Sandy amps up the anxiety of home buying

October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy had barely begun its assault on the Washington region Monday, but already it was causing plenty of headaches for real estate agent Jane Fairweather.

“I’m kind of a wreck,” the Bethesda-based agent said, in between juggling calls from anxious sellers and worried buyers. “We just did 20 deals this month, and at least half are in some stage of a home inspection. There’s any number of deals that are sitting out there that could crash and burn. So yeah, we’re worried.”

Sandy’s long, slow march through the Mid-Atlantic region caused massive property damage, closed schools and businesses, and cast uncertainty over a wide range of industries. But for those people scheduled to buy or sell a home this week — a stressful process even on the sunniest of days — the storm has amped the anxiety level to new heights.

“The sellers are like, ‘Yes, let’s go to settlement,’ ” Fairweather said. “Our buyers don’t want to settle. . . . They don’t want to take possession until after the storm, so that the liability stays with the seller. They want to make sure the house they’re buying is the house they think they’re buying.”

Suhagi Bhatt, 27, and her husband, Saurabh Sharma, 29, both first-time home buyers, certainly were concerned Monday about the fate of an 1,800-square-foot condominium they have a contract to buy in Rockville’s King Farm community. “We’re concerned if there’s going to be any damage,” Bhatt said. “It’s on the ground level.”

At the same time, the couple still had hoped to close Monday. They already had scheduled a moving truck to arrive Tuesday, as well as a delivery of new furniture. In addition, the condominium’s owner is due to depart this week for a new job overseas and was eager to finish the deal. But when the couple went to pick up a cashier’s check for their closing early Monday, they realized their bank had shut down ahead of Sandy. A wire transfer would take 48 hours. And then there was the question of how they would deal with any storm damage.

“It’s honestly been really, really stressful,” Bhatt said. “It’s kind of out of our control. So whatever’s going to happen, we just have to roll with it.”

They are far from alone.

Kris Paolini, a Redfin agent based in Montgomery County, also was facing multiple delays because of Sandy. In a deal involving a Rockville townhouse, Paolini said the lender declined to sign off on the sale until the storm passed and the property had an additional inspection.

That was bad news for the buyers, who had only a few hours before they were supposed to move out of the place they were renting. Instead of buying their home on Monday, they had to scramble to see if they could stay put as their rental lease expired. “They waited for so long,” Paolini said. “And now the storm is throwing an extra wrench in the works.”

As Sandy’s wind and rain grew in intensity Monday, the anxieties of buyers and sellers converged in places such as Premium Title & Escrow, near Logan Circle.

Owner and president Benjamin Soto said that only four of his 15 employees made it to work. Of the nine scheduled closings, three purchases went forward Monday. Each involved newly constructed condominiums that were not occupied.

“They ultimately will close,” Soto said of the delayed deals, moments before he shut his office in the early afternoon and sent home his skeleton crew. “It’s going to make for our Wednesday being very busy.”

At Paragon Title & Escrow in Bethesda, owner Randy Rothstein spent much of Sunday calling buyers, sellers and lenders to alter closing times and make contingency plans, trying to finish as many deals as possible while inevitably postponing others.

“A lot of times you get thrown a curveball and you just do the best with the hand you’re dealt,” said Rothstein, who did not plan to reopen until Wednesday. “People are wired enough without having something they can’t control affect all their plans. There’s a lot of emotion and personal feelings involved.”

Despite the chaos, the firm oversaw 10 closings Monday. He said buyers and sellers seemed genuinely happy — and relieved — given the circumstances. One couple already had plans for their new place in Bethesda, even if the electricity was knocked out. “They were going to camp out in their new house with candles and a bottle of champagne,” Rothstein said.

Meanwhile, first-time buyers such as Tom Neeley were left hoping that Sandy spared their new home. After nearly a year of searching, Neeley closed Friday on a four-bedroom rowhouse in the District’s Petworth area. He has yet to move in, but over the weekend he secured the windows and made sure the downspouts were ready for a downpour.

On Monday afternoon, he sat in his Dupont Circle apartment, wondering about his new home. Would the basement flood? Were there leaks he didn’t know about? With no car and no Metro service, he would have to wait out the storm to check.

“It’s a little nerve-racking,” Neeley said. “[But] I figure the house has been there for 90 years. What’s another couple days?”

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.
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