Non-fiction: Did you hear those fireworks?

So I used to have this house in Baltimore. I had two houses actually, one that I lived in and one that I bought as a rental property in 2005. The rental cost me $68,5001 although I only put 5% down on it and loaned out the rest from a guy that seemed like he could pretty much finance anything, of which there were a of those (guys) around at the time.

It wasn’t a particularly nice house by fancy middle-class standards and it wasn’t in the best neighborhood either, but it was a decent house with all the proper appliances and built to code and safe in that way.

Anyway, when I decided to get out of real estate in 2007,2 I wanted to sell the investment property (my other house was already rented out), mostly because I was tired of being a landlord and wanted to do less landlording and also because I was genuinely frightened to spend time on the block where the house was located.

The house was in East Baltimore on the 500 block of North Belnord. If you’ve seen The Wire, it wasn’t too far from the neighborhood called Middle East, which Mayor Carcetti describes as “more like fucking Fallujah.” Just north of Patterson Park, a few blocks away from gentrification but a few blocks in Baltimore can be a completely different world. It was a bad neighborhood and as a guy with zero in the way of street smarts or toughness, I was genuinely scared every time I went there.

Another reason that I didn’t want the house anymore was because I had it rented through the Section 8 program, which was a good deal for two reasons: they paid above-market rents and Section 8 sent the money right to you, sparing you the incredible nuisance of pestering tenants for rent checks, which made me incredibly uncomfortable because who likes pestering people for money?3 Which all has to be counter-balanced with the fact that the Section 8 program is also an extremely inefficient bureaucracy4 that just added another layer of annoyance and frustration to my whole real estate experience.

I originally had a buyer for the house, a fellow investor5 and a woman who actually got me my job with the real estate investment company but the sale with her fell through a few months prior to the day in question in a very Kafkaesque turn of events that I’ll write about another time.

With that buyer out of the picture, it was now early 2008 and I was on my own again, marketing the house to other investors in the city as a rental investment. The thing was, I overpaid for it in the first place and with the market just tanking in 2007, everyone was being extra cautious about what they bought (a complete 180 from just two years prior when prices were going up so fast that you could overpay and still make money by just waiting a few months for prices to go up). In short, a buyer’s market.

So I’m showing the house that day to a guy who I had shown a lot of houses to when I was with the investment company. He had never bought anything but he always seemed like he might buy something and I was pretty desperate.

We’re outside the house after the showing, doing my usual ‘so, what do you think? Are you interested?’ sales routine.6

And we’re chatting and he’s giving me the usual ‘it’s interesting’ and ‘I’ll have to run the numbers’ and ‘I’ll see what my partner says,’ etc. Which makes it sound like he was blowing me off, but I could tell that he was interested, probably for a lower price than what I wanted, but there was definitely a possibility of a deal.

And then, right in the middle of our conversation, we hear the unmistakable pop pop pop pop of gunshots a few blocks away.

‘Did you hear those fireworks?’ I asked, hoping to salvage the sale.

And then, the woman next door opened up her 2nd story window, leaned out to look at us on the sidewalk and shouted ‘betta get used to it!’ before slamming her window shut.

Which is just the sort of black humor that one comes to enjoy when one’s life has been completely entangled in a yearlong Kafkaesque struggle to sell an overpriced piece of investment real estate. And no, I didn’t get the sale that day.

  1. I was always so perplexed when I read things in the Baltimore Sun about politicians calling for more affordable housing. Baltimore has an insane amount of affordable housing and case in point: even in the biggest real estate boom in American history, there were houses available for $68,500. I wonder if the call for more affordable housing isn’t just one of those things that local politicians are always talking about because it’s popular, although to be fair, they may have meant more affordable housing in the safer neighborhoods. 

  2. Getting out of real estate would have been a lot easier if everyone else in the country didn’t have the exact same idea at the exact same time. 

  3. With all apologies to beggars and the college kids that work for Green Peace, trying to extract money from innocent pedestrians all over Chicago, although we can probably say that the majority of those people would prefer to earn money in other, less pestering ways but for whatever life circumstances have found that the most profitable use of their time is in standing on street corners or outside of Starbucks’ harassing people for loose change or donations to environmental causes. And before you say I’m being unfair to the Green Peace people, who probably do derive some satisfaction from helping a cause they believe in, try talking to one of them for five minutes and see if you feel better after the interaction, or if you decide that you will do anything you can to never get sucked into a conversation with one of them again. 

  4. I once waited an hour in the lobby at the Section 8 office after being called in about a missing document in my application, whereupon finally being called into the office of a very nice woman who, trying to remember why I had been called in, shuffled through some papers and immediately discovered the ‘missing’ document. 

  5. I was an investor in the sense that I made investments, not in the sense of making profitable investments. 

  6. I wasn’t a very good salesman.