Columns: A Boy’s Life: On the Market

Just how hard can selling your house be?

After seemingly endless searching, she was the last one I laid eyes on, the one who seemed to need me the most, the one who spoke to me, if you will. And despite my better judgment—my idea of being handy is knowing how to speed-dial a plumber—I fell for her, hard. Before I knew it, I was plunking down an obscene amount of money, and signing up to pay a 30-year mortgage of even obscene-r amounts of money to call her my own.

“A man’s home is his castle,” the old adage goes, and I have to say, over the past five years, mine has certainly acted like one. An 1855 Federal townhouse located in quaint, lovely Lambertville, it charmed me with its pie staircases, odd French door, and mossy courtyard and garden in the back. And to be honest, I have had many, many lovely days inside it. But in my heart I’m a city boy, born and bred, and life as a country gentleman just never quite … fit. So, in the kind of timing typical of my life, I decided to put my historic house on the market, in the middle of the worst housing crisis in almost a century.

Also typical of me, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The first thing you have to know when selling your house in a “challenging” market (no one, and I mean no one, uses the word “down,” which in real estate language is equivalent to the f-word), is that everything has to be perfect. And not perfect in the old way—fresh paint, clean surfaces, scrubbed toilets. Clean in the Martha Stewart-is-coming-to-look-at-this-place-at-five way: impeccably decorated, charming, and smelling like Downy fabric softener. (Those old chestnuts, flowers or baking bread, make it seem like you’re hiding odors.) I had discovered my realtor, Caryn, through friends, and I found her comforting because she looked and acted so much the deal-making, upscale part: shiny black hair, perpetual tan, flawless makeup and jewelry even in a track suit, perfect French manicure. She talked incessantly on her iPhone, which made her seem important, and she was slightly pushy while coating it with soccer-mom charm, which made her seem like the sort of person who could sell ice to the Eskimos. Which, in this challenging market, is just what I needed.

Then she took a tour of the house.

“Oh, this has all got to go,” she harrumphed, sweeping her arms around the kitchen at my various kitschy bric-a-brac. The toaster had to be hidden. Ditto my Pillsbury Doughboy cookie jar. (Actually, that had to be tossed.) The butcher-block counters needed sanding and two coats of linseed oil. The kitchen magnets on the fridge had to go, as did the dish-draining apparatus. As I frantically scribbled notes, she marched on through the house like Sherman, barking homework—literally, home work—that I was going to have to get finished before the first prospective buyer ever saw the listing.