Man showers, faux fireplaces and a doorbell that chimes the theme from “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
By Lisa Daily
“We’re buying the ugly house,” I informed my husband tearfully as I followed the real-estate agent back to her office.
My husband was inconveniently (for me, lucky for him) stuck at a conference in Washington DC in a convention center with sketchy cell phone reception. And I, six months pregnant and toting our cranky three year-old, was speed-shopping for real-estate.
“What’s the difference if I’m there or not?” he’d joked. “You’re just going to talk me into buying the one you like anyway. Why not eliminate the middle-man?”
He had a point.
My husband had been promoted, and our family was being relocated. Or maybe, dislocated. I had just two short days to find our new home. And I was dragging our potty-training-in-progress toddler along for the ride.
After several years of living in the frozen North, we were finally moving back to the South, and buying our very first home. Granted, I was hoping for Charleston or Richmond, but south Florida was as close as we could get. (Yes, I realize there are many in the world who do not consider Florida to be a part of the South, but frankly, they had sweet tea and warm weather. This was a corporate relocation and I was going to have to take what I could get.)
Hacking the ice off my windshield for five months out of the year was not the reason I needed to get back to the South. Much of my family hails from the South: Southerners are my people. My family recipes all contain a large measure of grease and sugar, I yearned for the scent of magnolias, I wanted my children to grow up speaking with the melodic lilt of the South. I wanted to live in a place where strangers at the grocery store would reinforce the good manners I was teaching at home, would insist that my young son refer to them as “Ma’am” or “Sir” and would never, as has happened on many occasions in the North, say to a toddler, “Just call me Jim.”
Day one did not start off well. Our real-estate agent was recommended to us by my husband’s company: her sole qualification, I later learned, being the willingness to kick back some of her commission to the relocation company.
Being the domestically-inclined, hyper-organized, researching lunatic that I am, I’d been scouring the online real estate listings for weeks. When I spoke with our assigned agent on the phone the week before we were set to arrive in Florida, I told her I had three requirements:
1) We wanted a buyers’ agent (someone who only represents buyers, not sellers)
2) I wanted to see the houses I’d faxed over in the exact order I’d specified.
3) I did not want to see the ugly banana yellow house that fit our every requirement, yet was so aesthetically horrific that no sane person could possibly reside there.
I’m not the kind of person who needs to see 43 houses in order to realize the first one was perfect. I am the kind of person, however, who likes her directives to be followed.
In real-estate world, my husband and I were a slam dunk. We needed to purchase a house immediately because we were moving in three weeks. We had a nice-sized deposit at the ready and a pre-approval letter in hand. We were every lazy real estate agent’s fantasy come true: One, maybe two days of work, and a nice fat commission check.
When my son and I met with the agent on day one, she informed us that she was indeed a buyer’s agent. Unless, of course, we happened to decide that we wanted to buy one of her company’s listings, and then she would magically morph into what they liked to call a “dual agent”.
Dual agent, as in, representing both the buyer AND the seller. I was not happy. I’d made it pretty clear that a “dual agent” was the very thing I was trying to avoid. She smiled a squinty little smile, and ran her fingers through the ragged ends of her bleached blond hair. But she knew, and I knew, that I was stuck with her. I had to find a house by tomorrow.
We set off in the direction of potential house number one, stopping off first at a three-bedroom shack with a frog-green pool and carpet that smelled like a retirement home for Great Danes. The house was more than a hundred thousand dollars below our target price. It was not on my list.
When we pulled into the driveway the owner of said shack was chain smoking in the driveway. I was almost positive I’d seen her on Jerry Springer. Or maybe she was the yodeling knife juggler on America’s Got Talent. My first instinct was to slam the rental car in reverse, peel out of the neighborhood and leave the “dual agent” to fend for herself, but the owner sprinted over to my door and rapped her knuckles on the window. My good manners kicked in, and I forced myself to at least tour the house. I got out of the car slowly, trying not to make any sudden moves.
“We’re gonna get the pool fixed!” she rasped in a voice that sounds like a bad-girl Phyllis Diller, the cigarette dangling from her lip.
As we stepped through the front door, I held my son close to me and tried not to inhale. Three minutes later we were back at our cars, four minutes later we were having a pow-wow in the parking lot at the Piggly Wiggly.
“I don’t want to see anymore crack dens,” I said.
“I thought maybe…” my real-estate agent stammered.
“Please don’t think,” I said, “just take me to the houses on my list. At least four bedrooms, no more than $20,000 above or below the number I told you.”
