March 27, 2008
You Might Move Out, but You Can’t Move On
By JANCEE DUNN
MARK SCHOENFELD and Scott Field have bought seven houses together since they met in 1994. “We find something, put our stamp on it, then we’re ready to move on,” said Mr. Schoenfeld, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group, the New York real estate concern. He and Mr. Field, a broker at Elyse Harney Real Estate in New Preston, Conn., say they are addicted to the adventure and constant motion of the house hunt. But in 1996 they found a place for sale in Danbury, Conn., that stopped them cold.
Set on four rolling acres and ringed by huge trees, the white center-hall colonial-style house from 1910 was “the whole ‘Gone With the Wind’ fantasy,” Mr. Schoenfeld said, from its graceful white-columned porch to its spectacular front-hall staircase to its six spacious, light-flooded bedrooms.
It was too good not to buy, but they were too daunted by its shabby condition to take it on. “It was just a disaster everywhere you looked,” Mr. Field said. The floors had not been refinished in decades, and a chain-smoking caretaker had left one bedroom’s walls so stained with the residue of his habit that it resembled a 19th-century French bistro. But the house stayed with them — “I could never get the staircase out of my head,” Mr. Schoenfeld said — and when it was put on the market again in 2000, they pounced, paying $540,000.
They renovated happily for three years. But then Mr. Field began to feel the pull of family members living in Maine, and they moved on, selling for $850,000 and buying a vacation place in Camden, Me. Giving up the house was tough, but as serial renovators, they thought they’d get over it quickly — just another case of lathing and leaving. They soon realized their mistake.
“We could not get that house out of our blood,” said Mr. Schoenfeld, whose bouts of melancholia grew so acute that Mr. Field had to stash away pictures of the place. Mr. Field himself was plagued by a memory of a Christmas party they had held there, with a jazz trio in the living room. “All of a sudden, at around 11,” he said, “we lost power, so we lit candles everywhere, and the band still kept playing. It was fantastic.”
So in December 2007, on learning the house was once again for sale, they decided they’d better buy it. Again.
Everyone is familiar with buyer’s remorse, that queasy feeling of “have I just made the biggest mistake of my life?” But it often dissipates once the unpacking is done and renovations are under way. The sensation of seller’s remorse, on the other hand, is rarer but more lasting, sometimes lingering for years — a fact that those who are thinking of selling in this increasingly buyer-friendly market may do well to consider. A house can exert such a powerful emotional hold on those who have lived there that for some, letting go becomes a long and draining ordeal. A few, like Mr. Schoenfeld and Mr. Field, go as far as buying a place back and moving back in, a practice that may become more widespread as real estate prices sink lower.
But others, trapped by circumstance, must look for more creative ways to deal with their pain. Like spurned lovers, they often invent ways to maintain the connection long after the house itself has clearly moved on.
Stories abound of people like Kathy and Matthew Waldman, who in 2005 sold the Martha’s Vineyard home in which they had alternately lived and vacationed for four years — “our first baby,” Ms. Waldman called it — after Mr. Waldman was hired as a director in the private banking division of Credit Suisse in Chicago.
Two summers ago, they tried to recapture the memories by renting it from the new owner for two weeks. “It was a little bizarre,” Mrs. Waldman said. “It’s sort of like a dream. You’re in your house, but it’s not your house. You’re in your town, but it’s not really your town.”
There is even a tale of one man who, after painstakingly building a house for himself in the Catskills, realized he couldn’t afford its upkeep, and insisted on negotiating visiting rights before he was willing to sell it.
Real estate brokers say they regularly encounter such sellers: people who can’t, or won’t, unhook their fingers from the doorway. “The manifest trade is real estate, but something else is really happening,” said Diane Saatchi, who has sold houses on the South Fork of Long Island for 20 years. “Sellers are selling memories and buyers buying a fantasized future.”
Ms. Saatchi is always stunned, she added, at how insulted some clients feel when a low offer is made on their home — even as they turn around and make a paltry bid themselves.
“I say to people, ‘Why is it that the house you no longer want is worth more than it is, and the house you’re dying to have is worth less?’ ” she said. “The paradox of that is amazing. And I realize that it’s not happening in their heads. It’s happening in their hearts. To them, their memories are worth so much, but their future is such an unknown they don’t want to pay for it yet.”
