Breaking every single rule for a very special house

#442 in a series of true experiences in real estate
October 2003, Hills Newspapers

We’re about to do something we’ve never done before. We are going to try selling a house while purposefully ignoring our own most dearly held marketing procedures.

This house will be cleared but not cleaned; the windows won’t be washed. There will be no staging done, no new curtains, no rugs laid, not even table and chairs provided in the empty rooms.

We do not plan on holding a Sunday open house. In fact, it is our thought that here will be no For Sale sign posted and we won’t even enter the listing on multiple listing.

Not on multiple listing? That’s a pretty drastic measure, isn’t it? What could possibly have caused us such a departure in our time-tested marketing practices?

It’s an unusual case. No doubt you guessed that. The house we will be selling is old and large and needs quite a lot of work. We feel we must control who goes to this house in order to protect both the house and the visitors.

The front steps, for example, are steep, made of brick, and easy to trip on. They are not lighted. We want to prevent people from going up the stairs after dark.

Also, the windows are a potential hazard. They are very large windows and many are missing locks, ropes and weights. If they are opened, they are likely to fall. If they fall, the glass may shatter, fingers may be caught, it could be serious.

Even more important though, the seller and we agree that this house, which has tremendous charms, is likely to appeal to the wrong buyer. We do not want innocents to see the house and love it, to believe that living there, as it is, would be their wont. The buyer absolutely must be, we all feel, someone well acquainted with construction, a person who is experienced in the woes of neglected repairs and maintenance. The buyer must be someone who has the wherewithal to understand and shoulder responsibility for this house.

This is a house that could easily fool people. Even though obviously worn and dingy, it contains great treasure. It captured us from the first with its unpainted wood, finely detailed. The entry, living and dining rooms are all oversized and full of original Craftsman style paneling, beams, leaded glass-fronted cabinetry, oak floors. There are long built-in window seats that open for storage and a few fine old lighting fixtures.

And those windows, the ones that may fall down, are glorious — visually, at least. Throughout the large rooms in the house are all-wooden, double-hung, wavy-glass windows. Marvelous. They let in the light and the scenes beyond: autumn trees, rooftops, and upstairs at the front, Mount Tam, Angel Island, San Francisco.

These are grand features, enough to draw us in completely, to cause us to say, “What a wonderful house.” But they tell so little of the story.

The present owner, probably only the fourth since the house was built near the turn of the century, had hoped to restore the house to goodness, but has found the task beyond her. Someone previous made a stab at upgrading, probably in the 1950s, by encasing the high exterior walls in a plain gray wrapper. The material is concrete-asbestos siding, touted at the time as never needing paint.

Except that the siding looks all wrong, too hard-edged and unyielding for this well proportioned building. And the trim on all of the window and door casings and the roof soffits, tall off the ground, are shedding paint and rotting from exposure.

The kitchen room is large, plenty of space for cooking, storage, eating. But it’s a fright. Nothing in it is worth saving: old and crinkled green linoleum, badly rusting metal sink cabinets and fake tile wallboard (added probably by the same people who ordered the re-siding), plus a dowdy, laminate-covered island cabinet in the middle of things.

We don’t know about the state of the furnace because it hasn’t been used in the last two years. But the hot water heater is shot. And the clothes washer is plugged up and overflows when it is turned on.

Still doesn’t sound so serious? Well, the roof is of an advanced age, and while it may not leak now, it will have to be replaced before too long, also the gutters repaired and downspouts added. The roof is high, the access poor, so fixing will be an expensive proposition.

The foundation isn’t as bad as we had worried it was. It is concrete – not brick – but the inspector says one side has rotated (leans outward) and should be re-poured. Plumbing is original. Electrical is better but skimpy. Fireplace unsafe. The list goes on and on.

We have seen much worse. This house isn’t falling down. It still has whole walls and floors and running water and lights. But concentrated and expensive attention from the new owner will certainly be required. And because work should be done before anyone moves in, because repair should include almost every surface in the house, we have decided that scrubbing those surfaces now would be a waste.

We are going to try finding the right buyer, but not in our usual way. We plan to contact agents we know to tell them about this house. We will hold open houses for agents, will be there to explain what we know, to provide disclosures and inspection reports. We’ll ask if the agents have an educated and experienced buyer who is equal to this project.

We think our plan will work. We think we can find the right buyer. And before anyone goes inside the house, we will post cautionary signs: Do not turn on the clothes washer. Do not slide out the pocket doors. Be careful on the steps. Do not unlock or open the windows.

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