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30-year-old San Diegans dream about real estate

Stick to renting, move in with Mom and Dad, try to buy in Del Cerro, co-own in Encinitas

The two-bedroom, one-bathroom standalone in the heart of Normal Heights was going for $685K. Considering what I’d heard about San Diego prices, it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared.
The two-bedroom, one-bathroom standalone in the heart of Normal Heights was going for $685K. Considering what I’d heard about San Diego prices, it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared.

During morning walks around my neighborhood, I like to window shop for real estate. One day, curiosity made me stop to scan the QR code on a ‘For Sale’ sign outside of a charming gray craftsman that I often stroll past. The two-bedroom, one-bathroom standalone in the heart of Normal Heights was going for $685K. Considering what I’d heard about San Diego prices, it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared.

I started to think of the possibilities, then quickly stopped when I remembered the lack of money in my savings. But as I kept walking, I wondered whether it was really that crazy. Could I afford a house in San Diego? Would I ever own a home? I turned to a pool of 30-somethings to learn how they were handling one of life’s most daunting crossroads.

Ileana & Jared

Ileana Saldaña is a 29-year-old office assistant for Dietz & Watson. With her husband Jared, 30, and two daughters ages 7 and 4, she rents a three-bed, two-bath house in Vista for $1400 per month. Saldaña is expecting a baby boy at the time I’m speaking to her, so buying a house is understandably not at the top of her to-do list.

“If I lived in the apartment we used to live in with the kids, and had a third one on the way, I wouldn’t be as happy as I am. But because this is a house, I don’t mind if I’m renting it or buying it because I already have what I want. We’re comfortable, we’re content.” They haven’t given up but are shelving the idea for now. “It was always a dream of ours — it’s still a dream of ours — to own something that you can pass down to your kids. But as of right now, it’s not possible.”

In 2014, the Saldañas laid some of the groundwork. “We thought about it, and we actually did some planning. We were taking the steps to buy a home and seeing how much they really cost, and how much we could get from a loan, and looking at our credit. And we knew we could not afford a house at that moment. And then we just kept renting and renting, and time flew by.”

Two years ago, they left a small apartment and moved into the house. “We kind of just stopped looking for a home to buy because rent is affordable here and buying a home is really pricey.”

Saldaña notes one perk of renting. “I like that I’m not the owner of a house, because there’s way more responsibility. So if pipes burst or the toilet was overflowing, the owner of the house would have to take care of that. I’m just the renter — so that’s something that they have to pay for, that they have to fix.”

Still, buying a home could one day provide a safety net for their children. “That is something cool — if me and Jared owned a house, then our kids have something to fall back on if times are even more rough in the future and they can’t afford a house for whatever reason. They could always live where we lived and not even worry about paying a mortgage.”

The Saldañas pay no mind to the so-called norm. “Society definitely does put pressure on people our age. It’s very old-school like, ‘You have to get married, have kids, buy a house.’ And you don’t really have to do any of those things.” She postulates, “You pretty much are paying off a house for 30 years, that’s like ‘the standard.’ So if you think about it, when you buy it at 30, you’re done by 60. And then you retire at 65. But people these days are not retiring at 65, so why can’t you buy a house at 40?”

When it comes down to it, Saldaña says it’s a matter of money. “It’s going to be years for us to even try to buy. And you just need so much money down first. You need a chunk of money and then you need a stable income. And it’s just not working for us. It hasn’t been.... With finding new jobs and getting a job and going on maternity leave. And then Jared’s back was injured for a while… if something were to happen and one of us did not have an income, then we would be in the crapper, because we would not be able to afford it. If an emergency happened, we would have to lose the house.”

Until they gain better financial footing, the Saldañas have no immediate plans to purchase. “In the next five years, we are sticking to what we are doing, living in this home, renting. And raising our kids, paying off the car, paying off debt. Then hopefully, after that, start saving and working towards it. I’ll be 34 and Jared will be 35, and maybe we can actually start getting serious.”

Saldaña is already painting a picture in her head. “Three bedrooms, two bathrooms is a must — I’m not sharing with kids. And a backyard would be nice.”

She wants an open kitchen, “a place for friends and family to gather. It makes everything more homey when you can see everybody and hang out. But the size, I’m not too picky about. As long as we all have our separate space, so we’re not down each other’s throats.”

