Selling The House – Chapter 4

And now for the reaction from the parents.

“So that’s when she told me she didn’t want to pay our asking price.”

“Wait. You were just about to sign the contract, and then she wants to negotiate a new price?”

“Yup.”

“That’s chutzpah.”

I was on the phone with my Dad. This is the weekly, grandparent update, formerly the weekly dutiful-son update until I had children. In the dutiful son years, Mom always answered the phone, but now Dad has retired, so he hears the news first.

Because he is my father and I his son, I unwittingly force the role of father confessor upon him. I am old enough to be past this phase of our relationship, but I still value his approval. It is a deeply ingrained habit, not a conscious choice. I tell him what we are doing with our lives, and if I fail to amuse him or make him laugh, I naturally assume he disapproves. Then I begin to make my justifications until he really does disapprove.  That’s when he puts Mom on the phone. 

This neurotic anxiety is pointless. For his part, my father has no tolerance for being a confessor. Having suffered a heart attack and survived triple bypass surgery, he is unwilling to jeopardize his blood pressure with the specific details of his grown-up children’s foolishness. Ignorance is longevity. Fortunately Mom is much healthier and has no such qualms.

“So, what did she offer you?”

I told him.

“But … wait … that’s not very different from what you asked.”

“No, it isn’t,” I agreed

“Hmm. OK. And what did you counter?”

“I didn’t counter.”

“What?”

“I didn’t counter. I accepted it.”

Really though, I almost did not accept the offer, but I didn’t tell Dad this. At the time, I was angry at being manipulated. But this anger was blunted by two considerations.

The first was that, for the first time, her voice lost that spiritual, unconcerned quality. It momentarily gained a harsh note of someone pressing an advantage that they are not sure truly exists, someone a little bit scared. It made her very human and vulnerable, and it reminded me that we didn’t have to sell the house. I could not be manipulated against my will. Plan B was simply to stay in New England, which we loved anyway, live on a tight budget, and send our children to public school instead of Montessori. As it turned out, Plan B was not economically feasible, but I didn’t know it at the time, because the national economic melt down was still months away.

The second consideration was that the price she offered was not very much less than the asking price. In fact, it was a very amateurish negotiation on her part, and it sealed her convincing role of a novice home buyer. My impression was this was a unconscious self-help maneuver whose only point was to bolster her faltering confidence. She wanted to prove to herself that she had some control and was not being taking advantage of by me. I was willing to forego some profit to buy some goodwill and smooth out the process, which turned out to be useful later. And in the big picture, the money was a only a very little skin off my considerable nose. Dad didn’t think so.

“You didn’t give a counter offer?”

“No, why would I do that?”

“You’re supposed to counter, to meet her half way. That’s how you negotiate.” Dad insisted.

“Well, it seemed kind of pointless to do so. It was still within the range Dawn and I agreed was what we wanted. Frankly we just want to …”

“Let me get your mother on the line.  Ceci!”

One for one. Now to find something with which to disappoint Mom. The house sale wouldn’t do it, but she’s not thrilled about us moving in the first place so this shouldn’t be difficult. I could at least expect some unsolicited advice, or even better, a sigh and a parting shot like, “Well, it’s your life.”

Two thousand miles away, I heard my mother’s voice across the condo, “What?” It was a familiar voice from my childhood, a surprisingly effective roar from a small woman that developed while raising four boys and has since then been continually exercised by a husband who refuses to wear his $300 hearing aids.

“Get on the phone! It’s your son!”

“Which one?”

“The one in Vermont!”

I heard her footsteps echo on the reddish-brown hardwood floors. With the exception of the bathrooms, there was not a single door or ceiling on any of the walls in their condominium. “Harry! How are you?”

“Great Mom. We have a buyer for the house.”

“Oh that’s wonderful! Did you get what you wanted?”

“Yes,” and before she could ask how much, “A very nice woman, a friend of some neighbors, and she seems anxious to get all the legal work done quickly.”

“That’s great! When do you move?”

“We have a six weeks to pack.”

“And do you know where you’re going?”

“Still the Fort Wayne area.”

“I know that. Don’t you have a house there?”

“No, not yet. We want to rent for a year before we consider buying land.”

