Sunday, April 17, 2016

A House Hunters Story - Buying A Home In An Unfamiliar City - Salt Lake City, Utah

I like watching those television shows where home buyers visit three different houses and pick the one that they're going to purchase. Depending on exactly which show you're watching, there might be some remodeling involved. Even though these are "reality" shows, they are often heavily choreographed and edited for time and entertainment purposes, so only so much is really reality.

Let me tell you my own "house hunters" story, about buying a home in an unfamiliar city. This is a reality that many people face each day, so I thought it might be helpful to those in this same situation. Or, at the least, it might be entertaining, like those house hunting tv shows.

Exit - Los Angeles, California
18 months ago my wife and I decided that it was time for us to leave California. We love this state, but for many reasons we felt like we needed to move on. We wanted a new adventure! And an opportunity opened up for us in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Neither of us had ever been to Salt Lake City before. I'd visited southern Utah when I was a kid, but that was the closest that I ever got. This place was a complete mystery to us. We had no idea if we'd love it or hate it.

So last year we made a quick trip to Salt Lake City to find out if we'd even like it. We found the city to be nice with amazing views everywhere. The people we encountered were very friendly. We decided to go for it and make the move!

Obviously we also spent a lot of time on the internet searching for anything that we could find to give us an idea about Salt Lake City and Utah. You can practically visit a place without actually visiting a place. There is so much information out there, but not all of it is accurate. It's difficult to know exactly what's true and what's not. A lot of what you find is opinion, and that's something that you may or may not find yourself agreeing with. That's why it was important for us to see the city for ourselves.

Endless Summer Wish - Stallion Springs, California
The view from what was our front yard.
Once we knew that we would be moving, the first step was to sell our home in Stallion Springs, California. We previously had a situation where we didn't correctly time the sale of our home with a move, so we ended up paying a mortgage payment on an empty house while also paying for a rental. We didn't want to be in that situation again, so we placed our home on the market right away, knowing that we'd have to live in an apartment for awhile before moving out of state.

With the house sold and the five of us stuffed into a two-bedroom unit, we set our sites on purchasing a home in Utah. I know someone from Salt Lake City, so I asked if he could recommend a realtor. He handed me a business card and said that he highly recommended Marty McKay.

Marty McKay - South Jordan, Utah
I sent Marty an email, telling him what we were interested in, and he set us up with a secure page on his website where we could search for and save homes. He provided us a daily sheet of new listings that matched our search criteria. He suggested some neighborhoods for us to look at. It was all very helpful to us because, since we weren't familiar with the city, we didn't really know where we should be looking, but we could better narrow things down with his web tools.

We also needed to get pre-approved for a mortgage. We had previously used Veterans United Home Loans and had a really good experience, so we decided to go with them again. They know VA loans inside and out (which is what we were going to be using). Marty had a working relationship already with Veterans United, so everything seemed seamless. We set the maximum budget at $350,000, but we really didn't want to go that high.

With all of that settled we purchased round-trip airline tickets for our family so that we could see some houses. We planned to fly out on a Wednesday afternoon and return on a Friday afternoon. That meant we would have one day to look at houses. And we were bringing the kids.

Several days before our flight's departure a new listing appeared that seemed to be the perfect house. We really loved everything about it, so much so that we had considered placing an offer sight unseen. However, two days later it was off the market, sold to someone. The housing market was moving pretty quick in Salt Lake City, and we had missed the opportunity. We were bummed.

Marty had told us that the most houses that we could visit in a single day would be 12 (and that many homes would make it a long day). So a couple of days before our trip we provided him with a list of 12 houses that we wanted to see, plus a backup list of four houses (just in case some of the 12 that we really wanted to see went under contract before we got there).

Delta At Gate 56 - Los Angeles, California
The day of our flight came. Our kids had never flown before (expect for our oldest when she was an infant)--flying with kids was a new experience for us. We had purchased wheeled-luggage that would fit into the overhead carry-on compartments. We put our two-year-old's carseat on a folding cart. We tried to make things as easy for us as possible, but getting through TSA security was still a circus.

