What to Do When You Find a House, But Can't Sell Yours

Find a house you'd love to buy, but can't sell your current home? Get real-life solutions from real estate expert Tara-Nicholle Nelson.
Sold Sign

Sold Sign

By: Tara-Nicholle Nelson

My husband exemplifies the saying, "You can’t judge a book by its cover." He’s a stern-looking, 250-pound, 6-foot-two former bouncer who loves kitties and spends his spare time helping little old ladies grab things off the high shelves at Costco. I recently had some clients whose real estate walk was similarly surprising, given what I expected from their talk at our first meeting.

The Client. They came off as hard-core homeowners, wizened students of the real estate world who had watched endless hours of HGTV in a strategic effort to desensitize themselves to the siren song of the charming, remodeled homes in their area, to avoid being sucked into what one of my favorite clients likes to call “the vortex of cuteness.” These folks were (or seemed like they were) very clear that their priority was to get a great deal. If that meant buying a great house with the misfortune to still be wearing someone’s grandma’s 1973 avocado-and-goldenrod decor in all its mirrored splendor, then so be it. They were confident that they could undo even the most severe of cosmetic tragedies, and in fact preferred to do so if it meant they could make their own design choices and get a deep discount on the home. They would, and I quote, “never fall in love with a home,” as they felt the emotional attachment would impair their bargaining position.

Yeah. Until they did.

So we had put their place on the market, knowing that in their price range and neighborhood, it could easily take 45 to 60 days to get an offer, then another 30 or 40 to close escrow. And they needed the money from that sale to buy the next place, so the plan was to close escrow, for them to move in with her parents for awhile and then to leisurely house hunt with down payment in hand until they found the perfect deal.

But they were ready to call all bets off when they found a house they just had to have just three weeks after putting their place on the market. They weren’t even supposed to be house hunting yet, but they had seen an Open House sign while driving through a friend’s neighborhood that they’d always admired. Thinking they’d maybe be able to get some design ideas, they walked in the door and did the one thing they said they’d never do -- they fell in love.

From the refinished matchstick hardwoods with cherry borders to the stainless steel 6-burner Wolf range to the window seats under the dozens of restored multi-light windows, it was like the years of conversations they’d had about what their dream home would look like had gone straight to the housing deity’s ears, resulting in this particular home.

“It’s the one, Tara,” she said over the phone. “I. Want. THAT. House. Whatever I have to do to get it, I’ll do it. It is the house for me.” “I hear you loud and clear,” I said. “Let me do some research and get back to you.” I knew they wanted that place, in that moment, and believe me -- I would have loved to have sold it to them. It was, after all, at the top of what we believed would be their price range after they sold their home. But I also knew enough about that neighborhood to know that the list price was artificially low and was likely to generate multiple offers, which meant that the home would likely sell for substantially more than they could afford.

And speaking of things they couldn’t afford -- uh, can you say double mortgage payments? I just didn’t think they were in a financial position where any bank would agree to give them a new mortgage to buy this place without having sold their current home.

Be careful about falling in love with a new home before selling your previous one -- many people cannot afford double mortgage payments. 

The Workaround. On the positive side, I knew that they hadn’t looked in that neighborhood before and weren’t aware that there were often new listings that came up that were similarly lovely but smaller, in less perfect cosmetic condition -- places that would be priced more appropriately for them.

So I did quick work. Never one to rely on my assumptions, well-founded though they might be, I talked with their mortgage broker and the listing agent on their dream home -- both confirmed what I’d expected. These folks could not get a new mortgage before selling and, in fact, there were already multiple offers on the place above the asking price.

Before I reported the bad news, I gathered some good news. I pulled some other recent listings in the area that were similar to this home in essential features but priced lower and in need of some work -- just to show them that they could do the smart thing and wait to buy without totally giving up on the idea of their dream home.

I also put out some feelers, emailing the listing agents of all those recent, similar listings and a few other folks I knew worked that area, letting them know what we were looking for and that we’d be looking in a few months. I even got a couple of replies from agents who were already planning to list properties that fit the bill in our ideal time frame.

The Result. Eventually, my folks got over the disappointment, helped by the prospect of having first crack at some listings no other buyers even knew about and by the idea that they might be able to get what they wanted at a lower price. Funny enough, they ended up buying a place that bore no resemblance whatsoever to their “dream home.” Apparently, they had multiple versions of that dream. And I walked away knowing that no matter how hard-core they profess to be, anyone can fall in love with a house.

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