Miles and Linda

Nearby in Oceanside, Miles Cook, a 30-year-old music director for an elementary school, rents an apartment with his wife Linda, 29, and two kids ages 11 and 13. They’re in the middle of packing everything up to move back in with his parents.

Cook explains the situation, “They’re raising our rent again. So I said ‘No, we’re not doing that anymore. It’s time.’ We’ve been working with a realtor for like two years on how to fix our credit, because our credit was terrible, and just basically how to get on the right track to buying a house. So we’re going to temporarily move in with my parents while we’re hunting for something in our price range. But right now, there’s not much in that category. Hopefully we don’t have to live with them for too long. I know my mom loves it but… um… you know.”

Cook says their $1900-a-month, two-bedroom, two- bathroom apartment feels very small. “We’ve been here five years. They raised the rent every year. We used to pay $1500 when we moved in. But nothing new has happened, they haven’t updated anything. It’s the same exact apartment, just costs more.” Technically, the complex has a newly remodeled gym, which he has only used once. “I swear that’s where our rent money is going.”

Despite the time spent living at their apartment, the family has never considered it home. “It just feels like staying at a hotel. We live here, but we don’t actually own it. We’re using these rooms, but they’re not ours. I’d rather be putting my money into something that I would own eventually.”

They began to make their dream a reality. “When we started, it was kind of like, ‘Well, that’s what you do.’ You do some renting for a little bit and then you go out and you find your white picket fence. But it was never financially an option for us. It was like ‘the kids need clothes, they gotta go on a field trip,’ and all these little things add up and make you feel like, ‘We’re never getting out of this, we’re just stuck.’”

It was his mother who pushed them finally to consult someone about options. “You may find that you’re actually pretty well established already! There’s no hurt in just talking to somebody. I don’t know if that’s a millennial thing or not, but we just don’t want to talk to people.”

The Cooks were told, “‘You’re probably not ready to start the process but here’s some things you should do to get you on the right path.’ It was basically fixing our credit. And that helped! Just hearing ‘You’re not there yet, but you can be there. It just takes some effort. It’s something people don’t talk about...’ Nobody ever talks about what you have to do to get there. Or that you can even do something about it.”

Before, it seemed like just a pipe dream. “I was not convinced that we were going to be able to do it. I was going along with it for Linda. Because she would not stop pestering me about it. Two years after that first conversation, and now that we finally have a number, I feel like it’s actually going to happen.”

One of his takeaways is that “having bad credit isn’t the end of the world. You can fix it. And that’s why we’re in the spot that we are, because we were able to fix those things and get back into the good graces of… whoever is in charge of that. For me, it always felt insurmountable.”

With some wiggle room in their $380K budget, the Cooks feel optimistic about getting their foot in the door on San Diego’s housing market. “We’re not going to find ‘the’ house that we’re going to spend the rest of our lives in. Right now, we’re just trying to find ‘a’ house that’s not falling apart and that will last for however long we need,” he says. “What we’re seeing is a lot of the 3 bedroom houses are in the low $400Ks, so we’re trying to wait it out and see what happens to the market. Right now, nobody really knows what 2021 is going to look like. But it could be good for us.”

The Pearsons have been in the market for several months. “It’s been tough. There’s somehow a ton of money, and a ton of people looking to buy right now. And there aren’t that many homes for sale.”

Sam and Ryan

Another couple in Pacific Beach is also actively looking to buy their first house. They’re fortunate to have some know-how.

Ryan Pearson, 33, created PacificBeachHomes.com and has nine years’ experience in the business, but calls himself a “part time realtor” since shifting his career to marketing. This is not his first time buying. “I got lucky and I got into real estate really early. And I put like $32K down on a condo and stayed there for a few years. And basically held onto that thing for a really long time. Just a couple months ago, we sold that.”

Ryan and his wife Samantha, 32, are ready to upgrade after welcoming a new baby boy. “We’re using the proceeds from that condo (bought for $260K, sold for $515K), plus the townhouse that we’re living in — that my dad owns and we’re selling (listed for $695K) — and we’re house shopping right now.”

