How to Spot a Lemon

This is a faith story – but it takes awhile to get to the point. Hang in there…

This past year, Jeannelle and I moved to Hilton Head Island and were interested in trying to purchase a home. Many people were telling us that interest rates were phenomenal and that buying property on a resort island is really a “no lose proposition”. We had rented for the last seven years at a very low rate and were currently renting. It seemed to us that almost everyone was saying that renting is like “giving your money away”. I was starting to believe them. I didn’t want to be a bad steward so I started researching what it takes to buy your first house. I bought some books from Barnes and Noble and read a bunch of articles online about buying your first home. This couldn’t be that hard could it?

Now I had watched plenty of HGTV… Property Virgins, House Hunters, House Hunters International etc. but I figured that I must be missing something. How in the world, I thought, could these 25-year-old newlyweds afford a $600,000 house? They must be geniuses or lottery winners or something. I just couldn’t get the math right. Maybe it’s just cause I’m on a pastors salary, I thought – or maybe these people just never think that they will never have to move? I just couldn’t figure it out… What was I doing wrong?

Eventually, I just gave up and gave in and Jeannelle and I found a 1600 sq foot 3 bedroom, 3 bath house on short sale for $165,000. It had a nice garage with a little fenced in yard… It seemed perfect so we put a bid on it and started the process… Fortunately, Jeannelle and I both have immaculate credit scores so this house was well within the amount the bank was willing to loan us. We didn’t have enough money for a down-payment but my in-laws generously agreed to help us with that. So we jumped through all of the hoops and we were all set – or so we thought.

The problem was that in order to buy a house on an island lenders require you to have flood insurance. Most people don’t know though that in order to get flood insurance most insurance companies depend on FEMA being up and running in case of a catastrophic event. Now this is where our story starts getting weird because it had to do with the federal government. Remember last year when President Obama passed Health Care reform? Well apparently a particular congressman did and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it so much that he decided to shut down FEMA as a form of protest. If that reasoning doesn’t make sense to you your not alone because it’s a nonsensical action – but it’s a part of the government where congressman so-and-so had control so he essentially held it hostage. Aside from giving us complete faith in the maturity of out political leaders an reassuring me that I actually probably could run for Congress in some parts of the country, this affected us because with FEMA “down” we weren’t able to get flood insurance thus preventing us from getting our loan thus resulting in our contract extension (yes, we got one) running out. To make a long story short… Once the contract expired someone else immediately came in and bought the house out from under us.

Oh well, there are other fish in the sea right? So we got right back on the horse (or sea horse, whatever metaphor works for you) and found another place. This house was in a gated neighborhood immediately off the island. It was another short sale and wow it was nice. It had 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and was 2600 sq ft. The neighborhood had two private golf courses, a marina, 4 community pools, A clubhouse and private tennis courts. It was also a short sale on the market at $211,000 with a $21,000 one-time neighborhood cash fee and a $4,500 a year property owners association (POA) fee. This was a little bit higher but we managed to get the seller down to 198,000 and once again the in-laws attempted to come to the rescue. I mean what’s another 50 grand? No big deal right? Those 25 yr old newlyweds spent way more than that… The problem was, like many short sales, the bank didn’t accept the offer. Like soup-Nazis of the short sale world – Bank of America, (our own bank no-less!) said, in short, “No house for you!”

Again our HGTV dreams of home ownership disappeared. But, if you know me you know that if anything I’m persistent. So I went back to the drawing board and spent hours… whole days even… searching local realtors’ sites for that perfect home. I mean if these houses didn’t work out there must be a reason right?

Well the idiocy continued because I found another house in the neighborhood we were renting in. It needed a lot of work but was on the island at $265,000 – $100,000 more than the first house but it was ON the island and had three neighborhood golf courses, tennis courts, multiple swimming pools, a neighborhood walking beach and the list goes on… The down side to this particular house though was that it needed a bunch of work. No big deal – I’d seen This Old House too. The realtor though wanted to show a different house. He told us of another house down the street that had been on the market for almost a year that was in far better condition than the one we were looking at. I still liked the potential of the 2,200 sq 265,000 project house but we decided that it would be prudent to take a look at the $275,000 house first. It was three bedrooms 2600 sq ft. with a loft with a spiral staircase and a “mother-in-law suite” above the garage (who came up with that name anyway?) and it was completely re-done. We put a bid on it that night at the asking price but we also told the realtor that if we didn’t get that house then we wanted him to put a bid on the $265,000 house for us. That way, we get a house no matter what right? Not so fast.