Lesson number one in real-estate school is to show the buyers all of the crappy houses first, so that by the time they see the good house, they’ll feel like they’ve stumbled on Shangri-la.
“I know about the crack house-to-palace model,” I said. “Just take me to the good stuff. I can barely fit behind the steering wheel, I have to stop to pee every five minutes, my son is already beginning to howl and one more chocolate-covered bribe is going send the kid into a sugar coma.”
Two inappropriate houses later, our real estate agent was ready to pack it in for the day. It was lunchtime, and I still hadn’t seen any of the houses on my list.
“I have to find a house by tomorrow!” I said.
“We’ll get an early start,” she promised.
I loaded my son back into his car seat and headed to the hotel, leaving a message for the dual agent that we would no longer be needing her services. I now had one day to find a house. And no agent.
Back at the hotel, I called the listing agent for house number one on my list. I ended up telling her my entire story, bawling my eyes out to this complete stranger.
“There, there,” she soothed, “we’ll find your house tomorrow.” She promised to clear her entire schedule for the next day, show me any houses I’d like in the exact order I specified. She even offered to send her mother over to scout a new possibility that popped up just that morning, one that was not on my list. This was a woman who understood an easy commission when she saw one.
The next morning we started off, list in hand. The nice agent had brought her mother along, also a real-estate agent, who attempted to entertain my child as we rushed through the homes of strangers. I eliminated the houses one by one: This neighborhood isn’t what I was hoping for. This house appears to have been built for the seven dwarves. This one has no storage. (And, um, an alligator in the backyard.)
By four-thirty in the afternoon on my last day, I was desperate and at the end of my list. I told the nice agent and her mother that I wanted to do the unthinkable: I wanted to see the ugly yellow house.
The ugly yellow house sat on a quiet cul-de-sac, a block away from the best elementary school in the district. It had four bedrooms and an office, Mexican ceramic tile and a stunning banana palm providing shade for the resort-style pool. It also had forest green-carpet paired with a turquoise hallway, a peach-and-navy blue living room, and a murder-red guest room with weird Rob and Laura Petrie single bed built-ins made of government-issue beige laminate.
Each room in the house was papered in an abundant selection of the most hideous old-lady wallpapers money can buy, complete with one, sometimes two, coordinating borders. The kitchen, which boasted the stunning Mexican ceramic tile, also featured orange laminate counters that ran all the way up the wall, all the way up to the faux-est faux wood cabinets I have ever seen. And the half-wall in the formal living room had synthetic green marble insets to coordinate with the fake fireplace. Fake fireplace. As in, not an actual fireplace. Just a mantle and a hearth glued to the wall, complete with a collection of plastic logs that kind of glowed when you plugged them into the wall.
And there was no bathtub. Instead, the very large master bath had what we later dubbed “the man shower”. It was a huge, tiled room overlooking a toilet. Like a locker room, but with only one showerhead. And no hot water.
The owners claimed to be two gay men, but I think they must have been fronting. Stereotype or not, every gay man I’d ever met in my life had exquisite taste, these guys just had to be posers.
The bones of the house were wonderful, classic, quality. But it was nearly impossible to see beyond the tacky wall coverings, haunted-house style shrubbery and the owners’ obvious passion for laminate.
The house was like a Vanderbilt, decked out in frosted pink lipstick, a spandex miniskirt and a sparkly boob tube straight from the clearance rack at Wal-mart.
In the end, we bought the ugly yellow house, which we dubbed the banana palace. It was our first house. It was big. The neighborhood was great. And we figured we could temporarily live with the fact that we owned the ugliest house in the state. We stripped out the horrid green carpet, painted everything in sight, hacked down the jungle in front of the house, invested in a professional-grade wallpaper steamer, and hired a team of cleaning ladies to scour the place from top to bottom. A year later, the house was unrecognizable. It was our home.
The miracle of the banana palace is how it brought our family together. My husband and I hung light fixtures together. My mother and my aunts flew in to help us paint, strip wallpaper and demolish the fireplace. Our son peeled off wallpaper as high as he could reach, and learned how to use a paint roller. In the beginning, it seemed every day revealed a new problem, or something else that had been ignored or neglected by the former owners. But in the process of peeling and painting and refurbishing, our family grew closer. We giggled together about the man shower and the fake fireplace and the fact that our doorbell chimed the theme from “Rhinestone Cowboy”.
And that old house, which started out as the house we settled for, became the home we loved.