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Domestic Spy

Home buyers are liars

 A master bedroom in deepest Kensington, one of those homes on the ridge above Mission Valley. On the wall, in gilt-framed glory, a Varga pinup girl lying on her back and clad in sheerest black lace.
A master bedroom in deepest Kensington, one of those homes on the ridge above Mission Valley. On the wall, in gilt-framed glory, a Varga pinup girl lying on her back and clad in sheerest black lace.

I have been going to open houses for some time now. I do not go looking for a place to move; I rarely visit places I could ever hope to afford. I do not go for decorating ideas; I will not be replacing my mishmash of slowly acquired piecemeal furniture anytime soon, and I do not have the time or the inclination to “update a room’s look” for fun. I go because I like to look. There is undoubtedly a measure of how-the-other-half-lives curiosity about it, and there is plenty of nostalgia involved as well. People say they miss the seasons back East; I miss the blocks of modestly priced two-story houses full of wood floors and double-hung windows and high ceilings and gorgeous woodwork. All these things meant “house” to me, and I like to walk about in such places, see echoes of my old home in “old” California Craftsmans and Spanish-style manses.

I also visit open houses out of amazement and delight that it can be done — I can walk through another person’s home. Though the houses are usually cleaned to better than “company’s coming” perfection — not a stray toy in sight, not a crumb on the counter — I get to see, in some small way, how someone lives: the art on the walls, the books on the shelves, the videos beside the television, the stuff in the pantry, even the clothes in the closets. It doesn’t matter that I don’t actually know whose material life I’m taking in — in fact, it’s better that way — all that matters is that it is someone’s.

Once, however, I was looking for a place to live. I bought my first house off an open house — walked in, walked through, and said, “This is it.” Though I had an agent, Betsy Bowers of Prudential Real Estate, I was still driven to find a place myself, and I did. In doing so, I was the exception. “One of the things about holding open a really nice house is it inspires people to move,” says Bowers. “But really good, bona fide business off an open house? I’d say you would maybe have 300 or 400 people come through the house before you would get one who was going to work with you. Statistically, [the number of houses sold off open houses] is very, very low.”

So why hold it open? Why make your home a tourist destination if it probably won’t lead to a sale? “There are two reasons to hold it open. One is to expose it to potential buyers who may be out driving around and whose agent didn’t show them the house for some reason.” Bowers happens to be acting as the agent for the people selling her childhood home on Titus Street in Mission Hills, and she notes, “I’ve had two people get interested in that house whose agents didn’t show it to them. They told their agents they didn’t want freeway noise” — the 5 sighs in the background; such is the price of the downtown/harbor view — “but then they loved this house so much, they started thinking they could live with the freeway.

“There used to be this hideous saying in real estate: ‘Buyers are liars.’ It’s an awful thing to say because they’re not. They just don’t really know what they want or what they’re willing to do to compromise. They’ve told you one thing, and then they buy another. It’s a process; they discover that they’ll give up this because they want that. A good friend of mine had to have a pool, and he had to have four bedrooms and a big yard, and he would look anywhere from Point Loma/Ocean Beach to San Carlos. I kept finding things that fit the criteria, and nothing was working out. Finally, one day, his wife ended up calling me, and they bought this itty-bitty two-bedroom house in O.B. with no pool. The whole thing for her was she wanted to be near her parents, who lived in the neighborhood. She was letting him lead the way, but when it came down to it, she was the one calling the shots.” So, you hold your house open in the hopes of opening a buyer’s eyes to what they really, really want.

The other reason has little to do with the property in question. “Partly, realtors hold open houses not to sell the house, but to pick up new clients — other listings, buyers” for other properties. This is the reason for the ominous sign-in sheet that agents often shepherd you toward upon your entrance into an open house. “The seller has requested that you sign in,” says the agent, so you feel obliged — this is their home, after all. The least you can do is let them know who traipsed through. But even if the seller requests it, it’s the agent who wants it.

Bowers doesn’t bother with the sign-in. “I don’t see the point. People can put whatever they want down there. Unless you’re going to check ID, they can say, ‘I’m John Smith and I live on A Avenue.’ I have found those lists to be a waste of time in terms of follow-up — if you don’t connect with people at the time, get an appointment with them while they’re at your open house, you’re never going to see or hear from them again.”

In her early days as an agent, “They would try to train us to get names and numbers and go back to the office and immediately call them all. We’d call them all, and nobody would be home and nobody would call us back. I have not, in 18 years, found a list of names and numbers to be of any benefit to me at all. You’ll find that the people that have been doing this the longest are the least likely to be making people sign in. It’s the newbies — they’re doing what they’ve been told to do.”

