Free at last; free at last; thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!
Just had the closing on my house. I feel 500 pounds lighter. I do now believe in miracles. I’m not alone. My real estate attorney Brenda, who also owns the title company where the closing took place, now refers to this as the Santa Claus Closing.
In case you run out of steam part way through digesting this opus, I’ll give you the moral of the story up front: You just never know where that buyer is coming from.
I was sitting in my recliner late on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 4th, watching a DVD and sipping some chardonnay. I was nattily attired in a pair of old, stretched-out gym trunks. My cell phone rang. I hear a very heavily-accented voice ask something about the house on Longmeadow. I’m like, yes, it’s for sale. The Hispanic accent replies something about, look at it. I roll my eyes, take a slug of Meridian Chardonnay and tell the voice that he is welcome to look at the house and when would he like to do that. “Now, now,” he says, “I in driveway with customer.” It’s a real estate agent from down south someplace. I tell him to wait a minute, throw on a tee-shirt and go to the door.
There I find Mauricio, the “English is my second language and I don’t know diddly about selling real estate” real estate agent with a forty-something couple fresh off the boat or bus or whatever from Uruguay who also no speak-a the English. I’m thinking, “I interrupted Wedding Crashers for this?” But being the gracious individual you all know me to be, I invite them in.
They spend all of 10 minutes looking around inside, outside, around the pool and hot tub and in the garage. I’m not kidding; it took no more than 10 minutes. On their way out of the house the husband approaches me and asks, “What about my butt?” I say, “Excuse me?” He says, “What about my butt?” I scrunch up my face and study his lips and try again, “What?” He’s becoming a little frustrated. “WHAT ABOUT MY BUTT?” giving it another go – a little slower and louder. Finally Mauricio, the great communicator, wades in, “He asking about boat.” “Oh, oh, a boat!” Now we’re all on the same page. “There is no neighborhood association,” I tell him as he looks back at me with all the comprehension of a kitten being told to stay off the sofa, “so no problem there, but I don’t know what the county rules are.” “Keep in side yard,” he says. “No problemo,” I respond, “You can do whatever you want behind the fence. Believe me, I do.”
With that the couple smiles and leaves. Mauricio hangs back and says, “I’ll fax offer in morning.” I’m like, sure you will. Adios, muchacho and don’t run into anything on your drive back to Miami. I go back to Vince Vaughn and my wine. Forty-five minutes later my phone rings and it’s a young girl asking for my fax number in refreshingly fluent English. I don’t have a fax machine. Well, I do. I inherited Amy’s old printer/fax when her company replaced it, but I’ve never hooked up the fax end of it or tried it out. I tell the kid to hold on, call Amy and get her fax number. I give the kid the number and still don’t hold much hope. I mean, they hadn’t had the opportunity to talk among themselves while here to convey to the agent any real interest in making an offer. We hadn’t discussed price – as if that would have been possible – or anything of real import about the house. We had established he could keep his butt in the side yard behind the fence and that was the extent of our negotiations. Yet, I was as giddy as a school girl trying on her prom dress.
I alerted Amy that a fax could be coming and to keep her eye on her fax machine. Monday passes without a fax arriving. On Tuesday morning I attempt to e-mail Mauricio at the address on his card. The e-mail is returned as undeliverable. Figures. I write them off as Dade County kooks and basically give up on receiving an offer.
Late Wednesday morning I get a call from Amy: The faxed offer has landed. Expecting a low-ball offer on my asking price, I inquire as to the amount of the offer and Amy tells me it’s $4,500 more than list. I am dumbfounded. I leave work on my lunch hour, er, half hour and run up to her house to fetch it. My euphoria rapidly evaporates when I read the contract a bit more closely and discover that indeed the offer is $4,500 more, but the buyer is getting $12,000 handed back to him to cover closing costs, points, and etcetera. So the offer is really $7,500 below my asking price. This still isn’t bad considering I was going to drop the price another $10,000 the following week.
The contract was nearly illegible. It looked as though Mauricio had fallen into a mud puddle with it on his way home from real estate school. I contacted my friend Kimba (I owe you dinner, Kimba), who is a real estate agent, and asked if she would take a look at it. I faxed it to her and she called to say there were several problems with it, not the least of which Mauricio had listed a selling agent on the contract who would suck up another nine or ten large from my equity. This is a FSBO deal. It turned out that the selling agent listed was the guy I paid $300 to to list the house on MLS. This problem was easily addressed, but there were others.
