It’s 2012. Early in the year we go to PAX and I get to meet my friend Josh face-to-face for the first time. We do the PAX thing and generally have a lot of fun. It’s nice to get away from the house for a few days and stop worrying about the mortgage and instead worry about the expenses and logistics of travel.
I’m always conflicted about travel. I love visiting new places but I really hate the act of travel. This is like enjoying food but hating eating. You really can’t have one without the other. I develop some really strange OCD behaviors when I travel. Where are my keys? Do I have my wallet? What happens if the car breaks down? Where are my keys? What if the GPS stops working? Do I have my wallet? Do I have my medicine? What if I get sick? What if my asthma gets bad? What if I get one of my headaches? What if I make a fool of myself at one of my public appearances? Do I have my wallet? What if I’m allergic to the hotel room because everyone on this wretched planet owns a friggin’ pet? Do I have my medicine?
Part of the problem is that I’m incredibly absent-minded, and the only way I can mitigate this is by keeping rituals. I think nothing of going for three weeks eating the same meal three times a day, drinking the same tea, playing the same games, making the same jokes. The rhythm keeps me on track and lets me manage complexity. But travel shatters all rituals and I start to freak out.
|Day two of PAX East 2012. I’m sore, tired, and waiting for the tea to kick in before we set off for the convention center.|
My book is out now, and it’s a fine success by the standards of first-time authors. It brings in a nice chunk of money. When sales finally drop off, I’ll gross about a third of my old salary at Activeworlds. It took me a year to write it, but I didn’t work on it full time. In fact, I spent a lot less than one third of my work hours on it.
This makes it kind of hard to appraise the viability of writing more books. Going strictly by a per-hour basis, writing books seems to be a great way to bring in income, even better than my old job. On the other hand, I can’t make a living at it. Barring some explosive growth in my popularity, I’m never going to bring in enough income to pay all the bills by writing just one book a year. And I don’t think I can manage more than one book a year, no matter how much time I dump into it. I could easily quadruple the time I put into writing books, but I don’t think I could quadruple my output. I just don’t have the creative bandwidth to produce material at that rate.
So my book was a great supplement to our income, but it wasn’t the magical cash cow that I knew it wouldn’t be. And yes I typed that sentence like that on purpose. Have another go at it if you need to.
In any case, we continue to have enough money to pay the bills but not enough to pay the mortgage. Which means we really need to sell this house. It’s been over a year since we made a mortgage payment. I’m feeling really uncomfortable about living here.
For “fun”, I run the numbers. It looks like if you added up all the checks I’ve mailed them over the years, it should almost add up to what I borrowed. Now, some of that was absorbed on their end in insurance and property taxes, but it is kind of shocking when I see the number written down like this. Like, if I somehow didn’t need to pay for housing for the last decade, I would have made enough to buy a house with cash. Of course, if we were in that position we wouldn’t need to buy a house. So… I should stop thinking about this because it’s silly.
All we need to do is sell this house. I really wish they would lower the price. The fact that after all these months we haven’t even gotten any offers makes it pretty clear that the price is way too high. People are seeing the price tag and concluding that the house isn’t even within haggling distance of what they’re willing to pay.
Let’s Make a Deal
|Here I am working on Project Octant, which was my big project while all of this was happening.|
Hope comes in the summer of 2012. After six months of showing the property and enduring a weekly wedgie-by-phone, we get a buyer. Better than a buyer. He's an investor. He’s some sort of fellow who snaps up houses, and then probably flips them. He's a cash buyer, which means nobody has to wait for any loan approval process on his end. In the world of real estate, finding a cash buyer is like finding a unicorn. Given this house and this housing market, this offer is an amazing stoke of luck.
A man dying of thirst in the desert has suddenly stumbled across a unicorn giving away free lemonade.
His offer is short of the bank’s asking price. Now, I fully admit that I’m a screw-up, but his offered price strikes me as being about as high as you could reasonably hope to get for this house in this market. There’s just too much crap for sale and too few buyers. The bank might wish they were getting more, but this offer is WAY better than just unloading the house at auction.
Perplexingly, the bank does not reply to his offer with “OMG YES SIGN HERE QUICK BEFORE YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND!!!” Instead, his offer sits there for a few days. After this deal-threatening awkward pause, they respond that they don't want to sell to “X Incorporated.” Apparently this guy is approaching them as a company and not an individual.
The buyer doesn't storm off and take his money to one of the many, many other properties for sale. Instead he pays the legal paperwork to make his Inc. into an LLC. (Or whatever. I haven't been this far out of my financial depth since the dot-com days.) He makes the offer again.
