The Realtor.

Note: I first wrote this about eight months ago, just as I was getting ready to purchase.  I’ve left the post largely unedited to capture what was going through at the time.

The past couple of weeks have been so stressful, it’s been a nice break to blog about times I was more organized and thoughtful about everything.  Last week was all about making sure all my finances were in order, and this week was the final walkthrough, a visit to the lawyer, getting all my final arrangements made with the movers and utilities and all that fun stuff, and ensuring everything is ready for the move.  The move stuff is the most difficult part, believe it or not, in part because everything’s basically been in storage for a couple of years.  Trying to think ahead and plan out where things will go is tough when you have boxes and boxes of “mystery stuff.”

Anyway.  My former rational self.

Up to now in the search everything’s been pretty hypothetical – what would I want, what would it cost, etc.  After doing all that researching and thinking, I was ready to bring in a professional to help actually search.  This timing coincided, of course, with being financially ready to make a move.  In March, I began reaching out to a couple of realtors and was on-the-hunt by April.  By June, I’d found my house.

Before I get into what to look for in a realtor as a buyer, I think it’s important to point out why you should work with a realtor, as a buyer.  The reason comes back to why I called out to the Facebook Hive Mind – most people don’t have a lot of experience on their own in buying and selling real estate.  Even if you’ve bought a house or two, compare that to the amount of experience you have in other things – for most of us, with home buying, it’s not a lot.  A realtor deals with this all the time and helps guide you through stressful, emotional, and a financially critical process.  And – they do this with no direct cost to you as a buyer; the seller pays realtor fees, not the buyer.  Check out howrealtorshelp.ca for more on why you should hire a realtor.

I met up with my now-realtor, who was a contact I had from a personal referral – we chatted about what I was looking for, what their strategy would be, and it really didn’t take long to know that it would be a good working relationship.

Red_Blazer_Realty

Maybe don’t hire someone like Lionel Hutz or Gil Gunderson…

There are a few things to talk about with a potential realtor – before making my decision formally, the things I wanted to know about were:

  • Details on past experience; how long have you been doing this, how well do you know the communities I’m interested in?
  • Details on the strategy and approach for both the search and for negotiations
  • Details on how we would stay in touch throughout the process (we mostly texted and phoned, I was always responded to essentially immediately, no matter what day or time)
  • Details on managing my expectations – including a discussion around the list-to-sale-price ratio

One other consideration was how does this work – contractually speaking.  Did I need to sign anything?  Several realtors I spoke to – including mine – did not require anything in writing to work together until it got time to work on a deal, and the term of that arrangement could be as short or as long as I liked – in other words, once I found a house I wanted to buy, we could do the paperwork such that we were only formally working on that deal.  If that deal didn’t work out, I wasn’t stuck.  Not all realtors work this way, however – and it’s important to understand what you are (or are not) signing up for.

Once I had made my decision about the realtor, it took no time at all before I was being e-mailed listings.  This is something that the realtor sets up with/for you through MLS.  Basically a bunch of search criteria that you discuss are set up and then when new listings match that criteria you get an e-mail – and so does your realtor.  The critical thing here, in competitive markets, is that by working with a realtor you’re getting access to information before it goes on the MLS website publicly.  So does everyone else working with a realtor who has the same sort of search criteria that would make that listing pop up, but it was definitely helpful getting that early heads up.

Once you find some listings you are interested in from these search criteria, you start going to look at the houses.  It’s so much different – and so much better – going with a realtor to a house than going to an Open House.  We started out by going to all kinds of things – several listings at a time – and then were a little more targeted in our viewings.  My realtor was great at pointing out things that I had no idea about – like efflorescence in the basement, signs of poor maintenance, and of course things that maybe didn’t look amazing right then but had potential and were worth thinking about.  The important thing for me was that I never felt pressured in any house – there was never a sense that I was being pitched on every house we went to; in fact sometimes I would look at a house and go “I love this!” and my realtor would remind me of little things like how difficult it was to get in and out of the driveway and other things that you might think in the heat of the moment aren’t THAT big of a deal but ultimately would probably grate on you.

