June 8, 2012

Effective today I'm the owner of 308 Summit Ave E #401, a two-bedroom condominium at the Alpine Villa building on Seattle's Capitol Hill. After six years as a renter in Seattle, I'm now a homeowner for the second time. Why did I ever buy another property when I haven't sold the one I bought seven years ago in Pittsburgh?

In March of this year I wrote "Seattle, rising," expressing my belief that Seattle is a city that is recovering and rising. My investment in the Alpine Villa is my way of putting my money where my mouth is. The location is about a 20-minute walk from my office and is a five-minute walk from the Capitol Hill light rail station that will connect my new neighborhood with downtown and the airport in 2016. I can also rationalize the purchase on economic grounds: thanks to absurdly low interest rates, I secured a 15-year mortgage on which only 20% of my payments will go towards interest.

Unlike 2005, when it took me only three months and two offers to find a home, my 2012 home search has been much more difficult. I started in December 2011 to try and beat the rush to buy, but virtually no one was selling a property I wanted. Ultimately it took six months and five offers to seal the deal in Seattle: I withdrew my first offer due to concerns about the homeowners' association's inattention to building maintenance, I lost my second to an all-cash buyer who paid less than what I had offered, I lost my third because the seller wouldn't budge low enough on the price, and I lost the fourth in a bidding war.

During my search, the excuses came in greater numbers than the homes did: wait until after Christmas, wait until after New Year's, wait until the snow melts, wait until after the Super Bowl, and so on. It turns out that Seattle is neither a buyer's nor a seller's market: few homes came on the market and few buyers were looking for new places to live. Desirable, well-priced homes were often snapped up within a day by all-cash buyers, typically investors who want to rent the properties out or who will try to flip them later. Overpriced, distressed, and remote homes remained on the market for longer thanks to owners who were unable or unwilling to lower their price. I found myself making offers just to avoid losing a property: shoot first, ask questions later. I thought that I was a good buyer being able to afford 20% down with excellent credit scores but banks couldn't say no to an all-cash offer. I even saw a few places on the market whose descriptions requested "cash only."

My search, offer, and most of the closing process was decidedly more high-tech this time around. Thanks to Redfin I only looked at properties that I specifically wanted to see. Out of curiosity I'm keeping my instant alerts on: Redfin will tell me about new and updated listings within 15 minutes. My buyer's agent in Pittsburgh also had access to listing databases on the web, but only Realtors were allowed to use them. I have a lot of respect for Redfin in tearing down barriers for buyers.

Although Redfin was a great resource in locating a home, the Redfin agent I used for my first offer was not as great: I ended up negotiating with him more than I did with the seller. For my subsequent offers, I worked with Matt Warmack, a Redfin partner agent who I recommend highly. Matt understood the rapid and volatile nature of the Seattle market and flexed his schedule to write and respond to offers as quickly as we needed to. Matt was pragmatic and calm, often writing offers that he admitted stood a low chance of acceptance, and worked with me at every stage. He truly earned his commission.

Thanks to Jennifer Fisher, Kellie McNulty, and the whole team at Cobalt Mortgage for helping me get set up with a loan. They worked with me at every step of the way and they handled everything up to closing without mailing a single shred of paper. Everything was handled electronically, saving us all time and money. The same goes for Mick Lee, my new insurance agent at PEMCO, who walked me through the whole process and got me covered for less than I was paying in renter's insurance with a different carrier.

Thanks also to Don Hartman of Hartman Home Inspections for coming out on short notice to inspect two properties including my new home. Don's wife Sandy worked tirelessly to schedule inspections and to return the reports to me with a speed reflective of Seattle's coffee intake. Don did a great job of honestly evaluating everything and answering my many questions about the old and older buildings that captured my attention.

Here's to a great new place to live!