March 02, 2021 News & Features » Cover Story


Slim Pickings 

A recent Richmond transplant’s home-buying pandemic story.

click to enlarge feat09_buying_a_house.jpg

I lived in the same house in Gloucester for 18 years. My parents still live there, my mother tackling a new renovation project every six months or so.

It’s an old house – we found wooden nails in the attic one time – so projects are never-ending. Beadboard in the bathroom. New tiles in the kitchen. A stackable washer-dryer in the laundry room where we used to play hide and seek. 

The house sits near sea level, which means hurricane season and new moons bring water over the dock and into the yard. One year the water made it inside and flooded the first floor a whole foot. We raised the house 10 feet, added a screened-in porch with hanging chairs and cat-friendly ledges all the way around. My parents tacked on an addition, too, so we could finally have more than one bathroom for five people. 

The house felt immense after that. 

So when it came time for me and my husband to seriously start thinking about buying our forever home here in Richmond, I knew exactly what I wanted: an old house with character, original floors and crown molding. I didn’t need closet space or multiple full baths. Certainly not double sinks.

My husband, who grew up with parents who were custom builders, had a very different wish list. 

The two of us – along with our hyper hound dog and window-ledge-loving cat – moved to Richmond from Charleston, South Carolina, in February. 

We signed a yearlong lease for a charming bungalow in the West End, intermittently browsing Zillow for houses in our price range. At first there were dozens – after moving from a market that had very few houses we could afford that didn’t require an hour-long commute, it felt like we’d struck gold. 

But we couldn’t break the rental lease and pay for a mortgage. So we waited. And waited. And my Zillow alerts went from dinging on the hour to dinging a few times a week. Where had all the houses gone?

According to Realtor Jessica Cooper, the inventory of homes for sale at the end of 2020 was down 53% from 2019 in the Richmond metro area. Between 2016-17 Cooper says the inventory shift was maybe 10%.

“I call it a craze,” Cooper says. “There will be 15, 20, 25 offers per home. The average price per home has gone up. Whereas before a three bedroom was harder to sell, that went up, too.”

At the beginning of the year, with only a few months left on our lease, we started actively looking for a house, which we planned to purchase and live in for at least 30 years. We kept our expectations low – an imperfect house could be made perfect over the span of three decades. 

We soon discovered that the trick was getting a contract for any house. 

Cooper, who was recommended to us by a friend, set up an online portal with our parameters – yard, garage, no more than a 30-minute commute for my husband. We toured about a dozen houses over the course of two weekends, traversing about 60 miles in total, checking out everything from bucolic properties to suburban oases. 

“We joke in real estate that you’re all things – you’re a psychologist, you’re everything,” Cooper says. “It has taken a lot more time and effort to help clients emotionally during this time.”

That first weekend was tough. None of the houses were exactly what I wanted, but a few felt like they could be doable, a work in progress. 

But even the wallpapered and carpeted houses were under contract by the time we got back and logged into our portal. Most had been on the market for less than a week. 

Cooper can’t say for sure why the inventory is currently so low, or at least why it was low this winter, but that 2.49% interest rate may have something to do with it. 

“With interest rates so low, refinancing is such a great option,” Cooper says. People may be hanging onto their houses longer instead of putting them up for sale, increasing their equity and lowering their monthly payments. 

Whatever the reason, the pickings were slim. And those 15-20 offers? A lot of them were over the asking price – way over asking. We’re talking $10,000 or $20,000 more than the list price on the low end. 
In order to have a fighting chance we had to put an offer in the moment we liked a house. 

The second Sunday when we walked into the penultimate stop on our tour, I was feeling pretty deflated. After driving 30 minutes on the interstate to check out some of the properties, I decided I wasn’t ready to become a homesteader. I needed to see humans at least once a day to maintain my sanity. 

The Midlothian house was listed at a little more than we wanted to spend and was right off a busy road. But it had everything on our list – a garage for my husband, a huge yard for my dog and all the charm my old-home heart desired. 

We pulled the trigger within the hour. And, somehow, there was only one other offer on the table. The house had been on the market for less than two days. Between Cooper’s stellar offer-writing skills and my husband’s excellent credit, we made it happen. 

It feels immense. 

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