While my wife and I were Stateside recently, we went to see a piece of property. Just for fun. As disclosed in the ad, the place in need of some tender loving care (TLC). But the neighborhood was right… and maybe, we thought, it would work as a rental property.
So my wife got the broker on the phone. Sure, we could schedule a walk through, they said. Whenever. I’ll bet. After all, in many markets, real estate has seriously backpedaled from the boom of years past.
Newly minted property brokers all over the U.S. got their licenses expecting to flip hundreds of properties a month. Instead, suddenly, they find themselves spending more time waiting for the phone to ring, and honing their skills in solitaire.
“Hi there!” said the agent, lighting up as we drove up to the property with two babies and my mother along for the ride.
“Listen,” she told us, “before we go in, I have to tell you that we’ve had at least 50 people see this place in the last 20 days… it’s going to move fast. I just wanted to warn you.”
Ah yes, I thought, create urgency. She’s off to a running start. But given what we were about to see, it might as well have been a sprint into the Grand Canyon.
“It’s been empty for awhile.”
No kidding. The wafting sent of rotting carpet was unmistakable. The curious brown stains on the walls, on the other hand, I couldn’t place. And I’m not sure I’d want to, either.
“Sorry about the cold,” said the agent, “the utilities were turned off when the previous owners vacated the property about a year ago.”
“Wait,” said my wife, “is that an abandoned car out back in the driveway? It looks like it’s jammed with junk.”
“And this container of cream in the fridge…” I said, as I peeled the carton from a puddle of black muck that held it to the glass shelf, “does that expiration date really say ‘JULY 2005?'”
“Um…” said the agent, “yes, well, I’ll have to look into it a little more for you. I only know attorneys are handling the sale. I think it’s a question of mental unsoundness.”
Yeah, I thought, maybe the prior resident went nuts after the poltergeists put up this wallpaper. In one room after another, it became clear. The place was a dump. Had Charles Manson and friends been looking for a hideaway, they would have filed this one under “too spooky” to take up residence.
“It’s really priced to sell,” said the agent, clinging to her chipper-ness as best she could. “They’re looking for a cash deal.”
“Mind if we go see the bodies… er, I mean… the basement first?” said my wife. “Sure,” said the broker, looking for the door heading downstairs. It was clear she, too, had spent as little time in this place as possible.
The best selling point was, perhaps, how easy it was to get the front door open again so we could step outside.
“They’re looking to do this quickly, without all the contingencies. You know, like a house inspection and stuff.”
I took a glimpse at one of the windowsills on the outside of the back porch. It was half-eaten by termites.
“So,” I said, “just in general terms… how’s the market around here lately? Moving fast?”
“Oh, the slowdown isn’t really hitting us at all,” she said. “We’re seeing demand and prices still going up.”
“Yeah? Interesting. I’m writing a promo right now for a financial advisor who’s looking at the real estate bust… so I’m seeing lots of these stats myself… how do sales this past year compare, number-wise, with the year prior.”
“I’d have to email those numbers to you,” she said. And less than an hour after we bid our goodbyes, she did. “Here you go…” said her email, “…and it looks like 2006 was even better than 2005!”
My father, a semi-retired attorney, had a different set of trend figures from a real estate agent he’d helped out some years ago. Out of seven or eight zip codes, only one saw a 1% increase in property prices in 2006. Another stayed flat. The rest had plunged by 11%… 20%… even as much as 29%.
And here’s the funny thing.
The ghost house alone was enough to convince us something had turned sour in the property market. But what is it that really sticks in my craw now, a week or so later?
The reflex clichés, the lack of key information, and the wobbly statistics coughed up by the market-challenged sales agent.
I couldn’t help thinking… there IS a way to sell that property. But this wasn’t it. Re-price it for the market and to reflect the condition of the place. And then, heaven forbid, educate the broker to sell it for what it is — weakness, warts, and well-buried merits combined.
Could you imagine if everybody sold that way?