“Never invest your money in anything that eats or needs repainting.”
My friend Margaret Hussey is looking to buy a house--her first. More accurately, she wants a yard for Owen, her 4-year-old son. Because Margaret is dogged in her pursuit of anything worthwhile, this search of hers has become a second career, despite the fact that it is, she says, the most overwhelming career choice she’s made since she ran off as a teenager to join a carnival (another story).
Margaret is a producer. That is her job. That is also what she does in life. She is the problem-solver, the information maven, the one to whom co-workers and friends alike come when something seems impossible.
She is the prospective homeowner who calls the police precincts to discern gang activity in different neighborhoods, color-codes the boundaries of every school district on her Thomas Guide map and knows the percentile ranking of each. She can sidle over to the neighbor of a house for sale and extract the most personal information about the surrounding homeowners.
As a recently divorced, working mother, Margaret is armed with piles of research, pure determination and little time to spare. I have willingly volunteered to be part of “team Margaret.” We are in search of Margaret’s house and Owen’s yard and this is how it’s going.
My feeling is that looking for a home is the ultimate treasure hunt. You’ve got these pages of listings, like Xs on a map of buried treasure, and you approach each one knowing that it could be The One.
You turn onto a street. You drive slowly past a row of mostly charming, manicured little homes. You like the street. You chant the address. You imagine your kid’s route to school.
You’re thinking that first you’ll repaint in the bedrooms, have friends over for brunch on the patio every Sunday. It’s sure to have a patio. You’ll add a trellis. Yes, a trellis (even though you’ve never in your life said that word before).
You’re getting close. Could this be It?
You think, “Ooh, that little house there is adorable. And look, that little Craftsman is in perfect condition.” You hold your breath and count the house numbers aloud: 2017 . . . 2015 . . . 2013 . . . and then, oh, no . . . surrounded by a chain-link fence--the tacky chartreuse cement box with the couch in the frontyard--that can’t be it.
You recheck the address. But it is. A moment of disappointment. You curse the real estate gods, then quickly ask their forgiveness and assistance. You wonder why your luck stinks, and then, if it happens to be one of those unimaginably clear L.A. days, remember that you’re lucky enough to be looking for a house in the first place.
Of course, the hunt continues, and therein lies the reason for your renewed optimism. You make a U-turn and head off to the next X on your map. After all, it could be The One.
“The real estate agent said to his prospective buyers, ‘First, you folks tell me what you can afford to spend. We’ll have a big laugh over that. Then we’ll get down to business.’ ”
I suggested Margaret get in touch with “the gals"--Kim, the magical mortgage broker, and Marion, the real estate agent most likely to convince a small country to let her become their sovereign ruler.
I met Marion when my husband and I were looking for a house four years ago. She was the broker on the very first house we called on. She’d shown up with her broker-partner brother, politely (surprisingly) informed us of the merits of continuing our search and offered to help in any way possible. She not only made good on her offer, but introduced us to Kim, who approved a mortgage loan for us in one-thirtieth of the time it took for our credit union to do the same.
Both she and Marion are part cheerleader, part older sister, part shrink and thoroughly pro. They are what Margaret needed to believe that she, with her freelance resume and newly single status, could, indeed, own her own home.
“Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city.”
At least twice weekly, Margaret is faxed all the new real estate listings--the “hot sheets,” as they are called--by Marion. Margaret is looking for a house in one of those neighborhoods deemed recently in Los Angeles Magazine “not for the faint of heart,” for home buyers who consider themselves “urban pioneers.” Margaret likes that term in particular, urban pioneer. That means she is needing and willing to buy a house in a neighborhood that is on the low end of a long, slow, potential climb to “prime.” She is looking for a “not-ready-for-prime-time” home. A neighborhood on the incline. Something on the east side of town. A pocket of like-minded refugees who cannot afford Beachwood Canyon, Los Feliz, Silver Lake or Echo Park.
Saturday mornings Margaret cruises through L.A. neighborhoods east of the 2 Freeway, south of the 134. Pockets of up-and-coming neighborhoods headed back to their original quaint and friendly beginnings. Streets where kids ride their bicycles and owners can be seen mowing their own lawns and sweeping the sidewalks in front of their homes. Avenues of restored Spanish bungalows and too-cute Craftsmans that can still be had for under a quarter of a million dollars.
Sometimes Margaret picks me and my 2-year-old up and we accompany her on her search. Sometimes her son Owen is with her. Sometimes I just run out by myself (when I can) to offer my two cents on a house nearby. Like last Tuesday. . . .
Margaret was standing at the curb in front of a “House for Sale” sign as I turned the corner and pulled up beside her. She saw me and shook her head, frowning deeply.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“See that wall across the street?” Margaret pointed to a foot-thick cement wall around a dilapidated pink cottage. “The guy in that house built it over one night. Suddenly, overnight he builds a 5-foot-high, cinder-block fence? And he works a late shift and comes home with a big, black duffel bag at four in the morning. Something is not right.”
“Sure,” I nod. I don’t even think to ask how she knows this. I simply look up and down the street for fresh neighbor tracks. But there is no one in sight.
“House: a hollow edifice erected for the habitation of man, rat, mouse, beetle, cockroach, fly, mosquito, flea, bacillus and microbe.”
--Ambrose Bierce in “The Devil’s Dictionary”
Last week’s disappointing string of “handyman specials” (read: homes requiring handymen with intensive knowledge of plumbing and structural engineering and 40 grand, cash) culminated with Margaret stumbling upon “the House With the View.” It was high on a hilltop, amid a bunch of impressive little up-and-comers, with a spectacular, unobstructed view of the mountains.
