‘I Lost My Job—and My Dream House’: How This First-Time Home Buyer Bounced Back

Imagine finding your dream home, then, a week before closing the deal, losing your job—and the house. House hunting during the coronavirus pandemic is no picnic.

COVID-19 has caused seismic changes not only to real estate markets, but also to the lives of home buyers hit with layoffs, furloughs, and other financial challenges. Just ask Katerina Rieckel, a digital strategist, knitwear designer, and first-time home buyer who, with her husband, was set to close on a glorious farmhouse in upstate New York in March.

But about a week before sealing the deal, Rieckel was laid off, which meant that she and her husband, a claims adjuster, could no longer afford the place.

As a part of our new series, “First-Time Home Buyer Confessions,” we asked Rieckel to share her story, and the hard-won lessons she wants to share with other first-timers.

Let her experiences show that even unemployment doesn’t need to spell the end of a house hunt—although it may require you to dust yourself off after a loss and try, try again.

Katerina Rieckel's farmhouse in upstate New York
Katerina Rieckel’s farmhouse in upstate New York

Katerina Rieckel

Location: Troy, NY
House specs: 1,544 square feet, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms
List price: $249,900
Price paid: $245,500

2020 has been a wild one. How did you end up buying a home in the middle of a pandemic?

We started looking for a house a year ago, about halfway through the summer. At the time, both my husband and I had recently got new jobs, so the first issue we ran into was getting pre-qualified for the mortgage without a long track record at those companies. We also both felt pressure, as our jobs were very new.

What were you looking for in a house, and what was your budget?

We were looking for a house in the country that was move-in ready, private with at least 5 acres. We started off with a small budget, max $200,000, which made our choices more narrow.

Our search continued well into the winter, and around January 2020, we finally saw a house that was all we ever dreamed of and more. It was over our budget, at $229,000, but it had been listed for over a year, so we felt there was a good chance we could get it for less than the asking price.

What did you love about this house?

It was a beautiful, slate-blue farmhouse sitting on top of a hill, surrounded by woods. The house was warm and inviting, with chickens running around, as well as a big diving pool, and a workshop in the basement connected with a two-car garage. We got along with the owners really well, and we were going to keep the chickens. Everything went very smoothly, until just over a week before closing.

Rieckel and her husband almost bought this house, but it wasn't in the cards.
Rieckel and her husband almost bought this house, but it wasn’t in the cards.

Global MLS

So what went wrong?

It was March, and COVID-19 hit hard. The digital marketing agency I worked for had clients pause their work for unknown time. I was laid off, which meant we couldn’t afford the house anymore, and had to back out of the deal.

I was crushed. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and the country was under a lockdown. We had plans for my parents to come visit us in our new house, but instead, I ended up with no job, no house, and I couldn’t see my family, since they live in Europe.

In the summer, I was very fortunate to get my job back. So we resumed our house hunt and began to search for a new contender.

When you started the search again, how had COVID-19 changed the market?

The housing market in upstate New York got totally crazy. I heard there were houses being sold within hours. The market was just incredibly competitive, and not many houses were being listed, as a lot of people didn’t want to let strangers in their house during the pandemic.

We saw about seven to 10 houses in person, but they usually ended up disappointing us, with some strange arrangements. For example, one house had around 25 acres, but half of that acreage was on the other side of the road, behind other people’s houses, which made it almost impossible to use.

The couple's pet cat has settled into their new digs, too.
The couple’s pet cat has settled into their new digs, too.

Katerina Rieckel

With such a competitive market, how did you end up finding the right house?

Finally, around halfway through the summer, I saw a house listed that I hadn’t noticed before. I called on it right away and set up a showing that evening.

The real estate agent told me we were really fast, as he had just relisted this house. Someone had been buying it, but backed out of the process because of personal reasons.

Their house has tons of privacy and a great view.
Their house has tons of privacy and a great view.

Katarina Rieckel

How did you know this house was the one?

The house had over 10 acres, it was in the country, and about 35 minutes to Troy. It was move-in ready, but definitely needed upgrades, as it looked like it got stuck in the ’80s.

