March 11, 2009
Steve Mullen - [email protected]
We''re selling a house.
Selling a house is much like giving birth. It''s actually more painful, as a house is larger, and they don''t hand out pain meds. You also don''t get to keep anything at the end.
If selling the house is the birth, buying it is the fun part that leads to the inevitable end. You really aren''t thinking about the birth when you''re doing the fun part. You''re too busy picking out tile.
This was our first house. We had it built from scratch, in a brand new neighborhood in Bakersfield, Calif. We picked cabinets, tile, carpet and toilets. We chose stainless-steel appliances. We bought a fridge and a washer and dryer. We had a two-car garage, two garbage cans and a gardener: my sweet friend Mr. Herrera, whom I serenaded with songs of praise as he cut my grass.
The house is California architecture: stucco and a tile roof. To picture it, think of those houses they show on the evening news or on "60 minutes" -- you know, the ones with the brown lawns and the tumbleweeds and the "For Sale" signs planted in every front yard on the street.
Buying is easier than selling. There''s a tinge of nervousness when we first go in for the loan interview -- will they accept us? Turns out they will, and they do, and they did, and they even offered to lend us much more money than we were asking for. We were smart, and declined. (We''re reading about the people who took the bait. We also got a fixed-rate loan, thank goodness.)
Bakersfield was in the top 10 markets during the run-up. We were proud that we bought in 2001, on the ground floor of history''s greatest housing boom. At the peak, our house had doubled in value. Real estate agents were leaving flyers in the mail and on our door, begging us to sell. In this atmosphere, you forget about the laws of gravity, or figure they don''t apply to you. You''ve blasted into a safe orbit. You may not go higher, but you''re not coming down.
Now we''re in history''s greatest housing bust, and Bakersfield is solidly in the top 10 there, too. Prices are falling faster than John Glenn in splashdown mode. A few years ago, You were checking Zillow.com almost daily, with a smile on your face. Now, you wish it didn''t exist.
You get a real estate agent. This is the doctor in the birthing room. You know this story. You''re scared out of your skull and don''t know what to expect. And you''ve never seen this person before, because your regular guy is on vacation in Fiji when the contractions hit. You''re putting your future in the hands of this person -- who is painfully and impossibly upbeat, considering the circumstances. "Sure, it''ll come out fine. What you''re feeling is normal. I''ve done this a million times. We''ll get this thing going and it''ll be over with in no -- hang on a sec, I need to take this call."
After several months of fear-laden, uncomfortable breathing, the agent comes back, takes a look around and casually announces that she''s found a buyer. Then the screaming really begins. Especially if you''re in Columbus, doing this thing long distance. You''re trading cell phone calls, peering at PDFs of documents on computers. You''re haggling. How do we counter-offer? Yes, they can have the fridge and the washer. Sure, we''ll fix the sprinkler heads. No, we''re not going to fix this or tweak that.
Close to the end, it gets more and more painful. Unexpected fees begin appearing. Herrera, whom you have treated like an uncle, turns on you; he sees the vultures overhead and squeezes you for the sprinkler adjustment. The paint guy shows up and puts his hand out for doing the touch-ups. The buyers and their agent show up unannounced for walk-throughs, mold inspections, appraisals, and "just one more walk-through," which is actually the fifth-from-last walkthrough.
Then, just when we think it''ll never end, it''s over. Papers are signed, and we''re pulling our house keys off our keychains and handing them over.
That''s when it sinks in. We''ve birthed this baby. It''s out.
We''re relieved, but despite the painful labor, there''s a tinge of sadness, a longing for the old days, when we were bloated with a huge mortgage. How did we ever manage to carry this thing around?
No matter -- the joy, relief and freedom take over. Until the next time.
Steve Mullen is managing editor of The Commercial Dispatch. Reach him at [email protected]
Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.