But while she doesn’t believe in signing in, Bowers does believe in holding open houses, in part because of one big fat stars-aligning-in-the-heavens experience years ago: “I’d had this big, expensive house [A] listed for a long time. I was holding open another house listed by my office [B], because if these people could get their house sold, they were going to buy my listing. In walks this person that has to have the house I’m holding open. I list their house [C], sell this house [B], and those people buy my house [A].

The prices were like $385, $485, and $725. And then I sold another house off a contact made at that open house for a half-million dollars.”

And while it may take 300 or 400 people through the door to get a solid contact, those numbers don’t seem so daunting when you consider that “as many times as I hold open that Titus Street house, I’m going to have 100, 150, 200 prospects through the door.” And she ventures to say, “Whoever buys the Titus Street house is going to be someone who saw it on an open house. There are two people right now who have their houses for sale and who discovered the Titus house on open house.”

One person’s house was already on the market, the other saw Titus and went home to hang up the For Sale sign.

Bowers was also my agent when I sold my first house, and I remember the frantic weekend of preparation before the agents’ caravan on Tuesday. “Plant flowers,” she said, and my wife installed rows of this and that wherever possible. “Get rid of your pictures; the more empty flat spaces and the fewer signs of your family, the easier it will be for someone else to imagine living there.” So we wiped our house clean of ourselves, until it had less individual character than a page from the Pottery Barn catalog.

Now, Bowers claims to have softened — she’ll allow family pictures, but she still suggests clearing the fridge of magnets and children’s masterpieces. And she will still comment if a house’s decor shows a little too much…personality. “There are houses where we go into the house, and there is too much nudity — on the walls, figures, that kind of thing.” Would you ever say anything? “To my clients, I would.”

I sympathize. Even on my exploratory tours, I like to look at signs of life, not full-blown proclamations. I think of a judge’s home office in Del Cerro, whose computer was on but asleep, his screen saver flashing one bikini babe after another. I think of a master bedroom in deepest Kensington, one of those homes right on the ridge above Mission Valley. On the wall, in enormous, gilt-framed glory, a Varga pinup girl lying on her back and clad in the sheerest black lace, her head thrown back in ecstasy, her impossible figure jutting out in several directions. So hard not to wonder about the point of such a display — something for the trophy wife to check herself against? “How am I holding up?” For the bored husband to glance at in an attempt to get his engine running? A demarcation of the bedroom as erotic space? “Here be sex” instead of the ancient maps’ “Here be dragons.”

But better (worse) still than the Varga girl was the upstairs master bedroom in Rolando where my wife and I (and many others) discovered a series of professional portraits of the lady of the house when she was a blushing bride. Except she wasn’t blushing — we would have been able to tell if she was. The portraits captured only her, except for her billowy veil. None of the portraits was explicit, but they were certainly suggestive — the bride, seated on the floor, looking back over her veiled shoulder with a smile. The effect was not the anonymous, mysterious (who are these people?) sexuality denoted by the Varga; this was My Personalized Sexy Space. Hard to imagine taking up one’s own love life in such a room.

After I bought my second house, I stopped going to open houses for a long while. There was no point, I told myself, and my Sunday afternoons were better spent elsewhere. But after a year or two, I started stopping here and there — one at a time, just for fun, mind you — especially in Mission Hills, long my favorite neighborhood and also the site of Mission Hills Nursery, where my wife likes to shop. Gradually, I got the bug again, and now, here I am, a full “Sunday, 1–4 p.m.” in front of me, heading down Washington to see what there is to see.

First stop, a 5/5 (bedrooms/bathrooms) on Goldfinch, just a half block north of the first house I ever hoped to buy, the brick one on the corner of Goldfinch and Bush. (Back then, the agent was very gentle in letting me know that it was well out of my price range; he mainly stressed the importance of getting prequalified with a lender so as to “get an idea of what I could afford.”) Bowers said that anything under 900K tended to fly off the page in Mission Hills, but this is Mission Hills below Washington, so perhaps things aren’t moving quite as fast here. After three months or so on the market, the house is down almost 50 grand from its original list price — $849,500 instead of $899,000. At 2959 square feet (out of a 4539-square-foot lot) the flyer boasts that the house costs a mere “$287 per square foot!”

The two-story 1913 Craftsman leads with charm, charm, charm — white picket fence, blooming front yard, brick driveway, those lovely old Mission-style window frames. Inside is more charm — oh, that porte cochere, those fir floors showing their ancient nailheads, those French doors between living and dining rooms! Those alcoves off the front bedrooms, lit by sunlight pouring through fascinating trapezoidal windows! Those period Arts-and-Crafts light fixtures! The old pleasure in fine old houses warms anew.

But the period chandelier in the dining room hints at what the kitchen confirms: this is not simply an older house, not even an “updated” older house. This is a total remodel, the kind that is bought to be fixed up and sold. There is a uniformity to the color and decor that says that great swaths of work were done at the same time — no piecemeal upgrades here.

