I have been shopping for a house for the last year. This is a long time to be house-hunting, but when you are as racked with indecision as My Lovely Wife and I are, it's not surprising.
We've been in our house -- our first -- for 14 years. It started to seem too small five years ago, just about when our younger daughter could grow her fingernails long enough to rake huge chunks of flesh out of our older daughter. This sometimes happens when high-spirited sisters share a bedroom.
"The girls need their own rooms," my wife said one day after daubing mercurochrome on one child or the other.
"Yes, they do," I said, tightening a tourniquet. "But shall we remodel or move?"
(There may be parents who would keep their daughters in a room together to instill in them a sense of love and respect, just as there may be sisters who play duets on the harpsichord, then braid each other's hair. Neither sort lives in our house.)
We had this same scintillating conversation -- remodel or move? move or remodel? -- for the next few months. (Given how long it takes us to make even the most routine decisions, it's a wonder our daughters aren't named Untitled Female Project 1 and Untitled Female Project 2.)
Finally we decided that since moving would allow us to spend our Sunday afternoons grimly driving from open house to open house while listening to our children berate us for not having had the decency to be born filthy rich, that's what we would do.
Of course, the first thing that happens when you're in the market for a house is that you realize you can't afford any of the houses you want. The problem with wanting to live somewhere desirable is that everyone else desires to live there, too. So after a few months looking in the really nice neighborhoods, we lowered our sights to the nice neighborhoods, and even then we swallowed hard and added $100,000 to the figure that we'd told our real estate agent we would go no higher than. (Hey, where is it written that both kids have to go to college, anyway?)
Shopping for a house allowed me to reacquaint myself with the euphemistic language of real estate ads. "Charming" means small. "Quaint" means smaller. "Handyman special" means a termite-infested heap built on a fault line. My favorite line from the ads has always been "Owner says 'Sell!' "
Well, duh. What else is he going to say? "Owner says 'Please don't sell' but nephew has power of attorney"?
Worse than the ads are the open houses. I always get a bit competitive at an open house, especially if I'm actually interested in the house. Every other person there is a rival, another lion on the Serengeti. The couples with the babies are the worst, because they look so goshdurn worthy. They get all googley-eyed when they walk around: We'll put the bassinet here and stencil the wall with ducks. I just know the real estate agent is going to report back to the owner, "Well, the cutest couple with the cutest little baby is interested."
Whenever I run into a couple with a baby at an open house, I have a hard time resisting turning to my wife and saying, loudly, "Gee, they cleaned this place up pretty well. You'd never know there'd been a murder-suicide."
Always when we returned to our house -- a fine house, a decent house, a charming house -- I would make the same joke: "Well here's a nice one." And always I would be filled with guilt. I felt like I was cheating on my house, stepping out behind its back. We'd been together14 years, but somehow we'd grown apart. It just wasn't good enough anymore.
"Where've you been?" my 66-year-old Queen Anne Cape would say.
"Oh, nowhere," I would answer, hiding the Post classifieds behind my back.
After a desultory, lowball bid on one house and an unsuccessful wallet-emptying bid on another (in this white-hot housing market, we didn't escalate high enough; but isn't escalating what got us in trouble in Vietnam?), we finally found a house.
It was time for us to learn that the only thing worse than buying a house is selling one.
Adam Smith Wept
Beltsville's John O'Master stopped last month at a Dunkin' Donuts in Chantilly for a quick doughnut and a cup of coffee in which to set it a-dunkin'. He ordered a small coffee and a coffee roll. The bill came to $2.79, so John handed the clerk a $20 bill. I'll let John take it from there:
"While waiting for my change, I noticed the menu board above the racks of doughnuts and a sign that said 'Coffee and donut, $2.39.'
" 'How did my order get to $2.79?' I asked. 'The sign says $2.39.' The clerk replied that the sign specified a 'medium coffee.' Indeed it did. So I replied, 'If I order more coffee, I pay less?'
" 'That's right,' the clerk said as he handed me change for my twenty.
" 'That defies understanding,' I suggested, whereupon the clerk just shrugged and started doing something else.
"I took my $2.79 small coffee and roll and marveled at how businesses are run."
Of course, what John should have done was keep ordering successively larger and larger coffees until Dunkin' Donuts was paying him for the privilege.
Dunked yourself in the area housing market lately? Have any funny or horrible stories to share? Send them to me at email@example.com. Or to John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.