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Housing market still hairy

We knew the housing market news was grim when the National Assn. of Realtors released numbers last week showing that existing home sales dropped 27.2% from June to July, a 15-year low. We knew things were even grimmer when Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said recently that despite low interest rates and lower prices, the glut of foreclosed properties and difficulties getting mortgages were “likely to continue to weigh on the pace of residential investment for some time yet.” Oh, and then there’s the figure of “25% of mortgages are underwater” that’s been floating around. As far as stats go, that’s almost as scary as nearly 20% of Americans thinking the president is Muslim.

But my real scare happened a few weeks ago when, amid my daily surfing of Internet real estate sites, I happened upon a particularly gruesome scene. Included among the photographs for a listing of a four-bedroom, four-bath house in a relatively desirable area was a close-up of an open toilet choked with what appeared to be a tangle of dark hair. A large tangle. Imagine a trichotillomaniac Morticia Addams who won’t flush.

Granted, this was a short sale (last sale price $995,000; today’s asking price $499,000), and short sales aren’t known for fancy photo shoots. But the toilet picture seemed to represent a new downturn in the market, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. The real estate blog Curbed L.A. picked up on the listing, wondering aloud if the agent “hates house hunters.”

Despite going on to view countless photos of spotless, flawlessly staged homes — think ridiculously wide-angle shots of spotless bathrooms, framed art posters, a single orchid in an earthenware vase — I couldn’t get the hairy toilet out of my mind. It wasn’t just the visual. It was the way it served as a brutal (if pathetically literal) metaphor for the state of the economy.

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Finally, I called the real estate agent to find out what in the world she’d been thinking. I immediately reached a very nice, perky-seeming woman named Kaili Richards.

“It’s not hair,” she told me. “It’s tree roots.”

Richards explained that she’d included the photo because she wanted people to understand how much work needed to be done on the house. She hadn’t realized how much the roots, which were growing through the plumbing into the toilet, looked like hair.

“I definitely wouldn’t have included a toilet shot if it was just hair,” Richards said. “Hair is an easy fix.”

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Her listing is hardly alone in its commitment to, shall we say, gritty realism. Lately I’ve run across photos showing unmade beds piled high with laundry, grease-stained kitchens whose countertops bear the remains of breakfast, and unkempt pets crouching in corners as if they fear they’ll be auctioned off with the furniture. These drab, artless images could be this recession’s version of the dustbowl photographs that came to symbolize the Depression. It’s hard to look at them without wondering about all the sad stories beneath the surface.

Of course, painful as this recession may be, it’s not the Depression. And if snapshots of countertops are our era’s answer to Dorothea Lange, well, that’s painful in its own right.

Looking at these photos, I can’t help but think of the last time I saw such blatant disregard for buyers’ senses. Oddly enough, it was only five or six years ago, when we were on the other side of the housing market pendulum.

I can’t count the number of open houses I saw back then where sellers were so sure their homes would be snapped up in a bidding war that they didn’t find it necessary to do the dishes before a Sunday showing, much less perform the repairs and renovations that, once upon a time, were considered standard in selling a house. We now see those days as an aberration, a reckless, decadent interlude in which a passive approach to selling was a function of cockiness rather than inertia.

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Now, however, we’re faced with a new strain of inertia, a new reason to explain why roots are growing in toilets. It’s called desperation. And like the distressed properties themselves, it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com


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