I Bought a House in Milwaukee Without Seeing It First
We hadn’t intended to buy a house unseen. My husband, Kumar, and I flew from New York City to Milwaukee early last year, hoping to find a suitable starter home during one long weekend. Three days is short, obviously, but it seemed possible: our realtor had cleared his schedule, and for the last two months (since Kumar had matched for a gastroenterology fellowship in Wisconsin), I’d researched the local real estate market and potential neighborhoods like it was a second job. We’d put all of our finances in order and were pre-approved for a mortgage. So we boarded the plane with a sort of calm confidence. We were going to make this happen.
We quickly learned that no matter how prepared you are, no matter how many real estate apps you receive notifications from, buying a house is a capricious game. By the end of our first day of looking, we’d put in an offer on our favorite house (one that I’d been following on Zillow, Trulia and Realtor for weeks). But after only a few days back on the east coast, that deal fell through. The old house had major structural problems; the inspector told us through phone calls and emails that the work needed to bring it up to code could start at $50,000.
“At this point, a more cautious couple would have decided to rent for a while.”
At this point, a more cautious couple would have decided to rent for a while. Common real estate advice emphasizes the importance of touring a rolodex of houses with your realtor. In fact, most first time buyers will spend two to three months looking at homes before writing an offer. We didn’t have three months, and we soon discovered that it was nearly impossible to find a month-to-month rental within commuting distance for Kumar that also allowed for our two small dogs.
Thus, over a few glasses of wine one night in our tiny Manhattan apartment, we laid out the facts: We’d spent several years throwing most of our income towards rent, we had two rescue dogs and were thinking about adopting a third, and we literally dreamt at night about outdoor space.
Buying a house was the right path for us, whether we could view it in person or not.
This stage was where apps reached their limits and our agent had to step up and fill in the gaps. Luckily, he was supportive of the non-kosher arrangement, as well as tech-savvy. He virtually walked us through properties, doing everything that we would do if we were there: opening closets, examining the ceiling for cracks, sitting in the living room to get a sense of the light, and holding his phone close to water stains or other anomalies so we could study them.
And within a week, our agent had conjured up an amazing option for us: a house that hadn’t been put on the (highly competitive) market yet, but fit all of our needs. It had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a new furnace, a little fenced-in yard and it was in the heart of our favorite neighborhood. We each explored the house with our agent through the lens of our phone screens at work that day, and made up our minds to put in an offer that night.
“Arriving on the doorstep of your new home is, I imagine, strange and exhilarating even if you’ve gone through the “normal” steps of buying it.”
The wait was horrible. Yet we took comfort in knowing that this waiting period — this momentary blind spot in our future — was likely no different whether we were over a thousand miles away or just living down the block. Fortunately we didn’t have to wait long — we got a late call that night from our realtor letting us know that our offer was accepted.
Arriving on the doorstep of your new home is, I imagine, strange and exhilarating even if you’ve gone through the “normal” steps of buying it. Yet, it was downright surreal to pull up in a U-Haul, having never even walked down our street before. We were road-weary, but our realtor, a familiar face, waited at the top of the stairs and led us into the house — our house. I noticed the yellow-tinted walls for the first time — they’d looked more beige on screen — and winced at the thought of all the painting that needed to be done.
But then I saw the light flooding in through the front windows and reflecting off the amber color of the hundred-year-old floors, and the beautiful cream color of the brick pillar in the dining room, and all I could think was, “This has so much potential,” followed by one word: “Home.”
Apartment Therapy’s My First Home series puts the “real” in real estate. We ask people from all across the country and all walks of life to share their stories on how they made their first home purchase happen.