“House buying” I was being told as we started this journey “is going to be stressful and complicated.”
Logically working through things, I couldn’t really understand how true that was. Person A has a thing they want to sell, and Person B wants to buy it. Insert a mortgage and some paperwork annnd everything is done, right?
Well, yes and no. It is more complicated than that.
Through our journey, we found a late 1970’s built home that caught our eye. The area it was in, the plot of land it was on, and the overall design of the outside of it was very compelling. It checked a lot of our “must have” boxes, and in delinquent areas, we were able to let our imaginations run wild. The house did need a bit of work, most especially in the kitchen. Other areas needed some help too. The price was pretty good though, and even with the work, we thought it would all be worth it. So we pushed forward and ended up making an offer on it.
A good bit of back and forth started. I began to catch my first glimpse of how it could be stressful. Offer, counter off, cross this out, initial and sign here. Those dollar signs have some big numbers behind them. Oh, I need this much cash instead of that much. We need cash right now to put forward in escrow for earnest money. These were all things I knew, but when you’re putting your name on the paper and going through the process, yeah, the stress goes up a bit. The process is pretty thorough and straight forward, but tedious and long to get through.
On this particular home, things were going pretty alright. There was quite a lot of back-and-forth on the offers, but the end of that process was very near. I believe it took 3 days of sending various, signed or initialed papers to the agents to get everything squared away and a final offer that was agreeable to all parties. It was around 8 or 9pm one evening when we got word from the seller’s agent that our latest offer sounded good – so we sent it off for seller’s signatures and so on. At this point, everything was done with the offer phase, and we can now move on to the rest of the fun steps with the mortgage, inspection and so on. The next day, we put our earnest money in for escrow and were happily moving along the process.
Or so we thought.
The morning after we put the earnest money down, our agent received an email. The seller’s agent received another offer, and asked that we match it. This was peculiar, as they were already in contract with us – even entertaining another offer seemed less than ethical. We did some calculations, checked with our lender and so forth – sure, we can match the offer. We (my wife, our agent, and I) decided to write up the matched offer the next day and send it over to them. It sucks, but, we really wanted that house and in the grand scheme of things, the extra money outlay wasn’t that big of a deal. Our agent communicated that with the seller’s agent, and were told that we had time to get it all written up and submitted.
The very next morning, the seller just pushed ahead with the “better” offer and basically told us to get lost. Apparently, the seller was, er, persuaded by his new wife to do this. Well, good luck on your new marriage, man.
Obviously, things seemed quite shady at this point. A person cannot sell a house twice. As soon as you accept an offer and are “in contract” with the buyer, there are few avenues to just back out of the deal. Just blatantly telling the buyer to go away isn’t one of them.
Our agent and some of her crew quickly dug into things. The entire basis of them backing out of the deal is due to one simple spot on the contract that the seller did not initial. Just to stress this point a little bit, especially for those who may not have gone through a house buying adventure. The “Purchase and Sale Agreement”, PS&A, is the standard form used to place an offer on a house. It’s a long, boring form… I think it’s some 13 or 14 pages full of legal text and places to sign or initial, and date. When you start doing down the offer/counter-offer route, it gets pretty nasty as each change also needs its own initial and date, along with the main signature and date on the pages.
Apparently, either through malevolence or some other factor, one spot was not initialed by the seller on the final offer. This essentially allowed the seller to say that we were not in contract, and he was able to then accept the “better” offer.
At this point, it’s clear that their stance is we were not in contract. I am obviously not a lawyer, and I don’t even pretend to be one. Reading through the contract from a purely logical standpoint led me to believe that while they did not initial on that page, it did not nullify the entire contract. The page they did not initial was an addendum to the contract, not the contract itself. Since I’m not a lawyer, I went ahead and decided to engage one to get their opinion on things. Thankfully, I have friends, and a couple of those friends are in the legal profession either as partners or practicing lawyers.
After talking to them, I got a referral to a real estate lawyer. Just like doctors, lawyers can have specialized focus. I sent all of the information that I had available to the lawyer, and let him loose on it. Though difficult, I tried to be as transparent and unbiased about the entire thing from beginning to end. I went so far as to ask our agent for copies of emails so I could verify the time line of events down to the minute.
I retained the lawyer after he dug through and thought that it’d be worth at least exploring a bit further. A couple hundred bucks later and the first volley was shot. A well written letter from their practice to the seller’s agent and the seller. This got things moving pretty good. For a couple more days, I watched as our lawyer, the seller’s agent, and the seller’s managing broker went back and forth with clarifying points and additional information (some that was not given to us or our agent previously). The money spent was already well worth it, if for nothing else to make the seller’s agent sweat a bit. Yes, sometimes I’m that pitiful and vengeful.
Another day or so of some back and forth email, and things were getting wrapped up. The lawyer I retained emailed me and we setup a time to talk about things over the phone. I don’t know why, but I did a quick cuff of the sleeve bit of math and figured, even at my hourly rate for IT work, this guy was way over the initial retainer fee he charged me – let alone what a lawyer can get for their services.
The phone call was fruitful, but I had already figured the direction it was going to take just being BCC’d on the email chains. We had a case. We’d want to file in King County Superior if we go down that route. But – the King County judges typically dislike these kinds of disputes and don’t leave a lot of room for arguing case or contracts, and the lawyer felt we had between a 20 and 25% chance of getting a judge that would listen and rule favorably for us. On top of that, generally it would be about a 6 month process if it went mostly smoothly. We’d also be on the hook for lawyer fees, of course. If we won, we would probably be looking at $5000-$7500 or so. There may be some possible action to recuperate some of that, but chances of a favorable outcome and legal fees being paid were pretty slim. If we lost, we’d be out the same fee for our lawyer, plus the fees for the seller’s lawyer. Ouch.
My wife and I mulled it over for about an hour or so. I think we both really made up our mind as soon as I finished catching her up on the situation. We wanted that house. We liked where it was – a very nice setting. We knew it needed some work, but we had actually worked up a list of things we would want to fix on it. Since we thought we were locked in contract and basically going to be buying the place (unless something truly major came up during inspection), we even though about some of the furniture we’d put in different areas.
Had anything else happened – something come up during inspection that was a show stopper,for instance – I think we both would’ve taken the let down a lot better. The way things went though, left a pretty bad taste in our mouths. The whole thing seemed highly unethical and immoral – though, in the end, the seller’s agent did his duty and got his seller a couple thousand more dollars.
It wasn’t going to be worth the headache, time, and money to push this into a court battle, especially with such low odds.
There was a lot of good that came out of this though. I learned a lot more about real estate law than I ever thought I’d give a damn about. I learned that some people are willing to be jerks to get a couple thousand dollars (while that sounds like it could be a lot, when you’re talking in percentage it’s less than 1 percent extra) and get pushed around by new significant others. I learned that details on contracts are important and can play to either side’s favor.
I also learned that we can comfortably afford a higher priced house than we were previously looking at. Not just “You can get a higher amount mortgage”, but “You can actually afford that mortgage without hurting your lifestyle and being house poor”. I also learned that there was a house that we liked better on the market in that slightly higher price range, and that hopefully, we will end up buying that house.
On my final note… since I was given a copy of the “better” offer, I was also given the expected closing date. Obviously, these things are estimates and it can run into issues for a variety of reasons. Our closing date on this house was 8/31/2016. The “better” offer’s closing date was 8/26/2016. Again, there is a small part of me that is pretty happy by the fact that the house still hasn’t completed closing (this information is publicly available, and the spiteful part of me has checked it), so it seems that something did go wrong with their purchase.