“Oh good. That’s smart. I was worried you were going to invest your money and then not be able to get out if you didn’t like it. And where will you rent?”

“Don’t know yet. We are going to take a UHaul and drive out there and look for a rental when we arrive.”

“You … You don’t know where you’re staying yet?”

“Um, no. I mean, yes. We have a place to stay for a week or two. It’s at the school actually, a sort of B&B, only they don’t serve breakfast, More like just a B. With a large kitchen. It’s only while we look for a rental.”

Silence. No Response. Have I succeeded? Clearly she is not pleased with this plan.

“But what will the children do in the meantime?”

“They’ll be with us. It’s summer vacation, they don’t have to be in school. And I do believe you offered to come up and keep an eye on them.”

“Well, yes, so you could unpack. You won’t be able to unpack until you find a rental.”

“You’re right, but what can we do? We don’t have to time or money to take an extra trip there, and we need to pack now.”

A silence. A sigh.

“Well, I suppose you know best.”

Selling The House – Chapter 3

We continue our flashback series from Spring 2008, when we were selling our house.

A woman called and wanted to see the house. She happened to be just round the corner, visiting a friend of hers, a neighbor we met from time to time and whose property I had once trespassed upon the previous winter, driving a deep gash through their pristine snow. Yes, the house was still available. Yes, she could see it. No, tomorrow, not today.

In fact, the house was ready to receive visitors that day, but we were not. It was already the end of the day and there was nowhere for Dawn to take the children, even if we were inclined. She did not express any displeasure at the inconvenience, and said tomorrow would be fine, though she might drive by and look at the outside.

Her voice had a dreamy quality – rather more spiritual than hallucinogenic - but practical and down to earth. With a judicious use of pauses and inflection, she conveyed a broad range of feeling within a minimal register. As I soon learned, taking her on the now familiar tour of the premises, she was a school librarian and so was not easily flustered. Nothing phased her, not even my disclosure of the wet basement. She simply nodded her head, her thin arms crossed as she considered the foundation with a look that betray nothing - not understanding, not ignorance, not even interest. Like previous visitors, the rooms and windows delighted her, as did the location, and she soon came back for additional visits with her college-aged daughters and the requisite “friend who knew something about house construction.”

She liked the neighborhood, loved the house, agreed the price was reasonable, and despite not truly understanding the process of buying a For Sale By Owner home, she agreed to make an offer. We set a date to draft a purchase and sales agreement and get the process started. That night, Dawn and I ordered out for dinner.

The following afternoon I waited in the kitchen. The day was sticky and unreasonably hot for early June, and like many New England homes, we had no air conditioning. I was telepathically chivvying Samuel into his bathing suit and out the door with Rose and Dawn.  They were going to cool off in the pool and leave me to negotiate the sales and purchase agreement in peace. A weak puff of air moved through the window screens, and I felt an impossible shiver as the sweat on the back of my neck cooled a degree. Dawn was gathering towels and goggles and sunscreen into a large, blue, net bag, and while she rummaged in the drawers, I said, “You know, I really shouldn’t complain. My family in Atlanta has been dealing with this heat and humidity for three months already.”

Dawn glanced in my direction with a sardonic expression. “Your family is suffering terribly in their air-conditioned fortresses.”

“Yes, poor devils.”

To be fair it had only been two days of unseasonable misery. A high pressure system lay over New England like a magnifying glass whose focal point rested twenty feet over our roof. Nighttime brought some relief, but not enough to sleep comfortably. One expected this in July, a week or two of sweat-soaked sheets, thin blankets tossed early to the floor, cranky children refusing to drink enough water, and several trips to the city pool and maple creemies. The human creature can withstand any amount of discomfort if it can be accepted in the natural order of things, a compromise or sacrifice for a perceived purpose. In our case, a week of misery in July is a small price to pay for living in New England, a price we could choose to pay in electric bills if we wanted to install an air conditioner. But four months of this was not part of the bargain.

