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Germ Bag

Unreal Estate

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 8/7/2002

I never realized I wanted a house with a white picket fence until it became clear I couldn't have one.

As soon as I learned no such property was coming my way, it was all I craved. Several times a day, everything went wavy and when it cleared, I could see a modest but charming two-story house somewhere in the 1,800 square feet range. Often it was gray with black shutters; other times it was navy blue with white shutters. But every time, there was a garden in front with Easter lilies. The place existed in or near the city, and there was a porch swing, a little garage, the sound of barking dogs, a sizeable vegetable garden out back and the smell of banana bread baking. In my illusion, Marty was standing near the front door painting the trim or maybe potting a plant. He usually had overalls on.

Then, as quickly as it arrived, the happy scene would dissipate and I'd come back to my senses, standing in our apartment staring at our half-caulked bathroom floor or a tiny, overstuffed closet.

Oh sure, we could afford to make my housing vision come to life -- if we moved to, say, Denton, Ohio, or Eunice, La. But we won't be taking possession of anything remotely like that here, in the D.C. area. Such is the message after three months of sticking our toes in the housing market. Sadly, those toes are now gangrenous.

Looks like it's our cross to bare: housing prices in the D.C. area peaked just moments before we became enthusiastic about owning a house; thus the only properties left in our price range are townhouses, shabby ones deep in the burbs. Townhouses -- I had always pictured them to be the realm of struggling people in their 20s, waiters and social security workers, cooks and entry-level executive assistants. Learning that a bland townhouse was all I was going to get in my mid-30s, as a journalist, was plenty upsetting. A townhouse equals no yard, which translates into no dogs and no vegetable garden. Probably no porch swing, either. I've waited a long time for my dogs and vegetables, and I want them now.

But I wasn't going to get them. That became clear in May, when Marty and I began venturing out to open houses, all wide-eyed and giddy, figuring that homeownership was the natural next step after marriage. On our first afternoon out, we journeyed to a place way deep in the 'burbs of Northern Virginia, further out than we're comfortable with. But hey, we figured, why not just get out there and see what the market has to offer?

At $270,000, the place was beyond our price range, but we thought we'd go and have fun being razzle-dazzled by amenities and architectural stylings, just for grins. That didn't happen. Oh, I guess the joint was decent enough: three levels, two bedrooms, hardwood floors, new siding, something akin to a cathedral ceiling in the master bedroom. But the place seemed no different and no nicer than an apartment in a vast complex. There was no charm, no discernable personality -- except for the Dolly Parton posters everywhere. I assumed the owners would be taking those when they left.

I felt stunned, sickened. Could this really be all you get for over a quarter of a million dollars? I shuddered to think what was available for less than that. We drove around the area, staring slack jawed at the abundant strip malls and coughing traffic within blocks of the place. Without exchanging a word, we understood the open house visits would be temporarily discontinued while we collected ourselves mentally.

But then Father's Day came along and all that changed in one fell swoop. After brunch, Marty's dad said to the table of five, "Hey, feel like house hunting for Marty and Suz now?" Everyone, including me and Marty and his sister Michelle, groaned and said no, listing the other plans we had for the afternoon. But once he had us all captured in the car, Marty's dad headed to Northern Virginia anyhow, bound for a series of open houses. Since it was Father's Day, we kept quiet.

First up was one in a slew of nondescript brick townhomes in Alexandria. Formerly the ghetto, this community of little colonials had recently made a comeback. Though it wasn't a nice neighborhood, it was at least around the corner from one. The unit we ventured into was $265,000 and had great big stains on the hardwood floors but a fully renovated kitchen filled with nifty appliances. It also had a basement with new Berber carpet -- perfect for the man-room Marty dreams of creating, a place where he can watch sports, drink and belch to his heart's delight. There was no yard to speak of, but we'd quickly come to realize we weren't going to get one unless we moved one or two hours south.

With our expectations lowered to sea level, this place fell into the realm of the acceptable. But just as we were about to approach the masculine real estate agent to talk about the possibility of lowering the price, she dashed our hopes by announcing she already had several contracts on it, and she expected it to be snapped up by the end of the day. Then she rubbed it in deeper: most of these plain little units were going like hotcakes and buyers were overbidding left and right, she said. Why, one around the corner was scheduled to go on the market for $289,000 next week, and she expected to get well over $300,000 for it.

