Places I Didn’t Live: House Hunting in Oakland, Calif.

In April, my boyfriend Nate and I decided we wanted to buy a house in Oakland. Or more accurately, what happened is we decided we wanted to live in a nicer place than our current San Francisco apartment, realized we couldn’t afford the rent in the city anymore and thus couldn’t move to a better apartment, and then thought it best to move to Oakland before we couldn’t afford that anymore either.

A few of our friends had bought their first homes in Oakland in the last year. “If they can do it, we can definitely do it,” we laughed haughtily to each other in our Mission District bedroom that doubled as our living room, sitting on a scarily stained couch we got for free on Craigslist. “We’re really good at being adults.”

We visited a mortgage lender and learned we were pre-approved for a $580K loan, a figure I originally balked at. Isn’t that kind of a lot to spend on your first home/anything? I thought. The short answer: yes. In San Francisco: No.

But, Nate and I reasoned, we want to continue to live in the Bay Area, which is getting more and more expensive. With the help of our mortgage guy’s handy spreadsheet, we learned that after taxes, our monthly mortgage payments on a $580K house would cost just a couple hundred dollars more than what we were currently paying in rent for our SF apartment, which was $1,450. After we realized that, the decision to invest in a house seemed easy.

What we didn’t realize was that actually finding a house to buy would not be easy.

House 1: The Compound
Location: Ghost Town
Asking Price: $520K
Our Bid: $580K

The day Nate and I decided we were ready to take the plunge, I emailed the agent all our friends used: a woman they billed as a straight-shooting, well-dressed, tattooed lesbian who drove a Mercedes with a vanity plate that announced her name: Bobbi V.

We hadn’t even met Bobbi in person before she urgently sent us this listing. “The Oakland market is crazy right now,” she cautioned over the phone. “If you don’t buy in the next two months, you’re gonna be priced out.”

Though we needed to move quickly, she assured us she wouldn’t send us to any gross houses, noting that this house in particular was “super swank.”

Indeed, this house was super swank. It was owned by a professional carpenter who had spent years customizing every inch of the property. Every door, panel, and piece of built-in furniture was made of hand-carved wood; the ceilings were high with stained glass skylights; the floors were heated and made of cork. The backyard was a huge cement lot the owner had filled with several lifted garden beds on wheels, a chicken coop, a fireplace, a hot tub, and a sauna. There were three garages, one which had been converted into a workshop. The entire property was surrounded by a tall wooden fence shrouded with foliage that blocked anyone shorter than nine feet from peeking in. “Become the master of your own Compound,” the seller advertised on his listing.

Nate fell in love immediately, rattling off the order in which he’d complete all his dream woodworking projects in the garages. He announced he’d only walk around naked in the backyard just because he could, making the open house attendees within earshot uncomfortable.

The house was in a pretty sketchy neighborhood (hence the 9-foot tall fence), so Nate and I thought we had a shot at getting it. Who else would want it but us? The only other open house-goers we saw were nerdy-looking dudes wearing Google and Facebook employee hoodies, all of whom radiated “please mug me” vibes. Surely none of those clowns would be dumb enough to move into this part of town.

Our offer of $580K was beat by an all-cash offer of more than $700K. Bobbi guessed it was a Google employee.

 

House 2: The Stepford
Location: The Wasteland
Asking Price: $549K
Our Bid: $555K

We moved on to the next house the same day we found out we didn’t get the Compound because, as Bobbi continued to remind us, there were more buyers than houses in Oakland.

I audibly gasped when I stepped into this, the Stepford. It was a huge craftsman with custom built-ins and grand staircase right at the entrance. The bottom floor was laid out for entertaining: the living room looked into the dining room, which looked into the kitchen over a wraparound bar. “Think of all the dinner parties I could throw!” I cooed dreamily to Nate as I spun around the entryway with my arms outstretched. (It should be said: I don’t cook.)

