April 06, 2011
This is an unconventional love story. It all started when I sat down for coffee on the bougainvillea-ensconced patio of the perfectly restored 1906 Craftsman home of my editor and friend Estelle Serna. As usually happens, our conversation quickly turned to real estate.
“So, I’m back on the market again,” I told her.
“Again?” she said.
“I’ve been looking at a few places with a new agent. But I haven’t found anything good.”
“Are there any houses you’re even considering?”
“Not really. There was one that was okay, but it sat directly underneath the 2/210 overpass.”
“That doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, Summer,” Estelle said. “When I bought this house, the bougainvillea was ragged. How much was this house?”
“$620,000,” I said.
“That’s not bad!”
“Yeah, but I just don’t feel that spark. I’m waiting for The One.”
“Just buy it, Summer,” Estelle said with a weary sigh.
I had been having these conversations a lot since I turned 40, on landscaped patios all over Los Angeles, but somehow, they never really sunk in. Even as the market hit bottom and started to rebound again, I always thought I had more time. The perfect house was always on the next block: The One. In the meantime, I spent my weekends driving from open house to open house and my evenings sitting under the single flickering light bulb in my 200-square foot studio apartment, loading and reloading Redfin.com. Sure, I wanted to settle down, but I didn’t want to settle. Then I read a statistic that said that a 40-year-old woman with an annual salary of $75,000 and a credit score of 650 is two hundred times more likely to be killed in a terrorist attack than she is to find a suitable home in Los Angeles.
“It’s time to adjust your list,” Estelle told me.
Here was my list five years ago when I began my search for The One:
Four bedroom, two bath
Within walking distance of a Bristol Farms
Solar water heater
Tenuous connection to B-list celebrity
Mature quince trees
View of the Hollywood Hills and/or Pacific Ocean (preferably both)
Was this too much to ask? Could this be the reason that 78% of Americans born between 1965 and 1980 will die of radon poisoning while lying face-down on a mildewed futon mattress in a condemned tenement apartment building with low ceilings and Formica countertops and no one to mourn them?
All I wanted to do was curl up with a copy of Dwell magazine and watch the sun set over my salt-water infinity pool – was that too much to ask?
At first, house-hunting was fun. I looked forward to spending each weekend out with my real estate agent, climbing over trash piles and peering through wire-reinforced glass windows, chatting happily about “potential.” But at a certain point, I felt burned out, tired of the drop-ceilings and the feral pigs and the tacky overhead lighting.
Finally, the statistics I had read began to hit home. Would I be one of the 1 in 3 middle-aged women who tried to buy a house for ten years, gave up, went crazy, and wound up digging a foxhole beside a freeway embankment, then carpeting it over with Flor tiles?
After a particularly harrowing day of house-hunting, I caught up with my good friend, marionette restorationist Randall Hitch, for glasses of port on the glazed terracotta terrace of his Moroccan-style villa overlooking the hedge maze and the koi pond. He told me his house had just been listed in the National Registry of Historic Places after it was discovered that deleted scenes from “Chinatown” were once stored in a utility trailer parked in the alleyway behind his home. I told him about the last house I had rejected.
“It was nice, roomy, in a good neighborhood, in my price range, but it was sort of pre-fab-looking and also it didn’t have a floor.”
“There are a lot of ways to personalize a pre-fab home, Summer,” Randall said.
“I know. But I mean, there was no floor at all. Just uncovered joists.”
“Summer, you’re too picky. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Do you think this house was in perfect condition the day I found it? Of course not! I had to tear out wall-to-wall carpet in the back hallway. Beige wall-to-wall carpet. But in the end, what matters is that I have a place to call home, a place to love, a place to store 1700-square feet of early nineteenth-century Persian art.”
I gazed out at the ocean, the radiant floor heating warming the soles of my shoes.
“I just feel like I could do better,” I said. “I feel like I deserve it. Where’s my fairy tale ending?”
“We are all brainwashed by the media,” Randall said, “by newspaper style sections and design blogs and issues of Elle Décor we find in our dermatologist’s waiting room. My mother was sending me clippings from Better Homes and Gardens, Summer. Actual paper clippings. They want to sell you on a dream of home ownership but the reality is very different. Owning your own home is work. No matter how amazing The One is, you’re still going to have to touch up the paint, clean the rain gutters, trap and release some mountain lions – that’s real life.”
Was Randall right? I thought about all the movies and television shows that had dominated my formative years: Ally McBeal’s Murano glass lamp, Mr. Big’s fabulous chandelier on “Sex and the City.”
The last person I talked to was my own real estate agent, Carmen Yu, in the dining room of her 3300-square foot Spanish-style eco-palazzo with its low-VOC paint, reclaimed wooden coat hangers, wild truffle insulation, and ultra-efficient commercial pizza oven. She ushered me towards the “green” sofa she had made herself out of three larger sofas, then went to get us drinks from the floating wet bar that bobbed up and down along her in-home brook.
“Every night I sign into Redfin and Trulia and Zillow and I see all these amazing houses but I can never seem to buy one. But their ads all seem so perfect. What’s the matter with me?”
Carmen shook her head.
“I’m going to be honest here, Summer. We put these ads up to fool you. The photos are all taken with wide-angle lenses, run through a ‘sucker’ filter on Photoshop, or just hand-drawn by our kids. ‘Cozy’ means small; ‘sunny’ means scorched; ‘airy’ means there are holes in the roof; ‘historic’ means a murder was committed there; ‘low-maintenance backyard’ means that the last owners salted the earth. You’re 40 years old, it’s time you faced facts. Do you want to know what ‘turnkey’ means, Summer? Do you?” She took my hand. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Her words hurt, but they also rang true. No wonder 63% of L.A. county residents are now living full-time in their office cubicles, subsisting on nothing but Sparkletts water and Nature Valley granola bars.
That night I went home and after hand-cranking the emergency generator in my dark apartment, I was able to go online and sign into Redfin again. I clicked through all my new matches and they all looked so promising. This one had exposed wood-beam ceilings, that one had a two-story guest house. Why, this one even had a low-maintenance backyard!
Then, as I had often done before, I visited the ones that got away. There was 1317 Maple Street, with its six-foot-tall-ceilings and tar-impregnated top soil, sold for $700,000 after being on the market just nine days. There was 415 Elm Road, which I rejected as “too boxy,” sold above asking price, probably to a happy family that was even now contentedly scrubbing toxic lichens off the three remaining walls. While I had waited for The One, plenty of good ones, and even not-so-god ones, had gone off the market or been destroyed by landslides. What would be left?
It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for you. The truth is, in the time it took you to read this article, you wasted $4,200 in lost equity, housing prices rose 30%, your landlord was convicted of exotic pet smuggling, and your apartment’s rat-infested carport slid four inches deeper into a sinkhole, taking your Camry with it. So take my advice: don’t hold out for your dreams – just buy it.