A Little Backstory

In 2007, we bought our first home.  The market at that time was extremely tight and there were run down shacks on tiny slices of land going for upwards of $300,000 in the Seattle area.

 We found a house that needed some work, but I’m an extremely handy guy and was able to take it on.  Six years later, I had completed a huge amount of work on the house. We had a toddler at home and another baby on the way.  We either needed to undertake the massive project of moving the house’s staircase or finish our projects and move on.  We chose the latter since we bought conservatively the first time around and our prospects had improved.

I had been passively browsing the area housing market for a long time when I got a Zillow alert of a new construction house for sale two blocks up the road from our place.  It was new year’s eve when I walked the lot where a pair of mirroring houses stood, complete up to siding and windows, with about 20% work remaining.  The grounds were frozen mud and through the windows I could see a mess of construction and incomplete details.  My wife and I toured it two days later and I immediately fell in love with this house.

Unfortunately, several things weren’t right about this pair of homes.  The northern one was our favored layout and position, but the color scheme and finish were all wrong.  The southern one was styled nicely but steeped in shade all day long.  Also, the timing could hardly be worse.  We had a baby due in one week and we weren’t in a position to make offers on a new house while we still owned our other one–which required a massive amount of work before it was ready to sell.  So, I got the builder’s name from the MLS and began a dialogue.

I was highly motivated.  Over the next several weeks, we embarked on a massive effort to complete our home improvement projects.  When the baby was born (two weeks late), we moved into a spare bedroom with family and redoubled the herculean effort (with massive help from family).  A month after the baby was born, our house went onto the market and it was under contract five days later.

All the while, we had been touring houses to gauge how best to finish the house we were selling as well as to help determine what we wanted for our next home.  We wanted Redfin to help us find our dream home so we could move right in.  The market was bleak.  Seattle had returned to the insanity of multiple offers and bidding wars.  The run-down $300K shacks of the bubble had rebounded from their recession lows and were now selling for $250K and up.  Some with multiple offers.

My wife and I took what we were learning on our tours and created a priority list of twenty-something items and attributes we might want in our next house.  We both gave a 1-10 score to each line item and totalled the scores for each item to help us determine our criteria.  Our top priorities were lots of sunlight and no major projects.  As much as I enjoyed the remodeling experience, I feel like I’ve “been there, done that” and would prefer to spend my leisure time relaxing with my family instead of remodeling (or feeling guilty for not remodeling).  This meant either new construction or a fully updated and modernized older house.

All this led us to look at the meager housing inventory and abysmal quality of many of the older homes in our price range. “Bring your hammer and imagination” was a recurring theme among even the pricier listings.  Add multiple offer madness to the mix and you get a very unappealing market.  I became enamored with the idea of a spec home pre-buy.  With that, I figured we could skip the market madness and customize just about anything to boot!

I toured the D. R. Horton hoods and called a dozen builders to see what they had pre-market.  I contacted several agents and poured over the MLS and craigslist.  I found that there just wasn’t a lot of spec building ongoing in early 2013.  The few unlisted ones I found knew the score and wanted to list their properties on the MLS for a market-wide review instead of selling to a single direct offer.  Once it hit the MLS, it was subject to the same bidding madness of the rest of the market.  The only pre-buys I found that were early or pre-construction were in deficient locations, I presume because the people listing them knew the property would take more time to sell.

There had to be a better way.  What if we bought our own lot?  Is that even possible?  It was time to consider build vs buy.

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