Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Three lessons I’ve learned from buying and selling a home in Tacoma

Buying in a “seller’s market” like this requires supreme dedication and the willingness to make decisions with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the balance at a moment’s notice.
Buying in a “seller’s market” like this requires supreme dedication and the willingness to make decisions with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the balance at a moment’s notice. AP

This is insane.

That thought has been running through my mind, almost without interruption, for the past several months.

If you’ve encountered me during this time, and I’ve seemed distracted, or consumed, or like I might lose interest in our conversation at any moment and start uncontrollably flipping through Redfin house listings on my phone, let me officially apologize.

We’ve been selling our house in Tacoma.

And, simultaneously, buying a house in Tacoma.

First came what, in retrospect, was the easy part. We cleaned and decluttered our home for months. We had the carpets shampooed, tried our best to get all the crayon marks off the walls and bought one of those ridiculous centerpieces for our dining room table that you see only on Pinterest.

Then we put our house on the market, before heading out of town for the weekend. As it turns out, leaving was a smart move. Some 25 potential buyers traipsed through our home, and we arrived back in Tacoma to four offers after just three days on the market.

Feeling like the big hurdle was behind us, we chose the offer we liked best and moved on to what was supposed to be the fun part — finding a new house to buy.

How naïve.

House hunting quickly became a full-time job. Buying in a “seller’s market” like this requires supreme dedication and the willingness to make decisions with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the balance at a moment’s notice.

During our hunt, we stumbled upon at three homes that felt like winners.

The first, it turns out, had been flipped and remodeled without permits. That was a deal-breaker. The second ended up receiving offers of more than $50,000 over asking price — a deal that could have broken us.

The third, we hope, will be our home, once we e-sign what feels like a thousand emailed documents and make it through the gantlet of closing and underwriting.

So what have we learned?

Yes, this market is nuts.

While anyone who’s been timely enough to sell a house recently, or crazy enough to buy a house, already knows it anecdotally, I checked in with Michael Robinson, an owner, managing broker and Realtor with Windermere, to confirm the feeling.

He sent me graphs showing the current inventory of homes for sale and the pending home sales in North End, Central and South Tacoma — and each depicted what Robinson called an “inverted sales ratio.” This means there’s more pending inventory than available homes to be bought.

That’s good for sellers, but stressful for buyers. It also means prices are on the rise in the most accessible parts of the market.

Right now the median home price in Pierce County is roughly $270,000, approaching the pre-recession peak of $285,000 in August 2007, and a far cry from what Robinson calls the “trough” of February 2012, when the median home price bottomed out at $185,000.

The takeaway: the options for buyers are increasingly few and far between. And the real crunch, Robinson said, was in the market for homes at or below the median home price — where, as he put it, first-time buyers, millennials and investors are “lasering in on those lower price sectors.”

“It’s not completely unheard of in a healthy, vibrant, growing market to see an inverted sales ratio for a couple months, but it is unusual to have the gap so wide, and it’s been going on for a long time,” Robinson told me. “It’s not just a short little blip. So we need more inventory.”

Consider that compelling letter carefully.

In an environment such as this, buyers will look for any advantage available to them. And, increasingly, that means writing a letter to the seller trying to sell them on your family.

It’s a trap we fell into, and one that felt uncomfortable and always a little yucky.

Local real estate agent Marguerite Giguere, of fame, says the common practice raises all sorts of questions, including potentially issues of racism.

“If I can be totally candid, I think they’re problematic,” Giguere said of these letters. “My clients do them, and if they want to do them and they think it’s going to give them an advantage, I give them advice, but they are a problem.

“People sometimes put pictures in their letters,” she continued. “Is the couple (selling) going to prefer the squeaky-clean-looking white couple? It makes me really uncomfortable.”

The solution? If you feel compelled to write a letter, stick to complimenting the house, Giguere said. After all, “No one can know what the seller wants.”

And, if you’re looking for an advantage, try making your offer stand out in other ways. Giguere said some of the buyers she’s worked with recently offered to release a portion of their earnest money after inspection, or extended the amount of time a seller can stay in the house after closing.

Finally, don’t get your heart set on one neighborhood.

Every real estate agent I talked to agreed that the market in Tacoma is hot everywhere — not just in the quote-unquote fancy parts of town.

Predictably, price increases have pushed people who would normally be looking to buy in the North End to homes in Central Tacoma and beyond, and buyers who might have looked at Central Tacoma a year ago to consider neighborhoods in South Tacoma and the East Side.

Obvious gentrification concerns aside (that’s a legitimate issue, and grist for another column), there are lessons to be learned.

“I think people are just having to be more open-minded about neighborhoods,” Giguere said.

“The South End has been jumping,” she continued. “I’m not allowed to steer, or tell people where to go. But you know I’m not a snob.”