Imagine finding your dream home, then, a week before closing the deal, losing your job—and the house. House hunting during the coronavirus pandemic is no picnic.
COVID-19 has caused seismic changes not only to real estate markets, but also to the lives of home buyers hit with layoffs, furloughs, and other financial challenges. Just ask Katerina Rieckel, a digital strategist, knitwear designer, and first-time home buyer who, with her husband, was set to close on a glorious farmhouse in upstate New York in March.
But about a week before sealing the deal, Rieckel was laid off, which meant that she and her husband, a claims adjuster, could no longer afford the place.
As a part of our new series, “First-Time Home Buyer Confessions,” we asked Rieckel to share her story, and the hard-won lessons she wants to share with other first-timers.
Let her experiences show that even unemployment doesn’t need to spell the end of a house hunt—although it may require you to dust yourself off after a loss and try, try again.
Location: Troy, NY
House specs: 1,544 square feet, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms
List price: $249,900
Price paid: $245,500
2020 has been a wild one. How did you end up buying a home in the middle of a pandemic?
We started looking for a house a year ago, about halfway through the summer. At the time, both my husband and I had recently got new jobs, so the first issue we ran into was getting pre-qualified for the mortgage without a long track record at those companies. We also both felt pressure, as our jobs were very new.
What were you looking for in a house, and what was your budget?
We were looking for a house in the country that was move-in ready, private with at least 5 acres. We started off with a small budget, max $200,000, which made our choices more narrow.
Our search continued well into the winter, and around January 2020, we finally saw a house that was all we ever dreamed of and more. It was over our budget, at $229,000, but it had been listed for over a year, so we felt there was a good chance we could get it for less than the asking price.
What did you love about this house?
It was a beautiful, slate-blue farmhouse sitting on top of a hill, surrounded by woods. The house was warm and inviting, with chickens running around, as well as a big diving pool, and a workshop in the basement connected with a two-car garage. We got along with the owners really well, and we were going to keep the chickens. Everything went very smoothly, until just over a week before closing.
So what went wrong?
It was March, and COVID-19 hit hard. The digital marketing agency I worked for had clients pause their work for unknown time. I was laid off, which meant we couldn’t afford the house anymore, and had to back out of the deal.
I was crushed. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and the country was under a lockdown. We had plans for my parents to come visit us in our new house, but instead, I ended up with no job, no house, and I couldn’t see my family, since they live in Europe.
In the summer, I was very fortunate to get my job back. So we resumed our house hunt and began to search for a new contender.
When you started the search again, how had COVID-19 changed the market?
The housing market in upstate New York got totally crazy. I heard there were houses being sold within hours. The market was just incredibly competitive, and not many houses were being listed, as a lot of people didn’t want to let strangers in their house during the pandemic.
We saw about seven to 10 houses in person, but they usually ended up disappointing us, with some strange arrangements. For example, one house had around 25 acres, but half of that acreage was on the other side of the road, behind other people’s houses, which made it almost impossible to use.
With such a competitive market, how did you end up finding the right house?
Finally, around halfway through the summer, I saw a house listed that I hadn’t noticed before. I called on it right away and set up a showing that evening.
The real estate agent told me we were really fast, as he had just relisted this house. Someone had been buying it, but backed out of the process because of personal reasons.
How did you know this house was the one?
The house had over 10 acres, it was in the country, and about 35 minutes to Troy. It was move-in ready, but definitely needed upgrades, as it looked like it got stuck in the ’80s.
Even though we didn’t like the style that much, we felt instantly comfortable and decided to put in an offer that same evening. It was partly due to the pressure of the market, but in the end, we are really happy we made this decision.
What surprised you most about the home-buying process?
Nothing prepares you for the amount of aggravation you have to go through. Buying a house is like getting a second job for about three months.
What’s your advice for aspiring first-time home buyers?
Don’t trust the photos! The photos got me a few times. For example, a lot of times, the photos of the house are taken so that you can’t see the neighboring houses.
You think, “Wow, that looks so private!” Then you drive there, and you realize there’s a house sitting right next to it. Since privacy was very important to us, we got disappointed a few times by this. We started doing drive-bys first, before going in with a real estate agent, whenever possible.
Anything else home buyers should look out for?
Call the real estate agent and ask a lot of questions before you even go see the house, like what the property and school taxes are—very important around here.
You also want to know what kind of heating the house has, as electric bills can really add up over the winter.
The driveway can also be a huge issue, which is why I think the first house we were buying was for sale for such a long time. It had a pretty steep driveway, which was definitely an all-wheel drive kind of thing in the winter.
We also changed who we were financing with while we were going through closing. We needed someone well-informed about the economy, who knew what they were doing and was ready to act fast.
Our first mortgage broker didn’t tell us as soon as interest rates started to go up—and basically sat on the information for a while. This is when we stopped trusting this person and went to work with a bank instead.
Maybe the best advice is not to fall in love with a house too quickly, since there can be so many setbacks that you will not see coming.