or a salvageable interior. This teardown went on the market for $499,000 in August and sold to a cash buyer last week for $567,500. THAT’S ALMOST SIXTY. NINE. THOUSAND. DOLLARS. MORE THAN ASKING PRICE. In cash!!! How could I not be enthusiastic about a house that’s twice the size, half the price, and in workable condition…albeit requiring A LOT more bureaucratic legwork? It didn’t seem delusional to me (at the time…) to save hundreds of thousands of dollars when faced with comps like this. SO ONWARDS, I TRUCKED.
The Math Hits
On the day my last post went live, I finally got an email from the Bureau of Engineering. It had been weeks and I had needed their feedback: could I just build a driveway, or would I need to extend the road in front of the property? The answer wasn’t great: they wouldn’t know until I had taken full possession, but they warned that I should budget for 30 feet of frontage.
In Los Angeles, if you need a city road built, you can submit a request to the city and if approved by the neighbors, you can submit a waiver that will cover the costs. But this home was different: I had been warned by city planners that neighbors had historically blocked waivers and that yes, if I wanted to live here, I should be prepared to pay for a road (and to potentially pay for updates to the entirety of the road leading up to the property). And like…ok! That felt doable. I’ve lived in houses with long driveways. It’s the same, right?
IT IS NOT THE SAME. Rough estimates I got from the city were all over the place, but they were all in the six figures – $100k to $400k. This felt like a VERY BIG leap to take without the buy-in of the neighborhood council, which still hadn’t responded to any of my frantic emails.
While I was noodling on that problem – am I charming enough to talk potential neighbors into helping me get a waiver worth nearly half a million dollars? – I stumbled on some more FUN NEWS. Ah, yes – lumber prices have soared over the past several months. Maybe this isn’t a huge deal for some renovators, but it’s an enormous hurdle for me. This place is 2,200 square feet and because it’s been exposed for a decade, the whole house basically needs to be reframed or reinforced.
I know that my original $300k to $400k estimate was on the low end, but this lumber shift alone bumped it up to a $450k to $600k renovation estimate (and that’s BEFORE any major issues). I ended up digging up a statistic that made my stomach drop: a sheet of plywood that cost $8 in February now costs $20. This was so specific and digestible and I could feel my whole heart sinking.
While this was happening, my realtor Francine was still in communication with the seller’s agent. They were actively handling some of the major permitting issues (like a tree report for Urban Forestry, a Hillside form for the Bureau of Engineering, and a new Environmental Assessment form). These were huge, expensive hurdles that stood in the way of even starting a renovation and I had anticipated buying with all these issues still in tact, so despite the never-ending barrage of new issues, the seller was providing enough value that I seriously started to think about putting in a lowball offer and extending the contingency period.
And then, on August 28th – my mom’s birthday! A day that should have been great! – I got a Redfin email that it was under contract. Welp.
The Interim House Hunt + A Surprise Dealbreaker
I considered putting in a backup offer, but I also figured that it would work out if it was meant to be. The additional bright side: Brenda (a lady we now all know and love!) could enjoy her time and retirement savings without worrying about me running back to Delaware with my tail between my legs after making an enormous mistake. I’m a generally a fan of the “you get to pick your a few of your problems” way of thinking, but I’m still not crazy about the idea of bringing anyone down with me. Maybe it was a good thing???
Three days later while I was still feeling glum about missing out and in the midst of licking my wounds, I got an email that this tiny house in Highland Park – right near Bowser’s! – had just hit the market $438,000. It was a one bedroom and only 616 square feet but OH MY GOSH, it was CUTE. And more importantly, it was within budget. It was a real gift from the universe to a girl who was feeling a little lost!
This place was on a great street and it had parking, a semi-shared garage, a really big backyard outdoor space with a lot of privacy, and the sweetest front entrance. I spent the night playing with the 3D walkthrough (it’s actually still up, if you want to get the full experience) and mentally sketching out potential renovation plans.
