by Tamary Shoemaker
Pete here, sending you a letter since you never listen to your voicemail. You know how you’re always wanting to swap stories from our house inspections? Well, this is my best story yet, but I don’t expect you to believe it. I wouldn’t have believed it either if I hadn’t been there.
I got a call last week from Josie Arnette. She’s the lady who hired us on that job two years ago right before you transferred, the one with the five rentals that all had water damage. Anyway, she said her sister was having some weird trouble with selling her house and could use an inspector who would listen to her.
I agreed to go and at least give my opinion. Work’s slow right now, so why not? I got the address, which was just on the other side of town, and after lunch I drove over there.
The house was halfway up a steep hill, and it took me a while to get to it. At the bottom of the hill the road curved and took me to another street. Then when I tried to turn back, there were “no left turn” signs for three blocks in a row. I got headed in the right direction, overshot the street I needed, and found myself circling around to the bottom of the hill again. I said a few rude things about the roads department and tried again. This time I got onto the right street from the other direction and came down the hill to the house.
It was an old house, the kind they say has character, so covered with ivy that I could barely see the windows and door. I parked, climbed the steps which I noticed were crumbling at one side, looked for a doorbell in the ivy, then gave up and knocked. After a few minutes the door opened and there was Josie’s sister, Betty.
She was a short, gray, nervous-looking lady, maybe 70 years old, wrapped up in an old coat. When I said who I was, she stared at me for a minute and then let me in. I could see why she was wearing a coat -- it was cold in there. I took a seat on the flowered sofa, and she sat on the edge of an armchair. Nervous, like I said. I asked her to tell me about the house.
It took a little while to get the whole story. She’d lived in the house for fifty years, she said. She’d bought it when she came into a little bit of money as a young woman. She’d married, raised two children there, then stayed there after her husband died. Various family members had stayed with her from time to time, but never for long, because they said there was something creepy about the place. Over the years the house had fallen into disrepair, and Betty didn’t have the money to keep it fixed up.
Betty’s children had been pressuring her for years to sell the place and move to a nice apartment. Betty had resisted until six months ago, when her son had taken her around the whole house and shown her everything that he thought needed to be fixed. He had brought printouts showing how much everything would cost to repair, and he added it all up on a calculator and showed her the total, which of course was huge. Then he scared her by telling her stories about people getting evicted for living in houses that weren’t safe. So she reluctantly agreed to sell the house.
That was when the weird things started to happen. Betty’s son sent over a real estate agent. First she couldn’t find the house, and then after she arrived, the drains all backed up. Betty said that had never happened before. They had to call a plumber to clear them out.
The next time the agent visited, some of the lights stopped working. The time after that it was the furnace. The agent started calling in inspectors and specialists, who all seemed to have trouble getting to the house. Once they got there, they found new things to be concerned about. The concrete front steps crumbled all down one side overnight. The roof started to leak. Termite trails appeared on all the basement walls. The most recent specialist had found large cracks in the foundation that Betty knew hadn’t been there earlier that day. Every time someone visited, they shook their head at the seriousness of the problems and said someone else would need to be called in before the sale of the house could move forward.
“I’m about ready to give up,” Betty said. “I love this house, but it’s becoming a nightmare. Without the money from selling it, though, I won’t be able to get an apartment. I’d have to move in with my son. And I just can’t face that.” She was quiet for a minute. “I hate to do it, but I think the only thing is to sell it to someone who will buy it for cheap and knock the whole thing down.”
Just at that moment I felt everything shift sideways under me. The walls of the house creaked and groaned as they swayed and settled. Betty looked around, alarmed. “That happened before. It was right after I told my son I’d sell the house. I thought it was an earthquake, but the neighbors said they didn’t feel anything.”
A crazy idea was starting to run around my mind. “Do you mind if I start the inspection now?” I said, grabbing my clipboard.
While we walked around the main floor, I pretended to be examining things, but really I was thinking hard. If I was right, I didn’t want to encourage any real damage, just in case. Then I remembered the termites Betty had mentioned and that gave me an idea.
As we reached the stairs going down to the basement, I said loudly, “I do hope there aren’t any spiderwebs in the basement. That can really delay the sale of a house, you know. Nobody would want to buy a house if the basement is full of spiderwebs.”
Betty gave me the strangest look and let me go down the stairs first. I flipped the light on at the bottom and stood there. Behind me, Betty gasped.
The hallway in front of me was filled with spiderwebs. If I’d taken one more step I’d have put my face right into a big one. It was just like Halloween decorations, except -- I looked around carefully to make sure -- there were no spiders anywhere to be seen. Just the webs.
I turned around and asked Betty quietly, “When the real estate agent first came over, did she say anything about problems that might make the house hard to sell?”
“Yes, she had a whole list of things she asked me about. And I told her the truth when I said the house didn’t have any of those problems. But now --” The phone upstairs started ringing. “Excuse me,” Betty said, and went up to answer it.
I was glad for the interruption, because I was about to do something really crazy and I didn’t want witnesses in case it didn’t work. I sat down on the bottom step and said out loud, “You really don’t want to be sold, do you?”
Nothing happened that I could see. But I tell you, something in the air changed. I could feel the house listening.
I went on. “You’ve been making trouble so Betty won’t be able to sell you. But don’t you see, you’re making it so she doesn’t have any choice. She can’t live here with all these problems.”
Some boards in the ceiling creaked in a long, sad moan.
“She doesn’t want to move. She loves living here. She loves you.”
A current of air moved through the hallway like a sigh, rustling the spiderwebs.
“And you love her too, don’t you? You don’t want her to leave. So why don’t you make it so she doesn’t have to?”
Now there was complete, expectant silence.
“If you can make spiderwebs at a moment’s notice and stop up your drains, and even make it hard for people to find you, can’t you do helpful things too? Maybe fix a few things so Betty’s son will get off her case and stop asking her to move?”
This time the creaking boards sounded like a plaintive question.
“All right, maybe you don’t know exactly what needs to be done. I’ll help you, okay? First, why don’t you get rid of those spiderwebs? I hear Betty coming.”
And just like that, the spiderwebs were gone. Betty came down the stairs and stared in amazement at the clear hallway while I tried to explain that her house wanted her to stay. She took it pretty well, considering how insane it sounded.
Then we spent the rest of the afternoon encouraging the house. First we went around and got it to fix all the things it had done to resist being sold. That was pretty easy. Then Betty found the pages her son had left with her that listed all the things he thought were wrong with the house. I looked through the list, and as I had suspected, most of it was pretty minor stuff. I picked out the most serious things and began to try to explain to the house what needed to be done.
It took a lot of patience and starting over when the house misunderstood, but we got some stuck windows and doors opening smoothly again, some fraying wires tidied up, and some loose bricks in the chimney repaired. Betty was better at explaining things to the house than I was, so I didn’t have any worries about her being able to take care of the minor things on the list later.
Before I left, I felt I had to mention one more thing. It was a little awkward to bring it up, but Betty and the house both needed to hear it. It was just a fact that the house was going to outlive Betty. (You never heard such a sad creaky noise as the house made when I said that.) So I told Betty she should probably start looking for someone else who would appreciate the house and treat it well -- and just as important, someone the house would like -- so she’d have the right person to pass it on to someday.
So that’s it. Don’t believe it if you don’t want to. But it makes me wonder if there are other houses out there that have opinions about being bought and sold. I’ve never seen any other houses that can actually do something about it, but maybe I’ve just missed the signs. It would sure be interesting to live in a house like that. Betty kept my card, so who knows?