A bald, flat, mediocre townhouse for $300,000? I got nauseated. As we limped back to the car, I remembered Marty and I have a friend who bought one of these units three years ago for a little more than a third what they're going for now. Ugh. What the hell has happened since then? And is it just going to keep happening? If so, we're screwed.

Next, Marty's dad whisked us to a nearby neighborhood filled with houses akin to those in my original vision. There, I began to breathe easier, to relax. Then we pulled up in front of the block's lone townhouse and my teeth clenched again. But once we gained entrance, I saw that compared to the unadorned huts we'd seen, this was swanky -- replete with fireplace, walls painted in Pottery Barn colors and a very new, funky feel to it. Underneath all that, though, it was still just a three-level townhouse with the same basic layout as all the rest and a concrete slab out back that overlooked a Dumpster. And this joint was $329,000. Upon hearing that, I swear I felt the back of my brain start hemorrhaging.

With very little emotional wherewithal, we visited one more house that day. This one was located in a cute and funky Alexandria neighborhood called Del Ray. Marty and I like to think we discovered Del Ray in all its warmth and joyfulness. Only problem is, most of DC discovered Delray about two years ago.

When I got a load of the place, my pulse quickened. It was a small but charming stand-alone house, with a sizeable garden of wildflowers growing out front, a front yard and many trees. This was the closest thing to my vision we'd seen yet. I got a little spastic internally -- Could this be the one? Could this be the one?

Inside, the place was fetching, with pale yellow walls and inviting arched entryways. No doubt, it had a Martha Stewart feel to it, but it was ultra tiny, smaller than some of the unimpressive townhouses we'd toured. "Eight hundred square feet," said the bejeweled and cosmetically enhanced real estate agent, trying not to sound ashamed. Jeepers, I thought, a house this microscopic might actually be affordable.

We moved deeper into it, touring the bedrooms and noticing that the full-size beds in there tested the spaces' limits, leaving room for either foot traffic or a dresser but not both. Upon meandering into the puny kitchen we were shocked to find a giant rectangular hole in the middle of the floor with a regular front-door type door attached to it. The agent swooped in to explain that this was the entrance to the basement.

"It's a distinctive trap door providing access to the lower level!" she chirped, struggling to open the door then flopping it against the wall. She climbed down into the hole, which was void of railings or anything that approximated safety. I envisioned reams of small children and drunk visitors innocently reaching for something in our fridge and instead tumbling to their deaths. Nevertheless, Marty's dad and I ventured down there. It was a spooky little pit, characterized in the house's paperwork as providing "quiet space that's perfect as a secluded in-home office!" Or a dungeon.

I ejected myself up out of the hole and out the back door. There, I was pleasantly surprised to find a screened-in porch out back. It was tiny, raggedy, and felt like it could easily be ripped off in a windstorm, but still, a screened-in porch is a screened-in porch. I loved it, and could picture Marty and I whiling away the hours out there well into our 40s.

Ah but the property's crown jewel was yet to come: the back yard. When I saw it, my mandible dropped. It was huge and beautifully landscaped, much more befitting of a large regal home than this silly bungalow. The real estate lady told us it had won awards. I wandered in it, serpentining like a lost mental patient, seeing very clear visions of Border collie puppies frolicking and all my pals barbecuing, cavorting, sunning, smiling. With that, my mind did an about face: Never mind that the house was the size of an Altoid tin and none of our furniture would fit, and never mind that friends and family would be killed in the kitchen -- I could be very happy in this yard. I turned to the lady and asked how much. "Two-hundred and eighty-nine thousand -- but I expect to get much more," she trilled. "I've got several contracts already." Again came the nausea.

We motored to Marty's sister's house and drank beer to recover from the afternoon's searing disappointments. I sat on the couch in disbelief. My god, why had I no foresight? Why am I not one of those people who bought a house in the mid-1980s for a pittance when I really couldn't afford it (but am now so happy I did so because damn, look, my house is now worth $700,000!) Marty's got some relatives who did that. How do those people know? What kind of palm reader are they paying and where is she? And not only that -- if all these overpriced shacks we saw today are in such high demand, with several people jockeying to land them, how are you ever supposed to get your hands on a house, even one that's unsuitable and way too expensive?

