Home, Sweet Home…
When my mother died, I inherited a house. My father bought it in 1953, the year after I was born, for $17,000 and change. That seemed like a lot of money then. Today, if you figured out a price per square foot, you couldn't buy the front hall closet for that.
Years later when my career as a professional writer was taking off, my father was still skeptical that anyone could make a living in that line of work. He, after all, labored for the Internal Revenue Service dealing with delinquents and he therefore did not meet a lot of writers who were solvent. In 1971, I convinced him that I had a future in that occupation by making the final payments on that house. I didn't tell him I was doing it. I just did…with money earned writing Donald Duck comics.
He was startled when he received the final papers from the bank indicating the loan was paid in full. That wasn't supposed to happen for two more years and he phoned them to say there was some mistake. When they told him who'd made the final payments, he came into my room crying, hugged me and never again worried about me making a living in my chosen profession. I moved out in 1975 but he and my mother lived in that home for the rest of their lives. He passed in '91 and she left us last October.
Shortly after my father went away on me, my mother asked me to get her a lawyer. She said, "I want someone who can arrange my affairs so that when I go, you can handle all the paperwork and details quickly." Having recently spent way too much time dealing with mortuary employees burying my father, and bankers to transfer everything from his name to that of my mother, that sounded fine to me. I found an attorney who specialized in such matters, she worked with him for a week or three, then she handed me a sealed manila envelope and said, "Here. When I die, open this and you should be able to take care of everything in about fifteen minutes." Among other preparations, they'd put everything she owned into a trust, designated me as sole heir of the trust and added my name to all her bank accounts. She'd also prepaid for a cremation and a scattering-at-sea.
Fifteen minutes turned out to be an underestimate…but had she died within a few years of setting all that up, I might have been able to do it in twenty. Since she lived a bit more than two more decades, some of her financial details changed and neither of us thought to update the arrangements in that envelope. Mainly, the problems flowed from those crooked caretakers she had. You may remember that twice, I had to cancel my mother's bank accounts and credit cards and open new ones for her. Well, dummy me didn't think to put those new accounts into the trust, plus she'd also opened one at a different bank for some odd reason and she'd listed me on that one but not in the proper way.
I think I've gotten all that straightened out…and you know what the hardest thing has been? Canceling her cable TV account.
Years ago, there was a very funny comedian named Ed Bluestone who seems to have disappeared from this planet. He had a joke about his doctor having a sign in the waiting room: "Death does not mean the end of your financial obligation." I'm learning that death does not mean Time-Warner will stop billing you for cable TV. It took me three months to get them to cease doing that and now I'm working on the refund for the months after I notified them of her passing and they turned it off. Despite my taking a copy of the death certificate to one of their offices, the matter is still under "investigation." I suspect that if we hadn't cremated her, they'd want to exhume the body to make sure she isn't still holding the remote control.
But finally, cable TV aside, I'm down to selling that house, the one I grew up in. People ask if that saddens me and the answer is, sadly enough, no. It's been a bit emotional to go through all the drawers and find artifacts of my father's past, my mother's past and mine…but for the most part, it's just a house I happen to own.
Finding someone to sell it for me was easy. For about the last fifteen years of her life, my mother was inundated by realtors who wanted the task (and commission) of selling the house for her. Some called. Others came to the door often. She told all she was not interested. Not in the slightest.
It wasn't just that she was comfortable there, though that was reason enough. It was mainly that my mother lived with worsening vision and the constant, not unjustified fear that she would outlive her ability to see at all. One social worker at the hospital told her that if she went blind, she'd of course have to move into an Assisted Living facility. She said absolutely not. "If I'm completely blind, I want to be blind in a house I know from top to bottom and inside-out." To test her theory, she'd sometimes leave off all the lights at night and navigate her way around the place.
She found that she could manage it — sort of, but it was like a successful fire drill. She prayed it would never come to that; that her heart would quit completely before her eyes did…and that was how it worked out. She also managed to pass away, I'm being told by everyone, at the perfect time to sell that house. From every realtor who wanted the listing, I heard the same thing: "This is a highly desirable area and there's absolutely no inventory. If we list it soon, you'll have the only home for sale for ten blocks in any direction." With realtors, it's always the perfect time to sell your house…and probably also the perfect time to buy one. But that thing about the ten blocks seems to be true.
Over the years, my mother had amassed an amazing collection of note pads, calendars, date books, seed packets, oven mitts, nail files, mugs, calculators and other tchotchkes (here, look it up if you don't know) each bearing a realtor's name, number and often a photo. Having lifted a few, I even had note pads in my home from realtors who worked her area.
And the gifts were still coming. One gent, unaware she'd passed, left a poinsettia plant on her doorstep just before Christmas — apparently, an annual tradition with folks whose business he courted. I found it there on one visit along with several ads and business cards from other realtors. There was no card on the plant — no indication at all of which realtor had left it. My theory is that one of the other realtors, when he dropped by to leave off a calendar, saw the potted plant and removed the card bearing the name of his competitor. In this world, it's every man for himself.
