Getting Creative in Montana's Housing Market

Mary and her husband

Graphic by Rob Rath.  Photo courtesy of Mary Berube.

He proposed over tacos. We were sitting at the fold-down table in our newly purchased 1996 Tioga Montara RV in the middle of December 2019. We had purchased the RV from a family friend.  Somewhere along the way, we stumbled into an animal shelter and adopted a puppy. 

Dog? Check. 

Engagement ring? Check. 

All we needed now was a home to call our own, and we would officially be living the American dream. 

Our rent had been increasing dramatically every year, and there was no way we could afford a house in Missoula, our desired city, without a hefty lump of change saved up. We made a plan. We would live in the RV for one year to save enough money to buy our first home. My 89-year-old grandparents kindly offered us a spot on their two acres of property to park the RV. 

Flash forward three months: COVID-19 had hit, and shutdowns were in full swing.  We were plugged into electricity with a long extension cord, and Ryan (my fiance) and I were working from "home" in a living space no bigger than 10' x 15'. My grandparents, 89-years-old, were now the only people we socialized with; because of their age, we assumed the role of grocery courier, bill deliverer, and chauffeur extraordinaire.

We developed a routine. I got up early and brought the paper to Grandma. I checked on them midday and brought in their mail. Ryan weeded the garden and took out the garbage. Every evening at about 5:00pm, Grandpa knocked on the door of our RV holding a box of chocolates and told us to "Take one. Don't worry. I won't tell your mother." Grandpa had always been a chocolate addict. 

Despite the chaos of pandemic life, our routine was familiar and sweet. We were saving thousands of dollars a month, homeownership felt achievable in our near future, and being able to spend time with my grandparents made everything feel okay.      
Then, one afternoon we noticed that his speech slurred, and he was having trouble standing. Five specialist appointments later, we got the news. Grandpa had a very aggressive form of brain cancer. He had two months left to live. 

Mary and hubby in RV

Photo courtesy of Mary Berube

The news hit our family hard. Distant cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbors - they all stopped by and said goodbye from outside the window. COVID-19 had limited the number of people my grandparents could safely interact with, and I was grateful that I was among the few who could spend time with them.  I spent those last few weeks sitting with my grandpa. We had regular midday chats, him in his recliner, me on the sofa. We talked a lot about home buying. 

By this point, the median cost of a home in Missoula had jumped to around $350,000 and was projected to go up. The market was hot, and if we wanted to buy this year, we needed to start putting in offers. This news lit a fire in us. We quickly got approved for a $400,000 VA loan. We asked a friend who had recently purchased a house if they could recommend a realtor. 

Over two months, we put in twelve offers on homes in Missoula. Each one was rejected. We lowered our standards and increased our budget. Our realtor, Amy Bain-Wilson, would call us as soon as a home in our price range hit the market. We were putting in offers at $60,000 over the asking price. We had the cash to cover the sale price if the house didn't appraise for that much, and still, our offers kept getting rejected. The problem? We were trying to buy with a VA loan. Almost all the houses we had put offers on had gone to cash buyers. How do you compete with cash?

Amy came from a long line of Montana home-builders and knew everything there was to know about the housing market.  We told her we were disheartened and on the verge of giving up. She quieted our fears and explained that it is a sellers' market right now. She told us not to be discouraged. She said we could get more creative with our approach.

Get creative we did. In the days leading up to my grandfather's death, I approached him during one of our midday chats with the idea that we had been discussing with our realtor. If my parents were willing to take out a home equity line of credit against their own house, they could make a cash offer on the house for us. They could then turn around and immediately sell it to us with our VA loan. It felt risky, but grandpa said, "do it." My parents, who were eager to see us find a home, agreed.

Seven days later, Amy had found a home for us that had been on the market a year prior and never sold. A local investor had plans to purchase it but had pulled out at the last minute. The house wasn't listed on the MLS (multiple listing service) but would be soon. She asked us if we wanted to make an offer.  We told her, "Yes, we would." 

My parents went to the bank and were approved for the line of credit. Then, they put an all-cash offer in on our dream house on a Monday. 

By Tuesday, Grandpa's health had taken a turn. I sat with him.  He kept asking was if we had found a place yet. "A home," he said, "is the greatest investment you'll ever make. You just gotta get into a house." This, from a man who still lived in the three-bedroom house he had purchased in the forties for $12,000 and raised six kids in.

We held hands and cried. He promised me that he would have a talk with the "big guy" upstairs and help us get into the right home. I thanked him for letting us park our RV on his property. I thanked him for the chocolate. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. The next morning, he was gone. Ryan baked a chocolate cake in his honor. With tears in our eyes, we ate chocolate cake and remembered him. 

I woke up the following day to a text from Amy. The sellers had accepted our offer on the house, and we closed three weeks later. So technically, my parents owned it, but only for a short while before selling it to us with our VA loan. We closed on our house on January 27th, 2021.
This whole process taught me a lot, and it's only in retrospect that I have been able to see how lucky we were. 

Other than tenacity, a great realtor, and a bit of creative financing, my only other piece of advice would be to have a little faith. I'm not a particularly spiritual gal, but there is no doubt in my mind that Grandpa's talk with the "big guy" upstairs helped us arrive where we are today. 

Mary and hubby at home

Photo courtesy of Mary Berube

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