At any rate – work with a realtor, and make sure it’s someone you’re comfortable with, someone who gets what you want and what you don’t, someone who is very responsive – and someone who can remind you of potential, seeing past what’s immediately obvious, when that’s called for; as well as someone who brings things back to reality when needed, too.

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Facebook Hive Mind.

Most people don’t buy and sell a lot of real estate – so I thought I would turn to social media to crowd-source that experience.

Enter Facebook Hive Mind.

I asked five questions, broadly, through Facebook – in addition to all the private conversations I had with all kinds of people over the last year or so about this.  Each question was answered by a dozen different people on average, and these answers were so helpful.

The questions I asked, and some of my favourite answers, follow.

What’s one thing you wish you knew to look for, while you were looking?

Basically every answer I got here was amazing.  One thing that in a million years I never would have thought to consider – and I did end up thinking about it, at every single property – was ‘where will I shovel the snow?’ – big thanks to Jon W. for that tip.  I maybe didn’t actually buy a property that demonstrates that very well, but the point is that I did think about it!

Although there was a lot of other really useful stuff packed into Janine F.‘s reply, what I kept hearing in my head at each house was “how big are the rooms in NUMBERS, not in how you feel about them.”  This is so critical, especially when looking at an empty space – and actually also when looking at some spaces that were way over-crowded.

What did you look for in your realtor?

A number of the responders here recommended their realtors, which is great. I didn’t go with any of those people, but I too would recommend my realtor.

Best piece of advice here was from Sharon A., who noted that “quick responsiveness and client prioritization” were priorities, and that it was key to work with “someone with good communication skills so you’re both very clearly on the same page.”  That’s ultimately what I went for – someone who was consistently very responsive and someone who understood what I wanted and was always making sure we were on the same page.

How did you know when you found ‘the one’?

Some of the replies here were very practical, and others were of the ‘you just know’ variety.  In the end, I think for me that both were true.  I knew when I spotted good value, in a location that I liked, with all my major must-haves met and none of my can’t-haves spoiling the deal.  I also just knew it was the one.

I likened the “you just know”-ness of the whole process, though, when talking with someone about all of this, as being like dating.  Sometimes, the houses that were perfect on paper – everything that I should want, everything that is good for me – I just wasn’t that into; and sometimes, the houses that made NO sense on paper – the ones that were a little older, maybe a little rugged, came with all kinds of issues – were the ones that I’d fall for.  Ugh, c’est la vie.

In the end I did let the more practical side win out, but man did I fall pretty hard for a couple of bad-boy houses earlier in the search.

Did you take on any home renos after you bought?

You did it again, Facebook Hive Mind, and came through with great answers to this one.  Per Janine‘s recommendation, I picked up a copy of The Holmes Inspection, and read about what to look for and for some projects what kinds of things are involved.  A number of people’s replies were along the lines of “know your limits.”  There are things you can do, and things that require a professional – for some people, the “things you can do” is painting; for others, it’s remodelling an entire floor of the house.  Know which kind of person you are.

For those who took on a lot of work, I think my favourite replies were from Jenn O-T., due to the great detail and amazing results that she shared, as well as Amanda W., who noted that over their past eight years in their current home, they have taken on about one project a year.  I really appreciated that sense of pacing.

Did you buy mortgage insurance?

This was my most recent ask.  Survey says… do not get mortgage insurance, and instead get (or top up) term-life/disability insurance (if anything).  Lots of input and experience from people on this one, but I think a really key point was raised by Jon G., who noted that with mortgage insurance your premium never shrinks despite the fact that your payout is constantly shrinking every time you pay off a bit more of your mortgage; whereas with term life/disability, your payout stays the same.

So thank you, Facebook Hive Mind.  All of your responses were fantastic, and I really and truly did think of all your great feedback as I searched through house after house.

