We want your house (for very little)

As the folksingers say, “To every thing, there is a season.” In Eliot at least, when times are hard and real estate prices are down, it is time for the flippers to emerge from their holes.

“We want to buy your house,” proclaim the signs on telephone poles. So do letters from Phoenix Homes, Metro Homes Northwest, and many others. They promise “cash, in any condition, no real estate fees.”

In my own case, I’ve received more attention. “Danielle” left a hand-written letter in my mailbox (technically illegal, that) saying that she and her boyfriend are “young professional” renters who want to buy a home, and are interested in my house. “If you are at all interested, there are a number of ways we can structure the transaction to fit your needs,” she wrote. And she enclosed a lollipop. The phone number she left, with a Massachusetts area code, was “not in service” when I tried it.

It was otherwise with “Chris,” who mailed me two letters. He treated me to the news that he grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho, that he likes fishing, hiking and camping, and other information that would not normally be considered relevant to a real estate transaction. Why? “I want to get away from the usual buyer-seller relationship,” he said when I called him. One of his letters offered, “I am not a realtor looking for a listing, and I am not a mortgage modification person. I will handle all the details, close on your timeframe and take the house just as it sits.”

Chris’s answers to all of my questions could be summarized as “it depends.” Sometimes he works in partnership with others, (as a front man?) sometimes alone. Some houses he keeps for rentals, some he sells. What kind of cash is he offering, as compared to a property’s assessed value? “It depends on whether it’s a straight cash sale or not.” Is he a “flipper?” Saying the word has “negative connotations, he says he does sometimes sell a property soon after acquiring it, but he always “adds value to it.”

Another potential buyer came to my front door one day. I’m sure he’d agree with me that he came at the wrong time. I lost my temper a bit. I may have pointed to the edge of my porch and offered to teach him to fly if he didn’t leave under his own steam. I know I referred to him as a lower form of life.

Why such a reaction?

It is common knowledge that in the mid-‘90s Eliot experienced “gentrification,” a rather over-used term. It is true to some extent, although it was also inevitable. In the late 1980s, Eliot was a dying neighborhood. We had lost half our housing stock in the previous 30 years. Much of this was to well-publicized urban renewal efforts such as the creation of the Rose Quarter and the I-5 Freeway, and Emanuel Hospital’s ill-fated attempt to expand. Much of it, however, was lot by lot. Zone changes were routinely sought and approved, and houses fell to make way for parking lots or commercial expansion. Much of the housing stock fell into the hands of absentee owners, who viewed the older homes as temporary and treated them accordingly; making no repairs, they milked them as rentals until they were unrentable, and then tore them down or just walked away from them. We experienced a net loss of two to three units a year. The value of single family homes was virtually zero. On my block alone, a 900 square foot house, in need of repairs but sound, was on the market for a year at $12,000 with no takers. Another, larger house went begging at $8500. Ruth Miller, former Eliot chair, having experienced some economic reverses, offered her three bedroom house free to anyone who would assume the mortgage – and got no takers.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and dying neighborhoods have their purposes. Because the area was considered undesirable, rents and home prices were cheap. People moved in for housing choices, from small apartments to large homes, that they could have afforded nowhere else. I was one of them, renting a 900 square foot house for $185 a month.

The Albina and Eliot plans changed all that. The Eliot Plan contained strict prohibitions against the conversion of residential property to any other use. Much of the neighborhood was designated an Historic Conservation District. Suddenly people were moving in, buying and fixing up the old houses, and prices soared.

But there was a price. More than a few people found themselves priced out of the market. One of my neighbors, a single mother who had lived quietly as a model tenant for ten years, was evicted on 30 days notice to make way for the owner’s new plans for the house; this was far from unique. Some people who had wanted to move and felt trapped did take the opportunity to voluntarily cash out. However, the end result was a drastic change in demographics, with whites replacing African-Americans as the predominant ethnic group.

Then there were the flippers. Offering quick cash, they bought up houses at a fraction of their value, applied a coat of paint and a few other cosmetic improvements and sold the houses a few weeks later for several times what they’d paid for them. They artificially accelerated the increase in housing cost while adding no value to speak of. And now they are back.

My strong advice – retain a realtor. They work on commission and will do their best to get you the best price they can as quickly as they can. For these others, the old cliché holds true – if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. In most cases their offers – straight cash, no cleaning up, no fixing up – mask a desire to take advantage of you. At the least, beware.

As for me, here at 512 N.E. Brazee: This is my home. It is not for sale to anyone at any price, and if it were, Chris and friends, it wouldn’t be for sale to you. Get thee behind me!