Guerrilla House Hunting

When we sold our Silver Lake home late last year in just 30 days, my husband and I were thrilled. We finally had the cash to buy a bigger house for our growing family. We knew just where we wanted to live, too: a quiet, leafy neighborhood in northwest Glendale. It was close to Brand Park, lined with gracious Spanish houses and within walking distance of a quaint shopping district called Kenneth Village.

Even better, it was eight blocks from my sister, whose two little girls are fast pals with our two boys. And my 78-year-old mother, who lives in nearby North Hollywood and dislikes driving the Silver Lake Hills, would be able to visit more frequently.

But selling one house and finding another within a limited time can be a tricky tango, especially for picky buyers who want a vintage home in a specific area.

Luckily, we had accommodating buyers who agreed to rent back to us for 60 days. We figured that would give us ample time to find our dream house.

We were wrong.

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Even in the typically slow months of January and February, northwest Glendale remains a hot real estate market. I soon learned that we weren't the only ones in search of an original Spanish-style home. Indeed, there was a pool of buyers who circled each new listing like bright-eyed vultures. Homes got snapped up as they hit the market. To make matters worse, the turnover and inventory were low.

Our agent, Arlene Lloyd of Prudential California Realty in Glendale, has the patience of a saint, but none of the homes she showed us kindled a spark. They were too small, too expensive, had tiny gardens, were on busy streets or had been thoughtlessly remodeled (which we came to call the "Spanish facade house").

Eventually, we had seen every house on the market. Then it was a matter of waiting for something new to go on sale. But we didn't have that luxury, and as time ticked by, I began to panic. The thought of finding a temporary rental that would accommodate two children under 3 years of age, a home office, a large dog and a cat was abominable. But because aesthetics are important to me, neither did I want to settle for a house I didn't like.

I soon realized that the situation called for more drastic measures than sitting around waiting for something to pop up on the Multiple Listing Service. I would have to catch these houses before they went on the market. But how?

In desperation, I started driving up and down the streets where we wanted to live, hoping to catch brokers as they hammered those "for sale" signs into the sod.

Weeks passed with no luck. I spent every afternoon cruising slowly around the two-square-mile area I was determined to live in, lusting after the lovely old homes I saw and probably scaring neighbors who may have thought I was a burglar casing their houses.

Soon I grew shameless, pulling up alongside people gardening on their front lawns, walking their dogs or jogging. Then I would politely inquire whether they knew any homes going up for sale nearby.

"My husband and I just sold our house in Silver Lake and we love this neighborhood," I would explain, telling them my sob story about the two babies, the big dog and the cousins who lived nearby.

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To my never-ending surprise, people were really nice. They would stop and think about it and sometimes I got tips. Even if I didn't, I'd get encouragement.

"Keep doing exactly what you're doing; that's the way I found my house," a young mother chatting with her friend on Cleveland Street told me.

Once I saw two guys in suits holding files and talking to a third man on Ard Eevin Avenue. I pulled up. When I posed my question, two of the men said no and the third said yes. Ramming my car into park, I leaped out.

The "yes" man was a conservator for his elderly father, who was moving into a nursing home. The two suited men were real estate agents with whom he had just started discussing putting the house on the market: a beautiful original Spanish. My husband and I went back that evening for a tour. Unfortunately, the house was too small for us.

But as we chatted, the owner pointed to a hefty Spanish home next door, explaining that it was in trusteeship but that the heirs wouldn't be ready to sell for a year because they had yet to clean the place out.

My ears lifted, and within days, we were touring that house too. Again, it was beautiful, but at 2,800 square feet plus a huge yard with a pool, it was too big and too expensive for us.

Still, I was getting somewhere.

Another day, I was desultorily cruising around when an older woman walked out of a two-story Tudor home on Highland Avenue. Do you by chance know of anyone who is getting ready to sell? I posed my usual question.

Startled, the woman looked up.

"Why, we are," she said. "My husband just got diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and we're going to be moving into a home."

I didn't want to prey on her bad fortune, but we started chatting and she invited me in for a tour. Again, the house was gorgeous and untouched, with colorful bathroom tiles, arched doorways and original cast-iron lighting fixtures.

House Was Right But Not the Timing

Mrs. X invited me back that weekend with my husband, and he loved the house too. I wrote her a thank-you card, enclosing our letter of pre-approval from our lender. We had several nice talks, and our hopes soared.

Alas, she eventually decided she and her husband wouldn't be ready to move for six months. That would be too late for us, but I certainly understood.

By then I was becoming an expert, a frantic one. I looked for yellowing lawns. Peeling paint. Workmen laboring over a house or pruning back bushes. Dumpsters. Contractor trucks parked out front. I figured these were all signs that someone might be fixing up a house for sale. Often, I was right.

When I stopped at one house on Ben Lomond Drive that had a painter's van parked at the curb and an open front door that revealed scaffolding inside, I found the owner supervising the work. He wasn't surprised to hear my query.

