This spring, Shelly Sorensen happily signed a contract to sell her Potomac house for the asking price.
But then, a few hours later, she received two more bids, both offering more money. She wasn't so happy anymore.
There was little she could do, though. She was contractually obligated to sell to the first buyer at the lower price.
Around the same time, Amy Collins, a first-time home buyer, bid for a townhouse in Alexandria. Her offer included an escalation clause that went "to the moon," obliging her to top bids from other potential buyers.
She included the clause because she had already lost out in competitive bidding for four properties and she wanted to make sure she won this time. She did.
But the house appraised for less than the purchase amount, upsetting enough. A few months later, a similar townhouse nearby sold for thousands of dollars less, even more upsetting.
Both Sorensen and Collins are suffering from remorse, that nagging feeling that they could've, should've done better in their real estate transactions.
Remorse is not uncommon among home buyers and sellers, say psychologists and real estate agents. And when the decision to buy or sell is made in a hurry, the case for many in this region over the past few years, the likelihood goes up that second-guessing will set in when the ink dries.
The reasons for remorse are varied, although most have to do with money. Sometimes, the feeling is justified -- more money could have been made or less money paid -- and lessons can be learned. Other times, it's just a matter of getting used to new life circumstances.
The good news: Remorse is usually a short-lived emotion.
"It's post-decision regret," said Miriam Tatzel, a professor of human development at Empire State College in New York and an expert on consumer psychology. "After you make a decision, all of the positive things of the choice you rejected loom large, while all the negative things of the choice you made loom large."
Tatzel said that with real estate, because of the lifestyle consequences and the hefty price tag, "the whole post-decision regret phenomenon comes in even more strongly."
Remorseful sellers may feel they have sold too cheaply. They may also regret having sold at all because of later appreciation, or because they miss their old home and neighborhood.
Remorseful buyers may think they have bought too dearly. They also worry about the financial burden they have assumed; they can regret the lifestyle choices the purchase represents.
"There's nobody who was ever completely satisfied with what they sold or what they bought," said John Tuccillo, a real estate industry consultant and author. "Remorse happens all the time."
Tatzel said, however, that humans tend to quickly try to resolve post-decision regrets.
"Soon you start bolstering your decision by selectively noticing things that support it," she said. "Ultimately, we want to have peace of mind."
Marilyn Metzl, a psychoanalyst and professor of psychology in Kansas City, Mo., said: "As you interact with your new purchase, remorse for the old dies down. You need to start developing history with the new."
A few tales of remorse:
Hot Market, High Price
Savani Tatake has a bad case of buyer's remorse. She is convinced that she and her husband paid too much for their house in Sterling. She worries that if they need to sell in a few years, they won't recoup their investment.
The Tatakes, first-time homeowners, bought their home for $352,000 in the frenzied days of March, when the local real estate market was at a fever pitch. The couple already had bid unsuccessfully on 14 houses. So their contract included an escalation clause; they beat out two competing bidders by paying $12,000 more than the asking price.
"At that point in March, it was a realistic price," Tatake said. "Other houses were going $25,000 to $30,000 over the asking price."
Tatake said she was panicked that if she didn't find something soon, she would "end up spending my life in a two-bedroom condo in Ashburn."
Now, she constantly checks sales prices in her neighborhood, hoping they will justify her purchase.
"We paid $12,000 too much for it," she said. "I'm sure that now we could've gotten it for the asking price. The market has cooled down. But we didn't know that then."
What worries her is that "five years down the line, we won't get a good price for it, that it won't go up."
The calendar could be playing a role in her anxiety, said Vince Hurteau, owner of Continental Properties, a D.C. brokerage. Most years, spring is a busy selling time, and the real estate market slows down for the summer. This year, spring was especially frantic, and those who bought then may fear they are the "person who paid the top price," he said.
"Nobody wants to be that person," he said. "We had an incredible spurt in prices in the spring. But that's how the market goes, in spurts. A big spurt and then it slows down for awhile."
Tatake said she also worries that they bought the "wrong kind of house."
She said, "We bought a house with a big yard and none of my friends want big yards. Most buyers prefer bigger homes and smaller lots. I'm worried no one will want this house."
Her family likes the big yard, though, and they would enjoy the house, she said, if only there wasn't this "annoying thing at the back of my head all the time."
She said her husband thinks she has "lost it."
Escalation Clause Anxiety
Amy Collins is another first-time spring buyer suffering from remorse. She and her husband bought a townhouse in Alexandria in April after bidding on four other places.
This time, they were determined to win the bidding, so their contract included an escalation clause that said they would pay up to $45,000 more than list price. The townhouse was on the market for just three days, which didn't leave a lot of time for contemplation. They submitted their contract 15 minutes before the deadline. There were seven other bids.
"We escalated like crazy," Collins said, "but we felt we had to, to get it."
She felt lucky: She won with a bid only $30,000 over list price.
However, the townhouse didn't appraise for the purchase price. That meant Collins and her husband had to come up with additional down payment cash out of their savings, rather getting as large a mortgage as they had wanted.
As if that wasn't enough to trigger buyer's remorse, a few months later, a similar townhouse in their development sold for $20,000 less than they had paid. Other similar townhouses are now on the market for less, too.
"I just feel taken advantage of," Collins said. "I don't even know by whom. By the market, I guess. We had to pay more than it's worth to get it, which is disconcerting."
However, she said, she enjoys her home and the remorse is lessening with time.
"It's not like I lay awake nights worrying about it," Collins said. "But it does strike a chord."