Just then Marty's dad emerged from Michelle's tiny, damp and unfinished basement, a space so craggy and spooky it brings to mind serial killers. Marty's dad was down there fixing a blown fuse. "Marty," he said afterward, gesturing at the basement door. "Don't even try putting an offer in on that basement; there are eight contracts on it already." We all exploded in laughter. But inside we were crying.

A month later, my mom visited. Feeling very cynical and angry, we took her out to look at an open house or two -- not so we could find a home, but so she too could have a chance to gag at the state of things in D.C. Right on cue, the first place we went to was pitiful. A $250,000 cookie cutter townhouse across from a park where you just knew awful crimes happened at night. The place was shabby, with nasty carpet, a dining room big enough for only tiniest of tables, and too expensive. It looked like depressing lives had been lived here, and I knew if forced to move in I myself would have to go on medication. The real estate agent knew the joint was awful; she just sat in a corner ashamed, not even bothering to approach onlookers.

Next, we drove into an even crappier neighborhood off Glebe Road in Arlington to look at a place that actually was in our price range. Really, we just wanted to see it for laughs, though, as we were positive it would be a rotted hellhole. The outside, we saw as we pulled up, was in fact relatively off-putting. But once I got inside, I was startled to encounter a cute townhouse newly renovated and painted an alluring cantaloupe hue. The little lady sitting in the living room represented the estate that owned it; there was no real estate agent. This seemed like a good thing. I wandered around and to my surprise I was not upset by anything I saw. All appliances were new, as were the windows. The hardwood floors looked stellar, the bedrooms inviting, the smaller one calling out to me confidently: "I'm your office, man. Yes I am. Your desk could go here, your file cabinets there." The basement was man-room ready, and the back yard, though pretty beaten up, was big. I began to see puppies wrestling; I began to fall in love.

Oh, I knew it was a limited, conditional love. The kind of love you might feel when, during nuclear fallout, you meet up with one of the eight guys left and discover he's not so bad. But I sensed that if we bought this place, I at least wouldn't have to be sedated to stand it. And that was saying a lot in this market. Sure, there was a spate of dilapidated strip malls nearby and the woman told us it needed a new roof. And yes, it was in an iffy neighborhood and neither the front or back doors closed very well, and some of my bigger paintings wouldn't fit on the walls. But it was near Marty's work and the room that would be my office overlooked a bamboo jungle in the back yard. So I sweet-talked the lady. Then, shaking, I asked her to fax us a contract.

On the way home, I was jittery. Had we just seen our new house? Jesus, this was big! "Mom, can you believe it? A house that's not upsetting, and in our price range!"

What she said in response hit me like a bushel of lock boxes falling on my head. "Tell me, why do you two want a house right now? What's the hurry?"

This, coming from a real estate agent? I was floored. And I had no answer, really. Why were we in such a hurry? Just because we felt it was the thing to do? Maybe. Were we feeling pressure? Yeah, I suppose. But I hadn't realized it until this minute.

My mom continued. "Look at your apartment. It's big, it's beautiful, it's fantastic, you have a red dining room. It suits you so well, and it's right in the heart of everything. Why leave? Especially just to go to someplace that's 'not upsetting'? A house is a real pain, you know."

I sat there silent for a moment, resisting. But then I realized that damn, the woman was right. What were we doing, and why were so hepped up about it? Accepting her sentiments, an anvil-like weight lifted off me. I guess we didn't have to have a house right this minute, or even in the next few minutes. Our apartment did rock. Why not sit back for a few years, save money and see if this housing bubble bursts? Marty agreed. We thanked my mom for slapping us upside the head.

That Saturday night, Marty and I walked hand in hand to a little French place in our neighborhood, the only place in the world that I know of where you can get basil ice cream. We sat at the café and laughed about inane stuff for a half hour, then emerged to find our neighborhood teeming. It was 10 p.m. Folks stood in line to see bands and gain entrance to myriad funky bars. Alfresco diners on both sides of the street slurped up Ethiopian food, Vietnamese and Italian. Shops sold drums, bongs, magazines from all over the world. Double parked cars blocked the road and cabs swerved and beeped. I actually couldn't imagine leaving all this.

Marty squeezed my hand. "They don't have this on Glebe Road."

I smiled and felt my robust banana-bread-and-porch-swing fantasies finally drain out of me, willingly washing down through the subway grates.

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New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...

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