Naturally, amendments have been made for the modern taste. The kitchen has been allowed to maintain its antiquated tininess (10´ x 11´) but has been stuffed with a checklist of amenities: granite counters, maple cabinets, stainless-steel appliances, and Travertine floors. The house was originally a 4/4 with what counted as a spacious back yard by city-home standards. But there was no family room for children, toys, and media/entertainment centers; and no gigantic (14´x 20´ as opposed to 14´x 13´) master bedroom with accompanying bath and walk-in closet. Two of the upstairs bedrooms had their own baths, but neither was large enough for the near-mandatory “oversize Jacuzzi tub and oversize shower,” outfitted with not-so-mandatory “double waterfall showerheads.” So the owner built back into the yard, creating two tasteful, fairly well integrated (wood floors, stone — Travertine! — fireplaces, more period light fixtures) rooms and leaving a cozy-shady square of back yard around an enormous alder. Next to the back yard, a “refinished” garage: drywalled, painted, brick-floored, with yet another period light hanging down from the rafters.

It is pleasant enough to imagine living here. But after a while, the unlived-in quality of the house begins to sink in. A bed is covered in financial paperwork — surely no one will sleep here tonight? One becomes conscious of just how white all the walls are, how blank the canvas has been made for the prospective buyer. (The master bath, a study in taupes, is anonymous in an off-white sort of way.) One notices the similarity of materials in three of the original (restored) bathrooms and the failure of the period light fixtures to quite mimic their wrought-iron forbears. Though black and dully metallic and properly shaped, they hint at something insubstantial, something lightweight. They are reproductions, not replacements.

“You know they’re serious when they bring Mom back,” says the realtor to the owner, who is present. “‘Mom, you’ll be down here [in the downstairs bed/bathroom]’…” The owner talks to a couple about the house next door, as the three of them peer out of the French windows in the kitchen. From what he says, I guess that they’re asking if it is about to undergo a similar remodel/resell. “Actually, she’s owned that house for about 35 years. Now she’s having it painted. They took all of that rock — like Palm Springs — out of the front yard. She’s redoing the house. She has all these children in their 30s, and they’re redoing the house for her…” I’m curious to see what becomes of it; it sounds so much more personal.

North of Washington now, along one of Mission Hills’ main drags: Fort Stockton. Another Craftsman, built in 1915. Single-story this time and on a larger lot — 6800 square feet. The price is only $879K, despite the location, and it’s not hard to see why. Besides the fact that it’s smaller (2117 square feet), it’s something of a camel — the addition that takes this from a 2/2 to a 3/3.5 is bumped up to the back of the house in a two-story hump. Still, for all its exterior oddity, this one feels even more Craftsmany once you step inside. There is almost more wood than white on the walls. Delicious curves of oak coving between wall and ceiling, still-intact double-hung windows covered by narrow-slat shutters made from the same wood as the window frames. Built-in glass-fronted bookcases. Built-in hutch in the dining room, wainscoting up to my neck, a built-in settee under the window.

The kitchen has been remodeled, but it was a while ago; the roosters-and-pears country French wallpaper makes me think of the ’80s somehow. A wood-topped island has a functional but not commercial air — no stainless steel in sight. I like the pullout cutting boards very much — they’re the real deal, nice and thick and heavy and solid, the sort on which you could actually chop a chicken.

Back beyond the original house, back into the newish “hump,” the color scheme shifts from woods and yellows to white walls, ice-blue trim and sky-blue carpeting. Up front is the showplace, back here is where people live. There are pictures of children, and pictures by children, lace curtains instead of shutters, the home office, the family room with the big-screen TV. Though more solid than many newer homes, the addition feels a touch worn. One bathroom dates from just before the ascendance of wall-to-wall earth tones: pink and beige, a herald of things to come.

Up the stairs is a master suite with a similar just-yesterday feel: huge enough bedroom, but a bathroom in which everything is rectangles and squares — none of the diagonals so common today. The toilet has its own little room, and the Jacuzzi tub is appropriately gargantuan, but the pale blue grout between the white tiles pulls the space back in time. A TV, VCR, and boom box sit on a desk facing the bed — no media center here. The most interesting thing is the poster hanging in the stairway: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, surely the most eclectic display of nudity one could use to decorate a bedroom. That great festival of revealed flesh, flanked by the sparse bliss of heaven and the torturous horrors of hell…

Because of the larger lot, there is more yard left here than on Goldfinch, despite the larger addition; the grass is satisfactorily lush and gorgeous for Mission Hills. The garage is still just a garage — a place for tools and storage, not a home office or game room.

