Leaving Nothing to Chance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wasn't reliance on luck that enabled Shelley and Steve Hall to spend just one day looking for a house and to close escrow three weeks later.

Rather, the trouble-free purchase of a two-story, 13-year-old Cape Cod in Brea for $450,000 was the payoff for months of planning and a determination to remain easygoing. For them, that precluded chiseling the seller repeatedly on the price or asking for fixes on such minuscule problems as small tears in window screens.

"Why would we ask her to fix those things," Shelley, 35, said, "when our intention was to close in three weeks?"

The Halls' home-buying mission began last year when they decided to leave the Bay Area, where they bought their first home in 1995, and move back to Southern California to be near family and friends. Shelley grew up in Long Beach; Steve is an Oxnard native.

Though Steve, a history teacher, could find a job many places, as an engineer who tests medical devices, Shelley could most likely find work in San Diego, north Orange County or the Ventura/Santa Barbara region.

San Diego was ruled out because neither of them was familiar with the area. Ventura/Santa Barbara has a growing medical technology sector, but it's too small to assure that Shelley could change jobs if she wished. North Orange County was finally selected when Steve said, "Why can't we live near Rich and Wendy?"--referring to friends who live in Brea. Other friends, including two of Shelley's childhood buddies and a former co-worker, also live in the area.

"We knew where we wanted to be and why," Shelley said. The decision allowed them to avoid a problem she had observed in other couples looking for a home, she said, who "are not even on the same page" in terms of location. "They're hoping to find one randomly. Finally one caves in because they're tired."

With the location narrowed--either Brea or Fullerton--Shelley took a job in the Bay Area that she knew would soon be transferred to north Orange County.

Then the couple searched for a real estate agent to list their Santa Clara home. To meet Realtors familiar with the neighborhood, they toured open houses nearby and explained their needs. From those meetings, they chose an agent from the two who "were sharp enough to tune into us," Shelley said, rejecting an agent who continued trying to sell them the house he was showing.

With their house on the market, priced $10,000 lower than similar homes to induce a quick sale, the Halls used the Internet extensively, first to find out how much they could afford to spend and then to get familiar with homes in Brea or Fullerton in that price range.

From Countrywide Home Loans (www.countrywide.com), the couple discovered they could qualify for a home costing up to $500,000. This was based on Shelley's salary and half of Steve's anticipated salary. With a more aggressive approach, the couple could have purchased a home in the $800,000 range, but they didn't want to be strapped with the large monthly payments that would require.

To read up on houses for sale in Brea and Fullerton, they looked at Realtor.com, HomeGain.com and www.winston4homes.com, the site of Fullerton Realtor Winston Creel.

Then they chose an agent recommended by friends. Mary Hutchison, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Brea, has sold real estate in the area since 1977 and raised her children there.

Hutchison encourages all her buyers to get pre-approved or well pre-qualified for a loan before looking for a home. If buyers are not looking in the right price range, Hutchison said, "it's heartbreaking to them and a waste of time."

The Halls next considered their priorities in a home, which were somewhat contradictory. They wanted the charm of an old Craftsman house but the conveniences of a new house and at least 2,000 square feet of space.

"There's a lot to say for new houses, like insulation," said Steve, noting that their previous house was built in 1956 and had a lot of "mid-century charm." The Halls finally decided that if they could find a nice house on a street with large trees, they could give up a lot of other things.

They rejected fixer-uppers, which Steve called "the trap of potential," and managed their expectations by telling themselves: We're never going to find the perfect house. In their Internet searches, the Halls came across many houses that fit their needs and wants but didn't let themselves fixate on any of them. "We're not going to get this one," Shelley said in one search. "We haven't sold our house."

Their determination to have escrow close on their old house before focusing on the next was motivated partly by the competitive real estate market, where sellers are not likely to accept offers with a sale contingency. It was also Shelley's way of avoiding frustration if their sale fell through. "That's too much stress," she said. "I don't like disappointment."

On Monday of the week escrow was closing, the couple packed up their belongings. The next day they sent them into storage, and on Wednesday "we started driving south," Steve said. In Shelley's relocation package, the couple received a month of furnished temporary housing.

Friday of that week, a rainy day last December, the Halls went to an ATM to confirm that escrow had been completed and the funds were in their account.

By the time they met with Hutchison, the only task left was selecting a house. Hutchison drove them to more than a dozen houses of varying ages that met the criteria they had discussed.

Two seemed likely candidates, and the couple came back early that evening to walk the respective neighborhoods. "You see the sights, you smell the smells, you hear the sounds," Steve said.

Both houses were fairly new, but the neighborhoods seemed sterile and cookie-cutter to the Halls. Near the first house, they decided the din of traffic from a nearby boulevard was unacceptable. As they approached the second house, though, they turned a corner and were astonished to see a "you-won't-believe-the-Christmas-lights street," which Shelley said boded well for the neighborliness of the area. "You can imagine people talking to each other."

The house the couple chose has two stories with a mix of blue-gray siding, tan stucco and white trim.

On the downside, it doesn't have a downstairs bedroom, which the couple had wanted, and it's a "snout house," meaning the garage sticks out at the front of the property.

On the upside, when the garage doors on the other snout houses in the neighborhood opened, they revealed a community of do-it-yourselfers. "There's a lot of table saws on this street," Shelley said. And the house has more than the 2,000 square feet of space they wanted.

To facilitate a quick purchase, the Halls offered the seller $450,000 for the house, which was listed at $459,000.

When the property report came back with a list of minor problems, the couple agreed to fix those themselves.

"We were prepared to overlook anything little," Shelley said.

After 29 days in temporary housing, the couple moved into their new home. Steve began his job hunt and was hired recently as a librarian at La Puente High School.

The months of preparation and footwork paid off. "We've got everything we need down here," Shelley said. "Two jobs and a house."

"I'm so happy to be back," Steve said.

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At a Glance

Home-buying strategy: Prepared well in advance for an easy purchase by first determining where to look, knowing the price range and avoiding sales contingency.

Home bought: 13-year-old Cape Cod in Brea with more than 2,000 square feet.

Purchase price: $450,000

Down payment: $90,000 (20%)

Buyer's agent: Mary Hutchison, Coldwell Banker, Brea, (714) 626-3041, www.maryhutchison.com

Seller's agent: Rob Pocock, Coldwell Banker, Brea, (714) 626-3055

Loan broker: Columbia Mortgage Corp., Fullerton, (714) 871-6800

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Freelance writer Kathy Price-Robinson can be reached at www .kathyprice.com.

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