Tag Archives: home

Maybe you should try decluttering your house before listing it for sale

man in office talking on phone

Perhaps not so surprisingly, my career as a real-estate photographer was short-lived.

Years ago, I worked in a small real-estate office. One of the agents got a new listing, so she asked me to drop in and take photos.

As I dropped in, my jaw dropped. Random junk sat atop every conceivable surface. It looked as if a tornado had struck a knickknack shop.

There were dog toys on the couch, antique dishes on the coffee table, torn-open mail on the kitchen counter. If House Hunters and Hoarders got drunk and made a baby, this house would be it.

I would have wiped my feet on the mat, but I didn’t want to dirty my shoes.

However, I was there to take photos, so take photos I did. Being the professional I am, I used creative angles to portray the garbage as artistically as possible. Natural sunlight flowed through the open curtains, adding a heavenly glow to the pristine piles of rubbish.

We posted the photos and listed the home. A few days later, the homeowner called.

“Can you tell me who took the photos of my house?” he asked.

I told him that the creative genius in question was me.

“OK,” he said, “then riddle me this: Would it have occurred to you not to take photos of all the clutter?”

Now here’s my problem: I have a smart-aleck switch. When it’s switched on, I start spewing a stream of passive-aggressive prattle that can’t be stopped. Once I get going, I’m not able to turn the switch off, even if I try. I just have to keep going until I run out of steam.

It’s sort of like Planes Trains and Automobiles, when Steve Martin accuses John Candy of being a Chatty Cathy doll who pulls his own string — except the reverse. I have a switch over which I have no control. Only other people can flick it on for me.

And this homeowner, unfortunately, had succeeded in flicking my switch.

“Well,” I said, “riddle me this: Would it have occurred to you to clean your house when you know full well a photographer’s coming?”

Silence.

“You see,” I continued, “a photographer’s palette is the whimsical world he frames with his lens. While a painter suggests reality with brushstrokes and splatters, a photographer captures the essence of a moment and coaxes it to its fullest expression. The environment in which he composes his masterpieces sets the mood for the photos that emerge. So when he finds himself in a repulsive midst of messiness and disarray, his thoughts, emotions, and photos reflect the untidy shambles of his surroundings. What develops – quite literally – are photographic representations of the egregious eyesore, complete with all the filth and clutter that litter the landscape.”

“Are you finished?” the man asked.

“Not quite,” I said. “The horrific conditions of your abysmal abode not only undermined my artistic endeavors, but they endangered my life, as well. When I stepped backward to frame a shot of the dining room, I tripped on what I assume was a poodle — or maybe an overgrown rat. Either way, it wasn’t moving, so I imagine it had sucked its last breath as it desperately clawed through the clutter, seeking the freedom it could never find in the midst of the suffocating chaos.”

A heavy sigh came from the phone. “Is that all?”

“Your trashcan was also overflowing and left sitting in the middle of the kitchen,” I added. “I would have moved it, but I couldn’t swat my way through the thick swarm of flies. They pushed me backward and pinned me to the wall. I’m sure I could have taken them individually, but as a team, they proved to be an unstoppable force.”

“OK — I believe you’ve made your point,” the man said. “Are we done now?”

“I think so,” I said. “That’s all I’ve got.”

“Good. If I clean up the clutter, could you come back to retake the photos?”

“Of course,” I said. “I live for my art. I exist to achieve excellence. I cherish the creative satisfaction that comes from replicating the beauty of nature. Why, my camera –”

The phone clicked in my ear.

“Hmm.” I hung up the phone. “Well, not everyone appreciates my creative genius.”

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What your real-estate agent is really telling you

Large mansion with outdoor swimming pool.

Not-so-useful real-estate advice

Real-estate professionals speak a language all their own. However, with the right training (and a couple of evening real-estate courses), you, too, can comprehend the baffling jargon agents use to confound their clients — as well as impress each other.

“Today we’re going to be looking at a cozy bungalow that’s right in your price range.”

“I’m showing you this miniscule dump because it’s all you can afford.”

“With your budget, we’re going to have trouble finding a home that has all of the features you’re looking for.”

“You’re too destitute to afford anything nice.”

“The home just needs a little TLC.”

