We read the stories. Heard the anecdotes. Scouted out the neighborhoods we liked and noted the scarcity of "For Sale" signs. But with a new job in Washington and the prospect of a three-hour round-trip rush-hour commute from Ellicott City, we decided to sell our two acres up north and fight it out for a highly sought-after slice of life south of the Beltway.
We knew it wouldn't be pretty, but we thought we were prepared, willing to do just about anything to prevail--add clauses to the purchase contract; remove others; pay more, way more, than the asking price. But manipulatively exploiting the image of our 1-year-old son as part of a sales pitch?
Our real estate agents, Polly Surrey and Jamie Coley, seemed to like the idea.
"We need every advantage," Surrey explained. At stake was a three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath, center-hall brick Colonial within walking distance of the Bethesda Metro that had inspired a particularly fierce feeding frenzy. "This could be the thing that puts you over the top."
We were skeptical, uneasy. It seemed so, well, shameless.
And we were just desperate enough to do it.
For three weeks, Surrey had walked us through one overpriced house after another. Even she was red-faced by the price tags on the tiny, tired homes tucked in the neighborhoods off Wisconsin Avenue. At one home, the owners claimed their unheated attic was actually a master bedroom suite. But hey, the house was in Chevy Chase, one block from the Metro, all for a mere $385,000.
We were so shellshocked that we considered buying a soon-to-be condemned house in another part of Chevy Chase. We figured we could snap it up for a song. We knew we were in trouble when the house, collapsed roof and all, sold for $300,000.
Was this the price we had to pay to be near a Metro stop in a neighborhood where our infant son could flourish and receive an education in a public school? We were about to give up when Surrey called to say a brick Colonial on a pretty street just hit the Multiple Listing Service. Near the Metro, around the corner from a park, down the block from a bike trail.
"Drop what you're doing," she commanded. "Leave now."
A few hours later, we were standing outside the house. So were several other buyers. As I walked up the front steps, one of the buyers saw me coming. She slammed the front door shut, locking us out while she surveyed what she hoped would be hers.
In the street, cell phones were ringing. Neighbors were fueling the frenzy. "I'd snap it up if I were you," said one. "Jump in with both feet," said another.
The front door opened. The nasty buyer came barreling out, brushing past without saying a word, allowing the rest of us to take a peek inside. The house had wood floors. A fireplace. A formal dining room and living room. An eat-in kitchen. A deck out back with a stone terrace. The schools were good. The neighborhood seemed nice. There was no time to waste. Within 48 hours, there would be six offers on the house.
We raced back to our agent's office, buying our son's silence with handfuls of Cheerios while we drafted a sales contract. We agreed to remove many of the standard clauses intended to protect the buyer: Radon inspection? Gone. Lead paint inspection? Gone. The bank's appraisal of the property? Gone.
Then came the hard part. What was the maximum we were willing to pay? A long list of comparable sales in the neighborhood made one thing obvious: It would have to be more than $400,000. The color drained from my wife's face.
After a three-hour strategy session, our offer was ready. We half-joked that maybe we should include a photo of Jack as part of our presentation to the sellers. Our agents loved the idea.
"Can I have a picture?" Coley asked.
"Really?" we asked.
Coley and Surrey reasoned that the sellers also have kids. They raised them in that house. It could give us an advantage. With our agents' assurances, we parted with one of our favorite pictures of Jack, taken when he was 6 months old.
Our competitors tried to outdo us. Two penned personal pleas to the sellers. One staked out the offices of the sellers' real estate agent and refused to budge. The sellers told everyone that all offers would be reviewed on Friday, Oct. 22, 1999, beginning at 7 p.m.--two days after the house hit the market.
By 10 that evening, our agents called to say we won the war. We paid more than the asking price but less than the highest offer, leaving us to wonder: What happened?
We had to know. We called the sellers. They said they carefully reviewed each offer, comparing the financing and the contingency clauses. But they kept coming back to the picture of Jack, asking our agents during the presentation if they could see the photo "just one more time."
"We're saps," one of the sellers admitted last week. "It was the baby picture. What can I say?"