Despite being itty bitty, the description mentioned a basement and I discovered on the 3D walkthrough that the bumped out area to the right of the front door actually contained a pretty large closet. (I mean, still tiny, but large for the space). I figured that if I closed on this place, I’d take some space from the living room and from this closet to put in some stairs, I’d finish the basement, and I’d double the living space. EASY PEASY, RIGHT?
But of course…NOT easy peasy. When I got to the showing, the listing agent hit me with a whammy: the basement is sloped, so my stair dreams and my hopes for a livable basement were off the table. This gal was 616 square feet and she was going to stay that way.
That was okay, though, because the place was SO. FREAKING. CHARMING. The light was beautiful and for the most part the fixes seemed primarily cosmetic. It needed a totally new bathroom – despite a pretty weird layout, the room was actually 5′ x 8′, which is a pretty standard bathroom size – and an updated kitchen, but I still saw a ton of potential here. I could loft the ceiling and expose the beams! I could open up the wall between the kitchen and living area! I could build a deck with french doors off the one bedroom and make a sweet indoor/outdoor space!
Then, listing agent slipped in a few more disclosures: he didn’t have a key to the basement which was padlocked shut, but we could peek in the windows to take a look at the washer and dryer. The garage straddled the property line and was split only by a tiny wall in between, and maintenance of the joint building had historically been shared by the two homeowners. The family had recently done an inspection and had discovered some foundation issues. (And seeing as I was considering a home that may or may not be in danger of sliding down a literal mountain, this foundation revelation did not deter me at all.)
And then, a final doozy: the last homeowner had recently passed away of natural causes inside the house.
I DO NOT KNOW WHY THIS BOTHERED ME. I STILL DO NOT KNOW WHY.
Here, I had found the cutest property that checked a lot of boxes. It was within budget, it was a manageable first-time renovation size, it was close to everything in Highland Park, AND it was an ideal size for one! But learning about the passing just made me feel weird, for reasons I still can’t really wrap my head around.
I even put it out to my friends in a poll on Instagram, asking if they’d consider buying a very tiny, very cheap (again, comparatively for LA!!!) home in a great area if the last owner had recently passed inside…and the answer was YES, by a landslide. I had a grand total of 8 (eight!!!) pals who shared my reservations, and learned that I know 103 people who are braver than me.
It still bothers me that I can’t pinpoint the root of why this gets to me – enough that I had to text my mom again today in an attempt to unpack it. I’m not particularly religious or spiritual (though I appreciate all the folks who offered up their bibles and sage!) and to make it even more hypocritical, my own father passed away at home, per his wishes!!! (If you’ve gotten this far and you’d like to give me a birthday gift, might I suggest a small donation to the American Cancer Society?).
I know that there must be something really special about a place if someone chooses to spend their last days there – and apparently, this neighbor was much loved!!! The agent told me about how nearby folks had set up a little memorial on the porch – but at the end of the day, I think what got to me was the size. At 600 square feet, I’d always feel like someone had just died *right there.* After sleeping on it, I decided to pass. (And for what’s it worth, this place ended up selling for $482,000 — $44k over asking).
It’s True: You Can Fall in Love Again
And then, my realtor Francine sent me this place. I actually opened the listing while FaceTiming with Jess (as a side note, I think Jess and I have a codependent FaceTime relationship. We are working together via FaceTime ALL DAY. EVERY DAY. All the time. If you send me anything, I can guarantee that I am FaceTiming Jess while I’m looking at it) and she will testify in a court of law that I cut her off mid-sentence and my initial reaction verbal reaction was “Oh. Sh*t.”
Francine had sent me a 2 bed, 2 bath home in El Sereno. It was VERY, VERY VINTAGE and a 1,466 square foot home on a huge corner lot (again, LA huge – 7,605 square feet). I loved it immediately. The only problem: it was listed at $549,555, which was about $50k more than I was hoping to spend…but OH MY GOSH. Big heart eyes. I emailed my loan officer Andy the link with a subject reading: “can i afford this?” and once he said yes, all bets were off.