“This rat-infested pile of crap needs to be completely demolished and rebuilt from the ground up.”

“Wall colors are easy to fix.”

“Obviously, I’ve never touched a paintbrush in my entire life.”

“The kitchen appliances might need updating.”

“Your great-grandmother used to cook with a stove like this.”

“The carpets do show some wear.”

“Be sure to wipe off your shoes before stepping outside.”

“The backyard is a blank slate for your imagination.”

“This patch of weeds would look nice with a fence, some lawn and a couple of trees.”

“You could build your dream home here.”

“Here’s a vacant lot. I give up. Do whatever you want.”

“You might have to duck to get through the doorway.”

“Please excuse the low ceilings; a family of hobbits used to live here.”

“I’m not sure you’re seeing the big picture.”

“You’re bellyaching about brass cabinet handles and completely ignoring the rest of the house.”

“There aren’t many listings available that offer the features you’re looking for.”

“No house will ever be good enough for you.”

“You may not have noticed, but you have views of downtown from this balcony.”

“This million-dollar vista might not have leapt right out at you because you have to lean over the railing, squint your eyes, peer through your neighbor’s trees, and stretch your neck to see it.”

“I wanted to show you this amazing property, even though it’s above your budget.”

“I know I’m not going to make much of a commission off you, but you can’t blame me for trying.”

“I’m really excited to show you this property.”

“I’m praying you’ll actually buy a house one of these days so I can pay my bills.”

“Yes, the counters are granite and not quartz, but look at the shape they’re in.”

“The granite countertops are perfectly adequate, you entitled jerk. Quit turning up your nose at everything.”

“Keep in mind that location is everything.”

“This deteriorating hovel is only a mile from downtown, so it’s worth the $500,000 price tag.”

“I understand that the bedroom window faces your neighbor’s house, but you can always put up blinds.”

“I’m trying really hard not to be a sarcastic SOB, and I’m failing miserably.”

“The yard boasts mature landscaping.”

“You’ll need a machete to hack out a path to the front door.”

“This is a bank-owned property.”

“You might be able to move in by the time your kids graduate from college.”

“No, the home does not come with a washer and dryer included.”

“You’re spending $750,000 on a house, and you want someone else’s used appliances? Really?”

“The home does not have the fourth bedroom you’re looking for.”

“With your budget, you’re lucky it has a roof.”

“Due to a previous commitment, my partner will be showing you this home today.”

“I can’t stand working with you anymore, you picky bastard. Good luck with your new agent.”

Where I was from

Dogs playing in river

My three dogs swimming in the Carson River, circa 1988. This photo was taken when I was about 6. The dog on the left, Timmy, lived until I was a freshman in college.

“I am always drawn back to the places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.” — Truman Capote

“There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.” — Joan Didion

My childhood home is destroyed. Abandoned. Most of the back fence has blown down, and where a gazebo once stood sits a pile of garbage. A foreclosure notice is taped to the door, and peering through the grimy front window, I can see an array of junk lying on the ripped-up carpet. Where the couch should be is — quite inexplicably — a canoe left behind by the previous owners.

The surrounding homes are gorgeous, with fresh coats of paint and well-trimmed yards. The sad irony is that growing up, I always thought my house was the most beautiful. My parents landscaped both the front and back yards themselves, molding the tough clay dirt into our own little oasis in the desert.

Now that oasis has vanished, and the desert is reaching in through the loose fence boards to reclaim the yard. Weeds and sagebrush are scattered about, as if there was never a lush yard here — and, by extension, never a happy home, and never a young family.

I’ve always had a penchant for the past — a yearning for the way things used to be. I’m not sure if it’s healthy. For me, innocent nostalgia often transforms into wistful reminiscence, as I think about the way things were and how much simpler life seemed to be.

As I drive through my hometown, all I can see are the buildings that no longer stand, the boarded-up storefronts where nobody shops. The small town I grew up in is mutating into an impersonal hodgepodge of parking lots and gas stations — yet to the well-trained eye, it’s brimming with memories and the outlines of ghosts. Driving past a concrete pad in a vacant lot, I can still see the pizza place that burned down nearly 20 years ago. I used to play Paperboy in the arcade there, feeding quarters into the slot, the controllers slathered with grease.

child haunting Easter eggs.

