I was not prepared for this. A real estate agent aimed her cellphone through a Midlothian, Va., house that, based solely on its Redfin listing, we were desperate to buy.
“I trust you,” my husband had told me before he left that morning. “If you like it, it’ll be good. We’ll get it.”
This left me to decide, via FaceTime, if we would put down roots in this five-bedroom, three-bathroom property with a double staircase and a subway-tile backsplash. With such a tumultuous market, we’d have to drop an offer immediately.
Like so many other millennials, the pandemic had left us restless in our isolation. My husband, Christopher, and I had outgrown our grad-school town of Columbia. We had no real ties to the city, and our home-schooled sons needed more than South Carolina could offer. Richmond offered us Chris’s welcoming clan and plenty of educational enrichment. Once floated, moving seemed a no-brainer.
As a high school English teacher, Chris snagged a dream job in early March, the start of hiring season for 2022-2023. It paid laughably more than his position in Columbia, but left us with a dilemma: a deadline. We needed at least a four-bedroom house west of the James River, one of Richmond’s hottest real estate markets, and we needed it immediately. Without it, we risked a mad scramble to store most of our worldly possessions and score a year-long rental — one that allowed for three kids, three dogs, a bearded dragon and a corn snake.
The real estate agent’s phone wobbled, leaving me slightly nauseated. “And here’s the linen closet!” she chirped.
“Can you hold that phone a little closer?” I asked. “I’d like to see how deep it goes.” Touring a stranger’s home always seems like a strange kind of violation. You open their cabinets to gauge size and notice bottles of pills. You sift through cabinets and find their half-full trash can. You turn a corner and glimpse their child’s chore chart. It’s an odd, slightly skewed and packaged glimpse into another life. Doing it through FaceTime seemed even creepier.
But the house was everything we’d dreamed. Finally, after assurances of a new roof, new HVAC and no cracks in the foundation, I asked my father-in-law if the walls were bleeding. He sort of laughed and assured me they weren’t.
I was serious: Buying a house without visiting it seemed like a 21st-century setup for “Poltergeist.” But I hadn’t noticed a portal to hell in the garage floor, so when we ended the tour, I called my husband. “It’s everything,” I said. “I never thought I’d live in a house like that. Put in an offer.”
I never imagined I’d commit to the largest purchase of my life via an iPhone camera. But we didn’t have much choice. In addition to our deadline, mortgage rates had been rising steadily; in March, they hit 4 percent, the highest since 2019. We feared they’d climb higher, raising our monthly payments, and we were right. On April 14, rates hit 5 percent for the first time since 2011.
Moreover, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported in January the lowest housing inventory of single-family homes in the past year. That inventory has started to lift, claims real estate giant Zillow, but as of March, still fell 52.2 percent below pre-covid, March 2019 levels.
We’d been searching for a house since January, only to act out the same old script: We’d love a house on Zillow or Redfin. “Save it if you like it,” my husband would tell me, and a few days later, it would be listed as “under contract.”
Even my father-in-law complained about it. “They list it on Thursday, have an open house on Saturday, and it’s under contract on Monday,” he’d say.
And that’s no exaggeration. According to Alex Glaser of the Glaser Group at Long & Foster Realtors in Richmond, whose team deals with more than 100 families a year, houses in the Richmond metro area have spent an average of six days on the market since July 2020 before going under contract.
Moreover, he said via email that, “Houses would probably sell quicker if listing agents did not hold offers for a couple of days before reviewing.”
NAR reports that pending home sales were down 1.2 percent overall in March, but that’s not enough to help an already-squeezed market — and no help at all to those in the Northeast, where pending home sales were up 4 percent from February.
A high inventory means not only a quick turnover, but also rising prices. Even if that market pressure is easing a bit, with Zillow seeing 11.6 percent more home listings in March than February, home prices are still sky high. The typical U.S. home is now worth $337,560, Zillow’s reports say, 20.6 percent above its value as of March 2021. All 50 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas experienced double-digit growth in home value appreciation. In fact, we were lucky: Richmond experienced one of the lowest growth rates (0.7 percent).