Dawn and the children vanished to the pool before the buyer arrived. I offered her ice water which she gratefully sipped and held to her tanned, stretched skin, glistening with perspiration. We chatted for a bit, quickly digging down, as Americans will do, to an acceptable level of personal intrusion. I gave her the short account of our reasons for moving and life as an older parent of young children, while she summarized a divorce, an impending surgery, and an ill family member. We sipped our ice water and watch the sky darken with what promised to become a cooling thunderstorm. The wind rose outside and squeezed through the open windows to rustle the blank contract on the table. On cue, we picked it up and began the process of working our way through the legal language and filling in the blanks.

She asked questions about everything, and though she seemed to understand only fragments of the process, she listened attentively and without anxiety as I did my best to explain and decipher security deposits, inspection clauses, and financial pre-qualification. When she asked questions, they were pertinent, and I found her absolute calm unnerving.

A familiar sound outside brought my glance up from the contract. Out the front windows, I saw Dawn returning in the minivan, parking on the street rather than the garage. She must have forgotten something important at home, perhaps Rose’s epipen, and I imagined she would run in and out with no more than a hushed “don’t mind me”  – guaranteed to make us do so – as she passed. But it was the children who came running in, flushed, excited. Rose was chattering. Samuel was in tears.

“There’s a tornado watch!” Rose said, loudly enough to heard across the length of the house, though she was only twelve inches from my ear. Samuel’s screams were louder yet, and as he clung to my leg, it took some time for me to understand his words.

“Papa. I’m scared of the tornado!”

Dawn was nowhere to be seen. She was not visible outside. She had not come in with the children, and they had no idea where she was. I comforted Samuel in my lap, shrugging and passing apologetic glances to our buyer, who did not seem in the least put out but stared vacantly into space. Rose chattered by the window. Eventually Samuel calmed down in my lap, and Rose started to read a book, so we continued to work down the contract. Dawn finally returned and stayed long enough to say, “Sorry! They said there’s a tornado warning …” but at this word, Samuel began to scream again – Papa I’m scared of the tornado! – and I almost missed the rest of Dawn’s words. “… so I wanted to come home and find out if the pool was even open, but when I got out of the car there was a woman at the end of the street in a wheelchair yelling ‘Call 911.’ So I did, and I’m waiting for the ambulance. Oh, there it comes now!”

Samuel jumped down from my lap, and Rose and he both jumped up on the couch to peer out the window. When I turned back, Dawn was gone. “Papa, there’s an ambulance!” said my son, master of the obvious, all trace of panic gone at the sight of the flashing lights.

In time Dawn returned and took the children into the farthest back bedroom and closed the door. The buyer gave me an indulgent smile, and we laughed over the foibles of children. We finished up the contract, and I asked her to review it for errors before we took copies to our respective lawyers, hers as yet hypothetical.

“It looks good except for one part,” she said with a practiced, off-hand air, and a hesitancy in her voice. Her indifference on contractual points was now over, and she was about to drop the bomb over the only point she had ever cared about.

“Yes?” I asked, as obsequiously as I could manage.

“The selling price.”

“Let’s see,” I replied, taking the document from her hand. “Here it is, at the top.”

“Yes, I know, but we never spoke about price.”

“But you said you thought the selling price was reasonable.”

“Reasonable, yes, but I never said that that was what I was offering.”

“Oh,” I replied. And then, again, “Oh.” I was alarmed and angry and at the same time unwilling to admit either. “Well, what exactly are you offering?”

She smiled. I hadn’t said no. It was the smile of a high diver who, having leaped into oblivion, has left her anxieties behind on the board and is enjoying the thrill of reckless abandonment, and she continued to smile as she offered me her price.

Selling the House – Chapter 2

We continue our flashback series from Spring 2008, when we were selling our house.

We gave a local FSBO circular our blurb, our digital photos, and our money, several hundred dollars of it, and waited for the calls to come in. We did not know how long we should have to wait.

Our sense of our house’s desirability was balanced and counter-balanced by several factors: the sluggish national housing market, deflated by a sub-prime mortgage crisis in its infancy, lowered our expectations. The inoculation of New England real estate to national trends buoyed them. Our small town was upper middle class and white collar. Located in the mountains without a great deal of buildable land, housing in was generally scarce and expensive, even in a down market. Our particular house was a 3 bedroom, 1 bath house, in a market flooded with large, 4-6 bedroom Victorians. The national wisdom was that the buyer should have the pick of the litter, but this logic didn’t work locally where the litter was small. If you were looking for a house in our desirable little village, and you wanted to “size up,” then you had choices and room to bargain. But if you were a retiree, a a divorcee, a recently widowed or empty nester, if you were someone whom life had given a few kicks and you needed a smaller place to heal and start over, there weren’t a lot of options available in our market.