Problems needed addressing, but how to accomplish that? Other than requesting “una mas cervaza” or “Donde es el banyo?” my Spanish is nil. So I call my buddy Jose, who enjoys nothing more than jacking up a salesperson whether it’s at Best Buy or the Jeep dealership, and he is more than happy to play translator/seller representative/hammer.
Hose gets Mauricio on the phone, explains who he is and why he is calling. Mauricio is relieved to have the language barrier breached and tells Hose that the $12,000 isn’t going into anyone’s pocket, but is to cover closing costs. Jose asks, all the closing costs? “Si” is the answer. Even Russ’ closing costs? “Si.” Hmmm…
Other areas of the contract, such as timeline provisions, hadn’t been filled in. Over the phone, Mauricio said there was no problem; they would essentially follow whatever timeline I dictated as well as taking my lead on other unresolved issues. Jose then put me in contact with the real estate attorney he had secured to help with the sale of his house that is also on the market. It turns out Brenda offers her services for free if a seller uses her title company for the closing. Free certainly fell within the parameters of my budget.
I faxed her the contract. She raised questions on several issues. The most crucial was that this was a 100-percent financing deal and almost no lender was doing those in the 2006 market. Now it’s a U.N. showdown. The attorney would ask me for clarification on some issue. I’d call Jose. He in turn would then call Mauricio. Mauricio would call the buyer. Mauricio would call Jose back. Jose would call me. I’d call the attorney. This happened three or four times. If you ever played telephone as a kid in which something is whispered from person to person down a line of several kids, you have some sense of how well this worked.
Likewise different copies of the contract began flying back and forth. At one point the selling price was up to $10,500 more than the asking price with a 6-percent closing cost disbursement to the buyer. At this juncture Brenda said, based on 18 years in the business, there was no way this deal was ever going to close and maybe I should walk away. “Snowball’s chance in hell,” I think was said more than once. I explained to Brenda that after the house being on the market for five months that this might not be the prettiest girl in the room, but she was the only one dancing with me. I wanted to press ahead, roll the dice and take my chances.
Jose would have a conversation with Mauricio. Mauricio sounded as though he understood and I’d get another version of the contract more screwed up than the previous one. Jose quipped at one point that this guy was as dumb in Spanish as he was in English. Meanwhile the attorney is digging in her heels and becoming more insistent in her demands. She finally had had enough and faxed him off a bullet-point memo outlining what should be included in the contract. I’m sure at this point old Mauricio wished he had taken his mother’s advice and become a chili pepper farmer. I know I was wishing I had stayed a renter.
Two days of playing rope-a-dope taking head punches, Mauricio was about to throw in the towel and take his customers elsewhere. Exasperated, I sat at my computer very early Friday morning and wrote an item-by-item list of how I wanted each section of the contract completed. I contractually stipulated my closing costs would be paid by the buyer. We put a firm closing date into the contract. I would retain possession of the house for 15 days after the closing (I wasn’t going to take this risky flight of fancy without some sort of parachute), and a few other blurry items were more clearly defined. I faxed the list off to Mauricio, called Jose and asked him alert Mauricio it was coming, and waited. In fifteen minutes a signed contract, including all my provisions, was faxed back. It was also faxed to the attorney who still wasn’t real happy with it, but said it was probably about as good as we were going to get. She also moderated her original opinion, saying it could possibly close, but not without some pain and anguish. It was wobbly as all get out, but a signed contract nonetheless. We were in business.
Through Jose and Mauricio, the buyer asked if he could come by on Sunday to show the house to his kids. Sure. Around 5:30 the entire Bruno clan lands at Casa de Heaps. It’s the buyers, their two teenage kids, and Grandma and Grandpa, who despite having lived in this country for 10 years, also don’t speak the language. They descend on my house like the seventh plague. They scatter and I give up trying to keep my eye on everything. Trying to use Mauricio as a translator, Grandpa is asking if I’ll throw my furniture into the deal. He and Mauricio then open the front door and look at the door jam and have a 30-sec conversation. Mauricio looks at me and asks (I swear I’m not making this up.) if the house is wood or concrete block. Those of you familiar with my house know that there is no way it could be confused with a concrete block home, particularly by a real estate sales professional. I guess professional is the operative word. And obviously this had never come up in any previous conversations. “It’s frame,” I say. “Que?” “It’s all wood – sticks, lumber,” I try again using the shotgun approach and hoping some word hits home. “Okay,” was all that was said. Twenty minutes after they arrived, they were gone.
