“Are you sure that you want to make an offer so close to the holidays? Aren’t you leaving for a road trip to Florida tomorrow? Maybe you’d like to wait until you get back?”
“Susan’s words,” I will tell Hubbie a few days from now, “really should have warned us.” Only right now, even though her questions slightly surprise us, they do not alarm us in the least. Because, let’s face it. Approaching holiday travels have nothing to do with making an offer on a house, do they? It’s not as if we’re buying the place. Chances are the seller won’t even bother to reply to our offer.
“Well,” Hubbie tells Susan over the speaker phone, “we are indeed leaving tomorrow, but we’d just like to get the whole process started before.”
“Okay,” Susan replies, “There are two ways we can do this; the written way, but that might be hard to follow up on during your trip. Or we can do it electronically.”
What about doing it over the phone? It’s just an offer we’re talking about. Hubbie looks at me. I shrug my shoulders.
“Let’s do it electronically,” he says at last.
“Okay. Just send me an e-mail containing your and your wife’s full names, your current address and the amount you’d like to offer.”
“Will do that in a minute,” my husband replies.
“Oh, also add the date you’d like to settle the sale, will you? And the coordinates of the bank that’s lending you money. And a scan of a check for 5% of the bidding amount. And are you going to take a loan for the full amount minus 10% or minus 20%? Also, please mention the interest rate. And …”
What? Why does she need all that information?
“Wow …,” Hubbie suddenly sounds much less relaxed and cheerful than just five minutes ago, when he lazily suggested the offer-making to me. “You need all that now?”
“I do. Once I have it all, I can prepare the paperwork and send it to you.”
The paperwork? What is she talking about?
“You mean you’re not just going to send an e-mail to the seller to inform him about our offer?” Hubbie asks.
“Oh no, we need official trace of this. Know what? To make it easier on you, you can call the bank and ask them to forward the loan information to me directly.”
“Okay,” Hubbie says, sounding a bit wary, “I’ll do that now. Talk to you later Susan.” He sighs as he hangs up.
I understand why. Just listening to the conversation made me tired.
Where we come from, when you like a house, you just pick up the phone and tell the owner how much you’re willing to pay for it. He thinks it over for a few days, then usually comes back with a counter-offer, which you usually counter-offer again and so on. Sometimes a real estate agent is involved in the game, but only as the oral relayer of all offers. After a week — or maybe even two — everyone agrees on a price. That’s when the potential buyer realizes he’d better start looking for some money to hand over when the ‘compromis’ or the contract is signed. A few days later, in the cosiness of the house that is the object of the buyer’s desire, a certified bank check covering a 10% downpayment gets exchanged. Rather ceremoniously — and often using a nice and heavy pen — each party signs a contract of some three pages, committing the seller not to accept any other offer and the buyer to finding a loan within three months. More often than not a bottle of bubbles is produced and both parties toast to a successful business deal, stoically ignoring the clause that states that should the buyer fail to find a loan, the 10% down payment will be returned to him and the sale will be cancelled.
It is a rather slow process as you can see. Hence why we want to get our offer out before leaving for Florida.
In America however, things seem to be done differently. Luckily my husband already contacted the bank last week, just to get an idea of our purchasing capacity. He promptly calls Sandra at the bank, who works Saturdays and Sundays, as if that is the most natural thing in the world. No single Belgian bank would even think of assigning an employee for weekend loan negotiations. Sandra kindly agrees to send all necessary information to Susan within the next hour. We look into our finances to find ways to get enough money in our checking account for the 5% down payment, knowing that writing an uncovered check is a big felony in the US. Then we prepare a mail for Susan containing our offer amount and preferred closing date, four months from now. As I am putting on my coat to leave for some last-minute errands with Eloise, the phone rings.
“About that settlement date,” Susan says, “April is really far away. There’s no way the seller will accept that.”
“Oh, so you think we’d better propose the end of March?” I hear Hubbie ask.
Susan chuckles, as if in response to a joke. “I’d rather go for mid-February,” she says, “at the latest.”
Wow, that’s less than two months from now!
When I get back home two hours later, I find Hubbie concentrated on his computer screen.
“I just got the offer documents from Susan,” he says, turning the laptop to me. “We need to initialize each page electronically and then sign the whole thing.”
I look over his shoulder and scroll down the first page of the document, then wait for the second page to materialize — which takes forever — then slowly move on to the third, then to the … Wait a minute;
“How many pages are there exactly?” I ask.
“Fifty-four,” Hubbie sighs.
Oh dear, this is going to take forever…
An hour and a half later we submit our signed offer to Susan who promises to get in touch with us as soon as she gets feedback from the seller.
“Merry Christmas in the meantime,” Hubbie says.
“Yes, well, I suppose we’ll talk before that,” she replies.
That soon? Christmas is only three days away. Surely the seller will need more time to think this over?
On Sunday, our car packed to the brim for our 2,000 mile trip, we hit the road. Traffic is smooth. We’re almost in North Carolina when my phone rings.
“Hi Helene, Susan here. I just heard back from the seller’s agent. He’s making a counter-offer.”
Wow, that’s quick! I write down the seller’s price and promise Susan to get back to her.
Hubbie seems as surprised as me with the quick reaction. While his gaze fixes on the road, we discuss the counter-offer, quickly agreeing it’s too high. Fifteen-year-old Eloise, whose focus on the tablet does not seem to impact her capabilities to listen in on our conversation, quickly interjects,
“You’re not going to let the house get away, are you? I really like it. I can see us living there.”
