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Kristen Philipkoski

House Hunt part 5: Learning to live with uncertainty


(Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash)

House Hunt is a weekly series documenting a real family's quest to find a home in their beloved California coastal town, Pacifica, CA.

It was another eventful week in the House Hunt with no actual outcome and I'm beginning to understand that constant disappointment is the way you live when you’re shopping for a house. Until, of course, you find your house, assuming you don’t hate it like these people did.

I blame these pandemic panic-buying cautionary tales combined with my husband’s exhaustingly cautious nature for the fact that we still have not bought a house.

It makes you do things like toy with the idea of moving to Fresno because look at this insanely beautiful place.

And then I realize it’s been just about six weeks since we began our search, and the friend who submitted 18 offers over a period of two years before making a down payment.

I also remember that we’re privileged to be shopping for a house at all and that I need to be grateful.

Still, we have a deadline: our lease is up at the end of May.

Since our search feels urgent, we’ve exhausted every weekend and our 8-year-old daughter’s ability to self-regulate driving all over the San Francisco Bay Area and Sonoma County. Running through strangers’ houses and assigning everyone in the family a room is even losing its charm for our daughter.

(Photo by Keriliwi on Unsplash, not the actual treehouse we saw)

Briefly a Berkeley Mom

Still, there was a flurry of excitement this past week. Our Pacifica agent Eileen O’Reilly showed us the most adorable Berkeley home (sent by a family friend—another reminder to be grateful for the friends who are continually sending us listings; it feels very warm and fuzzy to have so much support). It had the most incredible two-story treehouse I’ve ever seen. As I repeatedly scrolled through the photos on Zillow, I imagined being a Berkely mom. Of course I was a Berkely mom. I was destined to be one, obviously! We belonged in this house.

I even wrote a "buyer letter" about why the home was perfect for us, without ever having seen it in person. (I later discovered buyer letters are not really allowed anymore per the California Association of Realtors because they could lead to discrimination.)

When we visited, prospective buyers were swarming the place, and we had to bribe our daughter out of the treehouse when our appointment ended. But it was clear from the moment we set foot on the property that the house was just too small for us. So much for being a Berkeley mom.

Too Big Is Not a Thing

The next day we drove up to Petaluma in the late afternoon, chasing the sunlight to look at two properties. The second one was promising with a wraparound deck, a view of the hills, a completely remodeled interior and a big lot. Plus, the price was a bit below our max.

We submitted an offer a little bit above their asking. I felt a thrill similar to buying a new pair of shoes but times one million. Could this finally be it? The husband was not as enthusiastic as I was but surely my positive energy would banish his doubts about the 5 x 5 bedrooms and lack of a space for him to work from home, which he will be doing for the foreseeable future, even post-pandemic.

The next day, they sent a counter offer for slightly more than our offer. My reaction was yay, because it seemed like a small increase. My husband’s reaction was WTF, we already offered you over asking and I won’t even have an office.

The look on his face told the story of a future when he would feel bitterness towards me every day of the rest of our lives if we accepted the counter offer.

Over the next several hours and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc that had mercifully been delivered from Sophie James Wine earlier that day I ask him and myself repeatedly, if he felt this way, why would he go ahead with the offer?

And the thing we sorted out is that sometimes you just don’t know until you know. And it’s a good thing one of us is excruciatingly rational.

When we told our Sonoma County agent Jennifer Parr we wouldn’t be accepting the counter offer, she told us that the very first home we’d looked at with her in Petaluma a few weeks back had not yet sold. It was enormous compared to others we’d looked at and a bit over our budget, but since it had been on the market for more than 60 days, she thought we might get it for a bit under asking.

True to form I immediately forgot that other dumb house and became giddy about how perfect it would be if the first house we looked at would be The One, kind of like how that first photo is often the best!

We made an appointment to get up there at 10 a.m. the next morning. We were uncharacteristically early, and roamed around the house in awe of its size. It has three living areas, three fireplaces including one straddling the master bedroom and bathroom so you can take a bath in front of a goddamned fire, an enormous kitchen, a formal dining room, a big backyard with a mature tree (something I didn’t realize I badly want), and walk-in closets. It also has four bedrooms.

We strategized in the kitchen about what price we would offer as our daughter played on the swing in the backyard. This felt like IT. I redecorated in my mind, installing modern fixtures, repainting. Maybe some wallpaper in the bathroom?

As we drove away, my husband turned to me seriously and said he thought the house was too big for us. We have just our daughter living at with us full time, and a 20-year-old who will likely be home increasingly less frequently in the future.

I told him too big is not a thing.

But then he said we’ll feel compelled to fill up all those rooms with furniture and other unnecessary things, plus the home didn’t have solar and I started to see his point. We’re trying to be as environmentally conscientious as possible, but this would be headed in the opposite direction.

(Photo via Connect-Homes)

Surfing the Discomfort

So we didn’t submit an offer and I moped about it all night while obsessively scrolling Zillow. Then, as I climbed into bed, a thought occurred to me. It wasn’t so much that particular house I was sad about. It was the uncertainty. We’d gotten a glimpse of an answer, of no more searching, of being able to imagine a specific future, but then it had dissolved.

This is the uncomfortable place we have to be in for a while and we have to do our best to be comfortable with it.

This morning, I got one of those email alerts from Zillow reminding me of the properties I’d saved. First on the list was a piece of land in Bodega Bay that I barely remember saving on a whim. I noticed it’s pretty flat, perfect for the modern prefab home we dreamed of. We had lost faith that we could make a prefab work with the septic, electricity and other permitting issues that could make the process prohibitively lengthy, although we do have the option of living in Orange County with my husband’s mother while we work out the logistics.

I had also given up on more remote locations in general because the school situation always seemed to be questionable. I scrolled down to the local elementary’s Great Schools rating: 9 out of 10—unheard of. I immediately emailed the listing agent.

Stay tuned next week to find out if I’m going down another rabbit hole or if Bodega Bay is our future home which sounds so romantic and it’s where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds! Not that I’m guided by my emotions or anything.

Here are our options as we see it after week five:

  • A brand new build in Cotati (still one of our top options)
  • A fixer in Pacifica (we’re waiting to hear back from the owner on when we can see it)
  • Build a prefab home, possibly on the Bodega Bay land I just found? (we’re still interested in Connect-Homes).
  • Find a teardown to buy now and build later (this is looking less and less likely).
  • The Eichler in Walnut Creek is off the table (so beautiful but too small)

Check out the rest of my House Hunt series: Part 1, 2, 3, and 4.

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