Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Our house saga: The whole story, pt. 2

One of the best things about our agent--I'll call her Fendy Wurth--was her clear desire to be open to our suggestions. Or, no. My conversations with her would go something like this:
Me: Hi Fendy! I was looking on craigslist and saw this house listed. Can we take a look at it?
Fendy: You don't want that house.
Me: Huh?
Fendy: It's on a busy street/it's not a good neighborhood/it's got problems.
Me: Ok, but can we at least take a look at it?
Fendy: You don't want that house.
Me: Um, ok.
Annnnnnd, scene!
Now, it is eminently possible that Fendy was being honest about her assessments and judgments as to what was appropriate/good for us, but seeing as how we were first-time buyers, I was hoping she would cater to our inexperience--not by limiting our exposure to the wider world of real estate, but by showing us everything under the sun to let us in on what the full range of options looked like. Even after I would ask her to show us more than the 1 or 2 houses she would line up for us on our weekends (and it wasn't every weekend at that), she demurred. All of that would have been fine if she had been as adamant about the house we bought--which she didn't even find in the listings--and its drawbacks. A noisy street? Forget it--they could have been giving it away and it wouldn't make any difference to Fendy. But our house? Let me see . . .
1) Internal Wiring that was monumentally amateurish, and required thousands of dollars to fix?
No problem!
2) An electronic gate that was illegally wired and had to be disabled requiring $2K to replace or fix?
No problem!
3) Industrial/dentist office ceiling, ancient wood paneling (with no sheetrock or even insulation behind it!), weird and ugly built-ins, and glued-in recessed light fixtures in the main room?
No problem!
4) Plumbing not up to code in the kitchen and the master bathroom?
No problem!
5) The garage has a code-violating step down?
No problem!
6) No keys to any of the locks requiring hundreds of $ to secure the house?
No problem!
7) A kitchen that has only two electrical outlets, one of which is needed for the refrigerator and therefore inaccessible to use code-safe for anything else, and the other located on a wall above a 4-inch ledge that is clearly too shallow for any appliance larger than a toaster placed sideways?
No problem!
8) An alarm system for which we didn't have the code, forcing us to rip the master control panel off the wall so we wouldn't be forced to hear its incessant beeping and leaving an unsightly hole in the wall with wires hanging out?
No problem!
9) And the pièce de résistance, washer and dryer hookups built not inside the house (normal), and not in the detached garage (not optimal, but not unheard of), but on the outside of the house itself (wtf?)!
No problem!
To be fair, TBO and I knew we were buying a bank-owned fixer-upper, so it is eminently possible we would have pooh-poohed any negative comments from Fendy, but I do know that she wasn't even close to trying to dissuade us from this house as definitively as she had done for most of the others that she didn't like. In fact, what I do remember most saliently about our bid on this house was how Fendy told us that putting in an offer for anything less than the asking price--even a meager 10% discount due to some of the issues we knew about--would be "insulting", and she adamantly refused to do so.
Think about that for one second, and then pity us for being radically naïve. Who on earth would have been "insulted"? The bank owned this pile of crap, not some poor sap trying to get out from under through a short sale. Fendy told us there were other buyers, and that they were just as qualified as we were, and that to be sure we got this one we'd have to bid higher, blah blah blah. Let's face it, Fendy was looking to keep her paycheck as large as possible, and she snowed us, playing us for rubes (which we were.) On top of that, she was trying to get paid as soon as possible--we had always felt that she was giving us a bum's rush through the process at every point--so any corners that could be cut were cut. We bid the asking price, and to do so we had to borrow even more money from my family--who had been gracious and overly generous enough as it was to begin with--to make the loan feasible.
The next step? Inspection.

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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Al Davis, R.I.P.