The flight itself was fine. Our two-year-old son had a hard time at times, but that was to be expected. The airplane had screens built into the headrests, so the kids had something to keep them entertained. Upon arrival we realized that our rental car was offsite and that we had to wait for a bus to take us to the lot. In retrospect it would have been better to have the rental car at the terminal.

We got to our hotel well after dark. After settling in we received an email from Marty with the finalized list of homes and our scheduled visits. I told you already that the housing market was moving fast. Of our list of 12 houses plus the backup list of four, only 11 were still available. We made plans to meet up at the first house at 9 am. It was time for bed for an early morning start.

House #1 - Wasatch Views - South Weber


We arrived at the first house on time, still brushing the sleep out of our eyes. It was the furthest north home that we would visit, sitting in the small suburb of South Weber. We had debated if this house should be on our list, but after some back-and-forth we decided to include it. We met Marty for the first time. It was a windy morning and some snow still lingered in shaded areas.

I nicknamed this the "Wasatch Views" house because the Wasatch Range looms over the large backyard. The two-story house, with five bedrooms and four bathrooms, was much nicer in person than in the online pictures--they really didn't do it any justice! The home was well kept and had many built-ins and upgrades, and it was well laid out.

We liked this house a lot, but we were excited to see the other places. So soon we were off to the next house.

House #2 - Paint It Black - Clinton


The next home, which I named the "Paint It Black" house, was the only other house that we'd visit north of downtown--it was in the suburb of Clinton. It was a large six-bedroom single-story on a corner lot near parks and trails. This house was on our backup list because we were uncertain of the the area.

Marty took us inside and showed us around. The kids immediately headed down to the basement, while I looked at the main floor. My six-year-old son came running up to me. "Dad," he said, "there's a room downstairs that's creepy!" As quick as he came he left.

As it turns out there was a room in the basement that was entirely black. Black paint, black carpet, black curtains, black decor. Perhaps it was necessary for medical reasons (migraines) or for work (sleep during the day), or maybe they just really liked the color. But it didn't leave a good impression.

For several reasons we didn't like this place and knew it wasn't for us. But we still had other houses to visit, so we got in our cars and were soon back on the road.

House #3 - The Drive Thru - South Jordan


The next house was in the city of South Jordan in the Daybreak masterplanned community. It was the first of many that were in this neighborhood. We were really excited about this area because of the many community amenities. It seemed like a place that we would really enjoy.

I called this "The Drive Thru" house because there was an alley literally right next to the home. A car driving by could reach out and touch the side of the structure (we could cut a hole in the wall and open up a drive thru service, if we wanted). That was a little unsettling. We found the layout to be a tad awkward. The four bedroom two-story house was otherwise very nice and was in like-new condition.

After leaving this house Marty took us to lunch at Chick-fil-A. He introduced us to the frosted lemonade and we introduced him to the honey-roasted barbecue sauce. While eating lunch I noticed a house that had just come on the market that day, so I asked if we could see it. Marty made a phone call and added it to our tour.

House #4 - Unfinished Business - South Jordan


After lunch we visited the next house in Daybreak, which I nicknamed the "Unfinished Business" house. It was a large four bedroom home that had a good layout and nice upgrades, but the basement was unfinished and it was at the high end of our budget. It also didn't really show pride of ownership.

Many of the houses in this neighborhood don't have private yards. The next-door-neighbor was not keeping up with yard work and it negatively reflected onto this place. Even so, we still liked the house.

Off to the next place, which wasn't far around the corner.

House #5 - Love It - South Jordan


Next up was what I called the "Love It" house because, well, we loved it! The four bedroom two-story house was very nice, very well laid out, and the location was great. It looked like it was straight out of a magazine!

The online pictures didn't make the house look nearly as nice as it was in person. We had considered not including the house on our list, but we were glad that we took a look at it!

