VAN NUYS — This sad little tale from the Southern California real estate crash begins, not with the bust, but with the boom.
It was the mid-1980s, and anybody who owned a house was flying high. No social gathering was complete without a smug accounting by all present of the bundles they could make simply by selling their homes.
The market then was overloaded with frantic buyers, and the game belonged to the quick and the pre-approved. Bidding wars were common. Insider trading was essential. The surest way to land a house was to strike before the listing was ever posted.
Into this happy, crazy market leaped the principals of this parable. The year was 1986. Don and Leslie Potts, both employed in the entertainment industry, a young couple with a small daughter, wanted a house with a big yard and a Beaver Cleaver feel. They were told about a three-bedroom custom home on Firmament Avenue, in the once quite fashionable Chisolm Estates development.
"We heard that the owner was thinking about selling," Don recalled the other night, sitting in the family room. "We came out and looked at it. We took, oh, about 10 minutes to decide. It had everything we wanted. Nine-foot ceilings. Hardwood floors. There already were five interested buyers, and so we bid more than the asking price.
"And we got the house."
Yes, and now the house has got them.
At first, all was bliss and contractor work. The Potts sunk about $60,000 into their new home, which they had purchased in the low twos. Floors were restored, the roof replaced, the rooms painted, the driveway repaved. The house was made fine, the market stayed hot, and no doubt the proud owners--old friends from my Fresno days--could hold up their end when polite conversation came, inevitably, to the topic of pending real estate profits.
After three years, though, they decided to move. In the rush to buy, they had not researched the neighborhood schools. Such oversights were common in that frenzied time. A flush of the toilet, a quick peek into the basement, that was about it for precautionary evaluations. Now, with their daughter grown to school age, and with a baby brother in the house, they discovered that the neighborhood public schools were dismal. Also, Los Angeles was wearing a bit thin, for all the standard reasons.
They dreamed the common new dreams--of Telluride, Colo., and Bend, Ore., and a new life doing whatever transplanted Californians do when they head east for the Old West. They put their house on the market for $385,000. It sold fast and at near full price--with neither buyer nor seller aware that the market at that moment had hit its high-water mark and was about to head down, down, down.
They packed their belongings and counted down the escrow calendar. Five days before the transaction would have been complete, it fell apart. The buyer of their buyer's house had pulled out, because the buyers of that house had lost their buyer, and so on down the line. Unconcerned, my friends waited for another buyer. Five years later, they are waiting still.
The house that won't sell has become a neighborhood landmark. "If the neighbors don't see the 'For Sale' sign up," Don said, "they'll stop by and ask, 'Hey, is something the matter?' " The Potts held an open house not long ago; no one came. Their listing was included on the weekly Realtor caravan; one agent showed up. They recount by rote the calamities that have occurred while the house has been up for sale--recession, defense industry closures, riot, a flood, fires, earthquake.
Each disaster brought a drop in price--and also in buyer interest. Their current price is around $240,000, but they make clear that is negotiable. At this point, why be coy? They have churned through a succession of agents: "Let's see, there was Larry, and then Jack, and then back to Larry. . . . " The Potts have been told they are competing against foreclosure sales, and as long as that's the case, they can forget about Telluride.
By now they have made a sort of peace with their predicament. "It must be fate," said Leslie. "We aren't supposed to move." They do enjoy living in the house itself, which, after all, is what a house is for. And they do like their work and appreciate the city's charms.
In the end, what seems to bother them most is not that they live where they live. Rather, it is the idea of entrapment, the sense of not being free to move on whenever they want. They have become prisoners of a house, and a city, and a time.
But hey, at least most days the weather's nice.