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June 02, 2003

Real Estate

We didn't plan to move to Pinole.

We liked the town fine, but hadn't really thought about living here, one way or the other, until January 2002 when our landlord in Richmond decided to sell the house we'd been living in.

We looked at at least 50 houses in the next two months, from San Leandro to Pinole, about a thirty-mile swath of the East Bay. Our budget was under 300K. People from outside the Bay Area may need to be reminded that here this is, essentially, starter home, VA and repo territory.

We saw houses in marginal neighborhoods next to liquor stores, houses whose back walls were arm's length from freeway soundwalls, rent-controlled houses with "problem" tenants who had trashed the place and threatened to refuse to move, houses with funky, illegal add-ons whose walls ran five degrees off plumb, houses atop active landslides and houses beneath them. One house in the Richmond hills, possessed of an unbelievably spectacular view of the Bay and with several thousand square feet of sunny yard, was directly astride the Hayward Fault.

We also saw a few small, modest, lovely cottage-style homes, freshly remodeled and painted, with $45,000 termite reports or broad, ominous stripes of fresh mortar on their foundations. These all had multiple offers.

And then there was our house. Our realtor said she'd taken a few prospective buyers in as far as ten feet from the door, where they'd wrinkle their noses and say "no" and leave.

The two-bedroom house had been home to a couple, their three sons, and a big dog. They moved out, leaving much of their possessions behind, closed the place up and used it as storage for a couple years. The house smelled: of dog, of mildew, of decomposing carpet back and mouse urine and whatever it was in the cast iron pan left in the oven, now an unidentifiable greasy slick. And the refrigerator, which I cleaned by dismantling and hauling it outdoors to the hose. One bedroom was painted dark gray with black trim. Plaster was peeling from the kitchen ceiling. Windows on the southeast and southwest corners were rotting out, streams of Argentine ants emerging froom the holes made by our home inspector's screwdriver.

But that was it. Three weeks worth of cleaning (and patching plaster and painting and stripping out wall to wall and linoleum and sanding and urethaning the hardwood floors, after bleaching out the worst of the dog stains) and we could move in.

After that, just a couple weeks of construction took care of the rotten windows. A weekend with a jackhammer solved the crooked sidewalk and ugly patio issue. We still lack a sound roof. The retaining wall out front will crumble in the next quake. This summer will be spent putting my writing office in the 10 by 30 shed out back, currently surrounded by weeds and piles of soil from the patio paving project.

I still wonder at the unwillingness of those who refused to buy the house. Compared to a cracked foundation on a hillside, no problem our house offered was even remotely difficult to contend with. Given a choice between the pretty houses that were structurally rotten, and the basically sound house that needed a deep cleaning, every homebuyer in the East Bay last winter went for the beguiling, potentially expensive flash. Our little house sat unbought for six months at the peak of the market, waiting for us to find it.

We looked at all those other houses from a sense of due diligence. This was the one we wanted from the start. We gained title when we signed the purchase agreement, but we didn't own the place until the floorboards were slicked with our sweat. I wonder if the people with the cultured marble bathrooms and the landslides up above feel as much at home in the houses they bought.

Posted by Chris Clarke at June 2, 2003 03:01 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I wonder how much that elbow grease and sweat becomes a leaving of our scent, as it were, that creates space, perhaps in ways the kestrel will never know and for which there may not be a german word. We are eternally moving into an old farmhouse that on first visit might not have smelled much different than yours. Leaving it open all summer while it was under 'destruction' with doors and windows removed did wonders to remove the smell, but it invited thousands of ladybugs to join us.

Posted by: fred1st at June 4, 2003 02:11 PM
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