One of the best aspects of this house was it's close proximity to a great park and a community pool. After we were finished touring the house we took the kids to the park to let them get their wiggles out.

We still had plenty of houses to go--we weren't even half done--so it was off to the next place.

House #6 - Ugly View - South Jordan


Up next was a three bedroom two-story that I nicknamed the "Ugly View" house. In Salt Lake City it seems that every house has at least a decent view, but not this place! The house was otherwise nice with plenty of upgrades. The layout was a bit awkward. It was also the smallest house that we looked at.

With this house you hoped that some construction across the street would eventually block the sight of the high-tension power lines and the tumbleweed field. The online photos failed to show this.

The next house wasn't far away, so we climbed back into the cars and quickly headed over.

House #7 - Dark Horse - South Jordan


This large four bedroom two-story house, which I called the "Dark Horse" house, was in like-new condition. It was very nice, but everything was dark. The carpets, the cabinets, the countertops were all dark--and not really a "good" dark, either. It just wasn't inviting.

Despite that, it was one of the better houses that we saw. I think that we could have settled for this home and been happy with that choice.

It was around this time that Marty enlisted our two older kids--our eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son--as "secret agents" and gave them real estate agent assignments at each home. This not only entertained them, but made them feel like an important part of the process. They still talk about this.

We had one more home to visit in Daybreak, so off we went!

House #8 - Elm Street - South Jordan


The next house, a three bedroom two-story, was the least expensive of all the houses that we visited. We soon discovered why: it was a nightmare! And that's why I called it the "Elm Street" house.

Gourmet - South Jordan, Utah
The home had renters and they trashed the house. It was dirty. It smelled. It was just a big mess. It looked like this is where the party was every Friday night, and that it hadn't been cleaned since the last party.

We didn't stay long. This was the worst house that we saw, which is really too bad because it was in a good location and in a pretty neighborhood.

After this house we were in desperate need of a break. We were ahead of schedule, so Marty took us to a local bakery that he knew about, and it turned out to be a good stop. The kids had some ice cream while my wife and I shared a pastry. We sipped on some cold refreshments. We just relaxed for a little while. 

This stop allowed us to gather some of our thoughts. We were able to consider more clearly the houses that we had seen. We were able to talk some things over. We were in agreement on what houses we liked so far and which ones we didn't.

Soon enough, though, it was time to hit the road and drive to the next house.

House #9 - Picturesque - Herriman


From the online pictures this house was our favorite, the one that we thought we'd buy. It was at the very top of our list. We were really excited to see it!

Photographs are dishonest. They don't tell the truth. The photographer includes and excludes whatever he or she wants. It's a highly biased endeavor. We learned that first hand with this place.

It was a large five bedroom two-story house with only one neighbor and very close to a large park and walking trails, situated in the upcoming suburb of Herriman. But the home had a lot of aspects that we didn't care for--things we didn't see in the pictures. It even had a cave in the backyard (the kids loved it, but it didn't seem safe to me). It was a big disappointment.

I found an old Canon 35mm film camera on a shelf in one of the rooms. It seemed to represent this house well, so I captured an image of it. It's also why I called it the "Picturesque" house.

House #10 - Cat House - Draper


Next up was a large five bedroom two-story house in the Suncrest masterplanned community in the city of Draper. This was a neighborhood that we were initially very attracted to, but finding a house there within our budget was difficult. This place is significantly higher in elevation than Salt Lake City, and the views are spectacular!

Upon arrival we found all of the houses had about three feet of snow still in the yards. We had seen some snow here-and-there, but nothing like this! It was March, so we wondered how much snow this home would get in January or February. And we thought that we might not be ready to handle that much snow, being from California (and Arizona before that).

While touring the house I opened the master bedroom closet. Seemingly out of nowhere appeared this orange cat that didn't appreciate me being there. My six-year-old son was excited about this because he loves cats (despite being allergic to them). That's why I named it the "Cat House."

The home was very nice. It had a couple of quirky things about it, but nothing too bad. If we had visited in the summer we might have rated this one a little higher.