"You're the second person to ask," he told me. "When I was painting the outside a few weeks ago, another lady drove by and wanted to know the same thing."

There was an element of sleuthing in this that secretly thrilled me even as I agonized over whether we would ever find what we wanted. I followed moving vans. I peered over walls. I noted whether blinds were always drawn and trash cans not hauled out to the curbs on garbage day, signs that might indicate a property was vacant.

I discovered that weekday afternoons were the best times to find contractors working and that weekends were the most likely times to catch owners.

If no one was home when I rang the doorbell, I scribbled down the address and asked our agent, Arlene Lloyd, to call the owners. She said that, invariably, the people were polite and sympathetic, even though they turned us down.

When you embark on guerrilla house-hunting, it helps to have an agent who is willing to walk that extra mile for you--sometimes literally.

Soon, Arlene offered to go up and down the streets of northwest Glendale, handing out fliers describing what we wanted. She even did cold telephone calling. No dice.

My sister-in-law Roberta suggested that we personalize the fliers with photos of our children and pets and write something from the kids such as "Our names are Adrian and Alexander and we're looking for a nice home for our Mommy and Daddy." She had seen similar fliers in her Palos Verdes Estates neighborhood. But I couldn't bring myself to exploit the toddlers that way.

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One Sunday afternoon, I got my most promising tip yet. A friendly red-haired woman in front of a gorgeous two-story Spanish home told me she was going to sell her home, but not for six months. She too, was looking for something very specific.

But she did give me a valuable tip. She told me to go to the local pharmacy at Kenneth Village and ask for the pharmacist.

"People talk to him, they tell him everything. He'll know. He's told me about five houses so far."

Brilliant, I thought, heading right over. It turned out that the pharmacist functioned as the neighborhood grapevine.

He knew who was sick, who had died, who was moving into a nursing home or leaving the neighborhood for other reasons. (Northwest Glendale has many elderly residents who have lived in their homes for 40 years or more. Numerous times in my hunt, helpful neighbors would point to a house and say something like: "Mabel lives there. She's 91. But she's not going anywhere.") Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.

The pharmacist listened to my impassioned plea, wrote down an address on a piece of paper and slid it across the counter. "They're getting ready to sell," he confided. "Go take a look. If you like it, I can introduce you."

The house was stunning, all right, but it was big, probably at least $600,000, which put it out of our reach. But I appreciated his efforts.

On Cumberland, I met a woman gardening in front of her two-story Spanish home who told us she and her husband were moving to Indianapolis in several months. We toured her house, which had a huge backyard--perfect for the kids--and sat down excitedly with the owners. But not surprisingly, it turned out that this home was out of our price range too.

By then, our agent was checking the Multiple Listing Service five times a day. I learned that brokers add new listings all day long as they finish up paperwork on a house, so if you're absolutely frantic in a lively market, it behooves your broker to check all the time.

If she saw something promising, she'd cruise it immediately or call, and I'd drive over and check it out, at least from the outside, even at night. We knew we'd have to catch the house within hours of its appearance on the listing service if we intended to buy it.

As time ran out, we expanded our search to nearby Rossmoyne, a pricier but equally green part of Glendale. There, Arlene found us an untouched Spanish that had just gone on the market. We toured it the first day, fell in love and made a full-price offer.

Congratulating ourselves, although a bit wistful that we had forsaken northwest Glendale, we did a home inspection before opening escrow and were surprised to find it needed expensive repairs that had not been readily apparent. The wiring would have to be updated, the chimney rebuilt and more. Already at our financial limit, we opted to back out.

Now we were back at square one. Then, when hope seemed bleakest, I drove up Winchester Avenue and noted some activity. One home had a Dumpster in the driveway. Another had painters working. Several seemed unkempt. But I must have been sleepy that day. Instead of pursuing it, I asked our agent to try walking up and down the street knocking on doors.

She called that evening, excited. The house with the Dumpster was owned by a Glendale church. The minister had lived there for years but had moved out because the place was too big for her. It was a fixer but Spanish and two-story, half a block from Brand Park. It wasn't on the market yet.

It Needed Work but Was Gorgeous

Within two days, she had the key and we were stepping inside in the fading light. Oh, it needed work. There was water damage on the casement windows and surrounding plaster. The flooring had been ripped out of the kitchen and the cabinets were tacky. The plumbing was shot, there was a huge leak in the living room and a hole in one of the bathroom floors.

But it was also gorgeous: original plaster, a step-down living room with a wood-beam ceiling, original hardwood floors, a fireplace, original tile under the fading linoleum in the bathrooms, arched entryways, a formal dining room, four bedrooms and a decent-size garden with fruit trees.

After talking to so many people and seeing so many houses--both on the market and off--we had a good idea what our fixer was worth. With our deadline just days away, we signed the counter-offer and agreed to a stepped-up escrow that would make the place ours.

It's far from perfect, and we'll be fixing it up for years. But thanks to a committed agent and guerrilla house-hunting, we found the house for us in the neighborhood we wanted.

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Denise Hamilton is a Glendale freelance writer.