Letter From Washington

House Calls

How low will one go to buy a home in the hot Seattle market?

You never know you belong to a demographic until you start to spend money. Last year I finally had enough to buy a new car and bought a Jetta, which seemed terribly original. Then I drove around Seattle and saw streets filled with 30ish former rebel girls in their … black Jettas.

When my husband Bruce and I decided to buy a house, we found that we were part of another socioeconomic group. Well, we fit the socio part but were sadly lacking in the economic. Microsoft, Adobe, Starwave, and other Seattle-area companies employ a bunch of mid-30s people just like us–only rich–and they’ve bid up the real-estate market. We all want to live in the same unpretentious neighborhoods, and we all love Craftsman bungalows. Ten years ago, perfect 1920s cottages lay scattered unappreciated throughout Seattle like so many windfallen apples. Not anymore. The average price of a home here has increased $1,000 a month over the last decade. From the first quarter of 1997 to the first quarter of 1998, the average sale price of houses and condominiums in the county rose from $201,251 to $224,697.

My husband and I, both writers and editors at Seattle Weekly, could probably get better paying jobs at Microsoft or Starwave. But we haven’t, for high-minded reasons–or so we told ourselves. We won’t work for a big corporation–never mind that the Weekly was recently sold to a pet food company–and believe that print is intrinsically superior to online. The truth is, we don’t want to waste time commuting across Lake Washington to the Eastside, home to Microsoft and Starwave. As we house shopped, we realized we were being punished for our sanctimonious attitudes and for enjoying our easy bus ride to work.

To compete against the young millionaires, we enrolled in a house-buying class where almost everyone looked like us–25 to 35 years old, white, groovy enough. I recognized one woman from dance class: We were dressed identically in striped T-shirts, leather jackets, and floppily tied-up hair. She glared at me as if from a mirror, already seeing me as her rival for a charm-filled fixer with peekaboo views. The class leader, a loan officer named Vince, spent three sessions explaining how none of us would ever, ever own a home. Not one we wanted. And certainly not one in a neighborhood where we’d feel safe. A view? Forget it. Three bedrooms? Out of the question. Crack houses for all of you! Vince, it turned out, lived in Tacoma and commuted the hour to Seattle every day. There were deals, he rhapsodized, in Tacoma. Bruce dutifully took notes on adjustable rate mortgages vs. traditional mortgages while I daydreamed about our new life working at the Tacoma News Tribune. Finally, a real-estate agent dropped in to reiterate the impossibility of anyone in the room ever becoming a homeowner, and we had graduated.

Through a co-worker’s recommendation, we acquired a hippie realtor named Lynn, who could read the energy of a house. (“Oh, I know if there’s been abuse in a house.”) But she dropped her woo-woo ways when it came time to bargain. Lynn found us rather wonderful because we were so terrified of the market that we bid on every house that was not falling down. A house with a roof! we would gasp, feeling terribly lucky to have found one. We signed the papers on a very cute 1918 house just big enough for our bed and dishes. Then David the loquacious inspector told us in his nonjudgmental way that the house was fine as long as we didn’t mind a foundation you could put your foot through. We bailed on the deal.

Open houses were crowded with Microsofties, usually younger than we, $300,000 cashier’s checks dangling out of their back pockets. We bid like addicted gamblers, placing opening bids $20,000 over the asking price with a clause to increase our price another $20,000 if necessary. Our friend Kathy refused to bid up, and she’d been shopping for over a year. Her lowest point came when she considered buying a house that you entered through the bathroom. Every night we returned depressed to our rental house on Sycamore Street in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood. I had lived there four years and loved the funny hillside street with its old houses populated by fanatical gardeners and Harley enthusiasts. The neighborhood was Micro-targeted, so there was no hope of buying there. Meanwhile, a family of squirrels had moved into our crawlspace, and the house reeked of vermin poo, furthering our desperation to find a home.

In the ‘80s, columnist Alice Kahn wrote, “If you’re a woman–and these days, who isn’t?” Today, she’d have to write, “If you’re a Tibetan Buddhist–and these days, who isn’t?” Our agent miraculously found a house for us on Sycamore. The owner was Cyrus, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. We loved his house. To encourage him to vote a straight Bruce-and-Claire ticket, I turned on all my charm. I’m lucky I didn’t sprain something. I also tried to appear serene–hoping to convey a Buddhist quality. Cyrus just looked befuddled behind his National Health-style wire-frame glasses. The scent of incense clung to him.

Before I flew to Austin, Texas, to cover a film festival, at Lynn’s request we put together a little promo package to present at the bidding–she makes all her clients do this. The goal was to convey how good we’d be at inhabiting Cyrus’ house. We included a wedding photo that makes us look carefree and golden and relaxed if you squint. The picture captures Bruce in a rare moment when his eyebrows aren’t beetled together, a photographic achievement commensurate with getting a snapshot of Nessie. I look somehow blonder than in real life. We also included Bruce’s recent book about Mount Rainier, a copy of the Weekly with my byline on the cover, a sniveling love letter to Cyrus in which we highlighted my travels in Southeast Asia (the Buddhism thing), and a mention that my brother played guitar in the Presidents of the United States of America. (Why not whore the whole family?) Bruce wrote the letter so I could cast it back in his face later if we didn’t get the house. Lynn cooed over our package. It seemed she had never before seen a letter to a seller that contained complete sentences.

On the plane to Austin, I sat next to a conservative-looking, 40ish woman who turned out to be a Buddhist proselytizer. Closing her copy of The Mists of Avalon, she explained that my only hope of getting the house was chanting. She phonetically wrote down the familiar chant NAM YOHO REN GAY KYO and said that by chanting it every day I’d manifest my wishes in the fourth dimension. Chanting, she said, had given Tina Turner the strength to divorce Ike.

That night in the Gov. Austin Room (these days B-and-B rooms are named, not numbered), I opened my book to read and out fluttered the chant. What the hell? If anyone would respond to Buddhist chanting, Cyrus would. He’d probably pick it up in his fillings. I began to chant. The morning after my third night of chanting, the phone rang under its chintz cozy. It was Bruce. Cyrus loved us. He felt a bond with us as fellow writers. (Thank God we weren’t editing encyclopedias at Microsoft!) Ignoring the software millionaires and the other suck-up artists, he had agreed to sell us his house–at $20,000 over the list price.