Even old and needy homes will attract buyers or investors #652

#652 in a series of true experiences in real estate

It’s been a good year. Even still as I go to sleep at night I go over in my head the very great pleasures this year’s listings have brought me. Every house is a puzzle of innumerable pieces to be put together in a pleasing plan. The houses we presented this year varied quite a lot. We listed 2 very run down Berkeley houses owned by the same family for about 70 years.

No one had lived in them for a time and they had no heat, thin walls, rotting windows, wonky plumbing, tiny electrical service. No foundation at all in one case (just a few dissimilarly sized posts so the floors resting on them sloped in different directions), a partial and damaged brick foundation under the second house.

Fascinating. How best to sell them was the question. What inspections should we get, what fix up, if any, should be done? What about city requirements? Who would be the buyer most likely to lust after these houses and how would he pay for them?

The land each house sat on was good, fairly large, zoned for further development although, according to the official creek map, a creek ran diagonally through the larger parcel. First time buyers would be aplenty because the houses would be priced lower than most, but these properties were so needy that the buyer should be experienced and knowledgeable and have cash. Conventional financing would not be available.

We walked around and we talked to the estate administrator, a young woman we adored from the first. Together we decided on a plan: Get a physical inspection which would help with disclosing deficiencies; a few corrections for visitor safety; compliance with the sewer ordinance; And, although the estate is exempt from some requirements, we wanted smoke and CO detectors up and water heater strapped to code. No point in painting or fixing flooring, siding, electricity, etc.

But all possessions and miscellaneous, including all vehicles (several at one house) should be removed and all surfaces thoroughly cleaned. We also advised that the toilets be replaced. We didn’t think the buildings would be leveled but rather they would be worked on, perhaps lived in by workmen, and we wanted as much as possible to provide spaces one could think good thoughts about. Clean all over — even with falling paint and wallpaper, broken window glass, missing flooring – and a working toilet seemed to us the minimum.

Those sales did go well. We put them on the market one at a time, not together. At the end we couldn’t help staging just a little: kitchen table and cloth, big fresh flowers and an oil painting on the wall, quite cheerful among the brokenness. Developers did buy them and we now await transformation.

My own most favorite listing was an eccentric house put together, starting with a small cabin in the lower hills of Montclair, by a family in the 1950s. Everything was still inside the house as if the mother and father would come in from the garden at any minute and sit for a cup of tea.

The interior is almost entirely wood, handcrafted, and in the large living room is a perfect looking stone fireplace, large, insistent on coze. But no one had lived there for 5 years and prior to that the Dad had been old and not able to keep up on things, and so the outside stairs had fallen away in pieces, the roof was leaking onto the beautiful wood ceiling, parts of the kitchen no longer worked, and so forth.

How to sell this one? How far to go in making it whole? The daughters cleared the house, a major undertaking as it tends to be – beds and blankets, boxes of Cheerios, Mom’s paintings. And we spent time inspecting, investigating flooring and chimney repair, talking to an electrician and plumber and carpenters and our trusty concrete man.

And all the while, about 3 months of being inside this most unusual house, I loved it more every day. I especially enjoyed sitting in the dining area (low Danish modern cabinet and poles separating dining from living) and looking across the living room to the long wall of tall wooden windows and beyond to trees and a few distant houses. It was a most pleasurable reverie which I engaged in frequently.

The massive chimney was “toast”, needing complete rebuild. We turned the entrance around, had the porch rebuilt and concrete poured. New roof. Fire district cleanup done. Elecric and plumbing work done, lots of small details attended to because we believe they matter a lot – closet and other doors planed and adjusted so that they close and latch and don’t drift open.

We wanted wood floors in this house. (We started calling it Pat’s Cabin.) But the underlayment was not level. We asked, we tried, it wasn’t meant to be. We chose carpet, greens, low pile, and we hurried to the house the day it was installed. Surprisingly, delightfully, it looks perfect, didn’t upset the cabin look at all.

Some who saw the house didn’t get it. Too unconventional, too outdated, only one toilet and clothes dryer in the bathroom. Too many repairs left to do. No one said these words but we knew. And then, the perfect people, the right buyers, I was so glad.

I wanted very much for the right people to see and know and to want this house. Now they are there and they love it. Chimney done already, second toilet installed. They just might be there forever. I think about that at night when I lie down in my bed.

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