The upstairs had four large bedrooms, ripe for stuffing with babies. This was perhaps why Nate hated this house, though he told me it was because there was no toolshed in the backyard. It was also located on a weird block, which was a busy street still somehow in the middle of nowhere.

It was true, there was no shed. And yes, when we left after our first tour, the neighbor’s house a few doors down was surrounded by four cop cars with the lights flashing. A little weird.

Based on these two details, in an email to Bobbi, I asked, “Is it possible to slash the price tag here? We wouldn’t want to spend more than $500K on this house at the absolute most.” Though Bobbi convinced us to bid a little over the asking price, we still attempted to haggle with the seller’s agent. The seller laughed in our faces. This house sold for $610K.

 

House 3: The Postage Stamp
Location: Diet Temescal
Asking Price: $449K
Our Bid: $565K

We’d be house hunting for three weeks, having toured upwards of 40 houses, when we found this one. It was another craftsman. Nate and I agreed it was very pretty with its original fireplace and custom built-ins stained a deep, rich brown to match the wood floor.

It was also tiny. Nate guessed the backyard was about 16 square feet and called it a postage stamp. We were seeing this pattern emerge after just a few weeks of searching: the asking prices were staying the same, but sizes of the houses in our price range were getting dramatically smaller. Bobbi was right— if we didn’t hurry, we would be priced out of Oakland.

After exhaustively weighing the pros and cons, we decided to put in an early offer at $565K, $116K over the listing price. We’d been watching other houses in this neighborhood, located right on the border of South Berkeley, sell for $100K over their asking prices for the last week and a half, and we were getting desperate. It was a great offer, but the seller’s agent rejected it, saying he’d only show it to his clients if we added another $20K to our bid. We pulled out.

“That agent is greedy,” Bobbi sighed. “No one will come close to your offer.”

She was right (again). This house wound up selling for $485K, but not before the agent called Bobbi frantically a dozen times, begging her to put at least a portion of our offer back up, to which Nate and I were like, “LOL HELL NO YOUR HOUSE SUCKS WE DIDN’T LIKE THAT MUCH ANYWAY.” I imagine the sellers of this house have since murdered this agent.

 

House 4: The Storage Locker
Location: Berkeley, basically
Asking Price: $519k
Our Bid: $565k

Our LOLs were short-lived, though, when we realized we may have just screwed ourselves over by not buying the only house on the market we could afford. We began to get morose and desperate. That desperation took us to the outskirts of North Oakland to a neighborhood so far away from I’m still not entirely convinced it wasn’t in the middle of Orinda.

When we walked through the door to the open house, we were greeted by a team of sellers agents. They clearly thought they were a handsome power couple and it annoyed me immediately.

Nate was asking the woman some standard questions (why are the owners selling? how new is the foundation really?) when her man literally stepped in front of her to cut her off with, “Don’t worry—there is a white couple who lives right across the street!”

I uncomfortably stared at my feet while Nate let out a short burst of awkward laughter. There was a long silence before I sputtered out an, “That’s…yes.”

I left the conversation wondering if he reassured all their white potential buyers like that, but I wasn’t so distracted by their unprofessionalism that I couldn’t see the house was a mess. The sellers had made the poor remodeling decision to put the master bedroom in what was supposed to be the garage. It wasn’t exactly cozy, but it was the only house on the market that week that was in our price range, so Nate and I began seriously discussing how we’d feel about sleeping in a storage locker like a bunch of camping supplies.

Bobbi reminded us the window to buy was closing quickly. She also let us know the house wasn’t getting many offers, so there would be less of a chance to get outbid. She talked us into seeing the house with her after hours with a six-pack of beer. This was a clever tactic to get us to loosen up and put up an offer, and it worked.

