Confessions of pandemic homebuyers: 6 families open up about overpaying, losing bidding wars, and settling for fixer-uppers in a bonkers housing market

  • The pandemic has fueled a fiercely competitive housing market with high prices and low inventory.
  • Homebuyers struggle with bidding wars, purchasing properties sight unseen, and other challenges.
  • Here are six stories of people who overcame those obstacles and scored homes anyway.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ilan Harel remembers the moment the desire to leave New York City took over.

He was drinking a beer and grilling burgers outside of an Airbnb that he and his wife, Sarah, had rented in the Catskills for a weekend to celebrate their anniversary.

It was July 2020, so the couple was also toasting that they’d survived the first three months of lockdown working and living from the two-bedroom apartment they shared in Astoria, Queens.

The countryside was quiet, with no neighbors or crowds. Harel, a native New Yorker, finally understood why someone would want to make a go of it outside the Big Apple. And so, after more than a decade renting in Queens, the Harels decided to buy for the first time.

They ultimately scored a $329,000 property in Pleasant Valley, New York, a Hudson Valley town with fewer than 10,000 residents that is just 90 minutes north of their former digs in Queens.

But snagging their dream home was no easy feat. It was the long-labored-over result of checking listing websites all day long for three months, making offers on properties for thousands of dollars over asking price, and competing with hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers like them who fled the city for greener pastures around the same time.  

Their story illuminates a broader reality: The pandemic upended the real-estate market and, as a result, has pushed homeownership further out of reach. 

Houses have sold at a breakneck pace over the past year, fueled by a combination of low mortgage rates and newfound work-from-home flexibility. And while that boom is propelling smaller cities and vacation spots to new heights — plus lining the pockets of predatory Wall Street firms and corporate real-estate players like Zillow — it is also testing homebuyers financially and psychologically. 

Housing inventory has plummeted to record lows while property prices have soared to record highs. The imbalance has left aspiring homeowners struggling to navigate a cutthroat market that offers few options and inflated prices.

Here are six stories of people who took part in the pandemic buying frenzy that’s led to bidding wars, all-cash sales, sight-unseen purchases, and other leaps of faith — all in the name of achieving the American dream of homeownership.

Did you buy a home during the pandemic? We want to hear from you! Whether the process was a breeze or a nightmare, drop us a line to share your experience. Email real estate editor Hana Alberts at [email protected]

  • An NYC couple bought their first house in the bucolic Catskills after using savvy tactics to outbid the hordes also fleeing cities.
  • Even a seasoned Hamptons real-estate agent had to fight to upgrade to a multimillion-dollar home as the summertime hot spot became a year-round boom town.
  • A family ditching Washington for Florida had to settle for a fixer-upper.
  • A San Francisco family bought a house in Portugal without ever even visiting the country.
  • A first-time homebuyer finally emerged victorious after navigating months of bidding wars in Amish country.
  • A couple had to sell their LA home in a week when in-person showings were still banned in order to take care of elderly parents.

An NYC couple bought their first house in the bucolic Catskills after using savvy tactics to outbid the hordes also fleeing cities.

After their weekend in the Catskills, he and Sarah, 40, spent three months scouring upstate New York towns within a 90-minute driveof the city.

When they started making offers on properties that ticked their boxes, they discovered how difficult it was to actually nab one. Competition from others fleeing the city was fierce; sellers knew they could command top dollar from the newly interested masses, so prices were climbing, and bidding wars were expected.

“If there were rules to this, they totally were out the window,” Harel said. “The Wild West isn’t even a strong enough term. It was a free-for-all.”

The bucolic enclaves north of New York City, in particular, emerged a winner of pandemic-induced demand, with longstanding local residents and Airbnb rental owners alike cashing in on urbanites’ desire for more space. For-sale homes went into contract at a record pace, often just hours after being listed. The brokerage Houlihan Lawrence reported areas of northern Westchester and northeastern Duchess counties saw 50% and 87% year-over-year increases, respectively, in the number of homes sold in the third quarter of 2020 — when the Harels were house-hunting.

The Harels had a rude awakening to the competitive world of country real-estate. They put three offers on different homes before they finally snagged one.

Their first offer was for a Frank Lloyd Wright-style home in Middletown, New York, west of the Hudson River, which hadn’t been updated since 1970s. It had multiple bidders despite being on the market for just two days. During a showing, the Harels noticed the homeowner sitting porch-side drinking a Heineken. In an attempt to stand out and up their chances of winning the home, they ran to a nearby gas station to buy him a six-pack. They offered him $10,000 more than the asking pr, too. The seller graciously accepted: Hands were shaken, IPAs were shared, and hugs were exchanged. Two hours later, the couple arrived back in the city and received a call from the seller’s agent, who said the beer lover had decided to accept a higher offer.