From there it was down into the interior canyons, down “most picturesque street in Mission Hills,” Randolph Terrace. Here, the ratio of bedrooms to bathrooms tipped luxuriously in favor of baths: 5/5.5, 3411 square feet of 1930 two-story Spanish on 11,430 square feet of lot. The price came in at a whopping $1.975 million; this was not a remodel, this was a gut-and-start-over. “Everything in the house is new,” proclaimed the agent, wonderfully polite despite my approach by beat-up car. “New floors, new windows, new electrical, new plumbing.” The owner, an architect who bought the place in ’98, “kept the footprint but changed the entire interior. The people who lived here before raised eight kids here — thrashed it. The windows and the doors are truly awesome in terms of high-quality — the man spent a lot of money. The floor is stained oak; the doors are Douglas fir. This is probably a $130,000 to $150,000 kitchen.”

The kitchen is magazine-ad worthy — Gaggenau stovetop, stainless steel counters above broad, steel-fronted German drawers that roll out with a whisper. The fridge is covered by a laminate that matches the deep red-brown of the cabinets (and the doors throughout the house). “It really looks like another cabinet; it freaks people out.” Though there is uniformity here, the place is not so anonymous as Goldfinch; it bears a designer’s stamp. All casings are a pewter-gray/black, contrasting sharply with both the stark white of the walls and the warm brown of the doors. The kitchen is only the most obvious expression of the house’s hard-edged leanness, a quality that contrasts with the rambling “Oh, another room over here” layout.

The stamp is there in the all-important master bath as well — gray stone for the entrance to the cavernous shower, a Jacuzzi ringed by a hundred tiny jets instead of eight big ones — but the agent tells me the master suite has been something of a sticking point. “With younger couples in this price range, this is the room that turns them off. It’s not big enough [17´x 12´], because they bring their kids into the master bedroom, toddlers and such.” The walk-in closet boasts a wide array of gray T-shirts on hangers — the architect is methodical.

The garage (which contains a Ferrari) and the house combine to form a courtyard, which leads to an L-shaped pool and deck, which leads to another patio, which leads to a patch of grass, all wrapping around the outside of the house. From the yard, I can see my next house: 3/3.5, but two stories and a mammoth 4077 square feet. Built in 1955, yours for only $1.825 million. By now, I’m feeling a little full of houses...details and amenities wash over me, and it becomes harder and harder to cram them into my eyes and brain. The house wraps in a C-shape around a pool deck, accessible from just about anywhere via a long row of French doors. “There’s 80 of these doors and windows,” says the agent. “They’re all from Canada. They’re a Douglas-fir frame and then coated with some kind of rubberized film on the outside. They’re all double-pane.”

Besides the doors, what you notice is the airiness of the 31´ x 23´ living room, which segues invisibly into the 16´x 12´ dining room — the ceiling is vaulted and was built with steel so that no cross beams were necessary. The lower third of the C is formed by a kitchen/family room that has been built out over what used to be a garage-top deck. Here, the decor is slightly more expected than the Spanish house — lots of pale stone, marble countertops, etc. Expensive, but not unique.

The bedrooms curl around the top of the C; the master suite is reached via a curving staircase. “There used to be a deck up there. The house was built for an older lady — she used the downstairs master bedroom. There was just a little bedroom and bath up there for her kids when they visited.” A Rancho Santa Fe team — two brothers, one an architect, one a contractor — was brought in to improve the property. Now, all that remains of the homely old upstairs is the banged-up hollow-laminate bedroom door with its forlorn handle. The bathroom was expanded, the deck became the master bedroom, and the bedroom became the walk-in closet.

There’s a selling point: a closet the size of some people’s bedrooms. Because there is so much spotless luxury about, the eye is drawn to things that are not neatly stacked, not carefully arranged, not comfortably appointed. There is a leather-clad repository for glasses, wallet, watch, etc., but next to it, a La Victoria salsa jar for spare change. There are Nordstrom shoe trees in all the shoes on the shelves, but the sneakers are piled on the floor. There are plastic bags full of stuff. Bras are piled on a shelf, handbags on the shelf above. The women’s shoes are stored in their original, faded boxes — Salvatore Ferragamo, Peter Kaiser, Bruno Magli, Cole Haan, Nine West, Nichols. The boxes are carefully labeled with marker: black patent flats, rubber sole black pump, green suede flats, green flat sandals, taupe sandals.

I am stuffed, heavy with real estate. I need something light, refreshing, a sorbet after the beef course. A two-bedroom bungalow near a park, down to $599,000 from $629,000. Compact living spaces, lots of old windows looking out on a canyon, the comfort of lively jazz — music to sell houses by. Still Mission Hills, but Mission Hills with the old Dishmaster faucet jutting from the wall in the kitchen. There is a deck with a spa overlooking the canyon and a tire-swing hanging from a tree at the base of the property. A little girl walks up the hill with her mother, who tells her, “No, honey, there’s no room to put in a pool.”

