People Live Here

Our real estate agent looked around our condo and sniffed. I’ve never actually seen someone sniff, in real life, in the dismissive, Edith Wharton Disapproves Of Your Social Status sense. She sniffed, this woman, and said, “This is terribly cluttered.”

She was standing in the living room I’d just spent four hours cleaning, the room which also serves as “the room where Kick keeps all her toys” and “occasionally, my office” and “a recovery room from all my major back injuries of which there have been many” and she was looking dismayed. There were toys in colorful bins, antique typewriters on the fireplace mantle, books on all the shelves, a large rug we’d just had cleaned.

“You’ll have to get rid of a lot of things.”

What this disapproving woman didn’t realize was that we had spent the past two months paring down our collection of books, stuffed animals, clothes, furniture, dishes, travel coffee mugs and just about everything else we owned. We had filled an entire storage space with my grandmother’s furniture and the contents of three closets. We thought we HAD gotten rid of a lot of things.

She shook her head. In order to sell a small condo for a reasonable price in our neighborhood, one has to STAGE it. It must be freshly painted, impeccably finished, with two perfect polished apples upon the sideboard. There can be books on the shelves, but not too many, and nothing “divisive.” Two or three towels in the linen closet at most and those, brand new and unused. Photos are fine, but nothing personal.

People need to picture themselves in your space, the agent explained. Not you.

It must appear that no one lives here at all.

So we spent the next two months painting, and packing, and harrying people into helping us bring even more of our stuff over to storage. We shopped for neutral colored bedding. We made a game of it with Kick: Stand in the corner and try to throw all the stuffies into the box! We’re not getting rid of them, they’re just going on a trip! We preened and primped the place. We staged.

Our condo went on the market five weeks ago. People come in for showings, for open houses, and leave feedback about issues we cannot address. The bathroom is too small, there is no central air, a parking space is not included in the fee. Where is the washer and dryer, they ask, and upon hearing it is in another section of the building they blanch and back away. NOT THAT. First-time buyers don’t want to fix things, the real estate agent said, trying to get us to do more repairs before we listed. They want everything done. When we moved into this place we stripped miles of woodwork, painted and repainted and tiled and refinished.

Every weekend we clean and stage again. And every weekend I think about how ridiculous it is to expect people to act like their lives are an HGTV episode, like anyone with a toddler is able to have thin-stemmed crystal just lying around, or keep the walls free of fingerprints.

People live here, I keep saying to the real estate agent, who by now treats us like juvenile delinquents in need of tough love. Is it really a drawback to know that? People live here.

I feel like most people would get that. Life isn’t perfect. Life is disorderly. Life is persistent; it will find a way to make a mess five seconds after you’ve cleaned one up, and the more life you have around you, the messier it is. Friends, family, kids, pets, hobbies, dreams, work, love, entertainment, joy, rest, they all take up space. They all make clutter that isn’t easily confined to underbed boxes and back-of-closet bins. They’re inconvenient and sometimes gross. They can’t be staged.

And oh, have we had life in this house.

If I staged my house the way I want to stage it, I would leave some of the stuffies lying around, the stray puzzle pieces, some apple peelings on the counter. I would unpack my pasta machine and the toaster. And I would leave photos of us: Me, Mr. A, Kick. Photos from her christening, when we shook off our sleep deprivation and packed 30 people into the house for cake and champagne. Photos from the orphan Thanksgiving we threw one year for a dozen colleagues of Mr. A’s who came from all over the world and were stuck with nothing to do during the holiday. Photos from our tenth anniversary party, which spilled out of the house and off our deck and out into the alley because so many people came.

I would leave a note, too, next to the inoffensive flower arrangement in its recently purchased pitcher-vase.

The note would say, I know this house is messy and the bedding isn’t fashionable. I know it isn’t like the gleaming new construction towers you see down the road. I know if you stretch out your arms in both directions you can touch all four walls of the bathroom. I know the air conditioner rattles and sometimes you have to smack the microwave just right to get it to start. I know you probably want a blank canvas on which to project your dreams of home and I don’t begrudge you that. I would give it to you if I could.

But people live here. They had a guest room for people to crash in when they were done with college or between jobs or detoxing from political campaigns, when they needed advice or to recover from a hangover or a good laugh. The people who live here needed things, and people came here to give them.

They had pets and loved them. They gained friends and lost them. They learned here. They suffered here, too, and grieved losses, licked wounds. A child took her first steps here, and art was made here, and three of the five neighbors are truly stellar human beings. If they opened their windows they could hear music being practiced and played, trucks rumbling past, the rush and hum of the trains going over the viaducts.

People live here. They should leave marks on a place. A life should leave deep tracks, one of my favorite poems begins, and we see all tracks as damage. We see every nick as as indication of something wrong, something bad, an omen, a terrible sign. We don’t see it as a sign that this is a place where real things took place. Where real people lived.


9 thoughts on “People Live Here

  1. I’d have sacked your estate agent at that first sniff. If they are all like that these days then I guess we’re all screwed.

  2. Welcome to my life for about a three-year period. (Minus the sniffing. That’s kind of a dick move.) I love my real-estate lady to death. She still sends furniture refinishing jobs my way and she keeps me on a list of referrals for various work projects. She just swung by to pay me for a job that I’d forgotten about this week on her way to another home she was listing in our area. Still, everything your agent told you was exactly what ours told us and she was right. (Minus the tone and the such.)