The Harels were back to square one. From then on, they went from “naive and nice couple trying to buy a house to renegade duo,” Harel joked. 

Stalking listing sites three times a day, the couple discovered that many new listings were posted at night. They found the property in Pleasant Valley, east of the Hudson, online one evening. They called their real-estate agent to set up a showing for the next morning — just seven hours later. 

The house was even better than advertised, Harel said, set on 2½ acres with a backyard river. So they put in an offer right away. They bid $329,000, $5,000 over ask, but couldn’t shake their anxiety, especially because neighboring homes fetched north of $500,000. And after a nail-biting weekend waiting to hear from the sellers, their agent found that their offer has been accepted. 

Still, afraid to risk losing the deal, the Harels wrote a letter to the sellers, expressing their love for the house and its on-site chicken coop, highlighting Sarah’s work in the nonprofit sector and Ilan’s then-position at a tech startup. “Strategizing as needed,” Harel said, they even sent a photo of themselves inside the house, writing that they “couldn’t wait to raise all their children and chickens” there.

Here’s the thing: The couple wants neither children nor chickens. When the house was safely theirs, they sold coop on Craigslist.

But they made it through the gantlet.

Even a seasoned Hamptons real-estate agent had to fight to upgrade to a multimillion-dollar home as the summertime hot spot became a year-round boom town.

James Keogh is an East Hampton native. 

As a real-estate agent, he has spent the past 16 years selling real estate in his charming hometown, one of the cornerstones in a string of luxurious Long Island hamlets along the Atlantic Ocean that have long been a favorite summertime retreat for New Yorkers.

He’s one of Douglas Elliman’s top brokers, one of three founders of the brokerage’s Atlantic Team, which has ranked No. 1 in the Hamptons by number of transactions, doing more deals than any team in the East End.

But his insider knowledge and experience interacting with seasonal buyers, Keogh said, was put to the test in the Hamptons’ real-estate scene right now.

The pandemic has driven seasonal renters toward year-round demand, he said, and the towns that usually empty out during the winter were busy in February. Pre-pandemic, the majority of part-time Hamptons residents would return to city in the winter.

The constant appetite for charming cottages and beachfront mansions from wealthy urbanites — newly mobile thanks to remote work and virtual school — has resulted in bidding wars and properties that trade for sky-high prices. In spring 2020, renters and buyers arrived in droves for more indoor and outdoor space as well as fewer crowds to ride out the first wave of the pandemic. Many never left, and the arrivals haven’t stopped.

Some newcomers are enrolling their kids in schools, enraging locals, while the influx has squeezed humbler neighbors out by limiting affordable-housing options.

But Keogh found himself stuck in a tricky limbo: Though he’s a local, he quickly found that he was among the home-seekers he usually works for.

His work had evolved to be more remote, while his kids were learning from home. The 2,400-square-foot, four-bedroom, two-bathroom East Hampton home he shared with his wife and four children — all under the age of 5 — proved too cramped for the pandemic.

And so the young family set its sights on upsizing to a new place with more space, a $2.1 million home in nearby Amagansett with five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a finished basement, and over 4,400 square feet. Set on 2 acres, the property also has a two-car garage.

Keogh told Insider he fell in love with the home — and immediately knew he had to act fast to beat out people just like his clients. They were now the competition. 

After he saw the Amagansett house, he worked to lock up the deal fast because he knew half a dozen eager homebuyers would be bidding on it within days. After a quick inspection and some negotiating, he offered the seller the full asking price to avoid losing the home to a higher bidder.

An earlier offer by a prospective buyer had already fallen through, and Keogh paid more than that buyer, which he said was frustrating.

But to secure his family’s dream house, he knew he had to pay extra to win — even with his real-estate savvy. He is set to close in May.

“My partners were making fun of me because I did everything I had to,” Keogh said. 

Keogh then listed his current house, fully expecting it to get snapped up. Sure enough, it was on the market for less than just 24 hours before he received the first offer, and he’s expecting to have a deal done in the next few weeks. 

There’s “all-time-high demand for the Hamptons right now,” Keogh said.