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 A master bedroom in deepest Kensington, one of those homes on the ridge above Mission Valley. On the wall, in gilt-framed glory, a Varga pinup girl lying on her back and clad in sheerest black lace.
A master bedroom in deepest Kensington, one of those homes on the ridge above Mission Valley. On the wall, in gilt-framed glory, a Varga pinup girl lying on her back and clad in sheerest black lace.

I have been going to open houses for some time now. I do not go looking for a place to move; I rarely visit places I could ever hope to afford. I do not go for decorating ideas; I will not be replacing my mishmash of slowly acquired piecemeal furniture anytime soon, and I do not have the time or the inclination to “update a room’s look” for fun. I go because I like to look. There is undoubtedly a measure of how-the-other-half-lives curiosity about it, and there is plenty of nostalgia involved as well. People say they miss the seasons back East; I miss the blocks of modestly priced two-story houses full of wood floors and double-hung windows and high ceilings and gorgeous woodwork. All these things meant “house” to me, and I like to walk about in such places, see echoes of my old home in “old” California Craftsmans and Spanish-style manses.

I also visit open houses out of amazement and delight that it can be done — I can walk through another person’s home. Though the houses are usually cleaned to better than “company’s coming” perfection — not a stray toy in sight, not a crumb on the counter — I get to see, in some small way, how someone lives: the art on the walls, the books on the shelves, the videos beside the television, the stuff in the pantry, even the clothes in the closets. It doesn’t matter that I don’t actually know whose material life I’m taking in — in fact, it’s better that way — all that matters is that it is someone’s.

Once, however, I was looking for a place to live. I bought my first house off an open house — walked in, walked through, and said, “This is it.” Though I had an agent, Betsy Bowers of Prudential Real Estate, I was still driven to find a place myself, and I did. In doing so, I was the exception. “One of the things about holding open a really nice house is it inspires people to move,” says Bowers. “But really good, bona fide business off an open house? I’d say you would maybe have 300 or 400 people come through the house before you would get one who was going to work with you. Statistically, [the number of houses sold off open houses] is very, very low.”

So why hold it open? Why make your home a tourist destination if it probably won’t lead to a sale? “There are two reasons to hold it open. One is to expose it to potential buyers who may be out driving around and whose agent didn’t show them the house for some reason.” Bowers happens to be acting as the agent for the people selling her childhood home on Titus Street in Mission Hills, and she notes, “I’ve had two people get interested in that house whose agents didn’t show it to them. They told their agents they didn’t want freeway noise” — the 5 sighs in the background; such is the price of the downtown/harbor view — “but then they loved this house so much, they started thinking they could live with the freeway.

“There used to be this hideous saying in real estate: ‘Buyers are liars.’ It’s an awful thing to say because they’re not. They just don’t really know what they want or what they’re willing to do to compromise. They’ve told you one thing, and then they buy another. It’s a process; they discover that they’ll give up this because they want that. A good friend of mine had to have a pool, and he had to have four bedrooms and a big yard, and he would look anywhere from Point Loma/Ocean Beach to San Carlos. I kept finding things that fit the criteria, and nothing was working out. Finally, one day, his wife ended up calling me, and they bought this itty-bitty two-bedroom house in O.B. with no pool. The whole thing for her was she wanted to be near her parents, who lived in the neighborhood. She was letting him lead the way, but when it came down to it, she was the one calling the shots.” So, you hold your house open in the hopes of opening a buyer’s eyes to what they really, really want.

The other reason has little to do with the property in question. “Partly, realtors hold open houses not to sell the house, but to pick up new clients — other listings, buyers” for other properties. This is the reason for the ominous sign-in sheet that agents often shepherd you toward upon your entrance into an open house. “The seller has requested that you sign in,” says the agent, so you feel obliged — this is their home, after all. The least you can do is let them know who traipsed through. But even if the seller requests it, it’s the agent who wants it.

Bowers doesn’t bother with the sign-in. “I don’t see the point. People can put whatever they want down there. Unless you’re going to check ID, they can say, ‘I’m John Smith and I live on A Avenue.’ I have found those lists to be a waste of time in terms of follow-up — if you don’t connect with people at the time, get an appointment with them while they’re at your open house, you’re never going to see or hear from them again.”

In her early days as an agent, “They would try to train us to get names and numbers and go back to the office and immediately call them all. We’d call them all, and nobody would be home and nobody would call us back. I have not, in 18 years, found a list of names and numbers to be of any benefit to me at all. You’ll find that the people that have been doing this the longest are the least likely to be making people sign in. It’s the newbies — they’re doing what they’ve been told to do.”