Me hunting Easter eggs in 1988. Our house and yard were brand-new. My three puppies are in the background, along with the dog house my father built.

overgrown yard

The yard as it looks in 2016. The dog run is gone, and the dog house was dragged to a different corner. The lawn is dead, almost as if it never existed.

Seeing my childhood home in this condition, I wish I’d never come back. It’s hard to see past the dirt to the warm memories of my youth. The lawn where I kicked my soccer ball around is gone. The gazebo where I splashed in my wading pool is gone. The sign marking my pet turtle’s grave is gone; the combination swing set and slide that my grandparents bought me, gone.

It’s not as if another family has moved in to live their own lives and make their own memories. It’s worse. It’s as if all that warmth, joy and love never existed. Of course, I have my photographs and memories, where the warmth will forever remain alive, but seeing the trampled-on ground with the overgrown weeds and the gnarled sagebrush, it’s as if an aching emptiness is trying to gnaw away at the core of my being, grasping for my happiness the way the desert is reaching for — and reclaiming — the once-beautiful yard.

So many things are running through my mind as I step over a broken fence post, ambling through the litter-strewn lot. I think of that scene in Annie Hall, when Woody Allen takes Diane Keaton and Tony Robbins to his childhood apartment, and the present-day adults watch and comment on Allen’s long-ago family. In the same way, gazing past the dilapidated house, I can almost see my 8-year-old self bounding down the back stairs to try out the pogo stick Santa Claus brought him for Christmas.

A friend is with me, and through the weeds I point to the spot where one of my dogs is buried, and where the neighbor across the street once shot a firecracker over the house and set the sagebrush on fire. (Needless to say, he wasn’t the most responsible adult.)

Of course, my friend can’t see what I’m seeing in my head. I wish I could walk her through time — the way Woody Allen did with Diane Keaton — to take her beyond the trash and the dirt to the whimsical impressions unspooling in my mind. Every nook and cranny I look at brings back another memory.

To me, the yard is like one of those 3-D Magic Eye posters, where if you let your eyes unfocus, images from the past will come tumbling into shape. But once you shake yourself away, the past dissolves like a fleck of water evaporating off a hot sidewalk. It’s here one moment, and the next — just like that — it’s gone.

For the most part, I’m able to keep my composure. Sure, seeing the home in its present state roils up a list of emotions, but I’m not so nostalgic or connected to the past that I’m feeling overly sentimental. The past is the past, I remind myself. It was a part of my life that I enjoyed at the time, but now it’s time to leave the old behind and to embrace the new. You can never reclaim what you once had because life not only moves forward — it progresses and evolves. That’s why high-school reunions are always so awkward and disappointing (not that I’ve ever been to one). It was a time and a place that made sense at the time, but now it no longer does.

So, despite this trying trudge down memory lane, I’m not feeling wistful or overly emotional. Like I said, I’m keeping my composure … at least, that is, until I see the dog house my dad built tucked away in a corner, crammed against the front gate.

a brand-new dog house

My dad built this state-of-the-art dog house in 1988 for our three new puppies. I never imaged that it would still exist in 2016, nearly 30 years later.

A weather-beaten dog house

The dog house in 2016, stained by weather and time. I think that’s my old swing set in the foreground.

That’s what sets me off: the dog house. Although I don’t cry, an overwhelming sense of sadness drapes over my heart, and my intestines knot with a deep-seated aching for days gone by.

My dad built that dog house in the 1980s, and more than 25 years later it’s still here, though stained by weather and scarred by time. When I was a child, I wanted a dog so much. We took a camping trip in the hills, and out of nowhere seven puppies scampered into our camp, their little bellies concave from starvation. Someone had dumped them for dead, and we happened to be there to find them.

We kept three of the dogs and gave away the other four to happy families. One died at age 2 (it was the runt), another when I was in high school, and the third saw me through my freshman year at college. When they were puppies, my dad built them an insulated dog house with a window for ventilation and a doorway covered by a flap.

Seeing it here in the yard, abandoned with my childhood home, I’m flooded with memories of walking the dogs, rubbing their bellies, throwing sticks in the river for them to fetch. (Or not — sometimes the current carried the sticks away too quickly, so the dogs clambered onto shore and shook off next to me, so that I was flecked with dirt and smelled like wet fur.)

