Friday, October 30, 2009

Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave When First We ... Buy, Sell or Renovate Real Estate in Salinas

Shenanigans. It's the only word I can think of to describe everything that's gone on with this house in the past 10 years. Not quite illegal, but not quite on the up and up either. Just like a lot of what goes on in Salinas.

(Not bashing Salinas, let me add. I love it here. I moved BACK here, remember? But the town is full of shenanigans.)

Somewhere around 2000, the owner twice removed had applied for a permit to turn the building into a house/bed and breakfast. Fabulous, we thought. We can use those plans. But for whatever reason, probably the passage of time, those permits lapsed. (Interesting that permits lapse when it's convenient for the city, but remain enforced when that's convenient too.) The last owner came in, paid $20,000 for a permit to turn the house into office space, and commenced the work.

That was a very expensive permit: $20,000, paid to a city that then, as it does now, desperately needs the dollars. But the owner lacked a little document called a site plan review, an absolute necessity and one that should have gotten the place red-tagged, but never did.

New roof, new foundation, new electrical and plumbing all were put in. And never inspected. I wouldn't expect they were ever signed off, because the bank foreclosed before the work was final. But there were no inspections along the way either. It would seem logical that the foundation would be inspected before interior work commenced, but that never happened.

And this is probably my favorite part; the previous owner still owns the rights to his plans. They were never transferred to the bank when the foreclosure happened. So while the bank has a copy of the plans, we're not sure they can actually give them to us (although they already have). If we can't demonstrate ownership of the plans, will any architect be willing to revise them?

Strangely, the previous owner isn't answering the bank's phone calls.

I feel bad for the guy, I really do. He over-leveraged and lost a few tenants at another project he owned while he was in the middle of building another house, and that's how his collapse occurred. Someone told me that as he was in the final days before the bank took back the property, he would stand on the street in front of the house, smoking and staring, smoking and staring.

The lack of plans, and lack of clear direction, leaves us in the real estate equivalent of limbo. Not heaven, not hell (not yet, anyway) but limbo. Do we need entirely new plans? Can we get the old plans? Do we need an entirely new site plan as well? And most importantly, what is it all going to cost.

Chuck met with the Redevelopment Agency this week, and they expressed their deep and abiding hope (i.e., desperation) that something good would happen to this property. It's in an RDA district and could qualify for some financial aid. Before California started teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and raided redevelopment coffers to keep the lights on, there was RDA money available for things like facade improvement--painting, landscaping, etc.--but that money is now gone. "God, we just want to see the place painted," the RDA guy told Chuck. We want to see it painted too, painted and a lot more.

Next up is another meeting with the city planning department (they told our agent that they found Chuck "very workable" because he asked smart questions and dressed appropriately. Dressed appropriately? That earned an eye roll, I think.

Stay tuned. I've put the fantasies about what the place could look like on hold for the time being, because in limbo, there's no room for fantasy. But if I was going to fantasize, there are apple and lemon trees in the side yard, and raised beds for growing vegetables in the back.

Not that I'm thinking about that.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stress-Induced Nightmares

This weekend we're hosting two of the 11 people from Berkeley who didn't make me stabby. Fred Dodsworth, who's been a journalist, designer, editor, publisher and rabble-rouser longer than I've been alive, and his wife Linda, a saint (you have to be to be married to Fred) who runs the Alameda County WIC program. We're drinking coffee at the Cherry Bean and talking history and Howard Zinn and house issues.

I had three nightmares last night, and I think they're all related to drywall. The house (as you can see from the picture here) doesn't have any. It has Cat-5 cable throughout, because the previous owner was going to turn it into an office building for attorneys or CPAs. It has a gas insert fireplace in almost every room, and the electrical and plumbing are mostly all roughed in.

But there's no drywall.

Someone we trust (as opposed to the first contractor we talked to, who wanted money up front just to give us a quote on the job--do I look like I just fell off the turnip truck??) told us the drywall would run about $4 a foot, which means the ceilings alone would run $20,000. Just the ceilings. Which would bring drywall for the whole interior close to $50,000.

Considering we need a complete kitchen, all of the bathroom fixtures and plan revisions, $50,000 for drywall might be pushing it.

Here, in order, are the three nightmares I had:

1. I was walking down a road and a man holding a baby out of his car window drove past and threw the baby out. He then refused to allow me to help the baby. (Definitely a Salinas metaphor.)

