Outta My Yard


By Elizabeth Peavey
By Elizabeth Peavey

Rita to the rescue

My hand hovered over the phone. I had already picked up and set down the receiver a number of times during the day, but I still hadn’t been able to summon the courage to make the call. It had been nearly five months since John and I had attended our first open houses, and nine since we had been pre-approved for our loan, yet we’d done little after that first awful day of looking. Sure, we talkedabout house hunting. Sure, we glanced at the real estate ads. But get back out there, with all those pushy realtors and scary basement bathrooms and dingy Venetian blinds? No thanks.

We needed help. We needed Rita.

Rita was the go-to girl for real estate in our group of friends. She had found houses for a number of people we knew, and I promised her once at a cocktail party many years ago, way before John, way before I even knew I would settle in Portland, that if I ever bought a house, I would use her. But now that the moment was upon us, I grew shy. I had heard her business had taken off and she was only representing high-end clients – we were decidedly low-end. I had been collecting names of agents other friends had used, but I wanted Rita. Not enough to call her, mind you, but just enough so that I wouldn’t call anyone else. 

As I sat by the phone, I flashed back to that first day of looking. The third and last house we saw was a bungalow on outer Washington Avenue. After the two before it, this one seemed pretty cute. Even though it was October, you could tell the abundant gardens were lovely, and there was a sweet fenced-in back yard with a giant blue spruce towering above. My heart fluttered a bit.

Inside, however, was another story. The floors were at a serious cant, so that the wall-sized home entertainment center looked as though one dust mote could topple it. The kitchen had fake beams and fake-brick walls, but it was the faux-stone wallboard covering the exposed staircase that baffled us. In addition to this fake stone stuff (which we were pretty sure was intended for the exterior of the house), there were murals painted on the wall going up the carpeted staircase, as though to invoke some sort of Tuscan villa feel. Meanwhile, up in the “villa” – a cramped, eave-y, typical bungalow bedroom – there were floor-to-ceiling, mirrored, sliding closet doors lining the room that rattled with each step we took. And in one corner, a wet bar. A wet bar.

The reason I tell you this is not to judge other people’s taste (that will come later), but to record my reaction. Surprisingly, it was not “Eeeeew,” as might be expected, but instead: “There’s some potential here. This could work.”

It was at that moment we were cornered by the tag team of Rocky and Rico (I have no idea what their names were, but they seemed to have that good cop-bad cop/abundant-hair-product-use-thing going on.) The interrogation began. How many houses had we looked at? How did this one compare? When they found out this was number three, they pounced. They said the third’s a charm – like this was destined to be. And the worst part is, I was buying into it! Sure, that wallboard could come down! Sure, those crooked floors added character! Sure, we could keep the windows closed in summer and use an air conditioner to drown out the roar of traffic from the street. And who wouldn’t like a nice wet bar in their bedroom? (Save on all that pesky travel to the kitchen on those days when you draw the blinds and open the Scotch.) I was saying as much to my two new best friends when I caught a glimpse of John, who was eyeing me with horror. He hustled me out of there before I could sign anything, but I protested all the way home, “It wasn’t that bad,” I insisted. “Three’s a charm.”

Remembering this close call gave me the courage to finally dial. Much to my relief, I only got Rita’s voicemail. I left a long, babbling message, explaining in minute detail why she shouldn’t be interested in representing us but how since I had said I would call her all those years ago I was now just fulfilling that obligation before I moved on to find a lesser agent. (You can probably understand why I never did so well in the dating arena and why it took me until I was nearly 40 to find a man who found my weirdness charming.)

So imagine my shock when she called back and said she would be thrilled to help us find a house. It felt like getting chosen for the cool team for volleyball. 

And, in a way, it was. While it was true her business had, indeed, taken off and she was focusing on larger clients – sellers, mostly – she said she still hung on to a handful of buyers: a single mom, a Somali resettlement family, us. I would later learn we would be more or less “projects” for her – kind of like community service work, minus the orange jumpsuit.

She and I got together one afternoon in late March to meet and talk about what John and I were looking for. It had been a while since we had seen each other, and I guess I was a little shocked to find this utterly glamorous woman greeting me. A mane of black hair, swept to one side. Bright pink lipstick. Smart black clothes. Plus, the most pointy-toed Italian shoes you’ve ever seen, which she always wore – even in the dead of the winter. (You ain’t seen nothing ‘til you’ve seen Rita scaling a snow bank in her pointy Italian shoes.) In all the time we worked together, I never once saw her out of makeup and grown-up clothes, even when she was on her way to the dump, which was not infrequently. 

Now, I must confess: As a middle-aged-tomboy-slob, being around real girls can make me nervous. But here’s the thing: I loved her instantly. I knew I would be able to trust Rita and that she would take care of us. 

We talked about geographic and price ranges, our likes and wants, and our definite “no”s. No new construction. No developments. No ranches. And, above all else – after my near bungalow boondoggle – no fixer-uppers. A little paint here, a replacement appliance or two there, OK. But nothing major. We were not emotionally equipped for anything major. 

“No fixer-uppers,” Rita underscored in her notes. Yet, as anyone who knows real estate knows, buyers are liars. 

That would be our next lesson. 

Elizabeth Peavey sez: “Solve all your Christmas conundrums with my new book, Outta My Way, available in bookstores, online or out of the back of my car.”

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