But while she doesn’t believe in signing in, Bowers does believe in holding open houses, in part because of one big fat stars-aligning-in-the-heavens experience years ago: “I’d had this big, expensive house [A] listed for a long time. I was holding open another house listed by my office [B], because if these people could get their house sold, they were going to buy my listing. In walks this person that has to have the house I’m holding open. I list their house [C], sell this house [B], and those people buy my house [A].

The prices were like $385, $485, and $725. And then I sold another house off a contact made at that open house for a half-million dollars.”

And while it may take 300 or 400 people through the door to get a solid contact, those numbers don’t seem so daunting when you consider that “as many times as I hold open that Titus Street house, I’m going to have 100, 150, 200 prospects through the door.” And she ventures to say, “Whoever buys the Titus Street house is going to be someone who saw it on an open house. There are two people right now who have their houses for sale and who discovered the Titus house on open house.”

One person’s house was already on the market, the other saw Titus and went home to hang up the For Sale sign.

Bowers was also my agent when I sold my first house, and I remember the frantic weekend of preparation before the agents’ caravan on Tuesday. “Plant flowers,” she said, and my wife installed rows of this and that wherever possible. “Get rid of your pictures; the more empty flat spaces and the fewer signs of your family, the easier it will be for someone else to imagine living there.” So we wiped our house clean of ourselves, until it had less individual character than a page from the Pottery Barn catalog.

Now, Bowers claims to have softened — she’ll allow family pictures, but she still suggests clearing the fridge of magnets and children’s masterpieces. And she will still comment if a house’s decor shows a little too much…personality. “There are houses where we go into the house, and there is too much nudity — on the walls, figures, that kind of thing.” Would you ever say anything? “To my clients, I would.”

I sympathize. Even on my exploratory tours, I like to look at signs of life, not full-blown proclamations. I think of a judge’s home office in Del Cerro, whose computer was on but asleep, his screen saver flashing one bikini babe after another. I think of a master bedroom in deepest Kensington, one of those homes right on the ridge above Mission Valley. On the wall, in enormous, gilt-framed glory, a Varga pinup girl lying on her back and clad in the sheerest black lace, her head thrown back in ecstasy, her impossible figure jutting out in several directions. So hard not to wonder about the point of such a display — something for the trophy wife to check herself against? “How am I holding up?” For the bored husband to glance at in an attempt to get his engine running? A demarcation of the bedroom as erotic space? “Here be sex” instead of the ancient maps’ “Here be dragons.”

But better (worse) still than the Varga girl was the upstairs master bedroom in Rolando where my wife and I (and many others) discovered a series of professional portraits of the lady of the house when she was a blushing bride. Except she wasn’t blushing — we would have been able to tell if she was. The portraits captured only her, except for her billowy veil. None of the portraits was explicit, but they were certainly suggestive — the bride, seated on the floor, looking back over her veiled shoulder with a smile. The effect was not the anonymous, mysterious (who are these people?) sexuality denoted by the Varga; this was My Personalized Sexy Space. Hard to imagine taking up one’s own love life in such a room.

After I bought my second house, I stopped going to open houses for a long while. There was no point, I told myself, and my Sunday afternoons were better spent elsewhere. But after a year or two, I started stopping here and there — one at a time, just for fun, mind you — especially in Mission Hills, long my favorite neighborhood and also the site of Mission Hills Nursery, where my wife likes to shop. Gradually, I got the bug again, and now, here I am, a full “Sunday, 1–4 p.m.” in front of me, heading down Washington to see what there is to see.

First stop, a 5/5 (bedrooms/bathrooms) on Goldfinch, just a half block north of the first house I ever hoped to buy, the brick one on the corner of Goldfinch and Bush. (Back then, the agent was very gentle in letting me know that it was well out of my price range; he mainly stressed the importance of getting prequalified with a lender so as to “get an idea of what I could afford.”) Bowers said that anything under 900K tended to fly off the page in Mission Hills, but this is Mission Hills below Washington, so perhaps things aren’t moving quite as fast here. After three months or so on the market, the house is down almost 50 grand from its original list price — $849,500 instead of $899,000. At 2959 square feet (out of a 4539-square-foot lot) the flyer boasts that the house costs a mere “$287 per square foot!”

The two-story 1913 Craftsman leads with charm, charm, charm — white picket fence, blooming front yard, brick driveway, those lovely old Mission-style window frames. Inside is more charm — oh, that porte cochere, those fir floors showing their ancient nailheads, those French doors between living and dining rooms! Those alcoves off the front bedrooms, lit by sunlight pouring through fascinating trapezoidal windows! Those period Arts-and-Crafts light fixtures! The old pleasure in fine old houses warms anew.

But the period chandelier in the dining room hints at what the kitchen confirms: this is not simply an older house, not even an “updated” older house. This is a total remodel, the kind that is bought to be fixed up and sold. There is a uniformity to the color and decor that says that great swaths of work were done at the same time — no piecemeal upgrades here.