Bobbi left us at the house to finish our beers while she rushed to her office to put in the last-minute bid. Nate and I pretended like we had already moved in, dancing tipsily around the living room and talking about where we’d put all our stuff. Before leaving, I peed in the master bathroom, only to find the water had been shut off and I couldn’t flush. Embarrassed, we hurried to catch our ride, forgetting to return the house keys to the lockbox. The sellers agents learned of our after-hours party the next morning when they ran into Nate creeping around the yard, trying futilely to sneak the keys back in place.

We never heard back on our offer. The house was mysteriously pulled off the market, and when I search for it on Google Street View now, there’s nothing left but an empty lot. Maybe the owners figured out I desecrated the toilet and burned it to the ground?

 

House 5: The Dream House
Location: The most perfect block in Temescal
Asking Price: $470K
Our Bid: $571K

When we first began our house search, Bobbi told us we’d have this moment where we’d walk into a house and just know it was supposed to be ours. I wrote off this idea as a bunch of hippie dipshit sentimentality, but when we walked into this house, that feeling of sad, yearning belonging completely washed over me.

It was an early century craftsman with tons of space and natural light. The appliances were new but nothing had really been remodeled, making it the funnest kind of fixer upper. The previous owners had built a brick oven in the backyard very similar to one I saw in a GOOP newsletter about how to make your own wood-fire pizza. “First, take the organic ingredients your personal shaman picked up from the local farmers market in Marseille to your backyard’s artisanal wood-fire stove,” Gwyneth Paltrow had instructed, as if most normal humans have these things. But now, look at me! I would have one of them! Isn’t that great for me, Gwyneth?!

We put in an early offer and the seller verbally accepted, confirming this house was fate. Nate and I were over the moon. I blasted out the announcement that we’d bought our dream house all over social media. Later that night, Bobbi called with bad news.

“The sellers are refusing to sign the paperwork,” she said. “They want to see if they can get a higher offer.”

We went back and forth with the agent for a few days, and the house eventually sold to someone else for $593K I wept when I found out, and I hated myself for it.

 

Thirty-nine days into her search, Rebecca Pederson scored a gorgeous Victorian in West Oakland for $422K. She is very happy none of those other stupid houses worked out. Photo: Daniel Ramirez

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23 Comments / Post A Comment

garli (#4,150)

Ugh, I can super relate to this story. I just closed on a house in Santa Barbara 2 weeks ago. We made well over 10 offers, often 20-40K over asking over the course of about 6 months. Usually the DAY things went on the market. Kept losing to all cash offers. With a mortgage the bummer is you can’t just go to a lower price point and super over bid – if the house doesn’t appraise where your accepted offer is the bank is likely to reject it.

We totally snuck into the market though. Our agent took an obnoxious/cute picture of my husband and I and sent it out to an entire neighborhood with a note about how we were looking to buy our first home and if anyone would consider selling it to us she could save them the trouble of putting it on the market/holding open houses ect.

@garli Brutal. I wrote letters to the sellers on the houses we reallyyyyyyy wanted. Totally didn’t help at all, hah.

garli (#4,150)

@RebeccaPederson Oh yeah, we did that with the normal offers that we made, but this letter was to people who weren’t even on the market. So we didn’t have to lose a bidding war.

We super crazy lucked out because the lady who owned the house thought my husband looked like her grandson and that is the entire reason she sold it to us.

honey cowl (#1,510)

Love this. We’re renting, but just finally found an apartment that’s not insanely expensive & is somewhat decent. I have also cried over losing an apartment. Can’t wait for the whole buy-a-house circus… hopefully not for another 10 years or so?

AB (#4,403)

Can the author come back and please show the math they used to determine that “after taxes, our monthly mortgage payments on a $580K house would cost just a couple hundred dollars more than what we were currently paying in rent for our SF apartment, which was $1,450″? Did they have a 20% down payment? Does this include property taxes and insurance? This seems…not right.

@AB We had the money for a 20% down payment. I think the mortgage payments for us on a $580k house would have been about $2600/month, but I unfortunately can’t quite remember. We didn’t need to get mortgage insurance because we had that down payment money.