Football, and pro football specifically, was bred into my blood. My father's family had/have been die-hard Washington Redskins fans (he even played clarinet for the the band for a few years in the very dark days of the early 1950s), and my mother's family? Well, family legend has it that they bought season tickets when the 'Skins moved from Boston to DC in 1937, and regardless of when they started, has kept them every year since. (Anyone who knows realizes what precious commodities Redskins season tickets are--there is reportedly a multi-year (decade?) waiting list just to get the chance to buy them.)
Every Sunday in the fall was centered around football, for both sides of my family--everybody watched whatever games were televised, even as we gathered for family get-togethers/dinners. It was simply the thing to do. One particular Sunday, in mid-November 1968 (I was all of 6 years old!), the televised game featured my mom's brother's favorite team, the New York Jets, who were on their way to shocking the world by beating the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. In this game, however, they were fighting mightily against the team that had been in the previous year's AFL-NFL Championship Game (not yet called the "Super Bowl"), the Oakland Raiders. For some reason, and even at that early age, I decided to be contrarian and root against my uncle's Jets and for the Raiders. (Which is only rarely redundant. There are lots of teams that I can root against without caring one whit for the team playing them.) Something about their grit appealed to me, I suppose, but more probably I just liked teasing my uncle whenever the Raiders did something well.
There aren't too many mid-season games that become historic, no matter the sport. There are too many games in too many years for people to remember any but the final few in each season. This game, however, changed the course of television history. Football, like most games (and unlike baseball), relies on a set length of time for teams to win or lose. 60 minutes of game time tick away, and in that era, there was no such thing as "overtime" if the two teams were tied at the end of that hour. Consequently, a television network could fairly count on when the game would finish (for you neophytes, the game clock stops pretty regularly, but even so, most games took about 3 hours of real time, and few lasted too much longer back then.) This time, though, both teams were scoring often (which is the event that stops the game clock for the longest amount of real time), and as the end of the broadcast drew near (7:00 Eastern Standard Time), the game itself hadn't finished. The Jets had taken a 32-29 lead and kicked off with about a minute left in the game. NBC switched off the game to show their heavily-promoted broadcast of "Heidi", much to the horror of all football fans interested in this thriller, who consequently flooded NBC's switchboards to no avail.
My uncle and I were left hanging, although with only a minute to go, he was confident his Jets had won. I had to wait until the next morning--no post game highlight shows back then!--to find out that the Raiders had gone on to score not 1, but 2 touchdowns in that 1:01, to win the game 43-32. "My" team had won! (The furor over "The Heidi Game", by the way, led all networks to vow that never again would a live broadcast be cut short in similar fashion again.)
I became a rabid Raiders fan instantly, living and dying with every game (and for the next 7 years, every season ended badly, despite the Raiders possessing the most feared (and hated) team in pro football. They were great, but not good enough to win "the big one." A perfect time and the perfect team for a young boy who loves rooting for underdogs, because nothing cements a fan's devotion like not quite winning it all. (My baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, performed similarly over the same time span, winning their division regularly, and winning their league a few times, but never the World Series. Both teams managed to win it all in the greatest years ever for a Raiders/Reds fan 1975 [Reds] and 1976 [both!]) I immersed myself in the roster, learning all the names of these guys and reveling in their skill. Blanda, Otto, Lamonica, Biletnikoff, Hubbard, Stabler, Branch, Upshaw and Shell, van Eeghen, Villapiano, Sistrunk--even their names evoke the type of players they were, since almost by definition, the Raiders were a team of renegades and castoffs. Most of the stars on the Raiders did not come from the traditional college powers like Oklahoma, Nebraska, USC, Notre Dame, and Texas (although there were some)--heck, Otis Sistrunk didn't even go to college! It had to take a serious maverick to assemble this bunch and win.
And that's what Al Davis was. Davis loved football. Davis lived football, and once he was named head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1963, he lived Raiders football. And he loved nothing other than Raiders football (his personal life was always kept private, but there is no doubt that he was an extraordinarily devoted family man.) Every move he made, whether as coach, general manager, or head of the American Football League for its last few years, was designed to help the Raiders, policies and protocol be damned. He fought with everyone to the betterment (as he saw it) of his team; anyone who disagreed with him was treated like an enemy combatant--which led to numerous feuds, lawsuits, and even the occasional self-inflicted damage if a team member crossed him. Al Davis prized loyalty, but he prized winning more, and his ruthlessness in achieving what he thought was best for the Raiders made him legendary and ahead of his time. Most of the other owners had created an elite, country club-type attitude that Davis disdained, which worked against him on many occasions, but served to endear him both to fans and players alike--if you were a Raider, that is. The Raiders cared nothing for the types of rules most teams enforced against their players--no dress codes, few curfews that couldn't be broken with impunity--except for one: if you didn't play your hardest on Sunday, there were no excuses. Whatever you did during the week, if you performed come gametime, you were accepted. During the late 1960s and 1970s, that single attitude made the Raiders the most highly prized family a player could join, and many wayward "square pegs" eventually found their way to the Raiders. Al Davis crafted a tight-knit organization that rewarded talent like no other--the freedom to be an individual during a time and in an occupation when individualism was actively discouraged and disciplined to eliminate. Many men were hired after their playing days were over for various jobs in the Raider organization, and by all accounts Davis loved and was loved with a fierce dedication by most who played and worked for him.
He led the Raiders for nearly 50 years; the league itself will not be the same without him. Love him or hate him (and there are multitudes in either camp), everyone will admit that his was a unique--and above all, respected--voice in American sport.
Say "hi" to Blanda, Dalby, Upshaw, and all the rest of the guys, Al. You know they'll be waiting.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

