We're at a large round table in our real estate agent's office in Old Town Pasadena, agonizing over this house we think we've fallen in love with. We've finally decided on an offer.
We've signed and initialed and dated page after page after page of documents we should be reading but aren't. Hope and anxiety make our signatures all but illegible, but legally, those are our names, signaling our commitment and our ability to buy this house.
Suddenly, a tirade of profanity and disbelief. That was my composure, an unstable element at the best of times, loosened from its moorings and jetting to the outer realms of polite behavior, there to sulk and eventually return.
What happened? Andrea, our patient, wise jungle guide through the labyrinth of real estate in these parts had just suggested our bid needed augmentation. The offer of money wasn't enough. We needed to write a letter, introducing ourselves and saying how much we really, really liked the house.
Which we did. It was a Janes Cottage, one of only a verified 160 of these Tudor-influenced hybrids, built around Altadena in the mid-1920s. We liked the quirky decorations, the spacious living areas, the three bedrooms.
Except liking, deciding and signing aren't enough, especially in the hyper Los Angeles housing market, where supply and demand are in such separate hemispheres. This process is that part of the contract you didn't know about, sprung upon you when you're too emotionally and financially advanced to turn back.
And so. The letter introduced Gerard Wright, a freelance journalist from Australia, and his soon-to-be wife, also a journalist. It made no claims as to the quality of his work, the worth of his life or the pleasure of his company. It established few other facts except that they were a couple committed to making a substantial investment together, and that they had a dog. A suggestion that a photo of the three of us be included with the letter was strenuously resisted.
Even typing that bare recitation of our lives felt demeaning. Unspoken but implicit in the writing was the assertion: This is our audition for your talent quest. We hope you like us and choose us to buy your ridiculously overpriced house.
For the seller, well, here's the explanation of Diane Hardie-Aurit, a Pasadena-area real estate agent and former chair of the California Assn. of Realtors' equal opportunity/cultural diversity committee: "It's a very personal and emotional experience for the sellers, especially if it's someone who's lived in the neighborhood for a long time."
While she's strongly opposed to the notion of letter-writing, she says it's a practice that has wide acceptance in the California marketplace. "They [the sellers] feel obliged to bring someone in who will fit in and continue their legacy to the neighborhood. If they are a family, they want, in their heart of hearts, to see children grow up in that house. It's not all money, in their minds."
Why do you need to know this? We've walked through your house--while you were there. Smiled at the kids. Said hello to their grandmother. Patted the dog. Didn't lift or break anything. Held our tongues about the decorating. We've stood in each room, rubbed the crystal ball and tried to see that space not just emptied of your stuff, but filled with ours, a feat of imagination that would tie William Goldman's frontal lobes like a pretzel. You showed us the trick stuff such as the disappearing ladder that folds down from the attic, providing that essential acre and a half of extra storage. We said what a good idea that was and took quick, unobtrusive (we hoped) peeks around for leaks, it being the middle of a wet period. We were polite and professionally friendly to each other, in the way that people are with strangers when they would like to make a good impression, but would much rather prefer to make a good transaction.
How much should you, or can you, know about us? The law (1968 Civil Rights Act, Title VIII, Fair Housing) seems to make a subtle distinction about all of this.
It requires sellers or renters to disregard any piece of information they have relating to a potential buyer's race, color or country of origin; they should pay no mind to the buyer's gender, religion (or lack thereof), any physical handicap and the presence or absence of a spouse or children. Furthermore, California law establishes that neither sexual preference nor source of income should have any bearing on this transaction.
This law requires us to live in an ahuman place, where supposition, curiosity and tribalism play no part in such a decision; where the required state of mind is disinterest.
According to Gary Rhoades, previously a lawyer with the Southern California Housing Rights Center, the practice itself of buyers writing a cover letter is not illegal. But using that information to make a choice between buyers of different backgrounds, when the elements of their offer are essentially equal, can be.
It's a point of definition you could fit on the head of a pin. Where does the information end and the discriminatory choice begin? How can the provision of information leading to a discriminatory choice be any less at fault than the discriminatory choice itself?
Consider the case of Jane Meyer, who moved to Santa Barbara three years ago when that market was buoyantly heading toward its current place atop the real estate stratosphere, with the median home price for the county's southern coast area now at $950,000. Meyer and her husband found a place, "a total dump, it needed a lot of help."
In March 2000, they bid in the high $400,000 range for the house, $1,000 over the asking price. They later discovered the highest bid was a cash offer of $500,000.
The Meyers' introductory letter described them as a young family, with children ages 6 and 3, who were moving to Santa Barbara to be close to the children's grandparents, and to that particular area for its proximity to the school they had chosen.
"Everything [in the letter] was literally true," Meyer says. "She [the agent] just highlighted what she thought would be helpful. She knew the seller was a Christian, and she wanted to play up the fact of family moving near family."
Knowing what they were up against, Meyer is convinced the letter made the difference. "If the agent hadn't written the letter, I don't think we would have gotten the house," she says.
This is the other price of getting into the Southern California real estate market, and you can't really put a dollar sign next to it. It's the price you pay in self-respect, for writing and then signing a letter that says both "Me! Me! Me!" while also begging "Please. Please. Please."
And now we are in our own house on the border of Pasadena and Altadena, having performed the tap dance on the keyboard, reluctantly, again. Unlike the Janes Cottage, it's undistinguished in every way except that it's ours.
That we're here at all might have been due to the size of our offer, which was the highest. Or perhaps it was the eloquence of that second cover letter, with its gratuitous and inaccurate introduction of Gerard Wright as a freelance journalist who also happens to work as a Hollywood stuntman.