Last week we were in Berkeley and we decided to drive there over two days (luxury!).
There are a few routes between LA and San Francisco, including just hammering up the I-5 the whole way, or going in more leisurely fashion via the 101 then the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). We decided on a compromise – we’d take the I-5 about half way there, then head west on the 46 to the PCH. We would stop for the night at San Simeon, near the southern start of the PCH.
The route north along the I-5 took us past the Magic Mountain theme park, and over a quite wide and tall mountain range. On the mountain, trucks would try to overtake each other going at 25 miles an hour, while the rest of the traffic was trying to get along at 65mph+. Going down the other side the trucks had their own special lane, which they were supposed to stay in, but didn’t, and still tried to overtake each other going at 25mph in low-gear. It was pretty chaotic.
The plains on the other side of the mountain featured a lot of bare sand, oil wells in the same fields as grapevines, and smooth brown hills.
For quite a large section of this part of the route we were overtaking military convoys. They were quite literally miles long, and were travelling at just below the speed limit, causing overtaking to take approximately a decade.
Turning West on Highway 46 we were confronted by a long, flat road with a vanishing point. There are signs telling you Daylight Headlights are required, I guess since the mirages are so extreme due to the massive heat. We passed a vast oil field. As we approached the coast the road became windy and hilly, and at every peak we were sure we’d see the ocean in the distance.
We arrived at the Days Inn, San Simeon, in time for dinner and a sunset walk on the beach. It was pretty cold – such a contrast to the desert only a few tens of miles away.
The next morning we took set off along the PCH. We stopped on the way to check out the Elephant Seals. They park themselves on this beach for a few months every year while they moult. The seals get so hot they need throw sand over themselves (see video below). There were some seals in the water play fighting and barking at each other. It was quite an amazing sight (and smell!).
The road was inundated with sea fog for most of the route, so we didn’t get to see many of the celebrated views. But it wasn’t exactly boring either!
Between San Simeon and Big Sur there really weren’t many places for a pit-stop, but because we were ‘on holiday’ we decided to break for coffee at a random roadhouse. When we walked in we noticed everyone was grim-faced, and the room was silent – then we found out why: a filter-coffee and a packet hot-chocolate cost us $7. Ouch!
As we got further north the road wended inland and the sea fog thinned. The density of RVs didn’t however.
Just outside Monterey we spotted a shopping mall/gas station so we decided to stop, rather than fighting with crowds in town. We had excellent fish and chips for lunch, and a zero stress stop.
We then made the final push to Berkeley via the 101, I-880 and the I-580, which was not as stress-free, but was accomplished swiftly.
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.
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.
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!
Our time at Harvard has come to an end. After a rocky start I ended up really enjoying our time in Cambridge. A few features stick out: the extreme seasons, the battleaxe local women elbowing each other out the way in the supermarket, the general shabbiness of the whole place, the hundreds of international wives of students and scholars with nothing to do, my sub-2hr half-marathon, and of course, the three times the city was completely closed down in those two years (hurricane Sandy, snowpocalypse, and marathon manhunt).
But now we’ve arrived in California. I have no doubt that the West Coast will have a range of equally interesting quirks to get used to. The freeways, for example: they have to be experienced to be believed, but that’s a story for another day.
Moving thousands of miles requires a list, and this was ours:
We have to:
1. pack up our apartment
2. say goodbye to everyone
3. apply for new visas
4. fly to London to have an interview for said visas
5. get at least one car
6. find somewhere to live (preferably to buy – so add to the list ‘buy a house’)
7. I have to get a job
The only good thing about this list is that we’ve done most of it once already – a mere two years ago – and that time we were moving from Australia and had to add to the list things like getting a US bank account, US cell phones, social security numbers, not to mention making friends and making sense of a new country, all with absolutely zero assistance, and often outright hindrance, from others.
As of today we’ve done the first four things on the list.
Packing up the apartment was relatively easy, because all we had to do was supervise the movers who came and did everything. This was completely luxury.
The three men (Jay, Mike and Mike) tore through our apartment packing all our stuff into boxes. The air was full of the sound of tape being unwound and wrapped around things, and the rustling of paper being scrunched up. The whole process took about four hours from start to finish. One slight problem – they forgot to take my bike in the basement… oh well, a lucky spouse got to take that away for free.
Saying goodbye to people was much harder of course. We had a work farewell dinner and afternoon tea for my husband, which included an amazing cake by chef Ben and a gift from my husband’s boss. Our French friends outdid themselves with a lobster dinner. My good friend from the Museum took us to ‘her’ restaurant for a spectacular evening where we were treated like royalty. My friends from the spouse group wished us well through the traditional means of Facebook. Our neighbours downstairs had us for dinner and then kindly took all the food from our fridge so I didn’t have to chuck it out. And our little group of Cambridge Aussies consumed many beers.
The most painful part of anything to do with the US is always the visa. Even doing the application form, which has all your details still in it from last time, took us an hour. Each.
One wrinkle in the process was the expiry date of my husband’s passport – 18 months away. Would they put a two-year visa in his passport? There was no information on the web, and no-one was confident of the answer. We tried to renew the passport twice but the photo kept being rejected, then we ran out of time.
We had our visa interview in London, so we could combine it with a visit to my parents on the south coast. For London I booked a ‘cheap’ hotel half a mile from the embassy – the Park Mews (my review was mixed). This was also walking distance (sort of) to the location of the Sherlock’s flat in the BBC series (actually at 187 N Gower St) so we went for a look at that too…
I’ll outline the full visa process in another post, but needless to say we got our visas – and the full two years in both. We were so happy about this, until we arrived at LAX, at 5am body-clock time, to be told by the nice immigration man that the stamp in both our passports can only be until the expiry date of my husband’s passport. Trying to keep a pleasant demeanor at this point was a challenge.
Car, house, job
Getting a car: We have a rental for a month, so there’s less urgency to solve this than you would think.
In terms of finding a place to live, we had a small headstart on this thanks to a house-hunting trip here before we left Boston. We talked to the local credit union, we found ourselves an agent (Noushine from Coldwell Banker in Pasadena), and set ourselves up with a mailbox. We also joined the Huntington Gardens on the recommendation of several people and spent a pleasant afternoon there.
So when we arrived earlier this week, jetlagged and strangely hungry, our agent took us around many, many places. We saw about four that were ok but each had different problems (renovations required, dodgy selling agents, too small, next to a freeway). We’ll keep looking.
Finally, getting a job for me is so far down the list, it’s not even funny.
So meanwhile I’m holed up in a hotel in Burbank, doing a minimum of four trips a day on the freeway, and itching to explore every corner of LA. I’m really excited to be living in a place that is so famous and where people actually want to visit (hint – it’s warm all year round!), I love that there are Jacaranda trees and jasmine bushes everywhere, and I love that the San Gabriel mountain range dominates the skyline. I look forward to exploring the area over the next few years.