The appraisal also proved to be a hurdle when Mauricio tried two or three Dade County appraisers, all of whom said the house couldn’t appraise at more than $12,000 less than the contracted price. Through Jose, I told Mauricio they were full of caca and there wasn’t a house in the neighborhood that had sold for less than the contracted price in the past three years and some for a heck of a lot more. Find a Palm Beach Country appraiser, I suggested. He eventually did and the house appraised out just fine.
Although by contract the buyer only had five days to bring in an inspector and back out of the contract based on what might be found, the inspector showed up on day 14 of this ordeal. Of course, this was another product of Dade County. The mom and daughter buyers showed up with him. When I bought the house, the inspector spent nearly two hours going over every square inch. He marked electric outlets with the polarization reversed, he brought a ladder and climbed up on the roof, he rang the doorbell, ran the garage door up and down, flushed the toilets and ran the automatic lawn sprinklers. This guy did none of that. The inspection took all of 25 minutes. He did ask how to turn on the light in the pool, but that was the only question he asked. The three of them walked around chattering away. As he was leaving he shook my hand, complimented me on the house and said, “No problems.” I wanted to yell, “What about this?” and point a couple of things out to him, but restrained myself. Somehow I had been blessed with an inspector every bit as incompetent as the agent.
On Friday, March 3, the title company called to say the lender had ordered the title work to begin. I was becoming optimistic. Ten minutes later a lady from the surveying company called to say they would be by to do the survey on Monday. Man, this might actually happen. However, in the back of my mind Brenda’s warnings continued to percolate: There are going to be problems and they will arise in the final 24 hours before the closing.
On Thursday, March 8, the title company called to ask if I was available to close that day. Does Jessie Jackson hate using the white courtesy phone at the airport? Heck yes, I’m available. The mortgage broker had called to say everything was approved and the loan package would be delivered to the title company within the hour. This was at 9:30 a.m. Ten-thirty came and went. Noon came and went. Finally around 1:00 the loan package arrives. Brenda calls to make the appointment with me and while she has me on the phone, her assistant interrupts her and says there’s a problem with the numbers. The lender is under the impression that the buyer has already purchased his home owner’s insurance, but he hadn’t. In other locales this might seem like a small thing; but here in Hurricane Alley where the annual insurance on a house like mine can run as much as $8,000, it completely throws off the amount of money the buyer is required to have in his bank as reserve on the day of the closing.
The title company worked everything up and sent the HUD to the lender. The lender called and said the buyer would need to come up with more money somewhere, somehow. My day was circling the drain. At 3:00 Brenda called to say there was no way there would be a closing that day. I got done at work at 4:00 and I headed to my standing Thursday happy hour in West Palm Beach. At 4:30 as I am walking through the door of City Cellar, my cell rings. It’s Brenda and she says, “I have money for you! When can you come in, sign the papers and pick up your check?” My check – the most beautiful words in the English language. Well, next to “I finally got my period.” But that’s another story for another time. I told Brenda I was in West Palm and could I come in first thing in the morning? No problem. She then says, you won’t believe what happened. I’ll tell you tomorrow.
I scoot out of work about 8:50 AM on Friday and make the 15-minute drive to Brenda’s office. We sit in the conference room and as I am signing things, she fills in the blanks of what happened the day before. The loan went back to the underwriters three times before it was all worked out. She still didn’t have the go ahead when the mortgage broker and the buyer showed up at her office about 3:30. Originally they were supposed to be there at 3:00, but when the deal when south, Brenda called and told them to hold off until the approval arrived. Evidently in Uruguay “hold off” means come half an hour late. At this point Brenda is figuring they have put all this work into this deal that isn’t going to fly and she isn’t going to get paid, but she starts going over the paperwork with the buyer (through the mortgage broker, of course) even though the approval hasn’t arrived. Fifteen minutes after the buyer arrives, so does the approval and the re-issued package. While they are sitting there signing the papers, the mortgage broker, who gets immediate e-mail alerts whenever a lender changes its program or goes out of business or whatever, receives an e-mail alert saying that as of midnight that day the lender involved in this deal will no longer offer full-financing deals. She said had this carried over into Friday, it would have been dead and the buyer would have had to start all over again securing financing from another source. That’s why she refers to it as the Santa Claus Close.
In any event, I am a free man. Now come the hassles of finding a place to live and moving. I guess no plan is perfect, but the tapping you hear is me doing the “happy boy” dance in my…er their driveway.