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June 29, 2009

Man showers, faux fireplaces and a doorbell that chimes the theme from “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

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.



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We bought my In-laws house. That should be 'nuff said, but I will go on.

I hated the house but we could afford it since DH's Grandfather gave us the down payment and held the mortgage which for us came to $50.00 a month.

Oh, what the hell it was cheap, super cheap! It had three bedrooms, a full bathroom, a powder room, an attic, a basement, an enclosed cement block back porch, not a single closet in the whole place, and it had a large fenced yard. The downstairs was divided into a small parlor, a small dining room, a hallway, and a large eat in kitchen.

I demolished the walls between hallway, the parlor, and dining room and created one large living room. His mother about had a cow. Tough, it was my home now.

We moved the yard back and put in a driveway large enough for four cars, so we no longer had to fight for parking on the street.

We paid off the mortgage.

We built a pond and I planted gardens. I have pictures on my blog.

His mother doesn't like to visit here because I've changed her house too much--again, I say tough.

Sure, I'd love to move out of town but this house is paid for and it works for us. ;)

Welcome back home to the South!


Lisa, you sure know how to tell a story. Aren't you glad you bought the ugly house, just so you had this great tale to tell? Thanks for the entertainment!

Lisa, great story.

Peg, good for you. I have your pond pictures loading on another tab. Your home is beautiful.

Dear Hubby & I are living in the first home we bought. It will be PAID OFF in October.


I can't wait!

You still have the Rhinestone Cowboy door chime, right? Because that's totally awesome.

This house needed you. And you needed it. Fantastic descriptions. I can see it!

Great blog? Do you have before and after pictures?

What a great story!

Add a dead body in that fake fire place, and there are the bones for your next novel!

Also, thanks so much for making Rhinestone Cowboy my earworm of the day. Good grief.

Hi all!

Great comments!

I'll have to check around for some "before" pictures, the house was so ugly it was painful to look at.

We kept the Rhinestone Cowboy.

We actually sold the house when we moved to Sarasota, and made enough $$ on it to afford a house that was already perfect just the way it was.

Sadly, the doorbell at our new house doesn't play any songs at all... Can you imagine that?



Lisa, what a great story.

We were thinking of moving recently, and had a real estate person take a look at our house. I really don't think my house is cluttered or eye-poppingly busy, but she recommended we remove all wallpaper (used very sparingly in a couple of rooms), and repaint any room that wasn't neutral. And any house she took us to was so decluttered and neutral as to be totally impersonal. We decided we couldn't tackle all that right now, and would stay where we are.

Amazing that your house was totally the other end of the spectrum.

What a great story! So funny. All Real Estate Agents should read it! Glad you made it into a home and glad it made you money in the end! You'll have memories forever. Bet you could find a doorbell that plays a song if you search the internet and/or Ebay!


The house was on the market for MONTHS and MONTHS before we bought it -- most people couldn't see past the horrific decor.

I will say that when we were relocated again 22 months later, all the real estate agents who had seen the house when it was being sold by the previous owners couldn't believe it was the same house. We ended up with 3 offers the first week.

It was hard to leave, though -- we really became attached to the house and all of its bizarre stories through the year and a half of constant painting/updating/bizarre stuff removal...


I love the story of reclamation -- and Peg's lovely pond -- that would be a great project! I recently rented furniture to "stage" the condo -- empty is apparently as bad as cluttered.
A friend just told me of a woman she knew who had the sound of barking dogs incorporated into her doorbell to discourage "bad guys."

Fabulous, laugh out loud, roll on the floor, fantastic story. Thank you for giving me a good start to the day.

Lisa - "...an alligator in the back yard."

I went to look at a rustic piece of property in the Texas hill country across the road from a place my sister and her husband bought for when they retire. It was beautiful, out in the country, overlooking what is known as "Enchanted Rock." Then a ten-foot black coach whip let itself down to the ground from a tree limb, and I was in my car, churning up dust, headed back to Fort Worth.

One man's banana palace is another man's "The Money Pit". While still putting myself through law school, I found myself in the untenable situation of having to buy a house quickly (read: custody battle). I bought the "Shar Peis" house; you know...the one with the wrinkled old 1922 cheesecloth and wallpaper rolling down the walls. It was all I could afford, but it was the worst house in the best neighborhood. Later, when I went to protest the tax value, I took photos to prove my point. After a collective gasp, the head honcho of the tax review board asked what I did for a living. When I said lawyer, he scrunched up his face and with an utter look of disgust, said, "YOU live HERE?" I rest my case.

I LOVE this!

And I want me one of them Rhinestone Cowboy doorbells. Even though I live in L.A.

The question of who those supposedly gay men truly were, and why they were posing has the makings of a great novel, BTW.

Lisa, great story. And it's wonderful you were able to look past the eye-popping awfulness to get to the jewel underneath.

I went house hunting with a friend of mine. One of the most atroscious houses we saw had orange-pink shag carpeting, worn out and peeling green grasscloth wallpaper and dilapidated kitchen fixtures. Of course, that was the one she and her SO purchased.

The first thing we did as soon as she signed the papers was start pulling down the wallpaper as fast as we could. Luckily most of it was easy to remove. The flooring and kitchen unfortunately had to wait awhile.

