Pacific Northwest | March 14, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMarch 14, home
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Guess What?
In Seattle's housing market, there's no such thing as cheap talk
A FRIEND FROM our old Seattle neighborhood called to say our former house was for sale again.

"Guess what they are asking for it?" she said.

When someone asks you to make a guess at something, you know you are going to be wrong no matter what you guess. You will make a too-high guess ("I would say you are down to a dress size 22" is a bad guess, even if it is correct) or you can make a too-low guess ("I figure he paid $15 for it" would be a too-low guess if you are looking at a diamond engagement ring).

I do, however, know a couple of things about Seattle real estate. The first thing is that if you bought a house in Seattle last month, it is now worth more than what you paid for it 30 days ago. The second thing is that there are no cheap houses left in Seattle.

So I figured I would guess some price that I would find outrageous. I remembered the place as a nice, old Seattle home — three bedrooms, hardwood floors and near Lake Washington — but it was on a busy street, it didn't have a garage, the bedrooms were small and the wiring was ancient. I thought if I guessed that the house sold for 10 times what we paid for it, I would be safe — well beyond its real price.

So, I said, "$260,000."

My old neighbor laughed and laughed. "No," she said. "Guess again."

(I digress for a moment. I didn't move to Seattle with the Denny Party, and the Truly Unpleasant Mrs. Johnston wasn't a mail-order bride from San Francisco. But I did live in Seattle when houses were cheap. I remember talking to a woman from L.A. who sold her home down there and she had enough money to buy six — yes, half a dozen! — houses in Seattle. She said she was going to live in one and rent out the rest.

(There was a time in Seattle when people were walking away from their homes and house payments because the economy was bad. The federal government was selling homes to the highest bidders, and I remember seeing newspaper pages full of houses up for grabs.

(I bid on some of those houses. I once lost a bid by $1,000 for a six-bedroom house near Volunteer Park. I bid $35,000 and the winner got it for $36,000. That wouldn't cover the down payment on it now.

(I wish I had bought half a dozen homes when you could have them all for less than what you now pay for a "cute fixer-upper/one bath/one bedroom." The problem with that idea is that I wasn't making any money back then and could hardly afford to buy our first home for $26,000. I'm through digressing now and will continue with my shocking conversation.)

From the way my neighbor said that $260,000 was not the right price, I foolishly thought I had guessed too high. I dropped down to what I might pay for the house if I had lost my mind and just won the Lotto for $10 million.

"$225,000?" I said.

I had hardly said the number when the neighbor lady let out a hoot. "Ha!" she screamed. "Not even close! Go higher!"

I hate this. People making you guess at something that they know you will never guess, then enjoying telling you that you're an idiot for not guessing correctly. I figured I would just say something so crazy that the neighbor would let me off the hook and tell me the real price.

"$375,000?" I guessed, waiting for her to squeal "Too high!" and then tell me the real figure.

Sure enough, she squealed — but it was because I was still too low. Thank heaven the game was over. I had used up all my guesses. I wasn't even close. The house I bought in the mid-1970s; the house that had such an old electrical system that if you plugged in a hair dryer and turned on a radio, you blew a fuse; the house that Mrs. Johnston and I worked on until we decided to sell it or kill each other — this house was on the market for $485,000.

"$485,000?!" I said, squealing now myself.

"Good grief, our kids are going to live with us forever."

Steve Johnston is a retired Seattle Times reporter. His e-mail address is Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times news artist.

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