The House Issue

Taking the Plunge

By Steve Hendrix
Sunday, March 5, 2006

I think of it as the toilet bowl index.

A year and a half ago, we were possessed of seven toilets: two in our own house; one in a little cabin we own with some friends in Pennsylvania; and four others in rental properties we'd bought in Takoma Park. Of course, we also had four circuit boxes in those houses, 15 or so faucets and dozens of windows. But it was the toilet tally I preferred as a measure of the tiny real estate empire my wife, Ann, and I had begun to assemble as amateur investors.

It struck me after we closed on the first rental property, a small brick bungalow off Sligo Creek Parkway. On our final walk-through, I stopped before the tank-and-bowl centerpiece of one of the little bathrooms.

"Why, that's my toilet," I said, a little disoriented from the emotional tumult of buying a house that I wasn't planning to actually live in. "I may never even use it. But it's mine, and I'm responsible for it."

I gave it a little getting-to-know-you flush.

I knew seven toilets didn't place me among the great Potty Barons of our age. How many toilets does Donald Trump own? The mind boggles. (It's easier to imagine how many of them he has ever plunged himself.) But I was still proud that two undercapitalized Washington wonks -- a journalist and a public health consultant -- with meager savings and less than a clue about investing, had quadrupled our porcelain holdings in about five years of real estate dabbling. The johns were all performing admirably, as were the houses themselves. All were growing steadily more valuable each year in a streaking property market, with their mortgages paid by the rents we collected. I've never attended a seminar or read a book on real estate investing, but I gather that's how it is supposed to work.

"The commode count stands at seven," I would update my father, who is always interested in our real estate investments. He is a long-retired cement salesman who hasn't owned a house in more than 30 years. "Holding at seven."

And then, in 2004, we had a chance to buy another property and push ourselves, gulp, into double-digit johnny ownership. And these came with something that was noticeably lacking in our mid-Atlantic houses: a really killer view of a volcano.

It was a little place on Lake Atitlan, a high mountain basin in western Guatemala that Ann and I ranked among the most spectacular settings we'd seen in our global wanderings. We were on vacation there with our two daughters and another Takoma Park family and, after a week, we were all thoroughly smitten. Finally -- hypnotized by the view, emboldened by the rum -- I spoke the inevitable:

"I wonder what houses go for around here."

Real estate investing was about to get seriously weird.

Buying a house is the third most emotion-fraught of all human transactions (right after falling in love and selecting a cable package). The whole process is one big Tilt-a-Whirl, from finding a place (The hunt!), to bidding on it (The battle!), to taking possession (The drapes! They have to go!). It also has to be the world's oldest investment, with people acquiring, managing and losing property since the First Landlord served the first eviction notice at the Garden of Eden. (What was that illegal apple picking, after all, but history's first zoning violation?)

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