The ancient home owner'

(Or how we ended up with a 1½-story albatross)

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We put our home on the market last spring. I'll try to convey this cautionary tale of woe without resorting to any profanity, but be forewarned, there will be a considerable amount of unmanly whining.

Did I say we put our home on the market last spring? Actually, I should have said house. That was the first of many lessons my wife and I learned over the 14 months we waited to sell our old abode on Wesley Avenue: When you put your home on the market, even if it's the home you grew up in (which I didn't), and raised your kids in (no), even if your father build it with his own hands decades before on land he cleared with a team of mules (he didn't)â€"it's no longer your home. it's a house. More aptly, a structure.

Like a human body after death, the soul slowly leaves your home, and whatever made the house a home is no longer present. The aftermath, as we found out, is as clinical as an autopsy, as matter-of-fact as a police description of a murder scene.

Our first mistake

As best I can recall, here's how it happened. In January 2004, my wife Carol, understandably freaked by a 32 percent increase in our property tax bill and the prospect of her husband continuing to putz along as a freelance writer, said she'd had enough, and that we should probably sell our home. After much foot dragging from me, we initiated research on how to go about it that included everything we could think of. Everything, that is, but simply picking up the phone and contacting a qualified Realtor. After weeks of tackling house repair projects long deferred, and cleaning the place from top to bottom, we put it on the market ourselves.

A brief word about doing that.

Don't. Don't even waste time considering it. You're not up to it, anymore than if you wanted to re-pipe your basement (unless you're actually a plumber). Thinking of self-marketing? Try self-medicating instead. Better yet, go find some regular kitchen utensils and perform minor surgery on yourself before attempting to sell your house on your own. It will be far less painful and you'll recover more quickly. Or you'll die, which will have the benefit of excusing you from the responsibility of selling.

As a non-expert, you're almost guaranteed to not know when you're doing something wrong. Just as problematic, you won't be sure when you're doing something right. So you end up learning the hard way about what I call the Rule of 3X. Simply put, the Rule of 3X states that any task you undertake without a qualified expert will take at least three times as long to accomplish, and won't be nearly as well done. And in the end, after all that frustration and profanity and stress-related damage to your immune system, you will almost certainly end up hiring the professional you should have called in the first place.

And, frankly, you don't want to be involved. You're going to work long and hard enough just attending to all the projects you had planned to do over the years, but never got to, and now must tackle in a matter of weeks.

You don't need the hassle of standing by as couples traipse through your house. You'll quickly tire of waiting the 30 to 45 minutes while people wander about your property, confer quietly in the living room, then say politely, "Thank you for letting us look at your house."

Marketingâ€"and the marketâ€"matter

You can listen to me, or you can learn the hard way that you don't know diddly about the housing market. Selling a house is not just a matter of fixing and cleaning up, determining a price, then sticking your head out the door and announcing to the world, "Have I got a deal for you." The vast majority of the world outside your door, it seems, is rather preoccupied with other concerns.

Your task, one that my wife and I performed quite poorly, is to get the word out to a specific group of individuals, to wit, those actually seeking to purchase a house in south Oak Park. Unless you know a hundred local real estate agents and have the time to contact them all, think again.

Of course, there are outfits that will offer to help you sell your house on your own. There also are guys on street corners offering to sell you a watch really cheap. Avoid both.

You need a real estate agent. Don't get me wrong. Real estate agents are mere mortals like the rest of us, and yet they're not quite like the rest of us. For one thing, they seem to consider lovely weekend days as work days. And besides being highly motivated by profit, they're unfailingly polite, and are, most of them, smarter than average. And they also know lots of people in the business, both locally and otherwise.

Most importantly, real estate agents know how to do the focused research required to price a house properly. We overpriced ours at first, then by the time we figured out our mistake, the prime selling season had past, according to our agent.

Unfortunately, even with a real estate agent, there's no guarantee you'll sell. Last year, I hear from a few forthcoming people, was not a banner year for the local real estate industry.

Due to the economy, or the war in Iraq, or perhaps some typo in an Alan Greenspan press release, the economy, particulary that part of it that had been fueling Oak Park area house sales, came skidding to a halt, despite advantageous interest rates.

