My husband and I picked the unlucky month of March to sell our house. In Denver, house selling is already overwhelming—the endless signatures, loan officers needing scans of every receipt residing in the filing cabinet under the stairs, the legal procedures and lists and codes and strangers walking through the front door to decide if they want to inhabit your life. The buying is even worse. One pair of friends sent in eleven offers before landing a deal. We had bought and sold houses before—just not with two elementary schoolers at home. And of course, we did not anticipate a pandemic to interrupt our plans.
We listed our home on March 5, one week before the president acknowledged the coronavirus as a “pandemic.” Back then, we thought that the virus was thousands of miles away, much like Zika or Ebola—very sad and very distant. How could it reach us across so much ocean?
My husband and I had planned an extended weekend of open houses, praying the property would sell in three days’ time. Meanwhile, we left town to stay in a rented cabin with the kids.
On the way out the door—after scrubbing and purging and repainting—I placed a bowl of chocolates on the gleaming kitchen countertops as a thank-you to the lookie-loos. By Monday, the bowl was empty. Easily one thousand people walked through our front door that weekend.
At the time, we were ecstatic about the traffic, but in retrospect, I wonder, how many strangers touched the lock box, the light switches, the door handles? How many visitors reached into the bowl of chocolates where all the others had reached before, their fingers mixing with the particulates of past fingers, invisibly spreading an illness so contagious it can put a booming economy to bed?
That Sunday night, the end of our weekend-long open-house, our realtor called with a full-price offer, which we accepted on Monday. To celebrate, our family ate grocery store cupcakes on paper plates, the kids licking the frosting off the top—they were sticky for days. By then, the virus had traveled. It resided in the hulls of cruise ships off the coast of Florida and Spain, approaching, but still impossibly distant, as far as we were concerned.
The week our house went under contract, our realtor arranged showings for us, though Washington State had just reported a death from coronavirus. Still, in a month, we would be homeless. The feeling of having nowhere to live was heavy, chest-constricting. I could not explain my urgency to my husband as I scheduled three showings a day that week and then met my husband to repeat showings of the most promising options. I breathed best with my phone in my palm, trawling Zillow.
I had already developed a tick of checking the real estate website compulsively in the months leading up to the week of our house sale—in the bathroom, as I waited for onions to soften in the pan, during pauses between whatever episode we were watching after the children went down for bed. I would turn down side streets to seek out For Sale signs spiked into front lawns, circling around homes to bend toward foundations or peer in the windows on tiptoe, hands cupped to my face.
When a house magically appeared in our price range on a listing site during those early weeks of seeking, I canceled plans and interrupted simmering stews to step inside, braving years of cigarette smoke, faulty foundations, asbestos ceiling tiles, moldy bathrooms, all for a look around. Could we knock down that wall? Would the basement still feel dingy and smell musty after a coat of KILZ paint? How much would it cost to move that sink, toilet, refrigerator, washer, and dryer? Each house required unique plans for how to transform it into a place a family could live (cancer-free). Some weekends we crossed off a dozen houses at a time.
Over February and March before our house went under contract, we made offers by the handful, joining hundreds of others who sent love letters to sellers along with promises to pay thousands above the asking price, with some heirloom jewelry and a spare ATV thrown in.
On Monday, March 8, the day that we signed the contract with our buyer-to-be, he had hopped on a plane, heading to Taiwan on vacation. His realtor had scheduled her own trip to Houston. But neither made it to their destination—the president closed the borders to travelers as airlines became suspects in transmission. We heard that our buyer had given up his original itinerary and that now he was stuck in Belfast. Fortunately, his foresight kept the deal going—as we had been stacking boxes in a rented storage unit, he legally authorized his realtor to sign documents by giving him power of attorney. She planned to walk the inspection for him. We were all grateful for FaceTime.
By Tuesday, the day after we signed the contract to sell our house, we had fallen for a home and made an overture; it was refused. Then on Thursday, we found another home, and this time, our offer was accepted. The timelines would be close, but now at least we had somewhere to go after the buyer took possession of our house at the end of the month. Then, that Thursday evening, Denver Public Schools sent out a notice—the CDC recommended school closures, and they were extending spring break by a week, starting the next Monday. I kept the kids home that Friday anyway—what would one extra day mean to me now?
So while the kids bickered in the next room, we embarked on the journey toward double closing that would bring us into April. The kids always seemed to be underfoot, always roaring for me in the next room, always hungry, always sniping at one other. Even so, I wrapped wine glasses and scanned tax documents and scheduled inspections, appraisals, and contractors, as I planned the renovation of the new house between email threads with lenders and appointments with contractors.
The interest rates had plummeted during the past month as the Federal Reserve responded to the stock market and media coverage of the health crisis by dropping interest rates to zero. Earlier in February, my emails with lenders-to-be had extended our buying power with every drop—I had forwarded emails from lenders to my husband with exclamation marks and celebratory emojis.
But the week we signed the papers to sell and then buy a house, our interest rate jumped erratically. One day, it hit 3.625 percent. And then rose to 4.250 percent. My stomach dropped at the news as I frantically reached out to lenders, comparing rates again, praying for that one hundred bucks per month to be restored to us. According to our loan officer, so many homeowners had chosen February to refinance that, somehow, the best rates were allocated to them, not new buyers. They were the safer bets; we were risk, uncertainty. Yet that extra cash in our account each month would have meant stability to me in a world that had shifted. On the day halfway through March when we locked our rate at 3.375 percent, I cried for joy.
Our house appraisal happened the same day that Denver’s stay-at-home order took effect, a day before most appraisers in the city took social-distancing precautions. We heard news that friends of friends were sick. Hospitals were understaffed and overstaffed at the same time. One hospital had nearly furloughed a pediatrician friend as the demand for wellness checks plummeted.
For our part, in-person signatures became online signatures, the realtors, lenders, sellers, and buyers all doing our best to keep the deals moving forward. The rules of house-hunting had changed dramatically from even a week or two earlier: in Denver, prospective buyers were making offers without ever walking in the door, and you could only tour a property if your offer were accepted and you were heavily masked.
In the end, we closed on both houses in the nick of time. Leading up to the closing dates, we prayed that our buyer wouldn’t lose his job and that my husband wouldn’t lose his. And then a notary arrived on our porch with sanitized pens and papers to fill with signatures.
We spent the first stay-at-home order in Denver occupied by our renovation plans: painting walls, tearing up tile, installing kitchen cabinets, filling dumpsters, and waiting for saintly Home Depot employees to bring our pick-up orders to the bed of our truck. Although friends couldn’t storm our new home with demo saws, jackhammers, and paint brushes like we’d planned, two friends volunteered to help us maneuver our refrigerator from the garage to the second-floor kitchen, amid a downpour, while wearing face masks, and two more transported boxes of books from one basement to the other.
We haven’t been able to throw ourselves a house-warming party, but we did learn the names of neighbors, waving hello across the chain link fences. At Christmas, a plate of cookies, purchased from a nearby bakery and packaged in miles of plastic, appeared at our doorstep from the family who lived behind us. It appeared like a memento from an unremembered past, from the previous Christmas season when I’d baked for the old neighborhood, and the kids and I had crossed the road in socks to deliver the homemade sweets onto doorsteps. Undoubtedly, that kind of generosity would be considered far less neighborly this Christmas.
Yet we make do. We innovate. We find a way. As it turns out, even a virus cannot quash the determined friendliness of a neighbor, a house hunter, a renovator, a family, a church—at least not for long.