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Sticker Shock

by Judy Gruen

May 20, 1999 | 8:00 pm

After months of debate and deliberation, my husband and I decided to trade in the ocean breeze and proximity to the brand-new Starbucks on Lincoln Boulevard for the clogged air and congested streets of Pico-Robertson. I had toyed with the idea earlier, and had even lookie-looed my way into a few open houses, but this time, we were lookie-loos no more. My kids were eager to be near their school friends and within sniffing distance of the kosher pizza shops. I wanted to walk to the bakery, where the proprietor still calls little boys boychikel and where I could feel slightly more justified in buying the shop's obscenely rich chocolate custard cakes for Shabbos since I would be walking home with it. (That is, whatever still remained by the time I got home.) I could even brush up on my Farsi waiting in line behind all the Iranian women in the cramped little markets along Pico Boulevard.

So I called my trusty real estate agent, who offered to show me what was available in Kosher Alley. She asked me how much we could spend. I told her. To her credit, she did not burst out laughing. Instead, she maintained a serious demeanor and said, "Prices have gone up since you last looked."

"How much?" I asked, still innocent.

"About a hundred grand," she said.

I swallowed hard.

"But I'm sure your home has gone up too," she said, attempting to be reassuring.

"It has," I said, "but this isn't 'Beverly Hills-adjacent' or even 'Beverlywood-adjacent.'" As if I cared about zip codes. "I just want to stop shlepping so far to school. Is that so much to ask for?"

So we began looking. I found some houses that we could actually afford. But they all had a catch, which I learned to spot after learning "real estate code." For example, "cozy" meant that two's a crowd in any room; a "flexible floor plan" meant no floor plan; and a house with "potential" meant you had to be as imaginative as Lewis Carroll to figure out just what that potential was. And then, of course, there were the homes that needed "TLC," (translation: call the wrecking crew).

Unfortunately, all of these potentially cozy, flexible-floor-plan homes cost much more than my current home.

"Why can't I get a few hundred square feet more?" I asked my agent. "We're getting a little crowded at home. My boys are growing fast. They need more room to wrestle and throw furniture at each other."

"Room to throw furniture will cost about 50 grand more," she said.

"And what about a yard? I mean, I don't need Rancho Park or anything, but something big enough for, say, a sukkah and maybe a teeter-totter."

"Yards will cost you another 75 grand," she said. "People here have pushed back their houses and generally don't have yards. They have yards in Beverlywood," my agent told me. But as we spoke, prices in Beverlywood shot up another $60,000.

"Look, people are making multiple offers the day homes come on the market. Are you ready to deal or not?" My agent was a busy person.

I told her I had to go home, take some extra-strength pain relievers and speak to my husband. She shrugged and went to write up an offer for a serious buyer.

At home, my husband and I sat down for a talk. Having been through at least a dozen homes already, I had seen enough brown drapes and orange carpet to last a lifetime. I dared not look at remodeled homes, the ones with Italian-tiled foyers. They cost anywhere from one to three times the profit we were likely to get from our home, located in an area that is not quite Marina del Rey-adjacent. At this point we realized we had two options:

A. Buy a home in Pico-Robertson, never go out to dinner or buy new clothes again and pick up any additional furnishings that we needed for our new home on the shoulder of the Santa Monica Freeway. During a good month, I might get some throw pillows at Pic N' Save.

B. Purchase the entire city of Baltimore.

Since neither option held great appeal, we tried to be creative. We wracked our brains trying to remember any elderly relatives on either side of the family who might need a "Just thinking of you" card. We blew the dust off my husband's boyhood collection of baseball cards, looking for a mint-condition DiMaggio. We looked for other hidden assets, such as a bank account in the Cayman Islands that somehow we had overlooked.

"Well?" My agent asked the next day. "Ready to write an offer yet? Properties are going fast."

"Not yet," I said. "I'm still making menu plans revolving around the theme of day-old bread, rice and beans." I wondered how a meatless cholent would taste. Well, at least no more long lines at the butcher. "Give me another day. I think we might go for the house with the new tile in the kitchen and no yard."

"I thought you wanted a yard," my agent said.

"You can't have everything," I replied. "At least this house has a great view into the neighbor's yard, and their landscaping is beautiful. We'll adjust to a 'virtual backyard.' By the way, would you buy a book titled 'Living on Legumes'? I'm thinking of writing one."

"Dunno. Depends what they are. Are they some kind of tax-free mutual fund?"

"Never mind. Look, try to find me a house that fell out of escrow, with sellers that have moved and are desperate to sell. Kitchen cabinets would be a plus. Can you do that?" I asked. Let her earn her commission, I thought.

"Will you consider a fixer?" she asked. "I might have something that just came up today, but you have to act fast. It's got a small yard, so it will probably go into multiple offers."

"I'm on my way right now," I said. "Right after I stop at the Salvation Army for some window treatments."


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