We got a house for $422k (SO MUCH CHEAPER UGH THANK GOD), so our mortgage payment is $2200/month.

deepomega (#22)

@RebeccaPederson I’m assuming that’s PITI, right? We bought 435k, and ours is 2200, so that’s right on the money. Of course, now interest rates are spiking, so good timing. It’s only gonna get worse!

@deepomega I get dizzy just thinking about it.

anniemse (#5,965)

I bought a house in June last year after searching for a couple of months, we saw a lot of beautiful houses located in the best neighborhood but we did not have enough money. The previous owners of the house we decided to buy installed hardwood flooring and I liked it a lot, plus it was near my workplace and I did not have to spend two hours on the road.

ThatJenn (#916)

My friends all tried to convince me to move to Oakland 2-3 years ago, and even then I just thought… the jump in cost of living/housing would be so much I could never plausibly save up enough to move there, even if I got a sweet job offer for much more than I make now. And now it’s worse. But I have to admit my friends who live there have much cooler professional lives than I could ever dream of.

hellonheels (#1,407)

Oh man, this hits close to home (no pun intended). I have pretty much given up on buying in the Bay Area because we are not willing to move to Oakland or points further to afford a place (not out of snobbishness but due to particular circumstances of my boyfriend’s job) and San Francisco is just too expensive, not to mention competitive. Once we are ready to settle down, we are probably going to move down to San Diego, which is still a tough market, but better. (Of course I would be lying if I said it was just the housing market that influenced this decision. It turns out that I just can’t with the SF weather. I need a predictable amount of sunshine and temperatures over 70 degrees.)

madrassoup (#929)

I love stories like this! And while I get that talking about the place you did move into didn’t fit the format, it would have been great to see it and know what ultimately made the difference.

That said, why do white people do that thing where they relay a racist thing someone said that they didn’t react to in the moment? Is it just to convey that they didn’t like it? Because, I’m pretty sure that realtor power couple pulled a Fair Housing Violation, so even if you’re not going to file into the streets for social justice you could at least report it. But don’t just sprinkle it in for flavor, or wrose, make it yet another element of how hard your house hunt was.

garli (#4,150)

@madrassoup As a white person who as recently done something similar (I was shopping for a washing machine and the salesman said he didn’t recommend LG as a brand because he didn’t speak Korean) I tell everyone that story because I don’t want them shopping at Warehouse Discount Center. Due to the racist salesman.

Don’t you ever relay f’ed up stuff people say to you with out taking action?

@madrassoup
re: The house we did buy, we called the sellers agent within a few hours of the listing going up and were able to check it out and decide to put in an early offer before it went to open house. The sellers were a really elderly couple who were basically just looking to get rid of their place. No one is taking early offers in the Bay Area right now because it is so competitive. Open houses drive up the price tag. If this house had shown, we guaranteed would have been outbid, so we got extraordinarily lucky.

re: The race comment, I just thought it was a funny, bizarre thing that happened. Like, obviously if I was an insane, gross person whose top house-hunting concern was having all white neighbors, I probably wouldn’t be looking to buy in Oakland. I wasn’t so much offended as I was embarrassed for them. The woman seemed pissed he said it, so I’m sure he got an earful after everyone left. My agent said she had never heard these agents’ names before, so she guessed this was their first house. I wouldn’t want to report it and potentially cost her her job just because her husband is clearly an idiot and/or babbles when he’s nervous.

@madrassoup The racial comments might seem out of place in certain locales. I guarantee you that here in Memphis, where I live, things like that cross realtors’ lips all the time. Sadly, we still have a situation where black neighborhoods are worth much less, per square foot, that white neighborhoods are. Oh wait…the whole nation is like that. It’s not just us.

Fucked up, is what it is.

OllyOlly (#669)

I am pretty convinced I will never own a house. This stuff is terrifying.