He is gearing up for a busy summer: The latest Elliman report found that sales of Hamptons homes continued to surge in the first quarter of 2021. The median price jumped 31.3% from the year prior, to $1.3 million. Activity in the $1 million to $5 million range nearly doubled from the same period in 2020. Listing inventory fell at its fastest rate in more than 13 years, boosting competition over a limited number of homes and, in turn, leading to even higher prices. A house just rented for $2 million for the summer, a record.

Given a scene that merciless, Keogh is grateful. Even if he may have paid more than he would have a year ago, he’s happy to have scored a home at all.

A family ditching Washington for Florida had to settle for a fixer-upper.

The hordes ditching northern climes for the Sunshine State during the pandemic arrived expecting better weather, lower taxes, and a laid-back lifestyle.

They didn’t expect an overrun housing market, with so few properties on the market that almost every new listing sparks a bidding war and sells above asking price.

Long before the coronavirus crisis arrived, Heatherlynn Taisacan Lizama and her family had been plotting their move south from Washington state.

Florida had always appealed to Lizama and her husband, Gil. After years of planning, the couple and their two children knew by early 2020 that they’d relocate by late summer. Gil, a sheet-metal mechanic, had applied for a new job with the same employer; they approved his transfer to northwest Florida with a start date of August 16. 

In January 2020, they reached out to a real-estate agent to find out what they needed to do to increase the value of their Washington home before selling it. In the midst of upgrading the house per the agent’s advice, the pandemic hit.

With wheels already in motion, they decided to carry on with their plans. In July, once their house was renovated, they listed it for $330,999.

Good thing the wild housing market benefits sellers. Seattle, in fact, has recorded the fourth-highest bidding war rate in the country, according to a Redfin report.

Their house was snatched off the market.

‘There was a bidding war between a couple of people,” she told Insider. “It went for about $17,000 over our listing price.”

The downside to the competitive housing market was facing it again — this time, as buyers landing in one of the most popular places to move during the pandemic.

Lizama had to act fast: The family nabbed a home in the panhandle city of Crestview, Florida, just 15 days after it was listed. (The buying process has gotten more intense since then. Now, Redfin found, nearly half of the brokerage’s homes are selling within one week.)

The family had been hoping to land a home that was move-in ready, but to stay within their budget, they had to settle for a fixer-upper on 7 acres. They paid $170,000 — and still had their plates full with renovations.

“It’s an old 1948 brick home. It needed a lot of work,” Lizama said.

To save money, they did most of the upgrades themselves, including replacing the flooring, walls, windows, and doors. They hired outside help for drywall, insulation, and HVAC. 

Members of the family have been documenting their new life in Florida and their DIY renovations on social media, including Instagram and Facebook, using the handle 7acresofsunshine. 

Last weekend, the family for four had to don protective suits and helmets to remove a beehive stuck under one of their rafters.

“Moving to Florida was worth it for us,” Lizama told Insider. “We found a fixer-upper on our dream property, and we are able to bring the house back to life and rebuild it into our dream home.”

A San Francisco family bought a house in Portugal without ever even visiting the country.

Like so many other Bay Area residents, LaDonna Witmer and her husband were motivated to reconsider where they wanted to raise their family when the pandemic struck.

Last summer, Witmer and her husband had a frank conversation guided by a question that many Americans have asked themselves the past year: “What if we just don’t go back to any sort of normal?”

San Francisco is expensive, they reasoned, and they had been spinning on the Silicon Valley hamster wheel for decades. Could they find somewhere to live where their salaries went further? Where they could cut down on their hours to spend more time with their 10-year-old daughter?

They’d always wanted to live abroad, they said. Now could be the time to make the dream a reality.

In June, the family — with their boxer-terrier mix, Vila, and South American parrot, FeeBea, in tow — plans to move roughly 5,680 miles from San Francisco to the seaside town of Setúbal, Portugal. The city, 30 miles south of Lisbon, is known for its sardines and moscatel wine.

They will live in a bright-pink four-bedroom home on a picturesque cobblestone street in Setúbal, just blocks from the waterfront, that they bought sight unseen for €230,000 ($277,600).

With the purchase, Witmer joins the growing ranks of Americans who bought properties before ever setting foot inside. A recent Redfin report found that more than half of US homebuyers last year — a whopping 63% — made offers on properties without ever laying eyes on them. In 2019, by comparison, just a third of buyers made sight-unseen offers.

Setúbal’s relative affordability made it easier to take the plunge. Zillow calculates the median home value in San Francisco as $1.4 million. That’s more than five times what Witmer paid for the Portuguese hideaway. The stark contrast in housing markets was one driving force behind their decision to relocate abroad. They still own a home in San Francisco, which they are preparing to put on the market. They can expect a quick and fruitful sale: Homes are selling within a week and above asking price.

