Escrows, Zillows and Unicorns; finding the right retirement house


In 2013, Asheville, North Carolina was at the top of our “Places to Retire” shortlist spreadsheet. It also was a part of our nerdy sunshine-and-snowfall maps. Asheville seemed to have everything we wanted on paper: low tax burden, seasons, some culture, great food, & nearby good healthcare; however, like other places we considered, it was missing one big need: a place where lots of friends and family would come to visit us.

In August of 2015, we were at the end of our Canyonlands tour. I grew up near the Grand Staircase and wanted to wow my geologist husband with the rocks outside the Grand Canyon. I knew these smaller places to be much more spectacular.

On the last day, as we drove into one of these smaller but more beautiful areas at sunset,  my husband exclaimed “HOW did I not KNOW about this?!”

On the last day Iasked (thinking my husband would reply “hike!”) “If we had 1 more day here, what would you want to do?” 

He said “Call a real estate agent.”

And so, upon returning to Houston, I did.

We’re “over” the city (downtown condo with constant sirens).

And “over” the boonies (ranch with too much and too little to do (I have watched every HGTV episode of everything while my husband was “mowing” with the 1-seat tractor in the brutal Texas heat).

During our RETIREMENT DREAM NIGHT one question I asked is “What do I see myself doing in retirement?”

I dreamt of cooking low carb meals from Suzanne Sommers cookbooks in a kitchen with an island, writing, and swimming in a pool and not having to worry about rush hours on freeways. 

It’s really that simple.

Zillows: In November 2015, we looked at about 50 potential houses, scouting neighborhoods in the canyon lands of Arizona. By the end of day 1, we crossed off 35 of them before we even met with our realtor.

“Two geologists go looking for a home where the exposed and pretty rocks live…”

We looked at so many properties. A nod to a Clint Eastwood Western seems appropriate: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:

The seemingly Good: Zillow can be deceptive. Prior to our in-person visit, we saw the pretty photos online and checked “yes” for pool and we were off, dreaming; thinking that the difficulty would be in deciding which house…It was incredibly fun to look at new postings coming in on Zillow and from our realtor.

Just for fun, we looked at homes online beyond our price range, and one of the homes with a virtual reality tour had real models in their photos. Yes, beautiful people barbecuing, enjoying the pool, while scantily clad, or getting ready for some silky romance in front of the main fireplace. A cowboy pensively sitting next to a fireplace in a stately…toilet. I’m not sure if the cowboy would still visit after buying the place…but maybe.

The Bad: When we arrived in person last November, we soon saw many mismatched home sizes and tastes in the same neighborhood. Often we had to drive over hill and dale through several neighborhoods just to get to the listing. Many cases of “overbuilding the neighborhood”.

Zillow.com cannot show you that perhaps your dream is right next to someone else’s dream and that the 2 dreams are at 6’s and 9’s. (“At odds”, sorry for this O”Brian nautical reference, but I blame my adorable husband for these funny, 18th century quips). He says things like “my delicate constitution” and “walk with dispatch” (usually while I’m in 5″ heels and tottering across a busy Houston street after drinks).

The Ugly: We looked at an elegant and eclectic home juxtaposed with a house collecting those vintage neon signs. Elegant were the white columns next to the pool, eclectic were the built-in 1970s can opener for catfood in the Medieval Torture Chamber kitchen, and the velvet nude teenage exotic girl “art” in the sunken living room. The “velvet art” made both of us feel like pervs, but the seller was insistent, against the advice of his agent, that it stay.  We also hadn’t appreciated that many homes built in the 1970s and 80’s were multi-level rabbit warrens. After many surgeries and more in my future, stairs are not an option.

We also looked at a home with stunning 360 degree views that was painted lime green ALL OVER THE HOUSE including the appliances (photo above). I’m not kidding. It was quite run down with leaks, bizarre levels, giant plush orangutans, and was too close to a huge tourist stop.

On neighborhoods:

A home is an investment-what’s happening in the neighborhood at the time of sale will determine your ROI (return on investment). A great example of this principle are 2 neighborhoods in Houston: neighborhood 1&2 were both built around 1920. One had continuity and deed restrictions (River Oaks – where Oprah had/has a home) and the other did not (Binz – transitional at best, high crime pockets, block to block use patchiness).

Nearly 100 years later, the desired neighborhood is…well, where Oprah picked.

Unicorns: When we saw our retirement house, we knew it before walking in. Once inside, though it smelled like pizza, we fell in love. Solar panels, stunning views, big kitchen with an island, patio,  a pool, a separate 3rd bedroom suite for guests.

And not an orangutan anywhere.

We looked at each other with giant Japanese anime’ eyes. “Come see this! Look at THAT!”

The next day, certain that this was a common build for the area, we were excited. By the end of the day, we were bummed.

We weren’t ready with cash and hadn’t even listed our ranch yet.

It seems the unicorn house of our dreams would slip away.

Or would it?

Escrows: Not just for taxes and insurance if you have a mortgage. No, these accounts can be used for holding a house. In buying and selling there are usually 3 levers: price, time, and earnest money. Typically a combination of 2 of these works in a real estate deal. For us, time was a major factor-we needed time to sell our ranch to buy our unicorn. For our sellers, price plus a showing of 10% earnest money held in escrow was their lever. The escrow was enough to pull the unicorn off the market for 18 months.

We were incredibly lucky to have a rockstar real estate agent who thought out of the box in this deal to make it happen.

As I write, I am sitting comfortably in the unicorn house enjoying the sunshine, gorgeous rocks, snow and quiet.

“But 18 months isn’t up yet!”

I know. Stay tuned for the next piece-rising interest rates, ranch parcels, a GASP!  A partial mortgage?!

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2 thoughts on “Escrows, Zillows and Unicorns; finding the right retirement house

  1. Welcome to the neighborhood. This town is filled with every type and style of dream house, built to please an individual dreamer. Unfortunately for resale purposes these dreams are nightmares. Were you here for the Christmas Eve blizzard?

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