The Mystery Housebuyer

Tales from the home front

Would you rather negotiate with the rottweiler, the suspected terrorists, the war hero, or the screaming agents? photos:Leonardo Sakaki

Buying and selling a home is the closest most people come to real negotiation and interpersonal politics with real value at stake. Yes, people might know how to haggle with a street vendor over the price of a scarf, but if they overpay by $10, who really cares? And though people might think they’re pros about dealing with car salespeople, most of them are lambs for slaughter when it comes to actually sitting down across the table with a seasoned car dealer. Now, when it comes to a house deal, hundreds of thousands of dollars can be at stake, and most nonprofessionals involved in the deal are basically making it up as they go along.

And that creates some interesting and sometimes amusing tales.

True story: About a decade ago, an acquaintance of mine sold his house. But he was more interested in playing junior sleuth than in being a seller, and he almost ended up screwing up the sale.

The time was shortly after 9/11. The house was in a major East Coast city, and he had lived there for decades. Property values had risen dramatically, so he was pretty much guaranteed to make a large profit. When two men of vaguely Middle Eastern appearance made an all-cash offer on his home, he was split between wanting to roll in dollar bills and wanting to play his part in the international war on terrorists.

So, as it was related to me by a mutual acquaintance, the homeowner called up the FBI and told them he thought the potential buyers were al Qaeda. “Why do you think that?” the FBI wisely asked. So he told them about their appearance and the all-cash offer. They said they didn’t think the men were al Qaeda, but they’d check them out. After the FBI completed their check, they called back the homeowner. “They’re not al Qaeda; they’re European bankers.”

He sold his house.

Another true story: A young San Francisco woman bought her first home — a condo — seven years ago. An animal lover herself, she had a dog and a cat, so she wasn’t worried about animals in the building. But when she heard that the upstairs neighbors had a Rottweiler, she wrote into her offer the demand that she be able to interview the neighbors’ dog.

The seller acceded to her unusual request, and the interview went well. In fact, she says the Rottweiler did not live up to the breed’s stereotype — it behaved like a real pussy cat.

Yet another: A cousin of mine was moving from Chicago to New Mexico. Their Chicago home was a co-op (which is basically what the rest of the world calls San Francisco’s TIC arrangement). They found a buyer, but the closing was complicated and brutal — from what she told me about it afterward, it could have been a scene from The Good Wife: The buyers, the sellers, and both parties’ agents all in the conference room with the agents bickering over everything and literally shouting at each other.

By contrast, laid-back New Mexico lived up to its reputation. The closing on their Albuquerque home was so calm it might as well have taken place in a day spa.

And another: A relative of mine was selling her home to move into a smaller one. Luckily, in fairly short order, she sold her home and made a successful bid on her new house. But then the pressure started from the buyers. Could she move out a couple days earlier, because they needed to get out of their place earlier than expected because the buyer of their home was in the armed forces and needed to complete the move before he was shipped overseas.

So my relative approached the sellers of the home she was buying to see if they would let her move in a couple days earlier. Luckily, that house had been sitting empty (the previous occupant had passed away and the family was handling the sale), so they let her move in a couple days early without charging her anything. All good? No; the buyers of my relative’s house then came back and asked for a move-in date another few days earlier than the new, earlier date she had just arranged.

It’s hard enough to negotiate a deal with a buyer and seller, it’s even harder when it’s a chain of four or five sellers and three or four buyers, all trying to get an advantage and schedule movers, repair people, and the like. So she said no.

Home transactions and moving are stressful enough without trying to solve everybody else’s problems along the way.

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