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State of Mind: Trading Places

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When my editor’s face appeared on my computer last week, via Zoom of course, and said the theme for the next issue was real estate, I knew what was going to happen. A few years ago my wife and I built a new house. We did this without having to murder anyone, including each other. People around The Bridge offices therefore consider us experts in real estate and would be looking to me for a column on the topic. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “I’ve heard real estate transactions can be stressful, Lare. How did you avoid murdering anyone?” Let me say it wasn’t easy. There are a lot of pitfalls awaiting anyone who wants to buy or build a new home. But there are experts out there to help you. 

And there is beer.

When we decided we wanted a smaller home, our first step was to arrange to sell our old one. That is a clever approach that often goes by the term “bass ackwards,” because unless you take the step of buying another home first, when you sell your current home you have no place to live. 

There are two phases to selling a home in this way. First is “downsizing.” This is where you sell, give, or throw away most of the earthly possessions you have acquired over, say, 30 years.

You may have read in this newspaper my wife Barbara’s account of preparing our old house for sale. A lot of that involved her sucking the desiccated bodies of dead mice out of the cellar with a Shop-Vac while wearing a respirator. She did this because we were obligated by family tradition to take with us from the cellar the personal effects of many dead relatives, so there would be no room in storage for these tiny carcasses, even though after three decades of warfare with them and their kin we owed them some respect. They had, after all, fought us to a draw.

Next she had to convince me to jettison everything I considered a treasure. I’ll admit I did have a lot of things I hadn’t touched since the Reagan administration. Still, I repeatedly pleaded the stuff represented projects in suspended animation. She was unmoved.

Next, we had to “stage” our house to make it look like Ward and June Cleaver lived there instead of us, so a lot of the stuff that remained had to be moved to a rented storage unit. Mostly that consisted of the rest of my stuff. With all my stuff gone the house really did look as though I had been replaced by Ward.

Because we had done things bass-ackwards, our house naturally sold quickly, and the new owners wanted to move in. That meant we had to find a temporary place to live and put all our remaining possessions into long-term storage. This involved moving the stuff in the rented storage unit back into the house so the movers could move it again. 

I still vividly remember the moving van rumbling down the driveway with all our stuff. We immediately thought of six things on the van that we needed right away. 

With our equity check in hand, it was time to determine what we could afford to spend on a new house. For that we turned to an expert — a mortgage broker. 

Our broker’s agency was state of the art, so we were asked to submit all our forms and documents electronically, because she had hand-picked her staff for their gifted abilities at losing such documents. We would resend them, whereupon the staff would, with meticulous care, misplace them. 

Using a magical formula, the broker determined we could afford a house twice as expensive as our old house. That seemed contrary to our mission of finding something smaller and affordable, but once they explained that if we borrowed the maximum amount we would be obliged to make monthly payments to pay it back, things became much clearer for us.

We tucked this information into the back pockets of our minds and contacted another expert, a real estate agent, to help us look for a new house. 

“Charming” is a word that you hear often when viewing properties. We saw a lot of charming over one summer. 

One property we viewed had a small but charming 1950s-era electric oven built into a corner of the kitchen. Because of its unique positioning, the oven just screamed “HGTV demo day” should it need replacement. The house also had another charming feature: the house next door had two snarling but charming dogs on chains whose job it was to protect the charming collection of derelict cars, rusting bicycles, and rotting sofas in the yard. 

Another memorable property we viewed was for art lovers. It had a charming fountain in a side yard. This fountain was in the “industrial chic” style, consisting of a well head with water squirting from it. That property also had a charming Salvador Dali-esque two-car garage that was melting into the landscape.

We eventually found the perfect place, which was a lot on which we could build our own house with the kind of charm we wanted. But that is another saga.

So if you are in the market to buy or build a new home, just remember the upside: there will be lawyers involved.

Also remember the three Ps: planning, perseverance, and patience. 

And beer.