DON’T SELL YOUR HOUSE
DON’T SELL YOUR HOUSE
Earlier this year I sold our family home in the pretty and rich culturally township of Montclair, NJ. Thirty years ago, our best friends with a house in Wainscot sold their Montclair home, circa 1786 and retired here, a modern version of that colonial gem, complete with a candle chandelier. I also visited in February of each year to marvel at the winter scape and see how the Sag Harbor Ferry negotiated the ice flows.
Global warming, now Climate Change, a matter of semantics, now make Hamptons year-round living an alternative to Florida. I look forward to going back and forth some day on a low-cost airline between New York and the Sunshine State. Perhaps adding a junket to Havana.
Human beings tend to dream of a cocoon in paradise and I, like other seniors, searching for such a thing, decided to sell our family home of 48 years. With heavy steps, I allowed real estate agents to visit my house. The location, location, and location, commanded immediate interest, offers had actually poured through the years. I hated the terms pool of buyers and such others that go with the process, as I pondered on the theory of value, much exploited already through history. I thought it would sell itself. Frederic Olmstead designed the park down the street, and the Decamp bus to Manhattan at the other end of the block was an institution of its own, plus with the train was near at one of the most charming commercial plazas in the nation, Watchung Plaza. My zip code was technically Upper Montclair.
There was an article in the NY Times on August 22, 1976 on why there is an Upper Montclair, about a Montclairite (as we call ourselves) who was asked at a cocktail party if he lived in Montclair or Upper and when he answered Montclair “ ‘Oh,’ said the person who asked. She then walked away to talk to somebody from Greenwich or Westport, or one of those other Connecticut places that people always say they’re from.” The truth is that it is a large enough township or small city to encompass the two zip codes that distinguish them. There are more mansions in Montclair, Upper Montclair is a newer part of town, some was carved out of a golf course and Applegate farm, now a popular creamery. There’s a downtown, an uptown, and several shopping districts around its six train stations. In fact, Montclair is a marvel of urban design. Its planners envisioned a place where people could walk to buy basic things and enjoy its many parks. It preceded the Green City movement of the twentieth century. Some of its avenues span Montclair and Upper, like Upper Mountain Avenue or Highland Avenue. Locals are hardly snobs about zip codes. One more asset of the township is the view from some streets and the Mountain that I call the first hill west of Manhattan and rivals the Hollywood Hills. Frederic Olmstead himself planned it that way with the Eagle Rock and Mills Reservations.
Getting back to selling my home and the title of this article, do as I say not as I do, unless you have a good reason, here’s why: After listing the house on Zillow’s make me move and showing, even getting offers, I decided to list it with a young hungry broker who bought me drinks and was persuasive, not for that reason so much as the fact that I saw an earnest and ambitious person raising a family and we became friends. No central air no big problem, engineered floor on the first floor, yes, even if it was beautiful Brazilian cherry, but apparently not what the buyers were looking for. When I took possession of the house two years after my father passed away I sank over 100k in renovations to freshen it so I thought that we could focus on the joy of passing it on. It was even the object of an HGTV segment. I moved the library/Home office/Den/Family Room to the second floor, leaving the first floor for formal entertainment. The kitchen’s bay window looked on what I called my Shangri-La, the private backyard that, if you took the time to set up a time exposure camera, would reveal a Disney like picture with numerous animal visitors. To name a few: squirrels, chip monks, cardinals, blue jays, orioles, the occasional hawk that threatened the rabbit which I had to step out to protect more than once; the elusive opossum, the obtrusive raccoon, and more than once I also had to chase deer before they could wreck my flower beds.
Nothing, however, prepared me for what I was about to experience in terms of dealing with the process of selling the house. Once I signed the contract with prospective buyers, visitors stopped streaming through. Apparently brokers don’t like to show a house that is under contract. Recommendation: don’t sign the contract until the potential buyer has completed their assessment for you lose precious time and potential buyers. Then I was unprepared for the “credits” that were asked, since I had already compromised on the sale price after they had inspected the house. Removal of an old in ground oil tank amounts to peer pressure, for it is not required by the township. In my case the house was converted to gas over 60 years before, inspection had failed the tank due to holes, not because of any soil contamination, but I was charged 900$ to pump water out of it, which I can’t explain, in addition to the removal of the tank. I had to pay another 5000$ to a company to close the permit and obtain a letter from the State as well as their four-hundred-page report. Then, a list of 21 unacceptable things was presented to me by the other side’s lawyer. Their inspectors were really contractors, who obviously if given the opportunity could go to town with possible things to do. Recommendation: share the estimates and reports from the inspector/contractors, which I was not allowed to do, as these should be in the public domain and will encourage honesty. Among the alleged issues were: active infestation of critters through an opening in the basement to the crawlspace below the sun room, termite damage to structural beams that compromised the stability of the building, front steps that are too high, garage about to collapse, old shower head in the third-floor bathroom, the list went on. Given that it was almost November and that we had missed a higher offer in the Spring, I made the effort to accommodate this buyer, not before telling them why I hadn’t replaced said showerhead: it was fine, it had the best shower pressure of all four bathrooms. The deal fell through because I hadn’t hired their electrician to remove left over knob and tube wire, among the other concerns, like the garage was about to collapse, when it actually had been rebuilt, complete with an attic, the only thing not perfect being the original cement floor. Winter was upon us, so I fell into the awkward circumstance of maintaining two homes. Fortunately, all previous renovations had been done with proper permits but I was feeling stressed. My ninety-year old aunt suggested I take the offer that I had rather than holding out until Spring.
Finally, I decided to write to the buyers directly and challenge them. If and only if they really liked the house, they should not be set back by these exaggerated issues. We went over the 21 infamous items and resolved the sale price in 20 minutes. I called the brokers, told them the commission would be lower since I put the deal back together, also objected to a high lawyer fee. After that my flexibility about the closing date was not a big problem and I understood that a Jewish family from Brooklyn moving to the New Jersey suburbs could be a drama and sitcom in and of itself. Still I saw with horror errors in the closing documents that included the commission, the real estate transfer tax, and the famously high Montclair (Upper Montclair, excuse me) municipal taxes. I caught this by calling my credit union and verifying with them that quarterly municipal taxes had been paid indeed in advance. Recommendation, or moral of the story: check things yourself.
I recommend that if you make good use of your current home and enjoy your daily life you should not sell the home you live in. Friends and flatterers alike still tease me or needle me about getting a million plus when it was much less than that, as the houses that command million-dollar plus price tags are those that respond to the market’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for great rooms and man caves. So, do enjoy your home as long as you get joy from it, as I did.