My mom recently convinced a seller in Baltimore to come down to her price (he had decided how much the home was worth, and it wasn’t what the market was telling him). She did this by writing a letter about praying and God or something, and then the guy wrote her back that he prayed and God told him to sell the house to her. My mom IS religious so maybe this isn’t a dirty trick, but certainly a bizarre one.

NoName (#3,509)

I’m glad you found a house you like. I’ve been living in Oakland on and off for 17 years and this is the third housing boom I’ve seen. A lot of people have come to Oakland, but it’s still Oakland. A lot of people are going to leave again for various reasons, and the market will probably tank, again.

sony_b (#225)

Ugh. We did exactly this last year. I have repressed the memory of how many rejections we had.

We started looking for a fixer in Alameda and ended up in a 5 year four story townhouse in the hills between the zoo and Mills.

And for serious, I think Bobbi was my neighbor for a while in Alameda, if that’s her real name.

The thing that still drives me bonkers is the hidden foreclosure inventory around here- the price inflation is still all bullshit. If you go to the paper and look at the home sales database, and then look at the foreclosures database, you can see all the stuff that is missing. Literally hundreds of houses that have been foreclosed in the last year that have never been sold. I spent all of two hours one friday night copying and pasting the data into excel. It was really astounding, and we went and drove by several of the foreclosures. They were not crap properties.

I still “own” a condo on the beach in Alameda that has been empty for a over a year, and I haven’t paid the mortgage, taxes, or HOA fees. B of A hasn’t noticed yet, apparently.

shannowhamo (#845)

Why is it the first time I decide to buy a house, the market is like this?! I’m in Dallas and it’s crazy (crazy on a smaller scale, of course.) There’s this one house we really like (online and driving by it) and it’s the only house I’ve been seriously eyeing that hasn’t been snatched up. What’s horribly wrong with it? We’ll find out tomorrow!

elizapeachpit (#4,406)

This makes me want to jump off the Bay Bridge. I had intended to live in Oakland for the rest of my life, to have kids here and a stupid garden here and all that bullshit and now I’m prepared to burn this entire fucking state to the ground and move to the moon. Fuck your tech bullshit. Fuck Google, fuck Facebook, fuck San Francisco, fuck capitalism, fuck money, fuck everyone, I’m out.

Jinxie (#2,987)

@elizapeachpit Seriously. On the one hand, housing in San Francisco has pretty much always been hard to come by, and costly if you could get it, and the tech companies do contribute a lot of money into the local economy, but. . . I will never be able to settle down here. Not unless I marry rich or win the lottery. Not only will I never be able to buy a home, I’m not sure I could even afford to live without roommates. It’s disheartening, because I love this place and I could see myself spending the rest of my life here, but it’s just not practical for the lifestyle I want.

squishycat (#3,000)

@Jinxie I often desperately wish that my parents hadn’t sold the house they bought in Noe Valley in the 1980s. They sold it because they were buying a house in San Jose, because my father had started working for the Mercury News and the commute was just killing him, and his relationship with baby me, so it wasn’t an unreasonable decision at the time (and when we moved to the D.C. area later, they kept that house, which provides an ok rent income). The problem is we always intended to move back to SF/the bay area, and we did in 2004 – and my parents have been renting the same house in the Sunset since, and I only moved out when I was able to move in with my boyfriend, who, ah, works in the tech industry and can afford the rent. (Also we live in the Richmond instead of somewhere trendier, but I also happen to rather like it.) Moving out of SF isn’t an option for me, since I would basically have to find another job and another school (I don’t drive, and BART doesn’t run early enough for me to get to work). My boyfriend *is* moving to an SF-based team, so he will no longer be one of those assholes who lives in SF and commutes to the South Bay. But he wants to buy property at one point, and even with the money he has invested, a house here would be a giant struggle for us. If my parents didn’t have rent to pay, they’d be able to help us out with a house (which they would be willing to do, as my mother’s parents did the same for them and it’s something that is done in my family), but they do, because they can’t live in the San Jose house, as my father now works in SF.

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