It takes the bank a little while to respond, but eventually they request proof that the buyer actually has the money. Are they afraid he's going to show up with a suitcase full of undies and STEAL THE HOUSE?!? This isn't a drug deal, guys.
But whatever. The paperwork is filled out and faxed over.
|When it’s time to show the house, we clear out and go to Mazzanti’s Beans & Cream.|
The bank then goes very quiet for some time. There's a time limit on how long this offer can stand, and the clock runs on for a couple of weeks while they ignore the buyer. If time runs out, then the deal falls through and the buyer walks.
On the very last day, at noon, the bank calls ME, and tells me that the buyer provided their proof-of-money-having in a wrong or unacceptable way. The proper documentation must be provided in [format] by 4pm today or the deal is off.
I can't contact the buyer directly. The buyer can't contact the bank directly. I have to call the realtor, who calls the buyer, who gets the paperwork from HIS bank and sends it to the realtor, who sends it to MY bank. Given that we're all busy people who don't hover over the fax machine all day, four hours is a ridiculous window in which to accomplish this.
We make the call and everyone jumps though the requested hoops. It's the most bizarre thing possible. The party with the most to lose here is the bank, and they're acting like they're doing everyone a favor by entertaining the offer. All they have to do is say yes and they can stop the flood of red ink on their ledger, Heather and I can be spared the trouble and stigma of a foreclosure, the buyer will get a property he wants, and the real estate agent will get a return on the time she’s spent showing and selling this house all these months.
The thirsty man is looking at the unicorn's lemonade and asking if the cup is made of fair trade post-consumer recycled cardboard.
The bank goes quiet again. The phone calls stop.
Doing the Right Thing
|Left is Rachel, my energetic talkative outgoing go-getter. On the right is Esther, my quiet introspective reader.|
Heather and I have been slowly packing over the past couple of months, tucking things away and cleaning out what we don’t need. We need to be ready to move out if this sale goes through.
It’s almost December when they get around to calling me. After we finish with the verbal calisthenics they ask me what's happening with the property. This is a hell of a question, since everyone has been waiting for them to accept or refuse this offer. I remind them of this.
The guy on the phone checks the computer and finds a note that the buyer “Did not qualify”. It doesn't say if the fax didn't arrive in time, or didn't have the needed information, or they just didn't like his stupid dumb face, or why they wouldn't sell this house to a willing cash buyer. And rather than just picking up a phone and giving an answer, they blew him off.
The dying man, upon learning that the lemonade is served in a Styrofoam cup, has left the unicorn in the desert and stormed off in search of something better.
I have realized something. I have realized that the bank never wanted to sell this house in the first place. Their dealings with the hapless buyer look less like ineptitude and more like sabotage. Even their pricing seems to be an effort to scare people off. This doesn’t make sense. If they wanted to foreclose, they could have done so a year ago. If they wanted to sell… well, why didn’t they? I can only speculate.
Maybe they just plan to collect the mortgage insurance? Maybe there is some government program or tax shenanigans that makes it better for them to string this process out? I've heard all sorts of theories. It doesn’t matter. We’ve all been wasting our time.
I feel really bad for the realtor, who worked for so long on this doomed property, and for this buyer who was jerked around for so many months. I’m the deadbeat here so I deserved it, but these are just honest folks trying to do some business and make a living, and the bank wasted a great deal their time. Like, if we were talking about billable hours the bank would be on the hook for thousands of dollars.
What am I supposed to do now? If the bank doesn’t want to sell, then I can’t make them. Do I stay here and keep up the charade? I mean, I can live here for free until they boot us out as long as we all pretend we’re trying to sell the house. That would actually be really good for us financially. Maybe we could pay off Heather’s student loans while we’re getting free housing.
No. No no no. This isn’t right. I have no idea what the bank wants or what they’re trying to do. Maybe they want me to play along and maybe they don’t know or care. I have no way of knowing. But I made a promise to pay back this loan. I failed. The fact that they’re idiots (or worse) doesn’t absolve me of the promise I made.
More importantly, our current realtor has walked away, understandably outraged at having so many hours of her time wasted trying to sell a house only to have the seller sabotage the deal. I’m not willing to involve another realtor and have the same thing happen to them. I was never going to make any money here, but we did everything we could to try and help the bank reduce their losses. Maybe there’s some other dimension to this that I don’t understand, but from where I sit this bank just screwed everyone that was trying to help them. I can’t take part in this any more, whatever this is.
It’s time to move out.
This series will conclude next week.
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