I thought I was a genius selling my home during the pandemic. Now I live in a crap shack – San Francisco Chronicle

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One of the no fewer than 18 rodents caught and killed while Debra Ryll and her husband, Fred, were living in the “crap shack.”
When the pandemic surged and the economy tanked, I assumed real estate prices would plummet. We’d been burned in the crash of 2008, but not this time. I convinced my husband Fred to sell our bungalow in Monterey, put our stuff in storage and move into a furnished vacation rental at the beach, where we would kick back until the inevitable real estate collapse.
We rented a house online, sight unseen, in Aptos, a seaside enclave near Santa Cruz where the bakery sold artisanal sourdough for eight bucks a loaf and the local “creamery” served ice cream flavored with rhubarb and pink peppercorns.
Oh, God we were smart. Smug even. Our rental even had a partial ocean view from the deck! We spent hours contemplating that slice of the dazzling blue Pacific, framed by palm fronds and birds-of-paradise. We had seen drone shots of great whites sunning in the shallows offshore. The sharks, along with the 1 percenters — and a smattering of homeless — found the weather here most appealing.
But there were surprises.
The photos on VRBO had not portrayed the strange smell emitting from the bedroom carpet, which did not disappear despite professional cleaning. Nor did they prepare us for a fold-out sofa as comfortable as prison waiting room furniture. VRBO didn’t include a shot of the windows, which were too high to enjoy the view, the unusable fireplace, the media cabinet (wired by a madman) or the gigantic monochromatic canvas that dominated the living room. It was like staring into a black hole, except it was a sickly shade of turquoise that clashed with the hospital green walls.
The “Fiesta” dishware was violent orange and neon yellow; I needed sunglasses to set the table. The cable TV was via satellite, and we couldn’t figure out how to watch anything except infomercials and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” which always made us hungry. But if we didn’t cook before dark we couldn’t see the ingredients because the kitchen was lit by two 60-watt sconces.
The neighbor’s hot tub cycled frequently. A small noise, just loud enough to wake us two or three times a night. And the master bed frame protruded way past the mattress, resulting in repeated shin bashing and injurious tripping (broken toe: him, fractured shoulder: me).
I was painfully aware of the first-world nature of our problems every time I drove past the hunched workers in the strawberry fields. But I had forgotten how much I hated being a renter. I missed my old house, my comfy sofa, beige walls and plain dishes. Also, uninterrupted sleep and the use of two arms.
Desperate, I searched online for low-priced property in arid deserts or tiny houses I was too large to live in. I considered fire damaged lots in the California foothills that came with plenty of free charcoal.
“Oh, let’s just move to Texas like everyone else,” I said one night, my eyes bleary from scrolling. That was before I found out the virus had more reproductive rights in Texas than the women did.
“What about Florida?” my husband suggested.
“Hurricanes,” I said.
“Arizona?”
“Parched.”
“Tennessee?”
“Floods.”
“Salton Sea?”
“Evaporated.”
We looked at properties inland, away from the coast, far from hipster coffee and expensive pizza topped with soppressata (i.e., salami). We considered a two-bedroom fixer at $499,000 that was surrounded by industrial strength rat traps in a flood zone bordered by a levee next to fields sprayed by Monsanto.
They had 10 offers in three days.
Our rental, which we nicknamed “the crap shack,” also had a rat problem. Fred set a trap under the barbecue; it caught one rodent per night.
Meanwhile, prices across the state rose in tandem with our anxiety, as properties sold for hundreds of thousands over asking. It was like locusts descending: rich Silicon Valley locusts, driving white Teslas.
Didn’t these people have homes somewhere else? I would so be a NIMBY if I still owned a backyard.
“You said prices would crash,” my husband taunted.
“I said, ‘What goes up must come down.’ I never said when.”
The end of our lease was looming. We knew an extension would come with a stiff increase: rental prices were also skyrocketing. Hunkered down under a roof belonging to someone else, our arguments mutated endlessly, like the variants. Sometimes I wanted to bite his head off — like a praying mantis, minus the sex.
“Oh, let’s just end it,” my husband said one night, pulling a chef’s knife out of the wooden block on the counter, barely lit by the dim bulb.
I knew he was joking — the knives in the rental were way too dull for mayhem.
I took the knife and gave my husband the hug he obviously needed. That we so obviously needed.
Moments later, my cell phone dinged with a new listing alert from Realtor.com. This led me down the familiar rabbit hole to Zillow and Redfin and the hellscape that is Craigslist. After hours of fruitless searching, that familiar clench in my gut returned.
Even if I found something affordable, which I wouldn’t, there was no competing with cash buyers with no contingencies. Then came the relentless hammer of self-recrimination: We missed the greatest inflationary asset bubble of our lifetime — and it was all my fault.
I kept waiting for my husband to say it: If we had just stayed where we were, we would have $200,000 in our bank account for doing nothing. And no broken bones.
Desperate, I opened the Calm app on my phone. Breathe. Meditate. All that matters is the present moment. And the dishes, waiting in the sink to be washed. By hand. With one arm.
The next morning my husband announced the demise of Rat No. 18. I replied that our real estate agent sent us a new listing … in a mobile home park. I knew he didn’t want to live in a trailer, no matter what they’re called now. He’d rather buy two new houses in Alabama, but he agreed to a drive by.
A woman with her hands pressed to her ears — in a pose reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”— rocked in the driveway near the “For Sale” sign. Was she the seller, questioning her decision to cash out and decamp to Oregon? Or just another tormented buyer, like me.
On the way home, we stopped at the bluff overlooking Seacliff State Beach. Sitting on these benches has been our refuge during COVID. There’s nary a fin in sight, just soaring pelicans and a shimmering, sun-seared path of golden light between the horizon and the shore.
“Swimming with sharks would be less stressful than buying real estate,” I sighed.
“At least we’d find a home in the belly of the beast,” Fred replied.
“You mean belly of the whale?”
“You’d be lucky if you got swallowed by a whale. They don’t chew you up first.”
I laugh for the first time in weeks. “And the interior would be bigger than a mobile home.”
“And rat free,” he added.
Debra Ryll is a freelance writer renting in Aptos.

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