This place was built in the 1950s, but last updated in the 1970s. I was *obsessed.* I knew I was toast from the second I saw the ceiling beams, huge fireplace (it’s massive in person), the swagged pendant, the sunken living room, the Palm Springs-style double doors, and the vintage wallpaper. I made an appointment with Francine to see it the next day and of course, I fell even more in love once we actually walked in.
This place was WEIRD, and I didn’t want to change a thing. There was an enormous dining room with a movable wall installed for some reason. There was a breakfast nook/bar area with faux beams that coordinated with the swinging saloon doors and extended into the galley kitchen. It was a full-on time capsule with so much personality and life – the opposite of a lot of the monochromatic flips on the market – and I was so sold.
I’m actually pretty sure that Francine thought I hated the house, because I think I swore every. single. time. we walked into a new room. CURSE THIS OVER BUDGET HOUSE AND HOW MUCH I LOVE IT. It needed a lot of work – there were a lot of dangerous looking cracks and it was hard to discern whether they were structural problems or just old, cracked plaster (a contractor I consulted said it could have gone either way), and the leaning retaining wall in the backyard didn’t inspire a ton of confidence.
By the time we hit the pink bathroom on the left, I knew I was going to make an offer. After going home, analyzing the retaining wall on Google Earth (it must be fine if it’s been leaning at a 45 degree angle since 2006, right???), sending my contractor a million photos of cracks in the wall (“It sounds like you already know what you’re going to do” – my contractor responding to my very leading texts), and getting a pretty restless sleep, I texted Francine that I was ready to make an offer on this place.
My mom’s response was my favorite: “One room looks like it has mold. Other than that, it’s a fixer.” ENTHUSIASM! (For what it’s worth, after learning about my enthusiasm, Brenda admitted that she also did like the bathroom and that she supported my decision to put in an offer, too.)
And I almost have to laugh now, sharing these photos with y’all who don’t live in Los Angeles. I submitted an offer at asking – $549,555 with 10% down and a conventional mortgage to get my greasy little paws on the bathroom on the right. I briefly considered a 5% down offer, but I really wanted to be as competitive as possible while maintaining some cushion for initial repairs. As someone who grew up in a pretty normal and fairly-priced town (Wilmington, DE – anyone else?!) where $550k would buy you a nice, fully-finished house without cracks or mold (but also without so much wallpaper and green carpet – I knew i had to move to LA for a reason!), putting in an offer for this much was pretty surreal.
Which leads us to some more honest money talk: I’m a single lady making a normal salary. The mortgage on this $550k house with current interest rates would run me a little over $3,000 a month, which is more than I bring home in one paycheck. I know all the Dave Ramsey fans out there are like “AHHH, don’t do it!!! That’s too much!!!”
But as context, I present the following: I currently pay $1,900 in rent on my one bedroom apartment and up until the pandemic, I was spending between $1,000 and $2,000 a month on competitive synchronized skating. I am fully aware that the latter number is ludicrous. (Buuuuut my team is ranked third in America! It’s fun! I can’t seem to retire!)
After six years of juggling rent with these exorbitant bills – my first EHD post was actually about how I flip furniture to fund skating! – my monthly spending is pretty much on lock (and I’ve managed to pay down all my credit card debt despite this weird cash flow situation!), so I felt pretty comfortable about committing to a monthly mortgage payment that was this large. ANYWAY. When I think about this house as a place to live and as a hobby that would replace skating, $3,000 seems like a steal to me. And for what it’s worth, my current apartment is about 1,100 square feet and has absolutely no insulation, so I’m also well-adjusted to paying VERY HIGH utility bills.
Putting in an offer felt scary, but it also felt right. After submitting about a million signatures on Docusign, I spent the afternoon pinning inspiration photos in an attempt to manifest an offer acceptance. I knew the market was going to be competitive and I was trying not to get my hopes up, but UGH, waiting is SO HARD. Solidarity to all my pals who are also going through this right now!