2. I was driving down a freeway and there was a jumbo jet, pulling another jumbo jet, taking off in front of me. The lead jet went airborn, pulling the other jet into the air behind it, and then both crashed and blew up.

3. I was walking down the hallway at my youngest son's school and stopped to talk to our friend Jay, the vice principal who has been in our kids' lives since 1999. He told me Thursday was going to be his last day at work and after that, nobody would ever see him again.

We're going to walk over to the house and show Fred and Linda around. They're suggesting we name all of the bedrooms after themes in Steinbeck novels. I told them they're welcome to stay in the Poverty and Despair Suite any time they visit.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Beginning: Blowing Up Our Lives

I'd like to think that my husband and I had reached the end of making a series of really, really stupid decisions. The first stupid decision was to put our life savings and some of our home equity (I know, I know) into opening a cafe with a couple of friends who, when things finally went to hell, we spoke to only via a very expensive attorney. (Hi Paul. Thanks again. Great work.) We spent a few weeks stumbling around in pain and grief over having lost the business, but we've come to realize that loss was inevitable. The location sucked, the city sucked in working with us on the permits and planning, and the market for a tiny, charming, upscale food place was non-existent.

The pain and grief over that loss, though, was replaced by anger when we got the complete bank statements for the business and realized there was a shitload of money missing.

(Not missing exactly--we know where it went. It went on vacation and out to dinner and to the vet and on multiple trips to the gas station and out shopping for new cell phones and other toys with our former friends.)

We did what any sensible people do when they're grieving. We blew up our lives. My husband started getting signals that all wasn't well at the huge, Silicon Valley semiconductor company where he had worked for 11 years and decided to change jobs. His new company offered him a relocation package that included buying our old house (for less than we owed, mark this "Stupid Decision No. 2") and we moved to the "Gourmet Ghetto" neighborhood of Berkeley. ("Stupid Decision No. 3.")

Berkeley, people swore, would be fabulous for us. So intellectual. So vibrant. So ... completely overrun with vermin and hippies and opinions and drugs that I found myself pretty much unable to breathe. Everyone knows about the hippies and opinions and drugs, but rats are North Berkeley's dirty little secret. Early last spring I gingerly asked one of the neighbors I liked (there were 11 of them that didn't make me stabby) if she had any pest issues, and she nodded sadly and handed me the number of "The Rat Whisperer." Berkeley made me anxious, Berkeley made me scared. I grew up in Chicago and I couldn't hack it there.

I also needed a grandma back in my life. One who was retired and available and who would be able to keep an eye on the boys after school and make sure they weren't doing the stupid stuff adolescent boys do until one of us got home from work. One such grandma happened to live in Salinas.

On Aug. 8, I looked at my husband, laying in our bed in our rat-tastic North Berkeley house, and said, "Not another minute. I won't live here, not another minute." On Aug. 10, he contacted the real estate agent who sold us the house, arranged to pick up a U-Haul the following weekend and we started packing.

The Berkeley house sold in nine days.

Now the only problem with moving back was we had nowhere to go.

My husband's new company (rhymes with "Mafeway") had spent a year fixing every tiny thing that was wrong with the old house they purchased from us. A year because they hired a savant of a contractor, a genius when it comes to wood and plaster, an idiot when it comes to time and budget. But the day before we were going to make an offer to buy our old house back, someone else came in and bought it.

About 18 months ago, some friends left Salinas for job reasons. He's a chef, she does marketing for golf courses, and while he lost his job here due to downsizing, he got a gig as executive chef of a very nice, very busy hotel in Sacramento. But they were never able to sell their house. And then the bottom dropped out, their house went under water by $400,000 and they were so unable to sell their house that they finally asked Chase Bank, "Where do you want us to send the keys?"

The bank told them, "We have 300,000 people in line ahead of you. Why don't you just hold your breath and we'll get to you when we feel like it."

For the past 6 weeks, we've been squatting in their place while we try to buy a house.

Which brings us current and to the point.

We've found the house we want. It's a circa-1890 Victorian with its original plank flooring. It was in the middle of being rehabbed when the bottom dropped out; the owner was unable to finish the project and the property reverted back to the bank.

The house is stripped down to the studs. But we look at it and see everything that's possible.

We should know in a week if it IS possible. There are meetings with the city to be had, and plans to alter and financial details to be worked out. But there are five bedrooms, and enough room for family and friends and the way of life we missed in Berkeley.

This is the story of House226.