The Pearsons have been in the market for several months. “It’s been tough. There’s somehow a ton of money, and a ton of people looking to buy right now. And there aren’t that many homes for sale. We looked at a house last weekend that was listed at $999K… and then we called the agent and they had an offer over $1.1 million. So stuff is selling on the first weekend, he said they got nine offers in one day of showing.”

Samantha comments on how the pandemic is affecting the search. “All the showings are booked to the max for each day. That one we just went to, we waited in line for 30 minutes to get in because with covid, you can only do one party at a time.”

She sounds flabbergasted by seeing the lines of people form. “That was a million-dollar house! I would think with the $700-900k range, that’s probably even more competitive, just because it’s more competitively priced.”

Despite low interest rates, Ryan acknowledges that it’s currently a seller’s market. “Because inventory is so low. The number of homes for sale in each zip code is drastically smaller than it was last year. And I think there are probably a lot of people who are scared to let people into their house,” he speculates. “So a lot of people are putting it on hold, if they can, and trying to wait for the vaccine to roll out.”

The Pearsons wonder whether the housing market will crash. “We haven’t really seen a hit to the market like I was expecting. I think a lot of people are wondering what will happen. When we look at the future, it’s a big question mark — what is going to happen when tenants can be evicted? Or when homeowners have to pay their mortgage? I don’t know if there’s going to be a big change. It makes me wonder… maybe we never really see a big dip in the real estate market? Which is surprising to me, but a lot of economists are expecting home prices to continue to go up in 2021 due to limited inventory and low interest rates.”

Ryan doesn’t believe in playing the wait-and-see game. “I think a lot of people try to time the market, or the whole concept of the word ‘when.’ Like, when is it going to get better? Should we wait? Should we do it now? More important than trying to buy at the right time, it’s a question of what makes sense for your life right now. There’s lots of worry about what could happen and the whole ‘when’ question, but at the end of the day, it’s ‘What makes sense?’ It has to make sense for your situation and your family.”

Samantha says, “With the baby, we don’t really have the luxury of waiting and seeing where the market goes. He’s crawling, he’s on the move! Whatever the market does... he needs a backyard, he needs a little space. Whether the market is up or down… do what’s best for your family and then figure it out later.”

Though aiming for a three-bedroom house, they’re keeping all options open. “We’ve looked at everything between $650K up to $1.2M,” Ryan responds, but Samantha interjects, “I don’t want to go that high. I think we can get more of a starter home for under a million. That’s my goal.”

Samantha gives me a quick overview of the neighborhoods where they’re searching. “San Carlos and Del Cerro and around San Diego State have more one-level, 3-bedroom starter homes, which would be really good for a small family. Then you get into San Marcos and Carlsbad, and the houses are bigger and more expensive — those would be more ‘forever homes,’ if we wanted to pull the trigger on something more expensive.”

One requirement for the Pearsons’ new home is a good elementary school. “That’s been a priority for us. Otherwise, we’re going to have to move again once our son gets older. And the cost of moving, and the cost of selling and re-buying another home is substantial. So finding something with a good school district can make it a better long term investment.”

Samantha’s house-searching philosophy: “You can’t be cheap. You have to spend money to live in the best place,” she declares. “And you have to move fast when it comes to buying a house. You can’t go home and think about it for a week. If we like a place, we’re putting in an offer the hour we get home. And if that makes you feel uncomfortable, moving that fast, you’re going to miss out on a lot of housing opportunities.”

Ryan has something of a carpe diem approach: “You’re going to be happy. There’s a lot of people who build wealth through real estate, and taking that first leap can really change your life. It seems like such a stressful process, but it can create so much reward. If you have the opportunity, take it. Enjoy your life.”

Aaron says, “When we walked out to the backyard, they had really done a beautiful job of landscaping it. We kind of went, ‘Whoa! This is a real gem of a property.’ Because there aren’t many places that have this much space and we just really loved the outdoor area.”

Aaron and Holly

Aaron (not his real name), a 37-year-old insurance adjuster, had his first dance with real estate when he bought a condo for $300K in 2016. “I have since sold. But when I was buying, I went through insanity trying to actually have an offer accepted. I made offers sight unseen, well over asking, and was outbid multiple times by all cash offers.” He came out on top when he sold for $357K in 2018. “On the flip side, I got to entertain multiple over-asking offers when I sold it, so that was satisfying at least.”

