FIRST PERSON | Lucy Gray
AUGUST 2013: I take our younger son, Zachary, to New York, where he will be a freshman in college. While I’m there my husband, David, calls to tell me we must sell our house. I promise to have this accomplished by October 1.
This may sound rash, but on our block of Pacific Heights, houses regularly sell before going on the market. One house sold in half a day. Nothing seems to last more than a week. This was true all through the financial crisis. Prices for homes in our area kept steadily increasing. I bet on this three years earlier, taking the last of our line of credit and renovating the kitchen and reshaping the interior to create two new bathrooms and a bedroom. It was frightening to the core to spend that money. But one reason we bought the house in 1994 was to improve it.
I am still hoping we’ll find a way out of selling. David and I love living here — even more after the improvements. We both work freelance — he a writer and I a photographer — which is another way of saying we practice the art of the long shot. Still, we both work every day as many hours as we have in us and have taken maybe four vacations since our children were born. Every time we went to Europe. A friend suggested we could go away more if we lowered our expectations.
Of course that could also be applied to our buying a home. Perhaps instead of settling in San Francisco we should have moved to a place with great public schools. Or maybe it would have been smarter to sell when we lost our sons’ college fund in one month during the tech bubble. We were still strong earners when our older son, Nicholas, got into the University of Chicago and they told us we made too much for financial aid, while banks told us we didn’t make enough to refinance.
We are not quitters; we just tried harder to earn enough to get a better mortgage.
SEPTEMBER: I sell the piano. A friend wants us to meet her financial advisor before we make any precipitous decisions. For a week before that meeting, we imagine we might somehow get out of selling. This is a merciful time that allows us to gather ourselves for the truth: We will sell the house and keep working.
Selling is disorienting and work is stabilizing. There are deadlines that must be met. Performance kept at a standard we set as high as any of our expectations.
A friend walks me around Glen Park and I latch onto the idea of moving there as if it is Paris. David and I have talked about relocating for many good reasons to other places — London, maybe, or New York — but we can come up with no better plan than staying in San Francisco because we are part of the community.
Friends want their friends who have been looking to buy a house for 18 months to come for a look. I am told they will know how to see through our stuff to the bones. But the couple thinks our 2,800-square-foot house is too small. I sign on with a real estate agent, Dianne Weaver, from Hill & Co. She tells us she can get the price I want. Last year she said she couldn’t. She also told me not to sell if I could possibly afford it because moving is expensive. This is part of the reason I hire her. She introduces me to a stager who says it will take six weeks to sand the floors and paint the handmade murals off the walls and get his furniture in. It is Monday. I say I can move 20 years of stuff by Friday.
Dianne wants to show the house the next day, Tuesday. I go to U-Haul and buy boxes, 20 to a pack. I call my friend Sue and we pack 45 boxes of books in the entrance hall. My handyman tells me about San Francisco Day Laborers, and I hire two to take the boxes and the bookshelves to the garage. That night another friend of friends wants to see the house, but also proclaims it too small. The next morning more laborers take up the striped carpet on the stairs and move pieces of furniture out of each room. I spend that day cleaning the house so that Dianne can show it. I hate taking the time from my work, but the quicker I get this selling thing over with the quicker I can get back to my life.
Later that afternoon, I notice the clutch in our car is slipping. The people who see the house are interested. I hire a mover online after checking the reviews on Yelp. Friday is set for moving day. I imagine they will pack up the entire house because I can’t figure out what to throw away until I know where we’re going. I try to guess how much storage space to rent. My mind goes blank: no past, no future. I am a leaf fallen from its tree.
Wednesday I have to clean again for another round of viewers. One couple has their architect come and we have to be out of the house, so I take the car in for service. I can only go about six miles an hour. Other drivers honk aggressively and then whiz by, as I would if this weren’t my situation.
When I arrive, the dealer asks why I didn’t let them tow the car free. But I need to keep doing things; I need to do them, assert my will, pull us through no matter what happens. The loaner is a bright blue Mini with wide white racing stripes across the hood. I do not feel like driving a vehicle that says, “I want to be young!” right now, but we are lucky to have a loaner.
Various friends in the neighborhood want to feed us during this time. Some are so accomplished and fastidious they cook meals that are exquisite. It is truly diverting from our messy situation. Loads of people are just curious and stop us in the street or write emails and want to know what’s up. We always say we don’t want to do it but we can’t afford to stay. That’s like answering, “How are you?” with the truth. It is threatening. Some people reply cheerily, “You’re downsizing.” And for them that makes it all better, like a sound bite instead of the full story. Or: “Good time to sell.” Or: “You’ll make a lot of money.” Like they’ve never heard of debts or taxes.
On Thursday, Dianne shows the house again and we have an offer that is good for four hours. Friends who are a lot more financially secure than we are insist that we should stage the house and create a bidding war. They have big ideas about the value of the place. Maybe they’re right, but the offer is for the price we wanted and it’s here now, not another bet on the future. We respect the short time frame: 21 days until we close. We got the house the same way. Dianne counters with a request to keep us in the house another rent-free month after closing. Accepted.