Still, the pandemic purchasing process abroad has hiccups. Deciding on Portugal as an expatriate base was easy, but finding a house while locked down on the other side of the world was not. 

Witmer scoured Portuguese listing sites all of October and November. She crafted elaborate spreadsheets with potential options. She spent hours fooling around with Google Earth, trying to understand the placement of each property, learning the neighborhoods, and envisioning herself at the local bar and grocery store.

After all, she’s never been to Portugal.

Witmer asked for advice from a real-estate agent friend, who connected her with a Keller Williams agent based outside of Lisbon. They developed a relationship, constantly emailing, WhatsApping, and Zooming as the agent toured properties on Witmer’s behalf.

In December, after months of aggressively checking out properties, Witmer’s family settled on a house. They made an initial offer just before Christmas that was accepted in January.

The next challenge was the paperwork. Securing visas amid a global pandemic as countries actively tried to keep out American visitors was no simple feat. Witmer described “hoops to jump through,” which included trying (and failing) to open a Portuguese bank account and physically posting pages upon pages of notarized documents, including background checks, by overnight mail only to have the shipments delayed by massive weather events like the snowstorms in Texas.

Witmer’s family closed on the home in the middle of February. There was a deed signing that they attended over Zoom at 3 a.m. It was elaborate: The seller appeared on the screen with “all these official people in suits” as the deed was read aloud. At one point, Witmer muted her microphone, leaned over to her husband of 20 years, and said: “I feel like we’re getting married.”

But despite the stress of tedious bureaucracy, the pomp of early-morning deed readings, and the anxiety of committing to a place she’d never been, Witmer is hopeful about the move. It helps that her father, an Illinois native approaching 80, affirmed her decision.

“If you don’t go,” she said he told her, “you would sit in San Francisco the rest of your life, wondering what would have happened.”

This summer, she’ll know. “I’m just excited to start exploring streets that Google Earth wouldn’t let me go down,” she said.

A first-time homebuyer finally emerged victorious after navigating months of bidding wars in Amish country.

Last spring, Christie Heimbach was shelling out $1,000 in rent every month to live with a roommate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

Perched among the rolling hills of Amish country, the quaint city of about 60,000 residents has trendy art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants that have lured New Yorkers and other urbanites in recent years.

Heimbach, a teacher who also works as a wedding photographer and nonprofit executive, felt her monthly payments were going nowhere. After crunching the numbers, she realized she could spend roughly the same amount of money – give or take a couple hundred dollars — on a home of her own.

The pandemic gave her the push she needed, she told Insider, to “invest” her money in a home rather than “pour” her savings into a living situation she felt she couldn’t control. 

First, Heimbach spent months getting familiar with Lancaster’s housing market, a 90-minute drive west of Philadelphia. She combed online listings constantly, subscribed to real-estate agents’ newsletters, and asked friends about their experiences buying. 

Her intense research seemed to have paid off. In September, she made an offer on her dream home: a “stellar” midcentury-modern property on the market for $200,000 — the high end of her budget. The house had exposed brick walls, a spacious backyard, and tons of natural light. It even had enough space upstairs to fit one of Heimbach’s wish-list items: a photography studio.

The home became the center of a bidding war. Her best and final offer came in just $1,000 below the winning bid. “I just remember being crushed,” she said. “I felt like I had found my place.”

Lancaster is no exception to the low inventory driving nationwide bidding wars. Redfin found that home prices in the county are up at least 10% compared with last year, and homes are selling three times as fast, within just seven days.

To compete, Heimbach adjusted her house-hunting strategy. She started seeking out properties that had been sitting on the market for months, rather than going to view newly listed homes that were getting snapped up right as they hit the market. It helped her stand a chance.

Still, she put in offers on two other houses that ultimately sold for above asking price. By December, she was “fatigued” by the search and on a tight timeline. The lease on her rental was ending.

On a Thursday in mid-December, Heimbach thumbed through the photos of a recently flipped three-bedroom close to downtown Lancaster. It wasn’t “a dream in any sense of the imagination,” she said, but it checked off most of her must-have boxes even though it was listed for about $20,000 more than she wanted to spend. It seemed worth it, she reasoned, because it could make for a charming Airbnb to help recoup some costs.

The letter worked: The sellers accepted her offer before the weekend. The open house was canceled.

While the exhausting chore of home-buying is finally over, a different kind of work has started.