Even though we didn’t like the style that much, we felt instantly comfortable and decided to put in an offer that same evening. It was partly due to the pressure of the market, but in the end, we are really happy we made this decision.

This house was totally 1980s, but Rieckel has been slowly updating it.
This house was totally 1980s, but Rieckel has been slowly updating it.

Katerina Rieckel

What surprised you most about the home-buying process?

Nothing prepares you for the amount of aggravation you have to go through. Buying a house is like getting a second job for about three months.

After a little work, Rieckel's home looks lovely.
After a little work, Rieckel’s home looks lovely.

Katerina Rieckel

What’s your advice for aspiring first-time home buyers?

Don’t trust the photos! The photos got me a few times. For example, a lot of times, the photos of the house are taken so that you can’t see the neighboring houses.

You think, “Wow, that looks so private!” Then you drive there, and you realize there’s a house sitting right next to it. Since privacy was very important to us, we got disappointed a few times by this. We started doing drive-bys first, before going in with a real estate agent, whenever possible.

Rieckel moved in in time to enjoy her new home for the holidays.
Rieckel moved in in time to enjoy her new home for the holidays.

Katerina Rieckel

Anything else home buyers should look out for?

Call the real estate agent and ask a lot of questions before you even go see the house, like what the property and school taxes are—very important around here.

You also want to know what kind of heating the house has, as electric bills can really add up over the winter.

The driveway can also be a huge issue, which is why I think the first house we were buying was for sale for such a long time. It had a pretty steep driveway, which was definitely an all-wheel drive kind of thing in the winter.

We also changed who we were financing with while we were going through closing. We needed someone well-informed about the economy, who knew what they were doing and was ready to act fast.

Our first mortgage broker didn’t tell us as soon as interest rates started to go up—and basically sat on the information for a while. This is when we stopped trusting this person and went to work with a bank instead.

Maybe the best advice is not to fall in love with a house too quickly, since there can be so many setbacks that you will not see coming.

It took a little longer than expected, but this family is finally happy in their new home.
It took a little longer than expected, but this family is finally happy in their new home.

Katerina Rieckel

Source: realtor.com

The Best Real Estate Advice of 2020: How the Pandemic Transformed Housing This Year

In some ways, buying a home got a lot easier in 2020, and in a lot of ways, it didn’t. Welcome to the mixed-up, unpredictable, unprecedented pandemic world we’ve all been living through. It’s truly been a year like no other. But no matter which way the pendulum was swinging, realtor.com was here to help you make the best of it.

Whether you were a first-time home buyer house hunting during the pandemic or a seller wondering how to get the best price for your property, we brought expert-approved insights to you all year long.

We’re (finally) just a couple of weeks away from 2021, but to help you head into the new year as a well-informed home buyer, seller, or owner, we thought we’d reflect on the top lessons we learned about real estate this year.

Take a look back at our best real estate advice of 2020, and click each headline to dive deeper into the topics that were top of mind for all of us.

Is it safe—and smart—to buy a house during the coronavirus crisis?
Is it safe—and smart—to buy a house during the coronavirus crisis?

erhui1979/Getty Images

As if deciding whether or not it’s time to purchase a home isn’t a tough enough decision, the coronavirus pandemic made everything even more shaky.

Many potential home buyers have been wondering if it’s even safe to shop for a home during a pandemic, and that’s a very fair question. And even if you do succeed in finding a home you like, is this the right time to pull the trigger?

Here’s what our top finance experts had to say about whether now is the time to buy.

Can’t miss tip: Mortgage rates reached historic lows in 2020, but experts believe they’ll rise quickly in 2021. Now may be a good time to buy if you want to lock in those low interest rates.

Photo by mercer INTERIOR

It’s no secret to sellers that refreshing the inside and outside of your home is a great way to bring in potential buyers—and multiple offers. But in 2020, the world became a different place, and stay-at-home orders, plus the closures of schools, restaurants, and gyms, made us look at homes much differently.

Knowing they’d be spending much more time at home (working, schooling, exercising, and just about everything else that used to be done elsewhere), buyers started prioritizing features they might have overlooked in the past.

