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Home at Last : After Making Their Home in Park LaBrea for 40 Years, Couple in Their 90s Tire of Paying Rent and Buy the First Place They Look at--for Cash


Had the same landlord since the Carter Administration? Stuck in the same apartment for years? Does it seem like you'll never own a place of your own?

Take heart, and meet Charles and Virginia Nelson, who finally bought their first home in June, after living in an apartment at Park LaBrea for more than 40 years.

The Nelsons, you assume correctly, are older than most first-time buyers. They may even set a record: Charles is 93 and Virginia turns 90 in September.

After 63 years of marriage, they were looking to buy their first home. (People ask Virginia Nelson why buy now? "I got tired of paying rent" is her answer.)

Last spring, she saw a splashy ad in the paper for Country Club Manor in the Hancock Park area. The French Normandy architecture appealed to her, reminding her of places they'd stayed in Paris.

She cajoled her husband into driving over and taking a look. "When I walked in, it felt like home," she said. "It's a little Old World, and I'm a little Old World."

Defying most people's notion of nonagenarians, both Nelsons are mobile, engaging, well-informed conversationalists. Their affection and respect for each other remains strong; they don't seem to waste time bickering. They give old age a good name.

David Long, the real estate agent for the building, didn't peg them as potential buyers when he first saw them. "I thought they were visiting someone in the building," he said. "They were sitting there in their Sunday best and asked if I was a salesman. They were interested in buying and they wanted to see a few units."

Once the home-buying bug bit, Virginia Nelson was decisive. Long showed them around and they settled on a first floor, three-bedroom, two-bath unit (the asking prices for three-bedroom units range from $229,000 to $449,000).

Country Club Manor was the first development they looked at--and the last. After all, it had just what they were looking for. A concierge to call in case they need help. An on-site maintenance man. A maid's room in case they need assistance at some point. And plenty of Old World details such as leaded-glass windows and wide moldings.

For the last 43 years, the couple rented a one-bedroom apartment in Park LaBrea, the 4,000-apartment complex at 3rd and Fairfax. They made many friends, but they also spent considerable time traveling.

Charles Nelson's career--he was a film editor for 40 years, mainly at Columbia Pictures--often took them to London, Paris and Rome for eight or nine months at a time. It was a life they both relished.

Nelson worked with the big stars of the day and won an Oscar for "Picnic" (1955). At her request, Nelson edited most of Rosalind Russell's pictures (he does not call them "films").

Much as they both enjoyed their overseas sojourns, keeping their Los Angeles apartment was important. It gave them a sense of coming home to familiar rooms and old friends.

Over the last few years, they had considered their housing options. They could have lived in the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills. When they went to check it out, Nelson was turned off: "Too many old people." Friends in Texas were lobbying them to move close by and they investigated rest homes there. But none would allow them to bring their furniture. So, until a few months ago, they opted to stay put.

The Nelsons' choice of a new home seems perfect for their tastes and memories. The 1929 vintage building (its original sales brochure boasted of an ice machine in the corridor) was lovingly restored in 1990 by a Belgian developer, Daniel Boulange, with his own strong sense of European style.

Once they decided to buy, the couple told only one good friend. They didn't want people pooh-poohing their plan or finding fault with their choice. When their lifelong friend Marie concurred, that was enough. "We didn't tell another soul," Virginia Nelson said, until they signed the papers.

When they made their offer on the condo, Long cautioned that it seemed a little too low. Virginia Nelson, the family negotiator ("She's the general and I'm the private," her husband jokes) instructed Long to submit it to the developer. Sold!

But not before everyone concerned, including the developer, was assured that the couple would not be depleting their reserves. They were, after all, paying cash, which simplified the buying process. No pesky loan applications to pour over. They chuckle at the idea of getting even a 15-year mortgage at their age.

But there was still plenty of paperwork to go over, including pages of condo covenants. Virginia Nelson scrutinized the fine print with the help of a magnifying glass she keeps on a cord around her neck--the same scrutiny she gives the financial pages. She plays the stock market with great enthusiasm that shows no signs of abating, devouring the latest issues of Fortune and Forbes for hot tips.

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