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Lessons from selling a home

After owning a house and projecting your identity onto it, selling it is another exercise altogether.

May 06, 2010|Meghan Daum

Last summer, a reader sent me an e-mail with the subject heading "We get it! You own a home!" The body of the message was simply this: "How many times are you going to begin your column with 'as a homeowner?' Enough already!"

She was right. But I didn't exactly apologize. Most columnists do occasionally resort to writing about their own lives (more than occasionally for some of us). In my case, that's meant writing about real estate, my own in particular. If you've ever bought a house, you probably know how quickly the responsibilities it carries can become the focus of your life. If, like me, you were a first-time and solo buyer in one of the hottest markets in the nation's history, perhaps you know how quickly the whole endeavor can subsume your entire personality.

In the nearly six years since I moved into my house, I've often had the feeling not that I had a plumbing or electrical problem but that I was a plumbing or electrical problem. My house and I have been codependents; if it was looking good and running reasonably well, I was convinced that I was too. If it was leaking, chipping, corroding or possessed of some unpleasant and untraceable smell — in other words, if the place was a mess — I was also a mess.

But in the last few months, something strange has happened. The house has become a showplace, and I'm still kind of a mess. Given the symbiotic relationship between my house and me, anyone walking through my door now might think (wrongly) that I'd morphed into a supermodel. The house certainly has.

It was once crammed with too much furniture upon which too many books and magazines collected dust and doubled as coasters/notepads/bug smashers. It is now pristine and sparse. The walls were once rich shades of terra cotta and sea green. They're now white and bright and (to borrow a word from the shampoo world) "volumifying." Sunlight streams in from the professionally washed windows. The countertops and kitchen sink are gleaming and new. The floors are polished. Tasteful flower arrangements stand at monochromatic attention in practically every corner, including one on the bathtub ledge in the shower. Animated birds land gently on your shoulder when you emerge from this shower.

OK, I made that last part up. But the rest is true.

I'm selling the house, and in the interests of faring as well as possible in a fickle market, it was "staged" by my capable real estate agents. This involved cleaning and painting and polishing, and my husband and I (yes, someone actually married me despite my smothering relationship with this giant hunk of stucco) had to put more than half of our possessions in storage, including 90% of our books and much of our clothing. It meant the agents supplied an eye-pleasing duvet and matching pillow set that had to go on the bed every time they showed the house to potential buyers. It meant our own (apparently vile) pillows had to be stuffed into our cars because there was no way to cram them into the closet without breaking the illusion that our lives fit neatly into 890 square feet.

It also meant that, as with a drastic weight loss that cannot realistically be maintained, the minute we take off our shoes or leave a plate in the sink, the whole perfect-house tableau is ruined.

Not that I'm complaining. I got four offers in less than a week. And some very nice-seeming people are now poised to buy it — that is, unless they read this column and back out after realizing it was the duvet that clinched the deal.

As much as I learned from buying a house—and as much as I've reveled in boring my readers and friends ) with the tedious details—I think I will ultimately have learned even more from selling one. That's because if buying and then living in a house is about projecting your identity onto it, about convincing yourself and others that your home is your soul's chief representative on Earth, selling a house is an exercise in unidentifying with it. It's about remembering where your plumbing ends and you begin. It's about knowing that even supermodels don't look the same in real life. It's about saying, if I may quote my loyal reader, "Enough already."

Until it's time to buy the next one.

Meghan Daum's latest book, "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House," was published this week.

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