That was before meeting his girlfriend Holly, 38, with whom he now co-owns a home in Encinitas. About two-and-a-half years ago, the couple bought their three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1500-square-foot house for $845K. “When we first bought the house, our mortgage payment was $3500 a month,” says Holly before letting me in on one of their financial tricks: “We’ve refinanced three times now, to bring it down to $2950.” Aaron says it’s more than simply setting the intention to buy. “It’s really about assessing your financial position. We have both been very diligent savers throughout our lives, and I think that just comes with a lifestyle. But someone doesn’t all of a sudden just save $100,000.” He cautions, “Just because you have 20 percent down, doesn’t mean you should blow your whole savings. Because what if something else happens? Lose your job, medical emergencies, things like that.

“Before we bought here in Encinitas, we actually looked far and wide at areas where we would consider living.” Looking back on their days of searching, he says, “We had been interested in finding a different house in a different area, in a market that might have been a bit more affordable. In a state that maybe didn’t have state income taxes — more money in our pocket.”

They visited open houses in Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas. “Those two areas are completely saturated and blown up now, too. But at the time, you could find houses that were cheaper, with more room and more land.”

The couple eventually decided against moving out-of-state. “Seattle — besides the weather — the houses we were looking at were comparable in price and they were really old. So we anticipated there would be a lot more maintenance. And in Austin, we could’ve easily come in under the amount we would’ve paid here. But the areas where they were really affordable were neighborhoods that were just springing up overnight and there was no town around them. Looking at those places just reaffirmed that we wanted to live here.”

As fate would have it, they ended up getting the first house they put an offer on. “We looked around the house and we thought there was a lot of potential. We could see what the layout would be like. We’d play that game in every house. But when we walked out to the backyard, they had really done a beautiful job of landscaping it. We kind of went, ‘Whoa! This is a real gem of a property.’ Because there aren’t many places that have this much space, and we just really loved the outdoor area. So we thought we could make improvements on the inside to make it more our style. It was the first house where we both said, ‘Let’s just put in an offer.’ And we didn’t expect to get it at all.”

Aaron tells me another part of what won them over. “The house spoke to us because it had a dog door already built in.” They had talked for a long time about getting a dog. “So, it was just meant to be.”

After celebrating, the couple went to work on roughly $200K worth of renovations. “We lived here the whole time. There’s one room that we didn’t touch at all. We moved our bed into that room. We had couches all around the perimeter. We had our coffee table stacked on a couch, which was then serving as our headboard. It was about 200 square feet.” They lived with no lights or kitchen, but a toilet, and a sink faucet to wash their hands. “And we lived there for four months. And it was the first time we ever lived together.”

With the remodel complete, Aaron loves the new kitchen, but the garage holds a special place in Holly’s heart. “It’s so funny, but the garage is the one room of the house where we did the work ourselves. Whenever I go out there, I’m proud of us for having done the floors.”

She’s on the other side of it now, but Holly still remembers home buying being nerve-wracking. “That was the first offer I had ever put in on a house. I didn’t know what the process would be like. But when you’re actually interested in the house, it seems like it’s so much more high-stakes. Every wait was agonizing. And then, even when they accept your offer, there’s still a lot of things that have to fall into place.”

She recalls the emotional ups-and-downs, “There’s a negotiation period, where you feel like it can fall through at any moment. And the farther into the process you get, the more invested you are in the outcome, and the more you worry that it won’t happen.”

Aaron went in hoping for the best, but was prepared for the worst. “Things don’t always work out... set your expectations, know what you can afford,” he advises. “You’re never going to get everything you want in a house that you can afford — no one will ever get everything, unless you’re a billionaire. You will make concessions.”

For many years, Holly believed she would never own a home. To those still looking, she counsels “feeling okay with wherever you are in life. If you’re renting or trying to buy, or have already bought and looking for a different kind of property. Every place you live teaches you something about where you’ll go next. So don’t be worried if you’re not exactly where you want to be yet. I think that’s what I would tell my younger self.”

They’re ready to start the process all over again after recently closing on a cabin in Idyllwild. The plan is to turn it into a family vacation house that they can rent out on Airbnb once they fix it up. “I guess we weren’t totally scared off of real estate after all that.”

