Somehow my web wanderings brought me to the arresting phrase, "We Buy Ugly Houses." That is a trademarked phrase, by the way--use it and you may be sued by the aggressive lawyers for "HomeVestors of America," a Dallas-based franchise specializing in real-estate bottom-feeding (and, one suspects, anticipating a wave of fresh carrion to devour). Here in New York, I haven't run across their annoying ads featuring a crudely computer-animated caveman (named "Ug"--get it?), but apparently in some places they are ubiquitous. What I couldn't resist, however, was a button on their site inviting me to check out "The Ugliest House of the Year."
Now, "ugly" in this context requires some explanation. It's not like Ug is sitting around mulling esthetics here. To HomeVestors, an "ugly" house is simply one you want to unload, fast, cheap and dirty, for any compelling reason: divorce, death, poltergeists, pestilence, crack-dealing neighbors, radon, or (most likely these days) imminent foreclosure. Given the human sorrows and even tragedies that bring customers to their door, the "Ugliest House" contest smacks of reality TV in its crudity and cruelty. Most of them are, indeed, pretty ugly in the conventional sense, and some were putrid pits of horror; but at least one of them, to me, was downright beautiful. It's in Montgomery, Alabama:
As I began to describe this house to Spouse, he said, "Is this one of your peeling-paint 'dream houses'?" We all know what he means. When we take drives in the country, I croon and yearn for these little flaking white wrecks, tucked next to vacant lots or overgrown fields, cowering behind tall weeds or mattress springs or cars up on blocks. "We've already got one just like that at home!" Spouse will fume (while greatly exaggerating the current decrepitude of the CrazyStable). But honestly--can you look at that little place, and not Photoshop in pots of geraniums on the porch, and roses covering the trellis, and a plump cat crossing the (nicely mowed) lawn? I'll even bet that bush in the forground is a lilac!
The "ugliness" of this little Southern home worthy of To Kill a Mockingbird apparently had to do with its Boo-Radley-like owner, an 87-year-old man who'd been living there for a quarter-century, holed up in just the left-hand side of the house. According to the contributor of this winning entry, "His family had persuaded him to move into a nursing home. I paid $10,500 on July 14, 2006. On July 18, I received a 'condemnation' letter from the city. They gave me 60 days or they were going to bulldoze it. I sold it to some local investors, managed the rehab, turned it into a duplex, and it appraised for $87K."
Hardly the worst fate for the little place, I suppose (although I wonder how they fit a "duplex" into that attic). The old place wasn't demolished, and most importantly to the happy HomeVestor, he or she cashed in; the details of the rehab don't concern us here, and certainly not the details of the little old man. Profit in a pocket, Boo Radley in a "facility"--ugliness solved.
I guess in today's market, as the bubble bursts and the vultures circle overhead [woot! woot! Mixed Metaphor Alert!], that there's no room for sentiment about Ugly Houses. Memory, loss, ephemera, redemption--all the things that draw me to sad, sagging piles of shingles and lumber--have no place in the Market. But Ugly Houses will always have a place in my heart, because we bought one--a noxious wreck being unloaded "quick and dirty" after a father's death by a restless and money-hungry son. Twenty-one years ago, the mere sight of the CrazyStable would've set Ug's chops to watering. In the HomeVestors fairy tale, the seller pockets some bucks (not many, according to my research) and moves on. In our fairy tale, unfolding in geologic time, our love and hard work and cash transform the ugly brute into a warm and shining thing, a haven for family and friends and cats, garden-wreathed and perfumed with the smell of home cooking.
Here's looking at you, kid.
CrazyStable circa 1986; Aunt Louie prepares to walk the plank. (N.B. She liked the house anyway.)