Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Top 5 Scariest Things in Houses for Sale

I recently bought a house. This didn’t happen overnight—it was the culmination of a 15-month search during which I toured 42 houses and drove by about 100 more. With the help of my saintly real estate agent, I feel like I just finished a college course (ask me anything—flag lots, tankless water heaters, asbestos siding). And during the journey, I saw some scary stuff. Sure, there were the usual horrors—water damage and crumbly carpets and retaining walls that were about to fall and kill somebody. But it was often the small things that soured me on a house, the little stuff that made me scratch my head and say, “Who thought this was a good idea?” These, then, are my top 5 house turn-offs.

Cutesy wallpaper. During the Victorian era, wallpaper served a purpose—covering up old horsehair insulation or something. But the 1960s had no such excuse, unless people thought there was a shortage of ducks and flower baskets, judging by how many families glued nostalgic patterns of them to their walls. My favorite is the wallpaper that runs in a strip around the top of the room, a busy motorway of violets or frolicking children that pulses at the top of your view no matter where you look, making even an empty room look messy. It’s basically two-dimensional clutter.

Blue countertops. What was it with blue kitchens in the 1980s? Did interior decorators make a deal with psychotherapists and try to give us all clinical depression? Some of these gloomy countertops still linger, bathing whole kitchens in their sickly glow—dingy yellowish blue, leisure-suit powder blue, plastic-turquoise blue. Just try to find potholders that go with those.

Religious icons and new-age kitsch. I’ve got nothing against crosses, crystals, or Buddhas, but even for a skeptic like me, those objects leave a kind of spiritual wake behind them. I can’t help thinking, are the old owners taking God with them when they move? How will the spirits of fortune find me when all those prayer flags and guru pictures go somewhere else? In one house, the owners had taped “affirmations” to every wall—little strips of paper with empowering messages typed on them, like “I am wealthy in every way” and “I will always have more than enough money.” Ironically, it was a short sale. This made me think way too much—about how these people so obviously failed; about how religions prey on people who are down on their luck; about how some people soldier on with only their paper-thin faith. It sort of got in the way of “my couch would look good in here.”

Strange smells. This was a tough one—I’m sure that most owners cleaned the house before they showed it. But I still picked up on odd smells all the time. Over and over, as I walked into houses that smelled vaguely of dogs, or farts, or old people imprisoned in the attic, I thought of that cliché about how you should bake cookies just before you show your house. It’s good advice, and not just because it masks bad odors. Sometimes the “clean” odors are the worst of all—one person’s “fresh” is another person’s “motel smell.”

Slipcovers. I know you’re not buying the furniture when you’re looking at a house, but I was surprised at how much slipcovers put me off. I don’t care if you dress them up with piping or velveteen ropes—those ill-fitting muslin sacks are the decorating equivalent of the scariest type of horror movie, the kind where all the gore takes place off-screen. That couch can’t possibly have as many cigarette burns and cat stains as I’m imagining. Or can it?

OK—your turn. In the comments section, what are your top house-for-sale turn-offs?


  1. Great post, Amy. I'm also not a fan of colored bathroom fixtures. Surely there's a cosmic law against pink toilets.

    I've been following your blog as a good example. I started a blog in May and I'm having a blast. If you check it out, please feel free to leave suggestions. Write on - D Chadwell

  2. Pink toilets! Those are definitely going in the Hall of Shame. Thanks, Dee. And nice going on your blog!