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The two-bedroom, one-bathroom standalone in the heart of Normal Heights was going for $685K. Considering what I’d heard about San Diego prices, it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared.
The two-bedroom, one-bathroom standalone in the heart of Normal Heights was going for $685K. Considering what I’d heard about San Diego prices, it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared.

During morning walks around my neighborhood, I like to window shop for real estate. One day, curiosity made me stop to scan the QR code on a ‘For Sale’ sign outside of a charming gray craftsman that I often stroll past. The two-bedroom, one-bathroom standalone in the heart of Normal Heights was going for $685K. Considering what I’d heard about San Diego prices, it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared.

I started to think of the possibilities, then quickly stopped when I remembered the lack of money in my savings. But as I kept walking, I wondered whether it was really that crazy. Could I afford a house in San Diego? Would I ever own a home? I turned to a pool of 30-somethings to learn how they were handling one of life’s most daunting crossroads.

Ileana & Jared

Ileana Saldaña is a 29-year-old office assistant for Dietz & Watson. With her husband Jared, 30, and two daughters ages 7 and 4, she rents a three-bed, two-bath house in Vista for $1400 per month. Saldaña is expecting a baby boy at the time I’m speaking to her, so buying a house is understandably not at the top of her to-do list.

“If I lived in the apartment we used to live in with the kids, and had a third one on the way, I wouldn’t be as happy as I am. But because this is a house, I don’t mind if I’m renting it or buying it because I already have what I want. We’re comfortable, we’re content.” They haven’t given up but are shelving the idea for now. “It was always a dream of ours — it’s still a dream of ours — to own something that you can pass down to your kids. But as of right now, it’s not possible.”

In 2014, the Saldañas laid some of the groundwork. “We thought about it, and we actually did some planning. We were taking the steps to buy a home and seeing how much they really cost, and how much we could get from a loan, and looking at our credit. And we knew we could not afford a house at that moment. And then we just kept renting and renting, and time flew by.”

Two years ago, they left a small apartment and moved into the house. “We kind of just stopped looking for a home to buy because rent is affordable here and buying a home is really pricey.”

Saldaña notes one perk of renting. “I like that I’m not the owner of a house, because there’s way more responsibility. So if pipes burst or the toilet was overflowing, the owner of the house would have to take care of that. I’m just the renter — so that’s something that they have to pay for, that they have to fix.”

Still, buying a home could one day provide a safety net for their children. “That is something cool — if me and Jared owned a house, then our kids have something to fall back on if times are even more rough in the future and they can’t afford a house for whatever reason. They could always live where we lived and not even worry about paying a mortgage.”

The Saldañas pay no mind to the so-called norm. “Society definitely does put pressure on people our age. It’s very old-school like, ‘You have to get married, have kids, buy a house.’ And you don’t really have to do any of those things.” She postulates, “You pretty much are paying off a house for 30 years, that’s like ‘the standard.’ So if you think about it, when you buy it at 30, you’re done by 60. And then you retire at 65. But people these days are not retiring at 65, so why can’t you buy a house at 40?”

When it comes down to it, Saldaña says it’s a matter of money. “It’s going to be years for us to even try to buy. And you just need so much money down first. You need a chunk of money and then you need a stable income. And it’s just not working for us. It hasn’t been.... With finding new jobs and getting a job and going on maternity leave. And then Jared’s back was injured for a while… if something were to happen and one of us did not have an income, then we would be in the crapper, because we would not be able to afford it. If an emergency happened, we would have to lose the house.”

Until they gain better financial footing, the Saldañas have no immediate plans to purchase. “In the next five years, we are sticking to what we are doing, living in this home, renting. And raising our kids, paying off the car, paying off debt. Then hopefully, after that, start saving and working towards it. I’ll be 34 and Jared will be 35, and maybe we can actually start getting serious.”

Saldaña is already painting a picture in her head. “Three bedrooms, two bathrooms is a must — I’m not sharing with kids. And a backyard would be nice.”

She wants an open kitchen, “a place for friends and family to gather. It makes everything more homey when you can see everybody and hang out. But the size, I’m not too picky about. As long as we all have our separate space, so we’re not down each other’s throats.”