The Search.

Once I had decided to pursue this whole grown-ass-person thing and figured out just how much money that was probably going to cost me, I got to the fun part of searching.

Before I spoke to a realtor, I started looking at things on my own – through MLS, ComFree, Grapevine… and of course, checking with housecreep.com to make sure everything was legit, as in:

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Not Haunted.

This is really where the fun part begins, and I of course found a way to nerd-it-up.  I kept track of houses that I was looking at online, how long they seemed to stay listed roughly, what the list price was, what the features that mattered to me were, and I started ranking things.  A whole big system.  It helped to get a sense of the market and helped to pick out things that looked like a good buy, or looked crazy.

After some time doing that, I started going to Open Houses.  They were… interesting.

straw-house-three-little-pigs

The very first Open House I went to, I was very methodical.  I brought a copy of the listing, and made notes before I went into the house and after I left.  I brought my dad with me, and was amazed by the kinds of things that I wasn’t even bothering to look at or think about at all – “did you see the stains/damage on the wood floors?” “they had wood floors?!” – I learned that house-hunting takes practice, and it helps to go with people who have done it before.  They don’t feel so awkward about opening doors, flushing toilets, and touching things.  I started out by treating every home I stepped into like it was a museum at first, but over time got better at being nosy.  Nosy is good; you should spend at least as much time hemming-and-hawing over a house as you do over a pair of jeans, I mean really.

Going to Open Houses also helped me to learn about how a listing looked online vs. what you wound up seeing in person, and really see what was realtor-speak for certain things.

  • “Fixer-Upper” and “Handyman” mean “dump; avoid unless you are a professional.”
  • “Cozy” means “Tiny.”
  • “Awaiting your touch” means the homeowner hasn’t done a damn thing to update the place, but they haven’t let it become a total dump.  Prepare to step into a time capsule.

three pigs sticks

As well, I learned to beware the DIY-er who tries to bill you for an upgrade as if it was done by a professional.  DIY-jobs generally get to be pretty easy-to-spot, if not done by someone with exceptional patience, and for some things that’s maybe not such a big deal, but I would run upon seeing any evidence of major-DIY work; i.e. something that probably required a permit but never had one.  That said, I’m not judging the whole DIY-thing; just don’t try to pass off an obvious DIY-job as if you shelled out the coin for a professional.

I checked out all kinds of things through Open Houses, all in my budget – I looked at the areas that I was interested in, as well as the areas I had no interest in, to see if even after all my thinking I had a clue about what I wanted.

I also learned that unless the place had been sitting for ages, you were often going to be told it “had an offer on the way” or “had a lot of interest” – and surprise! those houses often sat for some time after that.  As of July, 2015, this is no longer legal – it’s a practice called “Phantom Bidding” and you can read more about that here.

Much as I monitored and searched online, the real figuring out what I was looking for came from the Open Houses; I also learned quite a bit through Open Houses about what I wanted from a realtor.  Some of the agents at Open Houses were very aggressive – which was very off-putting.  Others spent more time selling themselves as a realtor, knowing that at the time I didn’t have an agent, than they did the house – and in several instances committed to following up with me, insisting that they had “just the thing” in mind, only never to be heard from again.

THREE_LITTLE_PIGS

Finally, one realtor from an Open House was approachable and committed to following up with me, and actually did.  She sat down with me outside of the Open House visit for a chat, walked me through what her process was, and in the few days that we spoke was highly responsive, personable, and instilled a lot of confidence in her experience and ability, while still seeming realistic.

Ultimately, I chose a realtor who shared those same qualities but also came with a personal referral.  More on that later.

By the time I finished going to Open Houses, I was not remotely methodical about writing things down – my impressions outside and in, before and after, blah blah blah.  I think I was starting to get what people meant when they said you “just knew” about houses and when you were finding “the one.”  After going to a pile of Open Houses, I figured I wasn’t really anywhere near finding the one so it was time to enlist help – I’ll tell you about that next time.