A Home Selling Humor Saga

by Thomas Sullivan

The roofer shows up at our house two hours after we’re scheduled to meet. I get to the front door first and open it up. Looking down the stairs, I see a bearded man sniffing at his shirt collar.

The guy looks up and says, “Hey, man, sorry I’m late … if you smell smoke and beer on me, don’t worry.”

I’m more befuddled than worried, and surprised by the admission.

“Yeah,” the roofer continues, “Driving over here I saw a buddy of mine going into the Queen of Hearts. I just had to drop in and say hi. Stayed for one and then came here, hope that’s okay.”

The Queen of Hearts is our local dive bar, an aggressive place that attracts few women but plenty of jokers. It’s a true bulwark against the threat of rising property values.

I smile at the roofer and say, “No problem, just be warned … if you fall off the roof, I’ve forgotten most of my CPR.”

The guy laughs and heads for the roof. I usually leave people to their business when they’re assessing a job, but I stay in the yard this time. The roofer rambles around the shingles, pointing out a number of flaws from the previous job. I don’t doubt the man’s honesty one bit – we’ve got small stalactites hanging off our living room ceiling, proof that water is getting in somewhere. According to our neighbor, the last roofing job was done by the previous owner’s brother, a degree of cheapness that should be illegal.

The roofer finishes up and gives me a bid. It’s far less than I’d been expecting, which isn’t entirely good news. We all know about the companies that low-bid at Hanford and then get replaced by another low-bidder after a radiation leak. The guy hands me a brochure and tells me to call him with my choice of shingle color and style. Then he hops in his pickup truck with the fake bullet-hole decals and drives off. I browse through the brochure, pick a shingle, and call in my choice to the roofer’s office.

* * * *

Two weeks later the roofer leaves a message on my phone, asking which shingles I want to use. I sigh, sensing this is going to be a long process. My wife and I are just begin to fix up our house in order to sell it. It’s our first home and its very agreeable, but we’ve both come to the conclusion that we really belong in Seattle, near our friends and family. Portland, we now realize, is not our home.

I head to Home Depot. Pulling into the gargantuan parking lot, I nearly get clipped by a monster-truck hurtling toward the exit. I slam on my brakes just before the contractor whizzes past my hood, no doubt heading off to the outskirts of town to nail together another flimsy mini-mansion.

The world inside the mega-store is no less frazzled. Hunting for my single item I pass a woman on a cell phone who is debating bathroom colors with her husband. The conversation is periodically interrupted by a bored son, who keeps pulling paint-color samples off the wall and dropping them onto the floor.

This is the side of the American Dream that the realtors and mortgage people never tell you about.

I keep walking and looking for the paint brush aisle. This tool, wielded under the guidance of my deft hand, will be used to make the kitchen “cute.” According to our realtor, this will be essential to buyers searching for the perfect dream house. Standing in the kitchen with the realtor, my comment that “nothing is cuter than mustard-yellow walls with mystery stains” fell on deaf ears.

I find a brush and stroll back to the checkout aisle at the front of the store. I get into line behind an old woman, who is hunched over the counter slowly paging through the bills in her wallet. She’s looking at each new note with an extended focus, like a victim staring at police lineup photos to be absolutely certain she’s got the right face.

I’ll never get back the time I’ve spent in this store. We might label them “primitive,” but pre-historic men didn’t squander sunny days inside a Cave Improvement Supercenter.

The woman grabs a pen and starts writing out the total on her check. Spelling out the letter “F”, her shaky hand creeps across the check like an ant pulling a breadcrumb across the street. I glance up at the teller, who is looking out toward the parking lot, graciously hiding any impatience. We both look down at the check as the woman begins to tear it from the binder, one perforation at a time. It’s a silently shared moment of dread. We both know that if she rips it in half and has to start over we’ll be here all afternoon.

The check comes clean. The woman grabs her bag and creeps toward the door. I hand the checker my home improvement weapon and she rings it up. She takes my cash and then hands me some change.

“Would you like a bag?” she asks.

I smile back and say, “No thanks, but could you get someone to help me carry my purchase to the car”?

* * * *

Back at home, I paint the baseboards in the kitchen for two hours but stop when my lower back starts screaming in pain. I drop the brush and plod into the living room, where I flick on the television and scroll through the channels. I stop at a home improvement station, mostly to see what I’m doing wrong. The woman on the screen is interviewing a man who has written a book about home improvement trends in recent years. The author claims that a whole new specialty in psychiatry has recently emerged: professionals who focus on helping people stressed out by remodeling projects. If you’re agonizing over the color of your kitchen or losing sleep trying to pick a motif for the broom-closet, this is the person you go see.

