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Life in the Bubble

The real estate deal as theater of the absurd By Kim Christensen

June 05, 2005|Kim Christensen | Kim Christensen will be covering the entertainment industry for The Times' Business section.

In February 2004, my wife, Chris, and I learned that the Long Beach house we sold in 1999 had been sold again--in one day, and for more than twice what we'd received for it. We'd heard all about Southern California's reach-for-the-sky house prices and multiple-offer bidding wars, about desperate buyers wooing choosy sellers with homemade brownies and unctuous love letters. So we knew what we were in for when we decided to head back to the beach after five years in beautiful but soggy Portland.

We left behind a nice little house in Portland's West Hills, where we had spectacular views, towering Douglas firs and an eight-minute commute to our jobs downtown. In Long Beach, a house like that would sell in five minutes. In Portland it took five months. But by early this year we were finally ready to find our California dream house.

House No. 1 was a Belmont Heights fixer, a tired old beach cottage with good bones under its nicotine-stained walls. In years past, this house might have gone begging. In 2005 it drew nearly a dozen offers. We wound up bidding $45,000 over the listing price, only to lose out to someone who came in at $55,000 over.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 16, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Home buyers -- The last line of a first-person essay in the June 5 Los Angeles Times Magazine about a couple bidding for a house in Belmont Heights was inadvertently dropped. The article ended with the line "we talked about how great that would be." It should have been followed by the sentence, "And then we walked."

House No. 2 was a three-bedroom, two-bath, sort-of-Mediterranean that had been mostly redone but still needed a new kitchen. Having learned the lessons of House No. 1, we overbid from the get-go. We offered $16,000 over listing price and were pretty sure we'd trumped several competitors. After sweating us all for four days, the seller, who had told us he was moving to his boat, inexplicably pulled the house off the market. We suspect he was just chumming the waters to see how many fish would bite.

Now we felt disappointed and snookered.

But that was nothing compared to the turn for the absurd we took with House No. 3, a classic Spanish with three bedrooms and two baths on a 3,150-square-foot piece of paradise a block from the beach in Belmont Shore. We were sure this was it.

And then we met the listing agent from hell.

For starters, he wouldn't show the place when it first hit the market, insisting instead that we wait until the following Sunday for an open house. We did, and by day's end our agent submitted our offer--$10,500 above the listing price. Then, he wouldn't accept the offer, ostensibly because his clients were unreachable. It was obvious that he just wanted to sit back, wait for multiple offers and turn this sale into a public auction.

By Monday he had four prospective buyers and suggested--no, demanded--that we all gather at our California dream house at 6:30 p.m. sharp that Wednesday to present our offers to the sellers. It wasn't enough to offer more than they asked for the house. Now we'd have to mud wrestle for it.

Brownies, anyone?

When our agent informed their agent that 6:30 would be tough because of work logistics, and that we objected to the notion of milling around like pigeons while the sellers mulled our offers, he blew her off. "If they really care about this house," he sniffed, "they'll be there."

We were adamant that we would not be sucked into his arrogant, greedy little game. Our agent would present our offer and if the sellers accepted, fine. If not, well, that's fine too. For two days, we stewed in indignation. Our mantra was, "We're not going. We're not going!"

At 6:30 Wednesday, our agent showed up with our offer. At 6:50 she phoned me as I moved at zero miles an hour on a particularly bad night on the Harbor Freeway.

"All of the other buyers are here and I don't think they'll consider your offer if you're not," she said.

I called my wife and we decided I should suck it up and go. By the time I arrived, the other buyers had been invited one by one into the living room for an introductory pep talk by the sellers' agent. They presented their offers to the sellers and their agent before scattering to await the verdict. Some went to separate rooms in the house, or to the nearby home of one of the agents. I stood on the sidewalk, still steaming from an hour in traffic and the indignity of it all.

If you pulled a stunt like this in Portland, where people are polite but wary, you would never sell another house. Try it in my blue-collar hometown in Ohio and you might end up naked in the back of an East Dayton tire shop, worked over by a couple of snaggletoothed mopes with pneumatic drills and wire-brush attachments.

Before long, the buyers were summoned back into the living room. There we stood, side by side in awkward silence: a couple of couples, another guy by himself, our agents, me. The sellers sat before us at the dining room table, their agent off to one side. "You can't imagine how difficult this is for us ... " the agent began.

I glanced around at the other buyers, whose expressions ran the gamut from nervously excited to sullen. One guy looked at least as dyspeptic as I felt.

I glanced back at the sellers, who were grinning. Difficult? I don't think so.

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