How I Became A Real Estate Idiot

Think you’ve made money mistakes? Check this out

I am one of the people who invested in real estate during the frenzy that collapsed, causing all the trouble now. I am not a real estate investor normally: normally I am a writer. I wouldn’t even own my own place in San Francisco if my husband hadn’t insisted that we buy, not rent. That was in 1991: ten years later, San Francisco housing prices went nuts. A single family house in the wallflower Richmond District went for $1.5 million. The two-bedroom condo my husband and I owned at the south end of Scott Street in the middle of the city quadrupled in value. In the 18 years we’d owned it, it has earned more than both of us put together have garnered from our puny writing teacher and editor salaries.

Obviously I knew a great deal about real estate.

So in 2004 when my sister Nora who lives in Portland broke her leg and I went up there to help her out for the weekend, I drove around and looked with my new expertise at houses to buy for a long-term investment. Let the herd gallop off in their vans and planes to wave checks at sweaty developers in Phoenix and Las Vegas: I would outfox them and buy in undiscovered Oregon.

Houses were cheap in Portland. Driving by the For Sale signs was like seeing yard sales in which you could buy the yard. Nora’s own little house by the Willamette River, which she bought for $234,000 only the year before, was already worth a $100,000 more, according to zillow.com, a new site that told you what your property was worth when you typed in the address.

I found a ranch style house overlooking Willamette River, on an acre of  picturesque old rock quarry that curved  behind the house in a semi-bowl. The owner was right there when I went to see it, a tawny haired woman in cutoffs. It was right  across the river from the white piers and fancy fiberglass boats of millionaire Lake Oswego, a ritzy area whose prices had skyrocketed so much that owner had signs on their lawns  that said “not interested in selling” to warn off the Californians on the hunt for real estate who prowled past at ten miles an hour.

My sister Nora assured me the house I picked out was a steal at $450,000. I did not spend much time remembering that I’d had to co-sign on Nora’s  new house in Portland because  her last one was foreclosed on.

Nor did I spend time remembering that Nora and I don’t always get along that well.

My twin sister Adrian begged me not to sign the contract. This time I did pause. She’d been right about the stock market. (She’d offered to reach through the phone and sock me if I didn’t sell my stocks before it was too late.)

I bought the house that April with a $100,000 down, selling my husband’s and my remaining stocks to get the money.

I should perhaps have worried when the bank had  trouble getting the house to “come up to value,” as they called it. Which is to say, trouble finding similar  properties nearby that cost as much I was prepared to pay for mine.

Banker talk, I decided. I reminded myself that a house can’t disappear completely, like, wince, Norcal stock. I told the owner, who was jubilantly switching to a houseboat on the Columbia river, that she didn’t have to do the last-minute electrical work if I could have all the treasures the unattached garage was stuffed to the rafters with, and the rusty boat outside it.

On the plane home to San Francisco after closing the deal, I read the Oregonian smugly. "North Portland, out Highway 26, any place in the Southeast or Southwest, it’s all just off the charts," a realtor told reporters. As the Alaska Airlines steward handed me my pretzels, I saw the eager buyers, sending me flowers, long letters telling why they would be the most appreciative owners, and would I allow them to pay $100k over asking?

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