Naturally, amendments have been made for the modern taste. The kitchen has been allowed to maintain its antiquated tininess (10´ x 11´) but has been stuffed with a checklist of amenities: granite counters, maple cabinets, stainless-steel appliances, and Travertine floors. The house was originally a 4/4 with what counted as a spacious back yard by city-home standards. But there was no family room for children, toys, and media/entertainment centers; and no gigantic (14´x 20´ as opposed to 14´x 13´) master bedroom with accompanying bath and walk-in closet. Two of the upstairs bedrooms had their own baths, but neither was large enough for the near-mandatory “oversize Jacuzzi tub and oversize shower,” outfitted with not-so-mandatory “double waterfall showerheads.” So the owner built back into the yard, creating two tasteful, fairly well integrated (wood floors, stone — Travertine! — fireplaces, more period light fixtures) rooms and leaving a cozy-shady square of back yard around an enormous alder. Next to the back yard, a “refinished” garage: drywalled, painted, brick-floored, with yet another period light hanging down from the rafters.

It is pleasant enough to imagine living here. But after a while, the unlived-in quality of the house begins to sink in. A bed is covered in financial paperwork — surely no one will sleep here tonight? One becomes conscious of just how white all the walls are, how blank the canvas has been made for the prospective buyer. (The master bath, a study in taupes, is anonymous in an off-white sort of way.) One notices the similarity of materials in three of the original (restored) bathrooms and the failure of the period light fixtures to quite mimic their wrought-iron forbears. Though black and dully metallic and properly shaped, they hint at something insubstantial, something lightweight. They are reproductions, not replacements.

“You know they’re serious when they bring Mom back,” says the realtor to the owner, who is present. “‘Mom, you’ll be down here [in the downstairs bed/bathroom]’…” The owner talks to a couple about the house next door, as the three of them peer out of the French windows in the kitchen. From what he says, I guess that they’re asking if it is about to undergo a similar remodel/resell. “Actually, she’s owned that house for about 35 years. Now she’s having it painted. They took all of that rock — like Palm Springs — out of the front yard. She’s redoing the house. She has all these children in their 30s, and they’re redoing the house for her…” I’m curious to see what becomes of it; it sounds so much more personal.

North of Washington now, along one of Mission Hills’ main drags: Fort Stockton. Another Craftsman, built in 1915. Single-story this time and on a larger lot — 6800 square feet. The price is only $879K, despite the location, and it’s not hard to see why. Besides the fact that it’s smaller (2117 square feet), it’s something of a camel — the addition that takes this from a 2/2 to a 3/3.5 is bumped up to the back of the house in a two-story hump. Still, for all its exterior oddity, this one feels even more Craftsmany once you step inside. There is almost more wood than white on the walls. Delicious curves of oak coving between wall and ceiling, still-intact double-hung windows covered by narrow-slat shutters made from the same wood as the window frames. Built-in glass-fronted bookcases. Built-in hutch in the dining room, wainscoting up to my neck, a built-in settee under the window.

The kitchen has been remodeled, but it was a while ago; the roosters-and-pears country French wallpaper makes me think of the ’80s somehow. A wood-topped island has a functional but not commercial air — no stainless steel in sight. I like the pullout cutting boards very much — they’re the real deal, nice and thick and heavy and solid, the sort on which you could actually chop a chicken.

Back beyond the original house, back into the newish “hump,” the color scheme shifts from woods and yellows to white walls, ice-blue trim and sky-blue carpeting. Up front is the showplace, back here is where people live. There are pictures of children, and pictures by children, lace curtains instead of shutters, the home office, the family room with the big-screen TV. Though more solid than many newer homes, the addition feels a touch worn. One bathroom dates from just before the ascendance of wall-to-wall earth tones: pink and beige, a herald of things to come.

Up the stairs is a master suite with a similar just-yesterday feel: huge enough bedroom, but a bathroom in which everything is rectangles and squares — none of the diagonals so common today. The toilet has its own little room, and the Jacuzzi tub is appropriately gargantuan, but the pale blue grout between the white tiles pulls the space back in time. A TV, VCR, and boom box sit on a desk facing the bed — no media center here. The most interesting thing is the poster hanging in the stairway: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, surely the most eclectic display of nudity one could use to decorate a bedroom. That great festival of revealed flesh, flanked by the sparse bliss of heaven and the torturous horrors of hell…

Because of the larger lot, there is more yard left here than on Goldfinch, despite the larger addition; the grass is satisfactorily lush and gorgeous for Mission Hills. The garage is still just a garage — a place for tools and storage, not a home office or game room.