Seven-year-old Thibaut, his eyes trained on his swaying tablet, immediately chimes in,
“Me too, I love the house.”
An hour later I return Susan’s call. “We’ll meet the seller halfway, but that is our final offer,” I announce.
“Okay,” Susan says, “I’ll get you the new paperwork. Do you have internet access?”
New paperwork? Not again!
“We’re in the car right now. I’m not sure when we’ll stop for the night. Given that signing the paperwork on my computer took ages, I’m not sure how it’s going to work on the I-phone.” With this reply, I hope Susan will offer to just orally relay our new offer. No such luck.
“Let’s just give it a try,” she says, “You won’t have to sign as many pages now. Only about, let’s see, fourteen.” Fourteen?
“What if he doesn’t accept our final offer?” Eloise asks, looking up from her tablet for a few seconds.
“Then the house was not meant to be for us,” I reply.
“You don’t even sound as if you’d care.” She sounds shocked.
“We do, but not desperately. We’re pretty sure there are other good houses,” Hubbie replies while I slowly upload and sign one page after another on the I-phone.
Monday morning we wake up to a bright blue Savannah sky. I check my e-mail before hitting the road for the second stretch that will take us to an Orlando hotel close to Hubbie’s grandparents. A message from Susan awaits me.
‘The seller says that at that ridiculous price, he’d rather take the house off the market,’ it reads.
‘Too bad,’ I reply, relieved that I didn’t get myself too emotionally involved in all this. It’s sad we put all this time and effort in it, but at least we now know what to expect if we bid for another house. If anything, we have learned that it’s better not to ‘just start the process’ right before leaving on a trip.
The kids look disappointed as they climb into the backseat.
Once we’re on the road, Hubbie and I briefly discuss the fallen-through deal and jointly decide that we’re not sad it didn’t work out. We really liked the house, but it was all getting too serious too fast. Besides, we’re still contractually bound for eight more months to the rental house we live in now. It’s all for the best. We switch our focus on the holidays ahead and on the quality time we will enjoy with Grandma and Grandpa.
After checking into our hotel, Hubbie and I get installed on loungers while the kids jump into the pool. I fire up my laptop and check my email, only to find another mail from Susan.
‘The seller wonders why you omitted initializing page 13,‘ it reads. ‘Since he’s a lawyer, that makes him very suspicious. I will forward that page right away so you can sign it.’
What? Why would the guy read through a boring 54-page contract if he thinks our offer is ridiculous? Looks like he still does consider it!
That evening, while we seemingly leisurely stroll through the Downtown Disney area — home to our hotel — I hyperventilate at the thought of our pending purchase. What happened to our stance of ‘just making an offer and see where things lead’? Somewhere along the past two days things got pretty serious.
Trying to relax me, Eloise sums up the positives about the house and Hubbie reassures me that we are financially all set to take the plunge. I try to convince myself that I am totally okay with buying a house in the US; that I am ready to take this step that brings us closer to permanent US residency. Meanwhile, Thibaut is blissfully ignorant of my little panic attack. He’s just happy; to be at the Downtown Disney Lego store, to be close to Grandma and Grandpa, to be part of this family that might soon move into a new house where he just knows he will be happy too. Oh, the bliss of a confident and stress-free childhood!
By the time we get to the hotel room I am relaxed enough to fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow — or maybe I am just too exhausted by the long drive.
I awake at nine, brew a cup of coffee and settle with my laptop in the sunshine on our deck. Another mail from Susan awaits me.
‘Good news,’ it reads. ‘Your offer has been accepted. We have a ratified contract.’
Wow … That means I’ll soon be an American homeowner. Contrary to my state of mind yesterday, this information instantly relaxes me. My new home is in America and that feels just fine. I owe myself a few more minutes of solitude to fully absorb this new feeling, then walk into the hotel room where I find my awakening family members.
“We’ve got the house,” I announce.
“Wow! I’m so happy!” Eloise jumps up to hug me. Thibaut follows her cue. Hubbie seems to need a few seconds to fully register the news. Then he walks up to us to complete the group hug.
“Susan needs a scan of the new check we will use to pay the deposit. She also needs us to fill out ….” While I sum up everything we need to do, Hubbie gets dressed, ready to take over the hotel business center for a few hours.
Only later that afternoon, as we are seated on Grandma and Grandpa’s couch, toasting to our new home with beer and Pepsi, do I realize what an extraordinary thing just happened. We bought a house on Christmas Eve’s day, while on the road, using a smartphone! What happened to heavy, luxury-brand pens that trace elegant signatures on the bottom of important documents? Or to champagne toasts on a new milestone?
What ensues are hectic days, shaping our vacation in quite a different way than planned. Every morning we wake up to a new mail from the bank or from Susan — God bless her for guiding us through this — containing a new mission for the day. Can we please send proof of where those funds we wired from Belgium came from? Did we think about scheduling a visit with a home inspector before January 5? Can we please send our three last tax return sheets? Haven’t we forgotten to send a registered mail containing a notarized letter to our current landlord to end the lease, four days before the end of the month?
How often during those days do I think back about Susan’s words, the day before we left. “Are you sure you want to do this now, so close to the holidays?” Now I understand what holiday travels – or any other travels for that matter – have to do with making an offer. Nothing! The two just don’t go together!
Then again, a new house for Christmas is a gift you can’t beat, can you?
Happy New Year!
Hélène Toye is the author of Go West, available on : http://amzn.com/1493592548