With 10 houses down we just had two more to go, and they were near each other.

House #11 - Fresh Beat - Lehi


This house was the one that we added at lunch. From the online pictures it seemed like it could be a nice place. It was a four bedroom two-story in the Traverse Mountain masterplanned community in the suburb of Lehi. By this time our two-year-old son had fallen asleep and Marty offered to watch him in the car while we toured the property.

The house had some good views from the second story. It had a sharply sloped backyard that wasn't very big. It had a music studio in the basement, complete with an expensive-looking soundboard set up for a DJ. I was glad that our little one was asleep because otherwise he might have found a way to damage something.

There were some nice things about the house, but plenty that we didn't care for. We knew pretty quickly that we didn't want to buy this place. So we made our way to the final house.

House #12 - Poolside - Lehi



We almost didn't include this last home on our list. We actually removed it once, then added it back when we discovered that a community pool and park were being constructed right behind it. There was a gate in the back fence, and we thought that if it allowed access to the pool it might be worth considering. That's why I nicknamed it the "Poolside" house.

The home, a four bedroom two-story, was nice, but the steeply sloped backyard was small. We soon discovered that the back gate didn't provide any access to the under-construction pool. We did see plenty of tractors moving dirt around on the hill above the house.

We knew that we didn't want to buy this home, so we didn't stay long. The day was already long and exhausting. Now it was time to make some decisions.

And The Winner Is...

The "Love It" House
My wife and I were in complete agreement of which home to put an offer on, and that was the "Love It" house. It seemed like the perfect place--as perfect as we could hope for, anyway.

Marty suggested, since the market was moving quickly and we wouldn't be able to do another house hunting trip, that we should put an offer on our second favorite house, as well. By submitting two different offers we were doubling our chances of getting a home. Our second favorite home was the "Wasatch Views" house.

We said thank-you and goodbye to Marty. Now it was just a bunch of waiting.

The next morning before heading to the airport we drove by both the "Love It" house and the "Wasatch Views" house to make sure that we were satisfied with our decisions. The two places had significantly different styles and offered much different lifestyles, but they both looked like they would work well for our family.

We got a call from Marty while at the airport waiting for our flight. The owners of the "Wasatch Views" house countered our offer. Meanwhile, the "Love It" house had multiple offers, and we needed to submit our best and final offer. So we did.

The "Wasatch Views" House
The next day Marty suggested that we should respond to the "Wasatch Views" counter offer (since there is a time limit, and also since someone could come in with a better offer and we could potentially lose that house). So we accepted the counter offer. We were under contract with our second favorite home.

Two days after returning from Salt Lake City we got a call from Marty regarding the "Love It" house. They didn't accept our offer. We didn't get that home.

We were a little bummed, but we were also excited to move forward with the "Wasatch Views" house. Marty's advice was spot on and worked out for us. We got a very nice home in a good location with great views.

We recently closed on the house in South Weber. We're homeowners of a lovely house in Utah! Soon we'll be leaving California and making the journey to the state that proclaims "Life Elevated" on their license plates. It should be interesting!

Lessons

Green Hill, White Mountain - Fruit Heights, Utah
What did we learn from all this? What advice do we have for others who may be in a similar situation?
  • A good realtor is a must. Marty McKay helped us in so many different ways throughout the entire process. If you're buying in the Salt Lake City area I would absolutely recommend him.
  • Don't completely trust the online house pictures. The two homes that we liked best were understated by the photographs, while some other houses were overstated. There is also a lesson here if you are selling your home (hire a professional photographer).
  • Don't buy sight unseen. Remember that house I mentioned earlier that we thought was perfect and we considered putting an offer on without first seeing it? We drove by the home, and it wasn't nearly as perfect as we thought it was.
  • 12 houses in one day really was the limit, especially since we had young children. In retrospect, maybe we should have only toured eight houses or so.
  • If you do bring your kids on a house hunting trip, get them involved as best you can. Give them something to do. Make them feel needed.

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