We intended to show the house on Sundays only, but the first caller abrasively shoved our faces against reality. In a tearing hurry, she made it clear that she had to see the house that very morning or not at all. We spent a furious hour cleaning the home, and then Dawn rushed the children down the stairs to the library as our prospective buyercame up the front steps. She spent ten minutes spent politely scanning the rooms before telling us that our home was well-priced but required more work that she was prepared to spend money on.

By the time indignation released its choking grasp on my wit, she was already in her car. I called out the front door, “You think it’s bad now, wait till you read the disclosure statement!” but my esprit d’escalier barely tarnished the chrome on her retreating bumper.

So it went. Random calls followed by frenetic, house-beautiful drills. Scrub the toilet and tub, wipe the toothpaste scum off the mirror and the dried urine off the back of the toilet where the three-year-old boy’s target practice failed, vacuum the carpets and remove any garbage, throw hundreds of small plastic, wood, metal, and paper toys into their appropriate boxes. Hustle the children off to a friend’s house, a sunny playground, or an air-conditioned library. The grand tour with a new set of strangers, lasting ten to thirty minutes, honing my patter and learning in time what to say and, more importantly, what not to say.

DO point out the hand-crafted built-in bookcase. DO point out the newly installed, energy-efficient oil furnace. Do NOT point out the couch on which your wife gave birth to your only son, nor regale them with the details of that particular story. People might buy a house with a dripping faucet, some peeling paint, even a vague, romantic ghost haunting on a full moon, but they do not want your physical and emotional baggage upstaging their mental revision of your home.

More people came by. Young professional unmarried couples, a single mother who had sold her home and needed a place within a month, a recently divorced gentleman able to pay cash but who eventually chose not to. No offers. I was pleased by the steady stream, but disappointed that the fish would not bite. We had had only one nibble, a single, retired woman who appreciated the large windows and quiet neighborhood and who envisioned blissful Sunday mornings spent with canvas and oil paints. But on a third visit, after wandering the premises with “the practical friend”, someone in the home construction line, doubts began to bubble up through the dreamy impressions. She stood in our front room at sunset and turned off the lights. The afternoon windows failed to light up the living room to a suitable level of Impressionistic splendor, and the love light in her eyes extinguished.

I had come to appreciate the brevity and candor of our very first visitor. She had been brutally candid, and once the stinging had subsided, I was able to see how valuable her critique had been. And she had only taken ten minutes of our time.

The landscaping grew shabbier. It rained every afternoon for days and days, so that the lawn was never dry enough to mow, but I took advantage of a dry weekend morning to climb on the roof with a steel-bristled painter’s scraper to remove lichen from the roof tiles on the shady side of the house. It was a slow, sweaty, uncomfortable job that ended before it was completed when there were no more steel bristles left on the brush. But the day remained dry, so the next afternoon I was outside with the mower and sheers, building up another cleansing sweat. The children cavorted outside, and Dawn took advantage of their absence to clean the highly-trafficked stairwell that connected the kitchen to the garage and doubled as a pantry. The walls were greasy and the stairs perpetually grimy from the tracked in dirt.

After an hour, Rose came running to find me behind the shade garden under the back yard trees adding trimmed branches to the brush pile.

“Mama wants you!” she called.

I heaved a sigh, hoisted my creaking frame, and pushed my glasses back up the bridge of my nose with the gloved back of my wrist. Trundling around to the front of the house, I left the shears on the rock wall and walked in the basement man door. The walls were damp and dripping, and Dawn was at the top of the stairs with a bucket of sudsy water and rubber gloves on, and her voice had the timbre of someone trying not to panic. “There are … um … sparks coming out of the light switches down there.” At the same time I saw the smoke.

The plate at the bottom of the stairs had three switches: one switch for the stairwell, one for the basement/garage, and one switch that had never done anything the whole time we lived in the house. Except for now. It lit up like a sparkler on the 4th of July, occasionally ejecting a narrow flame like the forked tongue of asnake flicking in and out.