It occurs to me that unlike my family and I, that dog house has never left my childhood yard. When I graduated from high school, it was here. When I graduated from college, it was here. When I got my first professional job, it was here. While I grew up and carried on with my life, that dog house never left.

But what does it matter? I tell myself. It’s not a living thing. It doesn’t care. It’s not like the dog house misses me or was waiting with hope for me to return. It’s not The Brave Little Toaster. It’s a bunch of lumber hammered together with nails — that’s all.

Yet looking at it, I can’t see the wood or the shingles or the general structure. All I can see is the past in its water-color clarity, and all I can hear is the patter of paws clicking excitedly across the wooden floor.

“Come on,” someone says, tugging my sleeve. “It’s time to go.”

I look up, startled. It’s not my friend summoning me. Rather, it’s the present, with its harshly defined edges framing the dreary lot that used to be my backyard.

Used to be. It’s not anymore. I don’t belong here. Although I have many happy memories here, those moments can’t be rekindled into reality, no matter how tightly I close my eyes against the onslaught of tears.

I realize that I don’t want to forgo the present by living in the past. Life is a natural progression. Like a river carrying a stick, it flows toward unseen curves and bends. And although it’s murkier and choppy in some places, so many of the stretches are serene and beautiful, and the entire ride is worth taking.

So I take one last look at the dog house, as if saying a formal goodbye, and then I turn and leave, stepping over weeds and empty bottles of Crown Royal, to return to the car. I walk down the driveway where I used to ride my bike, stepping past the corner where the neighborhood kids once waited for the bus (perhaps they still do).

And I leave then, my chest feeling taut, my heart heavy and sad. Memories of my dogs replay in my mind, as well as birthdays parties gone by, and lazy summer days on the swing set.

I turn for one last glimpse, and looking past the torn-down fence and the brush-scattered sand, I can still see that oasis in the desert … as well as three exhausted dogs lying atop a lush carpet of lawn, resting and panting from their walk to the river.

If you want all those cool home features, you’ll have to pay extra

fancy kitchen

Whoever said “the best things in life are free” clearly didn’t know how much all these home upgrades cost.

I wanted to go house-hunting, so I called my old friend, Rhonda the Realtor.

“I want to look at houses,” I told her.

“Are you serious about buying?” she asked. “Because the last time you called, you had no intention of buying. The only reason you wanted to look at homes was because you had spent an entire weekend watching House Hunters on iTunes.”

I didn’t say anything.

Rhonda sighed. “You’ve been watching House Hunters again, haven’t you?”

“Not necessarily,” I said. “I’m seriously in the market for a home this time.”

“Buying a house isn’t as easy as they make it look on TV,” Rhonda said. “It’s not just touring houses and sneering at outdated fixtures. You have to get pre-approved, and then there’s the home inspection, renovations, unexpected problems. They don’t show those parts on TV.”

“Sometimes they show the renovations,” I said. “In fact, there’s a spinoff called House Hunters Renovation where they find a house and renovate it in forty-five minutes. It’s fantastic!”

“Isn’t there another Realtor you can call?” Rhonda asked. “Or am I the only one you know?” Keep reading…

‘Bat jet! Oh — Bat copter’

Batman helicopter toy

A shot of the infamous Batman helicopter — which, unlike the Bat Jet, did not make an appearance in the 1989 movie for which the toy was marketed. The confusion this created for me on Christmas morning of 1990 was unparalleled. I didn’t know at the time that you were “allowed” to sell a toy based on a movie if it didn’t actually appear in the movie. (To confuse things further, that’s a Chuck Norris action figure piloting the helicopter. I had temporarily misplaced my Batman action figure, so I figured Chuck was an acceptable substitute.)

It’s one of my Mom and Dad’s favorite stories:

Christmas morning, 1990. I tear open one of my presents and exclaim, “Wow! Bat jet!”

Then, upon a closer look, I mutter, “Oh. Bat copter.”

On the surface, it seems like an epic tale of colossal disappointment. Kid opens a present expecting his dream gift, then pouts when he learns it’s something else.

