Monday, June 20, 2011

Our Houston home search, month 1 - Oddities and eccentricities.


Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, Houston Branch?

My wife and I have rented for a fairly long time[i]. We had held off buying for various reasons[ii] (chiefly among them my first law of real estate dynamics, concerning inertia; namely, Objects in rent tend to stay in rent. Conversely, Objects in mortgage tend to stay in mortgage, unless acted upon by an opposing foreclosure. However, since we’re reasonably sure we’ll be here for another couple years, kids might be in the card in the near future, and we’re rapidly running out of room, we decided now’s a decent time to start looking[iii]. So we’ve dipped out toes into the raging shark tank of the Houston real estate market.


In my dreams, the sharks swarm around me with little acronyms like APR and ARM and little percentage signs on their fins (photo courtesy of Flickr User Macorig Paolo).

Houston isn’t as expensive[iv] (overall) as the other top 5 largest cities, but its real estate is decidedly, well…weird[v].

Zone D' Erotica

Houston’s lack of zoning is well documented. While it usually isn’t a huge issue, there are the occasional odd proximity situations, as shown in this picture, which includes a high cost residential business, a super-fancy mall, and…the Zone d’Erotica. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user DanMelinger.)

I’m sure I’ll write more about our trials and tribulations as we descend into the horrifying nether depths of the Houston market, but for now we’re still in the “looking around” stage. Some of our initial forays have served to completely divorce any notion of cost being a good predictor of taste or condition in local housing[vi]. Houston has a fantastic real estate website with incredibly detailed and GIS-enabled search capabilities and house information. It makes it easy to “see” a large number of potential homes, and weed out the bad without having to spend foot time doing so. More importantly for the sake of this post, it also gives one the voyeuristic ability to see and shamelessly ridicule some of the more...”eccentric” home and décor choices.

Here are a few eyebrow-raising examples we came across in some of our perusing. Some awful, some awe-inspiringly odd, and some on that fever-dream line between cool and some form of heretical real estate blasphemy[vii] (photos courtesy of


Is it just me, or these oddly contrasted cabinets give the impression of pairs of big white eyes, with tiny, crossed pupils?


I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a modernistic deconstruction of “garage”, a jury-rigged portcullis, or just a fantastic underestimation of the value of walls to a garage’s primary purposes. Either way, awesome.


Shortly after this photo was taken, the king sized bed collapsed under the sheer weight load of pillows. Upon hearing the news, the husband cheered. Silently. In his head.

hr2751527-8 hr2751527-10

Interesting wallpaper choices abound, ranging from “am I in the bathroom, or on safari?? I don’t know!! “, to “the look of exposed brick and cheap wallpaper, together at last in faux brick wallpaper!”.


You have to appreciate the understated elegance of combining “tuscan villa décor” with “60 ‘s mod fireplace[viii]”, “80’s Mirror Wall” and “country living” wood floors, all in one master bedroom. Awesomely enough, it almost works.


“We started building a wall, and then figured, what the hell, we’ll build a house behind it.” Downsides? No windows, house likely to be mistaken for Alamo and besieged by Santa Ana. Upsides? When the zombies come, you get the last laugh.


“I’m worried that our house number won’t be visible from the street….if only I could find some 6-foot numbers to plaster on the side of the place….”. When you absolutely, positively need your house number to be seen from space…


“We spent everything we had on the house, rug and sofas, so when it came to the coffee table……”. I’m pretty sure this shot is not taken from the “Guide to Staging Houses” manual.


This house has a toilet that’s separate from the rest of the bathroom in a small enclosure. That’s not too odd. What’s a bit off is that enclosure seems to be lined with mirrors. My mind rebels at trying to figure out why such a room, given its only potential purpose, would be coated in mirrors. Frankly, I feel bad for the mirrors. I rarely feel the need for a multi-angle view of my toilet time.


My tub has its own chandelier. My pants…they are fancy. Because you never know when you will be taking a bath and a formal dinner will break out. Best to be prepared.


I don’t even know where to start on this one. Let’s start with the house itself: I mean, first of all, has anyone informed the Weasley’s that their home is up for sale? Does it come with a house elf? Are Chambers of Secrets covered under normal home inspections? Is a gable fetish a real thing? Next, let’s move to the imposing wood …structure(?) behind the house. Are they trying to be astronauts, on the installment plan? Was the height of the old diving board for the pool just really that lame? Does this remind anyone else of that episode of Buffy where the crazy people build the massive wood structure to open a portal for Glory? Though, that being said, I can’t help but applaud and add this to my “potential zombie apocalypse safe houses” list.


[i] I rented my first apartment in 1998. I rented my second in 2000. I rented my third in 2003. I have been there ever since. That’s 13 years of renting, 8 years of which in the same place in Houston.

[ii] Our apartment (2 bed, 2 bath) is relatively spacious as apartments go (my wife would disagree, and point to the Wall o’ Boxes in our bedroom, in which we have, well, a wall of boxes, for which we simply don’t have a place for most of their contents) and relatively inexpensive (tax advantages notwithstanding, we aren’t really paying much more in yearly rent than a year of property taxes, HOA fees, and upkeep would cost for a house in our area.) I’m not really enamored of Houston real estate options in our price range (generic McMansions, or crumbling ranch homes from the 60’s and 70’s.), and we’ve not been sure we’re going to stay. Though to be honest, the greatest reason has probably been sheer inertia.

[iii] Record low interest rates reaching the point of almost being negated by inflation helped push us forward.

[iv] The average price, however, doesn’t really paint a picture of Houston. Being so spread out (600+ square miles in just the city limits, plus hundreds more in bedroom communities, etc.) land is not as much at a premium. However, proximity is. You can get a nice $150,000 modest home, if you don’t mind a 2 hour commute. You can also pay 2,000,000 for a moderately awful ranch home in the right neighborhood. While the low cost exurban housing skews the number, the “inside the loop” costs of being anywhere near employment centers leaves Houston housing pretty much in line with places like LA and Chicago.

[v] To start, Houston has no zoning, leading to all sorts of odd bedfellows. What is and isn’t a good neighborhood in Houston is often as granular as which street you happen to be on. There’s not really a good or bad side of town, and in many areas, there’s not even a good and bad side of the neighborhood. A mansion may be a street away from a hovel. That mixed income appeals to the planner in me, but makes finding a nice safe neighborhood a somewhat more difficult proposition.

[vi] One choice example was a home at the very top of our price. At that price point we’d expect it to be pretty close to perfect. Personally, at that price point, I’d expect it to come with an alarm system comprised of a horde of particularly vigilant unicorns. However, this place had not been renovated since the late 60’s, including lumpy shag carpeting, original 60’s appliances, and a smell that I could only describe as a heady mix of mold, dust, old people and quiet desperation. I’m pretty sure evolution was taking place at a frighteningly fast clip in the sludge in what once may have been a pool. I’d be afraid to remove the mold and termites from this place, for fear of them making up the majority of the structure at this point…

[vii] Of course, taste is subjective. No offense is intended to anyone whose home may resemble some of these characteristics.

[viii] Which brings up another Houston oddity. Houston is a semi-tropical city built in a torrid, sweltering belt of swamp and coastal prairie, with sustained temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s for most of the summer, and lows rarely reaching into the 40’s or 30’s in the “winter”. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that every home, no matter how modest, includes at least one, if not multiple, fireplaces. Because nothing is as cost effective as a fireplace(s) and chimney(s) that will get used maybe once, reluctantly, a decade.