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A Narrow Escape

Sanjib Saha

I ENVY THOSE WHO can remain patient and calm in almost any situation. Thanks to my neurotic personality, I find it hard to wait for an outcome over which I have little control. This year, I narrowly escaped that sort of agonizing experience. What happened? We found ourselves selling our home during 2022’s suddenly cooling real estate market.

I was surprised last year when the red-hot property market pushed our modest home past the $1 million mark. With prices so high, we decided to sell our paid-off house and move to one that offered more space and privacy. The place we settled on as our next home was a 50-year-old house in dire need of repairs and a facelift. We wanted to remodel it before moving in—and before selling the house we currently lived in.

The remodeling started last summer at a sluggish pace. It was great not to live in a house that’s being remodeled, but it also made it harder for us to monitor progress and deal with contractors. The work dragged on, thanks to supply issues, contractor delays and COVID.

I pretended to stay patient.

My anxiety started rising as whispers about a possible cooling of the housing market grew louder. After all, we had to sell the old house after we moved into the new one. If it didn’t sell within a reasonable time and at a reasonable price, it would mess up our financial plans. I neither fancied being a landlord nor wanted to leave a large chunk of our assets locked up in real estate.

As mortgage rates ticked higher, we revised our plan. Instead of waiting for the remodeling to be wrapped up, we decided to move in by early spring. We called up a moving company and set a date in March. We hired another contractor to expedite the remaining work. Feeling pressured, our general contractor added more workers to compensate for the delays. Both my wife and I started supervising the crew after work and on weekends to make sure the place was livable by the time we moved in.

The house we lived in also needed work, including painting the interior, replacing the kitchen sink, polishing the hardwood floors and deep cleaning. An inspection arranged by our real-estate agent, Rana, who quickly became a dependable friend, revealed more things to fix. We lined up new contractors so the work could start immediately after we moved out.

Meanwhile, the remodeling of our new home picked up steam. On an auspicious day in February, we did Griha Pravesh, a Hindu ritual to bless our new home. We moved in on the scheduled date, but instead of relaxing and enjoying the new place, we had to turn our attention to selling the one we’d just left behind.

Things didn’t go smoothly. The contractor quit on short notice. The substitute contractor almost ruined the hardwood floors. A few interior doors that were removed for painting got damaged. We found a large stain on the living room carpet that had previously been hidden under furniture. The empty house looked a complete mess—and nowhere near ready to be put on the market.

My blood pressure shot up, with a further assist from rising mortgage rates and thoughts of a housing market slump. My wife stepped in to take over.

When we moved out, we thought prepping the old house for sale would take a few days. Instead, it took more than four weeks to refinish the hardwood floors, install a new carpet, repair doors and deep-clean the house. A second inspection indicated the place was ready to list. All we needed to do was finalize the asking price. I kept it simple.

Two of our neighbors had sold their homes the summer before, and those houses were almost identical to ours. I averaged their sale prices and adjusted it based on the subsequent change in the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller home price index for our metropolitan area. The resulting number was 15% below the online estimates from Zillow and Redfin, but I chose to stick with the lower price. The house went on the market on April 28.

Only seven other houses in our city were on the market that week. Homes were selling almost overnight just a few weeks earlier. We had a decent number of visitors, but it took a week to get the first offer. It was from a young couple with a small kid, just like us when we bought the house in 2006. We accepted their offer right away.

A week or two later, I went back on Zillow to see how many of the other seven houses were still on the market. It was partly out of curiosity—and partly to gauge the market in case our pending sale fell through and we needed to re-list. I was shocked to see the change. I found that not only were some of the seven houses still on the market, but also there were dozens of new listings, including another neighbor’s house that was identical to ours.

As the market landscape swiftly changed, my anxiety rose, too. What if the appraisal came up short, or the loan got rejected, or the buyers bailed out? The earnest money wouldn’t compensate for the stress of having to go through the whole process all over again.

Rana sensed my worry and did what you’d expect from a thoughtful friend and experienced realtor. He kept in touch with me throughout the closing process to report progress. Finally, the wait was over. The closing happened on schedule, ending my agony.

As I write this, the neighbor’s house has been on the market for more than 60 days, despite three rounds of price cuts. I couldn’t have taken that stress. I feel lucky we made our narrow escape.

Sanjib Saha is a software engineer by profession, but he’s now transitioning to early retirement. Self-taught in investments, he passed the Series 65 licensing exam as a non-industry candidate. Sanjib is passionate about raising financial literacy and enjoys helping others with their finances. Check out his earlier articles.

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