In April, I bought a house. Last week, I sold my other one. (Or I think did. It’s pending appraisal.)
People do this all the time — buy houses, sell houses. I’ve seen it on HGTV. But for me, buying and selling rocked my world completely off its axis.
I knew it would be hard to move — purging and packing and moving and unpacking and the endless trips to the unholy trinity of moving: Home Depot, Target and The Container Store. What I didn’t expect was how much work it would be to get my old house ready to sell. Mainly because I’d never done it before. And also because I thought all that work would equal a swift and easy sale, for thousands over asking.
As I was scrubbing baseboards and shop-vaccing spiderwebs in the garage, I thought about what I’d say in a blog post. It helped keep me from crying. Actually, no it didn’t. I cried and didn’t sleep much and spent more time than I care to admit screaming at my husband. If my mom — my dear, sweet mom — hadn’t agreed to fly up from California to help us get our old house ready, I think I’d still be sitting there, sobbing and washing out paint brushes.
Moving and selling did not bring out the best in me. Maybe it brought out the real “me” in me: Nervous, touchy, emotional and prone to overreaction. It’s not something I’m proud of, and as I was going through it, I knew that I was mean, irritable, unlikable. I was a crappy mother, a rotten wife and a terrible, self-absorbed friend. I guess this is an open letter of apology.
In my defense, there were some pretty dark days. Like the day when my mom fell and broke four teeth. We were out on a walk with the dogs and it was dark and the pavement was uneven, and she stumbled. I couldn’t tell what had happened so I just stood there, with two dogs making figure eights around our legs and saying “Mom? What happened? Mom? Are you OK?” while I wiped blood off her face with my hands.
We’d been hard at it at the old house that week. My mom, who owns two homes and is of the DIY generation, knows how to get a house ready to sell. She was my unflagging cheerleader and a tireless worker. In four days, she painted 20 doors and door frames, one bathroom, a few baseboards, washed walls, window tracks and screens. The day after she fell, she refused to stay at the new house and rest. Just flat-out refused. She worked until her four-hour dentist appointment, even though she was in pain.
There was also the day we were taking offers on our house. All along, our neighbors and friends predicted we’d be overwhelmed with offers. That we’d get so many, the price would get bid up. So imagine our surprise when the 3:00 deadline for offers came and went, with … nothing. We finally got two offers, at asking, later that day. It was humbling. That leads to the first of my six lessons:
- Don’t get cocky. No matter how beautiful your house is, or how much work you’ve put into it, if the buyers aren’t there, you ain’t selling. Our house was built in 1974 and when we moved in, it looked it. Over the last nearly nine years, we’ve put in a gorgeous new kitchen, a new master bath, a new deck, new windows, new garage doors, a new front porch, air conditioning, built-ins downstairs and upstairs… on and on. And sure, the people who came through the open houses thought it was great, but not enough to make an offer. Your house can be a thousand times more awesome than the house down the street, which sold for $30,000 more in February, and it doesn’t make sense except that …
- It’s completely random. I’ve decided that real estate is a lot like dating. You go out with lots and lots of people and for whatever reason, none of them click until, finally, someone does. Maybe it’s because you’re worn down after years of dating bores, or maybe you meet an awesome mate and fall madly in love. Either way, you settle on someone. It’s the same with houses. The people who are walking through your house on a given weekend could be relocating from Henderson, NV, where they bought a six-bedroom McMansion for $198,000 and when they see what you’re offering for the price, they’re PISSED. (See No. 4.) They’ve seen 14 houses that day and they don’t like what they’re getting for their money and they’re going to huff around and say mean things about your basement floors. But eventually, someone will walk in who can tell that you loved your house and want someone else to love it, too. Those are the people you want buying your house. But …
- You can’t take it personally. If you’re a house flipper or a builder, you don’t give a crap if potential buyers are mean and real estate agents are cutting. You’re not attached to the house, except financially. But I lived in my house. I made a family in that house. I brought a son home to that house and poured lots of love and sweat into it. It hurt a lot to hear from one agent (Charlotte Kossow) that our upstairs remodel was lovely, but the downstairs “not so much … lake view wonderful but road noise defeats the view.” During the weekend our house was open, I eventually had to stop reading the feedback our agent sent us. It felt so personal, like I was going through sorority rush and no one wanted me to pledge.
- Behave at open houses. I couldn’t believe how unbelievably ENTITLED the people were who toured my house. They wanted updated everything, with a view, in a good school district, close to Microsoft and highways and across the street from a lake — but for a bargain price. They loved the painstaking tile work in the master shower, but they sniffed at the LAUNDRY ROOM? If you’ve ever been to an open house, you may recognize yourself in that description — I know I do. Steve and I waltzed into countless homes and harrumphed over cabinet finishes and carpeting choices and if I had to do it all over again, I’d be nicer. I know now that this stuff gets back to the buyer, and that’s their HOUSE. So here’s a good rule, for open houses and for life: If you don’t like a house, be polite and say to the eager agent: “It’s a lovely home, but the floor plan/back yard/master bedroom just isn’t what we’re looking for.” And leave.
- Maintain your house. Steve and I did a ton of updates to our house. We painted, we built a flagstone patio. I kept the house clean. But we neglected the bigger, grosser stuff until we moved out. Our screens were filthy, our window tracks were a horror show. And the blinds — dear God, the blinds. I don’t even want to talk about the garage. I’m still traumatized by the piles of insect corpses I found in there. Doing all of those chores in a compressed time period really, really sucked. But, it made things like doing my resume look easy. And now, if someone scuffs the wall in my new house, I’m right there rubbing it out with Spic ‘n Span, because I want to stay on top of that shit. Even though …
- Don’t ever move. Even if your house is 800 square feet and you’re a family of 10, even if you’ve been renting forever and you want to own something, just stop right there. Stop. It’s not worth it. It’s just not. Mortgage interest deduction? Pffft. Rent. Rent forever and let someone else maintain your place and do the yard and get someone out to fix your toilet when it overflows. Enjoy your life. Go to museums. And don’t ever move.