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Hello and welcome to The Thoughtful Realtor podcast. I'm Connie Chung.
I'm Cliff Tsang.
And I'm Kenny Gong. And we are the founders and partners of Willowmar Real Estate.
And this is a show for those interested and invested in the world of residential real estate.
Every episode, we sit down for insights, stories, and conversations about all things in the real estate market today, running a real estate team in California, and finding our ways as leaders and business partners.
And today we've got an exciting episode for you. We are sharing our experiences of buying our first home, what we learned, what we wish we could have done differently, and all the insights as insiders in the profession.
I love this. I have really great, fond memories of where I was when you, Kenny, called me to talk about your first home. So, let's jump in with you, walk us down memory lane and where you were at your stage of life.
At the time, this was 2019, I was looking for an investment property and I was living in an apartment in San Francisco. I had in my mind that I wanted my first property that I purchased all on my own to be an investment property. And so, as I was preparing financing, I was thinking locally, I was thinking about Sacramento, and also out of state. I was thinking about Austin, I was thinking about Denver, I was thinking about Philadelphia, which was also on the list.
I went to Sacramento a couple of times and saw a couple of properties and then, oh my gosh, I remember it was like a fever dream. I woke up in the middle of the night and I just thought, “No, I'm buying my own home. I'm buying my own primary residence.” I don't even know how this all transpired, but I was like, “I am going to find the least expensive single family home in Berkeley.”
Going to Cal, I knew I wanted to, at some point, live in Berkeley.
It was always just a dream. As a realtor, I never thought about purchasing in Berkeley, but for whatever reason, this just popped up in my mind. And so, I went on MLS.
I think that's a dream that a lot of Cal grads have.
In the back of their mind, they're like, “I want to move, get back to Berkeley.”
Yeah. ‘Cause it is such a special place. You know, it just has such a vibe. It's so beautiful, it's close to San Francisco but still a little bit further away so you get more sunshine.
Well, even before that, I feel like you may have shared over the phone in passing or in very casual conversation, “One day I'd love to just retire in a treehouse in Berkeley amidst all the trees in a woodsy, northern part of Berkeley.” So, it was very much in the making.
It was very much in the making. And yet I didn't realize that you have to be careful what you wish for, and be careful what you try to manifest because you might end up manifesting it. So, I found this home. Oh my gosh. I remember this home that was a junior one bedroom, single family home in Berkeley.
Wait, wait, wait.
Yeah, break that down what that looks like to folks who aren’t familiar with a junior one bedroom single family house.
It was a single family house that did not have an enclosed bedroom. It was kind of a studio but also a single family home. It had a half wall that barely partitioned the junior one bedroom from the living room, and it was 550 square feet. I remember, I walked in there and saw it with my parents, who came over. It was on this beautiful street, and then, I decided to make an offer on it. It was listed at $700,000, which is expensive for a 550-square-foot, small studio single family home.
And I said, you know what? I'm just going to go for it. I wrote my offer, I submitted it and someone beat me out. I think I offered something like $800,000, which was big. I was like, well, if I don't get it at $800,000, I'm totally okay letting it go.
And then someone offered for something like $825,000 or $815,000. And so, I let it go and it was so funny because as soon as I found out that they had accepted another offer, I wasn't devastated, but the realtor in me was like, all right, I'm going to get another house then.
And it was so funny because that same day, we did have a client who was looking in Berkeley and he sent me this listing.
Yeah, he sent me this listing for what ended up being the home that I purchased. He said, “You know, I saw this. It's not for me, but I just wanted to give you a heads up that I just saw it.” I was in San Francisco when I got that call from him saying, “This is a home that I just saw and I’m not really interested in it.” And then I was like, “Oh, well maybe I am.”
This was in the early afternoon, and then I called the listing agent and was like, “Hey, what's the situation with this?” And he's like, “Oh, we've got this other offer, but it's not really going to come together, but we're still going to market it. I said, “Okay, well, I'm going to come see it.”
It was around four or five o'clock when I came to see it, and I FaceTimed Connie and my parents. And I was like, “I think I'm going to write an offer on this house.” And the funny thing is that as I was driving across the bridge, I knew that all of my devices were running out of battery.
I knew that there was a chance that I would be needing to write this offer quickly. And so, before I actually went to the house, I went to 4th Street. There used to be an Amazon store on 4th Street in Berkeley, and I ran in there and was like, “I just need all the chargers that you have.”
I bought chargers in order to go.
I thought this was going to be like you charged at the store for ten minutes and then left.
No, no, because it was real low. So I was like, “I just need chargers.” So I bought all these chargers, went to the house, called Connie, called my parents, and then decided to write up the offer in the house.
Yeah, I was gonna say you wrote the offer in the house.