Because sellers have ruled the market here for the last few years, buyers have been the most susceptible to remorse, said agent Jane Fairweather of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethesda.
"It's not surprising, in a market where they've had to give up all their rights and just pay and pay and pay," she said.
Richard Oder, an agent with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in the District, said first-time buyers are more likely to feel remorse than are more experienced buyers.
"They're scared, which is understandable," Oder said. "They're really nervous about whether they did the right thing. It's all psychology."
Concern Over Compromises
Alex Gross has a more subtle kind of first-time buyer's remorse. It's not so much about money. It's more about becoming comfortable with the compromises he made and responsibilities he took on.
Gross and his wife, Sofia, moved to Washington recently from New York City, where they rented an apartment for 10 years. But now they had a child and Sofia's mother was going to live with them, so they wanted a house.
Still, they like city life so they looked in Glover Park, Dupont Circle and Georgetown with a budget up to the low $600,000s.
"We got out-bid every time we tried," Gross said. "Sometimes we didn't even put bids in, because we knew it would be nuts."
Then a friend of a friend wanted to sell his house in Bethesda and the couple had a chance to bid without facing competition. There wasn't much time to decide, though. Before the open house, they agreed with the owners on a price.
"You're forced into making an enormous decision in a very short time frame that has enormous consequences on your life," Gross said. "It's so grueling."
Because time was so tight, there were important things about the house and its suburban location that he wasn't able to research. "Access to the bus is much more difficult than we expected," Gross said. "The bus doesn't run all the time. I have to drive everyone everywhere."
The move to the suburbs was for the good of his family, but it was still a big compromise for him and his wife. "It doesn't feel that good, even if in your heart you know you did the right thing," he said.
He frets now that they bought at the peak of the market, because activity seems to have slowed in his neighborhood since the frenzied days of spring. He worries, too, about the obligations of homeownership.
"I'm scared that I won't be able to handle the responsibility, that I'll miss something that I should've taken care of," he said.
Being an Agent Isn't Easy
Even real estate agents can feel seller's remorse.
When Shelly Sorensen sold her Potomac house, she got hit with a double dose: She felt that she could have made more money, and on top of that, she missed her house desperately when it was gone.
Sorensen, an agent with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Potomac, first put her seven-bedroom, eight-bath home on the market two years ago. It sat unsold for six months, sparking no interest, not even a second phone call.
This spring, she tried again, listing the house at $1.699 million, $100,000 more than two years previously. On the first day, she received a full-price offer.
"So when the buyer's agent came to me and said, 'Do us a favor, don't consider any other contracts,' I said, 'Okay, fine,' " she said. "I really didn't think that in the $1.7 million range, there would be a bidding war."
Within days, however, there were two other competing bidders, one offering $35,000 more than the list price, and another offering $50,000 to buy the original buyer out, Sorensen said.
"We could have gotten $85,000 to $100,000 more for the house," she said. "I was bummed. There's a lot we could have done with the extra $100,000."
Agent Kris Feldman from Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethesda, who represented the winning buyer in the transaction, said she was "trying to get the best deal I could for my client."
Sorensen said her decision not to look at other contracts was influenced by what had happened two years earlier. A real estate market can change from year to year, even from month to month, she said.
"March was a berserk month," she said. "Today, the price would've been exactly right."
Money wasn't her only regret. The family scaled down with the move and bought a less expensive Potomac house, half the size of their old one.
"At first, I felt we had made this gargantuan mistake," Sorensen said. "Oh my gosh, I would think, where is my big, beautiful house?"
Consumer psychologist Tatzel said: "Leaving a house is a real parting. It represents a chapter in your life. When you move, you reassess all of your belongings, you go over the memories that occurred there."
After a couple of months, Sorensen's remorse started to fade, and the family began to enjoy their new home.
"It's cozier," Sorensen said. "We're together in the same room now, instead of spread out all over the big house."
Paying the Price for Selling
Marisa Summers has a different kind of seller's remorse, one that has been widespread during the past few years of galloping price appreciation -- the "I shouldn't have sold at all" regret.
Arthur Blitz, a Bethesda real estate lawyer, said many of his clients have experienced such remorse. "They think they sold cheap, that if they had held on, they could've gotten a lot more," he said. "When a market is going up 17 to 20 percent a year, it's not hard to feel that."
In Summers' case, she had a one-bedroom, two-level condominium on Capitol Hill that she had bought for $86,000 in 1998.
After she and her husband had a baby, though, the condo started to feel small. They sold it in 2001 for $120,000 -- $34,000 more than she had paid three years earlier -- and bought a $165,000 single-family house in Cheverly.
"I'm not sorry we bought the house, although I miss walking to the movies at Union Station," Summers said. "I'm just sorry we sold the condo."
Summers said she has been keeping a close watch on what condos in her old Capitol Hill building have been selling for -- something that's common among remorseful sellers. "I think I could sell it for $200,000 now," she said ruefully.
They sold when they did because they thought it was the only way to come up with cash for their down payment on the house. Summers has since learned that they could have raised the cash by borrowing on the equity they had built up in the condo.
"Even paying a property manager, we could have made a couple hundred dollars a month extra renting the condo out," she said. "It would've been a great thing for our portfolio. And we would've had extra income from renting it. A lot of investors are going in around there and buying up those older homes now."
Marisa and husband Michael still drive around Capitol Hill, looking at the development around their old building and feeling stupid.
"Now we're having another baby, and investing has become even more important for us," she said. "We already had a great piece of property and we sold it."