At the end of June, my landlord was touching up a water stain on the living room ceiling of my Ballard apartment when he casually dropped a bomb: He’d be selling the apartment building where we’ve lived since 2012. He said that another apartment building of his in Northgate had sold to investors within days of placing it on the market. I expected the same with our building and braced myself for a sharp rent increase. We’ve paid below market rate for housing since moving to Seattle.
Despite a minor mold problem, I’m sentimental about our apartment. I gave birth to my son Tomo there, and our apartment is the only place he’s known as home. Neighbors and local businesses recognize my copper-haired boy on the street and we’re regulars at our library and community center. But for a single-income family of three, a new-construction townhome in Ballard, free of lead and asbestos, remains far out of reach. The entry point for buyers easily starts at more than half a million dollars and keeps going up.
My partner and I arrived at the decision to buy a house earlier this spring, knowing that our toddler was outgrowing our small space. We started looking in May and made our first offer on a small bungalow in West Seattle, which ultimately sold for more than $100,000 above list price. After losing out on that home, we found a tiny two-bedroom rambler in Greenwood comparable to the size of our current apartment. I followed our realtor’s directions to schedule a pre-inspection and obtain a sewer scope. Then she instructed me to write a “love letter” about the home to the seller.
Years ago, I wrote copy for the Homes section of the Dallas Morning News, where I learned the psychological nuances of referring to a property as a “home” instead of a “house.” I had the skills to write a convincing missive, but felt unwilling. It seemed disingenuous to wax on about how much I loved the house when I was already forecasting the costs of making changes, like updating the ancient and ugly baseboard heating or remodeling the dilapidated garage into a livable space. But I put aside my hesitation and applied my writing skills to describe how I’d use the garage as a workspace to further my hobby of reupholstering and restoring antique furniture.
I faltered before signing our names to the letter. As part of a mixed-race family, I feared that our faces and names would open us up to discrimination. For a heartbeat, I considered using my English alias combined with my husband’s surname, i.e. “Doris Bergman,” to pass undetected. I wondered if by putting my name on the letter at all I’d influence our fate and cause our bid to automatically fail. If I should simply ghostwrite the letter under my husband’s name. A Chinese American friend once told me his father had to rely on his Caucasian army buddies to buy a house in San Francisco that could then be sold to his Asian family. That was the 1950s. It’s been nearly 50 years since fair housing laws were put into effect but discrimination still happens every day.
The Greenwood rambler received a wild number of speculative offers above the value of its appraisal and we were outbid again.
We persisted in our search. Next we made an offer on a Greenwood fixer-upper on a corner lot that smelled of cat piss and was sorely neglected, depressed, and left me feeling sick to my stomach. Developers paid more than $400,000 cash for it. I wrote another love letter for a house in Shoreline that suffered from minor wood rot and structural damage. It, too, sold above asking.
A few weeks ago, my realtor alerted me to a house past its review date; the seller didn’t get a single offer. We rushed to put in a bid. Through web research, I unraveled the seller’s reputation as an “iconoclast and gadfly” and “bibliophile,” having supposedly worked with The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling. My realtor told me that the seller really loved his house.
I wrote one last letter, addressed to a well-known scholar of media ethics named J.M. Kittross, where I put aside my liberal praise of architectural structure to talk about my genuine love for books of art and poetry, how I could see myself transforming his family room into a library and study that would provide me with a reflective space that I’ve only dreamed of. I wrote about hosting my immigrant parents and my husband’s family for long stays that would allow them to witness my son’s childhood. Details I left out of all my previous love letters, mostly because I had already outgrown those homes before moving into them.
A note from the seller’s realtor imparted that he liked my letter. We won the bid.