I wrote the offer in the staged house, and it was summertime. I remember I got there when it was light, and I submitted in the house around six o'clock. We did some negotiations and then I just hung out at the house for a little while. It was dark at that time, and as I was crossing the bridge to go back home to San Francisco, I got the call that we ratified the deal.
That’s pretty amazing to hear back so quickly.
So quickly! I got word that I didn't get a house that morning, and then all of that happened by the end of the night.
Talk about a bounce back.
That is such a cool story.
Yeah. Yeah. And it was cool because it was really, really sweet. I had built a relationship with the listing agent of the other house. She, of course, knew that I was making an offer on the house and she was so sweet and so lovely. About a week later, I remember she called me, and she was like, “Hey, I've been thinking about you. I just heard of this other house that just came available and you might be a really good fit for it. It's not on the market yet, but I want you to get a house.”
That was so sweet of her and I really appreciated that. And so then I gave her the news that I was in contract on this other one, and I remember her just being like, “Oh my gosh.
That's even better. That's a better fit for you. That's a really good fit for you. It seems like it's a better house and you've got it for a better price than what my buyers for this listing are in contract for.” And it's true because I ultimately paid $850,000 for this house, and I think they closed at $825,000 or whatever it was. So for $25,000, I got a two bedroom. It's still small. It's not 550 square feet small, but it's about 850 square feet, so a proper two bedroom.
That is a great story, Kenny.
Thank you for sharing that. Oh, so, so touching. And I love that you negotiated in the house too. It was just one tour, but you really stayed there and got a feel for the house and you submitted too. That must be such a special feeling: to write the offer when you're in the house, typing it up, you're looking around, confirming your feelings, and then you hit “submit” while in the house.
And then I knew that that Amazon store was going to close. That's why I went before the tour.
You knew you were going to buy this home before even walking in.
You know, as agents, it's like, “What do you have to do to be prepared to step up?” And sometimes that means being like, “Okay, I need to think three steps ahead if I do want to make an offer. If I do want to submit, I'm going to submit really quickly, and I'm going to try to do it in the house.” You know, because I knew that there was another offer that they were thinking about countering. I feel like that's just realtor life, you know?
Yeah, well, for folks, especially first-time homebuyers, sometimes, they have some trepidation around writing their first offer or even knowing when they should go about it. For you, how did you know that it was okay, it was worth pursuing and moving quickly?
Yeah. You know, I think my answer is twofold. One is: it was both my head and my heart. I knew that I had done the comps for the other property, so I knew the value of this one, right? I really, really understood the value of this one. I knew that it was an opportunity because it had been sitting, and the market really had passed it by. They were getting interest, but it wasn't the kind of frenetic interest that we still were seeing at that time. We were still seeing multiple offers, we were still seeing things going crazy.
So, I knew that “Oh yeah, there's an opportunity here. and if I can just squeeze in there and make it really sweet, it could work out really, really well.” And then also I led with my heart, right? I knew that this was going to be the one, and I also knew that this house is not going to be perfect. I knew that I wasn't looking for a forever home necessarily. It could be an asset in my portfolio or it could be a forever home that I live in, but it doesn't have to be. And so I knew because I do it every day.
Even the biggest, highest stakes that come with purchasing a home aren't always that big. And the stakes aren't always that high. Because, for me, I know . . . and this is just part of my personality, too, because I think it’s also really, really important to understand: what kind of buyer are you? And I know that for me, I'm just an eternal optimist, and I'm nimble, and I'm blessed to have a lot of resources at my disposal. If I needed to shift, if I needed to pivot, I totally could. But also, it didn't have to feel perfect, perfect, perfect and forever, forever, forever.
Yeah, so in that way I was really able to make decisions about something–that almost on paper kind of looks impulsive–but do so with thoughtfulness, intention, and strategy.
Maybe give us the full picture after we fast forward four years: how has it worked out? What have been the highlights, but also maybe share some of the lowlights too, or things that you weren't aware of going into the home purchase.
Yeah. That's a good one. Maybe I'll start with the lowlights. The lowlights are: as with a lot of Craftsman-style homes, I don't get a lot of natural light. So that’s constantly on my mind. I have a giant, giant tree that I think just cuts off a lot of light. I could have a lot of natural light, but the way that the walls are laid out kind of traps it into certain parts. So, my office gets a ton of natural light throughout the entire day, but that doesn't translate to the living room, for example. So that's, I think, a lowlight.
But that's also part of “it's not going to be perfect.” And are there things that I can do to increase the quality of life, as well as add value, so possibly thinking about skylights or just reconfiguring the home to allow for more light to travel throughout the space. Yeah, these are all things, but also, I know I feel so good about being able to have a blank canvas that I can actually work with.
