Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How to Survive Selling and Buying Real Estate in DC with Online Puzzles

The moment you think of selling your house, it stops being a home.  It's much like deciding to put up a child for adoption. You have to steel yourself against any emotion. I am not sure which is more painful because I've never given up a child, but I have sold a home before and the process was excruciating.

I loved my house but I always knew I would have to sell it eventually.  It's a four-level Victorian with I don't know how many stairs. While the stairs served as an exercise machine for many years - with time they were becoming more and more of a nuisance.  Then a roof leaked during a long rainy weekend when every roofer was out of town, and a clogged pipe caused flooding in the basement. Finally - it was a decisive moment - a strong wind woke me up one night and I realized it was blowing right over my head, inside my bedroom. A plastic window latch cracked under years of sun exposure and could not withhold the force of mother nature.  That and the stairs made me long for a flat. Here they call it apartment (or condo if you own it),  but the British word was more precise for what I had in mind.

No longer mine
Come spring, the time was ripe to contact that charming young agent I had preliminarily consulted last year, who knew the real estate market on Capitol Hill, and who had just returned from vacation in Croatia. He seemed a more suitable choice than the agent who had helped my buy the house, who was a real bully.

At the appointed time the charmer arrived with a huge smile, greeting me like a long lost nephew, and went over the sales process so casually as if details didn't matter among family members.  My mind did not even register a minor detail - that I would actually be working with his stepfather -in-law (it's a family business and I was going to be a member of the family), a nice older man, straight from a 1950s Hollywood movie. And so one of the most painful periods in my life began. 

First the staging-and-photo crew came in and shoved all my personal stuff in closets, drawers and hidden corners, under beds and behind sofas.  The house stopped being mine before it even went on the market. I could dress for work in those clothes I could find, not the ones I wanted to wear. There was no hope of finding a small item such as a nail file or a postage stamp if I needed it.  Two big rugs were so well hidden that they could not be retrieved until the moving day.

Once the house was on the market, living in it was akin to dwelling in a railways station.  An army of people went through. I was only able to spend the night in it, have a quick shower, clean up and disappear till the evening. After about two weeks of this my whole system began to rebel.  First I pulled out a few rugs, then a trash can. On a couple of occasions I even dared to leave some toiletries on the vanity. 

Meanwhile, my charming agent completely disappeared from the scene and I was left to deal full-time with his stepfather-in-law, a Fred-Astaire lookalike.  I felt like a groom who mail-ordered a bride resembling Marylin Monroe and got Greta Garbo instead.  Not unlike my previous agent, this Fred Astaire was only available to me if he had interest in it. He showed me properties I might be interested in buying - aka flats - at the time which suited him, and he answered my mail when it suited him.  When I ventured on exploratory expeditions on my own (you can always call a seller's agent to show you property) he would gently scold me, claiming it was not in my best interest.  Really?  I have always found that I can see and learn more about a property when I go on my own than when an agent holds my hand.  But in this business a client is his agent's hostage.

What it means is that you don't get to see a place more than once or twice before deciding whether to buy it or not. During the first visit you get blinded by the "staging", a carefully developed skill in the real estate business to presents a place at its best, hide all the flaws and give you little idea of how it really is to live in it.  You are a little more discerning during the second visit, if you are lucky to get one.  But you still don't learn how warm or cold the place is during various seasons,  or whether your would-be neighbor is Maurice Ronet or Marica Hrdalo. The places that are deemed "hot" (newly renovated, in a good location and of decent size) will not wait for you to learn all you need to know.  So if you are selling your home and need a new one at the same time in D.C., you have too little time to search and can't be picky.

My choice was especially narrow because I dislike the cookie-cutter open plan dwellings dominating the Washington area market today. You open the entry door and you find yourself in a kitchen with the ubiquitous bar and stools.  (I guess you stick your umbrella in the sink and your jacket in the refrigerator.  Shoes in the oven?)  Right next to the bar is a dining table, making you wonder why you would want to eat off a kitchen counter when a table with more comfortable chairs is right there.  And who wants to sit on a sofa and look at a sink, or a microwave oven?  Apparently everyone in Washington.

Everyone in Washington wants this

Well, maybe not everyone because my house was finally sold to a nice suburban couple who thought open-plan houses were like a bowling alley - you throw a ball and it goes right through to the other end. But the three-week wait for that couple to come along was an agony of uncertainty. Every day seemed an eternity plagued by the questions: Was I too late putting the house on the market? Are the selling prices taking a nosedive? And if it sells, will I find an adequate place to buy in time to move into it when I have to. As days went buy, the questions accumulated and the stress soared to pathological levels. Especially when I learned that many buyers came back several times to see if they can convert my ground floor into an open kitchen with bar stools, and the sofa facing a microwave oven. Invariably, they concluded it was not possible to knock out enough walls because of the central staircase. Sleepless nights began to make me feel dizzy and my concentration at work dipped dangerously low.

I used to resent that a number of people in my office have enough time to play computer games during work, but now it turned out to be a blessing. One day, when my nerves were especially frayed, I noticed a colleague putting together a jigsaw puzzle online. I had long considered boxed puzzles and knitting as most boring kinds of pastime, something for children and old ladies - until I learned they were both soothing for nerves. So the online puzzle my colleague was passing the time with suddenly had an appeal. Once I tried it, I got hooked. For the first time in my life I began to understand my son's fascination with computer games, although his involve guns and shooting. What a wonderful feeling of gratification when you find two pieces of puzzle that fit and they snap in place! They remain silent and detached if they don't fit and, so you can't make a mistake. That loud snap makes the adrenalin kick the same way a slot machine in Las Vegas does when you hit the jackpot. And what great joy it is to hear the little bells tinkle when the puzzle is completed successfully!


Solving a jigsaw puzzle does not require exceptional intelligence, but it does require concentration - just enough to take your mind off the anxiety caused by the loss of a home base.  For best effect, the puzzle must have the right number of pieces. Too few are not enough to serve the purpose  (of soothing the nerves).  Too many add to the anxiety, instead of relieving it.  I had the best results with puzzles made up of 150 to 200 pieces, depending on the available time. Putting them together became an instant obsession, but one that helped me get through the worst of the house sale and condo purchase. The temporary habit could have developed into a full-fledged disorder if the move hadn't created a more pressing occupation of settling into a new home.

Speaking of that - the ink had not yet dried on the settlement documents, when my Fred Astaire's smile dwindled to a frown.  He wished me a cold good-bye and walked out of my life forever.  His boss, my long-lost nephew who had hooked me for two lucrative  deals  (he earned commissions on both the sale of my old home and purchase of the new one), had been out of the picture for a while.  The last I had heard from him was an email  scolding me me for disclosing to the buyers some of the history of my house. I had expected a communication of a sort acknowledging that our business was pleasure - or at least concluded - but not a peep from him. The charming agent and his family had moved on and it appears I was not a favorite aunt.

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