It’s a bungle out there

Special to The Times

Looking for a home to buy is sometimes more than a mere challenge. It can be an adventure that calls to mind Indiana Jones, with collapsing floors, charging animals, even gun-waving locals.

Longtime Realtor Susan Dion, of Century 21 Arroyo Seco in Los Angeles, recalled the day several years ago when she was showing a house in Highland Park to a young family. As they stood in the living room, watching neighborhood kids play in the street, Dion was telling the parents about the friendly, safe, family-oriented community.

“The next thing I know, there were cops everywhere and the police helicopter overhead,” Dion said. “The SWAT team surrounded the kids [outside] and took some of them.” After hours locked down in the house, Dion and her clients were finally allowed to leave.


The police had come, she learned, because one of the kids had been carrying a gun. Her clients passed on the house, she said. But they did buy in Highland Park.

Experienced real estate agents know enough to expect the unexpected, but would-be buyers often don’t -- and sometimes provide the surprises themselves, said Robert Leighton of Sotheby’s International Realty, Sunset, and a member of the Beverly Hills Greater Los Angeles Assn. of Realtors.

“Everything about this business is a surprise -- the clients, the homes, other Realtors,” Leighton said. “That’s what I love about this business, but it takes patience and humor, a lot of humor.”

Nearly 100,000 homes in Los Angeles County were sold last year, according to DataQuick Information Systems. Agents estimate that clients look at six or seven properties before they make an offer, so the opportunities for misadventure abound.

Leighton took one couple to view a San Fernando Valley house occupied by tenants. “I knocked on the door and the husband opened it -- it was a Dutch door -- and he was shirtless, but it’s California,” he said. “When we walked in, he was stark naked -- so was his wife.” So Leighton hurried his clients to the backyard to see the pool, where they found the rest of the party.

“There were 20 naked people around the pool, as relaxed as can be,” he said. “I told my clients: ‘Doesn’t this have a natural feel to it?’ The husband was thrilled and the wife was appalled. I tried to show them the bedrooms but she said, ‘We’ve seen enough, thank you.’ ”


Sometimes what the agent and client encounter is simply puzzling. Cara Sheriff, with Nourmand & Associates in Brentwood, remembers finding a key left in the front door of a house she was showing. “We didn’t know what to make of it, and you certainly don’t want to just leave it there,” she said. “We sat and waited for them to come home.” They waited over an hour until the owner showed up.

Dicier situations can develop when showing tenant-occupied houses.

“I’ve had guns pulled on me by tenants,” Dion said. “And we do everything we can to make them aware we’re coming.”

For all the alarming or amusing sights they’re exposed to, would-be buyers themselves can be the source of memorable moments.

One of Leighton’s clients, a prim woman in her 50s who wore white gloves and a hat, was particularly interested in finding a very comfortable bathtub.

So she climbed into the tub at every home they toured, he said.

“At open houses, people would come and say, ‘You know there’s a lady in the bathtub,’ ” he said. “I would say, ‘Yes, that’s my client.’

“She would climb in and sit clutching her purse on her lap with those little gloves,” he added. “I would have been embarrassed, but she got a great bathtub.”

Leighton also remembers a client who liked to touch things in the homes he showed her.

“She was admiring things on the bookshelf, and when she picked this object up, the entire bookshelf fell on the floor,” he said. “I was shocked, she went numb, and there was no way we could get that back together again, so we left.”

The homeowner and his broker were furious, Leighton said. The owner bore the brunt of the repair costs, though harsh words were exchanged between the agents.

“What could we do?” he said. “It wasn’t our fault they had cheap furniture.”

Other times, the agent causes a stir. Sheriff of Nourmand & Associates told of a quick recovery by an associate who was showing a house with a great view.

“She was telling the clients to look at the view and she backed right into the pool,” Sheriff said. “She got out, wrung the water out of her dress and went on showing the house -- after she told them how well the pool heater was working.”

Dion and another agent visited a fixer-upper to preview it. When they climbed onto the wooden porch to get to the front door, Dion’s associate got a sinking feeling -- literally.

“He fell through the porch, up to his hips,” she said. “One minute I’m talking to him and the next thing I know he’s standing way below me.

“We’re both a little heavy,” she said. “But, really.

“We just started laughing,” she said, adding that they were glad no clients were there. Fortunately, the agent was fine, and the home was being sold as-is.

Some home-scouting trips go wrong as a result of misreading an address.

Carmen Cooley-Graham, an agent with Prudential California Realty in La Mesa, was showing clients condominiums on Sept. 11, 2001 -- the only day the clients were available.

At one condominium complex, they found the key in the lockbox on the gate and went to the door of the unit they thought was for sale. Since no one was supposed to be home, Cooley-Graham tried the knob and the door swung open.

Reflecting the uncertainties and fears of the day, “there was a terrified Middle Eastern family sitting in front of the television, and they got up and surrendered to us,” she said. “They thought we were the FBI.”

Cooley-Graham had gone to the wrong door -- one away from the unit that was for sale. She reassured the family and apologized profusely for walking in unannounced.

Leighton once went to look at a house a client wanted to list. His client said he would leave a key at the door, but when Leighton didn’t find it in the front, he went around to the back.

He made it into the backyard before three Rottweilers came out. “I ran for the fence and threw myself over it and tore my trousers,” Leighton said. “It turns out I was at the wrong house.”

Marty Graham can be reached at