Miles and Linda

Nearby in Oceanside, Miles Cook, a 30-year-old music director for an elementary school, rents an apartment with his wife Linda, 29, and two kids ages 11 and 13. They’re in the middle of packing everything up to move back in with his parents.

Cook explains the situation, “They’re raising our rent again. So I said ‘No, we’re not doing that anymore. It’s time.’ We’ve been working with a realtor for like two years on how to fix our credit, because our credit was terrible, and just basically how to get on the right track to buying a house. So we’re going to temporarily move in with my parents while we’re hunting for something in our price range. But right now, there’s not much in that category. Hopefully we don’t have to live with them for too long. I know my mom loves it but… um… you know.”

Cook says their $1900-a-month, two-bedroom, two- bathroom apartment feels very small. “We’ve been here five years. They raised the rent every year. We used to pay $1500 when we moved in. But nothing new has happened, they haven’t updated anything. It’s the same exact apartment, just costs more.” Technically, the complex has a newly remodeled gym, which he has only used once. “I swear that’s where our rent money is going.”

Despite the time spent living at their apartment, the family has never considered it home. “It just feels like staying at a hotel. We live here, but we don’t actually own it. We’re using these rooms, but they’re not ours. I’d rather be putting my money into something that I would own eventually.”

They began to make their dream a reality. “When we started, it was kind of like, ‘Well, that’s what you do.’ You do some renting for a little bit and then you go out and you find your white picket fence. But it was never financially an option for us. It was like ‘the kids need clothes, they gotta go on a field trip,’ and all these little things add up and make you feel like, ‘We’re never getting out of this, we’re just stuck.’”

It was his mother who pushed them finally to consult someone about options. “You may find that you’re actually pretty well established already! There’s no hurt in just talking to somebody. I don’t know if that’s a millennial thing or not, but we just don’t want to talk to people.”

The Cooks were told, “‘You’re probably not ready to start the process but here’s some things you should do to get you on the right path.’ It was basically fixing our credit. And that helped! Just hearing ‘You’re not there yet, but you can be there. It just takes some effort. It’s something people don’t talk about...’ Nobody ever talks about what you have to do to get there. Or that you can even do something about it.”

Before, it seemed like just a pipe dream. “I was not convinced that we were going to be able to do it. I was going along with it for Linda. Because she would not stop pestering me about it. Two years after that first conversation, and now that we finally have a number, I feel like it’s actually going to happen.”

One of his takeaways is that “having bad credit isn’t the end of the world. You can fix it. And that’s why we’re in the spot that we are, because we were able to fix those things and get back into the good graces of… whoever is in charge of that. For me, it always felt insurmountable.”

With some wiggle room in their $380K budget, the Cooks feel optimistic about getting their foot in the door on San Diego’s housing market. “We’re not going to find ‘the’ house that we’re going to spend the rest of our lives in. Right now, we’re just trying to find ‘a’ house that’s not falling apart and that will last for however long we need,” he says. “What we’re seeing is a lot of the 3 bedroom houses are in the low $400Ks, so we’re trying to wait it out and see what happens to the market. Right now, nobody really knows what 2021 is going to look like. But it could be good for us.”

The Pearsons have been in the market for several months. “It’s been tough. There’s somehow a ton of money, and a ton of people looking to buy right now. And there aren’t that many homes for sale.”

Sam and Ryan

Another couple in Pacific Beach is also actively looking to buy their first house. They’re fortunate to have some know-how.

Ryan Pearson, 33, created PacificBeachHomes.com and has nine years’ experience in the business, but calls himself a “part time realtor” since shifting his career to marketing. This is not his first time buying. “I got lucky and I got into real estate really early. And I put like $32K down on a condo and stayed there for a few years. And basically held onto that thing for a really long time. Just a couple months ago, we sold that.”

Ryan and his wife Samantha, 32, are ready to upgrade after welcoming a new baby boy. “We’re using the proceeds from that condo (bought for $260K, sold for $515K), plus the townhouse that we’re living in — that my dad owns and we’re selling (listed for $695K) — and we’re house shopping right now.”

