Posted in Los Angeles

Buying a house in Pasadena

I never imagined that buying a house would be easy, but our lack of previous experience, combined with trying to do it in a new country, a new city, and in a hurry has made the process slightly challenging.  The bottom line is we’ve had an offer accepted on a place – and here I describe (in nauseating detail) how we got there.


We wanted to buy somewhere in the US because, frankly, we are sick of renting. Buying in Boston was impossible because of the type of visa we were on. On moving West though, with different visas in hand, we set a goal to move into our new place within two months of arriving. As of today, just over a month has passed…

So in California – or at least in Pasadena – we’ve found the process to be as follows:-

Getting an agent

First you have to engage an agent. You can do nothing without one – you are strongly discouraged from attending open houses if you don’t have an agent; and the agent does all the paperwork, writing of offers and such for you. You don’t pay this agent – they are paid by the seller of the house you eventually buy.

How do you get a good agent, you ask? You get a recommendation. Ours was recommended to us by a Caltech professor. And she (the agent, and I imagine, irrelevantly, the Caltech professor) is good – one gets the feeling she’s more used to dealing with people who have seven figures in the bank. But still, she always gives us 100% effort and she never seems to take a day off.


Secondly, you have to get pre-approval for a loan from somewhere. Agents won’t work with you (us) in this market, without it. Pre-approval, of course, involves the dreaded Credit Check. For us it took a year of paying off a credit card on time for us to have a good enough credit rating to get pre-approval.

Get emails from MLS

Thirdly, you need to know what you want in your property. Your agent needs to know everything – location, type of property (‘single family’, townhouse, unit etc), price, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, garage spaces, whether it has a laundry… everything. Our agent put all our requirements into the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) search engine and set it up to email us properties as they came on the market. Only agents can set up this facility. Then on a Thursday afternoon we would send her the list of places we wanted to see (open house or not – doesn’t matter) and she would set up the appointments.

MLS – and no, anything starting with a “6” was rejected immediately.  We just wanted to see what was out there.

Look at places

Bright an early on Saturday or Sunday morning, we would drive into Pasadena and meet our agent at her office. She would then take us around, in her luxury car with elevator music playing, to up to 10 places in 3 hours. The seller or selling agent was never there but the real estate people have a brilliant system of ‘lock boxes’ to get into vacant properties – each agent has a thing like a TV remote which unlocks a strong box hanging from the front door, which then spits out the keys.


Between our house-hunting trip before we officially arrived in California, and the past four weekends, we must’ve looked at a good 30 places.


These ranged from one that we couldn’t face going into because of the smell, a beautiful one that was ridiculously close to the freeway (see video below), ones that were too expensive, in a bad location, in need of too much renovation, had a view of something revolting, were too small, were likely to fall down in the next earthquake, had sloping floors and cracks in the walls, or had a bullet hole in the front window.

Not a good sign....
Not a good sign….
Yes, that is the garage door.  They 'converted it' into a room, but left the handle???
Yes, that is the garage door. They ‘converted it’ into a room, but left the door handle???
Can you imagine asking the movers to bring your fridge up on those rails?
Can you imagine asking the movers to bring your fridge up on those rails?

Write an offer (or several)

When we saw somewhere we liked we had to write an offer and submit it ASAP. We used our agent’s advice to determine the price (the listing price was only a rough guide – the offer could be higher or lower). We even had to write a ‘begging letter’ (as my dad called it) – a letter of introduction – to better our chances at some of the places nearer Caltech. Each offer took some time for our agent to put together, and we had to sign them electronically – which is something none of us wanted to be doing at 11pm on a Sunday night (as we inevitably were).   Our agent would then email the offer to the seller’s agent with a deadline of a few days or a few hours.

Over these four weeks we made eight (EIGHT!) offers, got counter offers back on six of them, made counter-counter offers on two, withdrew one counter-counter offer, and were accepted on a final counter-counter offer.

Here’s what we were looking at:

(1)    Mohawk – 2-bed townhouse reasonably near Caltech – agent played games then didn’t get back to us.

(2)    N Michigan – a 2-bed house, north of the 210 freeway. It was a complicated situation plus the house needed a lot of renovation. We didn’t counter their counter.

(3)    San Pasqual – 2-bed single-floor unit so close to Caltech it was virtually on it. Highly desirable ‘historic’ complex and so the seller received 8 offers, 4 cash. We didn’t counter their counter.

(4)    E California – beautiful 2-bed ground floor unit close to Caltech with loads of private patio space. We got so close – we got a counter offer, and countered back. We were down to the last two but the winning bid allowed the seller to stay in the property for 20 days rent-free AFTER the sale had closed. Madness!

(5)    Oak Knoll – 2-bed townhouse close to Caltech. They countered us but once our agent had looked at the property she priced it about $40k lower than what we first offered, which was $20k lower than the asking price. Lucky escape. It’s still on the market.

(6)    Oswego – 2-bed single-floor unit close-ish to Caltech. They were close to accepting our offer on the second round of negotiations but then we found out the current owner was having a massive dispute with complex Association about his installation of a laundry. So we withdrew our offer.

(7)    [address withheld!] – lucky number 7 (so far). It’s a 3-bed house north of the 210 freeway but still less than a mile’s walk to Pasadena town hall.

(8)    S Sierra Madre – 3-bed townhouse quite close to Caltech. Our agent knew it was under-priced but in the end we were outbid by someone who offered > $10k over asking.

Get offer accepted

So, now that lucky 7 has accepted our offer we’ve moved onto the next stage – putting money in escrow, getting inspections done, finalizing the loan, doing reams of paperwork etc. At any point this could all go south, so stay tuned for part two!

— Following post: Buying a house in Pasadena – Part 2


Travel, photography, blogging, being an expat. And that's just in my spare time.

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