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When a Listing Lies to You

Posted by Johnine Larsen on May 16, 2018
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I helped Anne and Su buy their first home last winter—they finally escaped what they called “the renter rat race.” I loved working with them. They’re wonderful people, first of all, and second, it was a challenge.

Both women have been activists their whole lives: Su as an organizer with the Freedom Socialist Party, a founder of Seattle’s early Pride marches, and an activist for affirmative action; Anne as an organizer with Radical Women and an activist for immigrant rights and against police brutality. They’re people who have dedicated their lives to helping others. I’ve mulled over one of their personal philosophies for the past few months, and the more time I spend with it, the more I appreciate its simplicity: “Trying to make the world better around you is a rewarding way to live. Otherwise you’re just pissed off all the time.”

When we met, back in July 2017, Anne and Su were already educating themselves about the home-buying process. They had read through Home Buying for Dummies, and they had attended a few home-buying classes. One of their biggest take-aways from their research: the importance of a real estate agent, especially in a market as competitive as Seattle, and even more especially in their unique circumstances.

Su and Anne had saved up enough money to afford a down payment on an entry-level home, but they are fairly low-income. Although they could afford a big upfront payment, the mortgage would hamstring them. Frustratingly, many people who devote their lives to making the world better find themselves in a situation like this. I have a soft spot for people like Su and Anne, so I took on this challenge and got creative. Our options:

  • Pay for pre-inspections and waive the inspections to make their bids more competitive.
  • Find a house that required a smaller down payment, and spread their extra saved money across future mortgage payments.
  • Buy in a less desirable neighborhood.
  • Get a fixer-upper and put in some hard work.

The option that worked best: we got lucky. Here’s the story:

We went looking at houses only twice. We were exploring affordable neighborhoods, like SeaTac, and we were checking out small houses. On that second outing, a Saturday, we found a single-story home built in the 1950s. A previous owner had remodeled, but other than that, no one knew what was underneath. The listing said the house had a post-and-pillar foundation.

Now, normally, post and pillar is an instant deal-breaker. That type of foundation involves wood posts or concrete piers set deep into the ground that bear the weight of the building. It’s cheap and easy, but because the foundation isn’t set deep in the earth, it should only be used in areas that aren’t prone to earthquakes. Seattle, as we all know, is prone to earthquakes.

But I didn’t trust the listing. Post and pillar foundations weren’t often used in Seattle’s 1950s homes, and I had a hunch that the listing description was in error. I encouraged them to pay for a pre-inspection.

If the pre-inspection revealed that the house wasn’t actually post-and-pillar, Anne and Su would have a leg up on the competition—many other potential home-buyers would have been scared away, and those that weren’t wouldn’t make as high as an offer as the place actually deserved. AND, since they had already paid for an inspection, Anne and Su could waive the inspection in their bid and stand out from the other offers. This was a gamble, though. If the listing was correct and the house was post-and-pillar, we would have wasted money on a house we didn’t want.

That Sunday afternoon, just a day after seeing the home for the first time, Anne and Su decided to risk it. I got to work. I arranged for an inspector to come out Monday morning, and I prepared all the paperwork for a bid—a bid that was due Monday at noon.

Anne, Su, and I met with the inspector Monday morning, and he gave us the lowdown on the house. It had some problems, certainly. Anne and Su would eventually have to sink some money into fixing things up. But the foundation? Solid. No post-and-pillar, which meant we were all clear to make a bid.

We submitted our bid just before that noon deadline. There were thirteen other offers, but Anne and Su were one of the top bidders, and they had the advantage of waiving the inspection. They got the house.

Here’s what Su and Anne had to say about the experience:

Johnine is knowledgeable, and she knows how to work with working-class people. We’re people who spend a month researching a $1,000 computer—and for a house, we spent $360,000 in a three-day whirlwind. Johnine was genuine, and she never tried to hard sell. She was always frank in her pros and cons, and she was clearly interested in what we wanted in a house. We trusted her judgment, and without her, we couldn’t have gotten our house.

We got lucky with the listing error, and we managed to find a great home that fit Anne and Su’s budget. They’ve already started transforming the place. They’ve painted over the gray walls, and now the rooms dance yellow-orange and purple, with a sponge pattern they applied themselves. They haven’t hung photos yet, but they’ll get there. It’s an exciting feeling, finally owning your own home, and I’m thrilled to have helped make that experience possible for these two.