Facing a big rent hike at their Portland apartment, Jennifer Wolfe and Chase Dolloff embarked on a harrowing house-hunting journey that took 14 offers until they met a seller willing to give them a break.
Rejected offers paint a common theme for would-be buyers who rely on first-time homebuyer programs, particularly in the Portland area, where the engaged couple competed with cash buyers offering $50,000 or more over asking prices for homes that sell within days of listing.
But their determination and willingness to compromise, coupled with a seller who sympathized with their plight despite higher offers, shows it can be done in the most competitive area in Maine’s tight real estate market.
Wolfe and Dolloff, both in their early 30s, were trying to save for a house when their rent increased to an amount that equaled a monthly mortgage payment on a house in their price range. They started looking for houses in January 2021, knowing they could not afford Portland but with a goal of being within a 20-minute drive of their jobs there.
“I knew it would be tough, but it was worse than expected,” said Wolfe, a health care referral specialist. “When we got to the eighth offer, we were wondering if we should stop looking and try to save more money. We even started looking further away than we wanted.”
Like many first-time homebuyers, Wolfe, a Windham native, and Dolloff, who grew up in Cumberland, were working from a deficit. They did not have enough savings for a big down payment or cash offer.
It meant they had to go with a no-money-down federal rural development loan, which limited their home choices to areas outside a major city. Loans typically require an appraisal that cash buyers can avoid. With a budget of $300,000, they were in the middle of the hottest price bracket for first-time-buyer homes. They also have different work schedules, which made it hard to tour a home at the same time.
“I told them this may take a while,” said Faith Morse, their agent with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate in Auburn. “Buyers are so desperate to get properties that they make offers well above the asking price and waive inspections, which I don’t recommend.”
Dolloff, a production worker at IDEXX Labs, said the first home they saw in Standish was perfect. It had three bedrooms with an ample yard and privacy. The couple fell in love with the place, but soon realized they were going to be outbid on that home and others, because buyers with cash handy wanted the same amenities and could pay more.
“It’s not good to get your hopes up and start envisioning your life there, but we couldn’t help it,” he said. “We were nowhere near some of the other offers, and that was when we first started learning to not get our hopes up so much.”
He advises other would-be buyers to temper expectations. But he also said they should not settle for a home just because they are tired of rejections, which can come as a form letter to the people whose offers weren’t accepted. It took the couple about seven months to buy a home.
The couple wrote a letter to each seller about why they wanted the home. Dolloff and Wolfe recalled their worst experience in bidding on a different Standish home. It was a split-level design at 1,000 square feet from the 1960s with no updates. The asking price was $250,000, an amount realtor Morse thought was $20,000 too high.
“When you opened the bathroom door, it hit the sink,” Morse said. “I asked them, ‘Who wants to live in Standish in a split-level house that is so small?’ and they said, ‘We will.’”
They offered $265,000 because Morse thought it wouldn’t appraise for more. To her surprise, the seller’s agent called her to say Wolfe and Dolloff could make a backup offer in case the first offer by another buyer fell through.
The agent wanted them to increase their offer to $311,000 and give $10,000 in cash in case the home did not appraise at the offer price and they had to pay the difference. The seller also wanted to be able to stay in the house free for two months after the deal went through. Someone else paid $315,000.
“I think that was the worst one,” Wolfe said.
The couple’s luck turned when the next home they looked at in New Gloucester came onto the market. The three-bedroom, one bathroom home on 1.4 acres fit their wish list, although they would have preferred another half bath. It wasn’t listed through a conventional agent, but through a company that lists homes for a low fee and does not show the house.
Most showings involve the realtor and potential buyer getting the house key from a lock box and viewing the home without meeting the owner. With the New Gloucester home, the owner was the primary contact.
He did not have a lock box, so he left the front door unlocked and ended up returning home before Morse and Wolfe left. They talked in the front yard for a half hour. The couple finally had an advantage among the six bids on the home, even though their offer wasn’t the highest.
Morse, who said it is necessary to think creatively, told seller Dan Wade personal things about her clients, including that Dolloff is a high school friend of her son’s who ate at her dinner table. She said her clients had made 13 offers but couldn’t get ahead because of their loan.
Fortune was on their side. Seller Wade had paid off the house and was more interested in selling to someone who would appreciate the work he had put into it and fit into the neighborhood, which is in a cul-de-sac.
“I didn’t want to sell to an out-of-state person with a pile of money who might not fit into the neighborhood,” Wade said.
His wife, Becky, had told him he should not meet the potential buyers “because you’re going to feel for them.” She was right. The $310,000 offer from Wolfe and Dolloff was one of the lowest offers he received. While it was $30,000 over the asking price, the highest bid from an out-of-state buyer was $20,000 more.
“This house is the reason I am able to travel,” said Wade, who bought a Prevost coach with plans to travel the country. “I’ve gotten a lot of chances from people who didn’t need to take a chance on me. I wanted to give someone the same chance I had.”
Wolfe and Dolloff said if Dan and Becky hadn’t met them and liked them, they would still be looking for a house.
As Wolfe was driving back to Portland from her meeting with Dan and Becky, her realtor called. The agent for the previous home in Standish who wanted a higher backup offer and $10,000 in cash said the original offer had fallen through and asked if Wolfe and Dolloff still wanted the home.
“I asked if they still wanted all the other conditions that were completely inconvenient and crazy to us, and they did,” Wolfe said. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’”