Rebecca Janson, five months pregnant, fought for sleep next to her husband on a lumpy futon pad, heartsick over the latest defeat on a search to buy their first home.
The young newlyweds had mostly moved out of their rental when they learned the deal had sunk. Now they wondered how much more misery they could endure in pursuit of the American dream.
The Jansons never imagined they would compete with so many investors while looking for a place to start. Two out of every three homes in their price range had been swallowed by a river of cash.
First-time buyers like the Jansons were for decades the housing economy's most crucial fuel, investing in older neighborhoods and helping sellers move up to bigger homes. But young hopefuls seeking starter homes are now routinely outmatched and overrun, a shift that could undermine the foundation of a market still struggling to gain ground.
Tossing on the floor, the Jansons felt distraught because of a sobering, deep-seated fear: Soon, when their baby boy was born, would he have a place to call his own?
"I want his little area to be set," Rebecca said. "I want him to have his home."
• • •
Matt, 31, and Rebecca, 29, had only a few modest essentials: a short drive to work, a yard for the dogs and a baby room Rebecca could paint.
Matt, who worked at a shipping firm and flew on refueling tankers with the Air Force Reserves, insisted on a big garage. Rebecca, a nanny and school aide, was open to anything. She had spent most of her 20s renting small apartments and a $450-a-month house.
"I don't know what I wanted," she said. "Just for it to look nice."
Over the last three decades, first-timers like the Jansons had bought up 40 percent of the nation's home sales. Homeowners Matt knew from a deployment to Qatar helped persuade him it was a smart investment.
But the market Matt and Rebecca were entering had changed in the last few years. First-timers bought only 29 percent of the homes sold across the country last month. In Florida last year, they accounted for just 25 percent.
Lost jobs, student debt and stagnant wages had discouraged many young people from buying, and tightfisted banks with strict loan guidelines had kept even those with good credit off their books.
The Jansons had built up some savings when they filed to pre-qualify for a loan. Cautious about debt, they set a strict budget of $200,000.
On Rebecca's drives to work, she memorized the yards where for-sale signs sprouted. She also gravitated toward home-listing websites including Zillow, letting her imagination run wild across the tiny pictures of kitchens, dining rooms and dens.
Her favorites she saved onto a wish list, which she dotingly trimmed and tweaked and refined. At one point, she had 23 possibilities on her map. Each home was marked with a little heart.
• • •
The Jansons felt confident when they started their search that there were plenty of bargains to go around. First-timers have for decades boosted the economy by buying fixer-uppers, paying for furniture and renovations and helping sellers to move onto their next home.
But when the couple tried to buy, they found flippers and investors routinely beat them to the punch. All-cash buyers gobbled up two out of three Tampa Bay houses, townhomes and condos sold in the first half of this year for $200,000 or less.
Those 10,000 cash-bought homes would have, in a traditional market, gone to young, equity-less families. But low prices have investors clamoring to buy the homes en masse.
The Jansons watched as the local for-sale market shrunk to half of what Realtors call a typically healthy size. And that was just for existing houses; home builders had largely ignored the shrinking first-timer market, targeting move-up buyers with bigger, more expensive homes.
The for-sale signs along Rebecca's commute began to vanish. Hearts on her map disappeared. Nearly every seller they called was under contract, even if the home had hit the market that week.
"It was a nightmare. Anything we found was gone, just like that," Rebecca said. "I started to get really not picky, too. Like, just show me some houses and maybe there's something we can work with. No. Gone. Gone. Gone."
Prices climbed, even among the threadbare homes investors had picked over. In one north St. Petersburg home, a garage bedroom was stained with smoke, an unfinished shower stood rough with dark grout, and a smoky hole in the living-room ceiling had been hastily patched over with paint.
But that wasn't even the worst part, Rebecca said later, letting out a nervous laugh.
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "It was above our price range!"
• • •
The Jansons saw their first glint of victory in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres, a beige stucco ranch home Rebecca called "beautiful."
Enamored of the red wooden porch and oak-shaded lawn, they quickly devised plans on how they'd expand. Realtors had written in its listing that it was "one of the last true gems."
In February, one weekend after their wedding, the Jansons rushed in an offer. The price was over their budget, but they felt happy to have made a bid before the cash machine.
Their offer was accepted. They set up a home inspection, an appraisal, and tests for rodents and pests. To pay for it, they dipped into their savings, spending $1,500.
Then, after everything had passed muster, came the shock. Flood insurance would cost between $6,000 and $17,000 a year.
Feeling beaten, the couple walked away from the deal and didn't look at homes for a month. Matt considered ending the search altogether. "He kept saying we couldn't afford another failure," Rebecca said.
Several weeks later, after trimming their expectations, the couple visited a foreclosed townhouse in a boom-era St. Petersburg subdivision called Bay Breeze Cove.
The Jansons worked out payments for their Veterans Affairs loan and scheduled the closing. But a week before, the Jansons hit a new snag. Title agents had missed a crucial element: The bank owed $11,000 in homeowners association fees.
With only a few days left before their lease expired, and no idea if the deal would go through, they worried they'd have to suddenly move to a new apartment. They felt, as they told friends on Facebook, "totally screwed over!!!"
With their things in storage, the Jansons slept for a week on the floor of their rental home.
All those home buying dreams Matt had while deployed now seemed astoundingly naive.
In his mind, he'd replaced them with something else: "Curse words only."
• • •
One drizzly evening earlier this month, Matt walked up the driveway and through his garage past a cluster of baby stuff.
In his golf shirt and khakis, he seemed to fit in with the neighbors in his looping subdivision, behind a Starbucks where he walked the dog. He stopped to wipe his dirty shoes on a welcome mat reading "Home Sweet Home."
Just when they thought the deal was dead, the bank paid its debt, and a stone-and-stucco townhouse with three bedrooms and a breakfast bar became newly free and clear. With only a few hours left before their lease ended, the Jansons bought their home.
"Little by little, what we were hoping for, we're getting a piece of that," Matt said. "I drive home every day and I pull in and I'm happy."
Rebecca, in her garnet-and-black maternity dress, seemed relieved to have made it past the days of unending Web searches and 20 calls a day with their real estate agents.
"She was relentless," agent Lonnie Orns said. "Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman."
The six-month "fiasco" still stung, but the Jansons couldn't hide their excitement over having a place of their own. They hung black-and-white portraits of their grandparents in the dining room and sonogram pictures on the fridge.
To his surprise, Matt was thrilled about all manner of chores, saying one evening over beers that he was "really excited to set up storage in the garage."
In a room upstairs, he had lugged his boyhood toy trunk to a wall painted marine green. Alone in the quiet, Rebecca, now seven months pregnant, had practiced laying her baby in the bassinet. Here, finally, was their reward for the stress: little Benjamin's nursery.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]