Selling my mom’s house

#185 in a series of true experiences in real estate
March 1997, Hills Newspapers

The shoe is on the other foot. As the representative of my mother’s estate, I am a seller. I realize that I’m feeling vulnerable, fretful and often defensive.

Anet and I have watched and advised many sellers as they prepared, then sold their houses. We know what a big job it is. We’ve been present at many house inspections. We know what kinds of problems houses frequently have, understand when it makes sense to fix them.

We try to help our clients emotionally disconnect before selling, to think of their houses not as a home full of good memories but as the best-presented product. So I didn’t expect that as a seller I would take the entire affair so personally.

I am surprised to find myself shrinking from any criticism of the house — as if it were my own hair style or clothes or my children being found wanting. It isn’t even my house. Isn’t this strange?

My mom bought her modest one-story house on a hill in El Cerrito thirty years ago. She was quite content there all of those years, and I enjoyed seeing her in that setting. I still see her there standing at the stove, watering her garden, setting a pretty table for a family dinner.

After she died I began cleaning out her belongings and thinking about the pluses and minuses of the house. The neighborhood is quiet, pleasant, tidy. The lot is large. But there isn’t a great deal of living space inside the house.

Shortly after moving in, my mother had a clothes dryer installed in the attached garage, the only space available. She added storage shelves, her desk, filing cabinet and bookcases and her sewing machine. The garage was used for so many things that it has taken me as long to deal with what it contained as it did for the whole rest of the house.

There is a nice bay view from parts of the yard, and the interior of the house is sunny and bright. But the washing machine is in the kitchen necessitating the transport of freshly washed clothes to the garage for drying, and there is no dishwasher.

I like it that the living room overlooks a sunny walled patio which my mother always had crowded with colorful flowers in pots. And it’s nice that the combination living-dining room is so large and has a wood floor. But there is no formal entry, nor is there a fireplace.

And so on. Like all houses everywhere, there are features to recommend it, just as there are drawbacks.

When the house was fairly empty, I made a list of repairs I thought should be made and inspections I wanted done. I made a date for a termite report, had all the cracked window glass replaced, and a roofer applied roofing cement around the roof seams and vents — all of this to prepare for a general physical inspection.

And I called Susan Reese, a real estate agent friend who sells houses but also preps houses for sale. I hired Susan to oversee cleaning and panting, to do whatever we agreed would make the house look its best.

Susan and I have been friends for years. I respect her considerable abilities, enjoy her practical approach and know that we share the same goals. I was therefore surprised that I found myself reacting “just like a seller” when she began making recommendations about what should be done to my mother’s house.

“The rug in the living room has to go,” Susan said. Susan would, of course, talk more plainly to me than to someone she doesn’t know as well, but I found myself flinching and realized that I felt defensive.

My mother’s red rug. She’d always loved it; it had been there for as long as I could remember. I should protect that rug.

How ridiculous. If I needed the rug, I could take it home. It does look dated. Susan is right.

“I’d like to put new curtains in the kitchen, soft pastel colors,” Susan said next. “Do you have any attachment to the ones in there now?”

Any attachment? None except that my mother had made them, selected the material, probably gone to a number of yardage stores, considered many fabrics before settling on this one — and she was never going to do any of these things again.

“They can go” I said, and felt sad.

Susan has very good ideas and I agreed with them all. But each of my choices carried with it regret, regret for erasing the house as my mother had lived in it, had chosen it to be.

But she’s gone, I reminded myself. The house is moving on to someone else.

The cleaners have washed, the painters are painting, the termite people have made repairs. Curtains are being sewn, new cupboard knobs attached. Susan is shopping for light fixtures, a door knocker, plants for the patio.

We met our favorite physical inspector at the house last week. Bob Westby is thorough and competent. He also tells it like it is in understandable language, is thoughtful and good humored. There was nothing to fear from Bob.

We already knew some things he would say: There is no safety glass in the French doors, ground fault interrupters should be installed, the hot water heater strapped. But what else — what terrible thing — would he find?

Bob started with the roof. He said it looks good, sealed well, shingles still flexible, lots of life left. The supports are beefy and there are no sags.

He liked the way the foundation was built, too. And the drainage around the house.

While the electrical service could certainly stand expansion, it has circuit breakers. That’s good. And most of the plumbing is copper.

He recommended that I have an unused wall heater disconnected and the newer furnace checked. Over the years water has run under the garage and driveway slabs causing some cracking. It would be good to seal these areas to minimize further damage. If a car will be parked in the garage along with the clothes dryer, for fire safety, the dryer should be raised off the floor. There were a few others.

“That was awful,” I said to Anet after Bob had left. “What am I going to do?”

“What do you mean?” she answered. “This was a really good, clean report. We’d have been thrilled for any of our clients to get such a report.”

She talked on that way, repeating herself, adding details and Bob quotes while I sat miserably silent.

Finally I said, “I guess I just want it to be perfect.”

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