Here’s Looking at You Kid

Prologue

In the late 1970s and very early 80’s I worked as a butcher for a local grocery store chain; the same stores where I’d worked almost full-time as a stock boy throughout high school.

Five years spent grinding mountains of hamburger, quartering thousands of bacteria-laden chickens, and twisting what seemed like millions of brats, brought me to the brilliant realization that the butcher’s life was not for me. So I started taking classes at night to get licensed to sell real estate.

Either the grocery store owners didn’t like that I was trying to better myself or they were tired of the amazing job I was doing losing money managing the meat department. Whatever the reason, mid-morning on a Wednesday one of the store owners and I had an unpleasant conversation about how I wouldn’t be needed anymore. While getting fired was eventually a blessing, had it been my choice, I’d have picked a better time to lose a regular paycheck. Like maybe when we were all on a post-holiday diet or when we didn’t need heat.

In the 1980s, learning enough about real estate to pass the license exam was about as difficult as learning how to rake leaves. Learning how to sell real estate – with mortgage interest rates hovering around 13 percent – was an entirely different ballgame. To bring our financial ends closer together I tended bar in the evenings. At least I had some experience in the field; I’d been a bartender before and I was good at drinking. Compounding the stress of a hit-or-miss paycheck was the fact we’d recently bought our own house and we had a small child that always wanted to eat.

My Dad was a City property assessor and he suggested I become a real estate appraiser. Homes have to be appraised no matter what the market and, as an appraiser, I’d be less subject to the insanity of keeping real estate transactions from blowing up.

So back to school I went to earn my Assessor Certification and to start working on my appraiser designation. I found a job as an apprentice real estate appraiser which, unfortunately, required that we move from our hometown of LaCrosse, Wisconsin to Rochester, Minnesota. So, I became a real estate appraiser during the week and on the weekends helped my Dad with a side-gig he had going, assessing a small town in western Wisconsin.

The difference between appraiser and assessor is mind-numbing knowledge no one needs cluttering their gray matter. Suffice it to say that during the week homeowners told me how amazing their house was – in an effort to raise the appraised value. On the weekend homeowners told me what a dump they lived in – in an effort to lower their property tax assessment.

In the late 80’s we were in the midst of yet another bank meltdown and appraisers were tasked with valuing properties in the midst of repossession. Most often these homes were – hopefully – vacant.

During one of my early appraisal courses, I had a roommate from Florida who worked with his Dad valuing and then selling bank-owned properties in Miami. He related any number of stories wherein disgruntled homeowners – continuing to squat in their property – were hiding in closets or dark basements when he came through. In one particular case, the owner popped out of a closet with a loaded shotgun in hand. Granted he was in Florida and this is Minnesota – but the stories stuck in my head. And as you’ll see, fueled by baseless subconscious fear, the unchecked human mind can create any number of vivid scenarios.

Here’s Looking at You Kid

It’s a bright blue sky morning and the air is filled with the flutter of fall leaves. I pull into a desolate dirt track that winds to a wooded home site somewhere south of Blooming Prairie, Minnesota.

My platinum-gray four-door Mercury Cougar coasts to a stop; I leave the engine running, the heater on. Opening my hard-plastic briefcase I begin assembling the tools of the trade for entering and appraising yet another vacant home. Clipboard, mechanical pencil, and house keys at the ready, I’m prepared in my mind to face Freddy or Jason or whoever lay in wait in the house. Just as I’m about to open the car door, I look up to see my windshield covered with bees.

Not honeybees mind you (Not that it would have made a damn bit of difference – bees are bees.) but those big ugly long-tail-hanging-down wasps; the kind you see clinging to the sunny side of the house in the fall of the year. I look towards the house and see an army of wasps streaming from the garage service door. With no intention of becoming the victim in a Stephen King novel, I decide this house will not get appraised on this day.

Fast forward a couple of weeks; quiet puddles have begun to ice over and there’s a wisp of snow on the ground. I’m back in front of the Beehive, waiting and watching, motor running. Fifteen minutes zip by in a breath with no notice of any bees. Exiting the safety of my wasp-proof platinum sedan I steel myself for the task ahead.

Surrounded by stately oaks the house is a large cedar-sided rambler with a two-car attached garage. A rusty-around-the-edges white metal service door leading to the garage stands open by six inches. Pushing it open the rest of the way with the toe of my size ten and a half, brown Florsheim loafer, I step into the garage.

