All photos taken live from Chicago properties & environs

Friday, April 22, 2011

Every Home Has a Secret

Imagine buying a Mac direct from the designers who created it, or a car from the engineers who built it, or even a pear from the farmer who grew it. It would be nice. But generally, the more expensive the product, the more distance between the Buyer and the Source. We accept this. But a few people will still fly out to Stockholm to buy their Volvo, or buy produce on a McHenry farm. More are likely to choose to eat at a restaurant where the Chef is the owner, and he leaves the kitchen to talk to his diners. Those same people probably prefer to buy their hardware from the local Screw Guy because they know he will take the extra five minutes to show his client how to properly install the shower door with irregular fitting requirements.

On the contrary, a trip to Home Depot leaves you searching in desperation for someone to help, when twenty minutes of frustration yields a baggy jean kid who needs you to 'just hold on a minute' while he finishes his round of text messaging. A simple call to straighten out a Citibank credit card statement leads to a live robot in Bombay which eventually makes you question exactly what language the British were teaching in the Subcontinent.

A real estate agent selling a house, a good agent, will make sure the sale happens. Paperwork will proceed through the right channels, and in the end, the Seller and Buyer will both get what they want. But the actual home, it's life and times, can only be known by the residents. Their stories of child rearing and remodeling adventures make the home breathe. Their room to room tours involve more than the standard, “And this is the second bedroom, and this is the hallway, and this is the bathroom...” These tours tell a story of life lived under a roof that you may call yours one day, and eventually these escorted journeys reveal the dwelling's true condition. The Seller stutters too long when you ask about a history of flooding in the basement, or an excited referral for the electrician who updated the wiring, or an apologetic denial when asked about the roof being replaced during their tenure – these are the insights a Buyer needs to make a wise purchasing decision.

We arrived on time. The seller's agent called multiple times to assure that I would not be tardy. This was the world of Chicago real estate over $500,000, where realtors actually show up for appointments. On this particular Sunday, the guilt ridden vacationing realtor would not be able to attend. Unfortunately, he said, the Seller would have to show my client and me the property. Shucks! I felt like a fourteen year old kid whose parents just told him they had to leave town for the weekend and sadly, there would be no babysitter.

It was an unflattering block of Edgewater, where the homes tell you that you are slowly creeping toward Rogers Park, but the availability of parking spaces reminds you that you've yet to cross Devon.
Chicago's Big Two, The Lake and The El, were nearby, but the block by block nature of The Windy City's evolution meant that two blocks away sat renovated American Four Squares on deep lots while our present sidewalk hosted a bland row of frame single family cottages and unadorned bricks that were the Arts & Crafts era's last gasp. But if you can live on a block without known criminal activity, and be located a few blocks away from Garden Walk Winners and dreamy front porches, then, for a $75,000 savings, it's worth the look.

The owner didn't answer the door. How long do you wait until the next ring? I wait two minutes the first time. Followed by a quick double ring. One more minute. Then one more ring. Then begins the peeping tom walk around the house. Just as Tom began to peep, she answered the door. I turned back to find a surprised woman reluctant to open. But didn't he tell you we were coming? He told her it was earlier in the day. Well, we were just at the $500,000 mark so I shouldn't expect too much from a Seller's realtor.

Seductive arched entryways, a vast sea of unvarnished hardwood, and.... closed window shades. HEY! If you want to sell your home, open the God Damn windows! We all live five feet from our neighbor's but without light, life dies, so let the sun do it's magic lady. We soon realized why. Adjacent to the possession strewn living room, sat an expansive sunroom, completely blacked-out on a sun drenched Spring day. An unrecognizable silhouette taunted us through the scattered rays of light that penetrated the musty darkness. The shadows danced slowly but they did dance. What was that?

Naturally, we wanted to look, but the owner detoured us through the hectic dining room to the dated kitchen, and outside to the frowning yard, and as we made our way back to the front of this sprawling home, the children's upbringing already told, we were once again denied entry into the blacked out front parlor by gentle gestures that lead us to the rear stairs like naughty guests at Uncle Rick's Christmas Party. The owner let us inspect the unkempt bedrooms alone, preferring not to delve into the teenage angst that probably erupted within.

I immediately turned to my dejected client. “Hey, did you see what that was in the front room?”

“That was weird, huh? Maybe it was a science project or something”

“No. No way. It was moving. I know. It sounds crazy, but it was like, almost human.”

“I don't think so. I didn't hear anything.”

“Alright, just follow me and we'll try to get a look.”

So we proceeded back down the ample oak treads where The Mystery beckoned us with it's disjointed light refractions. As we turned to enter The Forbidden, I saw the silhouette move. Awkward flailing movements. Were those limbs? Two steps closer and the owner appeared, wanting to show us the basement. Classic 70's rec room and somebody's profane love of Bruce Lee couldn't derail my growing desire to learn The Mystery.

At the top of the basement stairs, I made another attempt to ascertain the truth. I stepped into the sunroom, my eager pupils attempting to adjust to the blackness, but within seconds, the diligent owner wanted to show us something else in the kitchen. I did the backstep escape while she talked to my client. Returning to the NightRoom, I creeped up on it like a cat hunting alley prey. The shape appeared distinctly human, although oblivious to my gawky movements, while the aged flooring didn't help my pathetic attempts to be stealth. Just as I was about to yank that shower curtain open, I heard, “Seth, come here please, the owner wants to show you something.” Argggh.

At least The Mystery helped bring out more truths. The faucet wouldn't stop dripping. The plumbing was backing up recently. Those two windows didn't seal right and got drafty in the winter. Give them enough time, and most owners get attacked by guilt. It's re-assuring actually. The 6 o'clock news has maligned the human character. We're not that bad. But really, for her asking price, this home was already out of the question. Just let us see the creature.

The three of us made our way to the front, the owner probably oblivious that her poor choice in design would prevent a sale from ever taking place at this price. My client paused to examine the slowly moving shadow. I made one last attempt to intercept it. The owner slyly passed between us, a hand forbidding an over-eager guy from getting too far on the first date. My attempts were in vain. I'd have to remove her by force. I considered it. The late afternoon light revealed an outline that became more human. Was she hiding something? What if that thing needed our help? A kidnap victim? Maybe it was a child from the milk cartons, or a cloning experiment. A centaur? I wanted to know. But my client had already lost interest. It was the owner and me. An old fashioned real estate showdown. I should have been happy. We learned what we needed to know. But I was a pouty kid who had to settle for the single scoop ice cream cone instead of the triple fudge sundae.

My client was leaning against our bikes, slumped against an oak's wide stump. She stared back at the home, that 'maybe if I look longer it will change' look. But it's the same look men on the highway give to engines under open hoods. It's full of hope, but in the end, you'll need outside help if you want to make it work.

She looked down from the home's vacant dormer, and meekly asked, “so, what did you think?”

“I'm not sure. It could have been human. But something tells me it was an exotic animal. Something she shouldn't be having in Chicago. Or anywhere.”

“What? Oh, who cares. I mean, I'm sorry, but I can't live on a block like this. Look at these homes. These aren't people I'd be friends with. I don't want to live on the nicest home on the block, you know what I mean? I just don't know about this place. Something creepy. And strange.”

I couldn't respond. Cause she would never believe me. It wasn't the block. Not really. It was the owner. And her refusal to clean the house, and open the shades, and fix the simple things, and to harbor a BoogieMan. Really, it was definitely the BoogieMan. Maybe there's good reason you don't pick your dinner up directly from the restaurant kitchen. Have you ever seen who cooks that rib-eye?