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Buying Time: How I Navigated the Vermont Real Estate Market

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Published January 18, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


MATT MIGNANELLI
  • Matt Mignanelli

When my now-husband and I lived in New York City in our early twenties, we quickly discovered the best way to get a rental: Bring a check. At showings, we learned to ditch our timid Vermonter ways and elbow through all the other broke millennials to slam down a deposit.

A nearly windowless sixth-floor apartment on the unfortunately named Crooke Avenue? We decided to take it as soon as we stepped off the stinky elevator. It was the first and only apartment we saw.

We made on-the-spot offers for all but one of our Brooklyn apartments over the next six years. Quick decisions were essential — and they weren't permanent. It's not like we were buying the place.

When we moved back to Vermont in 2019, we lucked into a cute rental house in Burlington's South End. We dabbled in DIY and, early in the pandemic, planted an extensive garden. We started talking about buying, scheming up our dream home between episodes of "The Sopranos."

The initial wish list looked a lot like the little house we were renting: Burlington, preferably South End; big yard; separate offices; two bathrooms; fireplace; big kitchen; ample parking; maybe a garage.

We were renting from Geri Reilly, owner of Geri Reilly Real Estate in South Burlington. At the beginning of 2021, we got an email from Mike Simoneau Jr., a Realtor at the agency: "Thinking of Homeownership This Year?!"

He told us that the market was hot but interest rates were super low; it was a great time to buy. Last April, we put on our flame suits and jumped in.

In our first meeting, Mike told us he considers himself a "realist Realtor." That was his way of gently explaining that our must-haves were a little lofty for our budget. We whittled it down to the essentials: three bedrooms, some sort of yard, commutable to Burlington.

We left the meeting knowing we'd need to be flexible. While we were contemplating spending what for us was an unprecedented amount of money, it wasn't very much in the context of the current housing market — an intimidating mix of limited supply, huge competition, cash offers and waived contingencies.

But, for once, we weren't in a rush. Our lease went through the end of the year, and if we bought a place through Geri Reilly Real Estate, we could break it whenever we closed.

A few days later, we were prequalified with a lender, and our "collaboration center" — the personalized version of Zillow, aggregating all the listings that might pique our interest — was buzzing. We sorted through about 25, clicking thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The third button was a heart: the real estate version of Tinder's Super Like.

The first house we hearted checked most of our dream-house boxes: a cute ranch right behind Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, three bedrooms, nice kitchen, parking. It even had solar panels and a pool. It was toward the top of our budget, but the solar would mean a low electric bill.

We met Mike in front of the house and signed the COVID Questionnaire — certifying that we hadn't left the state, back when that still wasn't allowed, and that we had no symptoms or close contacts with COVID-19. Once inside, the house was everything I'd hoped for.

Somewhat naïvely, I'd expected the home-buying process to be like an episode of "House Hunters." We'd get to look at a few properties and spend time considering which would be the best fit. But a hot market waits for no buyer. There was a Realtor with a laptop coming in right after us to give a virtual showing. If we were interested, we needed to make an offer. That day.

We snuck away from a dinner party that night, putting together our first offer from our friends' guest room.

I'd drafted a letter to the sellers detailing how my husband and I first met across the street at Lake Champlain Chocolates — I worked there, and he would come in for milkshakes. Mike quashed that plan, explaining that such "love letters" are a violation of fair housing laws and that the National Association of Realtors now advised against them.

Instead of standing out with our love story, we'd have to be competitive by offering more than the asking price and waiving contingencies. We weighed the potential disaster scenarios that might come about from skipping a radon test or a furnace inspection, ultimately making an offer that waived everything except the general home inspection — even the appraisal.

The next morning, Mike called. He said, "Hey, Jordan" in an Eeyore-like voice that could only mean bad news. There were 13 other offers, and the sellers went with one that was all cash, inspection waived. He was reassuring: "We'll find the right place."

We turned our rejection into Super Like fuel, handing out hearts willy-nilly as listings popped up, filling our weekends with showings at capes in the New North End; a house in the Old North End where the upstairs ceilings looked suspiciously low; a fixer-upper near the airport with room for a pool, if we wanted to add one; a variety of houses in Essex and Winooski; and an 1800s farmhouse in Bristol.

After our first failed offer, we'd started to think about buying a "for-now home," rather than a "forever home." Putting a five-year timeline on a starter place with only one bathroom or in a less-than-ideal location helped us imagine ourselves living there. It was the Brooklyn rental mindset, shifted slightly from "It's not like we're buying the place" to "It's not like we have to live here for the rest of our lives."

The old farmhouse would be a long-term move, though — I kept calling it a "house-house." It had two garages, three bathrooms and extensive gardens. I was smitten. Sure, Bristol's a bit of a haul to Burlington. But we were both working remotely, and we have good friends in the village. We made our second offer, boldly waiving contingencies on a 200-year-old house.

We lost that house to a cash offer, too: The sellers got $76,000 over the asking price, without an inspection.

That one hurt, but it also led us to our future home. Expanding our list of potential "commutable" towns helped us reconsider how often we need to go to Burlington. Were we missing other house-houses outside of Chittenden County? We asked Mike to expand our geographic range. Later that week, a listing popped up in Vergennes.

The outdoor space caught my eye: almost an acre, with apple trees, raised beds and a chicken coop. It also had strange patches of meadow-height grass scattered throughout the fenced-in yard, but I assumed the owners just didn't mow there.

Inside, there were exposed beams and sky-high ceilings, the listing photos showed. The kitchen was huge, with an island work space and a walk-in pantry. The place had three bathrooms.

We got to Vergennes early on the morning of the showing — a quick 35-minute drive — and stopped at Vergennes Laundry for scones and coffee. We sat at one of the orange tables out front, and I wondered why the city hadn't been on our original list.

The house was perfect. Sure, the grass patches were kind of weird, the vinyl siding was pee-yellow, the office had an overwhelming red-and-brown paint job, the built-in microwave was missing a handle, and there was teenage graffiti all over the basement. But those things were fixable, and the graffiti — Sharpie doodles and spray paint about crushes, sports teams and "COVID SUX" — told the story of the house's first family, who built it in 2002.

We employed our now-familiar strategy: offering slightly over the asking price, waiving all contingencies except the home inspection. When everything was signed and the offer was submitted, Mike let us know we were the first ones in. He called the next day: Our offer was accepted.

We closed in late July, landing at $7,000 over the asking price after some post-inspection negotiation. There have been a few surprises — like needing to cut part of the butcher block countertop to fit in a new stove, and having a slight leak in the roof — but no regrets, especially once we'd borrowed a brush hog from the neighbor to mow down the grass patches.

We drive to Burlington roughly once a week, soaking up the lake views along the way. We painted the office over the holidays, using three coats of primer. The microwave still doesn't have a handle, but we don't really use it, anyway. And I've successfully lobbied to keep the graffiti in the basement.