I Bought My First Home in L.A.’s Red-Hot Housing Market. It Was a Whirlwind

Even though my wife and I had the financial means, know-how, and a trusted agent, the road to becoming first-time homeowners in the current real estate climate was...winding.
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This is the first of a three-part mini-series about a design writer’s first home-buying experience in L.A.’s fiercely competitive real estate market. Next up, uncovering the home’s architectural provenance and embarking on a careful renovation.

When my wife and I found ourselves the benefactors of my late mom’s trust in 2021, we resigned ourselves to the reality that while we now had the means to fathom buying a home, it might be months—possibly even more than a year—before we’d find, successfully bid upon, and hopefully win a house to become our home. Over and over again, we were told by friends and various realtors that the viciously competitive Los Angeles real estate market required a calculated and pragmatic approach if we wanted to make the leap from renting to owning. (Only parenthood invites more unsolicited advice than house hunting.) One well-meaning friend insisted we’d have to lower expectations and consider moving to a neighborhood previously off our radar; another advised bidding on homes "you might not love" but that could act as a stepping stone toward a future property that would scratch our architectural itch. The overwhelming message was this: There would be no room for falling in love with a home, with current odds pointing toward a future of countless unrequited bids.

Of course, we ignored all advice and went on to immediately fall hard for the first home we found in the neighborhood we’d always hoped to call home while perusing online listings one morning. It was a modest three-bedroom, two-bath midcentury Altadena residence situated a hiker’s pole length from the Angeles National Forest in a small postwar residential enclave plainly known as The Meadows. The 1,840-square-foot house was devised by famed industrial designer Niels Diffrient for his family from his first marriage toward the start of his 25-year stint at pioneering industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss’s firm in nearby Pasadena and while teaching as an adjunct design professor at UCLA. (The 1961 home predated the designs that would go on to earn Diffrient recognition as one the preeminent designers of Humanscale modern ergonomic office furniture; its history was only unearthed when the children of the last owners discovered a roll of original blueprints stashed in the attic corner.)

The 1961 home by industrial designer Niels Diffrient is located in a postwar residential enclave known as The Meadows in the unincorporated community of Altadena in Los Angeles.

The 1961 home by industrial designer Niels Diffrient is located in a postwar residential enclave known as The Meadows in the unincorporated community of Altadena in Los Angeles.

Because we had already lined up an agent ahead of our house hunt—a longtime friend, Sara, whom we’d always promised to call the day we were ready to seriously begin house hunting—we were ready to spring into action as soon as we were informed there was an open house later that afternoon. The open house was scheduled primarily for other agents to tour the residence, affording us unhurried access to poke around and ask questions without the hindrance of other would-be buyers.

The home had definitely seen better days; a proverbial diamond in the rough. Its midcentury architectural provenance was partially obscured by the ubiquitous trend in the 1980s and ’90s to update postwar residences with an unhealthy application of tile and stucco. There were signs of both water and termite damage across the exterior fascia and entryway beams, the outdated electrical and plumbing systems were in dire need of replacement, and the home had fallen into some disrepair from a few years left vacant after the previous owner passed away, with peeling paint, broken tile in the kitchen, and a toilet that doubled as a rocking chair. Yet the property still received 44 bids the first time it went on the market (approximately three months before we encountered the listing). It had just been re-listed after the first escrow fell through, and we were obviously not alone in seeing its potential.

Because of the initial escrow fall out, the sellers understandably made the second go-around a magnitude more difficult—while the starting asking price would remain the same, the property was to be sold as-is without inspections, credits, or any price negotiations. There would be absolutely no letters to the sellers, either. (Some buyers write personal notes to sellers to stand out in competitive real estate markets.) What we had in our pockets, beyond our audacious optimism, was considerably more than 20 percent to put down. More importantly, because of the home’s Altadena address, we were able to secure a fixed 3.25 percent 30-year interest rate mortgage through First Republic’s Eagle Community Home Loan program for borrowers in historically underserved minority areas, a rate that would days later begin its rise toward doubling to the ones we see now.

This was it; we’d have to accept the reality that nobody gets their first home on their first try. 

After two more open house visits to the residence, we placed our first-ever bid. A few days later, disappointment came knocking with its reply: "I’m so sorry, we were told they’ve already received several bids that have reached the original sale price," our agent Sara told us with noticeable regret in her voice. "You’re not being invited for counter offers." Ah, the heartache everyone warned us about! This was it; we’d have to accept the reality that nobody gets their first home on their first try.

But the next day, Sara frantically called to tell us that we now were being invited to counter with a new bid (for reasons not disclosed to us)—alongside 18 others. We would have to agree to drop all contingencies; it was admittedly a risky roll of the dice, but one requisite of the highly competitive landscape we were all vying upon.

We did have one more ace card up our sleeve to use if necessary (and it was). Our agent informed us about a contract provision called an escalator clause, or escalation clause, which stipulates a prospective buyer is willing to raise their offer by a certain amount unbeknownst to competing bidders should a higher offer be received. With Sara’s invaluable knowledge of this clause and our low interest rate secured, we went all in and placed a bid at the most upper ceiling of our means, knowing very well it could be not nearly enough in the era of all-cash bids and real estate investment operations flush with cash to outbid all.

Diffrient designed the house for his family from his first marriage while working at Henry Dreyfuss’s firm in nearby Pasadena and teaching as an adjunct design professor at UCLA.

Diffrient designed the house for his family from his first marriage while working at Henry Dreyfuss’s firm in nearby Pasadena and teaching as an adjunct design professor at UCLA.

As we waited with bated breath for any word about our offer, I thought back to a year earlier, before our first venture toward homeownership, when I was casually looking at online listings and noticed another home in Altadena. It was a midcentury residence with low-slung, post-and-beam construction, expansive glass windows, and a slightly sloppy arrangement of large stones demarcating a wall that looked similar to a misshapen grin. "One day, I hope we’ll live up there," I remarked, even though that possibility still felt out of reach.

Just eight days after we placed our final bid on the Niels Diffrient house (though it felt like a painfully long time), our offer was accepted, and we’d soon move across the street a few mailboxes up from that address as their new neighbors.

Top photo by Susan Pickering.

Related Reading:

The Unexpected Satisfaction of Leaving Behind the American Dream

How to Overcome the Obstacles to First-Time Homeownership

Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Buying a Home, According to Three Experts

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