From there it was down into the interior canyons, down “most picturesque street in Mission Hills,” Randolph Terrace. Here, the ratio of bedrooms to bathrooms tipped luxuriously in favor of baths: 5/5.5, 3411 square feet of 1930 two-story Spanish on 11,430 square feet of lot. The price came in at a whopping $1.975 million; this was not a remodel, this was a gut-and-start-over. “Everything in the house is new,” proclaimed the agent, wonderfully polite despite my approach by beat-up car. “New floors, new windows, new electrical, new plumbing.” The owner, an architect who bought the place in ’98, “kept the footprint but changed the entire interior. The people who lived here before raised eight kids here — thrashed it. The windows and the doors are truly awesome in terms of high-quality — the man spent a lot of money. The floor is stained oak; the doors are Douglas fir. This is probably a $130,000 to $150,000 kitchen.”

The kitchen is magazine-ad worthy — Gaggenau stovetop, stainless steel counters above broad, steel-fronted German drawers that roll out with a whisper. The fridge is covered by a laminate that matches the deep red-brown of the cabinets (and the doors throughout the house). “It really looks like another cabinet; it freaks people out.” Though there is uniformity here, the place is not so anonymous as Goldfinch; it bears a designer’s stamp. All casings are a pewter-gray/black, contrasting sharply with both the stark white of the walls and the warm brown of the doors. The kitchen is only the most obvious expression of the house’s hard-edged leanness, a quality that contrasts with the rambling “Oh, another room over here” layout.

The stamp is there in the all-important master bath as well — gray stone for the entrance to the cavernous shower, a Jacuzzi ringed by a hundred tiny jets instead of eight big ones — but the agent tells me the master suite has been something of a sticking point. “With younger couples in this price range, this is the room that turns them off. It’s not big enough [17´x 12´], because they bring their kids into the master bedroom, toddlers and such.” The walk-in closet boasts a wide array of gray T-shirts on hangers — the architect is methodical.

The garage (which contains a Ferrari) and the house combine to form a courtyard, which leads to an L-shaped pool and deck, which leads to another patio, which leads to a patch of grass, all wrapping around the outside of the house. From the yard, I can see my next house: 3/3.5, but two stories and a mammoth 4077 square feet. Built in 1955, yours for only $1.825 million. By now, I’m feeling a little full of houses...details and amenities wash over me, and it becomes harder and harder to cram them into my eyes and brain. The house wraps in a C-shape around a pool deck, accessible from just about anywhere via a long row of French doors. “There’s 80 of these doors and windows,” says the agent. “They’re all from Canada. They’re a Douglas-fir frame and then coated with some kind of rubberized film on the outside. They’re all double-pane.”

Besides the doors, what you notice is the airiness of the 31´ x 23´ living room, which segues invisibly into the 16´x 12´ dining room — the ceiling is vaulted and was built with steel so that no cross beams were necessary. The lower third of the C is formed by a kitchen/family room that has been built out over what used to be a garage-top deck. Here, the decor is slightly more expected than the Spanish house — lots of pale stone, marble countertops, etc. Expensive, but not unique.

The bedrooms curl around the top of the C; the master suite is reached via a curving staircase. “There used to be a deck up there. The house was built for an older lady — she used the downstairs master bedroom. There was just a little bedroom and bath up there for her kids when they visited.” A Rancho Santa Fe team — two brothers, one an architect, one a contractor — was brought in to improve the property. Now, all that remains of the homely old upstairs is the banged-up hollow-laminate bedroom door with its forlorn handle. The bathroom was expanded, the deck became the master bedroom, and the bedroom became the walk-in closet.

There’s a selling point: a closet the size of some people’s bedrooms. Because there is so much spotless luxury about, the eye is drawn to things that are not neatly stacked, not carefully arranged, not comfortably appointed. There is a leather-clad repository for glasses, wallet, watch, etc., but next to it, a La Victoria salsa jar for spare change. There are Nordstrom shoe trees in all the shoes on the shelves, but the sneakers are piled on the floor. There are plastic bags full of stuff. Bras are piled on a shelf, handbags on the shelf above. The women’s shoes are stored in their original, faded boxes — Salvatore Ferragamo, Peter Kaiser, Bruno Magli, Cole Haan, Nine West, Nichols. The boxes are carefully labeled with marker: black patent flats, rubber sole black pump, green suede flats, green flat sandals, taupe sandals.

I am stuffed, heavy with real estate. I need something light, refreshing, a sorbet after the beef course. A two-bedroom bungalow near a park, down to $599,000 from $629,000. Compact living spaces, lots of old windows looking out on a canyon, the comfort of lively jazz — music to sell houses by. Still Mission Hills, but Mission Hills with the old Dishmaster faucet jutting from the wall in the kitchen. There is a deck with a spa overlooking the canyon and a tire-swing hanging from a tree at the base of the property. A little girl walks up the hill with her mother, who tells her, “No, honey, there’s no room to put in a pool.”

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