Not that our first agent cared to talk about that phenomenon. Real estate agents, we found, would rather talk about intimately invasive medical examinations than talk about any perceived downturn in the housing market. That's bad voodoo to a business that thrives on positive buzz and upbeat emotions.

Of course, we fed right into that buzz. So confident were we that our Oak Park house would sell, we bought a Forest Park house last spring.

Did I mention we've carried two mortgages the past year? Gosh. How could I have left that pleasant little detail out?

Playing the waiting game

It looked like our calculated risk would go smoothly at first. We had an offer the first week we went on market with an agent. In hindsight we realize we probably should have accepted that first offer, if for no other reason than to cut our ultimate losses. But it was $13,000 under asking price, and, after all, this was Oak Park.

Our second offer came from a local real estate agent apparently adept at speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Looking over the house in the spring when we were still self-marketing, he had opined that our house was "charming," and that the sale price was "well in the range" for our neighborhood. Later that summer, when he came back actually representing a buyer, he presented a ridiculously low-ball offer more than $30,000 under the asking price, despite our having reduced our price by $20,000.

"That was then, this is now," he basically told our agent.

"Go dive off a cliff," I told our agent to basically tell him.

Then we waited. Watching paint dry is a dizzying blur compared to our experience waiting out the sale of our house. Galapagos turtles have shorter life spans. Time passed at a geologic pace, as if we were watching wind sculpt rock.

Speaking of Galapagos turtles, as the months wore on, I imagined I heard the voice of the narrator of the PBS Nova series.

"Hard as it might be to imagine," Nova guy intoned in my imagination, "this middle-aged couple, living on a tree-lined street in a town just outside a major U.S. city, once loved their modest one-and-a-half story, three bedroom, one-and-a-half bath, frame house with detached cedar-sided garage and lovely tree-shaded backyard with deck, conveniently located near parks, shopping and public transportation.

"But that was in a distant past," Nova guy continued, " a vestige of a long forgotten era, obscured now by the mists of time … not to mention a teeth-grinding succession of endless bâ€"â€"â€"-."

Sorry. Nova guy wouldn't speak in that manner. Unfortunately, I did. Frequently.

My wife and I both ended up feeling a bit like the title character in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," who wanders the oceans with a rotting albatross around his neck. It might have been a nice albatross once. But now, dead and stinking, it has clearly lost any charm it once held for him.

That's how we felt, like we had a clapboard albatross around our necks.

A happy ending?

That changed somewhat this spring, when we got a new agent. This agent brought in a design consultant, and we set about correcting many of the things she pointed out (as much as two middle-aged folk with a second house and full time jobs can do.)

Right after Easter, the house went back on the market.

And sold in seven hours. For the full price. Well, sold isn't quite the right word to use. We got an offer, then sat back to watch the turtle again.

The buyers had five days to consider their decision and have the house inspected. Then another five day's extension for the inspector to actually do the inspection. We agreed to remove the asbestos on the basement pipes, at a cost of $1,600. We waited again while the buyer got a roofing consultant in to look at a perceived problem with our roof. That "consultant"â€"read "salesmanâ€"told the buyers the roof was "shot" and needed to be replaced at a cost ofâ€"hold on while I take a deep, slow, controlled breathâ€"$18,000. They proposed we split the cost.

I'm certain our potential buyers are perfectly nice people. But since the roof, which we had totally torn off and replaced 11 years ago, looked perfectly serviceable to us, we told our agent to politely tell them no.

Three more days passed until their agent came back with a verbal acceptance. Now lawyers are involved, so we await written notice. We were still waiting a week from last Monday. Our agent said the buyers have set May 9 as the closing date. I bit my toungue and didn't ask him if that meant 2005, or some other year. Meanwhile, the house is "under contract" and off the market, which means anyone else interested in it can't make a bid. Nasty fantasies are beginning to swirl about my stress-weakened mind like malevolent ghosts.

"Sorry that fell through," says our agent in my fever dream. "And it looks like we've missed the prime sales season."

It may soon be time to self-medicate and perform minor surgery on myself.

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