When it comes to bad houses…#662

#662 in a series of true experiences in real estate

Sometimes houses are so awful, dirty or structurally dangerous that we get there to find that the agent holding the house open isn’t inside. She’s sitting on the porch, or in extreme situations, standing on the sidewalk.

We’ve seen many houses that have moldered and pretty well fallen. Often they are stucco houses with roofs that failed. Water just kept running down inside the walls, rotting everything, then moved on across the wood floors, buckling and blackening them. It takes a number of years for houses to reach such a sorry state so they are often overgrown with bushes and vines that let in very little light.

The kitchens are old and dirty with chipped sinks and holes in the linoleum. There is moldy plaster and lights that won’t go on. Sometimes signs are posted that say, “Caution! Don’t step onto the porch.” It’s difficult to imagine that someone lived there.

Once when we went to a house and found the agent standing on the sidewalk, she handed us paper masks to wear. “It’s pretty bad,” she said. “You won’t be able to stay in there for more than a few seconds.”

We were so curious, we just had to go in. The house had been stripped of everything movable and cleaned as much as possible, but the stench was unbelievable. The story was that an old lady had died there. She had two dozen or so dogs who stayed inside all of the time. All of the floors would have to be replaced.

I always wonder what the neighborhood stories about these houses and their occupants are. Did the kids nearby think the house was haunted? Did the owner ever venture outside? Did anyone ever talk to her? Where was her family, and what happened to all of the dogs?

You’d think that there wouldn’t be much buyer interest in houses like these. But, strangely, there seems to be some kind of inverse rule: If it’s really, really bad, people will rush to buy it. If it’s only bad, much less attention will be true.

That’s only a generality, of course. It isn’t the case all of the time, and I’m not suggesting that anyone make a bad house worse in order to sell it. But it is odd that houses in terrible shape seem to sell, at least much of the time, very quickly and for more than we would have thought possible.

The house that belonged to the old lady with the dogs, for instance, didn’t have much going for it. It wasn’t in a very appealing location, had little architectural merit and, of course, needed tons of work, but there were, I think, 15 offers to buy it.

Sometimes we see houses that are so full of stuff that it is impossible to see the house. Every inch is filled with furniture, boxes, things – up to the ceiling, throughout the garage and basement, onto the porches, into the yard.

We get to these houses and wonder how long it took to accumulate all these things, if the owner has any idea what he has, and how all of it could possibly be moved.

Usually the houses are vacant. Often they are estate sales. But occasionally we go to one that is still occupied by someone who has kept one, only one, tiny spot free to sit in and sleep in, and who can find only one place to put down the groceries: on top of the radio on top of the newspapers on top of the table.

Several years ago there was a house in the lower hills of Berkeley that was one of the worst we’d ever seen. A middle aged woman lived there alone with a great many belongings. There were so many belongings inside that the front door could be opened only wide enough for us to slip inside sideways. We were stunned by what we saw.

Piles of clothes, books and papers, couches, bird cages, lawn sprinklers – you name it – were everywhere. Through holes in the roof, the sky was visible, and so much water had been admitted that parts of the floor were missing, rotted away years before. Over some of these had been placed scrap lumber making it possible to walk tightrope-like from one area to another.

Most of the lighting had ceased to function. Whole banks of windows had lost their grip and had fallen out of the building onto the ground where they lay shattered, untouched. We tenderly picked our way through the rooms to a nonfunctioning kitchen. The refrigerator, stove and sink had all given up the ghost. The only running water in the house was to a toilet in a formerly adjacent bathroom. I say formerly because the adjoining wall which had at one time contained a stall shower had collapsed into a heap onto the kitchen floor.

Even this last remaining source of water was broken. The owner could dip cold water from the tank but to flush the toilet, it was necessary to reach inside and hold up the ballcock.

There was no heat; the furnace in the basement had been waterlogged causing it to rust out. All of the many objects in the house had also become wet which made for a pervasive smell of mildew. Two of the bedrooms were full of ruined books, hundreds, maybe thousands of them. These seemed to be the most precious of the owner’s possessions as she talked at length about wanting to rescue them and take them with her wherever she was going.

She knew she would have to move. She owed money to someone, had not been able to pay, and now was being forced to sell the house to make good on the debt. But she had no idea where she would go or what would happen to all of the things she had brought into the house.

We sat together in the back garden, a deep and pleasant space, balancing precariously on rocks barely large enough to hold our backsides. We asked and were told the story of how the woman had come to buy the house many years prior with her husband. It had been a grand house she said, and not cheap. But the marriage had failed, and while she received the house as her own, she had no job or income except for an occasional assist from her elderly, and similarly financially strapped, mother.

It was a sad story. We racked our brains for possible solutions, guessed what the house might sell for and where she might relocate. Perhaps she might join with her mother? Keep only the things she cared most about? Sell and invest the money she received?

No. Nothing would work. The owner was resolute. She insisted that the house was not worth enough to make it possible for her to leave, to live elsewhere; no place would contain her belongings and there was no way to get them there.

As we left her, she went back to fretting about needing to get started on rescuing her books.

This entry was posted in Seller Stories. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

  • Sign up to receive our newspaper columns: