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We offered $120K for a small, two-bedroom house on a quiet street in El Cerrito

We wanted an older area – North Park, Normal Heights, Golden Hill, University Heights, Hillcrest, and Bancroft

We were considering withdrawing our offer unless she agreed to seek psychiatric care.
  • We were considering withdrawing our offer unless she agreed to seek psychiatric care.
  • Image by David Covey

To search for a dream home was to live in a nightmare.

Older and relatively “affordable” houses in North Park, Normal Heights, Golden Hill, University Heights, Hillcrest, and Bancroft were built in the 1920s and ’30s, and recall an era with built-in cabinets, wood floors, brick fireplaces, separate, formal dining rooms, and small kitchens.

Older and relatively “affordable” houses in North Park, Normal Heights, Golden Hill, University Heights, Hillcrest, and Bancroft were built in the 1920s and ’30s, and recall an era with built-in cabinets, wood floors, brick fireplaces, separate, formal dining rooms, and small kitchens.

It’s hard to say exactly when this house — with its fireplace, white picket fence, aging shingle roof, and yellow kitchen linoleum that I hate—became ours. Certainly it was not the day my wife Liz and I finally paid all the fees associated with buying a house and, in the eyes of our bank and the county tax assessor, officially became home owners. It was sometime earlier, sometime during a series of complex and bitter negotiations that everyone involved - brokers, agents, bank officials, and even our relatives — said they had never seen the likes of.

Talmadge, El Cerrito, Oak Park, Rolando, La Mesa, Allied Gardens, Clairemont, and Bay Park absorbed much of the post-World-War II building boom; the houses in them are newer and larger, and they have attached garages.

Talmadge, El Cerrito, Oak Park, Rolando, La Mesa, Allied Gardens, Clairemont, and Bay Park absorbed much of the post-World-War II building boom; the houses in them are newer and larger, and they have attached garages.

The haggling had been both frustrating and enraging. The current owner of the house had told us for about the third time to take her offer or leave it, and she seemed to be hoping that we would somehow disappear. We were considering withdrawing our offer unless she agreed to seek psychiatric care. But it was a curious thing; the house itself — old, solid, cool, and impassive — was beyond all the bickering. Each time I stepped inside it, I felt calmed, and it had the same effect on me when I thought about it. The simple, pleasing lines of its interior walls appeared in my mind more and more often, and gradually I perceived that this particular house was drifting closer to my life, and me to its. Soon after that I realized it would be my home, although I continued to disguise that fact to the woman who owned it, the real-estate agents who were trying to sell it, and occasionally even myself.

I looked at the dead tree stump near the front door, the bare dirt that made up the front yard, the tall weeds poking through the ice plant on the slope below, and swallowed hard. “Wow” was all I could say.

I looked at the dead tree stump near the front door, the bare dirt that made up the front yard, the tall weeds poking through the ice plant on the slope below, and swallowed hard. “Wow” was all I could say.

Not that we didn’t consider living in a lot of other houses. You almost have to try them on like pants. I hate to shop for pants, but in this case I kept at it for nearly a year, spurred on by low interest rates on home loans and visions of huge tax refunds from the IRS. That reasoning seems questionable now, but our long search for a house at least left us with new insight into the lifestyles of San Diegans and an intimate knowledge of the housing market in a city where real-estate prices have been headed skyward for more than a decade.

We started the way most people do, I suppose — studying the “homes for sale” ads in local newspapers. And we soon found out — the way most people do, I suppose — that this is a terrible way to look for a house. Almost no one takes out a newspaper ad to sell a house, and those who do splurge on this method of advertising are desperate. They use succinct and outrageously misleading phrases to describe their property, and it takes several weekends of driving around unfamiliar neighborhoods to decipher what these codelike descriptions mean. Now we know that “patio home” is a euphemism for a cheap condominium; “Cute Spanish charmer” is a generic description for file-box-sized houses with red tile roofs. “Needs TLC” (“TLC” stands, of course, for “tender, loving care”) means the house has numerous building-code violations that need to be corrected by a pricey contractor, while “Space for RV parking” denotes a house located in a rundown area where the neighbors repair motorcycles in their front yards and play heavy-metal music until sunrise. “Pride of ownership” — that’s my favorite, by the way — means that the house has some or all of these problems.

So we contacted a real-estate agent. Our first encounter with real-estate agents several years earlier had not exactly been a positive experience; Ben was a bearded, portly rabbi who had decided he was going to make his fortune selling property. He had a lot to learn about local neighborhoods first, though. When we told him we were interested in looking at houses in Mission Hills, he showed us condominiums in Mission Valley. We wandered through a few politely and then politely told Ben to bag it.

Anyway, this time, after meeting half a dozen agents at houses that were for sale, we decided to stick with a pretty, gray-haired woman named Alicia from one of the local Century 21 offices (all of the real-estate agents in this article have been given pseudonyms). Alicia was very sweet, and she seemed genuinely concerned about helping us find a house; she and Liz soon took to greeting each other with hugs. Still, it bothered me when we learned that Alicia lived in a rented house — real-estate people are supposed to be well-versed in the advantages of buying versus renting, right? And when she talked about her plans to celebrate the “harmonic convergence” and sprinkled her conversation with other New-Age jargon, it was all I could do to keep from rolling my eyeballs. Nevertheless, at least Alicia wasn’t pushy and didn’t talk fast. Unfortunately, she also didn’t seem to grasp all the complexities of buying a house, as we found out later.

One of the first things Alicia asked us was what our “price range” was. Rather proudly, we explained that we could actually afford to buy a house worth as much as one-hundred twenty-five thousand dollars. I won’t say her face fell, but you could tell from her expression that she realized the situation was difficult, if not desperate. The trouble is, the median price of houses in San Diego County is currently $137,000. You can find houses for less than that, but it’s hard not to be shocked or depressed by their appearance. At one place we looked at in Normal Heights, settling soil had caused the brick chimney to pull away from the house so far that you could put your hand between the chimney and the wall without touching either one. The cement steps to the front porch suffered from a similar problem; yet this house was selling for $128,500. At another house — a cramped, five-room place in Hillcrest, on a lot so narrow you could almost touch your neighbor’s house by reaching out the window — the interior of the living-cum-dining room had been gutted, reconstructed, and only partly refinished. A real-estate agent representing the owner cheerfully told us the sale price had been reduced to $115,000.

New tract homes, we learned, are even more expensive, so it seemed a pointless exercise to look at them. Condominiums can be had for around $60,000 and up, but while many of them have cute features such as skylights and fireplaces, most are still what condominiums have always been: small apartments where your neighbors’ lives are foisted upon you through the walls. Besides, condominiums are extremely difficult to sell right now and therefore are not considered a sound investment. Unbridled development has resulted in such a glut of condominiums here that people who do want to sell them are not only unloading them for rock-bottom prices but are trying to lure potential buyers with gimmicks such as “sales parties” featuring free wine and snacks. Even so, a lot of people consider themselves lucky to have sold their condos at all.

In spite of these warning signs, the initial stage of house hunting was an exciting time for Liz and me. Never again would we have to plead with landlords to allow us to have a dog or a cat; never again would our rent be raised unexpectedly and unreasonably. We calculated how much our house-to-be would appreciate in value every year, and we wondered why we hadn’t bought one long ago. Besides, we were claiming our birthright as Americans — we were going to be home owners! We could afford it!

Exploring houses with Alicia also gave us a new perspective on San Diego’s cityscape and how and why it grew the way it did. For instance, the numerous older and relatively “affordable” houses in North Park, Normal Heights, Golden Hill, University Heights, Hillcrest, and Bancroft are a reminder that these mid-city neighborhoods were among the first to be built when San Diego expanded from its original center downtown. Many of the homes in them were built in the 1920s and ’30s, and they recall an earlier era with their built-in cabinets, wood floors, brick fireplaces, separate, formal dining rooms, and small kitchens (one place we looked at in Bancroft had three fireplaces and virtually no kitchen). The garages are often separate and poorly constructed, too, having apparently been added in haste only after the popularity of the automobile was ensured. A surprisingly large number of houses in these neighborhoods also feature banana trees and built-in ironing boards, as if, to an earlier generation of home buyers, the ultimate in California chic was tropical landscaping and the convenience of an ironing board that could be folded up or down on short notice.

In contrast, outlying areas such as Talmadge, El Cerrito, Oak Park, Rolando, La Mesa, Allied Gardens, Clairemont, and Bay Park absorbed much of the post-World-War II building boom in San Diego, and the houses in them are not only newer and larger than those in the midcity, but they have attached garages that reflect the increasingly important role automobiles played in Southern California. In addition, the living rooms in these houses tend to merge with the dining rooms — one indication that the public’s requirement for formal social space has given way increasingly to a demand for utility — and family rooms are a common feature. That’s part of a trend that continues today, according to Mike Reynolds, president of the Building Industry Association of San Diego County. “Family rooms have become so popular that in some new homes, builders are eliminating the living room” completely, he said. “In the last ten or fifteen years, people have been saying, ‘We have all our best furniture in the living room, and we only use it twice a year — on Thanksgiving and Christmas’ At the same time, people are spending more and more time in the family room — it’s where the TV and the stereo are, it can be used for eating, it’s less formal....”

Reynolds also pointed out that the newer a home is, the larger the kitchen tends to be, mainly because of the proliferation and size of modern kitchen appliances. “All appliances are much larger than they used to be... and in ninety-five percent of all houses built today, you’ll find things like dishwashers, microwave ovens, and garbage disposals,” he explained. “Fifteen years ago, [such] things were kind of a luxury ... but since [people] spend so much time in the kitchen these days, they want all the amenities.”

With Alicia as our guide, we looked at houses in nearly all of these neighborhoods, usually when the owners were not at home. (It’s common for people selling houses to make themselves scarce so that prospective buyers won’t feel hurried or awkward.) Still, you can’t help but learn a lot about a person by walking through his house, and occasionally we seemed to discover quirks about people that we would have preferred not to know. I can’t forget one place in Bancroft where a second bathroom had been added in the garage. Had some long-suffering woman become so fed up with her husband hogging the toilet every morning that she finally insisted a second bathroom be built next to his garage workshop, so he could camp on “the throne” without inconveniencing her? Or had the owners conceived the bathroom addition using some twisted, we-need-another-bathroom, we’ve-got-extra-space-in-the-garage, let’s-put-a-bathroom-in-the-garage kind of logic? Or was there some other, more unsavory reason for it?

The more homes we saw, the more we toured them like rude guests, calculating the owners’ lifestyles from their furniture, magazines, and clothes, and often poking fun at them. We shook our heads over garishly decorated kitchens; wondered out loud how anyone could choose such awful wallpaper or horrid carpets. And time after time we vilified the commonplace crimes of remodeling with fake wood paneling and green indoor/outdoor carpeting. It’s one thing to try to give your porch or family room an outdoorsy atmosphere — anyone can sympathize with an attempt to create a refuge from urban sprawl. But to do it with the cheapest of materials and then somehow perceive the ugly result to be acceptable or even “cozy” — that reveals the American sensibility at its most vulgar, preoccupied with appearance and blind to substance.

Alicia occasionally joined in our critiques, but much of the time she seemed an odd partner for us. The more Liz and I looked at houses, the more we found fault with virtually everything. Meanwhile, Alicia remained cheerful and optimistic, with a voice that made me think of tinkling bells. When we’d gripe about a living room that was too small, she’d suggest putting in French doors that would open into the next room. When we complained that a certain neighborhood was notorious for crime, she described it as up-and-coming.

After a few weeks of this, we finally offered to buy a two-bedroom house in Kensington for $133,000, only to be outbid at the last moment by an anonymous real-estate agent (who, we were told, considered the property a bargain that could be fixed up and sold at a tidy profit within a few years). It was a disillusioning experience for us, and nothing seemed to go right in the weeks that followed. Alicia took us to an old house near Balboa Park that had been utterly ruined through remodeling; among other things, the current owners had covered the floor of the front porch with plaid linoleum and had put translucent yellow plastic in the doors of the built-in dining-room cupboards. For this house they were asking $126,000. A few days later, Alicia showed us a four-room house in University Heights that was on the market for $135,000. I practically stalked out once I saw how small it was, and a few days later we told Alicia that we didn’t want to look at any more houses for a while. To be honest, we had all but given up.

But for some reason, I couldn’t stop scanning the “homes for sale” columns in the local newspapers. And gradually it dawned on me: as a general rule, the farther east you go in the greater San Diego area, the cheaper property gets. So, a few months later, we wound up looking at some houses in Casa de Oro with a real-estate agent named Lou Robbins. Lou was at least six-foot-five, wore about a pound of gold jewelry (including a bracelet with his initials engraved on it), and drove an expensive, late-model BMW. He also reeked so thoroughly of cologne that it was as if he was enveloped in an invisible, sweet-smelling cloud that traveled with him wherever he walked.

Lou was a smooth talker, but the first house he showed us left him at a loss for words. The wall-to-wall carpet was not only an indecent combination of brown, blue, yellow, and red — it smelled strongly of urine. Inured to such trifling details by now, we continued to wander slowly through the house (which was priced at $120,000), marveling at the western-style trim in the kitchen and the wood shingles that covered the wall of one bedroom. The back yard, which was full of lemon trees, was nice; but you don’t cook, sleep, and bathe in your back yard.

We followed Lou and his BMW to another house, a two-story, four-bedroom tract home where some crazy person had covered the kitchen and part of the living room with simulated-brick paneling. The front hallway sported pink-and-orange-striped wallpaper that had even Lou shaking his head. “I just can’t imagine someone walking into a store, seeing that wallpaper, and saying to themselves, ‘That’s it! That’s what I want!’ ” he commented. When he told us the house was for sale for $118,000, we asked him if he could show us something else.

He did. It was a fairly nice house, too — four bedrooms, two baths, a fireplace, a roomy two-car garage. On the market for $124,000. The landscaping, or rather the lack of it, was appalling, but when Lou explained that the current owner worked for a company that had recently transferred him to another city, I thought I understood. “The guy was probably never even sure how long he’d be here,” I said with a sympathetic nod. “Why bother to spend time and money on landscaping when you’re only going to live here for a year or two?”

“Actually,” Lou informed me, “he lived here for eighteen years.”

I looked at the dead tree stump near the front door, the bare dirt that made up the front yard, the tall weeds poking through the ice plant on the slope below, and swallowed hard. “Wow” was all I could say.

This particular house was also located on a hill above a junkyard, which in a way is symptomatic of the houses in Casa de Oro — they’re spacious and have much larger lots than houses closer to metropolitan San Diego, but often they’re also adjacent to commercial buildings or rundown houses. After telling Lou we needed time to think, Liz and I drove home, where, over several bottles of wine, we slowly came to grips with the truth: We couldn’t bear to live in the kind of house we could afford, and we couldn’t afford the kind of house we wanted. The whole thing was off. We weren’t going to buy a house. For one young couple, the dream had ended.

Less than a week later, Alicia called unexpectedly and left a message on our telephone answering machine. “I just looked at a real special house, and I’d like to show it to you,” she said.

This brief message prompted some long, heavy discussions between Liz and me. I took the position that we had already made our decision — no house, nada, finito, forget it. Liz argued that Alicia knew our taste well and wouldn’t have called us if she didn’t think this house really was special. In the end, when Liz pointed out that it wouldn’t hurt simply to look at the place, and it was okay if we didn’t buy it, there wasn’t much I could say. We went.

I liked it immediately, damn it. It was a small, two-bedroom house on a quiet street in El Cerrito, and the back yard was a canyon full of trees where birds were singing and flitting from branch to branch. It had a fireplace and hardwood floors, and the owner was asking $120,000.

We thought about it until the next day and decided that we would try one more time — we’d make an offer. Alicia said the house wouldn’t be for sale for long and advised us to offer to pay full price. Then, as we were signing a formal purchase agreement to buy the house for $120,000, she told us — almost as an afterthought — that a bank appraiser had recently valued the house at only $108,000. Now, for a lot of reasons, some of them technical and some of them obvious, it’s not a good idea to pay $120,000 for a house that a professional appraiser says is worth only $108,000. That Alicia told us this information only at the last minute — after she advised us to make an offer at full price — meant that she either didn’t understand the importance of the discrepancy or that she didn’t want to jeopardize a possible deal by revealing it straight off. This incident was the first of several that convinced us Alicia saw her job as showing houses and putting together deals rather than giving her clients thorough, knowledgeable advice about buying property. But, to look on the bright side, it did alert Liz and me that we were more or less on our own when it came to negotiating what turned out to be a very complicated real-estate deal.

At first, the solution seemed simple. We worded our offer to say that we would pay $120,000 for the house, as long as our bank appraised it at $118,000 or more (appraisals can vary, so this seemed possible). However, the owner of the house, Mrs. Dorfmann (not her real name), rejected our offer the instant she saw it. No contingencies, she said; $120,000, take it or leave it. We later learned that Mrs. Dorfmann was convinced the house was worth less than $118,000 and so thought it pointless to accept our offer. Yet she never considered lowering her asking price; she wanted $120,000 for the house no matter what. To my knowledge, no one who became involved in the deal ever followed Mrs. Dorfmann’s reasoning on this, except to assume that she was greedy and impossible.

For the next week or so, counter offers and counter-counter offers fairly flew between us and Mrs. Dorfmann. They contained a growing list of stipulations and contingencies that got nastier and nastier in tone. She asked for a larger down payment and insisted on approving any bank we applied to for a loan; we told her our offer was as good as she’d get and that she had to be more flexible. All of the dickering was done through Alicia and Mrs. Dorfmann’s real-estate agent, Rose, by the way; Liz and I never laid eyes on Mrs. Dorfmann, although we often wondered what she looked like. Alicia told us only that Mrs. Dorfmann seemed “kind of stiff.”

In the end, negotiations broke off completely. We renewed our decision not to buy a house, and Mrs. Dorfmann decided, I suppose, to show her house to waiting legions of other buyers. But those buyers either never materialized or weren’t interested, because a week later Rose called us and proposed a joint meeting — herself, Alicia, us, and Mrs. Dorfmann. We’d start from scratch and hammer out our differences like Reagan and Gorbachev negotiating a nuclear-arms treaty. We’d sit there until the deal was done.

We said okay only because we were enamored of the house, and the meeting was scheduled for seven o'clock on a weekday evening at Mrs. Dorfmann’s. Liz and I made plans to meet Alicia first and drive over with her, because the one thing we wanted to avoid was the awkwardness of having to spend time alone with Mrs. Dorfmann. Although we hadn’t met her, we already disliked her; the negotiations so far had shown her to be fierce and unpredictable. It was easy to imagine that the meeting could dissolve into a shouting match before it even began.

The day of the meeting, we drove to Alicia’s office at 6:40 p m. and waited for her. Six forty-five passed, then 6:50, 6:55, and 6:57, but still there was no sign of Alicia. Finally, thinking it would be rude of us to show up late, we drove to Mrs. Dorfmann’s house on our own. Neither Alicia nor Rose had arrived yet, so, prepared for the worst, we walked up the front sidewalk and knocked on the door.

Mrs. Dorfmann opened it with an ingratiating smile. She was a short, doughy-faced matron with a small mouth and dark, inquisitive eyes — rather more pleasant-looking than I had imagined, but with a child’s petulant, whiny voice. We sat stiffly on a sofa in her front room, making some of the most ludicrous small talk imaginable for fully thirty minutes before Alicia and Rose showed up. They were giggly and apologetic; they had gone out for dinner together, had had some wine, and were a little tipsy. Liz and I exchanged glances; things were not starting out well.

The five of us moved to Mrs. Dorfmann’s dining-room table, which sat beneath a tawdry chandelier with painted enamel flowers, and began discussing the sale of her house. Both Rose and Alicia had forgotten to bring their calculators, so throughout the negotiations, whenever we had to add and subtract figures, we had to do it with a pencil and paper. Still, for the first time, Mrs. Dorfmann showed signs of being somewhat flexible in her demands. After an hour or so, we had the outlines of a reasonable deal; all it lacked was signatures.

At that point Mrs. Dorfmann dropped her bombshell. “Before we go any further, I should tell you that another buyer called me this afternoon,” she said. “She’s a young woman, and her father is flying out from the East Coast tomorrow just to look at the house. They seem very interested in it, and it sounds like they have a lot of money, so I’d be crazy to sign this agreement tonight.” I thought Rose’s jaw was going to hit the top of the dining-room table. Alicia looked like she had been run through with a spear. It was as if Reagan had just told Gorbachev that he couldn’t sign the treaty because he might be signing a better one the next day with the Chinese. “But,” Mrs. Dorfmann continued with a tight smile, “I don’t think it hurt for us to get together to talk things over. Assuming no one had anything better to do this evening.” She chuckled.

Clearly, to Mrs. Dorfmann, selling a house was light entertainment — a card game in which you matched wits with your opponents. Liz stood up and, without saying good-bye, walked out the front door, muttering, “Don’t waste my time.” Alicia, Rose, and I followed on her heels. When we got home, Liz and I talked the incident over angrily for the rest of the evening. We were amazed at Rose and Alicia’s lack of professionalism; we denounced Mrs. Dorfmann in the harshest terms; and we concluded that the mysterious young woman and her rich daddy would almost certainly buy the house. And they probably would have — if they had showed up. However, they didn’t, and Rose called us late the next day to say that the deal between Mrs. Dorfmann and us was on.

That’s when we tackled another one of the joys of home buying — shopping for a bank loan. Not too long ago, nearly all banks offered pretty much the same fixed-rate terms for their loans. But, to put it mildly, things are no longer that simple. Fixed-rate loans can still be had, but variable-rate loans are becoming far more common, and they feature tangled packages of indexes, margins, caps, negative amortization and the like, most of them designed to protect banks, according to independent mortgage broker Mark Seltzer. “It seems like all this creative financing started back in 1981,” said Seltzer, explaining that for years before that, most banks had provided thirty-year, fixed-rate home loans at interest rates of nine percent or less. But in 1981, interest rates climbed steeply; banks suddenly had to pay competitive interest rates of eleven or twelve percent on savings and term-bond accounts, while continuing to collect only nine percent or less on most of their home loans. “A lot of banks started getting burned” by the difference, said Seltzer.

These days, “lenders want the borrower to share some of the risk” by agreeing to pay interest on a home loan at a fluctuating rate, Seltzer continued. Under the terms of a variable-rate loan, if interest rates in general go up, the interest rate on the home loan goes up; if interest rates go down, the interest rate on the home loan goes down. “That way the banks don’t get stuck [collecting] a ten-percent loan for thirty years if rates go up and up” in the meantime. Seltzer said. “It’s a compromise ... and most variable-rate loans are basically the same. But the [banks] all offer different gimmicks — slightly different terms — to attract customers, and it forces you [as a borrower] to do a lot more homework.”

It was like homework — as Liz and I compared loan terms, I felt as though I was taking a tedious crash course in finance. But with some advice from a few experts, including Seltzer, we applied for a variable-rate loan. And then for a few days our lives fell oddly silent, like the center of a hurricane. We knew something else would go wrong sooner or later, but for the time being, there was nothing we could do except wait. That was hard, and signs of the stress began to show in our increasing absent-mindedness. We ran out of food for our cat, for instance — a small thing, but something we never do. And after spending several hours making chicken broth one night, I poured it through a strainer and straight down the kitchen drain, instead of into a bowl, as I’ve done countless times before.

Finally, the storm broke again, and this time it was literally over the roof of Mrs. Dorfmann’s house. In the documents she was required to furnish us, she disclosed that there was a small leak in the ceiling of the dining room. That in turn led us to discover that the dining room had been extended several feet — an illegal addition because it had never been approved by city inspectors. The wrong material had been used for the roof of the addition, causing the leak.

We weren’t too worried about this at first, because, as part of the purchase agreement we had signed with Mrs. Dorfmann, she had agreed to fix the roof. But as the sale neared completion, she balked. Never mind that she had signed a legally binding agreement to repair the leak; she wasn’t going to do it. The head of the Century 21 office that Alicia worked for called Mrs. Dorfmann in and argued this point with her for two hours, to no avail. Mrs. Dorfmann left the office saying that the buyers could take the house or leave it, as is; it was all the same to her. After-ward, Alicia’s boss called me and told me about the discussion. “This woman,’’ she said, referring to Mrs. Dorfmann, “has her own version of reality.”

Even though the deal was virtually complete, Liz and I considered walking away from Mrs. Dorfmann once and for all. We had agreed to pay top price for the house; we weren’t going to accept a leaky roof. But a few days later, the mercurial Mrs. Dorfmann changed her mind and had a contractor fix the leak with a cheap patch job. Despite deep misgivings, we decided to accept this; by then Mrs. Dorfmann’s house was already entwined in our lives, and I suppose to some extent we had come to think of it as ours.

Not long after that, the bank called to say that our loan application had been approved. I took the call while I was working at home alone one afternoon, and when I hung up, I felt strangely depressed. Negotiating with Mrs. Dorfmann had left me drained, frustrated, and robbed of the usual elation that new home owners allegedly experience, but this feeling went beyond that. I thought of my former life as a self-styled student radical and my subsequent years as a long-haired singer in a lousy rock band. In those days, I thumbed my nose at the “Establishment” by vowing never to take a job so regular that I would have to look forward to weekends; now I’ve become so acceptable in the eyes of the Establishment that I can qualify for a bank loan. I thought, Has it come to this? And I realized that a transition had taken place that I hadn’t noticed before. I’m no longer a so-called young adult — I’ve entered middle age.

Finalizing the sale of the house with Mrs. Dorfmann was far from easy; she generated a constant stream of amendments to the sales agreement we had all signed, changing wording and dates to suit her fancy. Some of these amendments were submitted to us for approval through Alicia, who would call and say, “I’ve got some documents for you to sign,” as if they were simply routine papers that all house buyers had to sign.

Then my wife and I would look them over and discover they were far from routine. Most of them were carefully worded statements designed to absolve Mrs. Dorfmann of any legal responsibility should something go wrong with the house (for instance, one stated that I had inspected the repair work on the roof after it was completed and that I had approved if— something that simply never took place). Alicia never indicated to us how unusual these amendments were, nor did she give us any advice on whether to sign them or not. When we complained about them or refused outright to sign them, though, she would almost always say, “I agree with you.” Alicia had grown weary, I think, of the bitter negotiations surrounding the house’s sale, and at this point she didn’t want to bring up any subject that might jeopardize the deal.

Many more of these amendments we never saw at all; Mrs. Dorfmann sent them directly to the bank officer who was handling the small mountain of legal documents involved in the sale. These changes were meaningless, of course, since they required our approval to become binding, but I suppose they served their purpose in making Mrs. Dorfmann feel as though she was controlling something. Down to the end, she was a stubborn and difficult adversary; she stalled for weeks in getting the house sprayed for termites, and on the day Liz and I were supposed to walk through the place for a final inspection, Mrs. Dorfmann wouldn’t let us come over because she was giving a luncheon for her friends.

But hey — we’re moved in now. This house is ours. Furniture and books are piled high around me as I write this, and the branches of the trees in my back yard are bobbing in the breeze. I don’t feel particularly happy, but Liz says I worry too much, and maybe she’s right.

I worry that I’ll wake up some rainy night to find water gushing into our dining room. I worry that our personal finances will collapse under a mountain of house payments and repair bills. I worry that — hey, was that a termite that just landed on the window screen? — the plumbing will burst, or the house next door will be razed and replaced by a hulking apartment complex.

Still, I must not be the only home owner who worries about stuff like this, because there’s a common term for the anxiety I feel. It’s called “pride of ownership.”

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