Fairytales can come true

#179 in a series of true experiences in real estate
February 1997, Hills Newspapers

About a year ago our friends Mia and Caleb were taking a walk in Rockridge when they saw a for sale sign on a house at the corner of Ross and Chabot Road, a big old house on a large piece of land that they had long admired.

They hurried to a phone. “We just saw a sign on that house on Ross,” they said. “Can you show it to us?”

“It’s sold,” I told them. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea that you would be interested in that house or I would have called you when it first came on the market. It might make you feel better to know that it needs a lot of work. The foundation is all brick. It needs a roof, a new kitchen, electrical — lots.”

“But the land,” they said. “It’s huge. Think of the garden we could have there.”

They were very disappointed. There wasn’t much I could do. Finding another half-acre lot in the area wasn’t likely but I said I’d keep my eyes open, which I did.

Our friends are great gardeners. They grow old roses and spring bulbs, fig and persimmon trees; they even succeed with peonies. They have long since outgrown their existing garden space.

A number of times I searched the multiple listing for houses on large lots and we went to see every one. Nothing was suitable. Nothing compared to the lot on Ross Street.

Then in the first few days of January, I was going over the upcoming week’s tour and what did I find on the list — miracle of miracles — but the house on Ross. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the same house, wasn’t it? Why would it be for sale again so soon?

Anet and I jumped in the car to find out. Yes, same house. We called Mia and Caleb to tell them what we knew.

The price was $715,000, it would be held open on Thursday and on Sunday, the house was vacant. Offers would not be presented until the following Tuesday.

The present owners had paid $500,000 for the house, bought a new foundation ($75,000), put on a new roof ($25,000), done drainage work, redecorating, new furnace, some kitchen work, started clearing the tangle in the garden.

“We know,” said Mia. “We go by all the time and have been watching as they worked on the house. Why would they sell?”

They’d been transferred to New York. When they bought the house they’d expected to stay forever but the husband had been offered a new job, one he just couldn’t turn down. It was going to be very hard for them to let the house go.

I think even before she saw the inside, Mia was ready to buy it. But Caleb was out of town for a few days and offers wouldn’t be looked at until after that, and so Mia tried to contain herself, to think about other things.

The time dragged. Caleb returned, we went to the house a number of times, talked excitedly about the garden plans, also enlarging the kitchen, changing the master bedroom back to the way it had been when the house was built.

The entry hall and stairwell was covered in latter day painted paneling. Caleb was dying to remove it, find out if the original banister was underneath. We walked around and around the house trying to figure out where additions had been made, guessing what had been there from the first.

We all love the natural light in the house, the beautiful windows, the fine proportions of the downstairs rooms. So did others.

Whenever we were there agents and their clients were there too. It looked as though there would be a number of offers.

We needed to decide what price to offer. This is always hard, a decision buyers must make themselves. We told Mia and Caleb that they needed to feel good about the price, but they should go high enough that they wouldn’t feel regretful if someone else got the house for, say, $10,000 more.

Days before offers were heard, there was no doubt in our minds that the house should belong to Mia and Caleb, that it was meant to be theirs. But we were hearing from the sellers’ agent that there would probably be five offers. Ours would have to be good — the best.

Anet loves this part of her job. It is a life joy for her to prepare and present an offer for people who are genuinely and thoughtfully committed to their course. We carefully considered, then composed our offer. We included everything that we thought would give us an advantage.

First we had the house inspected so that we would not have an inspection contingency. The loan was ready to go. We agreed to buy as is, provided the shortest possible escrow period, a large initial deposit, etc.

Anet meticulously organized the big stack of pertinent paperwork and went off on the appointed afternoon to do her finest, to convey to the sellers the reasons why Mia and Caleb should be the new owners of the house on Ross.

We did it! In the end there were only two offers. The sellers chose ours.

We receive the news and excitedly track down Mia at a birthday party she’s attending at a hotel in San Francisco. She is thrilled. We are too.

Closing escrow in less than three weeks takes some orchestrating but the listing agent is wonderful — smart, responsive, helpful. And everyone on our team is great too — inspector, loan agent, title company people, appraiser and certainly our buyers — so all goes smoothly.

We are still gathering information about the history of the house. It probably was built in 1905 and may have been designed by an architect named Alfred Dodge Coplin. The Oakland Library History Room may have some photos and Berkeley Architectural Heritage Society has information on Coplin that may help.

We’ve learned that before the last owners bought it, a woman had owned it since the 1920s. She had raised her children there. One son who grew up in the house lives in the area and may be able to tell us more.

The neighbor to the east was his mother’s good friend and, we’re told, the two women moved to the same retirement home late in life.

Building department records show that an addition and renovations had been made in the late forties including, the permit said, a stairwell change. That must have been when the painted paneling was put up, perhaps too when the dining room fireplace was removed. Finding the original plans would be best but that is unlikely.

Last week, within hours of the time the house became theirs, Mia and Caleb removed a piece of the stairwell paneling. Alas, no ornate banister was revealed. They’re thinking about what restoration they will do.

And they are, of course, planning their garden. Mia has ordered 48 heirloom roses. They’re going to have a pond, maybe two ponds.

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