A day later the realtor called me and said “Chris, I don’t know how to tell you this but someone put a bid on the house literally five minutes before I called the seller this morning… The house is already under contract. That being said the listing agent said to give him a day to verify that the buyers loan gets approved.” “OK,“ I said “but if it does get approved please bid on the other house for us ASAP.” It ended up taking the listing agent two days to get back to our realtor… only to tell him that the buyers loan was approved. Soon after I got a call from our Realtor and he said “Chris you aren’t Going to believe it but the other house sold too.” “When?” I asked. “I kid you not, five minutes before I called…“ He said “And I called right after I heard from the other listing agent.” I was starting to think that maybe we shouldn’t buy a house after all.

That thought only lasted a week. It was then that our agent called back. “I have a dream house for you.” Sure enough it was. A five bedroom, 3 1/2 bath 3200 sq ft house with a free-form pool with a slide and a built in Jacuzzi. The first floor just needed new floors put in but aside from that the house was good to go. Our agent explained that a man ha tried to buy it but his loan had fallen through. The house wasn’t even on the market yet. We could put a bid in before it came back out. We were a sure thing in to get it. So we put a bid in for the full asking price of $279,000 Finally, I thought, a reason for all of this trouble… our dream house.

But as it happens… Wrong AGAIN! It was not to be. Unbelievably, someone put in a cash bid for the full amount. Foiled again.

This was really discouraging. I took a about a week off after that. Jeannelle was over it all altogether. But the desire to buy a house seemed to be gnawing at me. So, I went back out on the hunt. After hours of “narrowing” the search online, I looked at another 20 houses with our realtor – this time without Jeannelle.

Again, I found another one. This one was a big house in the best neighborhood yet but was listed at $400,000. Jeannelle looked at it and liked it. Another 3 bed, 3 1/2 bath with a 2600 sq ft a workshop in the garage and a full apartment over it and, to top it all off after all of the golf courses, pools, tennis courts and amenities of the neighborhood, it had direct access to a beach on the Atlantic ocean. This house too had been on the market over a year s we decided to lowball the offer. The seller came down to $325,000. After inspection though we found out that the house needed a new roof, a new master bath floor, some major electrical upgrades, connection to city water and a large chimney repair. Even so, Jeannelle and I were considering it. $160,000 dollars over our initial allowance and we were still considering it.

I spent countless hours having the roof inspected, doing estimates on give repairs, calculating how we could scrimp and save every penny we could over the next several years to invest in that house. Those 25 yr olds on House Hunters could do it – why couldn’t we?

In the end though something just didn’t seem right. I had really been trying to hear what God wanted us to do with this housing situation but was struggling to discern God’s will for us. Everyone seemed to be affirming us that buying a house right now is the best decision but nothing seemed to be panning out. I was literally losing sleep over this. What were we to do?
Finally, emotionally battered and torn Jeannelle and I went to the house one last time and we decided to something novel… we decided to pray. We prayed: “God, if this house is a lemon… please let us know because we just want to be good stewards of what you have given us and serve you. We don’t care about stuff – we really just want to be faithful to your will.”
Here is where it gets real. As soon was we were done with this prayer we walked around the back corner of the house and there, right in front of us, is a lemon tree – full of lemons. It was the first one that either Jeannelle or I had seen on the island. We looked at each other and started laughing. We had our answer – for now we rent. We signed a new rental agreement the next week.
The world is full of distractions that keep us from hearing God speak to us. Sometimes it’s our want of stuff. Sometimes it’s our own stubbornness or pride. Sometimes it’s 25 yrs olds on HGTV trading their freedom away for a lifetime of debt. Sometimes it’s the simple idolatry of an idea like homeownership. The facts are that it’s often easy to follow the signs that we want to follow. But, if we take the time to ask God, and have the patience to faithfully listen to hear God speak – it’s been my experience that God will lead us in a ways that helps us and protects us.
For someone, someday – I am sure that that lemon tree will be used to make lemonade. But it’s not the Beneks and that was what was important for us to realize. I’m happy where we are living and renting isn’t so bad. Sometimes it even makes sense. But, if and when it’s time for us to buy a house I can assure you of one thing: we will start the process by praying FIRST.

For, 1 John 2:17 says: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” Amen to that.