The concrete floor is littered with dead wasp bodies, the kind that sting. I approach the house entrance and press my ear to the door, listening for the whispered buzzing of live bees. They don’t make much sound, these wasps, so it’s hard to know whether or not I’m heading to a painful puffy death.

I can feel my heart pounding as I put the key in the lock, set my hand on the cold brass knob, and turn it; gently pushing the door into what appears to be the kitchen. No wasps, nowhere. Cool.

The inspection part of appraising a house requires a lot of head-down concentration. My own house was appraised last in 2012 and the guy used an iPad for everything. Back in the day we filled out a paper Fannie-Mae appraisal form and sketched the floor plan as we walked through the house. I can’t count the number of times, walking through vacant houses sans-furniture, where – concentrating on my clipboard – I ran head-first into the dining area chandelier.

My inspection routine always started in the basement and the door was to my left. Here we go. My mind flashes back to Florida and my Appraisal 101 roommate. Not to him specifically, of course, that would be weird, but to his stories about repo-squatters hiding in basements and closets. My heart races, my breath comes in short staccato bursts as I descend to the inky blackness of the vacant beehive basement.

Thirteen wooden steps into the ever-increasing darkness my loafer catches on a stair tread. I lose my footing and then regain it just as quickly. I am, after all, an appraiser. Blindly I wave my hand back and forth in front of me, searching for the pull-cord from a ceiling light fixture. I find a string and pull; beautiful incandescent light. God bless Thomas Edison. All good. No shotgun-wielding squatters. No bees that I can see.

I write down the bare minimum of needed information; forced air heat, central air, 150-watt electrical service, 40-gallon propane water heater, and I’m back up the stairs in a flash. Only a fool would spend any more time than absolutely necessary in the basement of a vacant house.

Back on the well-lit main level, I begin the process of sketching the floor plan in the kitchen dining area. Using quarter-inch graph paper and my bionic eye I’m fairly accurate in estimating room sizes for the sketch. I’ll verify it all later when I use a tape to measure the exterior.

I check the boxes on the Fannie-Mae form for dishwasher, disposal, and range hood. I notice a couple of dead bees on the counter and one on the vinyl floor in front of the ‘frig. Great, I think to myself, I thought the bees were only in the garage. Taking a breath I continue checking boxes and making notes; Formica counters, basic cabinets, average construction.

I draw in the six-foot-wide patio door that leads to a green-treated wood deck at the back of the house. Mercifully I sidestep the chandelier without even looking up – I’m in the zone now.

Stopping at the patio door I look out to the backyard. The wind has picked up, even the branches on the big oaks are bending. The house creaks in complaint of the cold and a shiver creases my spine. The temptation to get the hell out of there is overwhelming. I’ve been in hundreds of similar houses so I already know what’s at the other end of the house; three bedrooms and a bathroom. The only thing keeping me is appraiser ethics; I can’t report it on the form or the sketch unless I see it.

Rounding a short L-shaped wall I enter the living room, a long hallway at my left. Continuing my sketch I draw in the entrance to the garage and then a bow window that gives a view of the wooded front yard. I check the box for carpeting as the house creaks again and something imaginary crawls the back of my neck. Oak woodwork, typical basic ranch casing, I sketch in the front door and the coat closet next to it. Could it be anything other than a closet? Nope. And I don’t need to check either.

Drawing in the final wall of the living room I look up from my clipboard and glance down the hall . . . to see my nightmare come to life. Never have I screamed in terror and I don’t now;  thankfully. But my entire body convulses backward. My mouth drops open to say something but no words come. A hundred thousand tiny needles poke my back and I realize I’m not breathing. A flip-flop churning in the pit of my stomach brings me to the realization that scaring the crap out of someone is a real possibility. It is definitely one of those fight or flight moments and I’m strongly in favor of flight.

Starting a slow-motion spin to my right I try to make my escape on the legs of a rubber chicken and watch as my nemesis does the same. In fact, I suddenly realize, he’s also wearing a blue shirt and tie and size ten and a half brown Florsheim loafers. He is me and I am him; my reflection in a full-length mirror at the end of the hall.

So that, dear reader, in case you were wondering, is how to scare the crap out of an appraiser; let them do it themselves.

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