    People do want to imagine themselves in the space so they’re looking at walls that will hold their photos, not yours. They’re looking at bedrooms and trying to imagine cramming their bed into the same space as your stuff. It’s one of the main reasons why, when possible, it’s better to not live in a place that you are selling. If you can empty it and paint everything neutral (as in white as shit), people are more likely to buy it.

    We had to get rid of a TON of stuff, particularly in the kitchen. We had to box up all my grandma’s china and all of my wife’s grandmother’s china and half of our cooking stuff. We had to get rid of a ton of tupperware so that it looked like we only used two storage containers ever. We had to empty the fridge and clean it within an inch of its life. Our utensil drawers and cabinets looked like Ben Affleck’s from “The Accountant.” I filled an entire storage unit with furniture and boxes, the size of which stores Betsy for the winter. Floor to ceiling. And that’s not counting all the shit we took to Goodwill and St. Vinnie’s. I think we had about four grand in write-offs that year worth of furniture, electronics, Christmas decorations, clothing and tools.

    We had to hide our prescriptions (lest someone try to steal them or think that crazy, sick fuckers lived here) and we had to wipe away every drop of water and body hair from every bathroom surface. Every touch of dirt or unpolished faucet meant that the people who lived here were teeming with cockroaches and MRSA. We had to use a light lavender spray in the bedrooms to give people a peaceful and sleepy scent and a cookie candle in the kitchen to make them hungry. The gas fireplace had to be on, but the heat had to be low so it felt warm but not too hot. Laundry had to be done at all times and we couldn’t leave ANYTHING in the dryer or on the dryer.

    I resurfaced all the wooden floors in the kitchen, living and dining rooms because they looked “used.” The yard had to be constantly trimmed. Bushes had to be removed. The garden had to be tilled and tilled so that nothing grew, but that it didn’t look overgrown. I vacuumed and wet-jetted the floors as I backed out of the house for each showing, never mind that it was the middle of winter and these assholes were going to track snow and dirt in no matter what I did. The fucking GARAGE and ATTIC had to be pin perfect, because you can’t park a car or store boxes some place where shit isn’t alphabetized and sanitary.

    And then came the inevitable answer of, “Sorry, they don’t like it.” For some people it was infuriating shit like when we listed it as a bi-level, they made the appointment for about six hours from now (which isn’t how it’s supposed to work, but when you’re as desperate as I was, you’d blow them for so much as a “hmmm… maybe….”), I’d fly through the house cleaning, find a sitter for the dog, get the kid packed up, clean up every scrap of everything and then they’d say, “Oh… this is a BI-LEVEL… We don’t like those…” OK, fuck you…

    Eventually, we got that one bite and we literally gave the house away just to be done with it. We took something like 17K less than we paid for it when we bought it just before the crash, and I think after paying on it for 5 years, we got a check for about $300. However, we got the house we wanted, it’s perfect and I’m never moving again. The benefits you have is that the market is up now, as opposed to when we were selling, and you are in a much more populous and valuable area than we were/are.

    I know how much this sucks. Trust me, everything you said in this post was something I was screaming into the bottom of a Jack Daniel’s bottle at one point or another during the process. However, if you trust your agent knows what he/she is doing and you are getting showings, eventually, the juice is worth the squeeze.

    Keep your chin up and your head down and call if you need a shoulder to scream into.

    — Doc

  3. I’m going through this too (selling my current place next year so have been researching/talking to realtors, etc.), and I’m just astonished at people’s (buyers, I mean) lack of imagination. (Also, the word “staging” gives me hives.)

    I mean, it’s not like you’re going to leave legos and stuffed animals around when you leave.

    I get that it works, though — a house nearby was extensively ‘staged’ by the realtor — artwork brought in, furniture, rooms painted, etc., and it sold for more money than I thought likely. It started out as a frumpy old place that some nice old lady raised her kids in and had filled with tacky religious pictures and too much ugly furniture. So it looked a lot better and different and airier and lighter than before, but geez, all that stuff was going to be gone anyway.

    But Doc is right, it worked, and probably brought in 75K (or more!!) more than an ‘as is’ sale would have done, and they probably paid 5K in painting and taking up carpets and recoating the tub etc. cost the kids of the old lady.

    But the heirs gave me an old working blender and a rusty old tool box full of tools, so the lived-in and frumpy lives on, at least until I have to ‘stage’ to appease the unimaginative, lol.

  4. Allison, this is perfect. People don’t realize or appreciate a “life lived” until someone close to them has died. Then they appreciate every little thing about living. I appreciate that you’very lived there, who you all have been for me, and will miss you. You know I damn well better be invited to the housewaING too! 😉

  5. selling my first house, one of the oldest in LaGrange, many years ago. the real estate lady (not ours) showing the couple around sniffed and said, “My, how… interesting.”

  6. First, I’d have to concur with @Ruth B. – ye need a new agent. There are millions of ’em lately, all vying for YOUR dollar. Sounds like this one isn’t bringing the right folks in the first place.
    “Staging” is a racket…sure, freshen the place up a bit, make it neat and easily visible/walkable…but at the same time, people who have a life will understand that ye have one too and be able to see past your things to see how the space – the bones o’ the place – fits their vision.
    Any “home” that appears too sterile should be viewed with suspicion.

  7. Trying to sell my FL condo while living and working in it is a special hell – just sold my Mom’s house in AR for $11K less than market just so I wouldn’t have to deal with that.

  8. Wonder how my husband feels about my new “We are NEVER” moving” religion? Cuz hearing this stuff has made me a convert.

Comments are closed.