Cover of the Week 37 House Where Nobody Lives
I recently had the honor in my day job as a real estate agent to list a 1950s modernist house that was designed by an architect for his then-young family. It is not every day I get to work with such interesting and lovely people on such a unique and intriguing property. When we close on the sale in August, it will be the first time he and his wife have moved since he built it. In the intervening five-plus decades, they raised a family, helped build a pioneering community, and grew old together there. They are around 89 years old now.
At one point he and I were unrolling the original old musty blueprints for the place. At the bottom corner was written “The [his surname] Family Residence. [His name], Architect.” I read it and looked down at him (he is quite short now). His movement and actions are taken deliberately, and his speech is slow and thoughtful. I detected an extra few seconds in his pause, though, as he looked down at these prints he created for his family home over 50 years ago. And I am fairly certain his slightly glassed-over eyes were the result of what must have been a tempest of emotion welling up inside him as he considered the drawings. I mean, I felt the imagined decades of family history and the passing of time unrolling along with those prints so I could only guess how he felt, even if I am just a sentimental sap.
Later that week, in discussions with he and his wife at the table, I mentioned something about time in regards to a certain closing date, allowing them more time to get things together for moving — the many accumulated materials from so many years — and all the time they will have once this work is all done, and how fast the reality set in for them once they made the decision to sell.
She looked off into space for a moment, sort of shaking her head. “Yes, the time,” she said. “The time just gets so short.”
There are a number of things I love about my now-eight-year-long second act selling real estate. Yeah, the nuts and bolts are agreeable: having no “boss,” the flexibility of scheduling. But I am also very interested in architecture and how people live. And I guess I have to admit that in the net end, overall I really enjoy meeting and talking to most people. There are very few that I come across in the job that I don’t get along with but I can choose whether or not I want to work with them. I have dished a couple of thorny ones off to other brokers. I have spent two years working with some, over five or six different towns, written multiple low-ball offers on places that don’t anywhere or they walk away from irrationally, only to let them finally go in the end. I stay in it too long because I am pot committed. But anyone who has ever played poker with me will tell you I am a bad card player. I stay optimistic and aggressive when I should admit and cut my losses. I think I am learning. Maybe not in poker, but in real estate.
But the thing I still enjoy the most about the job, is going into all of these houses. Even when I find them horrifying or soul-sapping mediocre, there is usually at least some sliver of a glimpse of life in there that opens a door in my imagination into the lives lived in the place, the history, multiple families or maybe just one that have lived there. It is probably one reason I am not as interested in commercial real estate or even selling developments or much new construction. I don’t look at houses as mere structures or commodities, even though as a business person I should. And I often try to counsel my seller clients that it is precisely that point of view that they should try to take when they are arguing that their houses is worth $50,000 more than the same exact but updated house that sold right next door in a better market for less dough. But I am coming from the same place they are; I have no trouble imagining their lives in the house and what it means to them. What I find intensely inspiring is what happens with my imagination in interpreting the stories these places tell.
In my town, land is very often worth way more than the older homes sitting on the lot. We mostly ran out of raw buildable land decades ago here. It is not unusual for a builder to plop down even $600,000 for 1/3 acre plot in a decent neighborhood. Someone recently paid $720,00, in fact, for a perfectly functional multi-level (some know them as split-levels) house that just needed some updating. They are going to build something to try to sell for around $1.4 million, which seems like a tight profit margin given building costs around here [reading these prices now in 2019 makes me chuckle for those more innocent and cheaper times. You can’t find many newly built houses here for less than $2 million now]. But when I started this job, people were only tearing down tiny and/or badly neglected houses, not otherwise fine ones.
We recently had two such tear-downs in my neighborhood. My wife and I toured the first one when it was a cute little Cape style, up on a hill. Walking though, you could see all those years accumulated there in that quiet house. But it was hard to argue for preserving this one as we walked through. Even my wife — who has not felt the slight lure over to the dark side that I have from time to time working with builders — had to admit that the interior was beyond hope and the floor plan too labyrinthine to work with. But from outside, we will always miss the white house up on the hill.