Dawn grabbed the fire extinguisher and sprayed the light switch plate, which didn’t help because the fire was behind the plate. Fortunately the breaker box was around the corner, so I shut off the circuit, grabbed the extinguisher from her, and walked to the other side of the wall with the light switch. This was in the garage and there was no sheet rock on this wall. The switch box was exposed, and I put the nozzle right on an access hole in the switch box. I dowsed the inside until it filled with a noxious mustard yellow powder. In twenty seconds the sparking and fire was gone, leaving an acrid, gritty, musky stench in the air the settled on our tongues like a bad hangover. 

Fortunately, the metal switch box had contained the fire inside itself. The walls had not burned, nor even taken any smoke damage.

We vacuumed out the powder, and I rewired the box, replacing the aged, faulty switch that had never done a lick of work in its life and had not cared for the soapy bath Dawn had given it when her washing water had dripped down the walls and into its casing. The air was still redolent of burnt wiring insulation. Gritty yellow powder clung to the sweat on our faces and the saliva on our teeth. But when I flipped the new switch, the outdoor flood lights lit up the driveway.

Selling the House – Chapter 1

Now that I have time to catch up on my blog, here are a few articles about the process of selling our house earlier this year.

The disclaimer form, required by law and painfully thorough, presented a long checklist of possible house defects observed within the past four years, with Yes, No, and Unknown checkboxes. And while “Unknown” was a possible answer to any question, it was not always the proper answer, either legally or morally. If the defect was known, if for example you had hired people to address the problem and then left behind a trail of signed contracts and payments by check, you ought to check Yes and explain yourself. There were only so many electricians and plumbers and pest control companies serving a town of 8,000, so you weren’t likely to hide the fact for long.  Besides, the house was sixty years old, so a sheet stating no knowledge of any defects would have been highly suspicious. And we are honest people. Desperate to sell a house in a buyers market, true, but not so desperate as to prevaricate.

For example, we confessed that there had been carpenter ants. I wrote out a succinct account, a bare sentence or two, describing the removal of the rotting deck, the destruction of the nest by a professional exterminator, and the truthful, though admittedly unverifiable, fact that they had not been seen again since. I had fulfilled my legal and ethical requirements.

But that was not the complete story.

Four years earlier, soon after we moved in to the house, the foam ceiling tiles in the master bedroom began to loosen and fall off the ceiling. We removed them all and arranged for a carpenter to come and sheetrock the ceilings. He was not available for a month, so for weeks the dirty, gray attic insulation above our heads gave the room a disreputable air, but it was securely held up by clear plastic sheeting stapled to the ceiling joists which gently flapped up and down whenever a breeze whistled through the attic eaves. It was a temporary arrangement we were willing to live with.

Because we did not know about the carpenter ants. Because the previous owners did not disclose them (under pest issues on their disclaimer form, they had checked Unknown). It was late Spring and they were hatching in the rigid insulation of the outer walls. They are nocturnal, and at night they crawled into the house through convenient gaps in the plastic sheeting over our heads that we had provided. Hundreds of them. 

A single ant is a symbol of insignificance, but a hundred ants exploring a house in the dead of night makes a sound to freeze your flesh and fill a lifetime of nightmares. The clicking of their mandibles as they prowled the house combined with an occasional nip on our legs or heads in bed lent a surreal horror to our now-insomnial nights. We kept all our food in tightly sealed containers and slept, huddled together, on couches in the living room, where they rarely ventured.

We could have doused the house with professionally-applied, chemical insecticide, and the ants would have been mostly gone in days, but our newborn Samuel spent much of his day indoors, and we did not like the idea of his developing brain tainted with poisonous petrochemicals. We opted instead for gel bait – a concentrated poison in gel form laced with sugar that the ants carry back to their nest. It is a safer and more effective than spraying, but it takes weeks to kill the entire nest. On the other hand, it does kill the entire nest, completely eradicating it, something the spray isn’t guaranteed to do. It had one other advantage over insecticide spray that we did not expect; carpenter ants cart off and eat their dead. As the dropped off one by one, the corpses disappeared almost as soon as they expired, leaving no mess for us to clean up. By the end of two weeks, the house was eerily, morbidly silent at night, and we moved back into our bedrooms, fatigue having overcome trepidation and loathing.

