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Started: 2018-11-13 14:06:21

Submitted: 2018-11-13 19:51:22

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator buys a project house in Seattle

When we left San Francisco, we were faced with the choice of what to do about our house. I wasn't enthusiastic about leaving, and didn't want to sell my house, but I didn't see any credible way we'd live there in the next five years, so it seemed to make sense to sell the house now, and reenter the San Francisco real estate market from scratch when (or if) we make our triumphant return.

I left my house empty when I left San Francisco to drive to Seattle in July, and we relied on our team of realtors in San Francisco to get the house ready to put on the market. We paid to refresh the interior paint, clean up the small patio yard, and stage furniture in the house. The house went on the market in the middle of August with great pictures -- including one I took of the nighttime view of the southern portion of San Francisco, glowing softly in the night.

View from Louisburg at night
View from Louisburg at night

After years of steady increases, in the summer of 2018 the residential real estate market in San Francisco entered an uncertain period. This seemed to be the year that years of unsustainable growth in house prices finally became unsustainable. This was not the greatest time to be selling a house, but we still had eighteen months of price appreciation to fall back on. In the end we sold the house for $1.6 million; after taking our selling costs into account, we still ended up with a modest profit.

Our next challenge was finding somewhere to live in Seattle. Seattle made the mistake of voting down a massive investment in transit in 1978, a sin which I'll never be able to forgive them for, meaning there's only one light rail line that doesn't go anywhere near the Google office in Fremont (or the new Google office in South Lake Union). Seattle's bus system is ok, and gets somewhat better if you're going from anywhere to downtown, but isn't especially useful for getting me to work, or anywhere else I want to go. (I have a condition known as bus blindness, which makes me unable to see bus routes as credible mass-transit systems.) I want to live in a streetcar suburb, and those went out of fashion in the middle of the last century.

My compromise stipulation that I be able to take the bus to work (in both Fremont and South Lake Union) in a reasonable amount of time limited our search to a couple of neighborhoods on both sides of the ship canal in north-western Seattle:

  • Queen Anne (up on a hill just north of the Space Needle; I identified it as Seattle's version of Noe Valley);
  • Fremont (just to the north of the ship canal, an aggressively-quirky neighborhood with a massive brick elementary school built in 1893; it's Seattle's version of Height-Ashbury);
  • Ballard, where we're staying in a furnished rental until we find permanent housing (west of Fremont, first settled by Scandinavian immigrants who worked the fishing fleet out of Salmon Bay; today Ballard is the whitest place I've ever lived (and I've lived in Boulder; I experienced some culture shock coming from San Francisco); the little downtown area is charmingly overrun by hipsters, but I can't find a good San Francisco neighborhood analogy for it);
  • Wallingford (east of Fremont, overlooking Gas Works Park on the north side of Lake Union; it's filled with older single-family homes with main arterials that are being redeveloped and will be hipster central in a couple of years; it's totally Seattle's version of Ingleside, except mostly white).

We spent the end of August and most of September looking at houses, mostly in Queen Anne, where the biggest variety appeared, but none of the houses really fit us. Most of the houses started out as 1920s Craftsman houses, built on unfinished leaky basements. Most of the houses had been renovated at some point in the last 90 years; some had had their souls surgically removed to be replaced with Ikea kitchens, while others had been demolished entirely to be replaced by striking modernist architecture (some with questionable taste, even though it was clear the builders spent a great deal of money on the fixtures in the house).

Like San Francisco, Seattle was experiencing an uncertain period in its real estate market. In Seattle, in retrospect, the market plateaued over the summer; but during the summer it was hard to tell what the market was doing, except that houses were spending more time on the market, so inventory as up; and when they sold they were selling for less of a premium on their list price.

On our first day looking at houses in Seattle, one of the last houses we saw was a house I semi-affectionately dubbed the "Wallingford Eighties House". It was built in 1991 (not, you will note, strictly in the eighties; but it was clearly influenced by eighties design rather than the granite countertops and open spaces that came to define the nineties) and had an impressive rooftop deck with a reasonable view of the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge and Lake Union; and if one squinted in the right direction, downtown Seattle and the Space Needle. The house had been on the market for two months, was clearly overpriced at $1.4 million, and needed a great deal of refreshing to look modern and comfortable.

We kept looking, reloading Zillow several times a day to see if any new houses had appeared -- in Seattle, it seemed that new listings would appear haphazardly, usually early in the week, giving us plenty of time to worry about whether we'd get to see them over the weekend. We saw what felt like dozens of houses, and by the end of September, when our house in San Francisco closed, it seemed like the Seattle market was beginning to dry up, so we took another look at the Wallingford Eighties House and decided to make an offer, expecting to redo the kitchen and refresh everything before it'd feel totally comfortable to live there.

Our realtor agreed that the house was vastly overpriced (and, that if it were properly-priced, it would have sold in less than the three months it had sat on the market) and seemed gleeful at the prospect of writing an under-list offer. We wrote an offer for $1.2 million -- a full $200k below list price, just to see if the seller would play ball. They countered at $1.3 million, and we settled on $1.25 million -- if we'd take it as-is (with an inspection contingency, but our only remedy for things uncovered by the inspection would be to walk away from the house). We were under contract to buy the Wallingford Eighties House.

The inspection (and the extra-special sewer inspection) turned up a few quirks in the house, but nothing that we wanted to walk away from. We supplied vast quantities of documents to Union Bank to get a loan, further complicated by the fact that my brokerage insists on sending me checks when I sell my Google stock grants, which I then deposit in my checking account; Union Bank wanted copies of these deposited checks, front and back, which of course I didn't have so we had to ask our bank for them (a very top-ten-percent problem). The last thing Union Bank wanted was proof that the hot water heater had the required two straps; had I know that was all they were waiting for I would have installed it myself a week earlier and saved some stress in the week leading up to closing.

Everything came together in the end. We scheduled closing at our title company, on the 28th floor of Columbia Center, then dropped by the house we were about to buy for the final walk-through.

I flew to San Francisco to climb Salesforce Tower the morning we closed on the house. We waited, impatiently, for the asynchronous transaction to complete and be registered by the county; until finally, that afternoon, the transaction was registered, and we had bought the Wallingford Eighties House.

It was then that we realized the full scope of the project that we'd undertaken -- which is a story I'll tell later.