After we put an offer on a house in May 2020, my uncle asked what the backyard was like.
“I don’t know. We didn’t see it,” I told him.
In fact, we only looked at the inside of the house in Westchester, N.Y., for about 15 minutes before we decided to buy it. And we offered what the sellers were asking, even though the house had been on the market for months.
If you’re like my uncle, you’re thinking: “This guy is an idiot.”
Our real-estate broker wasn’t allowed to come into houses with us in May 2020 because of strict and ever-changing COVID-19 rules for brokers at the time. While we were looking at a different house that day, he was outside on his phone arguing with another broker about these rules. But during our walk-through in August 2020, the day of the closing, I asked him what he would have told us if he had been able to see the house with us in May. Were we crazy to pay the offering price, I asked? It was the opposite.
“You never would have gotten this house at this price even three weeks later,” he said.
I’ve been following the housing market daily in our town on Zillow and I see what he means. Just about every house now sells in a few days, and for more than the asking price.
Because of multiple factors — many people are looking to move, mortgage rates are near historic lows and there’s a lack of home inventory — it’s been a challenging year to buy a house. As a result, home prices have been rising. House prices went up another 12% in Feb. 2021 — the biggest jump in 15 years.
Anecdotally, I’m hearing that a lot of houses in our town are now selling for all cash. And as my colleague Jacob Passy recently pointed out, the most effective strategy in such a market, according to a Redfin analysis of thousands of offers made between July 2020 and February 2021, is to come in with all cash. “Home buyers who offer all cash nearly quadruple their chances of winning a bidding war,” according to Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin.
And many home buyers are doing things like buying houses without seeing them first, and skipping inspections and appraisals.
The fact that we saw the house — although, of course, not the backyard — and walked around in it, makes us seem thorough by comparison. We also had the home inspected and appraised. This was the first time we ever bought a house — we had rented apartments in New York City for years — and we could see the benefit of many of the formalities involved when you get a mortgage, like the inspection, since they essentially helped prevent us from making a big mistake.
Now about the car we bought.
We left our city apartment in early March 2020 when it was becoming clear that the pandemic was serious and not about to abate. We drove a rental car to upstate New York to stay at a family member’s house, and the day after we arrived, the governor said all essential businesses would close the next day.
My girlfriend, who rented our Hyundai Elantra from Enterprise, said, “I like that car and think I’ll buy one.” We had a 10-month old son and had been living in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. We were already thinking we might need to live in a larger place outside the city; and for this, we’d probably need a car. I told her that Enterprise sells their cars after a certain amount of usage and we looked into buying the car we rented. We were told we couldn’t, but we went onto a website where Enterprise lists their cars for sale. There was one Elantra for sale near us, and we selected it the way you might select a shirt online from the Gap.
She drove the rental car to the Enterprise for-sale lot and bought the car about an hour before the establishment closed — and the statewide shutdown was to begin.
The next day we told some family members about the purchase, and they said, “That’s not how you do it. Why not go to a dealer and test-drive some cars first?”
But it was at a time when we understood the pandemic less than we do now, and it was unclear what was safe to do and what wasn’t. We bought the 2018 car for about $12,000 and it seems that we were lucky with our timing. Used-car prices have since soared, and the average cost of a used car now tops $20,000. It also caught my eye when The Wall Street Journal recently wrote a story about how Hertz, Avis and Enterprise sold so many of their cars during the pandemic that there is now a shortage of rental cars across the country.
It’s important to add here that I will spend weeks online researching and comparison-shopping when I buy a pair of tennis shoes, so I give all credit for these two big and relatively fast purchases to my girlfriend, who sensed the imminent run on houses especially and got us into one just in time.
A month or so after we bought the car, I brought it to a Hyundai dealership for a multi-point inspection, and the car was in fine shape, they said.
So it worked out — mostly.
I spent over a month trying to rid the interior of the smell of cigarette smoke. I learned a lot about the powers of distilled white vinegar and baking soda. And most importantly in this case, how to replace a car’s cabin air filter.