It’s sort of like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, in that scene where he’s opened all his presents, but didn’t get the BB gun he really wanted. (We later find out that his dad really did buy it for him and has it hidden behind the desk.)

Unfortunately, my moment of glory is preserved forever on home video. There’s no way for me to pretend it never happened.

The thing, though — which I patiently explain to my family each time we watch the tape — is that I wasn’t disappointed with my gift.

I was bewildered. Keep reading…

Master of illusion … actually, make that self-delusion

empty theater with stage and lights

Not much of a crowd … but for a magician who botches all of his tricks, it was a pretty good turnout.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to see a magic show.

We didn’t know that day we’d be watching the world’s worst magician.

He didn’t bill himself that way, of course … but he should have. Not because he was a poor performer, per se, but more because his props were rundown, shabby pieces of crap that didn’t work. (Almost as if they were government-engineered, or something.)

“For my first trick,” the magician said, waving his ragtag cape, “I’m going to lock a woman in a cage and make her disappear!”

“Why make her disappear?” mumbled a grizzled-looking man sitting nearby. “I could think of a lot more interesting things to do to a woman in a cage.”

My mom tugged my sleeve. “C’mon, Allen. We’re changing seats.”

A scantily clad assistant climbed into the mesh cage, which stood on thin, uncertain legs with shopping-cart wheels. The magician draped a large cloth over the cage to conceal her.

“When I pull away this cloth, the woman will have vanished!” the magician proclaimed. “Abracadabra, Monte Cristo—”

Rat, tat, tat. The trap door at the bottom of the cage fell open, clattering on the floor. The assistant’s bare legs poked through.  Keep reading…

An exclusive interview with my great grandmother

This is my favorite picture of my great grandmother, “Gram.” I never knew her at this age, of course, but to me this photo depicts everything I loved most about her. She was happy, vibrant, full of life and adventure, and always cherishing the moment. She carried that youthful zeal with her throughout her entire life, even as she was approaching 100. She was always happy, always savoring life, and that sprightly demeanor she’s showing in the photo will forever be my memory of her. On the back of this photo, Gram wrote: “I took this out of Frank’s album. That’s why it’s cracked. Don’t die laughing. The highest one up is me. Yee-haw! Mary 16 years, taken at McNutt’s ranch.”

This is my favorite picture of my great grandmother, “Gram.” I never knew her at this age, of course, but to me this photo depicts everything I loved most about her. She was happy, vibrant, full of life and adventure, and always cherishing the moment. She carried that youthful zeal with her throughout her entire life, even as she was approaching 100. She was always happy, always savoring life, and that sprightly demeanor she’s showing in the photo will forever be my memory of her.

In September 2010, I got the idea to film my great grandmother telling stories.

The timing was perfect. I had just gotten a wireless microphone for my high-definition camcorder, and I needed a subject to test it on.

And what better subject than my family’s near-centenarian matriarch?

That’s right: Gram was 99 at the time, just five months shy of her 100th birthday. And although her grasp of the present was slipping (she often repeated herself and would forget where she was) her memories of the past were not only intact — they were razor-sharp.Gram Interview_01Gram Interview_02Gram Interview_03

She never lived in a nursing home. Each of her surviving children took turns staying at her house, so she could be in a familiar environment.

On a weekend when my grandparents were staying, I invited myself over for an impromptu recording session — as well as a delicious dinner. (After all, a well-fed interviewer is a happy interviewer.)

My parents came, too. And after dinner, we settled in the living room, with Gram taking her usual seat near the front window.

I set the camcorder up on a tripod, then attached the wireless microphone to Gram’s collar. I’m not sure if she was aware what I was doing. If she wondered why there was a blinking camera pointed at her, she didn’t say anything.

When everything was set up and the camera was rolling, we started talking.

I lobbed a few questions at her about her childhood, and her eyes lit up. Immediately, she launched into a familiar story about how her older brother, Bud, would tease her about being born in “the land of the lemon, the prune, and the nut” — which was his way of describing California.

He, on the other hand, had been born in the “gold and silver state of Nevada.” Nevada was where Gram’s family would make its eventual home (and where many of her descendants still live).

After that first story, there was a pause. We had to prod a little further to get her going, but once she did, the stories unspooled like yarn. Keep reading…