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Alameda Dreaming: Trying to Buy a House

We didn't think we could be Alameda homeowners until we took a free seminar. But will anyone sell us a house?

We have been trying to buy a house for six months. It's our first time, and we don't have a down payment of our own, so it has been complex. We weren't convinced we were in a financial situation to buy. Then a seminar at the high school changed our minds, and we began the process. 

Did you know the City of Alameda offers down payment assistance to first-time home buyers based on income, from $50,000 to $80,000? Layered in with the $15,000 WISH program, this meant up to $95,000 for a down payment. Alameda is one of the few cities still funding down payment assistance. (To find out more, contact their vendor HomeBricks.) It was this information that gave us hope. It turned out we are perfect candidates. Our income is spot-on, we're first-time home buyers and our credit is impeccable. We have very little debt. It seemed like everything was lining up. 

We wanted to stay in Alameda. Our children have friends here and are involved in many activities specific to the Island. We bike everywhere. It was our hope that our children would grow up here. Now we're not so sure they can. 

We rent an apartment and a quick glance at craigslist shows us that while our rent was comparable when we secured this place a year and a half ago, it is now significantly lower than the average rent for a place like this one. Rents have gone up. We can't move from here to another place in Alameda unless we buy. Rents going up in the way they have (the average comparable is about $600/mo. higher) is disturbing, especially given the economic situation we are living in.

Our payments on a house, even at our maximun loan amount (including property taxes), would be lower than our current rent and much lower than the rents being charged out there now. So we set out to buy using the programs designed to enable people just like us to buy their first homes. We were full of hope.

We had an excellent, active real estate team working with us. I watched the listings like a hawk. We viewed every one on the Island and made multiple offers. Many offers were above the list price. In some cases, we never got to make an offer because a cash buyer came in and took the house. In every case, our offer was refused. Never even countered. We wrote personal letters to the sellers, we were looking even at houses too small or in need of serious repair. One bank-owned house we loved didn't even respond to our offer. The house is still listed and stands vacant, apparently not actually for sale (227 Central, if you're curious). I have never worked so hard in my life as I have on Project: Stay In Alameda. Still, I have failed. 

What we have seen is upsetting, and not just because we haven't bought a house. Almost all of the houses we missed went to cash investors. We can't be the only family unable to touch a house here. What is the City's program worth if it can't even merit a counter to an offer already over the list price? I spent a day at the seminar, but many days of work went into my paperwork and application, everything I did in good faith because the City wants to help us buy here. It's hard to accept it was all a waste.

I am sad we have to leave Alameda. My husband and I had our first apartment here, above Ramiro & Sons taqueria. Our first two children were born while we lived there. When our firstborn was little we walked Park Street in the evening to calm him. I remember passing Pacific Fencing Club and wondering if Tristan would want to fence someday. (He does fence there. He is almost 10 now.) Our daughter studies ballet at ABA. Three of our children study art with Patrice Hinz at StudioTime on Santa Clara. We bike to the beach in the afternoons. We check out our weight in books at the library. We spend all our allowances at D20 games. (Well, Tristan does.)

We continue our house search tempered by failure. The occasional house pops up here and we look into it, often only to see it go before it's been listed long — cash buyer, oral offer acceptance, something like that. It is sad to see the vacant houses among us, owned by banks who would rather see them rot to the ground than sell them to a family like us at a market price. We would buy any one of them if we could. What are they worth to us? Whatever we can offer, because a home in Alameda is priceless to our family. 

Our letter from the City, our Down Payment Award, sits on my desk. It is unlikely that we will get to use it. We intially didn't believe it was possible, then we were shown hope, but now we realize we were probably right at the start. I don't discourage others from approaching HomeBricks and trying to use the programs. I hope it can happen and that we have just had bad luck.

We sure want to stay here. If the family that wanted the house the most won out, no one could hold a candle to our "offer."