You work with what you got and it has been really, really nice to be able to have something that just feels like I can work with it and feels like there's so much flexibility. Four years later, I now feel really strongly that I could just keep this forever and use it in different ways. I can either develop it to grow bigger if I need a bigger home or I can always rent it out. And that's really nice.
Berkeley has some really, really interesting legislation that has been passed that allows for more flexibility for homeowners. And that's been really, really interesting to explore. There's lots of different ways that I could improve the space and add value that also aligns.
Is this related to ADUs and tiny homes?
Oh yes, ADUs and tiny homes.
It’s possible! Your garage can be an ADU, it's perfectly primed for that. And then you've got a nice flat backyard. And to give a picture, both of your neighbors have built up and created these really beautiful two storey homes. And across the street, there's all this new development.
Yeah. I literally have the smallest house on the street.
You don't have the worst house on the block, but in a sense, you do in that you have the lowest-priced home on the block, which is the ideal for anyone thinking about the room for appreciation on a home. So, super smart buy.
Yeah. So, we'll see what happens.
Very cool. What was your escrow like? Easy breezy? More challenging?
No, it was easy breezy, really easy breezy. Yeah, I'm not quite sure if it's easy breezy because we just do it all day, every day. And so any little snags, I was like, ain't no thing, but it was pretty easy. Yeah. It was pretty easy and it's been really nice.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you wish you would have known or done differently or paused at?
I wish that I saw a few more homes. But also, I don't wish that because I think if I saw other homes, I think I would have maybe gone for a different home and paid more. And I think, ultimately, I always come back to feeling so grateful that I paid the price that I did for this home. This home really, really fits me. But I do wish that I saw more so that I could have really felt like I saw more but ultimately, it worked out. So I don't know. Yeah.
If anything, do you wish you started your process earlier?
Oh yeah. Oh my gosh. I wish. So, let's see. So if this was 2019, at that point I had been in the industry for four years. I really was only able to purchase something four years in. But if I could have purchased something two years before then, I would have loved to.
Yeah. And two years before then, I actually might have been able to get a nicer home for the same price. But yeah, of course, everything happens for a reason, but that is the lesson. As soon as you can buy something, buy it.
Totally, and we find more folks are always wishing they had bought sooner. I think that's the world of real estate: get in as soon as you can.
Yeah. As soon as you can.
I think what's really cool too is you planted the roots for Willowmar in the East Bay in many ways.
All the ways!
In all the ways. Yeah, you were the first to move out here officially. Then, Connie moved to Rockbridge. I know Meesun really wanted to move out to the East Bay but having you two here gave me a lot of confidence to come out as well, and some of Meesun's friends. But yeah, you set the flag down on the East Bay for our expansion, unintentionally maybe, but that's what set us on the path.
And you know, I really appreciate you saying that, Cliff. It reminds me we don't know what is in store for us and our lives and this whole process–I mentioned it before–but it's just like you do things and then you move from there and you don't know whether it's going to be the perfect fit.
And it's oftentimes not the perfect fit, but if you search and search and search for the perfect fit, it just debilitates you from actually moving and making a stand. And if you're not making a stand, there's nowhere for you to move from that point, right? And so I think moving to the East Bay started what has now become Willowmar.
But what's wonderful is that it was not inevitable, right? We moved and then we kind of pivoted, and then it turns out if you approach life with this mentality, it is this wonderful thing of “Wow, something can happen that is so completely unexpected and so completely beyond our dreams.” And to be able to reflect back that that is a possibility; you can't even dream what is possible right now because you haven't put in the work for it yet. All of this is just an example of allowing ourselves to live really fully and embrace the organic, unexpected unfolding of life.
Yeah. Oh, I love that.
Well said, well said.
Yeah. Especially because I remember we were all living in the city. Cliff, we were working together at the time, but I remember when Kenny shared he was going to move and buy in the East Bay and being like, “No, what's that gonna do to our business?” And just believing in how things go and living life and following our dreams of where we want to be and the life we want to live. It really does unfold into something so magical and beyond what we could have ever imagined. So cool. Well, I think that's perfect.
So, thank you, Kenny, and also thank you to that mystery client. That’s the ideal. It's like the reverse client, the one that sends you the listing that you will buy as an agent.
That is so true.
That was an awesome story. Yeah. Thanks, Kenny.
Such a perfect way to end it, and we'll leave it at that. Well, there you have it. The end of another episode of The Thoughtful Realtor, and this is a three-part series, so in the next couple episodes, you'll hear my and Cliff's experiences of buying our first home. What was it like to buy your first home?
So yeah, please share your stories with us. You can find us at Willowmar.com or Instagram at @willowmar__.
And if you haven't already, hit that subscribe button and leave us a review. We read every single one of these reviews and your comments and we love being in conversation with y'all. And also, please share the love because we love sharing these stories and hope that they can help as many people as possible. And until next time . . .
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