Finding a home, let alone your “dream home,” to buy or to rent in this totally bonkers East Bay real estate market can be more than a challenge. Sahar Abasi and Nikolai Papa did eventually find a home they love, but it wasn’t without a long lead time and lots of searching. Here’s their story.
Who: Sahar Abasi, a marketing manager at Genentech; Nikolai Papa, an investment specialist; and their son, Kamran, 20 months’ old
Where: Berkeley’s Claremont neighborhood
What: A two-story, three-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom, 1,760-square-foot traditional house with original details, built in 1915.
After spending more than a year saving money by living at her mother’s El Sobrante house, Sahar Abasi was ready to move into her own home to share with her husband, Nikolai Papa, and toddler, Kamran.
Living with your relatives can be hard enough, but the couple’s commute across the Bay was killing them. “We were going through a four-hour commute a day,” says Sahar. “We were tired and we wanted to live where we felt like it was more our kind of community.” And Nikolai, a financial professional, was sure interest rates would be rising.
They were motivated and had enough for a down payment. So, in late summer 2017, they began looking for a home for their burgeoning family.
“Our strategy was to look in August,” Sahar says. “Because we heard that the most wealthy people travel that month and the market will be a little bit softer.”
They hit the ground running, looking at up to 15 houses each week after work and on the weekend — mainly in Berkeley and Oakland, in neighborhoods that offered the urban feel they were looking for, and were near freeways to make their commutes less of a burden. And a good school district was key — they planned on seeing Kamran go to a neighborhood elementary school.
But even with a plan and enthusiasm, the overheated real estate market was a shock. Their first offer was outbid by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“And we thought we bid high,” Sahar says with a chuckle.
A house in Oakland’s Bushrod neighborhood seemed like a fit, but they were outbid again, this time by just $5,000. Another home on the outskirts of Berkeley’s Elmwood district went for more than their bid, too. A house in Berkeley, on Alcatraz Avenue, fell through, too.
Time was running out and they were getting tired of the open-house slog.
“We were nonstop,” Sahar remembers. “It was Labor Day weekend and I asked Nikolai, ‘Can we just take a one-month break in September?”
The Sunday before Labor Day, the couple had brunch with friends in Berkeley and decided they may as well take a peak at a house at the intersection of the Claremont, Elmwood and Rockridge neighborhoods that had been on the market for 35 days, figuring there’d be something terribly wrong with it in a market where listings sometimes don’t last a week.
They swung by the house and took the grand tour. “I go upstairs and I don’t get what’s wrong with the house,” says Sahar. They asked about disclosures, and there was nothing major.
The agent on hand offered a few reasons why the house hadn’t been snapped up yet: busy street, small yard, only one bathroom, and a kitchen that had not been updated. But Sahar thinks that the real reason lay in the market itself: experienced agents and homeseekers expect homes in Berkeley to sell at 20-30% above asking price. And this home was priced at market value, which was confusing potential buyers, especially since the home needed some repairs and didn’t have a modern kitchen.
The home was already looking like a good deal, but then a coincidence sealed it: the agent recognized Nicolai. In fact, when Nicolai was first was starting out, his office was next to the agent’s office and they helped set him up at a huge networking event where he met his first clients.
So the agent gave them a huge tip: he let Sahar and Nicolai know that if they were interested, they needed to get on it that same day, as they had an offer on the table that they were reviewing with the sellers that evening.
Their agent was on vacation and the next day was a holiday, but with some grit and determination, the couple got an offer together that day, at slightly lower than asking price but with an aggressive closing schedule. It was accepted.
The family didn’t move in until a few months after their super-quick close, but came by each weekend to water the plants and measure the house for some minor pre-move-in repairs. Kamran loved the house immediately, luxuriating in all the space he had to run around.
By early 2018, they were firmly established in their new home and the couple next door had even thrown a potluck to introduce them to their new neighbors.
“I’m so happy we landed this house,” says Sahar.
About the house
The best: Surprisingly, the bustling street out front. “I like that I feel that I’m part of a city. I like seeing people walk by.” And the private space out back. “I love the back yard — we have a tree with beautiful flowers that are blooming right now and we have a bird of paradise bush.”
The worst: The minuscule powder room on the first floor — no doubt to be remodeled sooner rather than later. “I close the door and my knees touch the door,” says Sahar, “There’s no sink so I have to use the kitchen sink.”
The unexpected pleasures: The more than 100-year-old home’s historic touches. “In the kitchen, there’s this cabinet and at first I thought, ‘Oh this thing is filthy,’” says Sahar. “But now that I’ve been using it, I’m realizing it’s solid wood, it’s beautiful, my plates look so beautiful behind the glass. We are talking about remodeling the kitchen and we’re thinking of how can we keep it.”
Another beloved vintage touch: “In the dining room, on the picture rail, there are little creases so you can display plates. It’s an amazing Craftsman house.”