Four years later, when it came time to sell the house, there was not enough space on the disclaimer form to elaborate these supererogatory details.

Gunfire

Saturday morning we woke to the sound of gunfire, a heavy explosive noise that somehow compressed and released the air in the room. Like a door slamming inches from your face, it was a sound that made you flinch and then take a inventory of your body parts for bruises and holes. It woke Sam, though he was probably already awake, lying on a small palette of pillows and sheets next to our bed. He is a night waker who seeks the comfort of our presence at two in the morning. He is also a twitcher and kicker whose has been banished numerous times from our bed, so the palette is a compromise. It allows him to sleep in the room with us when he needs to, but it does not require him to wake us. Unless of course, someone is firing a gun.

“Mama? What’s that noise? Mama, Papa. I heard something.”

He was reasonably calm, probably more calm than we were because he has little idea what it could be and because we hide our feelings better. It’s barely light outside, and soon Rose came in from the children’s bedroom too.  She is six years old, which is an age of intellectual rebellion, a foretaste of adolescence, and as a late sleeper, she is usually surly most mornings having not yet discovered coffee. But not this morning. With a tinge of concern she was about to ask what that sound was, when suddenly we heard it again. Four loud explosions, two close together and two more staccato, that echo off the houses, garages, and trees. I was fully awake now. They did not appear to be directed at us, but they were close enough to rattle the windows on the far side of the house. Could they be coming from the lake?

Aloud, we suggested hunters and left unsaid any other possibilities that might upset the children and frighten ourselves. After all, this was rural Indiana. What other possible explanation was there? A couple of months earlier, we heard a single gunshot down the road while driving home that proved to be a neighbor ridding himself of a undesirable rodent, but unless this was a near-sighted octogenarian with a persistent and deaf ground hog, there were too many shots for that explanation. A domestic dispute was hardly likely, even among the few remaining tough retirees who chose not to migrate back to Fort Wayne for the winter. It was early December, too early for cabin fever – the weather had barked more than bitten. There was a meaningless dusting of snow still frosting the lawn and a thin sheen of ice had licked the edges of the lake. Gang warfare was out of the question. Most of the people beyond the lake were farmers, half of them Mennonites. And I was reminded of a joke.

Q. What is this? “Clip clop clip clop clip clop. BANG! BANG! Clip clop clip clop.”

A. An Amish drive-by shooting.

I kept this one to myself.

Dawn got out of bed and walked to the front of the house, meaning the side facing the lake, not the street. When you live on a small body of water, with houses crowding the shore in French long lots around the entire perimeter, the lake itself is the center of the community, not the various approach roads snaking about like veins. I was fully awake now and I followed but turned to the back of the house, because the front of our house was twenty feet from the water, and, product of the suburbs that I was, I could not conceive of someone swimming out into the water to fire a gun.

“It must be duck season,” I heard Dawn call from the other side of the house, and we all headed to the lake side parlor to watch a canoe paddler in camouflage green glide past our window. He slowed down and picked up a dead bird which he casually tossed, the feathers streaming an arc of lake water into the air, before landing on a large pile of fowl corpses in the front of the canoe. Scanning the 180 degree view, we spied a large collection of decoys at the south east corner of the lake, laid out in front of the cattails.  The canoe headed slipped back into the cattails and disappeared behind a duck blind.

“Come on kids,” I said. “I’d like you to stay out of the lake room this morning.”

The lake room is the best room in the house, with a grand view, a CD player, the current peck of library books, and the most comfortable couches in the house, but the children made no fuss. Like me, they were paranoid of the unknown. The hunters weren’t aiming at the houses. Yet. I am a believer in not tempting fate.

I was also mildly peeved at the interruption to my sleep. Because of Jewish services and religious school, it we don’t get to sleep in really late on Saturday mornings, but at least we get an extra hour or two compared to the work week. Not that morning. And I liked the ducks, even though they pooped on the docks all summer, and I was sorry they were so near-sighted or love-sick or hungry or tired or just plain stupid to fly over Pretty Big Long Lake on a Saturday morning in duck season.