The Brief Pause
It took a little over 24 hours to hear back, which made me feel hopeful. Bad offers get rejected fast, right? They must be at least considering it if it’s taking this long, right? IT’S GOTTA BE MINE, RIGHT?
In case my decision to post numerous sweeping and identifying shots of the home didn’t make it clear, the universe had other plans. My dreams were crushed (melodramatic, but that’s how it feels!), my Pinterest board was rendered useless, the home ended up selling quickly for $600k, and I have never wished I had a boyfriend more. A joint income woulda made it possible! DOES ANYONE WANNA DATE ME SO WE CAN BUY A HOUSE TOGETHER?
But on the bright side, I learned something about my tastes! After looking at so many houses (THANK YOU FRANCINE FOR GOING TO SO MANY HOUSES WITH ME), I realized that both of my two big house loves have leaned more contemporary/modern/70s. I’ve also learned that I care a lot about maintaining the character and ~vibe~ of a house. There are a lot of places on the market out here with a ton of traditional details – built-ins near the fireplace, arts & crafts woodwork, china cabinets dividing the kitchen and dining room – and I’ve realized that since those features aren’t super *me*, it’s okay for me to pass on them without taking time to go to a viewing.
House hunting is so hard – things go from 0 to 100 in a matter of hours, there’s a real scarcity mindset, and the voice in my head is reciting a constant monologue on a loop that sounds a little something like, “what if I don’t go and that was THE ONE?!” I’m sure that anyone in this market can commiserate that losing out on something you love stinks, but the clarity that comes from finally finding a place that fits your taste is pretty freeing. I no longer feel the need to frantically email my realtor EVERY home that comes on the market in my price range – the right one is worth waiting for. (I don’t mean to sound like I’m writing copy for a dating website or like I’m fresh outta the self-help book aisle, but that’s truly where I’m at now.)
Speaking of the one…that brings us full circle to this little beauty. The hill house. After the offer on my ’70s reno dream was rejected at the beginning of September, I was pretty sure that the universe was teeing me up to make an offer on this place. (For someone who likes math and relies on data as much as I do, I sure spend a lot of time relying on the universe to give me signs. There’s something funny in there.) I spent a solid month catching my breath – after sprinting straight from working with bureaucrats and banks to putting in offers on other houses, I needed a second to relax – so I decided to sit and wait for this baby to fall out of escrow.
And she didn’t. On Friday, I got the email that the sale had closed for $340k – $41k over asking. It was an abrupt end to an unfinished story.
It’s kind of bittersweet to take everyone on a full ride and then to close it with a “and then I lived happily ever after in NONE OF THE HOUSES I WROTE A HUNDRED PAGES ABOUT,” but that’s what really happened. Buying a house is hard and not glamorous and I’m still trying. Maybe one day it’ll work out! In any case, I’m grateful for the experience – sure, I now know enough about permitting and black walnut trees and hillside engineering to win a very niche, very boring game of Jeopardy – but as a pretty independent, self-sufficient only child who grew up with an “I can do it myself!!!” attitude, I feel really lucky to look back on the past two months and to realize that WOW, a whole bunch of folks came together to support me as I tried to solve an seemingly unsolvable problem. 2020 has been a crap year, but this will always be one of my favorite stories.
In the meantime, as I resume the house hunt out here, I just wanna thank all of you for indulging me and for coming along on this weird journey with me. The outpouring of support from the last post was overwhelming in the best way and I wish I could have made it work, both for myself and for the blog! I’d be happy to keep y’all updated on the next offer, if you want. TIL NEXT TIME, OKAY?
PS. Did I miss out on that 616 square foot house in Highland Park, though??? All this chatter about the hill house and the ’70s dream…but is that cottage the real one that got away? I still can’t figure out why I couldn’t put in an offer, but boy, I definitely felt some regret while uploading those pictures. WHAT SAY YOU??
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