David and I have some whopper fights in this period about nothing important. But in negotiations, contracts and taste in dwellings, we agree naturally, fundamentally, immediately. This process shakes our 40 years of marriage not at all; in some ways, it strengthens us.
The buyers have five days to find fault with the house. I am confident they will find no problem. I cancel the stager and our contractor. Dianne asks us what we want to buy. We look at a commercially zoned artist’s space. Insane. I say we should own a small apartment building as a means of diversifying our portfolio, but realize after a day or two that we can’t afford it.
David and I go to Glen Park to look at houses that have been newly renovated. This is the lowest, hardest, saddest day of the entire experience. Dianne calls to say she’s found us an agent who knows Glen Park properties. This might be the moment when I realize I do not want to leave my neighborhood. If we leave the neighborhood, we leave Dianne. Out of the question. She is the civilizing influence. The problem wasn’t only Glen Park, it was what kind of houses we could afford there or anywhere. Again she asks what we want. I say: “High ceilings and a garden.”
OCTOBER: Our house clears inspections with 16 days to closing. Dianne takes us to see a 1,700-square-foot flat nine blocks from our house. That’s 300 square feet smaller than we were thinking, but the price is right and it feels like it’s ours the minute we climb the stairs. It was built in the 1870s, as was our house. It’s a second floor flat with oversized windows that look out on pretty trees front and back. It has high ceilings and fabulous offices — not exactly a garden, though, and no parking.
The next day David finds a place in the Haight and we love that one, too. We sign our house over to the new buyers. David goes on a book tour; I get us pre-approval for a loan from two sources. I ask Dianne to write an offer for the place in the Haight. This is the one I prefer. I feel like I will be living in London in Graham Greene’s story, “The Basement Room.” But the whole middle of the place is like night all day.
Fifteen minutes before offers will no longer be accepted at the place in what the realtors call Lower Pacific Heights, I change my mind and go for it — the one with the light. It is David’s favorite. Miraculously, we get it. We too have a five-day inspection period and 21 days to close, but no one lives there so we can move in any time. We take the title to the
NOVEMBER: Our contractor recommends putting our books in storage. I follow his lead and rent a 10 x 10 x 12-foot space. Day laborers take our dining room table, six chairs and most of our dishes there, too, because there isn’t room in the new place for us to sit down and eat. We’ll have to figure that out.
If I am honest, I have to realize that I only pack when my friend Sue comes to help. She comes a lot. She makes me feel this whole situation is desirable. I go to New York for a week. It is business that gets me there, but I want to see my sons before the giant effort ahead. David is home working on one of the three books he has to finish by the end of the year. Noel, our contractor, builds a temporary but soundproof wall in the new apartment dividing a big beautiful living room into tandem offices for David and me. They overlook a tennis court; the sounds from the players are unexpected and charming. I have a lovely time while I’m away, then start having panic attacks on the plane ride home.
A lot of moving parts have to work just right so that by the end of the week we turn over the keys to the new owners of our house. The dog, worried something is up, goes to stay at his walker’s house. David and I sleep at a friend’s apartment in North Beach and that helps make this experience feel special, if not quite like a vacation. We sell and give away countless boxes of books and magazines and there are still 65 more boxes left to take to storage.
I guess and guess and guess us into losing 1,100 square feet of stuff. First pass, the furniture is moved. I get lucky. I take the right amount. The next two days I have a sale of what we don’t take. I pack up my entire catalog of negatives and put them in storage in a professional warehouse where at long last everything will be temperature-controlled.
David does an incredible job of clearing his office until he hits an emotional impasse at books he’s authored. There are too many copies to take. I ask him to go to the new apartment and oversee setting up the computer, TV, phone. While he’s there I put the books on a shelf and offer free books to anyone who comes to the furniture sale. I’m only sorry David doesn’t get to see the deep appreciation with which some people fall upon that offer. Over the next two days, sitting there alone, he finds he loves the new apartment. When he tells me this, it’s the high point of the move.
My mother comes down from Oregon to help. We drag a chest of drawers and an upholstered settee and a chair I brought west from New Hampshire in 1981 out in front of the house in hopes that they will be taken overnight. Next morning, a neighbor tells me she has the chair and I can come get it later. On the final day of the sale the street is full of people who want to buy our stuff, but my mother has friends in the East Bay who are opening an antiques shop and they tell her they’re coming to buy most of it. They arrive and fill their truck. Echo Haul comes right after them and takes the rest.
I’m relieved that everything is gone and the house is empty. Tonight the cleaners come. They do the inside. Next day David and I do the outside until the key pass. I want to be finished. This house isn’t even ours anymore. The new owners are lovely.
We go to our flat. The former owner gives me the keys and takes me two doors down to meet the neighbors, who kept her spare. They will keep ours, too. My mother is 80, yet she opens boxes with a steely will, pushing me for three days and nights until the first pass is done. I offer packing boxes free on Craigslist and they go. Then packages arrive with light fixtures and bathroom shelves and curtain rods. In a house, hanging pictures with friends is fun. In an apartment, you’re banging through someone’s breakfast.
DECEMBER: I take more than our share of space in the trash bins and vow to try and make it up to our new neighbors. But for now it’s Christmas and our sons are home — and I am proud to say that they each have a bed to sleep in.