The Cost of Helping My Sister Buy a House
Part 2: The power of a letter (and a chocolate bar).
My little sister is house-hunting in cities that are not Seattle. To recap: she’s been renting the first floor of a split-level house for four years, until October 2016 when the house went on the market. That was her motivation to finally buy a home of her own. She’s almost 29, the Seattle housing gold rush is hemorrhaging everywhere, and she’s been priced out of our hometown of 15 years.
Part 1: The nine questions to ask before you buy. thebillfold.com
My sister made an offer on three houses. She was outbid on the first house because it’s a city pregnant with gentrification and Eastside money. The second house we both really liked. It’s in a cul-de-sac, there’s a Starbucks and a fancy dentist within walking distance, and the city is investing in infrastructure which means her home value will explode in later years.
Assuming the second house would be The One, Lukas and I gave my sister $400 to pay for an inspection. She didn’t want to accept the money, but I PayPal-ed her and demanded she schedule an inspection. My bossiness paid off; the second house was a lemon. It has mold in the attic, an electrical panel in the bathroom, and a crumbling foundation. I could go on with how many problems this house has, but I think my hands will cramp from typing. Lukas said it would cost upwards of $30,000 to get it fixed—and as a landlord, he knows what he’s talking about. None of us have $30,000. Our parents might have it, but I’m sure they’ll laugh us out of town.
We really wanted to buy this house, for sentimental reasons more than anything. The owners are immigrants like us, and they’re retiring in the motherland. We’re sad my sister walked away, but she had to. I still think about that house, and I’ll always wonder how everything unfolds.
When my sister told me she wanted a house with 3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms, a front yard and a backyard, and a covered garage for $250,000 or less, I immediately thought, I want a magical horse too, but it’s not gonna happen. I tried to sway her from dreamland but she was adamant; she’ll settle for a 2 bedroom but everything else stays. My sister went to so many houses I would have given up long before she did. (The homebuying experience is not for the weak of spirit.) She’s been inside houses with cracks in the ceiling, smoke-darkened walls, animal poop everywhere, stuff upon stuff that she could barely walk around the property, a house with a demon painting on a door (yes, really), and god knows what else.
I shouldn’t have worried, though. If it’s true that our socioeconomic circle predicts our success, then my sister was bound to be a homeowner. I never noticed until now that our immediate circle is filled with homeowners, landlords, and in some cases, both. Our parents and one of our brothers are homeowners and landlords. So are Lukas and the majority of his family. My sister’s best friend and my closest friends are all homeowners, and one is a landlord. I don’t know how that happened, but it’s our reality.
My sister texted me a “Hot Home” she really liked on Redfin. She thought it was The One, so Lukas and I drove there for the open house. We were optimistic; it had everything on my sister’s must-haves and it was only $247,000. I thought there’s no way she would find The One but apparently it exists, and we stayed there for 45 minutes while we talked to the realtor. Here’s some bad news if you’re in Seattle or beyond and looking to buy a house: the realtor said it will take five years for the housing boom to cool off. Five years is a long time in a hot market; I stood there and tried not to have a meltdown. My sister needed to buy like yesterday, so I did what I normally do: take charge and push forward.
Unbeknownst to everyone, I slipped a lovely handwritten note in the mailbox along with a Seattle Chocolates bar. I wrote a letter to the owner, pretending to be my sister, explaining that, as a single mom, I just needed a home for me and my son (her and her son). While I honor their memories, I hope that I can create some new ones with my family. I said a prayer to the universe, and told my sister to make an offer.
Lukas’ brother and sister-in-law work for Redfin, aka “the hottest game in town.” They said real estate traditionally slows down from December ’til March. What about next year? I asked. They said the housing rush would commence right after New Year’s Day. Ye gods. The interest rate on mortgages also increased, which means housing prices will inch up. Throw these two things together and we’ve got ourselves a real estate frenzy.
So my sister made her third offer as soon as she could. “I got the house!” my sister texted me, and I finally told her about the letter and how you’d have to be heartless if you didn’t cry after you read it. Serendipitously, the seller is a single mom with two kids. Of course, I didn’t know any of this until after I dropped the letter. I like to think that my gesture of goodwill helped out my sister, but I also think it’s great that us women can all support each other.
On Dec. 16, she closed on her house; three days later, on her 29th birthday, she got the keys to her castle.
The cost of helping my sister buy a house:
Chocolate bar: $0.00 (When we got air-conditioning last year, the HVAC company sent us a gift bag which included a Seattle Chocolates bar. On retail, it’s $2.50.)
Ruzielle Ganuelas is a writer, baker and PF nerd in Washington State.