Ms. Saatchi remembers a client who sold his vacation house in the Hamptons a few years ago. His family’s furniture had been packed into a waiting truck, and the buyer had done the customary walk-through before the final closing, when the buyer mentioned that it was a shame he wouldn’t be able to use the house right away — he was going overseas on business.
So after the papers were signed and the buyer was gone, the seller, in no hurry to leave his beloved house, backed up the truck and moved back in. All went well until a few weeks later, when some relatives of the buyer showed up on the doorstep for a weekend at the beach.
“Lo and behold, the house is fully furnished and the former owners are there,” Ms. Saatchi said. The relatives called the buyer’s broker. The broker called a lawyer. The lawyer called the police. The seller moved out — but not before the whole crowd spent an awkward weekend together under one roof.
“Nobody had a place to go,” Ms. Saatchi said. “After the weekend, the sellers moved their furniture out.” She paused. “Then we had to change the locks.”
Most sellers who experience regret find less extreme solutions. Debbie Sidlauskas, a library circulation supervisor, raised five children with her husband, Tom, in a four-bedroom Cape Cod house in Mattituck, N.Y., which they bought in 1982 and sold in 2003, after deciding they wanted something easier to maintain.
“We moved just on the other side of town,” Mrs. Sidlauskas said, “but to talk to my kids, you’d think we moved to China. I don’t think any of them will forgive me for selling their childhood home.”
But the couple, too, had trouble adjusting. They missed their old place. Three years later, when they heard that a house was available a stone’s throw from it, they jumped. Mrs. Sidlauskas said they would have preferred their old home, but it wasn’t for sale.
“I can’t help but think about it,” she said. “When I go to walk the dog, I can see the old house. My 15-year-old runs by it all the time. It’s kind of freaky.” She sighed. “Sometimes my husband and I just look at each other and say, ‘What were we thinking?’ ”
Their former house is being rented to a friendly young couple, but no one in the Sidlauskas family has stopped by to see the new interior.
“I tell my kids, ‘Just keep it in your memory,’ ” said Mrs. Sidlauskas, who vividly recalls a disturbing visit to her own childhood home in the 1960s.
“I knocked on the door and told them who I was,” she remembers. “Well, they let me in and — it was the late ’60s, when paneling was in, and these people had paneled the entire house. It looked like a giant humidor.”
In Austin, Tex., Leticia Rodriguez, the artistic director of a performance art company, and her husband, Kenneth Sherman, a physician, did manage to buy back the small house they had bought as newlyweds 25 years earlier, and sold as young parents five years later.
“We grieved over that house for 15 years” after decamping for a larger place in the suburbs, Ms. Rodriguez said; they missed the coziness of the old house, its proximity to neighbors and even the old post oak tree in the backyard. Finally, in 2004, they bought it back for $265,000, from the same woman, now elderly, who had purchased it two decades earlier for $80,000.
But with two college-age children who come home frequently, they still haven’t quite moved in. So Ms. Rodriguez rents it out — to young couples at the same stage of life where she and her husband were when they lived there. “I find couples that are suited to the house, that will nurture the house and vice versa,” she said.
Friends don’t always understand when a regretful seller buys back a former home. Mr. Field and Mr. Schoenfeld, for instance, had to contend with the protests of some incredulous friends in real estate, who intimated that they might be losing their grip.
“It’s the glue of our relationship,” said Mr. Schoenfeld, who spends much of his time in New York and calls the place a country home.
“We had to have it,” said Mr. Field, who lives there full time. “Every time I showed a house, I compared it to this one.” When they repurchased it in 2007, they paid $335,000 more than they had sold it for, but the seller had done about $200,000 worth of renovation. “So we feel we did very well,” Mr. Schoenfeld said, as he and Mr. Field gave an enthusiastic tour of the house.
“When we first bought it back, it was surreal,” Mr. Field said. “The first few nights, we looked at each other and started laughing, like ‘Where are we?’ ” But after the disorientation subsided, they made a vow: they are holding on to this house no matter what.
“We’re done,” Mr. Field said.
Mr. Schoenfeld nodded. “We’re really done.” The only way he will leave this house, he said, is “feet first.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company