The Pearsons have been in the market for several months. “It’s been tough. There’s somehow a ton of money, and a ton of people looking to buy right now. And there aren’t that many homes for sale. We looked at a house last weekend that was listed at $999K… and then we called the agent and they had an offer over $1.1 million. So stuff is selling on the first weekend, he said they got nine offers in one day of showing.”

Samantha comments on how the pandemic is affecting the search. “All the showings are booked to the max for each day. That one we just went to, we waited in line for 30 minutes to get in because with covid, you can only do one party at a time.”

She sounds flabbergasted by seeing the lines of people form. “That was a million-dollar house! I would think with the $700-900k range, that’s probably even more competitive, just because it’s more competitively priced.”

Despite low interest rates, Ryan acknowledges that it’s currently a seller’s market. “Because inventory is so low. The number of homes for sale in each zip code is drastically smaller than it was last year. And I think there are probably a lot of people who are scared to let people into their house,” he speculates. “So a lot of people are putting it on hold, if they can, and trying to wait for the vaccine to roll out.”

The Pearsons wonder whether the housing market will crash. “We haven’t really seen a hit to the market like I was expecting. I think a lot of people are wondering what will happen. When we look at the future, it’s a big question mark — what is going to happen when tenants can be evicted? Or when homeowners have to pay their mortgage? I don’t know if there’s going to be a big change. It makes me wonder… maybe we never really see a big dip in the real estate market? Which is surprising to me, but a lot of economists are expecting home prices to continue to go up in 2021 due to limited inventory and low interest rates.”

Ryan doesn’t believe in playing the wait-and-see game. “I think a lot of people try to time the market, or the whole concept of the word ‘when.’ Like, when is it going to get better? Should we wait? Should we do it now? More important than trying to buy at the right time, it’s a question of what makes sense for your life right now. There’s lots of worry about what could happen and the whole ‘when’ question, but at the end of the day, it’s ‘What makes sense?’ It has to make sense for your situation and your family.”

Samantha says, “With the baby, we don’t really have the luxury of waiting and seeing where the market goes. He’s crawling, he’s on the move! Whatever the market does... he needs a backyard, he needs a little space. Whether the market is up or down… do what’s best for your family and then figure it out later.”

Though aiming for a three-bedroom house, they’re keeping all options open. “We’ve looked at everything between $650K up to $1.2M,” Ryan responds, but Samantha interjects, “I don’t want to go that high. I think we can get more of a starter home for under a million. That’s my goal.”

Samantha gives me a quick overview of the neighborhoods where they’re searching. “San Carlos and Del Cerro and around San Diego State have more one-level, 3-bedroom starter homes, which would be really good for a small family. Then you get into San Marcos and Carlsbad, and the houses are bigger and more expensive — those would be more ‘forever homes,’ if we wanted to pull the trigger on something more expensive.”

One requirement for the Pearsons’ new home is a good elementary school. “That’s been a priority for us. Otherwise, we’re going to have to move again once our son gets older. And the cost of moving, and the cost of selling and re-buying another home is substantial. So finding something with a good school district can make it a better long term investment.”

Samantha’s house-searching philosophy: “You can’t be cheap. You have to spend money to live in the best place,” she declares. “And you have to move fast when it comes to buying a house. You can’t go home and think about it for a week. If we like a place, we’re putting in an offer the hour we get home. And if that makes you feel uncomfortable, moving that fast, you’re going to miss out on a lot of housing opportunities.”

Ryan has something of a carpe diem approach: “You’re going to be happy. There’s a lot of people who build wealth through real estate, and taking that first leap can really change your life. It seems like such a stressful process, but it can create so much reward. If you have the opportunity, take it. Enjoy your life.”

Aaron says, “When we walked out to the backyard, they had really done a beautiful job of landscaping it. We kind of went, ‘Whoa! This is a real gem of a property.’ Because there aren’t many places that have this much space and we just really loved the outdoor area.”

Aaron and Holly

Aaron (not his real name), a 37-year-old insurance adjuster, had his first dance with real estate when he bought a condo for $300K in 2016. “I have since sold. But when I was buying, I went through insanity trying to actually have an offer accepted. I made offers sight unseen, well over asking, and was outbid multiple times by all cash offers.” He came out on top when he sold for $357K in 2018. “On the flip side, I got to entertain multiple over-asking offers when I sold it, so that was satisfying at least.”

