Sellers' paradise: House hunters get the blues

I should have a bumper sticker warning "I brake for House for Sale signs." Numerous times I have had near-death experiences swerving into side streets to pursue a "House for Sale" sign.

If you haven't heard, it's a seller's market. That means even the most unprepossessing cottage is being snapped up for big bucks, sometimes even more than the asking price. Houses go on the market and are sold in a day.

A house is usually the most expensive purchase you'll ever make in your life. Yet these days you have to make the decision after looking at it for 15 minutes. You cannot sleep on it for risk of losing out to another buyer. You get more time to think about buying shampoo.

You barely have time to take your co-buyer to the side to discuss the pros and cons. My husband and I need a secret code to communicate without the agent knowing. What we're doing now isn't working, since I translate his, "We'll have to discuss this," as "We'll have to discuss this." It turns out he meant, "Run out now! Jump in the car!"

And my open-armed shout, "I love this house!" translates into, "We'll beg, borrow, and steal to come up with more money, so don't take our first offer– or our second."

The agent's question, "When do you need to move?" translates into "How hastily will you buy any crap I show you?" The minute we say we have no deadline we're flexible and willing to wait for what we want they fall back like vampires before the cross.

No matter what we tell the agents, they pay no attention. They send us listings in our price range, and that's it. Because our range falls between "urban pioneer" and "handyman special," our basic requirements adequate storage, two toilets, low crime neighborhood are ignored.

The Internet may be a blessing to agents, but in a seller's market, it is a headache for buyers. You know that all the new listings are being simultaneously received on office and home computers across the city at the same time. Hundreds of people know the minute a house goes on the market.

Many times I have rushed out at lunchtime to check out a new listing– only to find several other cars suspiciously driving slowly down the same block, stopping in front of the same house. By the time I get back to work, the "Active" on top of the house's picture in my listing has already changed to "Pending."

Pre-Internet, the agents had to make individual phone calls, so they probably called the customers most likely to buy the house ones who expressed a specific desire for particular features. You had limited competition. Maybe you were the first one to receive the call, and the agent wouldn't even call a second person until you had decided. What a wonderful time that must have been!

Well, no more! It's like a toilet paper sale in a third world country. Word gets out, and the masses descend.

Listings are a curious thing, most notable for what they don't tell you. I've learned to stalk neighborhoods, peek through windows, sneak into backyards while no one is home. In this way, I've solved the mystery of the great house at a great price in a great neighborhood but still on the market. It is, in short, a pit bull next door.

These houses are always vacant. The owner did not wait to sell before fleeing. The better the house and the more reasonable the price, the louder and more snarling the dog next door. At one house, there was no resident dog, but a pool all the neighborhood dogs were using as a day spa while the owner was at work. When I pulled up, the dogs got out of the pool, gave me sheepish looks, and trotted off down the street. At least they seemed friendly.

I hate seeing basketball goal posts in the streets, but some subdivisions have more of them than trees. Cul de sacs often sport two. You have to wonder about neighbors who decide the street is part of their property. I envision evenings and weekends full of the relentless thudding noise of basketballs and kids yelling and cursing at each other. My first house was a condo where a dozen little kids and their Big Wheels lived. The rumble of plastic wheels on driveways still haunts me.

So I cringe at the sight of playsets, doghouses, and yards strewn with toys. Too many men of working age sitting on stoops in the middle of the day is another bad sign.

My husband cringes at Confederate flags or No. 3 banners waving from porch rails, and junked cars in yards– although in our price range, this is the norm.

"This is our socio-economic peer group," I tell him. But to him, Dale Earnhardt NASCAR flags and cars-on-blocks mean dogs running loose and eating his cats like cheese biscuits. Real estate agents don't understand when we tell them what we're looking for is a nice cat house.

Are we being unreasonable? After all, this is where we will live, and at twice the cost we're currently paying in rent.

Equity is the Holy Grail, we're told. You're nothing without equity. But how much do we have to sacrifice, how much discomfort do we have endure, how many more weekends do I have to spend running from dogs just to have equity?

Central Virginia essayist and shelter-seeker Mariane Matera owns a pasta pot.