Thinking of buying a house? Avoid the scary stuff: Read this first.
Closing on a home purchase feels like climbing out of a dungeon where your attention was held captive for months. You sense satisfaction and relief signing nearly a million settlement documents, paying for your appraisal and other required fees, and seeing the home’s ownership legally transferred to you.
Completing the settlement is like the first day of spring if you’ve been attentive and diligent throughout the buying process. If not, you could wind up in the graveyard at midnight on Halloween.
The Halloween closing can happen any month of the year, as Washington Otis discovered in 1880s Canterville Chase, Britain.
Otis closed on a lovely country castle, moving his family there on a pleasant July evening. As the couple and their children approached their new home, the sky “became suddenly dark with clouds” and “a curious stillness” held the atmosphere.
Otis had let his arrogance best his judgment in purchasing the place; the seller freely disclosed that 300 years earlier Sir Simon had murdered his wife, Lady Eleanore, in the library and that his guilt-ridden ghost still haunted the place. Otis scoffed. He said his fat wallet could fix any anomalies encountered in the home.
There are a couple of noteworthy points for the prospective home buyer in Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”: Don’t ignore the seller’s disclosures. Be humble. The heroine of the story, the young daughter, Virginia, serves to remind us to approach home buying with a childlike curiosity. Check out everything. Ask questions. Listen through the keyholes for demonic laughter.
In 2013, my wife and I bought a 1953 rambler with French doors admitting natural light into the front room. The back yard had established veggie gardens and an apple tree.
We had started our search in the spring, first meeting with a lender and getting pre-approved for a loan; this let us know right up front what we could afford. Then we began checking out likeable neighborhoods, often on bicycles, met some locals and scoped out homes on the market. A written list of “wants” vs. “needs” evolved.
Two of your best resources: your realtor and your intuition
After checking several references, we hired a well-vetted professional realtor. Having purchased and sold several homes over the years, I find the guidance and expertise of a friendly realtor refreshing. And remember that the seller pays the agent’s fees. I wear my realtors down to the bone. Our last one worked tirelessly to answer all of our questions as she toured or drove by a hundred houses with us. It took several months to find our palace.
I once offered $2,000 more than the asking price on a split-level in Sandy. In the 1990s, the market was fast and furious, and I’d already lost two prospects to cash buyers because my offers required that I first sell my current house (for the down payment). I thought that offering a little more than the asking price might secure the deal. After a brief discussion, my realtor agreed to follow my instincts. I got the house.
Saved by the inspector
Another critical component is the home inspector. Home inspection fees in Utah run $300-350 for an average three-bedroom house, depending on its square footage and age. The inspector will consult with you on the findings following the examination, then provide a detailed report with photos (and even video) within 24 hours.
Halfway through his scheduled three-hour inspection, the first inspector I hired found major deterioration of the concrete shelf foundation. Storage boxes had covered the evidence in the basement when I first saw the house. A man with scruples, the inspector offered to halve his fee and end the inspection. I paid him $150 and backed out of a purchase that might have cost me another $20,000 or more in foundation repairs.
A basic home inspection is essential. You’ll also want to discuss with your realtor whether you should check the tap water or test the structure for mold, termites, meth chemicals or radon. Each of these environmental tests will cost an additional $150-200, but they can illuminate potential problems.
Before closing on the Sandy house, my research exposed a nearby zone of lead fallout from a now-vanished smokestack a couple miles west of the property. I collected five soil samples from the flower and garden beds and sent them to a testing company. The results showed only incidental lead traces and I felt safe planting a garden in the spring.
Remembering such lessons, my wife and I did our homework in 2013. We met some neighbors, learned about the house’s history, and followed our guts. We paid attention to the seller’s disclosures. We hired a home inspector from a company that I worked with previously. He identified a list of mostly minor ghosts in the works, my “to do” list for a couple years.
It was autumn now and our closing date was set for Halloween.
A good Halloween closing
At the closing, an attractive witch in a business suit greeted us with a big smile, her perfect teeth gleaming underneath a black, pointed hat. She was our closing agent, the one you’re supposed to trust implicitly. We were early so I snooped around looking for lead-lined coffins. In one spacious office, a skeleton in a dark suit sat in a chair waiting for his loan to be approved. The witch told us that this guy was never pre-approved, and had been waiting a very long time.
Our realtor and lender fed into the frivolity as soon as they showed up. Spirits of integrity, they had attended hundreds of closings and knew that we were all well prepared. My skeptical mind still imagined goblins in every document and I read each one carefully. No time to falter now. Everything was in order, however. We signed the last page.
When our grinning loan officer slid a green bottle across the table, I joked that it was probably some mad potion.
It was champagne.
Marlin Stum is a freelance writer who always enjoys hearing a good ghost story.