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Working With The Devil In Disguise

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My first-time home buying nightmare didn't begin with the house, it began with my realtor. Aptly nicknamed 'Satan' by me and my friends, the realtor I first hired to help navigate the world of first-time home buying made the real estate agents on 'Selling New York' look like Romper Room recruits.

My first time home buying experience began with ‘Satan’ in the early throes of spring 2003. 'Satan' was a compact middle-aged woman with bright blond dyed hair and charcoal lined brows. She clutched a Coach bag tattooed to her left arm and wore a shimmering aluminum colored quilted coat that clung to her in 70 degree weather. She began our conversation by telling me she was friends with Shelly Long of Cheer's fame. I told her, simply enough, I wanted a reasonably priced starter home in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.

‘Satan’ was exuberantly ambitious, pushy and constantly loud. She made Jewish and Italian grandmothers look meek. She’d fax dozens of prospective home listings to me daily and followed up each one with a call during the work week. If I took more than a day to get back to her, she’d threaten to move on and help other buyers. It’d be a miracle when one of the listings was actually in my price range. When it was, it’d be a ‘fixer,’ as she put it, a home that needed work; a lot of work. After reviewing dozens of homes throughout the Northern, VA suburbs with ‘Satan,’ I settled upon on a modest single-family 2 bedroom red-brick Cape Cod in a sleepy old community in southern Alexandria, ironically called, New Alexandria. It was located only 8 miles from DC in a neighborhood with homes costing almost twice as much along the picturesque George Washington Parkway and meandering Potomac.

While my mortgage pre-approval process was a breeze, everything that followed was downhill. The house was covered in creepy English Ivy (but not in the quaint ‘Downton Abbey’ way) and it was clearly the least expensive home in the neighborhood. It was built in 1937, had interior walls covered in vinyl wall paper the color of New York City slush after a wet snowfall. The kitchen could double as a backdrop for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Friends preferred using the bathroom at the nearby gas station. Downstairs, the house was void of closets, a dishwasher, dryer and any light fixtures manufactured after the Depression. Underneath the peeling vinyl wall paper were cracks in the plaster walls of varying sizes, some large enough to harbor a six year old child. The blackened gutters had a mesh of hardened algae that covered the troughs with green tinted rain water that never drained. When the sun hit the water you could see the agitated bodies of hundreds of mosquito larvae gyrating in the sludge.On a hot day, the smell reminded me of driving past the highly polluted Anacostia River.

Exhausted from searching, but eager to find a place, I finally decided to make an offer. I’ve never heard of what an ‘escalation clause’ was, but according to ‘Satan,’ it was the only way I’d get the house in the overheated market of ‘03. My offer was accepted in May 2003. Every night, after work, I’d drive between my Arlington, VA apartment to Alexandria. I spent hours each day and on weekends cleaning out decades of unkempt muck and debris that the previous owner had accumulated after living there for 47 years.

After I spent weeks of backbreaking work gutting all the walls, I was ready to begin with the first room of the house I knew I had to fix-up first; the kitchen. First, I ordered appliances, then flooring and cabinets. I packed all my personal belongings, photos, clothes, pillows, high school yearbooks, school midterm papers and personal mementos, in the garage, which was really an oversized shed. The dust mask I wore left indentations around my mouth and upper nose that took weeks to fade away.

Then, in September 2003, my home-buying nightmare crested.

Hurricane Isabel hit with a wallop and dumped the area with so much water, you’d swear the Potomac was just outside my bedroom window. Well, actually, it was. The first floor was covered in more than four feet of water, with the shed, a.k.a., the garage, getting more than six feet. All of my water-soaked personal belongings were either floating on top of the water or were weighed down with Potomac sludge. It was the costliest and deadliest hurricane in the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season. I can personally attest to that fact.

A few weeks before Isabel hit, I had a stainless steel double door fridge, stove/oven, dishwasher and microwave delivered to the house. They sat in my living room. The force of the flood water knocked the fridge over, which blocked the front door from opening. In a matter of weeks, the dishwasher motor turned the color of rust and the interior of the white fridge was speckled in green mold. Everything in the house was covered in hardened brown-colored dust and mold that permeated every corner and crevice.

There’s no mistaking the damage a flood does to a home. After the water retreated, the original red-oak floors (which were the best feature of the house) looked like buckled Lincoln logs covered in patchy mold. The walls were dotted with various shades of green mold that would gradually creep up the wall with every passing day. Following Isabel, there were record temperatures in the 90’s that week, so every passing day the smell got worse and worse. My house smelled like a dump in Jersey.

It took a year to fully clean, renovate and move into my home. I dealt with FEMA, the National Flood Insurance Program, insurance adjusters, contractors, scavengers, noisy neighbors, lived in three different places and herded furry critters who didn’t mind living in a flooded home.

What I know now that I didn’t know before I bought my house, is that nothing is ever cut and dry when you purchase a home. Budget for $10,000, but plan to spend double that. Take a weekend to work on a project that ends up taking months. The adage, ‘do it yourself’ has never had more meaning. If you don’t ‘do it,’ no one else will.

UPDATE: The author of this post contacted us with a reply to the several comments that were left in the comments section. Here, copied from his email, is his response:


The main point of Curbed.com's contest was about first time home buying nightmares. The main point of my story wasn't about my dealings with the realtor (which the title would have you imply), but rather my facing the aftermath of a destructive hurricane months after buying a fixer upper, as a first time home buyer. While dealing with a hurricane is not a unique experience limited only to first time home buyers, it certainly was for me. One comment mentioned that had I, the buyer, gotten an inspection, I wouldn't have gone through all that I did. However, I purposely left out technical details, such as the house was bought 'as is' (as most fixer-uppers are) so no inspection was required for closing. I was well aware that I was purchasing a home with many flaws that needed many improvements and upgrades. Also, terms like 'escalation clause' were new to me, but I was fully aware of how it applied to the home buying process, which was an issue brought up by another comment. Lastly, to the 'when you buy crap you get crap' comment, my home has doubled in value over the last five years, so I'm quite happy with the 'crap' I bought :) --Steve