At some point, while she was still with us and they were trying to charm her into listing with them now or later, one of them began contacting me. She told the ones who came to her door that she would never sell the house but that her son someday would. And sure enough, one got my number and phoned a couple of times to impress upon me that if I loved my mother, I would get her into a nursing home a.s.a.p. and, hey, I could pay for that nursing home by letting him sell her house. It was, after all, the perfect time to sell.
That one phoned twice. In both calls, I told him (much to his surprise) that I had no intention of kicking my mother out of her home. For a long time, I had the feeling that when she did go, the way I'd find out is that this guy would phone and say, "Hey, sorry your mother died. Ready to list with me?" By the time it happened though, in a neat bit of irony, my mother had outlived him. Go, Mom!
Recently, it seemed like I was ready to unload the dwelling. After consulting with friends who knew about such things, I decided to meet with the five best local realtors, whoever they might be. I got hold of a list of agents who'd sold properties in the neighborhood over the last 24 months, then I lopped off the ones whose names appeared nowhere on my mother's memo pads and potholders. I also crossed off three guys who had the best track record in terms of getting the most money for what they'd sold because they'd achieved that by selling only one house. It was a few miles away and it belonged to Candy Spelling.
Once I'd crossed off all those names on the list, I contacted the top five remaining and arranged to interview them at my mother's house, one realtor or team at a time, in 90-minute intervals over two days. The idea was to find out what each thought they could get for the place and what I might have to do to it in order for them to get that — and of course, I wanted to find a realtor I could trust.
As it turned out, the appointments were highly educational. By the time I'd finished the meetings, I'd learned so much about the business that I had to phone the first ones I'd met with and ask additional questions. The first thing I learned is that there's no prompter person on this planet than a realtor who wants your business. Every single one was there on the dot. I interviewed all five…plus one surprise entry. While I was sitting there chatting with Realtor Candidate #3, a team of two of his competitors — a man and a woman team — came to my door. They'd apparently been coming by for days, knocking and finding no one there. Finally, they caught me in.
"We were talking to others on your block here and one of your neighbors said you might be interested in selling this home," one said. I resisted the temptation to ask them, "Gee, which neighbor might that have been?" Instead, I explained that I was talking to a realtor in the dining room at that very moment and I took their card and promised to call them if I decided to interview any others. They went away…but not far. I'm guessing they waited down the block in their car, watching to see when #3 would leave. I was just getting into my car to go home when they came running up, claiming they'd been driving by again when they saw me come out…and could I spare a moment to hear what they could do for me?
Ordinarily, I shy from pushy salespeople. When I'm in a position to engage writers or artists or actors, nothing makes me less likely to hire someone than a vigorous sales pitch from an agent…or any pitch at all from the Talent. But in this case, I was looking for someone to sell on my behalf so I thought, "Hmm…maybe I want a pushy salesperson." I met with the team and decided I did…but not them.
By the way: If you think you're the least bit funny and you crave a great audience, just have a house that realtors want to sell for you. Every one of them thought I was the wittiest person on the planet and eagerly played Ed McMahon to my Johnny Carson. If I'd mentioned the Holocaust to some of these folks, they would have howled and I don't even think they were faking. I think one of the qualifications to be a successful realtor is that you have to find hilarity in every word uttered by a potential client. With one, I had the following exchange…
REALTOR: Wow, you should be a comedy writer.
ME: I am a comedy writer.
REALTOR: Well, there you are. I should have known, considering how funny you are.
ME: You should have known because I told you five minutes ago.
And when I said that, he practically fell over laughing.
I finally settled on one who I think knows what he's doing. He's certainly sold enough homes lately. When he asked me how I picked him — these folks are all well aware of their competition — I explained, "I got it down to two of you who seemed to know how to be aggressive without being an asshole. And then I flipped a mental coin and you came up heads." That seemed to please him. I could tell because he didn't laugh at that, just grinned. Two of the realtors I didn't pick called or sent e-mails to ask me to explain my decision so they could learn what they were doing wrong. One called to say she has a buyer lined up and would like to make an offer on the house now and perhaps save us the trouble of formally listing it.
We're formally listing it for sale next week and my guy thinks it'll be on and off the market in five days. I told him I'm in no hurry to grab an offer. I want to close off that chapter and not have to take care of the place…but if waiting a year or two would get me a significantly higher deal, fine. No rush. He thinks prices may be peaking and that we'll get as good a deal now as we would by waiting — which is what I'd expect a realtor to say. They all did but there is some supporting evidence so we'll see if he's right.
We'll also see if at any point, watching my childhood home go to someone else has any real impact on me. So far, like I said, it's just a house I happen to own and want to unload. I vividly remember almost everything that occurred there since about the time I had my fourth birthday party. Maybe that's why I'm having no trouble parting with it…because as with my mother dying, I've been prepared for this for a long time. And even after we close escrow, I'll still have all those memories.