NORTHRIDGE — These days, Darrel and Carol Swendener give black, rueful little laughs at the idea of California as the Golden State.
In their eyes, there's nothing golden about the place, its politics or its economy--especially after they lost $125,000 in 1994 on a Porter Ranch house with a sweeping view of the San Fernando Valley, the house that was to be their dream castle.
Instead of fulfilling their dreams, the 2,730-square-foot spread turned into a real estate hell that hundreds of Valley homeowners came to know too well as they reflect on 1994 and even 1993: the house that would not sell.
It was a time marked by compromised privacy as endless looky-loos with white gloves wandered through bedroom and bathrooms, making the Swendeners feel like a fishbowl family, a couple whose lives were forever on display.
After paying $340,000 for the house in 1989 and sinking more than $90,000 in improvements into it, the couple put it on the market for $579,000 in 1992 and waited for buyers.
As time passed with no nibbles, like sellers all over the Valley, Darrel Swendener had to keep slashing the price, which dropped to $335,000 by midsummer 1994.
This fall, the Swendeners finally sold the house for $308,000--accepting the only offer they had in more than a year.
When that offer finally came, the couple jumped like lovesick salmon in the river's homestretch.
"It was the only offer we got," Swendener says. "For us, the torture continued right up to the very end."
The couple has since bought a home out of state. They don't want to say where. They're bitter, financially damaged and hope to never see another Golden State sunrise.
"There's a real bad taste in my mouth," said Swendener, a 58-year-old retired Sears employee. "\o7 You \f7 walk out of a house and lose $125,000 and see how you feel. We've learned a lesson from all of this--stay out of California. I don't like the smog or the crime.
"But most of all, I don't like the fact that everyone in the state is either out to chisel you or make a fast buck at your expense."
Realtors portray the Swendeners as an example of those who bought homes near the crest of the mid-1980s real estate boom, only to find when it ebbed that they could not even make back their original investment if they wanted to sell.
"Yeah, they're typical," said Joe Andrews, co-owner of Century 21 All Properties in Chatsworth. "One side of the coin says that sales are increasing. Our own records show that our 1994 listings were up 6.2% over the previous year, and that through November our sales were up 77% over the same period in 1993.
"But the other side of that same coin sees prices going down. At the same time, interest rates are going up. In the end, it's still a declining market. This couple was just one of its many, many victims."
If the coin had a third side, it would show the face of a grinning home buyer.
In the Swendeners' financial dilemma, Russ and Camden Gardner saw opportunity.
Russ Gardner grew up in the Porter Ranch area. Years later, living in Woodland Hills, he was looking to come home. "We wanted to move up here real bad," said the 33-year-old owner of a chimney-cleaning service. "But we couldn't even find a house for sale in the area. It was tough."
So the couple circulated flyers, made endless drives through surrounding neighborhoods. Then, last August, they saw a newspaper advertisement for a Porter Ranch dream home.
Recalled Camden Gardner: "The ad started off with something like, 'View, view, view!' I had looked through so many ads I didn't believe it at first. But it was true."
Even though the asking price was $335,000, the Gardners offered $305,000 and stuck to their guns. In the end, their agent lowered her commission by $3,000 to make the deal happen.
"The realtor said there was no way they would accept our offer," Camden recalled. "We were afraid we might insult them. But the deal eventually stuck."
The Gardners recalled the sellers as a shellshocked couple who just wanted out. And the Gardners knew a good real estate deal when they saw one. "You could tell they just wanted to go, they wanted out of the house," Russ Gardner said.
Carmen Peplow, a realtor with Fred Sands Realty who represented both parties in the sale, said she offered the $3,000 to make both sides happy.
"A real estate transaction is like a divorce," she said. "Neither party really feels satisfied. But in reality, the Swendeners should have been real happy to sell their house. No one else made them an offer. In my opinion, both sides came out winners."
The Swendeners aren't buying that argument.
"We're just happy to be out of California," Darrel Swendener said. "At this point, I wish we had never come there in the first place. Those five years were sheer hell."
Swendener recalls the last time he drove away from their former dream home.
"My wife and I looked at each other and said, 'Thank God, we're finally leaving.' " he said. "It's funny in a sad sort of way, the place was supposed to be our castle. But the market destroyed it, and it destroyed our dream.
"It's like the Great Depression. We feel like we've lost everything. Now we've got to start over."