The other one on the street, another Cape, was not on the market before it was torn down. But I saw the signs coming. There was an old widower there who let his yard be iced over for a skating rink in the winter. He seemed like a nice old guy, but I didn’t know him. This past winter, though, I noticed more and more junk being taken out to the curb for trash pickup — old suitcases is usually a tell-tale signal; lamps; file boxes in recycling bins; and so on. Sure enough, one day there was a tripod post up with the temporary electric service for new construction. Soon he was gone. A few days later, so was the house.
It still pains me to watch this happen, even if it is inevitable. But I just watch them vanish, along with the lives they held. Often, during the demolition process, you can see the remnants of a detail, say a dining room wall with the old wall paper, or the knotty pine bar from a ’50s-era basement rec room.
We have what are called “broker previews” on Wednesday and Friday mornings in my town. It is the time when listing agents open up their new listings for the brokerage community to preview the houses, perhaps offer an opinion or two, maybe even make an appointment for a client for whom the place might be a match. Often, when walking into a house, something will resonate deep in my soul. Sometimes it begins with just a tickle as I walk over the threshold and notice the outdated surroundings. This does not happen in every outdated house. There is a difference between “outdated” and “old.” Many houses I have been fall somewhere on the scales of “I can’t believe human beings lived here in this squalor” to — in real estate agent parlance — “deferred maintenance.” Those don’t necessarily hit me on any particular emotional level. But there are still other houses that have been meticulously cared for, but just have seen no significant cosmetic updates in decades. I find that these are often the most heartbreaking, for it is apparent that there was love in these houses. At one time they had been full of life. Not surprisingly, it is the houses stuck in the 1960s or 70s that get me, for they hit some button that swoops me back in time to my childhood and I gain the perspective of that young kid all of a sudden looking forward to what happens as kids grow, as we march along the path through the subsequent decades to the present.
I will find myself seeking out solitude for a few minutes in such houses. I am particularly emotionally vulnerable before lunch, but I usually just get cranky and irritable and not so sentimental. But there have been times that I feel almost literally haunted by these spaces, looking around at family photos, or a vintage air hockey game untouched for years in the basement and I pause and feel like I being possessed by the spirits of the place. I can see vivid glimpses of the possible past life tableaus in these houses. It is sort of a feeling of deja vu but on a more emotionally involved level. It is more acutely sad when such houses as these are torn down. One day as I was hosting an open house for someone else in a newly built house, an old couple came in and marveled at the new place. I took them for curious neighbors until they told me that it had been their little ranch that had been torn down to build the house we were now standing in.
We sold our first family house in 2005. My wife and I had lived there for 11 years, the final six of them with our daughter, and almost a full year with our son. It is just down the road from us and it did not sell right away. W moved into the new one eventually. It is hard to not take it personally when your house does not sell for a while, even if this was the beginning of the softening market. But I could never imagine it being torn down. Once we left, my wife could never go back and to this day I think she still avoids passing it if she can. I had to go back to keep up the yard and check in on it from time to time until it sold. One day I was raking the leaves in the back yard, in the area where the kids swing set had been, a set my father and I had put together despite the fact that neither of us know how to properly work a wrench. As I was raking, one of my kids’ little old toy figures rolled out onto the top of the leaves. I would be rejoining my family in a matter of an hour or so, but something about that moment made it one of the loneliest I have ever felt in my life. Like at the end of the John Cheever story, “The Swimmer,” made into a movie, where Burt Lancaster finally makes his way home and the place has been abandoned.
I wish I could have put all of this down into a song as well as Tom Waits did with his brilliant “House Where Nobody Lives.” I just wish I could write a song as simple and deeply resonating as this. For my money, Waits is up there with the all-time pantheon of great songwriters. He is one guy I would be beside myself to meet and talk to [2019: got to do this a few years back, just said hello and told him what his music means to me]. If you don’t already own the masterpiece LP that contains this song, Mule Variations, I beg you to do yourself a favor and buy it.
So don’t get on me for doing my second cover of his already; you’re lucky I just didn’t do a Tom Waits Cover of the Week every week.
EDIT: I just realized I wrote a review/synopsis of the song about 8 years or so ago at Allmusic.com.