The house we currently live in was my least favorite of all of the houses we viewed when we started looking to use my Air Force retirement move $$. Our house at the time was perfect for two people. Then we added Lady K in 2003 and the house seemed smaller, the neighborhood tackier, anyway....
We started looking and found our current house on a rainy day when we were searching out a different house on our list. This one wasn't on the list, but DH fell in love. We saw that there was an open house that Sunday and off we went. No A/C, no landscaping, the whole family (kids and dog included I think) smoked like chimneys and the house smelled of it. The pluses were the many bedrooms, bathrooms and the HEWGAH back lawn area.
We bought it and five years later it is just about perfect with the A/C added the day after we moved in and all of the nasty-aith carpet yanked up and wood floors put in. We have steadily added to the landscaping and I am very glad to stay here the rest of my natural life.
Now to go look for the doorbell that plays Rhinestone Cowboy....DH would love it. = }

-v-, I had never before seen HEWGAH or nasty-aith which sent me on a search. Can you tell me anything about the background of these terms, or are they just the kind that sprout up as part of the living language?
I think I've already shared with you that my students showed me the Ms. as a female honorific now properly has a period after it, even though the feminists who invented it in the '70's deliberately didn't use one, since ms. already meant manuscript. I do love the way language evolves. . . most of the time.

Our house was a surprise, for all concerned. We lived up the street, a little more than a quarter-mile away, in the house hubby bought a year before we got married. I hated that place. It had orange (and I mean ORANGE) front and garage doors, and the same color on the second floor. Hideous. The master bedroom was four different shades of purple: grape, puce, lavender and magenta. And that was in a paneled room, if you can imagine. Oh. My. God. No way could I sleep in that room until we ripped up the two-tone carpet. The rest of the joint was equally yucky.

Once we had a little one (my second, his first), the house started feeling cramped, so I spent a lot of daydreaming hours figuring out how I could make it larger. Then one day when hubby was out of town I drove past an Open House sign, just down the street, a place I'd never even noticed before. Loaded up the little one in a stroller and attended. And didn't leave for two hours. This was honest-to-John my dream house. The existing paint and wallpaper even matched stuff we already had, curtains and towels, etc.

I totally fell in love with the place, and called my husband (long before cell phones) at one of his contacts on the road, asking him to call me. I convinced him we HAD to buy this house. Never mind that we had not been looking. Never mind that he loved the location of the other one. But he insisted that I lowball the offer. Well, of course they declined. Then a couple weeks later there was a "Sold" sign out front, and I was heartbroken. Every time I went past the house it just made me sick.

Until lo and behold, the "Sold" sign was gone and the house was for sale again. I called the agent, who told me the sale had fallen through, and now the house was owned by the former owner's employer. So we made another offer, even lower than the first one, and we ended up paying $40,000 less than it was sold for previously.

We've done a lot to this house in the last 24 years. Partial list: air conditioning (the house is 70 years old, and didn't have it originally); a new furnace; new roof; replacement windows; patios front and back; tore down an old screen porch; added a front coat closet; ripped out a powder room (there were two on the first floor) to make a bigger laundry area; gutted three bathrooms; new carpet in a couple places; added 250 square feet more to the kitchen (after gutting it, and knocking down a wall); plus added a different, more conveniently located screen porch; and a garage. But it was worth it. Before the market crashed, the house would have sold for several times what we paid, if anyone could pry me out of it.

Karen in Ohio - That's a wonderful story about how you talked your husband into buying that house--over the phone, no less. I need to know how you did that. Promises? Threats? Bartering? Sometimes you just know a house is yours...

I've always loved old houses. Nothing's square. There are always problems, but they have character. The last old house (100 years next year) I bought, the husband told me every time he went out of town, his wife did a quick remodel job. Said he had to stop traveling.

Anyway, now I live in a death trap 5 doors down from my mother. It was a self-inflicted wound...it doesn't need work, it needs a herpetologist.

Once upon an apartment-hunting-in-LA time, I looked at a rental house that was remarkably inexpensive. It had black 2" shag carpet wall-to-wall, and the living room and dining room had scarlet flocked wallpaper and large fake-gold decorations. The occupants obviously loved the effect. I was, um, not drawn to it.
'Fraid of snakes, Laurie? Black coach whip wouldn't bite you or anything, would it? But I can imagine if you're looking for a comfortable retirement place, you might want something a little more citified. :)

Oh, man, do I have ‘before and after’ pictures of a glorious, huge Victorian in St. Louis that I still pine for. And it was a mess, you can’t imagine. We bought it from the bank that had foreclosed on a bankrupt Madame who used it as her home and whorehouse. We didn’t need a herpetologist but one room did need an exorcist. It was a coupld of years before the former patrons completely quit showing up at the door looking for Mandy, fun and relaxation.

This is the house where I learned about the structural properties of wallpaper. I spent months scraping 11 layers of wallpaper that must have been super-glued to the dining room ceiling—an 11 ft ceiling, so I had to work from a scaffold. By the way, most wall paper steamers do not work upside down.

The night I finished the last scrap I was barely able to crawl up the 22 steps to the bathroom to soak in the tub before going to bed, but I managed. I had just fallen asleep when I heard this tremendous crash. I peeled myself off the bedroom ceiling and ran down the steps to find the dining room ceiling on the floor.

I stared for a couple of minutes and then did the sanest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I said, “Tomorrow…I will worry about that tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day” and went back to bed.

Wow, Mary Lynn: that house had a personality all its own (or maybe several). Glad you weren't under the ceiling when it fell!

Although I love watching all the real estate shows on TV, I think it is leading us towards the beigeing of America. Neutral, stainless steel,neutral,granite, neutral. I understand doing this when your house is for sale - unlike Lisa and many of the Tarts, most cannot see past paint color. However, if you are not planning to sell your house - go for it! Do what you like, especially paint. It's relatively cheap and re-doable. BTW: yes, I have SS.

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