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hobnob June 28, 2012 at 10:20 PM
I am surprised that you're having so much trouble buying a house in Alameda, but I am not surprised that the seller would take the cash offer. Cash offer is very difficult to trump b/c in effect, they get all cash for the sale. It doesn't matter what the buyer does with the house afterwards b/c the seller has already checked out. Some of the houses listed have been on the market or reentered the market when they couldn't sell. I'm not fully aware of your situation, but why can't you just keep renting until you find a house? Buying a house is the most important purchase, don't get sucked into the hype... It took well over 1 year for myself to buy a house I loved and for the deal to work out. Just b/c your in contract doesn't mean it's all roses from there. Also you are just comparing the price of rent to price of mortgage payment per month. Owning a home costs much more than that with the maintence, upkeep, etc. I just want to say, keep on trying! It is exasperating sometimes to buy a home, but don't rush it either. Good luck!
virgo June 28, 2012 at 10:23 PM
that sucks. i can't believe how many cash buyers are out there. i've pretty much given up on ever buying a house. my husband doesn't have the best credit and we just don't make enough. maybe if we lived in the midwest we could buy something but it will never happen here. i'm refuse to leave alameda though. i was born and raised here. i tried living in the city and it was awful. i understand your situation and that you probably want something more permanent with a fixed payment and that you might not get that in alameda. i do worry about rent increasing but i guess we'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. i really hope you guys get a house here! maybe your luck will take a turn for the better soon. :-)
virgo June 28, 2012 at 10:26 PM
* "i refuse" not "i'm". sorry, i was typing too fast.
virgo June 28, 2012 at 10:47 PM
it really is the best city in the bay area but of course i'm not biased or anything. :-)
Anne (McKereghan) DeBardeleben June 29, 2012 at 12:19 AM
This is a tough market for any buyer. I'm referring to it as the year of Patience and Perseverance. Buyers wanting to purchase a single family residence on the lower spectrum (in Alameda $500k and below) are forever bumping up against investors with cash offers or homes in such disrepair you can't obtain a loan. Those in the mid to upper range ($500k - $900k) are facing heavy competition with multiple offers and aggressive terms. I'm not sure that we'll see much change this summer as we continue to have a high supply of buyers and a very low supply of homes, but things will even off at sometime. If purchasing a home is your dream, listen to your Realtor team and be prepared to make sacrifices. You may have to give up the private yard for a shared community space, but your dream of home ownership will be achieved. And I agree, it is the best place to live in the Bay Area!
Sharon Alva June 29, 2012 at 08:53 AM
This is a very frustrating market but it's not just Alameda. Buyers are writing multiple offers in Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro. In at least one case I was recently involved in, the seller chose to go for the offer presented by a family, not the all cash investor. It was a short sale. The short sale seller in fact can be in a better position to accept the more heavily financed offer when the buyer appeals to them on a personal level. Add to the frustration the capricious nature of foreclosure sales, where the bank is the owner/seller and I can see where this could feel hopeless. Don't give up yet though. There are tricks of the trade and maybe it's time to regroup and strategize with your agent. Good luck wth the search.
virgo June 29, 2012 at 02:58 PM
it's happening in SF too. i have a coworker who is trying to buy a house and he's approved for quite a bit of money and he lost out on a million dollar house to a cash buyer. who has that kind of cash lying around?? crazy.
a94501er June 29, 2012 at 05:02 PM
That's too bad ... but many sellers prefer an all cash deal (even if it makes no difference to them ... they are getting paid after all, weird).
a94501er June 29, 2012 at 05:04 PM
Is this a sign that the real estate market may be coming back? Seems to be happening nationally as well. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/business/economy/new-indications-housing-recovery-is-under-way.html
cheryl austen June 29, 2012 at 06:50 PM
We went through the same situation you are going through. We had a great down payment assistance program attached to our loan offer, yet the prices for homes are untouchable in Alameda and Bay Farm with a package like that -- if you plan on living there, good luck in your purchase and get a good agent, one that won't push you or talk you into a higher bid -- we were outbid for over a year on homes and lots that were way smaller than what we actually wanted just because it was Alameda -- we moved to to the Lafayette/Pleasant Hill border and have a beautiful home with a 10K sq ft. lot and a 2500 sq ft home for a price we would never get in Alameda. Alameda was our dream buying neighborhood for years but we came to the conclusion we would never own there due to the sellers not wanting our offers or holding out for a higher payout. Take a ride east to the Lamorinda area and you will fall in love just like we did. Alameda is a distant memory and less than 30 minute commute on Bart -- no Bay Bridge bus traffic!
Gloria Yolanda Guerra July 02, 2012 at 06:03 PM
I was born here in Alameda, California and when the navy was here in the mid nineties rent and buying a home was cheaper then. Now its too much money and people can not afford to buy a home here. Thanks to the City Mayor we have no job opportunities in this City. The only suggestion that I think you should try is Hud first time home buying program. Look up Hud first time home buying program on the internet, you might get help? Near the College of Alameda there is some new homes for sell and some might be offer by the Hud first time offer? Alameda is a place to live but my experience in Alameda, California has not been pleasant it is a small town and most of the time some people is a busy buddy. There is other Cities you can live if you don't mind moving?
Gloria Yolanda Guerra July 02, 2012 at 06:05 PM
I was burglarized on May 28, 2012 in the City of Alameda.
Gloria Yolanda Guerra July 02, 2012 at 06:06 PM
Alameda, California has been hit with allot of home burglary 2012.
Gloria Yolanda Guerra July 02, 2012 at 06:08 PM
If you are in the military or been in the military you can get a GI loan at your local veterans office.
Gloria Yolanda Guerra July 02, 2012 at 06:10 PM
Contact HUD to get help buying a home.

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