I grew up in Washington, DC in a family immersed in house-hunting all throughout my childhood, so I was aware from an early age that my parents wanted to purchase a new home. Because nothing ever seemed to transpire, my sisters and I believed our parents were practicing “aspirational” real estate, seeking to fill a void in their own lives by looking for a new home, without ever planning to pull the trigger.
Family weekends were scheduled around open houses, in between drive-through lunches at Hot Shoppes and yard sales. One evening, when I was 16 years old and after my parents had divorced, a smooth-talking older gent and a polite young man came to our house to see my mother. My grandmother brought green tea and cookies to them as they chatted in the living room after which my mother announced she was going to dine with the men at Alfio’s LaTrattoria, a restaurant which was considered upscale and not too kid-friendly.
Weeks later, my mother invited my sister and me to see a split level house sited on a six lane thoroughfare on a postage stamp lot in Chevy Chase. It had matching sea foam green walls and carpets, faux wood kitchen cabinets and blue tiled bathrooms. After a quick look, I told my mother the house was hideous and we could leave, to which she replied, “Well, I signed contracts today!”
My sisters and I were furious following this unexpected news. The older gent and his young colleague were real estate agents from a reputable real estate firm. They had signed contracts to buy our home at below market value, without it ever going on the market, and had sold the split level to my mother at an above market price.
Moving vans were scheduled soon after. I never learned how the transaction progressed so quickly, but we asked her: why that house and that neighborhood, why the lack of communication? She was quick to answer
that the new house was clean, the new neighborhood was upscale, and she decided our neighbors were unfriendly. My grandmother had slipped and fallen on an icy sidewalk at our home the prior winter and our next door neighbor had walked away from her.
The reality was that another neighbor had come to help my grandmother. If my mother had done regular maintenance, our house would not need work. And we lived in a neighborhood with wonderful neighbors, five of whom I am in regular contact with today.
I could not bear to say goodbye to the 1937 brick house with grey slate roof where we had lived for 14 years and to our neighbors and friends, so I packed my things and told my mother I was going to Nantucket for the summer.
That autumn, I moved to Manhattan from Nantucket, and then came back to DC for a visit. I drove past our old house where contractors were putting finishing touches on an extension. A grand old tree, the centerpiece of the front yard which we had named “The Amazon” had been cut down and a metal real estate agency “for sale” sign swung back and forth in the front yard. In my head I could hear the mournful strains of Nat King Cole’s rendition of “A Cottage for Sale.”
My mother liked the new house; however windows could not be opened because of the constant din of traffic and car fumes. My grandparents, fearing crime and cars jumping onto the sidewalk from the street became shut-ins, creating a backyard sanctuary with Buddha statues, potted bamboo and roll-out straw fences to block the neighbors.
Over the years, as the roof deteriorated and the gutters gave way, rainwater emptied freely into the basement and the paint on the clapboard siding peeled. Every so often, my mother would drive by the old house, which had been sold a few times. After being broad sided backing out of the driveway onto the road and health complications, my mother could no longer drive, so my sisters decided to sell the house and move my mother to California, closer to them.
A local real estate agent did a market analysis but my mother, realizing strangers would be looking at the house which was filled with artwork, was uncooperative. We decided to refinance, move my mother and sell the house vacant. The bank appraiser, who it turned out, was the husband of the real estate agent with whom we had planned to list, undervalued the property and wrote on the appraisal that my mother was an “eccentric Asian.”
After my mother boarded a flight to San Francisco, the dumpsters arrived. The house was cleaned out and it was listed for sale. Weeks later, my sisters broke the news to my mother that the house was in contract for $650K and she would soon be moving to a new home with a lemon grove in Oakland.
In the winter of 2015, on the day of the closing, my mother, my three sisters and I returned to Chevy Chase for a final visit. It was the first time all of us had gathered at the house which over the years had been the center of so many disagreements. My mother searched the attic for “lost treasures” including a samurai sword and was still not 100% on board, but we told her our grandparents were with us in spirit and would be happy for the new chapter in her life.
The buyers of the Chevy Chase house did a renovation of the kitchen and baths, which were all original, and attempted unsuccessfully to quickly flip the house. This week it was listed again for $899K.
My mother cannot traverse the Oakland hills, however my sisters attend open houses and send me links of the best properties they have seen. We are formulating a plan for my mother’s childhood home in Tokyo, a long process. Although we live on opposite coasts, real estate is still a common thread in our family.