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Watch: Talking About the Top Real Estate Markets for 2021

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Find out what new upgrades buyers are seeking in the COVID-19 era—and what formerly hot upgrades are now so 2019.

Can’t miss tip: Home buyers in 2020 and beyond are looking for a place where a lot can happen—and maybe all at once. This means the once-desired open floor plan is now a turnoff, and separation of space is where it’s at.

Is it safe to house hunt during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Sisoje/Getty Images

Safety is still top of mind for most active home buyers and sellers.

While the majority of real estate agents are doing everything they can to lessen the risk for their clients, there are still some home buyers who just don’t feel comfortable taking on the process in-person.

Read along as we explain every part of the process that can now be done remotely, and how to make sure it works for you.

Can’t miss tip: A good home-buying experience always starts with choosing the right real estate agent, and it was never more true than in 2020. If you’re looking for a virtual home-buying experience, it’s important to connect with a real estate agent who knows exactly how to make it work to your advantage.

Help improve your chances of making a real estate profit by taking on one of these DIY projects.

photoman/Getty Images

If you found yourself with a little extra time on your hands this year, you may have decided to take on a few DIY home improvement projects. Because you were at home already!

It makes sense, then, that you’d wonder which ones would give you the biggest return on investment—the home projects that will earn you more money when you decide to sell. No one wants to waste their time on fruitless labor, so check out which DIY projects tend to promise the biggest payoff.

Can’t miss tip: It’s not always those giant projects that yield the biggest profit. One expert says bells and whistles don’t always pay off, and instead recommends homeowners take on several, smaller projects for a better ROI.

Are you feeling superstitious? These bad omens could hurt the sale of your home.

mediaphotos/iStock

If you’re trying to sell your home, it’s important you take everything into consideration—and we mean everything.

It doesn’t matter if you believe in omens or not. There are a lot of potential home buyers who do, which means seeing a bad token could be a complete deal breaker, no matter how much they love your home.

Click through to find out what some of the more common bad omens are, so you can get to work clearing them out of your space.

Can’t miss tip: Those adorable rocking chairs on your front porch might seem like a warm welcome to you, but if the wind blows and they rock, it may send some home shoppers running. Thankfully, there’s something you can do to keep it from happening, without moving your chairs to the garage.

Here’s how one couple beat out 32 other buyers—without offering the most money.

Julie Migliacci

Every home buyer’s worst nightmare is finding a dream house and having to battle other buyers for it. But what if there were 32 other buyers?

That’s exactly what happened to these buyers, and they came out victorious—even without placing the highest bid. Keep reading to find out exactly how they made it happen.

Can’t miss tip: Today’s real estate market is very fast-moving in many areas, which means there’s very little time (if any) between viewing a house you love and placing an offer. Study up on the neighborhoods you’re shopping in, so you’re ready to make an informed decision on the spot.

coronavirus real estate myths
Don’t believe everything you hear—including these coronavirus real estate myths.

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

It’s true that COVID-19 has turned the real estate market on its head, but that doesn’t mean you should believe everything you hear. In fact, falling for some of the real estate myths may cause a potential home buyer or seller to miss out on a golden opportunity. Read on to find out what’s being said, and what’s actually factual.

Can’t miss tip: You may have heard that home prices are plummeting because of COVID-19, meaning it’s not a good time to list your house. In actuality, the opposite is true thanks to low interest rates.

buying a home in the country
Buying a home in the country is not always as peaceful as you might think.

Akabei / Getty Images

Due to the pandemic, this year found many city dwellers moving out of the city into quieter, less populated areas. That means sprawling yards, quiet neighbors, dark nights, and lots of peace, right? Truth be told, country life isn’t always idyllic. In fact, it has some strange quirks that you may not expect.

Find out what happened when one city dweller bought a rural home and discovered that even in the country, things can get weird.

Can’t miss tip: Country living is all about co-existing with woodland critters, so if you move out of the city, be prepared to share your space—both inside and out—with deer, mice, and other wildlife.

Source: realtor.com