July 20, 2014

The Three Little Pigs Guide to New York Real Estate


It wasn’t long after seriously undertaking our search for a house in Brooklyn that Morgan and I deduced that everyone and everything involved in the process was either insane by nature or the product of some diabolical cabal’s machinations. It was all too perfectly mad to be a simple accident of capitalism.

            Home owners either yanked their places off the market the day before we were scheduled to see them, or simply refused to let us look at certain areas of the house. Real estate agents waited until we were completely sold on a place to mention -- in passing -- the nearby sewage treatment plant, or some other niggling detail like, oh, half the house would have to be demolished before we could move in. On top of that there was all the vicious infighting and backbiting among the local real estate people, who (we were told) didn’t want to share their commissions so refused to allow clients with other realtors to even see a house they were selling. The biggest kick in the eye was that we learned it was almost a given that once a house was listed publicly, it had already been sold.

            I talked to a Chinese broker who made it clear he would only sell to Chinese buyers, while others (in carefully coded language) made it equally clear there was a general agreement to try and keep the Chinese out of the neighborhood. Still other brokers pointed us toward houses that had been sold three months earlier.

            It was all starting to take on decidedly Kafkaesque overtones. How the hell were we supposed to buy a damn house if we weren’t even allowed to look inside any of them, and they were all sold before we even heard about them anyway? But still we trudged onward in a kind of Bataan Death March toward the American Dream, and every once in awhile we got lucky.

            It was a small white frame house with a conical roof right around the corner from the subway. “Quaint” I guess is the proper word for it. If there was anything you’d call it, it would definitely be “quaint.” Storybook quaint, even, and didn’t look like anything else on the block. Dense, neatly trimmed shrubs filled the front yard. It even had, if you can dig this shit, a white picket fence. For all we knew the damn thing was made of gingerbread. It seemed so utterly absurd we came to the conclusion we had to have it. It was twisted destiny. The realtor who told us about it, a woman who’s never been hesitant to share her many and assorted prejudices with us, warned us it was owned by “two gay guys” who’d been living there twenty years. Given the dominant mindset of the neighborhood, that might help explain the heavy shrub cover out front.

            Well, if the outside of the house screamed “quaint,” the inside took a quaint shovel to your skull. Over the years they’d spent hundreds of thousands restoring the place to it’s original 1920s glory, filling it with antiques from the period and endless precious little details from the light switches to the bathroom wallpaper. (Maybe justifiably they seemed a little nervous to have a blind guy stumbling about, whacking their coffee tables and delicate period chairs with a filthy cane.) The only exception was the kitchen, which had been fitted out with the best and most modern restaurant-grade appliances. Neither Morgan nor I saw any reason why we’d ever need to use six burners at once (and that was only one of the stoves) but still, for all its inescapable gayness the place was beautiful, and it was around the corner from the train. I could just stay in there all day and try to convince myself I wasn’t trapped in the nightmare of early twenty-first century America. I was all for that.

            By the time we left we were already talking offers, which was something we’d never done before. As we chatted with the realtor on the sidewalk in front of the gingerbread house, someone caught her eye. “Oh, there’s a friend of mine,” she said. “Come over here. You should meet him.”

            A few doors down a tall, bald old man with an Eastern European accent was surveying the block with a scowl. The realtor introduced him as Peter, and told us he worked for the city buildings department. In what was merely a desperate and clumsy effort to make conversation, I inanely commented that it was a very nice block.

            “Gah!” he spat. Once it was, maybe. “Not any more it’s not. It gets worse every year. Too many damn dogs. Too much shit!”

            I was starting to like him.

            “These two are thinking of buying the gay guys’ house,” the realtor told him. “Do you know much about it?””

            “Gah!” he spat again. “Save your money. You can do better than that.”

            Morgan noted it was a very lovely place. Tiny maybe, but lovely.

            “Don’t think with your heart. Think with your head. Be logical,” he instructed. When an Eastern European tells you something like that in a gruff Eastern European accent, he can carry a certain undeniable authority. “Look at it,” he pointed. “All wood! Gah! The place is a firetrap!” he half turned and pointed to the squat brick house behind him. “See this? This is my house. I have a fire, I might lose everything inside, but the house will stand. Over there? You get a spark, a little electrical spark, and the whole thing goes up in a matter of seconds! Everything gone! You lose everything!”

            “Oh,” I said,

            “Yah, save your money. Think with your head and keep looking. You’ll find better. Someplace that won’t leave you dead.”

            In what may have been an effort to quickly change the subject, the realtor told him the asking price. That only seemed to anger him further.

            Peter shook his head. “For that place? No. Too much. Not worth it. Half that, maybe. You think about it with your head, not your heart and you still want it, you offer them half. No more than that.”

            “Oh,” I said again. “Okay.” But I could sense already the initial enthusiasm for the place draining away with a gurgle.

            “Nah, you don’t want this place.” He then launched into a bitter monologue about his other neighbors and what they’d done to their houses, each aesthetic or structural faux pas striking him as a personal affront. Then, together with the realtor, he began gossiping about the sordid private lives of the people across the street. Morgan and I quietly made some excuse to get out of there and started slinking our way home. Behind us, we wondered if the realtor was kicking herself for bringing Peter into the conversation, or kicking Peter for opening his big yap and potentially costing her a sale.

            As we made our way back to the Bunker, pausing briefly to pick up more beer along the way, we pretty much made our decision. Despite its location and all its quaint gay 1920s loveliness, we were going to pass. It was a major disappointment to us both, because we had no clue when we might ever get another chance to look at a house, the way things were set up.

            It wasn’t the fear of a deadly inferno that changed our minds so much, but the thought of having Peter as a neighbor. My god what a nightmare that must be.

            “My real fear now,” I said, “is that he’s going to start appearing outside of every fucking house we’re interested in, like some bitter vengeful ghost telling us why we should reconsider.”


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