exercises in compound storytelling

Monday, July 8, 2013


I have within the last five years sold two houses and bought one, and now have one house on the market. It has been something of a wild and disappointing ride: the recession hit the markets where I was selling, but not the market where I was buying, so let's just say I've been taking losses I can't write off my taxes left and right, while maybe acquiring some additional future taxes. When I am old and subsisting on government cheese I will look back on those losses with shall we say mixed feelings.

The first house I sold should have moved quickly; it was a quad unit in a town with a severe housing shortage, a single-employer town that was going through some serious gyrations that involved replacing a lot of older workers with younger workers. The older workers were mostly retiring and staying in town, so housing prices weren't falling at the top end. This meant I had a fair pool of candidate buyers for a property I had remodeled extensively and that inspected very nicely. Unfortunately about the time I put the property on the market my neighbor on one side had her deadbeat brother and his big mean dog come to stay with her for an indefinite period of time. This cost me months of market time and thousands of dollars and nearly cost my realtor her commission. I had notified her I was taking the property off the market and would not be renewing her contract when the brother and dog disappeared and a buyer appeared out of nowhere.

The second house was a small house with a great view in the Santa Fe area; a nearly unique property in that it was cheap and in a quiet neighborhood on the unfashionable end of town but had a half-million-dollar view of the Ortiz Mountains. I put the place on the market around Christmas, hoping to catch a crazy Christmas visitor to Santa Fe who would notice our property not least because the supply at the time in our price range was tiny. I noticed when the realtor wrote her description of the property she mentioned that it was single-story but not handicapped accessible; the significance of this did not strike me immediately. Most of the feedback we got on the property was of the form "this house is way overpriced and the price needs to come down" and we got a couple of lowball offers (with commensurate pressure from our realtor) before our buyers appeared.

The third house is a two-story (like the first) and is competitively priced; we're going to manage to lose money on this one, too, even though it has a fair number of upgrades, good xeriscaping, and has had no structural problems (unlike most of its cohort in the area). This time all of the feedback (and I do mean all of the feedback) has focused on the fact that the prospective buyer was surprised to discover that it was a two-story. This despite the fact that the pictures available on the Web clearly show a balcony with windows above and a garage beneath. My interpretation had been that the buyer's agent was attempting to squeeze the buyer into a particular property by presenting three or four options, only one of which met the buyer's criteria, and for whatever reason our house was chosen to be the attractive but unacceptable two-story.

Then a few weeks ago I read a summary of a conference held in Albuquerque about the future of Santa Fe real estate; it said, essentially, that only retirees move to Santa Fe, so houses need to be accessible to people who are in their declining years. Meaning folks who may not be able to manage stairs long term. But as I've said elsewhere I can't imagine a town actually functioning when it consists of noting but retirees and undocumented day laborers, as Santa Fe seems to want to be.

Then it occurred to me that I may be seeing a consequence of obesity trends in the area; it turns out that more than seventy percent of American adults are overweight and more than 35% are obese [link]. It's entirely possible that not all of our buyers are old; after all, ours is a family house with more bedrooms than a single retiree could sensibly use. Its possible what we're seeing is a stream of buyers who are too fat to use stairs comfortably on a regular basis.

What I think we're going to see long term is a housing market that segments into properties that have stairs and those that don't, and buyers can expect to pay a premium for the stair-free properties. Meaning that if you're fit enough to contend with a flight or two of stairs on the critical path to everything every day you can live cheaper than your less-fit counterparts. Hooray!

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