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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Sunday Reader Angst : Getting Real About the Estate

August 29, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Today brings a ritual I anticipate all week.

I will jump out of bed, run to the yard, pick up the newspaper, run back in, grab a cup of coffee and sink into the couch. In five minutes, I will be beside myself with Angst.

It's not the news that bothers me.

It's not the feature pages.

It's not the sports section since the halfback manque of the house always grabs and thrashes it to the point of illegibility, first by splashing his Cheerios on it, then by festooning it with discarded banana strings.

It's the real-estate listings.

How much have prices dropped this week? How much less is our Venice bungalow worth than when we bought it four years ago? Who are those neighbors down the block trying to kid asking that much for their house?

Oh my God, I yell, look at this:

Three bedrooms, two baths, guest cottage, in best Santa Monica location for only $850,000!!!

My husband looks up from the paper. "Say wha?"

I shove the paper at him.

"I like it," he says, "but wouldn't we get lost in a 2,000-square-foot palace?"

Very funny.

"Anyhow," he says, as milk dribbles down his chin onto the (surprisingly absorbent) sports pages, "we forgot to buy lottery tickets last night."

As a result, we have not won the lottery.

As a further result, the house is out of our reach. Way, way, way out of our reach.

My husband has one overriding housing requirement--proximity to the ocean.

We live about a mile east of the water, which he considers to be devastatingly close to Chicago. He will not be happy until he can walk onto his front porch and see waves. This is not likely to happen any time soon. Last month, we looked at a house about four blocks from the beach. It was on a hill, facing west, so you actually could see some water. The problem was not the view. The problem was the house: A Victorian fixer-upper owned by a famous conceptual artist, who happened to live next door. His grand scheme for a two-house compound had fallen through; he was asking (according to the agent) $100,000 less for the house than he had paid.

Over the phone, the agent said with a laugh that the house had a "conceptual kitchen." He wasn't kidding. The kitchen was a room with a counter top and a sink. The house would have required a major remodel and, frankly, our marriage is challenging enough.

One day, we receive a letter from the tax assessor. The good news: Our real-estate taxes have dropped 15%. The bad news: Taxes have dropped because the value of our home has dropped.

Reading the letter, I am puzzled. An internal dialogue ensues:

Q: What does this mean in practical terms?

A: Other people in better neighborhoods have lost even more money on their homes than you have! So the Santa Monica home that might have cost you $1 million two years ago only costs $850,000 today!

Q: I thought we couldn't afford $850,000.

A: The point is, other people have it worse than you!

I feel better already.

*

We love our house, we love our neighbors, we love our block.

But we have a year-old child now. Eventually, we will have to make a decision about school. Do we stay in our Venice neighborhood and send her to the local elementary, located on a busy thoroughfare, where she can play on the blacktop while inhaling fumes from speeding trucks and cars?

Do we stay and pay for private school? Or do we move to a different neighborhood?

Here is another argument against the local elementary: A neighbor visited it recently when her child was about to enter kindergarten. Three kindergarten classes would be starting in the fall, she was told. Two are bilingual.

"My daughter will be in the English-speaking class then?"

"Not necessarily," they told her. "We can't guarantee that."

Hasta luego, local school.

*

OK, so that palace is on hold for now. How about we refinance? Should we take an adjustable mortgage or play it safe with a fixed?

"Here's what I suggest," says the mortgage broker. "If you're going to stay here for many years, go with a fixed. If you think you'll be moving in two years, go adjustable. In between, don't do anything."

A simple formula on its face; deeply troubling in reality.

We have no idea what we want to do. Our life is a series of unplanned, serendipitous events.

The story of how we bought our house is an illustration of the principles by which we live: It is summer, 1989, and if we don't buy rightthisinstant , we will never be able to afford a home.

One Sunday, we are on a real-estate stroll and I am looking down. Something wet plops on my head. An omen from--OK, maybe not God--but definitely from above. I look up and there is our house!

Anyhow, I vote for the adjustable.

My husband is against it, until I face him, calculator in hand, and explain how many lottery tickets he will be able to buy with the monthly savings.

He capitulates.

Peace reigns in our home.

I'll save the argument over adding a second story for another Sunday.

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