Or: How I Spent My Sunday Afternoons (for three months straight)

This is part two in a series (here’s part one) for the Appeal on a first-time home buying experience in San Francisco. It is now a five-part series. But it could grow into a six-part piece. You are forewarned.

for.sale.jpgAfter my husband and I began thinking of buying a home, we started going to open houses. At first we walked around our neighborhood, wandering into any open house that we came across. Then we expanded our general search and started doing online research: targeting other, ideal neighborhoods while not limiting our search parameters beyond what we considered “reasonable.”

We kept tabs on the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) via Redfin.com*. The MLS is the directory where real estate agents officially list properties for sale, along with descriptions of the property and photos. The seller’s agent also updates the MLS listing with open house information, changes in asking price, and the property’s status. If you have an agent, he can grant you access to a local MLS site with extra features, but if you don’t, you can use websites like Redfin, Trulia, Ziprealty, and Zillow to see current for-sale properties through a very user-friendly interface.

We became very methodical in our planning. On Friday afternoon, I’d create a list of properties that we were interested in seeing on Sunday afternoon, and sort them by neighborhood and open house time, with the goal of hoofing it to as many as we could.

There were even times where I’d catalog our trip with accompanying bus routes and mini-maps, color code by open house time, and file by respective week tabs in my unicorn and rainbows hot pink Trapper Keeper (Just kidding about that last part! But wouldn’t that have been rad?).

A sample itinerary for a Sunday afternoon looked like this:

  • Start in Noe Valley with a 1PM open house of a unit that we probably wouldn’t like anyway because public transit here is scarce. We have no car, but we’re trying to be open minded.
  • Scramble to be on the 24-Divisadero bus by 1:13PM (as if the 24 actually runs on a schedule!) to make it to two showings in Pac Heights by 1:45PM so that we can be in the Inner Richmond at 2:15PM for a cute, but small, house that’s a probate sale.
  • Walk south via Golden Gate Park. Achieve needed, comforting puppy petting along 9th Avenue, grab a slice of Arizmendi pizza (gotta boost that energy level for the final haul!), and make the final three open houses (two condos and a TIC) in the Inner Sunset before 4PM.

Perhaps this sounds crazy, but somehow, with a few bottles of water and trusted sunscreen, things worked out well. I think our record was 13 open houses in one day. Well, four hours actually. (It’s very unusual to find an open house outside the 12-4PM timeframe on Sunday afternoons.)

After about a month or two, we came to a better understanding of what we wanted in our next place: a condo in a smaller building (none of those mega 60+unit buildings; six units or less would be ideal), traditional features or character, hardwood floors, a kitchen with adequate storage space, natural light, two or three bedrooms, easy access to several public transit lines, and a house (yeah, right. What is this, Berkeley?) or a condo.

All in all, we saw some crazy places, ones that we would have skipped had our search been more pressing. But because it wasn’t, we toured a TIC with a rickety ladder-access-only loft and no appliances; a ground floor unit with a full-on train room; a top-floor, chocolate chip cooking-scented (thanks to the agent who baked a batch of Tollhouse cookies in the oven before every showing) condo steps away from a very run-down-yet-highly-active-on-Sundays church; a Duboce condo with an illegal in-law filled with giant-parrot-owning tenants who “grew their own”; and a six-bedroom Lake Street mansion featuring Martha Stewart’s dream kitchen and bountiful lemon trees that peppered the lush backyard .

With all of our open housing (by the end, we saw over 100 properties), I also learned about open house etiquette. First, keep your eyes open. Real estate agents put up signage for a reason. If there’s no giant “Open House Here!” sign outside, chances are, the agent isn’t there. Or the property isn’t having a showing. Don’t ring the door and bug the current owner or tenant.

Second, you may be asked to take off your shoes or wear hospital booties. This is not because the agent thinks your Pumas aren’t all that (well, she might). It’s to keep any street muck outside and off of the owner’s newly refinished softwood floors or Stanley Steemer-ed carpets.

And third, be pleasant to the showing agent; we ended up on a first-name basis with many showing agents. Stopping just short of sending each other Christmas cards, they would ask us how our search was going and if we had made any offers yet (I think we made nine offers before “closing,” but that is for a later installment. There’s so much to share!). And while we smiled and chitchatted, we also learned (from websites, our agent, and family and friends) that oversharing could have consequences later down the road.

Many showing agents will have a sign-in sheet and ask you to list your name, contact information, and your buying agent (should you have one). If you sign in the agent may also add you to his newsletter. Or call you weekly to check in on where you are in your buying process. Or invite you over for weekly shabbat. Open houses are a two-way street: in that quick walk-through, you might just find your dream home. In turn, the agent holding the open house might just find his next client.

But here’s the sticky little part: should you later make an offer on that unit that you saw and you didn’t list an agent at the time of the showing, the seller’s agent–if he’s really anal–may claim that you’re his client because he showed you the unit first. And then he might try to take some or all of the commission that your agent (the buyer’s agent) is due.

For this reason, I recommend not signing-in without having a buyer’s agent. One bad real estate agent spoils it for everyone.

Without a doubt, be friendly to the agents you meet at open houses. In fact, collect their business cards. You might even find one that you want to work with later on. But remember, you don’t need to sign a list or handover a stack of personal information to attend an open house.

If the showing agent tries to pump you for information, it’s OK to ignore questions that you don’t want to answer. There’s no need to go further than that. But should your search become serious, find a buying agent who will represent your interests, and can provide you with quality service and support you in the process. I’ll talk more about this in my next installment.

I acknowledge that spending several months touring 100+ places is not the norm. But since we had no pressing deadline and buying a house may be the biggest financial decision my husband and I might ever make, we tried to enjoy the journey and soak up the process.

In the next few installments, I’ll write about finding an agent, different types of properties, and that crazy loan process. If you have questions or comments, please leave them in the comments section or send your inquiries to me via becca[dot]klarin[at]gmail[dot]com.

* I found Redfin to be my favorite website for its easy-to-use search engine, map view, and supporting features. If you register for the site–it’s free–you’ll gain access to Redfin agent reviews and be able to track favorite properties and receive updates. But I am not experienced with its real estate agency and this is not an endorsement for those services.

Read part 1 of this series here.

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the author

Becca Klarin writes about dance. Her first stage role was at the age of four, where she dressed in a brightly colored bumble bee tutu and black patent leather taps shoes. She remembers bright lights and spinning in circles with her eleven other bees, but nothing more. Becca also has an affinity for things beginning with the letter "P", including Pizzetta 211, Fort Point, pilates, parsvakonasana, and plies.

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