Despite that low growth rate, that pretty house we picked out — 100 yards from a kayak launch, plenty of trails — still sold in 2010 for nearly $200,000 less than the seller’s asking price. Admittedly, that was during a nadir in housing prices, but it still slapped on some sticker shock.
So did our need to outbid other offers. Glaser said by email that “95 percent-plus” of the houses he and his partners have dealt with in the past two years, on both the listing and buying sides, have had more than one offer.
According to real estate listing service Redfin, 65 percent of all the home offers its agents wrote faced competition. That’s actually down from the 66.7 percent in February — and both numbers are seasonally adjusted. While the service expects a decline as mortgage prices rise in an effort to combat inflation, they aren’t going away.
My virtual tour happened on Friday, just after the house was listed. I spent the weekend nibbling my nails to the quick. The sellers wouldn’t take our offer. We couldn’t be that lucky. When my phone rang on Monday morning, I sighed. My no was coming.
But that no was a yes. Among other reasons, we’d agreed to let our sellers remain in the house until June; they wanted their son to finish his school year. That particular detail didn’t matter to us, since Chris’s current contract ran through June.
We’d just agreed to buy a house, always a major decision, that my husband had seen only in photographs. My mother-in-law fretted. “What if you don’t like it?” she asked again and again. “I’m afraid you won’t like it.”
“I did like it,” I told her. “I saw it on FaceTime. Dad liked it. It’s a nice house.”
“I’m just scared you won’t like it,” she said.
Since my husband hadn’t even seen my FaceTime walk-through, we pored over every real estate site the sellers’ agent had listed with. A few had slightly different pictures: an extra shot of the dining room, a different angle to the kitchen. We spent hours examining each one, wondering what furniture would fit where, if that gas firepit was built-in, and how, exactly, we accessed the walk-up attic. When we had our sellers’ names, we hit Google. In this brave new world of little privacy, they’d kept their Facebook photos public. We’d hit gold. With no shame, we became the ultimate creepers. And I’d thought looking in their linen closet felt weird.
My husband and I spent over an hour scrolling through their lives. Every angle of every birthday party became a clue. “Do you think the peach couch would fit against that wall?” I asked as we peered around their Christmas tree. “Okay, I think the buffet should go against the other wall,” he told me as we squinted over a years-old photo of their son.
I should feel guilty. I feel nothing.
We saw our house for the first time the day we signed closing papers. Our sellers waited nearby — I had a vague idea they were skulking through Target — while their agent escorted us. Some rooms were bigger than we expected. Some were smaller.
“Wow, didn’t realize that bathroom was so much, uh, under the stairs,” my husband said. “You’d hit your head on that ceiling.”
He measured dimensions. He filmed a walk-through we watched ad nauseam back in South Carolina, puzzling out furniture and pictures, deciding how we’d fit that giant Victorian couch inside, wondering if those were real French doors or fake ones.
The sellers gave us an hour. Their agent, an old family friend, pushed for speed. “Oh, they’re close,” she said, insinuating they waited nearby, bored after a Target run, with their child and small dog (we’d seen its water bowl).
“Tell them to lock down their Facebook accounts,” I told her.
Glaser said via email that buying sight unseen, other than a virtual tour, isn’t common, “but it’s happened more since the pandemic started.”
We felt lucky to have that precious hour. We won’t see inside our house again until we arrive in June, with three kids, three dogs and everything we own. We’re still sifting through pictures, though we’re not Facebook-stalking.
But details nag at me. How many windows does my youngest son’s room have? Do we need to put furniture in that corner? Does the wall in the entryway merit decorating? Will they take all that Alexa stuff with them?
Home-buying always seems surreal, especially when it’s across the country. But buying sight unseen has added another layer of uncanniness. “I won’t believe it’s happening until it happens,” I told my husband, “no matter what papers I’ve signed.”
Our house is beautiful. We got lucky. My mother-in-law’s fretting was for nothing: We adore it.
As long as the walls don’t bleed.