The mind gets funny when forced to obsess over trivial things.

* * * *

The realtor comes by the house later that afternoon while I’m trying to hide a crack in the foundation with gobs of paint. Her agitated voice flows into a cell phone, breaking my thoughts about the strange new neck pain I’m experiencing. Apparently someone has screwed up, interrupting the work flow on one of her other jobs. I glance up at her, amazed at how many tasks she juggles to keep these projects going. Without her at the helm, this whole process would be spinning out of control.

When the call ends we mosey around the yard. The guys who came to plant shrubs and weed the garden blew in like a hostage rescue squad. Four men whipped around the yard, tearing out weeds and carting big plastic barrels to a truck, while another wielded a power washer with wild abandon. From my window I saw thick brown streams of water flying through the air, bending plants into submission. Surveying the scene afterwards, I felt like I was witnessing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The realtor is not happy. Dirt and mud have been blown onto the base of much of the house. Weeds and small, dead plants have been allowed to survive the tornado. A new plant sits directly in the path of a downspout extension, which has been removed and is lying on the ground. We need to get more plants.

As we walk away from the house towards the oak tree in the back of the yard, I decide to go ahead with my little gag. Last night I ended up with a brutally charred sausage from my barbecue. I hate wasting food, so I decided to put the sausage to good use.

When we get to the tree I stop and say, “The thing I’m really not happy about is right there. Found it when I was watering.” I point behind the tree and say, “Take a look.”

The realtor steps to the side of the tree and looks down. Her body goes stiff when she sees the sausage and a crumpled wad of toilet paper stained brown with charcoal soot. She looks over at me blankly. I hold a deadpan face and we look at each other for a second.

 I smile and say, “Just kidding. Let’s go get those plants.”

* * * *

Two weeks later a title company officer ushers me, my wife, and our realtor into a formal conference room. We sink into plush leather seats with relief. The three of us are more than eager to finally close this deal.

Our host sighs and says “Well, it wasn’t pretty, but he finally agreed.”

We all know who she’s referring to. The husband of the couple buying the house has absolutely no faith in people. For the last week our realtor has been fielding nonstop calls about the same two items. His realtor has been crawling through the dirt underneath the house and wading through airborne insulation in the hot, cramped attic with a camera to soothe her client’s aggravated nerves.

The title company woman drags a stack of forms out of a binder and drops them onto the table. Just before handing us a pen she looks up and says “I wasn’t sure this was going to happen. This guy’s already had five other offers fall through.”

I chuckle and say “Damn, sounds like me trying to get married.”

No one said this process has to be grim.

* * * *

Three days later my wife and I are sitting on our bare front porch, leaning back against the freshly painted shingles. We’re waiting for the cat to return, our final item to load into the packed U-Haul, which sits in the driveway, eager to leave. The cat made a rapid escape from an empty bedroom after the duct-cleaning technician from Eager Beaver opened the bedroom door five minutes after being warned not to.

A battered Ford Taurus rolls up in front of us and grinds to a stop against the curb, sending a pair of fuzzy dice into motion. I check out the driver, an older man with thin brown hair combed across his head and down across his temple. The guy spins in our direction, revealing a lime-green cowboy shirt with brass buttons and a huge, stiff collar. He gets out of his car and shuffles onto our front lawn. I stand up and advance warily toward our surprise visitor.

By way of greeting the man barks “You guys moving in or out?”

I look up from the ashtray-sized belt buckle I’m trying to decipher and say “Moving out…just sold the place.”

The guy spins around and examines the neighborhood while informing me that he’s looking for a place to rent. He turns back to me and smiles.

“I like this kind of neighborhood,” he says, “working-class and white.”

This encounter is surely a sign from above, and any lingering doubts about selling the house quickly evaporate. We’ve been lucky. The roof was redone nicely, the floors look great, and the kitchen really is cute. We’ve been fortunate to find a qualified buyer in a market that’s like a game of hot potato. Despite the fact that Lehman Brothers has just collapsed, sending the credit markets into turmoil, it’s worked out pretty well. And I’ve learned a valuable lesson as well – in today’s market, it’s not a good idea to buy a house unless you’re certain the place you’re living really is your home. A house is just too much work to be something you won’t be keeping long.