-- This is what buying a house is like in the nation's vast affordable heartland:
You have the luxury of "but."
As in: This is a great house, but . . . the yard is too steep. But there's only one sink in the master bath. But we'd prefer a bigger closet in the nursery. So, thank you, but we'll keep looking.
And why not?
This isn't Los Angeles or Washington or Sarasota, Fla. There is no pressure to put in a bid the moment you pull up to the curb of any house you can even remotely afford.
Out here in the upper-middle-class suburbs of St. Louis, you can be as picky as you please. Because the next week's listings are sure to bring up 30 more roomy three-bedroom, two-bath homes in a top school district -- homes with decks and fireplaces and hardwood floors, homes with oak cabinets in airy kitchens and carpeted recreation rooms in the basement.
All priced less than $250,000.
Real estate agent Dawn Dierker was showing one the other day -- a spotless two-story in a tucked-away neighborhood along a wooded, winding road. The house, just six years old, boasted soaring ceilings, a bay window, ceramic tile in the kitchen, even a goldfish pond by the patio, and 2,100 square feet of space. Asking price: $239,900. Her clients, Chakra and Lekshma Valluri, clearly liked it.
But lingering in the pale yellow family room, Chakra Valluri, a software engineer, shook his head. "The road behind the house might be too loud," he said, straining to hear the faint hum of traffic.
"It's a buyer's market," Dierker said.
The recent explosion in housing prices in California and parts of the East Coast has split the country into two distinct cultures when it comes to pursuing the American Dream.
In the booming areas, buyers waive inspections, offer tens of thousands above the list price, even write groveling letters to the seller, vowing to take good care of the property.
Here in the Heartland, as real estate agent Sharon Hutson put it, "everything kind of mellows." Buyers like the Valluris, who now rent an apartment, spend months sorting through online listings, rejecting one home after another because they lack decks or basement playrooms, before picking out a few to visit. In four months of hunting, the Valluris have studied listings for at least 35 homes in their price range in their preferred school district. They have toured only three.
Yet they don't consider themselves picky, just prudent: "We go see only the ones we like best," Chakra Valluri said.
That laid-back approach is typical of much of the Midwest. In the nation's mid-section, there's plenty of room to build suburbs on former farmland -- and because traffic tends to be light, even the newest developments are often 30 to 45 minutes from downtown.
The ample inventory here helps keep housing prices in check. In the first quarter of this year, the median sales price for an existing single-family house in the St. Louis area was $109,800, according to the National Association of Realtors. In Los Angeles, it was $387,700; in the Washington area, it was $300,700.
"We're generally a steady-as-she-goes market," said Bryan Kelsey, the chief executive of Relocation Realtors in St. Louis.
Certainly, local property values are rising, but at a modest 4 percent to 6 percent a year. Bidding wars do occasionally break out, and the best homes can sell quickly, especially in the older, more exclusive, brick-and-cobblestone neighborhoods near downtown.
But in the swings-and-sandbox subdivisions a bit farther from the city, that type of frenzy is rare enough to be thrilling; agents pass on the stories in a breathless hush, awed to report that a four-bedroom near Kiefer Creek drew an offer several thousand dollars over list price.
The typical home here remains on the market 45 days. Homes selling for more than $200,000 tend to be available longer still, often sitting for three full months.
The buyers, not the sellers, have the upper hand -- which helps explain Carrie Lovell's spreadsheet.
Lovell, a computer programmer with an 11-year-old son, decided this spring to buy a home after years of renting.
Her dream house, she knew, would have at least three bedrooms and be in good shape. No fixer-uppers. She wanted a level back yard, with lots of room for her son, Zach. The neighborhood school had to be excellent.
She wanted a laundry room on the main floor so she wouldn't have to lug clothes to the basement. A master bedroom big enough to fit her king bed, dresser and armoire. She was hoping for a spacious master bath. For this, she was willing to spend up to $200,000.
Her agent, Kathy Hoffman, grumbled a bit to herself: It was getting tougher, she said, to find homes in that price range that really "wowed." Still, within a week, she had shown Lovell nearly two dozen listings in and around this suburb of 31,000.
Like other nearby suburbs, Ballwin is full of moderately priced subdivisions built 15 to 20 years ago: friendly communities of cul-de-sacs and neatly edged lawns, where kids play baseball in the streets and residents find it tough to walk the dog a block without stopping to chat with neighbors. The school district is not the very best in St. Louis -- two districts studded with million-dollar homes share that honor -- but it's routinely ranked among the state's top performers, with enviable test scores and a curriculum rich in art, music, and other electives.
Lovell found much to like. But nothing quite matched her must-have list. "There's usually just one little piece missing," she said.
Then Hoffman showed her a place on Oaktree Crossing Court: new appliances in the kitchen, new central air, a deck with a leafy tree-top view. Three bedrooms, 2.5 baths, 1,550 square feet, not counting the family room or the office in the basement. After several weeks with no offers, the price recently had been reduced, to $199,900.
Lovell paced the gleaming kitchen floor -- also new -- reflecting. Then she dug out a crinkled piece of notebook paper. On it, she had charted the merits of the top houses she'd seen: closet size, bedroom dimensions, whether the back yard offered any privacy.
"I'm the buyer from hell," she said.
Lovell barely looked up from her chart, intent on measuring the Oaktree Crossing house against another promising property. The back yard was a bit cramped for football. Otherwise, it met all her criteria.
She knew she could keep looking for perfection. On the other hand, her lease was up at the end of June and interest rates looked set to rise.
She was due to move in on Friday.