That was before meeting his girlfriend Holly, 38, with whom he now co-owns a home in Encinitas. About two-and-a-half years ago, the couple bought their three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1500-square-foot house for $845K. “When we first bought the house, our mortgage payment was $3500 a month,” says Holly before letting me in on one of their financial tricks: “We’ve refinanced three times now, to bring it down to $2950.” Aaron says it’s more than simply setting the intention to buy. “It’s really about assessing your financial position. We have both been very diligent savers throughout our lives, and I think that just comes with a lifestyle. But someone doesn’t all of a sudden just save $100,000.” He cautions, “Just because you have 20 percent down, doesn’t mean you should blow your whole savings. Because what if something else happens? Lose your job, medical emergencies, things like that.

“Before we bought here in Encinitas, we actually looked far and wide at areas where we would consider living.” Looking back on their days of searching, he says, “We had been interested in finding a different house in a different area, in a market that might have been a bit more affordable. In a state that maybe didn’t have state income taxes — more money in our pocket.”

They visited open houses in Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas. “Those two areas are completely saturated and blown up now, too. But at the time, you could find houses that were cheaper, with more room and more land.”

The couple eventually decided against moving out-of-state. “Seattle — besides the weather — the houses we were looking at were comparable in price and they were really old. So we anticipated there would be a lot more maintenance. And in Austin, we could’ve easily come in under the amount we would’ve paid here. But the areas where they were really affordable were neighborhoods that were just springing up overnight and there was no town around them. Looking at those places just reaffirmed that we wanted to live here.”

As fate would have it, they ended up getting the first house they put an offer on. “We looked around the house and we thought there was a lot of potential. We could see what the layout would be like. We’d play that game in every house. But when we walked out to the backyard, they had really done a beautiful job of landscaping it. We kind of went, ‘Whoa! This is a real gem of a property.’ Because there aren’t many places that have this much space, and we just really loved the outdoor area. So we thought we could make improvements on the inside to make it more our style. It was the first house where we both said, ‘Let’s just put in an offer.’ And we didn’t expect to get it at all.”

Aaron tells me another part of what won them over. “The house spoke to us because it had a dog door already built in.” They had talked for a long time about getting a dog. “So, it was just meant to be.”

After celebrating, the couple went to work on roughly $200K worth of renovations. “We lived here the whole time. There’s one room that we didn’t touch at all. We moved our bed into that room. We had couches all around the perimeter. We had our coffee table stacked on a couch, which was then serving as our headboard. It was about 200 square feet.” They lived with no lights or kitchen, but a toilet, and a sink faucet to wash their hands. “And we lived there for four months. And it was the first time we ever lived together.”

With the remodel complete, Aaron loves the new kitchen, but the garage holds a special place in Holly’s heart. “It’s so funny, but the garage is the one room of the house where we did the work ourselves. Whenever I go out there, I’m proud of us for having done the floors.”

She’s on the other side of it now, but Holly still remembers home buying being nerve-wracking. “That was the first offer I had ever put in on a house. I didn’t know what the process would be like. But when you’re actually interested in the house, it seems like it’s so much more high-stakes. Every wait was agonizing. And then, even when they accept your offer, there’s still a lot of things that have to fall into place.”

She recalls the emotional ups-and-downs, “There’s a negotiation period, where you feel like it can fall through at any moment. And the farther into the process you get, the more invested you are in the outcome, and the more you worry that it won’t happen.”

Aaron went in hoping for the best, but was prepared for the worst. “Things don’t always work out... set your expectations, know what you can afford,” he advises. “You’re never going to get everything you want in a house that you can afford — no one will ever get everything, unless you’re a billionaire. You will make concessions.”

For many years, Holly believed she would never own a home. To those still looking, she counsels “feeling okay with wherever you are in life. If you’re renting or trying to buy, or have already bought and looking for a different kind of property. Every place you live teaches you something about where you’ll go next. So don’t be worried if you’re not exactly where you want to be yet. I think that’s what I would tell my younger self.”

They’re ready to start the process all over again after recently closing on a cabin in Idyllwild. The plan is to turn it into a family vacation house that they can rent out on Airbnb once they fix it up. “I guess we weren’t totally scared off of real estate after all that.”

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