As the possessor of a degree from a UC Davis humanities department that I will leave nameless, I find real estate confusing. My wife bought our east Davis home before we were married, and just after it was constructed six years ago. Since that date, it has more than tripled in value-maybe. We are not sure what it is worth. I was confused all the more because-well, the house does not seem that well constructed. Right after finishing the job, the firm that made it had fallen on hard times, which I thought odd given the size of the owner’s pinkie rings. To resolve some of the mystery about what this place is worth, I called a local real estate agency. “Are these prices,” I asked, “the result of some kind of bubble, like dot-com stocks?”
“Sir, we don’t like to use the ‘b’ word around here. We prefer to call this a weightless market.” My call seemed to have touched off an eruption at the agency. I could hear people shouting, phones ringing, paper flying; it sounded like an old film about a newsroom after a verdict, or about the 1929 stock market crash. “We feel certain that we can maximize the value of your property, to the max. We now have three people lined up to make offers. No, four.”
“But, see, I don’t think the house is that great. The other day, one nail fell out of the roof and three tiles came down. They hit me in the head. Water shoots out of the kitchen faucet like a seltzer bottle. Gas leaks out of the stove. Basically, you get it going by setting off a small explosion. One day, it caught the seat of my pants on fire. I ran around and around the kitchen with smoke streaming out of my pants, making sounds like a whooping crane.”
“Sir, what you’re experiencing is a new business paradigm. The old rules don’t apply any more. The value of your property is what we make of it-and it’s gone up forty thousand just while we’ve been talking.” I could now hear heavy breathing in the background, and a sound like a whimper.
“I’m just not convinced that this place is really worth fifty times what it cost to build six years ago,” I said later to one of my humanities friends. This one had, in a fit of practicality, decided to get a real estate license.
“But what is ‘real worth’?” she said. Her cell phones-three of them-chattered and squeaked all through our short conversation. “‘Real worth’ or ‘value’ is a social construct, a reified concept. A mini-paradigm, if you will. Excuse me.” She spoke into two phones at once. “I think I can run your paradigm up to seven figures, if you’re willing to be paid partly in gold bars. Oh, and a Franklin Mint Civil War chess set, in perfect condition. Borrowed from grandpa, I think.”
“But I can’t see how this house is worth bankrupting yourself to get. What about the Superfund site?” I was referring to the nearby fertilizer plant where, in the 1970s, enough pesticide had been dumped to create a plume of noxious stuff big enough to rouse the EPA.
My friend stiffened. “Target Stores is going to solve that problem by, ah. Um. Building a store and a parking lot over it. Yeah. Listen, we’d better not talk about this. I’ve got six people lined up to make offers on your house.”
“But how is a store going to solve the problem? How-.”
“Oh my gosh, look at that!” I turned quickly to look in the direction she pointed, and saw nothing but blue sky. When I turned back, she was gone. But she called back that evening. Many times.
Whether we sell or not, the house still must be repaired. I finally found the original roofing contractor in Who’s Who in Knavery, and called him at a hotel phone in Antigua. “The roof tiles hit my head in sequence: one, two, three,” I explained. “My head made a ringing sound like the NBC radio chimes.”
“Yeah, you got the Three Stooges model roof there.” In the background, on the phone, I heard the musical sounds of Caribbean voices and ice ringing in glasses. “I can send someone to fix it, if youse is okay for a second or third mortgage.” He named a sum that I could never achieve if I harvested all my friends and neighbors’ Franklin Mint sets.
“But all I need is a few tiles replaced. Is the job really worth that much?”
“The real worth is whatever you can get somebody to pay. Any stooge knows that.”