Spring Real Estate 2005

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Dealing with disappointment
In a hot real-estate market, not everyone wins

by Carol Blitzer

Jane and Tim got their hopes up six times and made bona-fide offers on houses. They missed out every time.

Now Jane's ready to bag the whole idea, while Tim, ever the optimist, is fine with spending another month of Sundays with his shoes on someone's front porch.

Before Jane and Tim dismiss the marriage as well as the house hunt, they might -- as Dear Abby always said -- seek professional help.

At one open house at 2025 Bryant St. in Palo Alto in March, there were 17 pairs of shoes, dropped by looky-lous, neighbors and would-be buyers.

"It really is traumatic," said Sandra Roos, a marriage family therapist who teaches couples workshops with the Couples Resource Center in Palo Alto. She empathizes with couples who go out every weekend looking. Sometimes one person likes a house and the other doesn't. "When they find one where both do, they make an offer. It's disheartening and stressful" when they don't get the house, she said, adding that moving -- in and of itself -- is one of life's highest stressors.

Individuals react differently: One might be angry, another withdrawn. "They need to keep talking to each other, about the disappointment, the frustration," she said.

"Therapy is a place where they could come, where it's safe to show disappointment, despair," Roos said. "Sometimes strong feelings are hard to hear from your partner. ...Therapy gives a safe place to communicate without being defensive or stonewalling. It's a place to talk about what you really want," she added.

Sometimes couples decide what they really want is to stop looking for a house. Roos described one San Francisco couple who spent every weekend looking. "They were exhausted. ...They'd make a bid, it wouldn't be accepted. They never did move," she said, but talking in therapy helped them express themselves.

"You make assumptions and for whatever reasons, we don't check them out," she added.

Psychologist Peter Pearson, who co-directs the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, often finds couples on the opposite ends of the continuum scale. "People who have faced a lot of disappointment, their grief is going to be stronger than people who have faced disappointment and found a way to deal with it more successfully," he said.

It doesn't help to have one person say, "'Buck up, honey, it's not so bad.' The partner feels the other doesn't understand, doesn't get it," he added.

But, Pearson said, the main reason we give quick solutions to our partner's distress is because we cannot stand the tension we feel when our partner is upset. "We give our partner solutions so we don't have to feel the distress."

Some of the distress might come from partners approaching problem-solving very differently, noted Los Altos psychologist Robin Press. One partner might prefer to think things through independently, review alternatives and seek his or her own counsel; the other may pick up the phone to bounce ideas off of friends. "It's not that they can't make decisions, but they like to hear themselves think out loud," she said.

Press suggested there could be some negotiation about how decisions are made, even before house hunting begins.

In terms of dealing with stress, she added, there's always physical activity, sports, yoga or chatting with family and friends.

"Many people would be better by adjusting expectations about what is realistic," she said, noting that it's like an Internet search. Sometimes you just have to widen your search parameters. "You have to balance what's feasible with hopes and dreams. Accept the fact that you won't live in the neighborhood you have your heart set on and figure out what else is workable," she said.

"Sometimes if you don't get what you want, it can help you clarify priorities," Pearson added.

That's what happened to a Mountain View couple who have been looking for a house since last fall. They sold their home and moved into a townhouse with their two small children.

Now they're spending every Friday afternoon with their Realtor, seeking a four-bedroom house in the Los Altos School District, for under $1.3 million.

They started at $1.1 million (after selling theirs for $859,000). In five months, they've only bid on two houses. One was 30 percent over their budget, but they figured they could swing it -- if they never went out to dinner or on vacation again.

When their $1.7 million bid was not accepted, they were relieved, but after some discussion, they decided to up their range. They were unwilling to give up the fourth bedroom because they anticipated visits from family on the East Coast.

The husband is confident they will find a house. "I probably won't be thrilled with it and I'll pay more than I want," he said.

"Nobody would pay $1 million on the East Coast and <I>not <$>get a dining room," the wife added, or a kitchen too small to fit a table in.

"What happens when you get into an insane market, your normal evaluation procedures get whacked. You're in a really uncomfortable position about questioning your core values," Pearson said.

After a while, home seekers begin to understand the market. "If this is the market I'm playing in, you begin to accept that this is the price I need to pay. It's supply and demand," he said.

House hunting can force couples to deal with value clarifications, making each partner acknowledge just what is important and why. "If disappointments can trigger these discussions, they really are learning how to spin gold from straw," he said.

Assistant editor Carol Blitzer can be reached at cblitzer@paweekly.com.