How to soothe heartbreak when house slips away

SMART MOVES

March 22, 1992|By ELLEN JAMES MARTIN

There's the fish that got away. There's the love-of-your-life that got away. And then there's the house that got away.

As the home market warms in many communities, people are once again suffering that chilling feeling that comes when someone unexpectedly buys the house you thought was just right for you.

"These are heartbreak situations," says Gene Gallagher, principal broker of an ERA Realty office in Bethesda.

"By the time you've decided to buy a house, you've got a lot of emotion invested in it. Then if you don't get it, you have an exaggerated feeling of loss -- like a pet that's died or a family member who has gone away," says Robert Irwin, author of "Tips and Traps When Buying a Home," a McGraw-Hill paperback.

But while your anger and regret may be intense in the hours after you've lost out to another homebuyer, they'll probably be short-lived, Mr. Irwin says.

The majority of buyers who go through a house-that-got-away experience feel better soon. And most go on to purchase a home they like even better.

There are some buyers so fussy that only one particular Victorian, contemporary or custom-designed home will suit their tastes. But for the vast majority of people, one of dozens or hundreds of similar homes will be suitable. Homes are not as interchangeable as cars, but they're more of a commodity than many first-time buyers realize, realty specialists say.

A Charles Village woman was crestfallen last week when she and her husband lost out to another bidder for the purchase of a colonial in Columbia. But counsel from the woman's father, a veteran homebuyer, provided a lift.

"He told us that houses are like trolley cars," she recalls. "There's always another one coming by."

To buyers seeking to maximize their chances of getting the right home, real estate experts provide these suggestions:

* Don't waste time blaming your agent for the house that got away.

You probably lost the house because of the terms you offered or unfortunate timing. Rarely is the agent at fault, says Mr. Irwin.

The agent you engaged to find a home is probably legally bound to the seller. "Still, it's to the agent's decided advantage to get you the house because, without a sale, there's no commission for him," Mr. Irwin says.

A small minority of agents are incompetent. If your agent somehow bungled the presentation of your contract offer or didn't immediately present your proposal to the seller or the seller's representative, you may want to find a new agent, Mr. Irwin recommends. But even in this case, hurling accusations at your agent is a waste of time.

"Keep focused on your goal of getting a house and don't get into a fight. All it will do is slow you down," Mr. Irwin says.

* Don't let the sting of a spurned contract offer cause you to buy the wrong house on the rebound.

Because losing a home is so disappointing, many people are tempted to buy one of the properties they encounter next -- even if it doesn't meet their requirements, says Mr. Gallagher, the Bethesda broker.

But buying on the rebound could bring even greater remorse.

"If there's one on your list that's an "A" or an "A+," go for it. But if it's a "C," take your time and re-evaluate," advises Edward Heron, a branch manager for the Prudential realty chain.

If you've been searching for a home for a while, you can usually trust your instincts on whether a property is right for you, says Margaret Opsata, who writes about real estate as a contributing editor to the personal finance magazine Worth.

"There's an emotional payback for waiting to find the right house. People have a sense that they'll know it when they see it," she says.

* Learn from your mistakes and don't let a great house get away the next time.

Bargain houses go very fast in any real estate market, Mr. Irwin cautions. And although it's good to strike the best deal you can, it's penny-wise-and-pound-foolish to risk losing a well-priced house that you adore over a demand that the seller throw in the chandelier, leave the potted plants or repair the broken screens.

You can also lose a great house by failing to act quickly to make a bid when the opportunity arises. The still-unsettled economy has many homebuyers jittery over the possibility that they could lose their jobs or suffer pay cuts, says Prudential's Mr. Heron.

Even in the best of times, buying a home is a major purchase that makes some people so nervous they become very hesitant, he says.

Because buyers' markets have prevailed in many neighborhoods for months, some people believe they can prolong a buying decision, Mr. Heron says. This is especially true when they're eyeing a property that's been on the market for months.

But many buyers fail to realize that their interest could very well spark interest from others, Mr. Heron notes. When one set of buyers gets serious about a home, word spreads quickly through realty channels and, very often, other buyers start to see the property as desirable, too.

Do whatever research you feel is essential to make the right buying decision. But once you've reached your decision on a particular property, don't wait to make your overture to the seller.

"Don't be lulled into complacency of thinking you can just take your time making an offer," Mr. Heron says.

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