In the few months since she’s been in her new place, Heimbach said, she’s been surprised by the “little things” that go into homeownership. It’s now up to her to figure out how to turn on the water heater or determine whether the smell of gas wafting from her oven is normal.

She’s also undertaking some light home renovations. The front door, for instance is a tad flimsy for her taste, but sky-high lumber prices resulted in a recent moment of sticker shock.

“I looked it up online, and it’s like $2,000 to replace,” she said. “There’s no way I’m paying $2,000 to get a hunk of wood put in.”

A couple had to sell their LA home in a week when in-person showings were still banned in order to take care of elderly parents.

In April 2020, Roy Quinto and Larry Lane had to sell their California home in seven days.

Just one problem: In-person showings were banned. The real-estate industry was basically shut down.

At the time, Quinto and Lane had been a couple for just over a year. They lived in a three-bedroom townhouse in Marina Del Rey, an oceanfront part of Los Angeles near the airport, that Quinto had purchased in 2011.

In late February, with the coronavirus looming as a bigger threat each day, the two decided to buy a bigger home with more space so Quinto’s elderly parents could move in. It was a grounding decision during a time of instability. Many others followed suit; extended families that might have lived apart before moved in together for mutual support. In 2020, 15% of US homebuyers bought multigenerational homes, the highest rate in nine years, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Quinto and Lane set their eyes on a four-bedroom property just 15 minutes away asking $1.57 million.

But could they sell the townhouse to finance the bigger home if no prospective buyers could tour it?

Quinto and Lane initially turned to a program offered by real-estate startup Flyhomes called Trade Up, which offers would-be sellers a guaranteed price for their home. If Flyhomes is unable to sell the property within 90 days, the company buys it at that price anyway. That allows the owners to make an offer on a new place with Flyhomes’ backing.

Even though there was a chance their townhouse could fetch a better price on the open market, Quinto and Lane thought the program a perfect fit because it took the stress of traditional selling out of the equation at a time when the industry was at a standstill. 

After minimal negotiations, the couple and Flyhomes agreed on a price in late March, just as the coronavirus pandemic was shutting down most of the economy. But the company then changed the parameters for participation in Trade Up: Quinto and Lane no longer qualified. They pleaded with the seller of the bigger house, who agreed to give Roy and Larry seven days to find a buyer for the townhouse, which would in turn support the more expensive purchase.

They had one week.

At this point, Californians were subject to stay-at-home orders. Quinto and Lane were forced to sell their house on photos and video chats alone. A year on, that seems almost common. But at the time, it was unprecedented — and a little bit scary.

Quinto, an admissions director at UCLA’s business school, and Lane, who works at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, had no experience selling real estate. But they brainstormed strategies for making their house appeal to buyers given limited time and resources.

To start, the couple knew that carefully composed images needed to convey that their townhouse was a safe haven.

“The professional photographer came in while we stayed in the garage,” Quinto told Insider. “The aesthetic, it was like a quarantine-clean look, so there was fresh fruit everywhere,” Lane said. “There were towels and linens.”

They showed the house using video-conferencing platforms like Google Hangouts and Zoom, trying to make the prospective buyers on the other end feel as if they were there.

They began each tour outside the front door. “We realized that not many people would be able to appreciate the birds chirping, the beautiful greenery, and the big pine trees” if they could visit in person, Quinto said.

The couple focused on keeping the camera steady and at eye level. When it came to answering questions like, “How big is the master bedroom?” they would describe the size of the bed and furniture as well as list the square footage. Relatable descriptions made it easier for interested buyers to imagine their own belongings there.

For instance, when asked how tall the shower was, Quinto would say, “My partner is 6-foot-4 and he’s able to fit under it.” 

They pulled it off: The couple was able to secure a buyer just five days after the townhouse hit the market.

Then came the May move into their new, more spacious digs. Quinto’s parents moved in two months later, and living under one roof has allowed the family to weather the coronavirus roller coaster with one another’s support.

Even though California property prices have skyrocketed since the onset of the pandemic, meaning Quinto and Lane would have gotten more money for their townhouse if they’d waited to sell, they said they’re happy they moved when they did.

“We totally lucked out — on all fronts,” Quinto wrote in a follow-up email to Insider. “The pandemic shut everything down in LA during March and April 2020 and our timing was perfect. If we waited one week later or started one week sooner,we genuinely feel that we wouldn’t have closed escrow on at least one of the properties. We felt like we were the last buyers to buy and the last sellers to sell before the market shifted.”

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