Phil Gulley: House of Lies
Editor’s Note: This opinion column elicited strong feedback from readers, especially Realtors. We are posting those responses as we receive them. You may send a letter to the editor here.
With some regularity, the government reports on the shape of the American economy based on imports and exports, jobs lost or created, and the reading of chicken entrails. I have my own economic indicator. If things are going well, I get an itch to move. If times are lean, I hunker down and stay put. I’ve lived in the same house for 16 years, which tells you what I think of our economy.
Friends of mine, more optimistic than I, are selling their house. They moved in 10 years ago and have complained about the place ever since. But now that they’re trying to pawn it off on someone else, it has become “One of the Finest Homes in Town!” according to the flyer. The kitchen they’ve always hated because it’s too small and poorly designed is now “Updated!” and “Amazing!” The precarious deck that caused them to sue the builder who botched the job is described as “An Incredible Summer Retreat!” The formal dining room they never used is “The Perfect Place to Make Family Memories!” and the fireplace that doesn’t draw correctly and fills the downstairs with smoke is billed as “The Heart of the Home!” The landscaping, a handful of small trees and two rosebushes, is “Remarkable!” The word “Amazing!” is used four times in the flyer, even though just last year the couple told me the house was “a piece-of-crap money pit,” and they couldn’t wait to sell it.
The “Stunning New Carpet!” replaced the old carpet their dogs and cats had peed on. On a hot day, you can still smell the odor, so they’re smart to unload the house in the winter. What the flyer didn’t mention was that after a rain, their side yard is a malarial swamp. Plus, it left out that the house is built on top of a spring so the sump pump runs continuously; the neighbors behind them have three dogs that bark around the clock; and the roof is old, leaks like a sieve, and needs to be replaced. I think they’re hoping people will be so busy looking at their “Remarkable!” landscaping, they won’t notice.
The listing noted that the house was in a “Great Neighborhood!” I’m in that neighborhood, so it’s not all that great. My yard is full of dandelions, my house needs painting, and there are weeds growing in the cracks of my driveway. That doesn’t qualify as “Great!” in my book. To be fair, it isn’t “Seedy!” I would classify it as an “Ordinary!” neighborhood, though no Realtor would admit to that. If I ever sell my house, I hope my agent lies as well as the one selling my friends’ property.
A glamour photo symbolizes the real-estate process itself—the artful disguising of the ordinary, the exaggeration of beauty.
The Realtor representing their home is a woman. I know that because the flyer says nothing about the garage. A male would have mentioned the garage. Plus, the Realtor’s name and picture are on the for-sale sign. That’s always a dead giveaway. According to the National Association of Realtors, 57 percent of the nation’s Realtors are women. One would think that a business dominated by women would be more honest. We tend to think women are more virtuous than men. I saw a Facebook post that read “If Grandmothers Ruled the World, There’d Be No More War.” All the women commenting on it agreed. (I think they forgot about Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher.) But when it comes to real estate, it appears women are as devious as men.
If you’ve ever seen an advertisement for a real-estate company, you’ve likely noticed a good number of female Realtors use glamour photos. Why is that? A person buying a house isn’t trolling for a date, so why should Realtors look like they’re headed to a singles bar? Then again, a glamour photo symbolizes the process itself—the artful disguising of the ordinary, the exaggeration of beauty, the hiding of flaws.
When my wife and I first saw our house, a Realtor wasn’t with us, thank God. The owners had moved out, and the back door was secured with a lock—the combination to which everyone in town knew. So my wife and I went in and nosed around. No one was in the background pointing out the highlights, hurrying us past the cracked vanity, the stained carpet, the brass fixtures beginning to pit. We stayed an hour, poking and prodding, igniting newspapers to test the draw of the fireplaces, inspecting the ceilings for water damage, searching out the intrepid termite.
The next day we phoned the Realtor to go through the house again. She pointed out the “Tons of Storage!” and “Gorgeous Fireplaces!” She didn’t want to pressure us, but “The House Was Going to Sell Quickly!” and we had “Better Not Let This Gem Get Away!” We thought about it for a couple of days, and then made an offer and tussled with the couple who owned it—a request here, a concession there, the Realtor telling whoppers all the while. The next week, the house was ours.
It’s curious that the two largest purchases we make, cars and homes, are fraught with treachery. Why is that? If it weren’t raining, people thinking of buying our house would never know groundwater leaks in around the pipe in the southwest corner of our basement, and I’d probably forget to tell them because I’d be too busy pointing out what “A Peaceful Retreat!” our screen house is.
My wife has scheduled us to move out of our house in 2036, when we’re 75 years old. That means I have 22 years to make up a handful of lies I can tell about our home—unless we hire a Realtor and let her tell them for us. What’s one more fib to a Realtor? They’re already in trouble with God as it is.
Whoever we hire, she won’t know to point out that you can walk up the hill west of our house and watch the moon rise over the woods. She won’t know about the bats that swarm out of the trees at dusk and swirl in the sky, dipping and diving for mosquitoes. Or how later in the night, two owls court one another, calling out back and forth. She won’t know that when my kids were little, I would take them into the woods and uncover the arrowhead I had buried the day before and talk to them about the Indians who used to live here. Nor will she know how every Christmas all my family comes over and we eat in the garage and then nap while the kids play football in the yard. All the best things about a house never get told by a Realtor.
Columnist Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.