Our house saga: The whole story, pt. 1

Now that TBO and I are officially non-homeowners once again, I thought it might be instructive--or possibly just entertaining--to detail our experiences in real estate. On balance, our story is a disenchanting one mirroring the depressing state of our nation's economy as a whole. I know many people who have a very different story to tell in regard to their homeowning, but all that does for me is illustrate more acutely the declining faith I have in the permanence of the American Dream. In other words, things ain't what they used to be, and it's too late for many of us to partake.
I* started looking for houses to buy when the market began collapsing in the summer of 2007; before that, even given TBO and I having professional level jobs (if not salaries entirely commensurate), houses were priced well out of our affordable range anywhere in SoCal remotely close to where we worked. As late as the end of 2007, for example, the median price for a house in one of the cities for which we work was well over $700K! That reality forced me to look dozens of miles away for something we could possibly have afforded, and even at that, our choices were limited to fixer-uppers, tiny bungalows, or in neighborhoods where our chances of escaping criminal activity grew dim. Since we were in no hurry, I could take my time doing some research and poking around the market to find potential hidden gems before contacting an agent for serious entry. I spent about 6 months reading real estate blogs (to see what those intensely involved in the hitherto-unknown to me world of homeownership and real estate were saying about the collapse) in an effort to understand how far the market might drop and when the prime time to buy might occur, and also to discern what some "experts" were saying about interest rates as well. At the beginning of 2008, I became concerned that interest rates might have bottomed out--a reasonable conclusion based on the reality that they hadn't been so low in many years, if not decades--and if we did not jump in the market then, interest rates might be raised to a point where even if the home prices dropped further, our mortgage payments wouldn't get any lower, but the house we bought would be worth less.
So I contacted a friend of my mom's who was an agent to see if she had some advice, and also to see if she would represent us in our now-imminent search. I trusted her implicitly (and still do), but unfortunately she was unable to help us with our search, since she had no expertise in the locales in which we were hoping to live. And as far as any advice she had to give, there was little input she gave me that I hadn't discovered on my own; interest rates had never been this low, and could be raised at any time, prices probably won't drop much further, etc. She gave me Realtor Line #1:"This was a great time to buy."
RETROSPECTIVE LESSON ONE: If you ask a real estate agent, it is always a "great time to buy." Since they have no other answer, the one they give you is meaningless.
I asked my mom's friend for a referral, and even though she didn't know anyone personally who worked in our areas, she put us in touch with someone who did. (Again, I do not blame my mom's friend for what happened; she told me straight up that she didn't know the person with whom we started working.)
From the first moment "our" realtor drove up to meet us in her brand new, sparkling Corvette, I sensed that TBO and I might not be the kind of clients she was either used to or wanted to help. We were definitely looking at houses far lower on the value spectrum than she preferred, and when she instantly pooh-poohed the house with which we had chosen to start our hunt--she didn't even "let us" go inside it!--my feeling was confirmed. At the time, I thought it was actually a sincere effort on her part to guide us to some decent neighborhoods and values. Neither TBO nor I knew anything about the areas we were investigating, so we needed some guidance along those lines, to be sure. When she showed us the next house (which wasn't one we had seen advertised, and was the first one we had set foot in) and told us that we should snatch it up immediately, I was a little put off by her reaction to our desire to see more than one house before forking over tens of thousands of dollars and committing ourselves to hundreds of thousands more. She acted as if we were just being obstinate in wanting to, you know, "shop" for a place to live! Over the next few weeks, it became clearer and clearer to me that she wasn't really paying attention to what we wanted from, or more specifically, what we wanted to know about, the whole process. I asked her for her professional opinion on many occasions what she thought the market was doing, or whether she thought mortgage rates were going up or down, and at no point did she ever really answer my questions. Instead, she simply repeated realtor line # 1 ad nauseum. In turn, I began questioning her dedication to helping us.
RETROSPECTIVE LESSON TWO: Realtors don't care about you; you are merely a paycheck to them, and the sooner you buy, the sooner they get paid. Asking them to do work on your behalf beyond lining up places to see (and many times, even asking for that) is fruitless.
More later . . .
* To my everlasting sadness, I was the one who pushed TBO and I into this disaster. She remained and still remains blameless through all of it. : (

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