The front door/vestibule seemed suspended in midair, like a Magritte painting, owing to a lack of front steps and the foundation having been partially washed away (a feat that must have taken years). Sun-bleached yellow caution ribbons crisscrossed around the hollow where stairs once stood.
On tiptoe, through prickly wild brambles, one could look through a side window into a large living and dining room littered with remnants of a rusty, water-slogged acoustic ceiling on wood floors looking miraculously undamaged. Wood planks stood in for doors on the side and back of the house, nailed to what was left of baby-blue shingles. But the yard, the potholed, dirt tract surrounding the house, was immense, and it too had The View.
At Margaret’s request, I checked out the house. I took a long breath after surveying the carnage, then telephoned my anxious friend and told her that it was indeed a house with a view, but a very scary house, and that she might want to consider either taking a break from house-hunting or put a personal ad in Building Contractors Quarterly. Margaret was quiet, then agreed to spend the evening with a couple of copies of House Beautiful and get some needed rest.
“Where else but in America can somebody borrow a few thousand for a down payment, get a first mortgage, a second and then call himself a homeowner.”
What is this desire to own a home? It’s often a major headache. It is the project that is never finished. It’s maintenance, more maintenance and then some.
But it is also the frontier. The possibility of ultimate self-expression. The symbol of success and equanimity. The tax write-off.
Nearly everyone I know is living in or looking to buy their first. The married and unmarried, the eternal bachelor boys creeping toward 40, former bohemians who once denounced capitalism and microwave ovens in the same breath, tired-of-struggling artists, brave enough to think past tomorrow.
Your own home. You can park your car next to it, stomp on the floors with tin-can lids, lacquer the dining room blood-red if your heart desires.
Until I moved to California I’d never imagined owning a house. That’s what my parents did. So I grew up in a house, then spent the better part of my adulthood going from apartment to apartment.
I’m sure that had my husband and I not moved here we’d still be in our one-bedroom Brooklyn garden apartment with our 2-year-old sleeping in a cozy, converted coat closet or a makeshift loft over the kitchen stove. But here we are, in L.A., in our very own, very old home, fretting about cracks and critters, doors that randomly choose not to fit in their frames, ancient plumbing, sloping floors . . . sitting on our tiny, quiet patio, watching the horizon fade to purple. And we would not have it any other way.
“In real estate there are only three factors to keep in mind. Location, location and, darn, I always have trouble remembering that third one.”
Last Saturday, it was the four of us: Margaret, me and our young sons. Margaret was hot on a new listing--located in one of those neighborhoods where every other house had, in recent years, been bought and lovingly brought back to life--a foreclosure, in her price range, in the most promising neighborhood yet.
An immaculately restored Craftsman stood across the street from the house we’d come to investigate, a house that, if you squinted hard enough, you could actually imagine as someone’s 1928 dream cottage. Close one eye while squinting and the ugly iron bars on all the windows doubled for shutters. A house on which was posted both an eviction notice and a “No Trespassing” sign. But, a house with an oversized, flat, front and backyard--the potential for a pitcher’s mound and half-court basketball.
Margaret was instantly smitten. And since the small print on both signs was too weathered and small to actually read, and there was an open window, and we’d come too far, and Margaret’s tape measure was burning a hole in her pocket, we let ourselves in.
The boys and I followed Margaret through rooms with peeling wallpaper and greasy ceilings, built-ins with enough coats of paint to have reduced their shelf space by half. Living room, three tiny bedrooms, oversized front and backyard with access to both through the kitchen (if you counted the hole in the wall next to the stove).
“It’s got so much potential,” Margaret sang.
“Don’t touch that!” I yelled at the boys as they jockeyed for the chance to grab a shredded piece of moldy velveteen wallpaper.
Margaret gasped as she turned a paneled corner.
“A second bathroom!”
“Uh, Midgie, that’s a toilet in a closet.”
We headed out the back door into the overgrown backyard. In the middle of grass and shrubs was etched a large dirt circle, maybe 16 feet in diameter. Piles of white dust, like large, albino ant hills, dotted its perimeter. Margaret and I stood, staring intently into the circle.
“Byproduct of satanic worship?” she offered.
My son bent down for a handful of the white dust.
“No!” we screamed and together scooped him up.
Suddenly, “A pool!” Margaret reasoned. “A pool! It was a pool!”
“Right,” I said. “A doughboy pool.”
“A pool,” Margaret sighed in relief.
We all headed back through the house. As we neared the front door, the boys noticed another door, off to the side. They pushed it open and leaped into a hidden spare room with matted shag carpeting. They collapsed on the floor in giggles.
“No, no, no. Please get up,” I pleaded, trying not to sound frantic. I moved to put a hand on my son’s shoulder and pulled a tiny flea off his neck.
“Margaret, we’re leaving! Now!”
I grabbed the boys around their waists and hauled them, folded in half, out the front door.
Margaret joined us at the car, then turned for one last look. The boys and I waited silently.
“You see it, too, don’t you? The potential, right?” She asked, softly.
“Yeah, Mommy. We should buy this house,” Owen answered before I could.
The voice of reason here? A real estate prophet in the making? I’d like to say yes and end this story now. But no. After a more thorough investigation by Marion, followed by a few words of warning and advice, the search goes on. Maybe the next one. After all, it is a Sunday afternoon and Margaret’s got a brand new pile of hot sheets. . . .
Karen Rizzo is a writer living in Los Angeles.