A week before escrow closed on our house in January, a man and a woman walked up to ask if it was for sale.
I was shocked since the for sale sign had been taken down. I was standing outside with Milbre Burch, my wife, and Maria DiMassa, our real estate agent, both of whom had scoured the Pasadena and Altadena landscape to find this house. But DiMassa nodded and smiled, with an "I-told-you-this-was-a-desirable- street" look.
Later, after we had moved, a woman interrupted our yard work and asked if we knew of any houses for sale. We said no. She was helping her son and daughter-in-law, she said, scout around. Then she asked if we wanted to sell. Again, we said no.
Even with this level of interest in real estate, I still am amazed by the constant flow each week of letters, postcards and even potholders advertising the services of real estate agents. And we get knocks at the door, too. Fellow homeowners tell me I might expect pumpkins left by agents at Halloween and watermelons for July 4. This gives a new meaning to the concept of real estate farming, the practice of an agent pinpointing a neighborhood and consistently maintaining contact with the residents.
Regardless, this fevered approach can become infectious. And it represents quite a shift for Milbre and me, who still can freshly recall our days of wondering how nice a house we actually would be able afford. Now, presto!, even with an earthquake on Monday and the latest news that a seller's market was becoming more of a buyer's one, we are experiencing that feeling that the real estate ads refer to as "pride of ownership."
This letter arrived last month from a Pasadena agent: "Your home may be well worth a lot more than you think . . . Just a few weeks ago, a house in your neighborhood sold for 25% more than the owners thought they could get."
Neighbors who have lived on Eldora Road a long time speak of feeling the pressure to sell.
A letter we received reflects the atmosphere.
"Ten years ago--the last time the market was this strong--many homeowners were caught off guard. And they missed an ideal opportunity to sell because they didn't know how much their home was worth."
Neighbor Mary Rico said she and her husband made their decision to sell based on the strength of the market on Eldora Road, where they've lived for 13 years, and market pressures in Sonora, near Yosemite, where they want to move.
For the last several years she has frequently gotten knocks on the door from agents as well as house hunters. And she, too, gets solicitations from agents.
"I wanted to wait two more years, but the real estate agents in Sonora said we must buy now because the prices are going up so fast there." And she said she and her husband can get four times what they paid for the house.
"It's time to move on," she said the other day. She put aside the garden hose she was using to water the grass outside her two-story, Mediterranean-style stucco house. A carpet of St. Augustine anchored a for sale sign. She explained that she and her husband, after bringing up four children in the house, are buying a retirement home in Sonora.
Down the street, another neighbor, who bought her house in the 1960s for $23,000, told me she accepted an offer for a free market analysis of her home's value. She was told she could ask $200,000. But she decided not to sell upon realizing she couldn't find a comparable house in Pasadena.
"It drives me nuts," another neighbor told me about the inundating solicitations. Yet she has also confessed she has thought about selling and trading up.
But a neighbor, who came to the neighborhood 30 years ago and has long since retired, told me: "I don't know where I would go, if I did sell."
Not long ago, I spoke with another neighbor. From the vantage point of her front porch and from the perspective of being a resident for two decades, she provided a survey of the changing residential landscape. Newcomers there, she said, pointing to the sweet Spanish-style house with an arched loggia entrance and French windows. Newcomers over there, too, and of course you're new, she told me. Then, she said, there's the house down the street that sold last summer.
Soon after that conversation I got another letter which said: "Remember top dollar is being paid, regardless of condition, and of course, a lovely home like yours may receive multiple offers." The letter came with a potholder emblazoned with the agent's name and phone number.
All this frenzy of buying, selling and moving feels disconcerting. I grew up in the Mississippi hometown of my great-grandparents, my grandparents and parents. Until three years ago, my mother had lived in the same house for 50 years. My wife grew up in the Atlanta house where her parents have lived for 30 years.
Yet, in the 15 years since I left graduate school, I have lived at 17 addresses and, like my wife, have lived in four states during that time.
This appears to be appropriate training for what Milbre calls the mobility giddiness of Southern California where some people seem to buy a house as often as they trade in a car.
Right now, though, we want to stay put. But occasionally the giddiness sweeps in the prospect of a better house, a better neighborhood. Or even the notion that, as one real estate agent's letter said: "You, too, may be missing out on the hidden value of your home if you don't at least find out its current worth. . . . "
One day, but not any time too soon, we will find out.